Heir to the Shadows

by Mirdalan

First published

Following the adventures of a rather forgetful alicorn by the name of Gusty Twilight and her friend Zeccaran, a zebra with a dark past, the world gets turned on its head as they try to make amends with their pasts.

Gusty and Zeccaran met by chance on a east-bound train in the heartlands of Equestria. They were an odd pair, an alicorn and a zebra, respectively. In the beginning Zeccaran had no idea why or how they had become friends, but one thing was certain: Gusty had...tendencies. These tendencies were violent emotion-driven actions and decisions.

He would quickly find out that there was a tremendous amount of strange things that seemed to flock to Gusty like she was some enormous magnet. Most of the time he was merely along for the ride, having no choice in what outlandish and awesome things would occur. Zeccaran just hoped that in the end everypony important would turn out okay. Wait...Zeccaran paused thinking to himself, how in the world is this crazy mare allowed to be an alicorn?

Prologue: One Normal Day

View Online

Prologue: One Normal Day

The stallion found himself no longer able to rest so he rose from his bed. He vaguely looked around his room, it's posh elegant decor feeling well done but somewhat needless. He still was not sure what had led him to this point, how this immense sense of longing and purpose had taken over his life. Even with all the wealth and power that he possessed and the ponies he could command with it he felt empty save for his new routine of research, meetings, and discussions with the Princesses. Sometimes life had a funny way of changing your perspectives in the barest hint of an instant, not that he minded, the stallion had not been this happy in over a decade.

Leaving his room he mosied slowly to his kitchen casting his gaze out the big windows of the penthouse he lived in. The view was spectacular, this portion of the highrise home faced south capturing all of downtown Canterlot, the Palace, and the broad expanse of the Equestrian middle plains. The sun was peeking its head up above the far horizon on his left, the golden rays casting a blurry light on all that it touched. Canterlot itself was still covered mostly in darkness as the day had not grown enough to cast away all the shadows of the Palace that stood high up on its crested hill next to the mountain’s main spire. He turned from the blissful morning picture and poured water for his coffee.

Within a few minutes he had successfully boiled and dripped coffee to his liking. He stared down at the pitch-colored liquid before reaching into a cupboard for creamer. The stallion vacantly thought that he did not need the coffee but enjoyed the taste nonetheless. The steam rose up and away from the mug in tiny breezy tendrils as he watched idly. The thin milky see-through wisps danced as he breathed lightly. They moved away and towards him twisting and shattering as they were stretched too far. He heaved a final sigh and began drinking deciding he would enjoy the brew instead of becoming hasty and making breakfast. He remained there watching the sunrise, pleased with the morning, slowly sipping his beverage.

Once finished the stallion stood from his kitchen table and walked out onto his balcony. He then jumped from the position with nary a care. The stallion was a pegasus after all and a bit of a fall was not at all dangerous when you had wings. He fell about four floors before snapping his wings out and flying towards the Palace mentally preparing himself to deal with this week’s meeting of nobles. Such was his duty to attend and his formal wear was kept in the Palace much to the chagrin of many of his peers. None of them besides Lord Fancypants had as close a relationship with the Princesses that they could leave their regalia in the Palace without it being thrown away.

It took him just a few minutes to lazily glide to the Declaration Hall that hung over the main city square. Most ponies would not dare just fly directly into a secure area of the Palace air space but the stallion was more than aware of the limits he could push when it came to the Royal Guard. He breezed down with a light unison clop of his hooves and started trotting towards the stairs down into the main hall. He grinned wryly at the sentries stationed at the doors of the open-air hall as he left.

Canterlot Palace had always been his second home since he was small. His father had often brought him there when he had attended weekly meetings like the stallion did now. He was still nursing when the Weather Workers’ Union took up a strike against the Farming Consortium. The strike had decentralized all the weather production across the whole of Equestria and broke up all the large scale farming operations that had held the WWU responsible for low crop yields, and thus lowered their pay. It had been a rough year for his parents and the rest of Equestria, causing his cozy kin to leave him in the care of Celestia herself for a the majority of the strike. A vague sense of dysphoria wash over him as he walked down the white marble halls remembering his childhood and the hours he spent in the Palace. Back then everything had been much simpler making the stallion wonder how he had come to take his father’s place at the table of governance, especially since he loathed the necessity of politics.

Passing through the State Offices section of the Palace he turned towards the front Entrance Hall. He took a plain little door on his right, seemingly out of place in the immaculate Palace and opened it taking his usual way to his in house office. The room therein was a utility location filled with various equipment and carts for hospitality purposes. Unlike the extravagance of the Main Hall the room was a functional blue and white, bustling with the many servants that the Princesses employed. A few of the more veteran workers waved him hello and good morning as he passed by them. He smiled in return, nodding and expressing his thanks, before depressing the down button for the elevator. The mechanism beeped instantly and he strode into the small moving room before selecting the basement button. The doors opened and closed with a soft clingk as he rode and exited the elevator.

The stallion picked up his pace breezing past many researchers and various royal agents that populated the halls of the Palace’s bowels. He quickly skirted through the bustle and into the section of the complex where his office resided. All the ponies he passed saluted or bowed at him causing the stallion to roll his eyes and wave them to ease with his hooves. There was simply no reason for everypony to address him formally, frankly that was the reason he hated the weekly meeting. Sighing deeply upon reaching his little cubby-in-the-Palace, the stallion pushed open the door to his office. The dusty room spared little in the way of comfort or space having only a desk, an armor display, and a closet. The closet was, of course, his target; hiding away inside his regalia needed to be donned before he went to Court.

Door thrown open to the small enclosure, the stallion gazed at the traditional attire. The main body of the ensemble was comprised of an ancient uniform complete with a baldric, shoulder tassels, and medals. The formal wear was a dark midnight blue not unlike the color of Princess Luna’s fur and its accents were done in white and gold. Attached to this atrocity of modern fashion was a thick black cape that was only half length, meant specifically for Pegasi to wear which was only fitting, certainly. Finally, an iron and silver wreath was placed on his head to complete the eminence of his lordship. Perhaps it had been the way he was raised but the stallion was annoyed by the attempted oligarchy the rest of the Equestrian Nobility tried to enforce. Fully dressed he looked into the dingy little mirror on the inside of the closet door. He looked good, better than he had in years. He vacantly surmised that was because of his smile, something he had been lacking for some time. The unwilling lord turned around and left his dusty office and made his way to the Throne Room.

He made it, pleasantly uninterrupted, to the last section of the main hall before he was accosted by other ponies.

“Lord Cloudsdale!” shouted a group of mares-in-waiting. They popped out from various pillars and suits of armor that adorned the hall near the Throne Room. The stallion looked down at the collection of pretty faces and bouncing bodices. He smiled warmly at them, more than ready for this song and dance. Snapping his wings out from his back he relaxed his posture and changed his smile to a provocative gaze.

“Anything I can do for you, ladies?” he sighed internally at his own smooze. Anymore he responded merely to humor them, wealth and nobility attracted mates, being tall helped too. However, even if their intentions were pure, regular mares like these had lost their luster to him. It was no fault of their own that was why he at least pretended to be interested. He looked over them with a faux care and picked a timid little mare who was clearly rather nervous. He pushed past the other ‘ladies’ who parted with quiet giggles.

“Miss, what is your name?” he asked her. She stood twitching and shaking as the peers around her gasped at his choice. She probably got bullied by the others fairly regularly, and that was why he chose her.

“M-m-m-my name...my name! Is...Gala Prance!” she stammered. The stallion bent down in a bow, lowering himself to her height. It was a practiced theatrical move he had been working on since he had been coming to court meetings. Gala Prance swooned at the motion but somehow managed to have the wherewithal to extend a hoof to him as formal greeting etiquette required.

He took her hoof in both of his gently caressing the well polished shoe and soft fetlocks. The little mare shivered the entire time until he looked up at her and met her eyes. She froze, pupils dilated to the extreme and a blush rising redder and redder to her cheeks by the moment. He delicately placed his lips on her hoof and kissed it never breaking eye-contact. Gala Prance’s mouth hung open as she breathed hard to try and control herself, her eyes half closed.

“Dearest, Gala Prance, there is just so much more you could be instead of mare-in-waiting. Perhaps something with me?” he breathed the line with perfect pacing. Gala Prance sighed deeply in a rush of blushing and promptly fainted in response. He swiftly snagged her in his wings and stood up much to the shock and awe of the other mares around him who shrieked like they had seen a ghost. Miss Prance was quite petite and she fit snuggly inside one of his big wings where he grinned slyly at her sleeping face, thinking up his next line.

“Alas, a shame. I shall just have to take her into court with me…” he said as extravagantly as possible. He did just that leaving the other mares to gawk incredulously. He slowly made his way towards the Throne Room’s doors listening carefully to the posse

“Can you believe he just did that!” one said.

“Yes! But why her! She isn’t anything special at all! She’s just a Earth Pony!” another scathed. A murmuring of agreement arose at the statement the mare made.

“Even if he chose her, doesn’t mean she will know what to do! You know how awkward she is! I doubt she even understands what a lady-in-waiting is supposed to be about!” the first one said her voice all venom. The stallion made a mental note that he would have to do something a little extra for Gala Prance. Something she could use to thoroughly lord over those vile mares he had thankfully left behind. He smiled thinking of their faces when Gala Prance returned the next day with her “evidence” in tow, for now though he had more important matters to attend to, like chastising Celestia before the meeting started.

The golden plated Royal Guard stood up a little bit tighter as he reached the door. They opened it up for him without need to cast so much as an inquisitive glance their way. He stepped into the purple and gold clad chamber admiring the new Crystal Kingdom crafted crystal chandelier that had been installed. Large and opulent the decoration reflected dozens and dozens of his face back at him in a rather disorienting fashion. Ignoring the sparkling distraction the stallion gazed around the room quickly spotting Fancypants, his chief ally in these meetings and an old family friend.

“Good morning, eff-pee.” he said to the elder noble. Fancypants turned with a quick start and raised the eyebrow above his monocle. He was aging well, grey highlights over his ears and a thicker mustache suited his friend.

“Good morning, dear boy. I say, utilizing the informal greetings today, I see?” Fancypants responded with a pleased smile.

“Of course! You think I’m going to greet my friend with ‘good day, sir Archduke of Canterlot!’?” he pantomimed back at his friend with a sarcastic tone. Fancypants gave a chuckle and shook his head in both agreement and relief.

“Well, I am glad you are in a good mood, old sport. The Princess was just informing me of your new change in appearance, and I say, you wear it well.” Fancypants commented with a short nod. The stallion rolled his eyes, he supposed he looked different but at this point it did not weigh heavily on his mind.

“Thank you,” he started, mulling over how he was going to approach Celestia’s loose lips. He decided it was best to go straight for it, she used to appreciate that. “So ’Tia... what rumors have you been spreading about me?” he asked turning his gaze up to where the regent of the day sat on her golden throne.

“Why do you have a mare in your wings?” Celestia questioned back. Although dodging his question, she looked genuinely concerned with her discovery. The stallion pursed his lips and fixed Celestia with a questioning glare; it was like her to move onto the newest possible subject and ignore the present.

“I thought you had a particular mare in mind…I am surprised.” The Princess of the Sun answered his unspoken question with grace. Countless meetings and long developed political shrewdness greatly helped her navigate he and her’s new relationship, not that she needed to be that careful. He shifted his tone realizing that Celestia was not ready to banter so casually as they once did.

“Don’t be. While I do certainly have a particular mare I am interested in; this one was having a bad day so I thought I would help her escape those dirty biddies outside.” he calmly responded. Grabbing the plush pillow of his that was meant for the meeting he lowered Gala Prance out of his wing. She only vaguely stirred reflexively curling herself on her side as she lay in the cushion.

“Indeed. That is not something you have done in years…” Celestia trailed off before diverting the line of thought, “How did she become unconscious?”

“Well, I put on a good show of theatrics, kissed her hoof, flirted with her...and she fainted.” he smiled. “The other mares-in-waiting about threw a fit when I picked her up and brought her in here too. I plan on writing a personal letter and giving her one of my feathers. It should rile those vile creatures quite well.”

Fancypants burst into outright laughter cutting off an open mouthed Celestia. He was slow to recover, wiping tears away from his face with a kerchief from inside his suit. After a bit of clearing his throat he spoke: “I withdraw my earlier statement lad. You are not in a good mood; you are in a stupendous mood. I just hope you carry it through this upcoming borish affair.”

The door to the Throne Room swung open and the remaining horde of nobles cantered into the chamber. They spoke loudly, tossing out various high brow insults to each other. A lesser duke by the name of Jetset was at the head of the group acting especially snotty as he and his wife made their way to their spot in the room. Upper Crust, his wife, the Countess of Baltimare, actually held the higher rank but had the misfortune of possessing extremely low intelligence and naivety letting her husband do the business dealings of their household. She sat across from him now a look of disgust on her face.

“My word! Whatever happened to you, Lord Cloudsdale!?” she shouted rudely.The whole room of nobles went silent and suddenly they all looked directly at him. The stallion gravely stared back at them doing his best to not snarl at their gaping mouths.

“Something on my face?” he knowingly snarked purposely rubbing his left eye as he spoke. These ponies made their lives on their image and poise; it made him sick. The way they gawked and grimaced at what real loyalty and service looked like made him wish he was anywhere else.

“Enough. Lord Cloudsdale is to be commended for acquiring that marking, and we are lucky he is still alive to tell the tale of how he got it.” Celestia’s voice cut over the crowd's murmurs. He looked up at her in surprise, he had not expected her to stand up for him. Then again, it had been a great deal of time since Celestia actually acted how he knew she could during Court. He smiled proudly at her glad that the mare he had known was finally, truly herself and back on the throne.

“I say old sport, how did you get that anyway?” Fancypants politely asked next to him.

“That is para-level one information, Archduke. And I will not be declassifying at this time.” the Princess responded tepidly. Fancypants nodded sagely accepting her answer without any objection whatsoever. The rest of the Court murmured suspiciously and gave him scared, humiliated looks.

“Now. The weekly meeting of the Equestrian Commonwealth Nobility will come to order. I, Princess Celestia, make a motion to skip last week’s minutes so we may proceed to discuss the newest member of the Royal House.” she quipped dryly.

“Second!” The Lord of Cloudsdale raised his hoof quickly. Finally, they were getting on to the topic he was most interested in, Gusty Twilight, the mare he had a particular interest in…


“So this new alicorn...you sayin’ ya found her just wandering around?” The Duke of Vanhoover questioned. Being the only Earth Pony in the room of nobles, he cut away the whispers of the early leavers with his drawl. Celestia had called the meeting formally adjourned a few minutes ago, leaving him, Vanhoover, and Fancypants to continue.

“Yes. Quite literally.” Celestia responded evenly, “And as a reference Lord Cloudsdale was the one who found her. She has not been in Equestria for at least a century that much is clear. Many of the customs of modern courtesy are quite lost on her.” Vanhoover raised his eyebrows in response before adjusting his hat, casually motioning for the Princess to continue. Celestia waited until the door was closed to the Throne Room as the mash of nobles finally exited, before she continued.

“That is the reason behind keeping her in the Palace. It is for both her safety and the citizens’ safety. We are currently investigating her...juxtaposed behavioral habits. That doesn’t leave this room, dear Duke.” she gave him a hard glare as she finished.

“Of course your majesty.” Vanhoover bowed fully, his chest touching the floor. “Thank you for indulging my curiosity.” he said while standing. Celestia nodded with a small smile on her face in return, approving his fealty. Vanhoover made another tuck of his head before turning to leave.

The stallion looked over at Fancypants who smiled back at him. “Shall you join me for lunch, lad? It has been sometime since we raided the Market Square.” he chuckled at Lord Cloudsdale.

“Sadly, no. I have business to attend to here in the Palace, let’s do next week.” he answered his friend trying his best to not sound rude.

“That sounds like an excellent plan, my friend. I shall definitely be clearing that day’s afternoon schedule.” Fancypants grinned with a waggle of his mustache and eyebrows. The stallion chuckled and waved him goodbye, leaving him alone with Celestia in the room. She rolled her eyes at him before pointing over at Gala Prance who was starting to stir.

He had written the letter of “confirmation” during one of the noble’s low winded complaint that Celestia had inducted some no name pony into the Royal Family instead of one of his many children. He needed just to give the letter to Gala Prance along with a primary feather and word of warning before he could send her on her way. Wasting no time the stallion trotted over to the little mare and set the letter down on the ground before slipping his wings underneath her. He picked her up and completely wrapped her body in the appendages, trying to make even her smell indicate they had spent the day together. After being jostled about in his wings Gala Prance yawned and woke up about the time he was sitting her down.

“L-lord Cloudsdale?” she blinked up at him.

“Hello!” he responded cheerily.

“W-what happened? Did I faint? Oh, how embarrassing.” Gala Prance blushed, looking away from him. Her eyes widened as she looked past him towards the throne.

“Princess Celestia!” she cried. Jumping up and away from the pillow she landed in a practiced low curtsy before the Princess. Gala Prance rattled off about a dozen greetings and apologies, clearly drilled into her by an etiquette school. Celestia stood up from her throne and strolled down the raised dais before reaching down to the pitiful mare-in-waiting and kissing her on the forehead.

“Relax, my little pony. You are among friends.” Celestia said with comfort in her voice. She pulled Gala Prance up off the floor, her horned glowed yellow and the letter he had left on the ground floated over to the two mares. “Lord Cloudsdale would like to present you with a gift.” the Princess told her small compatriot.

Gala Prance took the letter in her hooves and started reading it immediately. Her face began changing from cream color to a deep, deep red. From over her shoulder Celestia snickered as she examined the letter herself. Cloudsdale looked over his right wing and selected one of his finest primaries before giving it a pluck with his mouth. He did not have a purpose for a single feather, even one that did not “regrow.” A gasp from Gala Prance caused him to look up, the feather hanging his mouth dumbly.

“Milord you don’t have to do this! Well...you already...I…” the timid mare stared at him in shock. Her face slowly turning back to a normal color she became vacant, eyes unfocused as she looked at him. Celestia re-levitated the letter and moved it back and forth in front of Prance who did not even flinch.

“It would seem that you are still quite the charmer, my prodigal stallion.” Celestia commented. She barely finished before Gala Prance shot over to him and almost knocked him off balance from her flying hug. She nuzzled her whole face into his chest desperately, as if she was trying to unbutton his uniform and suffocate herself in his fur.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you!” she cooed over and over. “Uh...no problem Miss Prance,” he started, rather surprised at her sudden confidence. He tucked the feather he had taken into her blonde mane next to left ear. She just responded by humming and sighing and squeezing herself tighter to his chest. Gala Prance made another gasp before speaking up.

“You have no idea how much this means to me! Now those dreadful bullies outside will really have something to think about!” she mumbled from his chest. He barely heard her, the stallion had become distracted by a welcome and familiar presence approaching the Throne Room. He peered over to Celestia who appeared to have just narrowly hidden a jealous pout and made eye contact with her.

“‘Tia, would you be as so kind as to move Miss Prance for a moment.” he said to her sharply.

“What? Why what’s wrong?” Celestia questioned looking confused.

Quickly!” he commanded. The Princess instantly levitated Gala Prance away from him her action prompted by her recognition of his tone. Not a moment later the distinct hum of Gusty’s golden magic made him reflexively dodge back. He narrowly missed having his neck become cloven by the banged-up-old blade of the errant mare in question. Somewhere behind the throne itself came an annoyed grunt and the floating sword danced towards him with angry speed.

The element of surprise lost, he deftly dodged the disembodied strikes with ease. The levitating bastard blade sped up faster and their rhythm bounced together in a waltz of death. It was moments like this that he lived for, to be truly challenged by another being. Gusty’s raw skill and talent were a barrier none but he could climb and avoiding her strikes without a weapon to parry with was exhilarating. And true to form Gusty jumped from behind throne her face twisted in anger and determination as she fired a volley of spells at him. The mare knew such an attempt would only stoke his fires more but she was too stubborn to relent. She combined the spells with several swings of her sword towards his flanks. This forced him to dodge forward in a roll and then take to the air with a leap. He met her eyes as he hovered in the center of the Throne Room she scowled as he smiled down at her. She swung her head angrily and the hum of her blade grew instantly deafening as her blade flew towards him with frightening speed. However, this was where he would end the dance.

Dodging with as little movement as possible while airborne, the stallion let the blade tug at the fur on his neck. He rotated his body with the motion of the blade so his rear legs faced it as Gusty slowed it down to swing at him in a different direction. Just as it slowed to its minimum, he snapped his back legs in a floating buck as hard as he could. He caught the flat of the weapon and sent it sailing out of Gusty’s magical grip with a clatter and clang. It bounced and slid across the chamber as he glided down to the floor staring right at Gusty the whole time while she visibly fumed at her lack of success.

“Still too slow, Gusty.” he taunted her for his own sport. He adored her when she got frustrated, she would blush and throw her nose in the air to try to cover it up. Instantly she did as he expected.

“Don’t talk to me you vile stallion!” she grumbled, eyes to the ceiling. He was fairly certain he heard Gala Prance gasp at the statement but the little mare did not understand he and Gusty’s relationship.

“Nonsense.” he continued speaking to the teal alicorn, “What are you doing here so early, anyway?”

“That’s none of your business, cretin.” Gusty spat. She moved slowly towards Celestia and Gala Prance keeping her body facing him. She continued to grumble as she fumbled with her cobalt skirt that she always wore.

“I convinced her to have lunch with me.” Celestia chimed in answering for her friend.

“‘Tiaaaa! You weren’t supposed to tell him, just like that!” Gusty complained.

“Why not? He has things to do today, don’t you?” The Princess turned to ask him. He nodded in return, “Yes. I have other investments to check in on before doing some studying on little miss ambush over there.” he pointed to Gusty with a wing and a chuckle. The mare scrunched up her nose in that upset way she had about her. He could not help but enjoy pushing her buttons, after all she was the reason he had turned over a new leaf, so she got to deal with the results. Most mares would probably love to have him take such a vested interested in them, Gala Prance being a grand example, but he would keep that conceited thought to himself.

“Well, get going then!” Gusty reproachfully proclaimed. “And take this poor mare you have been misleading.” He gave Celestia a knowing look raising a brow at her to see if she would humor him. The Princess nodded in agreement and stopped Gala Prance with a hoof from walking towards him.

“Actually I think it would be appropriate, that Miss Prance eats with us as well today.” She said to Gusty. The teal mare looked over her new creme colored guest rubbing her chin with a hoof. She gave a short nod as if coming to an internal conclusion.

“Alright, she seems cool.” Gusty deemed curtly. Gala Prance bounced up and down on her hooves squeaking with joy. She ran in a quick circle and beamed with pride.

“Taken on a ‘date’ with a high ranking Lord and a lunch with Princess Celestia! Today has been a great day for this mare! What are we going to eat?” The petite mare cheered merrily. She waited eagerly, an extremely wide smile on her face. The stallion grinned pleased with his one good deed for the day. That would allow him to move forward with the rest of his day without the nagging sensation of needed karma.

“Have a good lunch you three.” he spoke casually with a wave. Gusty blew a raspberry at him while Celestia gave a small chuckle at Gala Prance’s enthusiastic waving. He turned and strode towards the doors where the inside pair of guards waited horns aglow to open the portal for him. He passed through the threshold without even breaking stride on his way to check in on his other investment.

The stallion moved towards the Entrance Hall again following his earlier path down into the basement complex. However, instead of taking the hall to his office he continued down the main corridor towards the deeper, grander portion of the concealed complex. The masonry and finishings gradually changed from polished and publicly appealing to drab and functional. He could hardly walk down these halls without having ponies wave, blush, or salute. Doing his best to ignore the notoriety despite himself, the stallion arrived at the entrance to the section he was seeking.

A security checkpoint was manned by a pair of guards, their armor a not golden but a combination of shined iron and bronze finishes. They both stood at attention immediately knocking their respective chairs to the floor. Silently they waved him through the location’s security measures and recorded the identity confirmation. The prompt and stoic service was to be expected they were on his payroll although he would rather they at least say “hello.” He continued past them and went further into the facility. He took his time following the crooked path to his destination arriving finally at a heavy metal door with a number of locks on it.

Grasping the handle and the many locks in a wing he pulled the door open with a harsh creak. No lock could keep him out of a room, it would be better if there was not a door, but then again that did not necessarily mean anything to him. He entered the dark dingy feeling chamber knowing exactly where to step to avoid the room’s many hazards. Such hazards included a growing pile of broken glass and brittle polymers coming from the room’s resident as they were discarded without a care. The acrid smell of a chemical burn filled the lab and the tinkerer kept coughing regularly not realizing he was too close to his experiment.

Having slipped in unnoticed by the pony he was intent on berating he cleared his throat. The tinkerer remained too engrossed in his work to even notice the loud grunt as he tossed another glass apparatus over his shoulder as if keeping it would cause bad luck. Unfortunately, for the busy pony bad luck had just strolled in the door.

“Well, well, well...just as dirty as last time I see.” the stallion declared aloud.

“Ahh! What-the-hell! Please gods, no!” the tinkerer screamed incoherently. He practically front flipped behind the table he was working at shaking with fright. Staring back at him with pure terror in his eyes and soot all over his face the experimenter balked, breathing hard.

“Boo.” The stallion replied with a sneer.

“Wha-what did you come here for?! To finish the job?!” The tinkerer questioned hurriedly. He barely got the shrill inquiries out, still heaving in air like it was the only physical action he could take.

“No...just checking in. Making sure you are still here...and enjoying watching you squirm and scream like a little... baby... school...filly.” The stallion mocked savoring every word and its venom. Shameful perhaps, but the unwitting subject of his displeasure certainly did deserve the trouble, regardless of how incredibly pitiful he behaved when pushed. Princess Luna would have scolded him for chastising her only possible “helper.” Perhaps she would have less empathy for the tinkerer if she knew who was sponsoring his reformation, she had always been aloof to the emotions of that pony, if he was even a pony anymore.

“I-I’m fine...I’m not going anywhere..I like..just leave me to work, p-please.” the fool pleaded to the stallion. The stallion snorted incredulously in response, he would leave he supposed.

“Just remember...make your deadlines.” he admonished before turning and leaving the messy lab. Behind him the tinkerer forced a massive sigh of relief and began muttering to himself.

“How did he even get in here the door was lock-Wait....what did he just say about deadlines?” came his panicked voice echoing down the hall as the stallion left. He felt a dark ironic laugh coming on so he let it ring down through the facility. There were no deadlines, but that did not mean that the turd back in his personal lab needed to know that. Besides it was significantly more pleasurable to let him torture himself.

Mission of torment complete the stallion made his way back towards his office. His intent was to return his regalia to its closet to rid himself of the persistent itch it caused on his shoulders. It was only a few minutes before he was pleasantly stretching his wings, free of his uniform and enjoying the musky smell of his office. As tradition dictated, before he started any researching in the Archives the stallion pulled open the bottom draw of his desk.

There, nestled between a pair of dingy little cloths sat a jar of corn alcohol better known as moonshine. It had been provided to him by a certain small entrepreneur from Ponyville as both a gift and a trial run for the new product. It was another of his investments, gritty tasting and full of wheat and corn starch flavor the beverage had an amazing clean crisp apple finish. It was by far one of the finest alcohols ever produced, trouble was finding a market to sell it in. Equestria’s tight liquor law environment made it difficult to sell much beyond cider and wine. Nonetheless he would enjoy this jar to himself.

Exiting his office the stallion tucked his jar under a wing and made his way up to the main floor of the Palace. Being only mid afternoon, ponies bustled back and forth through the halls dodging past him ignoring him on their way. It was a welcome reproach from his usual notoriety to walk through a crowd without being stopped every ten paces. It allowed him to pass through the State Hall and make his way towards the Archives quickly.

He stood before the small entrance to the collection of ancient texts and scrolls. Unlike other portions of the Palace these guards maintained their relaxed postured, each lowering their spears across the doorway. The guard on the left extended a hoof in a gesture to indicating he required proper credentials before he allowed anypony to enter. The stallion reached for the lanyard he had donned back down in his office and passed the attached identification card to the impatient fellow. Examining the glorified library card with extreme scrutiny it took a while for the sentry to return the lanyard. He did so with a quick nod of his head, refusing to speak at all.

Spears removed from his path, the stallion pushed open the doors into the Archives intent on making progress on the riddle that was Gusty Twilight. He figured that it was best to cross reference a number of documents he had already marked as potentially valuable sources of information. He navigated the immense towers of the main stacks with ease; the Archives and their many sections and labels had become very familiar over the last couple of months. Finding the “Histories and Legends of the Dragons” section he began scanning the materials searching for lists and details of previous draconic leaders. He found some relevant materials relatively quickly and took his several books and a single scroll over to his favorite table within the Archives.

Fssshooptop! Echoed through the otherwise silent collection of knowledge. It had come just about the time he had sat down and opened the first book.

“What are you reading?” Came the curious voice of Princess Luna.

“What are you doing awake?” the stallion questioned right back. Luna had a tendency to be rather distracting whenever he was actually doing important work. He often wondered why should did not bother to follow him around when it was more convenient for the both of them.

“Well...just because I am the Princess of the Night does not mean I sleep all of the day. You know that. Seems particularly silly you would ask me something like that.” She responded. Perhaps she was simply trying to cover her true intentions, not that she was any good at that. To make it worse for Luna, the stallion knew exactly what she was attempting to accomplish, she had never been terribly subtle. Unfortunately, he had lost interest in that type of relationship with her some time ago; he still liked her quite a bit but Gusty consumed nearly all of his thoughts at any given time. Luna would need to prove that her interest was genuine beyond all forms of doubt before he could deal with such an entanglement with her.

“I suppose. Then again…” he started mulling over the last couple of thoughts he had had before continuing, “I would think that you had better things to do than watch me read.”

“Not really. You asked me to help you with Gusty after all, I could review one of the texts if you like?” Luna suggested pointing tentatively at one of the unopened books.

“You know what you are looking for?” The stallion eyed her enthusiasm with doubt.

“Well...no. I really don’t.” She admitted.

“What about that idea you had planned for Zeccaran?” he asked her. Luna pursed her lips clearly surprised that he would ask such a question. She opened her mouth to speak but closed it again before a spark of inspiration gleamed in her eyes.

“You’re right! I should look into that right now!” she declared. This was promptly followed by another, Fssshooptop! as she teleported away from the stallion. This left him to sit there and blink in surprise.

“That was a lot easier than usual.” he said aloud. The strange occurance made him reach for the jar of moonshine he had placed on the table before searching for the books. He took a big gulp before twisting the lid back onto the jar. The liquor burned and made him shiver with its raw potency alone. He shook his head and rubbed his eyes trying to make sure Luna had actually left him to study and after a few minutes it became clear that she had.

He looked down at the old ponish text and began reading translating it in his head as he went.

Dragons. Dragons once ruled the lands long ago. They warred with the the great empire of the Pegasi, hunted the farms of the Earth Ponies, and set many a Unicorn mage down the path of desolation. But, it would seem that one day the dragons began to disappear, where did they go? Who could have caused such a grand disappearance of the world's mightiest creatures? None know, but there are tales amongst the Pegasi in these days of the Pillars that tell of terrible deeds wrought by their ancestors…

“Ahh.” the stallion mused to himself. Everything had just gotten a little bit clearer, truth be told. The cross-reference he was using may not be mentioning specific details, but it was already referencing the events of the Cirra-Dracca Wars. That was the time frame he was most interested in, and maybe, just maybe he might finally find some details that would lead him to uncovering what had happened to Gusty Twilight. He hoped that something would explain why the dark aura surrounding her mind felt so incredibly familiar, and why the mare herself was too. But for now all he could do was read on...

Act 1: Chapter 1 - Dreams Awoken

View Online

“Back then things were simpler. Once I met her I found a specific purpose, that was clear to me. I never intended to survive helping. It was bigger than me, bigger than anything was ever going be, the fate of the world directly dependent on me...would I do it all again? Without a second thought.”


Chapter 1 - Dreams Awoken

Snores echoed around a small room tucked away in the bowels of the Royal Palace. It was a quaint little location far removed from the brightness and energy of the world above. The room’s resident was more than pleased with his current living accommodations, he preferred life this way, quiet, calm, full of research and intellectual pursuits. It was much more enjoyable compared to the ridiculous volume of dangerous adventures he had recently completed. Wandering the forest, spelunking in caves, or stopping robberies, simply was not his cup of tea. It felt strange to realize but he was right at home in his study, left alone to his thoughts and laboratory far away from nature or the civilities of the world.

He had been begun inhabiting the lower reaches several months ago after a long soiree with Tartarus and all its haunts. Our curious resident was rather confused as to how he could clearly hear his own snores yet remain capable of such full thought. The idea gave him a headache not unlike the one he had received when first arriving here in Canterlot. Although similar, the two pains held different meaning: the first migraine had come when he had had his mind entered by Princess Luna displaying for him and his friends things he had rather left forgotten in the dark cave where they had occurred. This second headache was one more of general annoyance and stress, it could be ignored comparatively. He always hated the nagging, baleful reminders of who he once was more than anything his current life could throw at him. He absently pushed the musings away like he was trying to bat away a swarm of gnats, no real progress was made but at least the metaphorical pests were no longer trying to crawl into his ears. Besides he could do nothing with those memories or his worries anyway and there was no sense in reminiscing on the past. It was not who he was now and would not be who he was in the future, ever, that was the one selfishness he would allow himself.

Instead his mind turned to something much more recent, and not surprisingly much more pleasant. He was now working for the Advanced Technology Research Division a prestigious research group owned and operated by a coalition of Equestria’s brightest minds. He could actively hear his snoring lighten and almost see himself smile with a long-sought mirth as those thoughts crossed his consciousness. This dream was certainly a strange experience, even more vivid than the last time he had seemingly stepped outside his own flesh, if he was being honest it was actually rather fun. It gave him the opportunity to fully enjoy all of his emotions as they sweeped up around him in flutters of goose-bumpy skin and wisps of sunset daisies with their intoxicating aroma. He relaxed and absorbed all those delightful sensations, relishing this fine moment of a blissfully empty mind.

His thoughts slowly returned and he found himself pondering on how he had been given his position in the ATRD. Clearly, somepony somewhere had done extensive research on him and his interests. When he had first awoken from Luna’s trip to his mind he had stumbled around the Palace before accidentally finding his way down to the basement complex. Once he had arrived a pair of appropriately dressed chemists had bumped into him. Immediately recognizing him they proceeded to usher him into a private lab within a section of the basement he now resided. There, in the study where he now slept behind his main laboratory, a note had been left for him. Curiously written in a rather fine script and left with a small folded paper sign with his name, the letter had been waiting for him on the desk. He still remembered the words with perfect clarity.

Dear, Zeccaran. I am pleased to find that you have many uses, among them an interest and skill in crafting new machines and materials. As such you are granted access to this private workshop and laboratory. You will find anything and everything you need to construct anything you can imagine. If you find yourself missing something you require ask any other employee of the Advanced Research Division. They will retrieve it for you.

Additionally, if at all possible there are two projects that I would like you to begin applying your expertise to:

1. A portable long-range communication device.

It cannot be a magically generated network, I want it to be able to transmit its signals outside of the natural leylines of the world. I have left you a set of UCBC’s(Unicorn-charged battery crystals). I hope they serve as an inspiration and a decent power source.

2. Aeronautical Engine Development and Operation

This is both a project and something I want you to study. Of late Griffonia has been deploying more advanced airships that are faster and more capable of lifting larger loads. With the world changing and the political environment becoming more hostile over the last ten years, it pays to be prepared. For now focus on the operation of the engines and why they are more efficient and clearly cheaper. Specifications for the minimum requirements for a new Equestrian engine will be delivered later.

Best of luck, I expect great things from you.


P.S. Your dog, Gunther, has been placed in the private portion of the Royal Gardens should you wish to spend time with him.

He still had no idea who this G.A.S. was. Beyond being a scientific mind that was well versed in magical theory, the pony was a mystery. But whoever he/she was they clearly had a lot of weight to throw around in the research community. Zeccaran could hardly complain at the windfall. Crafting new things or fixing broken ones was how he had made a living between leaving his dark past behind and finding himself a less compensated line of work: following his new friends around Equestria.. It had been about all he could do as he drifted from place to place constantly feeling like he had no sense of purpose or home, he was glad that those times had changed for the better.

His wanderings had graciously granted him some fame meaning the years of depression had at least amounted to something worthwhile. These days he wanted to meet G.A.S. and give that pony the biggest “thank you” he could. However, as it stood, or rather as it had been standing, both he and said pony were too busy to make the time for any form of a meeting. Zeccaran did not mind really, he was more than happy to wait. In the end he was enjoying the projects he had been assigned and the quiet time of not sleeping in the same room as Gusty Twilight, his chief friend and main antagonistic personality in his life.

The rumor mill had certainly picked up about that mare. Anytime he went to eat in the cafeteria Zeccaran would receive the strangest news about his friend. She was either closing down the city’s bars or terrorizing Royal Guard with her extravagant albeit edgy personality and use of magic. The stories varied in intensity with some of the most horrifying being how, more often than not, Gusty would step in and settle debates between citizens instead of Celestia. Most ponies were excited about this, thinking that perhaps the big teal alicorn was just a secret daughter of one of their regents. It was said that she had some skill in negotiations and was significantly more forward than Celestia. Zeccaran wanted to explain that “significantly” needed to be bolded and underlined to express how forthright Gusty was at all times, but translating that into speech was overkill.

He instead just listened to the many stories of his friends and suffered through the rare visit from Gusty herself and persisted on his projects. Time passed quickly and he often did not know what day of the week it was. Zeccaran loved the new life he had and regularly kept working until he collapsed. Eventually he knew Gusty would show up one day and drag him on another adventure, but for now he was determined to enjoy this personal heaven to its fullest. Currently, his communication device was coming along well, for the difficulty of the project, and that was invigorating. It had taken him what seemed like a year just to develop a way for sound waves to be received and reproduced by a machine. He still lacked a transmission mechanism but he had some ideas about the electrical signal he was now capable of recording and playing back.

His snoring caught in his throat and abruptly the whimsical dream of half-consciousness vanished in an instant. It sped away leaving him feeling like someone had turned on the lights of his room. The sensation chased away the pleasant darkness that had been keeping him company even though the room remained a black shroud. He groggily winced as he slowly sat up sweeping away the paper clutter on the desk. Gradually he entered true consciousness, staring at his workstation where he had fallen asleep the day, or night, before. The thoughts of the past slowly falling away from his mind. A curious sensation could be felt on his back. He reached over his shoulder and pressed his hoof against a woven blanket. It was fairly comfortable for its make and made him feel warm in the usually cool room. Who had given it to him was another matter entirely, he looked around the study to find no one. He got up with a befuddled walk towards the lab proper to find the sudden smell of daisies assaulting his nostrils, clearly it was a perfume.

Shocked he looked around to find the exit door partially open and the room’s equipment cleaned and put in its proper place, much unlike his normal mess he had with which he had grown accustomed. The faint sound of hooffalls could be heard quickly dissipating through the door. Zeccaran rushed over to the portal and ripped it open to look down the hall as quick as he could. He caught the briefest glance of a snow-white mare with a bright red mane and tail. She disappeared around the corner at the end of the hall before he could call out to her or see her face. Dumbfounded he went back and paced about the lab in confusion as he decided whether or not to follow.

He chose to follow.

Grabbing a snap-brim hat that had been curiously left in the lab when he had originally arrived, Zeccaran dashed out of the lab hoping to follow the mare. He rationalized his sudden un-Zeccaran-like decision as a platonic attempt to at least thank her. Then again, he might have finally taken his first steps in becoming a different stallion. He put the brown hat on his head to cover up his now too long mane and exceedingly messy mohawk as he closed his lab door behind him.

He ran down the corridor and followed its zigzagging path through the research department, hoping to catch his visitor at one of the security checkpoints. He finally made it to the post nearest his lab after the third right turn. The guardponies that were stationed there straightened their posture as he came running towards them.

“Slow down zebra, slow down!” the unicorn one shouted at him. Zeccaran obliged grudgingly. He really wanted to find that mare, he was inexorably compelled yet had no reason beyond a wild whim. “Did a white mare with a red mane come by?” he asked, shoving his lanyard and attached I.D. card at the guard.

“Uh, yeah. You just missed her.” he grumbled.

Looking at Zeccaran’s name on the card, unicorn used his horn to pull apart the identification card’s layers and reveal the small metal approval chip. He pushed it into a receiving board that was labeled with all the resident researchers’ names. The little light above his name turned green and the board released a harsh *Biiing* and the I.D. was put back together and given back to Zeccaran.

“She turned right, I think, Step through the scanner please.” he chirped. Zeccaran followed his instructions annoyed at the slow performance of a routine check. He passed the threshold of the rectangular outline that made up the scanner. It gave a low, affirmative *beeeeep* He had no idea how the scanner worked, but it always approved him, regardless of what he was carrying.

“Alright, you are good to go, Zec! Have a nice day! The guard said cheerily. Stupid guards always acted like he was some sort of imposter. He knew both of their names and they knew his too. Yet every time he entered or left the facility they pretended like they had no idea who he was until his I.D. was confirmed and he passed the scan. Zeccaran knew it was a Changeling countermeasure, but nonetheless found it exceedingly frustrating when he was in a hurry.

He entered the big hall that went along the length of the Research Division and turned right towards the front of the Palace and towards his quarry. Just at the end of the long hall at the edge of the coffee lounge and lobby of the basement facilities Zeccaran could see the mare. He immediately started sprinting putting about half the distance between the two of them away before she turned the corner. Zeccaran pushed his speed, breezing past surprised scientists, guards, and a few of the Nightwatch spooks. He hoped to catch her before she made it to the elevators so he could at least see what she looked like beyond her general color.

He only managed to see elevator doors closing as he passed into and out of the lobby and turned his view towards them. He rushed over to the elevator set and began fiercely slamming his hoof into the button. It took the other elevator a forever to open its doors, he hopped inside and began jamming the Floor 1 button.

The elevator beeped, closed and began ascending the near two stories up to the first floor. Once there it ‘ding-donged’ as Zeccaran fiercely pounded the door open button hoping the doors would open faster. They luckily obliged him and Zeccaran practically dove into main hall. He rapidly snapped his head back and forth trying to find where the mare had disappeared to. Finding no real clue he chose left and darted towards the state offices hoping his gut was not wrong.

Zeccaran passed through the otherwise empty halls following what he hoped was somepony else’s hoofsteps. He turned left at the crosshall in the middle of the offices and peered into the meeting rooms figuring that the mare he was trying to catch had possibly snuck into one of the State Offices’ many departments. He did not see her until he looked more closely down to the end of the hall, at a great distance past the stained stained glass he saw the mare.

“Hey! Wait!” he yelled as he burst into a full gallop.

The mare seemingly did not notice and continued to move along the hall far ahead of him at her own brisk pace. He pushed on desperately just want to meet her, gaining as much ground as he could until he could better see her features Finally, Zeccaran could tell she was rather tall and slender in build with a neatly folded pair of wings tucked daintily at her sides.The she-pegasus turned to the right and entered the short hall that led to the Royal Archives. It was then, as he went to call out to her again, he rammed into a pair of Royal Guards.

Together, the three of them fell to the marble floor in a great clammer. Between their grunts of pain and yells of surprise Zeccaran laid on the ground defeated. He grumbled in absent acceptance of the Universe’s will, today was not the day he would meet his female benefactor. He rolled onto his side and curled up into a ball to sulk angrily at fate as the two Guards picked themselves up.

“Well, it was both much easier and much harder to find him than you were thinking, Sarge.” one said. “Just pull me off the ground, kid.” the sergeant retorted. They looked down at Zeccaran expectantly as if they wanted him to offer some sort of joke or apology. He just laid there, still furious that every time he wanted to do something it completely and utterly backfired into his face. The sergeant cleared his throat.

“The Princesses sent us to summon you, Zeccaran.” the older stallion grumbled out. “Why?” he responded emptily from the ground.“They refused to say.” the newbie said, extending his hoof. Zeccaran reached up slowly and took the offered help. He looked them both in the eye trying to force his displeasure and anger directly into their minds. Neither held his gaze for very long. It had gotten his point across. He motioned them to guide him to wherever it was the Princesses were waiting. His sulking was severe enough to keep the guards from making any small talk as the proceeded straight past the hall his quarry had entered. Zeccaran gazed down the corridor watching as the mare he had been chasing hoofed over her identification to the guards outside the Archives. He gritted his teeth angry that he had left that access card in the lab.

Just as she started to disappear past the door she cast a glance his direction. Pale golden eyes brightly sparkled at him coupled with subtle and soft features of an utterly gorgeous pegasus. She grinned mischievously when she saw him staring at her. Then she was gone. Zeccaran took a moment to stand there dumbfounded. She had known he was following the entire time. He shook his head wondering if he would ever see her again.

He returned to following the guards, they led him to a great set of stairs at the end of the hall. The tiled ascension sparkled a creamy light-green holding many different shaped tiles in a non-repeating order as they led up to a set of jade green painted doors. The guards opened the doors once they climbed the stairs and motioned him in the exceedingly bright room. His eyes stung from the sunlight and he could a feel a light breeze paired with birds singing. Zeccaran realized they had lead him to the Declaration Hall. It was a partially outside chamber lined with pillars and glassless windows. He hadn’t ever been to the hall but knew that had been used for all manner things from weddings to coronations. His eyes finally started to the adjusting to the brightness of the unfamiliar sun.

A long table was arranged perpendicular to him piled up with papers, books, and writing quills. The great pegasus Stormwalker clad in his armor stood directly across the table from Zeccaran furiously scratching something down on parchment, the quill held in his wing. The beast snapped up his eyes up to Zeccaran before pushing them back down to his writing. He was glad that was the length of their exchange, he knew the gravity of Stormwalker’s disapproving gaze and how the stallion could have killed him just as easily as he had glanced at him.

The rustling of chalk made him look to the right allowing him to see Luna’s hooves and tail sticking out from behind a chalkboard that was not facing him. Behind the table Celestia paced back and forth rapidly, her lips pushed away from her face in thought as she stared at an incredibly long floating list kept by her magic.

“Given the severity of her mind's lack of delineation, I can’t be sure when these events in her memory occurred. It would seem though that they are points of significance to her as they are the clearest portions of her subconscious.” Luna quoted over the top of chalk being drug.

Zeccaran moved a little closer to the table and peered around the chalkboard to see both the writings there and if the other ponies in the room would notice him. Luna just continued scrawling on the board her brow pinched in concentration. Stormwalker cleared his throat loudly as Zeccaran walked the rest of the way around the chalkboard and stood staring at the strange calculations and timeline Luna had written there. He was probably trying to get Luna’s attention, there was no way that the stallion had not noticed him walk right in the way of his view of the board.

“Luna.” Stormwalker said dryly. “What?-Oh! Hello, Zeccaran, you got here quite quickly!” Luna gasped out as she turned and saw him standing there. “So, this is what you guys are up to...” Zeccaran responded lackadaisically as he examined the board in detail. Outside the calculations the board included a large circular diagram drawn in various colors of chalk. There were layers of circles detailing what appeared to be levels of pony consciousness. He looked over the labels with their varying numbers and names confusing to him until he came across an elegantly written “Gusty’s Mind” near the top of the board.

“Ohhhh!” he proclaimed fearfully. “So, you have been doing..psychologist sessions...with Gusty?!” He turned around and gaped in horror at Luna and Stormwalker. These ponies had to be insane! Picking Gusty’s brain was a pointless and ridiculous task, not to mention dangerous. Somehow they were not satisfied with what he had realized long ago: Gusty would do what she wanted, when she wanted, regardless of the consequences. If they just accepted that, dealing with the teal mare’s behavior would be much easier.

Stormwalker rolled his eyes in response, Luna smiled briefly.“I wouldn’t say that I have been attempting to fix her...issues let’s call them, rather just recording and analyzing mental stimulants and memories of hers.” She replied. “Whyyyyyyy?” Zeccaran asked in enthused confusion.

“Well, because Stormy asked me to.” Luna grinned merrily as if she loved having nothing better to do than indulge the stallion’s requests. Zeccaran pursed his lips and fixed her with a hard stare. Really? He shouted incredulous question in his mind trying to force her understand without words. He had absolutely nothing he could say. He remained baffled as Luna began explaining.

“Anyway,” she said with a push of her mane from her face, “It would seem that Gusty has a number of significant stimulants that cause a radical change in her behavior. Most of it is centered around a strange magic she possess that allows her to gage the morality of ponies around her. Other major stimulants are you and Stormwalker..” Luna finished.

“I think that’s a little off topic Luna.” Stormwalker said. Zeccaran turned to look at the giant pegasus. The stallion met his gaze before shuffling to a position closer to directly across the table from him. “Ignoring the finer points for now, all you need to know is that Luna has managed to deduce, through much work, that Gusty seems to have some form of memory condition, and a personality issue.” he remarked with a serious air.

“Pffpbttfft!” Zeccaran spluttered, covering up his laugh. “I could have told you that! Would have saved you the trouble.” he shook his head. He had no idea why this was important to the two being before him. “Anyone with consistent contact with Gusty could easily make such an assessment. Luna’s work was merely to prove that what we have been feeling is correct. It is also consistent with data I had gathered on my own.” Stormwalker continued.

“Ok. But how is that helpful? I’m certainly not an expert but that hardly solves the problem of treating her behavior. Even if you know what is causing it that doesn’t mean we can just stop her from interacting with other ponies. That would just make it worse!” he answered.

He was attempting to make sense of what in the world the Equestrian Royalty and the local demonspawn were trying to prove. It was not making sense. Celestia cleared her throat with a grunt. She slid up from behind Stormwalker before grabbing a steaming cup of coffee in her magic. The mug had been hiding behind a stack of books on the table. She downed the whole thing in a single go, unphased, before speaking

“I’m out of ideas, and ponies. Before we met her Gusty hadn’t been in Equestria longer than perhaps a year, and hasn’t been here since ponies were writing folktales about her.” She grumbled looking at Stormwalker. The stallion furrowed his brow in concentration while Zeccaran waited to see what he had to say. Previously miffed, Celestia gave him wave and a kind smile, she motioned with her hooves that she liked his hat. He responded with a slight nod and a grin. They sat there in silence for a moment as Stormwalker bit at his lip.

“Well, if the ponies you have interviewed have had no information, then we are stuck trying to deduce when and where those memories occurred. I can back reference location by description, but it will take a long time. And who knows, the world has changed, if Gusty is as old as we think she is, some of the places may not even exist anymore.” He waved a hoof as he talked.

“Then how are you gonna make sense of these memories?” Zeccaran asked him, “I heard Luna say that the events in her Subconscious aren’t organized in any real way, other than that they are important to her.”

“We have a solution for that actually.” Luna stated. “We are going to have you ask her. If all possible that is.”

Zeccaran flinched as if the Princess of the Night had thrown a brick at him. Figuratively speaking she had, it was just in the form of anxiety.

“W-what?” he stammered.

“Yes, you.” Celestia answered. “She has a particular openness when speaking to you, it would seem that you encourage her to remember things. Luna said that with some practice and her help you could even be a proficient dreamwalker yourself, given your affinity for Astral Magic.”

“I have an affinity for Astral Magic?” he questioned them.

“Yes. The amount of time and practice you have sunk into summoning Shades and Nyx herself has had some other benefits as well. Despite appearances you are quite useful to our efforts.” Stormwalker confirmed.

Zeccaran opened his mouth to respond but found his words dying before they reached his tongue. He had no defense for such claims. It was almost as if they had already known that he had been experiencing strange dreams that seemingly allowed him to visit other pony’s minds. Before today he had thought that they were just particularly lucid and fantastical sleeps, but he had been wrong. Their words had made the final piece click into place, all the old rituals he knew, all of the depressing and terrible memories, they finally made sense. He had been dreamwalking for a long time and he had taken this long to realize it. He sat there his now open mouth rendered a slack-jawed revelation.

A flash of light inside Stormwalker’s eyes caught his attention. He sparked into a cocky grin, his teeth surprisingly flat and non-fanged.

“Hmm….one...two...three!” he smiled.

A loud bang sent Zeccaran flying toward the floor in a gut reaction. He hit the ground and rolled before springing back up in time to watch as Gusty came flying through the smoldering and unhinged doors in full flight. Her sword was held high in her magic and she was violently screaming in triumph. He was unsure how to describe it but in the briefest of moments that passed as she drew closer to Stormwalker, Zeccaran could tell she was going to miss. How she was going to miss such a straight shot he had no idea. Her target stallion sat there with a deeply amused look on his face as Gusty whizzed past him attempting to slash him with her sword. She missed miserably and sailed past her target and Celestia. Landing with her hooves skidding across the marble floor Gusty loosed an angry grunt through her nose.

Zeccaran was about to start criticizing her when loud laughter from Stormwalker stopped him. The stallion had fallen forward on his chest and covered his face with a hoof while he beat the floor with the other; all the while he cackled like a hyena. Celestia and Luna kept looking between Zeccaran and Stormwalker their faces confused. Stormwalker rolled onto his back laughing even harder as his merriment ever increased.

Gusty stood there agast. Zeccaran was fairly certain she had planned this attack.in advance, having missed seemed to have frozen her in a stupor. She took all of Stormwalker’s giggles until he calmed down enough to speak.

“Haha..heh heh. I adjust my position..heheheh! Three degrees and you miss?!” He boomed as he stood up. Zeccaran actually started to laugh too. He held back as much as he could. He certainly did not want to draw Gusty’s ire, for he was not nearly as sturdy nor confident as Stormwalker. He felt completely distracted from the seriousness of what he had been called here for. It was quite pleasant, probably the first time he had laughed in solid year.

“I’ll show you who missed!” Gusty shrieked as she charged again finally regaining minimal composure.

Zeccaran watched in wonder as Gusty plowed towards Stormwalker. The stallion snapped his wings out to their fullest and performed a perfect about face motion. This happened exactly as Gusty was about to impact him. Zeccaran full on burst into giggles as he watched Gusty hit Stormwalker’s backside and wings and go flying away from him like she had hit a springboard. She landed in a heap her sword flying from her magic and landing under the table. Gusty laid there her face turning a fierce red of embarrassment and frustration. Zeccaran just kept on laughing. Stormwalker started to say something about the research but began laughing again, even harder than before.

The stomping of running hooves made Zeccaran open his eyes more fully and slow his laughter. “Made-...it-...” heaved Bunker, who now stood in the door, “She flew off so fast when guards came.” He continued to huff and puff.

“Yes, you made good time!” Luna shouted over he and Stormwalker’s laughter.

“Why dey laughing?!” Bunker screamed back.

“I think it is because they enjoy Gusty’s frustration!” Celestia’s voice came over the table.

Zeccaran remarked to himself that Celestia was not wrong. He found it quite hilarious to see the normally robust and commanding Gusty’s flames snuffed with such ease. Meanwhile he continued laughing, holding his stomach and desperately trying to calm down.

Hoooooo….” Stormwalker sighed his laugh subsiding first, “Okay, I’m good, I’m good.”

He found himself finally able to return to seriousness just after his unexpected cohort had. Finally calm he waited to see what the other stallion had in store for Gusty. Stormwalker pranced over to where she lay and extended a hoof to help her up.

“You need to work on your aerial maneuverability, sweetheart.” he said down to her warmly. Gusty slapped his away hoof angrily. She rolled over face deepening into an angry crimson as she stood up. Zeccaran continued to snicker at them briefly. He noticed Luna huffing.

“It’s always a game to him.” she pouted to Celestia.

“I thought you liked his optimism.” Celestia responded her head tilted

Zeccaran raised his brow at their exchange.

“You know I can hear you, right?” Stormwalker asked from over by Gusty.

“Da, I heard too! And I’m over here!” Bunker said still close to the door.

Luna blushed hard causing her dark blue fur on her face to turn a purple color. Gusty who had been returning to her normal teal color stomped up past Stormwalker to face the Royal Sisters. She looked significantly more piqued with Stormwalker than they, such was like her, but Gusty was not a mare to be outdone in the drama department.

“What did you want?” she snarked at the sisters.

Celestia recovered in her perfectly diplomatic way, her face donning a bright smile.

“Just to see if a few things are familiar to you, if you would be so kind as to indulge us, dear.” she said whilst putting a wing over Gusty’s shoulder and directing her toward the research table.

“Familiar? What do you mean?” Gusty asked her voice curious. She had clearly been won over by Celestia without much issue. Zeccaran silently wondered if it was because the two mares spent so much time together.

“Yes.” Luna piped up, taking her place back by her chalkboard. “We intended for Zeccaran to ask you the questions but you arrived much sooner than we were expecting.”

Gusty shrugged in response.

Luna began explaining some of the finer points of her dreamwalking to Gusty. Zeccaran didn’t have a real reason to listen as he already knew how it worked. He took the time Luna was using detailing her experience inside Gusty’s mind to take a closer look at the diagram. No longer frustrated or confused he made better sense of the rings of circles and labels.

There were seven total layers of Gusty’s consciousness and subconsciousness . The outermost layer was labeled: “Daily actions.” The next second and third layers were labeled personality and motivations respectively. The next layer was simply marked with dozens of question marks and the occasional descriptive word. Zeccaran found this particularly interesting detail. The few words in the section included: magic, mental break, memory charm, consciousness barrier. He knew not what to make of such a strange section of a pony’s mind, beyond that it certainly wasn’t normal. The fifth layer was labeled simply ‘dark barrier.’ It was easily the largest section of the diagram, it looked as if some of the information had been intentionally erased, except a single BAD, written as it appears.

The last two layers were labeled as the subconscious. The outer layer of the sublime section of Gusty’s mind was marked with poorly drawn images of swords, ghosts and death. It was detailed in an aside-line leading to a box with text.

“Overall subconscious function has been broken, like it was tortured or cursed, requires more research.” it read.

Finally, the last layer was tagged as “Core Memories and Deep Gusty.” The Deep Gusty bit seemed weird, but there were no proper names for the portion of the mind that makes ponies...ponies. Zeccaran let it go.

“Well .. what were these core memories like?” Gusty asked, Luna finally having brought her up to speed.

“They consistently involve other ponies, majestic landscapes, or both. I believe they are moments in your life when you experienced intense feelings of love, contentment, or achievement. Other than that I know nothing.” Luna explained yet more.

“At least they are nice things!” Gusty smiled.

Zeccaran scanned the ponies again. Bunker had moved around the table and stood next to Gusty. Stormwalker was now on the other side of the table strutting back and forth in that over-confident way he had about him. The sudden and unwelcome smell of male pheromones hit his nose. It was always upsetting to smell another guy’s musk, but when there was a pure-bred pegasus in the room it was an extremely common occurrence. Pure-bred pegasi had an unfair advantage, their wings produced an oil that allowed them to fly in rain, it doubled as a way to put the opposite sex in the mood. All of the pegasi claimed it was uncontrollable when their bodies refreshed the oils, Zeccaran was fairly certain that was a complete lie.

“A-anyway. T-there are f-four specific times we w-wanted to ah-ask you about.” Luna miserably stammered. Her blush flushing her cheeks into a color close to magenta.

Zeccaran rolled his eyes. Even if he was not doing it on purpose, Stormwalker was certainly going to push it as far as he could. The stallion breezed up next to Luna and stood across the table looking directly at Celestia and Gusty as he half-folded his wings.

“The first event is marked by a large tree in the foremost of vision. In the distance you are watching a pair of young pegasi racing each other and laughing. Meanwhile stallion with a rather deep voice is singing an old folksong. Sound familiar?” Stormwalker questioned.

The teal of Gusty’s face from the base of her ears up to the bridge of her snout flared full red and she stomped her front hooves. She bobbed and shook her head vehemently.

“Yes. I remember something like that, the two children-the boy was grey and the girl was a light pink. “ She recollected behind closed eyes. “And it would be a lot easier to remember if you stopped doing that.” Gusty gritted through her teeth.

“Doing what?” Stormwalker asked back. Zeccaran face-hoofed. How he could come off so perfectly coy the the zebra would never know.

“Look, j-just...just forget it. What’s the next memory?” Gusty glowered her face heating up even more. Zeccaran could feel it from where he sat at the end of the table.

“The next one is a rather picturesque landscape of great rolling hills, -oh-dear-it-has-gotten-quite-hot-out-today- it even includes a rather nice looking castle-like manor on the left. We have no idea where it is.” Celestia said to Gusty her brow wet with sweat. The white alicorn fanned herself with one of her wings.

Zeccaran continued to listen intently. He hoped to absorb the information and then not need to think about it until the time came. He was just glad that it wasn’t his mind they were picking, this time.

“Oh yeah!” Gusty exclaimed. “I remember that one for sure! But, I don’t know where it is either, it was beautiful there, I remember wonderful friends and helping build the castle even!”

“Where haven’t you been,eh?” Bunker interjected. “D’ya know how old you are, dear?” he drolled through his accent.

“Yes, If you know your age this could greatly help us.” Luna chimed in, finally steady.

“Uhh…” Gusty responded scratching at her chin, with a tilt of her head.

Zeccaran had never thought about how old Gusty possibly was. He had vague suspicions that she was actually some type of eldritch being following him about making his like miserable under the guise of friendship. That was his paranoia talking of course, but Gusty’s odd behavior and seemingly powerful amnesia and antics would lead him to think she was fairly old. He thought about some of the old foals’ stories from Zebrabwe he had heard before he was taken in by the cultists. There was roughly a story of a goddess that had descended to the earth that sought to smite evil and spread happiness to the many clans of the plains. She was said to possess incredible power and be unmatched in battle, able to command clouds and discern malintent in an instant. Zeccaran stifled a nauseous gag of realization. The story referred to all the things Gusty did on the regular. If it referenced somepony else, he knew none that would fit the description besides Celestia and Luna, but they wouldn’t have been alive when the story had taken place.

Hell, most of the world would have still been loose herds of creatures, he thought. That means Gusty would be at least five thousand years old. If I can do math...damn that's old!

“If I got my facts right, she is at least five thousand years old.” he said aloud. He was surprised his voice was as nonchalant as it was. The other ponies jumped in surprise like they had forgotten he had been standing there.

“Are you sure?” Celestia asked him.

“Yeah. There’s an old folktale that I remembered, it took place a long time ago. And the description of the heroine...fits Gusty pretty much to a ‘T’” he responded.

“Great, that really opens up the scope of where we are looking.” Stormwalker grumbled.

“Good. If it will keep you away from me!” Gusty snapped. “What’s the next memory thing?”

“You are speaking to a young brown-colored alicorn mare. With a shiny jet-black mane. She seems particularly happy. The conversation is fairly muddled. Behind her there is an open expanse of plains you are above, on a mountain home I presume. Two young dragons fly-” Luna started.

“Off in the distance; one is red and the other is white. We had just saved them...from..something, I don’t remember. But otherwise yes. That is quite clear to me. The young mare...I think she was my daughter. She had told me some type of bad joke. We were laughing.” Gusty finished, misty-eyed.

Zeccaran had never seen her quite like this. It really was like she had travelled to another time. A time when Gusty was happier, to say the least. She seemed almost at peace. That was a mood she had never displayed since he had met her.

“That is certainly interesting. How certain are you of the other alicorn being your daughter?” Stormwalker asked his voice rapt with that sort of dangerous curiosity he possessed.

“Yes...I...I had her name, but now it's gone. It’s like the more I try to remember the further it gets away from me.” Gusty rubbed her eyes and violently shook her head after she stopped talking.

“What is the last one?” she asked after she recovered.

“You stand facing a horde of armored pegasi. They look at you with fear and flee at your words into an never-ending empty expanse of snow and ice. You turn and cheer to a pack of Yaks, all bloody from battle. You raise up your sword and yell in victory like a maniac. The yaks, yell back and then everything fades to black.” Stormwalker said.

“I…” Gusty took a long pause, before starting up again, softly “I don’t really remember that as a good memory. I was fighting something, no, someone powerful. I had won. But it was a hollow victory, like...like I had lost something incredibly important to achieve it. I was happy for the Yaks...but…” she leaned her head down behind her long mane.

“It feels strange to remember these things.” she whispered to the crowd. Zeccaran had to strain to hear her. “I makes me wonder like: is this speeding me towards something terrible? Hey!” Gusty suddenly changed her tone. “I realized I really don’t know much about the world. Tell me, are than any male alicorns?” she desperately breathed.

Zeccaran looked up at the other ponies as each of them exchanged glances before all of them settled on Bunker. The stallion sighed heavily, having realized that his cohorts decided he should tell Gusty to the answer to that question.

“No.” he said distraughtly to his fiance.

“Oh.” Gusty leaned her head down again, but picked back up instantly. “Well, in lighter news Bunker and I are officially to be married!” she smiled.

What!?” Celestia, Luna, Stormwalker, and even Zeccaran himself yelled together.

Bunker just stood there, dumbfounded. He had the look about him that a drunk would have when he reached an epiphany of intoxication. Zeccaran offered a slight chuckle before Gusty picked back up.

“I did promise that I would take his courtship seriously.” she responded elegantly, “He has proven to be quite the gentlecolt.”

“Congratulations then!” Celestia nearly purred out.

“Indeed, It shall be an excellent pairing!” Luna declared boldly.

“I’m sure you will happy together.” Stormwalker kindly said his piece with a smile and a nod.

That left him to say something too. Zeccaran couldn’t let himself be left out.

“Yeah, good for you guys, I guess?” he gave his best answer.

Gusty squeed, hard. She promptly grabbed the still frozen Bunker in a hug before lifting him up in her magic.She laughed loudly at the stallion who was just mumbling incoherently. Zeccaran suddenly felt rather sorry for poor Bunker, he had probably just bitten off more than he could chew. A lot more.

“We are going to go celebrate! You are all invited to our wedding! Except you, demon!” She yelled with joy with pointing at her quarry.

“Do you honestly think you could stop me from going?” Stormwalker retorted with a wry smile and a raised brow.

Gusty huffed, declared farewell, and disappeared through the doors. Bunker vacantly waved a hoof as he floated behind her, a grin starting to grow on his face.

“That was...sudden.” Zeccaran said to the group.

Celestia gave a short chuckle, whilst Luna nodded rather merrily. Stormwalker rolled his eyes like he had seen it coming a mile away.

“Did you guys get all the information you wanted out of her? I mean she kinda just up and left without warning.” he said towards Luna.

“We actually got more than enough information from her reactions.” Stormwalker responded stepping up towards the table proper.

Zeccaran raised up his lip in pure confusion. He loosed a sigh in attempt to gather his thoughts. The pegasus, the demon, the whatever, he usually had some type of insight or extra knowledge. Zeccaran regularly found that annoying. The guy always had extra cards that no one else could see. He motioned circularly in the air with his hoof to signal Stormwalker to continue.

“For example: with her description I was able to confirm specific details on the Yak memory. That was the final battle for Yak independence from the Cirran Empire. It took place three-thousand five-hundred years ago. I even know where it is on an map. If I am not mistaken she killed an ancestor of mine to win that battle. That fits in with your theory that she is at least five-thousand years old.” he said.

“The Cirran Empire? A relative of yours? I’m right? All that seems pretty far fetched. I didn’t think that the empire had wars like that, or that I was doing anything beyond spitballing” Zeccaran mulled over his words.

“Oh, yes. Most of the Empire’s activities involved conquering and subjugating others, though you will never find that in any history book. The Lords that survived the Empire’s fall were sure to destroy most of the material. I would know, I can trace my lineage back almost six-thousand years, back when my family weren’t lords yet.” Stormwalker answered.

“Oh.” Zeccaran, found himself at a loss for words.

It was a strange. Zeccaran was fairly certain the stallion divulging the information despised him. Yet, he found this lowly zebra, his enemy, important enough to tell him information that had been scrubbed from history. Zeccaran had a sneaking suspicion that Stormwalker was telling him things as a means to an end. Although even if he was right, there would never be a way to prove the other stallion had ulterior motives. Zeccaran just hoped those intentions were benevolent, Stormwalker had already proved he was unstoppable if he set his mind to something. Should his intentions prove selfish or maleficent the world was already doomed.

“Well, you certainly have a grip on things. Didn’t you already have all this information? Why did you tell us?” he question finally recovering.

“A most curious observation, Zeccaran.” Celestia grinned approvingly at him. “Even with Luna’s dreamwalking, things were particularly muddled.”

“Yes. Gusty herself painted a much clearer picture of what occurred compared to what I gleaned from those jagged memories.” Luna confirmed. “We took the clearest details, speculated, set up the situation and...well you saw the results.”

Zeccaran nearly jumped in surprise. They had manipulated Gusty into remembering more than they could get themselves. It was an artful display of the three immortal beings’ capability to get what they desired without anything besides a few well placed words. He shuddered in disturbed awe and horror. In the end he was just a mortal, and simply did not measure up to the powers of the three demi-goddess alicorns and the demon lord. But somehow, he was mixed up in this twisted mess of long game deceptions and world affecting personal politics. He wondered if Bunker realized it too.


“Zeccaran!” Luna yelled.

“Huh?” he responded dully, still gobsmacked by stark reality.

“Are you alright? You seem...a bit touched.” the moony mare stated.

“Yeah, I gotta go.” he answered, slowly plodding around the table.

He narrowly made his journey, his hooves felt rather numb. The sensation was moving up his legs threatening to make impossible to walk. He drug himself to the door and slowly turned to look back the sisters and Stormwalker. They peered back him all of them showing some form admonishing concern.

“Have a nice day, thank you for coming.” Celestia gracefully encouraged.

He just nodded in response.

The walk back to his lab took a forever. He didn’t look up other ponies, he barely had his eyes open at all in fact. By the time he reached the door to his abode in the palace Zeccaran fell through it. He narrowly caught himself and stumbled into his study. He waltzed over to the cot that he had gotten some time ago and hopped into it for the first time and immediately fell asleep hoping desperately that the world would be the same when he woke up.

Act 1: Chapter 2 - Why do I dream like this?

View Online

“Relatively speaking, it doesn’t matter what you think of me, only what I think of you, I get to decide who is good or bad. Such is my privilege in this day and age where no one knows who Origin is, or what demons are. Ridiculous!”

-Gusty Twilight-

Chapter 2 - Why do I dream like this?

A bright cool-colored canvas stretched out before him in an empty expanse of neither shape nor physics. Zeccaran walked forward until he came upon a strange looking door, positioned randomly in the astral pasture. It was a ratty portal its white paint chipped and peeling. The wood that was exposed appeared to be strong but withered and dry like it had gone through a vicious dust storm. He reached up for the handle out of pure curiosity and pushed its lever down as he pulled the door open. Rusted hinges gave a long haunted screech as he slowly wrenched open the door to its fullest. Behind the door intense light poured out accompanied by the sounds of ponies talking and maybe even the sounds of his own voice he was not sure. This was unlike any dream he had had before, even the other faux-dreamwalks, and it intrigued him to no end. Zeccaran walked confidently through the portal eager to find what laid on the other side.

“Argh! That was bright. Wait...I know this place. The brown curtains, the cherry wood paneling, that ugly green carpet, this is the train I was taking east from Las Pegasus before I met Gusty! How did I get here? Is this even a dream anymore, or am I remembering this? Ok, this is weird and I don’t like it. Hey, it's the old conductor! Still kinda jealous of that mustache, I have no idea how he gets it too look so nice and shiny like that. Ohhh! He’s bringing in Gunther’s crate, I guess I’ll sit back and watch…”

The conductor heaved and huffed as he drug in the big wooden cage that held the equally wooden dog. He gave his brow a wipe before shooting out a sharp sigh of relief.

“I don’t know what you got in there, Mr. Z, but it sure is heavy!” he responded cheerily.

“It’s actually a friend of mine,” he responded getting down from his bunk.

Boy, oh boy is it strange to witness oneself in the full third-person! Fascinating really. I had no idea my mohawk used to look that badass!

The conductor cast a quizzical look at Zeccaran. He bent down to the crate’s lock and unfastened it deftly with his mouth. Instantly a thick wooden barrel of a Timberwolf catapulted from the dog crate and tackled Zeccaran off his hooves and onto the ground. Gunther yipped excitedly and began licking his pony friend’s face with extreme enthusiasm that only a dog could have. Zeccaran giggled at his unorthodox canine and shooed him off of his chest before sitting up and wiping away the extra Timberwolf slobber from his face.

He looked up to the conductor to find the stallion frozen shock still in horror at the sight of Gunther. His tan fur had nearly turned white and his eyes’ arteries pulsed intensely as he focused only on the proverbial elephant in the room. Guther to his credit seemed to notice and lay himself out flat on the floor of the cabin before slowly inching closer to the conductor making pitiful puppy noises as he did. The conductor continued to look on in pure terror as Gunther came closer until the Timberwolf bumped his nose into one of the stallion’s front hooves. The conductor’s immediate reaction was to jump up and away with such force that he actually bounced off the ceiling before landing in a pained heap as Gunther barked excitedly at him.

“Gunther! No! Bad! Leave him alone, he’s scared of you!” Zeccaran scolded his companion. The dog responded by whimpering dismally before returning to him and stretching out on the ground next to Zeccaran, by this time the conductor had recovered.

“H-h-h-how!? How is that thing domesticated!??” He gawked and stammered to Zeccaran. The zebra simply snickered at the other stallion’s distress, Gunther was completely harmless!

“Well, he’s my friend. I’ve raised him since he wasn’t more than a sappup. He’s no different than a regular dog.” he responded cordially after regaining a steady voice. There was no need to tease the stallion about being scared, honestly it was only natural for ponies to be terrified of one of their only natural predators.

“I...I-I just don’t believe it. If he gets out in the car he’ll cause a huge panic!” the conductor groaned. “Look...I...Just don’t let him out of this room. I’ll give you one more warming, mate. But anything after that and I’m tossing him off this locomotive myself!”

The conductor gave another panicked glance at Gunther before exiting the bunk room with a disheveled haste. This left Zeccaran to sit there in silence before giving a shrug and starting to pet Gunther. The world slowly seemed to freeze in that moment as Zeccaran meditated the day away peacefully sitting with his dog and having no reason to leave. He simply was happy to be left alone to ponder the world and do nothing about it. Such was his prerogative, he firmly believed in his heart that the Universe was fated to do what it would regardless of how he felt about it, but it was healthy to think over the different annoyances he experienced.

Hissing of the train’s airbrakes made him open his eyes and knocked the boredom away in an instant. Zeccaran got up from the ground and slipped out of his bunk room leaving Gunther inside like he had been instructed. He followed the bustle of ponies, all of them being large Earth Stallions. If he remembered correctly this stop was for a mine or as the locals called it, “The Rock Farm,” it was famous for precious crystals and oil. The location supplied the gems to the Equestrian Treasury for a special credit and sold the new fuel source to the highest bidder.

The zebra knew he stood out from the crowd, being smaller and certainly more striped but all he cared about was getting some food from the small station’s kitchen. He had been on this route before and he was hoping that they still had the homemade shaved hay chips. The little fried crisps of deliciousness were one of the few reasons he still enjoyed life. Their familiar and intoxicating smell drew him towards a covered countertop next to the ticket booth. He nudged by a rather enormous teal mare who was busy jabbering about train fares to the booth attendant. He practically drooled as he tossed the proper amount of bits onto the counter and ordered.

The five-o’clock shadow covered cook grumbled in acceptance as if ponies regularly slapped up the exact change required to buy the hay chips. He tossed a great pile of hay shavings into the fryer behind him. The stiff voice of the conductor caught his ears while he waited.

“Well, I do have a spare bunk, but I don’t know if you would want it.” He said worriedly to what Zeccaran assumed was the female patron he had passed. “Well, okay...just be warned he has a pet...a very unique pet.” That could be no one else but him, He was about to turn around and get a better look at his imminent bunkmate when the cook cleared his throat.

“Here you go, Mac.” the grizzled cook said as he pushed Zeccaran a basket of just-out-of-the-fryer, chips. “Thanks!” he replied immediately taking one of the crisps in his mouth and burning himself. He didn’t complain, the piping hot hay pieces were by far the most delicious variant of the crop and he ate them merrily regardless of the pain they caused.

Zeccaran turned around finally to find the mare and the conductor vanished from where he had heard them. He shrugged indifferently and made his way back onto the train, slipping past the changing shift of engineers who were smudged with coal soot. He made it back to his room passing through an otherwise empty passenger car. He opened his door, stepped inside, and sat down on the bench in the front of the cabin before digging into his food. Gunther strode up and made pitiful puppy noises as he begged for a single chip. Zeccaran of course granted him that single chip and continued eating wondering when the conductor would appear with the mystery mare.

He did not have to wait long. A few minutes after he finished his chips there was a strong knocking on his door. “Come in.” he said kindly and the door swung open slowly to reveal the conductor standing there with a blush, behind him the big teal mare stood spouting a charming grin. Now in clearer view the mare in question stood about twice Zeccaran’s short height. She had a slender build and tight eye-pleasing muscles. Light freckles dotted her high cheeks and pretty face. Her looks were accented with a thick, long, and somewhat wavy mane and tail. Those portions of hair were a seafoam color which perfectly complimented her teal coat and deep blue eyes. A medium-sized horn protruded from her thick couture and lengthy wings sprang from her sides. She was an alicorn.

Heeeeere it comes, the first time I met Gusty. I wonder what my face looked like…

He sat there and stared dumbly. An alicorn?

Wow, I look like a total idiot. My jaw is completely slack and I slumped awkwardly on the bench. Ugh, I remember how many questions I had for her: Why was she here? Was she a princess? How did she come across the Rock Farm? I just was too flabbergasted to ask though, not that I didn’t get my answers, actually I think with everything I know now I would have rather remained ignorant and free of that big teal menace. She’s my friend but...sometimes

“Mate, this is...uhm.” The conductor paused before casting a quick glance back to the mare. “Y-your new bunkmate. Make sure your blasted dog is nice to her, now...uh-I need to get going.” The conductor stammered, as he tried to back out of the room.

“Thanks for showing me where to go, sir” the mare said as she slipped past the retreating stallion. Zeccaran was sure that she had intentionally rubbed as much of her flanks against his side as she could. Her horn lit up with a golden-yellow aura and an enormous suitcase pushed its way in over her and the conductor before being unceremoniously dropped in the middle of the bunk room.

“I am Gusty Twilight!” the mare faux-saluted with a broad vocal change. “What is your name fair zebra?” she asked continuing her gusto-filled speech while kicking the door closed behind her.

In retrospect I’m just glad I was able to recover from bearing witness to her. She was already going to be a hooffull, but at least I started with a good impression…

“Hello, friend. My name is Zeccaran.” he remarked with a quaint bow, “And this is Gunther my faithful companion.” Gunther barked approvingly and jumped up into trotting towards the big teal mare.

“Good boy.” she cooed at the Timberwolf as he stood up on his back legs to reach her face and begin licking her. She petted him affectionately and giggled at the oaken log, before suddenly gasping in surprise.

Wait a minute!” she proclaimed, “A zebra that doesn’t rhyme?”

“Well of course, not everyone follows that trope, after awhile it gets rather coarse.” he responded trying to bite his tongue.

Oh, by Luna’s stars do I hate rhyming! And this, ugh this is why I go out of my way to not do it! Stupid, Gusty asking stupid questions. I sounded like an idiot!

“Normal folks like me don’t have to rhyme, not even Shamans do it all the time.” he continued. He started to grimace in horror at what was occurring, meanwhile Gusty began to grin mischievously.

“Besides it is meant for rituals and and incantations, I hope you understand this explanation.” Zeccaran balked awkwardly unable to stop.

“So, why are you still rhyming now?” Gusty asked nearly full-on laughing.

“I don’t know, for some reason I can’t stop, please you should call the language cops!” Zeccaran finished before he slammed his hooves into his mouth anger growing. He started hitting himself in the face to try and jar himself free of the terrible habit. Gusty cackled merrily as she watched him try to readjust his brain.

“Stop hitting yourself, stop hitting yourself!” she mocked her voice extra high-pitched. He did not care, it was much more important to stop rhyming. After a good ten hits he gave talking another try.

“I think I got it….yeah...HA! Take that stringent social conventions! I’m free from your stigma again!” he shouted triumphantly. Gusty stopped laughing finally and opened up her suitcase before sitting on the floor in front of it. A silence descended upon them as she began sifting through the contents, arranging them in the bunk room with an obsessive precision..

There’s her sword. You’d think a weapon as old and as magical as it would have some sort of glowing aura about it, but no its just looks plain and rather used: under the bottom bunk it goes! That mail hauberk of hers, closet, yep. That ridiculous box of caltrops...why did she even have those? I guess they are a weapon to stop a full cavalry charge..but..that just seemed so out of place. Oh, boy...the crowbar. You know, I’m pretty sure she was working on the Rock Farm, only place that would have that equipment in the area. How many of those cobalt skirts does she own??!! Why didn’t I notice that? Oh, I’m looking out the window...Ugh...when will this end?”

Time suddenly sped up and the motions of he and Gusty became blurs marked by the occasional solid form of them sleeping. He blinked trying to refocus on the scene before him, but found that non-physical eyes did not benefit from a good blinking. About two days passed as the train they were on moved across the open plains of Equestria’s heartland moving northeast along the mighty Everfree Forest. With the lands rolling hills and occasional town the vista portal of the window became a picturesque view of the evening sun made as it settled . As if a master painter had spent years applying the correct amount of shading, hues, and warmth that seemed to pervade the evening colors until it could practically bring tears to Zeccaran’s eyes with its beauty. He had forgotten how the world could look, having spent too much time being distracted by the ponies in it and his own problems.

Before him, his dream-self sat up in bed: He sighed heavily which unfortunately roused his bunkmate. And as if on cue she shot of her bunk, and pronounced loudly: “I’m hungry!”

It never was a dull moment with Gusty. Nope could never have a normal day. She really is quite unstable, I hope the Princesses and Stormwalker have some sort of solution. She got a little better after a while but she was a wreck when I met her. Constantly ranting about the importance of ferreting out evil..or calling me names.

“Get up you striped bum! There’s stuff to do, food to eat!” She jumped up on her back hooves and stuck her face in his as he scowled at her jovial morning pony routine. “We must knock down the inherent darkness of our empty stomachs and vanquish the evil that it entails!”

He rolled out of the bed with a grumble and looked at her with a suspcious look. Gusty had fallen still and was either about to hit him with her usual, “You’re a tiny little striped bug” insult or...scream:

“EEEEEEVIIIIILLLL!!!” she shouted in a primal mania that he still had yet to mentally overcome. “Where is it?! I must defeat it!” she continued her eyes going wide.

Before Zeccaran could inquire why she had yelled, behind Gusty there came a knocking on the door to the cabin. It was then opened slightly by a young attendant mare, really more of an older filly. She sheepishly peeped in and inquired meekly, her bonnet bobbing as she spoke.

"I-I h-heard somepony was hungry? I have the snack cart ri-aaghh!" the snack mare was interrupted. In the same moment, the impulsive alicorn had bowled over the mare causing a great clamour of metal, falling snacks, the body of the attendant, and the thumping of hooves as Gusty ran off down the hall of the train car. This left Zeccaran to sigh and pick up the pieces before following his acquaintance.

“I’ll never understand why I bother to clean up after her...It is both a thankless and fruitless task.”

"Are you alright?" he rushed over and extended a hoof to the small chocolate colored mare. “Owww. Well yeah I’m ok. What’s her prob-oh” The mare stopped, a look of horrendous terror stretching her feature taut with dread. The mare remained silent as he helped her up, her look of fear never fading. Her silence made it excurciatly easy to hear Gunther's panting

"T-tt-tt-timberwolf." she stammered pitifully,ever-so-timidly with a hoof. Zeccaran had almost forgotten his animal companion. Gunther, of course, was an oak-born Timberwolf. He was about Zeccaran's size which made him a moderately sized creature. With thick green leafy eyebrows and tail on his dark brown barky body there was nothing upsetting about him, save perhaps his glowing eyes, but all timberwolves had those. It would be the moment however that the mare would pass out and flop to the floor.

This elicited the immediate attention of one of the male attendants who promptly appeared in the doorway of his cabin. Unfortunately, it was the same conductor that had allowed him to bring Gunther on in the first place. He made an angry face at Zeccaran before gritting his teeth and uttered, “That was your one chance, mate, off he goes.”

“But, I thought you said one warning then the boot.” he responded sadly. “Well after all the yelling and running about your bunkmate is doing I don’t have the patience for it!” the conductor growled at him.

“Excuse me, I need that Zebra.”

Unbeknownst to Zeccaran or the conductor, Gusty had returned to where they now stood arguing in the hall of the sleeper car. She loomed over the conductor, who really was not a small pony, using her height to her advantage. It was in the same moment that she picked up the hapless zebra with her magic and floated him over next to her. Gunther reflexively followed, causing various lookers on to gasp or faint.

“Miss...I uh...no! No, he can’t stay. He is already scaring too many of our patrons.” he demanded over a blush. Zeccaran remarked that it was not fair that Gusty could make ponies feel pressured just by being near them. Then again it might have had something to do with her rather persuasive tone and arguments...

“Oh really? He is completely harmless. Look!...uh..Have him open his mouth, Mr. Zebra.” Gusty made an affirmative motion with her hoof.

I still can’t believe she had me command Gunther to do this. Not only does Timberwolf breath smell terrible, but this was just ridiculous. She just stuck her whole neck in there, if that wasn’t a sign that she was basketcase I don’t know what is. The old conductor certainly thought so, I really wish he had come to Canterlot to complain as some point, alas. And this argument: ‘if he won’t bite me like this, in his natural attack posture why is he dangerous?” I am overjoyed to not be in this situation anymore.”

A quick scan of the car showed that the rest of the patrons on the train had either passed out or were trying their absolute best to ignore what was going on behind them. Zeccaran watched the conductor back down, playing out his part. He merely grumbled an empty approval. Needless to say, Gusty was quite pleased with herself and removed her vulnerable neck from Gunther’s mouth. Earnestly, she turned to him, eyes sparkling with anticipation.

“Come on! There is something evil on this train and we need to find it! I’ll take no arguments! You are coming with. Besides all you do is sit around and make dumb humming noises. This will be waaaaaay more fun!” she cooed with eager mania.

“But-but-I’m...I’m tired?” he tried to make the excuse

“Pshhhh. Don’t be a downer. Let’s go!”

She continued to hold him in her levitation making him feel like a foal. If she had released him, he could have at least half-heartedly resist, making it significantly better, maybe. He soon found himself outside the last regular car staring at the mechanism that held the dining car that was behind it to the rest of the train.

“Whatever is evil is in that dining car. I don’t want to go in it unless I really have to. I’m getting some pretty bad vibes from whatever is inhabiting that car.” Gusty shuddered in her spot.

“Soooo. You want to disconnect the car from the rest of the train? Okay, don’t know why I needed to come along…” crossing his front legs still floating in Gusty’s magic.

“Because I can’t turn this dumb thing! That’s why I came and got you!” she complained with extra pouty lips. Gusty angrily pointed at a pressure wheel that appeared to have been greased heavily by something.

Zeccaran took a moment to examine it. Before motioning her to set him down. He approached it still squinted before placing his hooves on it He gave it a turn, or rather it gave him a turn. The control wheel was so slippery he practically fell off the train when he attempted to grip it with his forehooves. After righting himself, without help from Gusty, who stood there laughing at him, he came up with an idea.

“Maybe you should clean that greasy stuff off, so we can turn the wheel?” he questioned. “Well I already tried, its magical or something.” she answered.

“How about burning it? That could work.” he suggested.

“Yeah you’re right! WAIT! duhh! I should have just used my horn to turn the wheel itself not the grease. I got this.” Gusty finally had her apiphany.

Promptly Gusty’s yellow magical aura flared from her horn. Another faint yellow glow surrounded the wheel at the same moment. Zeccaran watched curiously as she appeared to strain herself. Her face scrunched up into a frown and she closed her eyes.

A vicious roar of flames erupted in a flash of white light. Its volume and heat was so intense Zeccaran thought it would actually set the train car on fire. However, luck appeared to be on his side, for it quickly died down to a quaint blaze over the control wheel. Confused, he turned to Gusty. She gaped at the fiery little wheel, allowing her companion to make his first sly comment in a week.

“I thought you said you weren’t gonna light it on fire” He smiled at her slyly starting to snicker.

“I just don’t know what went wrong! It started to turn and the next moment it was on fire!”she grimaced in pure confusion and embarrassment.

“Welp, looks like we are going in.” he lackadaisically commented.

We are such idiots. I can’t believe I just go along with her. I guess I can’t help help it, she is practically my best friend. Certainly the only pony unafraid of Gunther and that won me over pretty damn good.”

Gusty exhaled a breath and turned to look at the door to the dining car. She tried the door to find it was locked. Zeccaran was hopeful it would end there but, something told him in the back of his mind he was forgetting who this was standing in front of him. Immediately, from the ratty old brown bag the alicorn carried with her wherever she went, Gusty drew out a crowbar and a hammer. To this day he had no idea where she had been keeping them, perhaps it had been inside her skirt’s waistband.

It was only a few seconds later that the door had been removed from its hinges and set aside. It allowed a minimal view into the dining car. Great and unnatural shadows loomed inside the car. Gusty tossed her crowbar into the darkness. There was no satisfying clank. This left Zeccaran scared, as perhaps there really was something evil in that car.

Don’t kid yourself past me. Don’t kid yourself.”

In the next moment a most wonderful smell wafted out of the portal. It was a mixture of cooking berries, sweets and pastries. Zeccaran actively tried to keep the wind of the moving train from stealing the smells away, but realizing he couldn’t, he charged right into the pitch dark room. He couldn’t help himself, it was simply too delicious a smell, and he was quite hungry too.

“Wait!” Gusty called after him. But her words were wasted as his legs impacted something solid causing him to flip forward and face plant the carpeted floor. It hurt. But he was too proud to let Gusty realize he had just about knocked himself out and was content to sit quietly in the darkness alone. That was until there was a soft click and the room lit up with magical lights on the ceiling and the blinds opened letting the sun pour in.

He could now see that he had tripped over an amazingly plush ottoman. The crowbar set atop of it, nestled into its pillow. Gusty had followed him. She began laughing at his misfortune, but suddenly she stopped. “I KNOW WHERE IT IS!” she proclaimed.and dashed over to an oven that Zeccaran could just see. Only the corner of the range was visible from where he lay.

In the next moment, Gusty tossed a pie out from the oven and onto the floor before Zeccaran. Inscribed in an artful script on its top crust was the word Evil. It was the only indication of any evil in the room, or probably in the whole Cloudsdale District that they were traveling through. Zeccaran could not properly react to this occurrence. He simply sat up and looked at the pie. He remained straight-faced as his companion drew her mighty sword from its scabbard and viciously beat the pie out of its tin. Like a great bird of prey tearing into its catch with talon and beak such was the visceral nature of Gusty Twilight’s assault on the pastry.

The sound of slow unsteady hoof falls came from the door they had entered. Zeccaran turned slowly to see a moustached chef pony. His jaw was dropped and he was crying. His lip quivered as if it was being shook by a devastating earthquake such was his struggle to speak. The ruination of his prize baked concoction was a horror he seemed unable to accept.

“Why?...why my pie?!!?” he blathered out after a few pitiful minutes of watching Gusty triumphantly posturing her wings.

“Simple, my dear chef! It..was...EVIL!” Gusty replied with her perfected gusto.

The chef was unable to quite comprehend how this made any sense. The chef, again, spoke up: “But...but...it wasn’t evil it was just a pie...a simple pie! My most famous and infamous pie that has brought me so much wealth and….blah...whyyy!!??”

He fell to the floor in a pool of tears and smears of his pastry.

As a preening peacock flares his feathers and struts about, Gusty walked out of the train car and down the hall of the next car. Gunther, who had been with them the entire time silently plodding behind his master, finally broke and began eating the remains of the pie. He did this by licking the sobbing baker. The baker, of course, immediately freaked out.

He began with simple screaming. It quickly turned into him running about the car then up into the regular passenger area as Gunther chased him licking his body as he did.

“Ahhhhhahahhhh! It's going to eat me! Get it away! Get it away! Waahhhaaha….why me-by Celestia why???!” the poor stallion cried. Zeccaran had yet to recover from what he had witnessed and unwittingly he let his animal companion continue to chase and terrorize the pony.

The zebra followed the sight as it moved through the train, causing various exclamations from the other passengers. Given the circumstances, Zeccaran would have laughed, had not the conductor, with a cage in hoof promptly lifted Gunther up and away from the baker with his levitation.

“He’s going into the cargo car until our next stop then he’s gone!” He roared angrily as he stuffed the hapless timberwolf into the big cage.

Zeccaran wanted to object, but at this point he decided it was better to just let Gunther stay safely in the cage instead of arguing with his host. He simply nodded in acceptance and beat a slow retreat to his bunk car. Inside of which Gusty Twilight sat in her top bunk humming happily to herself. Rather tired and desensitized from the experience of today, Zeccaran decided he would sleep and try to feel better about the next day. With Gusty around he had a feeling that nothing was ever going to be boring again.

Boring. No. Dangerous and annoying. Yes. Will the Universe let me go? Also, no.

He silently sobbed hoping the bright onset of new light from the window would lead him to waking up.

Act 1: Chapter 3 - "...Really?"

View Online

“Of course! I love having Gusty in daily court meetings with me! She is quite mischievous and possesses a very droll sarcasm that goes right over the heads of any of our visitors. She has really helped lower the stress of court duties and I feel much better about my day-to-day thanks to her. Why do you ask?”
-Princess Celestia-

Chapter 3 - ...Really?

The flash of light died away and Zeccaran found himself looking up at the bottom of a bunk. There was something greenish obscuring his vision and he moved to knock it out of the way, exposing the hoof he had used to be teal. He drew in a horrified breath.

This isn’t happening...right?

Gusty Twilight’s voice made a yawn as she shifted her viewpoint towards the door. Her thoughts felt different. She mused over her previous night’s rest, grimacing over the fuzzy recollection of nightmares. She was scared of the visions, though she would never admit it. The dreams varied from Gusty remembering battles, to deaths of family members, to raising children, children that she did not recognize. Like always when she woke up she shook her head to clear her mind and then meditated for about an hour to the god Origin. Origin was the creator of the world and life, the ultimate good.

Oh, gods! No! Please, no! I can feel what she is feeling! Curse you cruel fate and your twisted sense of humor! Why would you do this to me?! Aaaaarrgghh!

Gusty’s faith required her to seek out and cleanse the world of its perversions. Eliminating evil was something that she was not only obligated to do but relished with all of her being. That was how it had always been as far as Gusty could tell. Simply there was nothing else and that nothing else could distract her either.

Great. Well at least it is a good look into how she thinks...then again I’m not sure I want to know. And she definitely was wrong about getting distracted, cause drinking and partying isn’t exactly eliminating evil and that’s all she has done since we arrived in Canterlot. Oh, well, at least she is interesting, maybe eccentric...and crazy. Too bad I don’t have popcorn this would be a great soap opera, she’s a total wreck of a character trope! Heh, forget my complaints

Gusty decided for no reason in particular to give the train a scan with her “Origin Magic” to see if there was some sort of malicious intent about. She had always been able to do such, in fact she could practically find evil by simply thinking about it. And it was on this day that she felt something particularly virulent coming from the front end of the train. Gusty instantly jumped out of bed, not deterred by the pie incident a day before. However, her sudden movement stirred her zebra companion. She assailed him.

“Hey. Hey. HEY!! Get up, there’s something going on near the front of the train.”

“Urrggh. Remind me why I have to help?’ the dream Zeccaran grumbled not facing her.

“That’s where Gunther is.” Gusty said smugly.

“Oh. ok. I guess I’ll come along.” he rolled out of bed and directly into Gusty’s vision making eye contact with her.

Maaaaan. I look tired. Do I always look that tired? Note to self: get more sleep, Note to self part two: Gusty does not care one bit about making me uncomfortable.”

Before leaving the room, Gusty put on her armor. It covered most of her chest and belly but left her flanks curiously exposed. She was a big girl and secretly rather modest so she felt silly without something covering her flanks. She compensated for this by wearing a short cobalt skirt. It was her best option considering there was a lot for wandering eyes to glimpse if she didn’t, that and she felt it accented her blue eyes. On the exterior of this outfit she strapped on her scabbard and sword and saddle bags.

She’s modest? That’s what she calls modest? Okay. I don’t even know if this is real anymore or if I’m having a super deep incepted dream. Whatever, throw me another curve ball, I dare you!”

Gusty turned about to look at Zeccaran, who only had a plain bag on his back and a dull looking sickle tied to his side. Gusty resisted the urge to make fun of him about his lack of armor. She did not find his presentation pleasing but criticizing him would do nothing. It was then that Gusty took the lead and led her and her zebra companion towards the front of the train.

The unlikely pair finally reached the boxcar that stored all the luggage for the patrons. Gusty still felt the evil presences from before as they entered the car. However, this close they appeared to be above them, as if they were on the top of the car. They suddenly shot back towards the sleeper car.

“They went back that way!” Gusty cried, pointing a hoof the way they had come.

“Well, wait for me to get Gunther out of this box!” Zeccaran complained as he prodded at a wooden box that was making whimpering dog noises. “Hurry up then. I don’t like what’s going on. It doesn’t feel right…” she replied.

It took a few painful moments before Gunther was free and they could proceed back towards the ominous presences . They dashed through a few cars not allowing the staff to stop them from bringing Gunther along. The moment they reached the sleeper car harsh shrieking of metal rang in the air. Gusty turned to look out the only window in the car and saw sparks flying up and away from the train. There was a tearing and moaning sound immediately following that could only be described as the train violently jerking left then right and stopping instantly. The tumultuous action threw Gusty, Gunther, and Zeccaran to the floor and caused the other passengers to emit shrill cries of terror as the locomotive buckled.

Gusty was not quite knocked out but everything was significantly blurry as she slowly righted herself after becoming too friendly with the floor. Zeccaran was just as ponderous with his coming-to while Gunther lay on his back still acting as if he wished to have his rough oaken belly rubbed. Heavy hoof falls rang from above them and coarse male voices echoed outside through the now broken window of the sleeper.

Unwittingly Gusty stuck her head out of the open window. Towards the front of the train about six mixed stallions were unloading cargo from one of the boxcars. They were a rough looking group and fairly well organized by the sight of a getaway cart where the goods were being placed. Two more ponies tossed the poor bound engineer from his perch, one was a unicorn. He brandished a strange glowing sword like weapon in his telekinesis, holding it to the engineers pony’s throat to keep him quiet. Gusty then pulled her neck carefully back through the broken glass.

“What did you see?” Zeccaran questioned her. “A big group of ponies. They are stealing all the cargo from the train. Trunks of stuff. Good thing we got Gunther” she replied.

In the meantime, Gusty had drawn her sword and held it in her telekinetic grip. She prepared to charge through rear door of the sleeper car. She had a particularly strong feeling that bursting out of it would surprise anypony on the other side. This going to be one of her shining moments, she was certain of it.

“What are you doing? We could just open it instead you know--that and why are we bothering to stop them? How many were there even?” Dream-Zeccaran asked.

“I counted eight maybe more. Now, shush! Just trust me on this” Gusty gave him her most confident grin.

Zeccaran fell silent.

I should have told her no. I should have told her no. I should have told her no. Why didn’t I tell her no! After seeing how organized they were out there I should sue!

Gusty tensed up her legs and prepared to charge at the slightly broken door to the back of the car. She loosed a harsh yell and sprinted the short hall at the door. Impacting it with a shoulder with her head lowered. The door loosed from its hinges instantly and Gusty felt something fleshy be hit by the flying wood and her shoulder. It absorbed her momentum causing her to stop on the train car’s railing.

The alicorn paused long enough to see that an Earth Pony stallion now laid down on the ground below the car’s porch buried beneath the broken door his eyes closed, his body motionless. Gusty smiled in triumph at her foresight or rather she would have had a pegasus not knocked her to the ground in the next second. She lay on her belly unable to turn over as she desperately swung her sword about with her magic. Gusty liked to think that she hit the assailant in question but it turned out to be Zeccaran’s time to shine. Sadly, Gusty could not see her companion and would continue to think she had saved herself for quite some time.

Zeccaran seeing his counterpart disabled did the only thing he could think of at the time. He charged headlong at the pegasus on top of Gusty and tackled him off of her. Their bodies got tangled up as they whizzed through the air towards the ground, which was a good six feet from the train car’s deck. Zeccaran did not know whether it was out of luck or his own fool-hardy determination but he landed atop the pegasus, slamming the unfortunate fellow’s head and back into the broken door where his comrade already lay. The fight ended before it began and the stallion was suddenly unconscious completely limp underneath Zeccaran as he stood up to ensure Gusty had not been hurt.

She’s like instant mental disease. Once you get around her you do really crazy and outgoing things compared to normal. Is it just her natural flare? Or is it something else? I’ve felt helpless with regards to wanting to help her, even when I know I shouldn’t...hmm perhaps she’s just that much of a natural leader. I suppose this dreamwalking might just show me the answer.

“HA! I got him!” she cried. “what are you doing down there? I just knocked him off of me!” Zeccaran cast an admonishing look at Gusty but said nothing. By the time he had risen to his hooves Gusty was peering around the corner or the sleeper car at the other ponies that were robbing the train wondering if her stripped companion would hurry up.

And she had the audacity to not thank me! She had to know that I helped her. Ugh!

“Ok. I’m going in!” Gusty proclaimed without ceremony.

Annnnnd there she goes...and nope. I’mma stand there and help her like an unthinking drone. *Sighhhh*”

Dream-Zeccaran stood there dumbly as Gusty flew off towards the train robbers. Her intent was to summon the very winds themselves to stun these robbers with her glory. She had done it before. In fact, summoning clouds was something of her special talent. That’s what her cutie mark was all about anyway. She liked to call the skill, “Cloud Master” and Gusty would routinely yell the name if she was going to use her alicorn magic to conjure up the forces of nature.

That’s what she calls beating the crap out of me with clouds and wind? Good to know. Stupid mean alicorn and her stupid special magic and stupid abilities.

Holding off on screaming however, Gusty climbed up into the air with her wings, gathering about forty feet of height. She bellowed down at the ponies below her trying to apprehend the criminals. “Surrender now, criminals! Or receive severe punishment!” not-quite-like the commanding mare that she was.

It was supposed to be enough to shock the stallions into at least some form of guilt. However, their response was to look up at her blankly at first and then laugh. They laughed a lot actually. While her voice was not normally so girly-sounding it certainly was this time and the effect became much less intimidating than she had intended. Her skirt and freckles probably did not make her the scariest thing either.

No kidding Gusty. It's hard to be scared of a big bright-colored mare that looks she belongs in a Pony Opera as the female lead. Even has the sword and big mane too! At least she knows that she can be a damned fool. Not that she’d ever admit it.

Thus, after their cackling had died down some, one of the unicorns mumbled something to his comrades. From her lofty position it could not be heard what was said, but she quickly found out. In an instant the unicorn fired a red-colored spell at her. She was unable to dodge simply because she was too surprised to react. The spell hit her dead center of the chest. The world spun to a bleak grey and she had the sensation of falling. The next feeling she had was her side impacting the hard and unforgiving ground. She instantly woke. Her ribs hurt quite badly, but Gusty was tougher than the pitiful tears she shed from the pain. Blinking her eyes clear she stared, shocked to see what was occurring before her.

HERE I COME TO SAVE THE DAAYYY~!!...not really. Me and Gunther got our assess kicked. Guess we are good at that though...not sure if that’s a talent or a curse.”

Dream-Zeccaran and Dream-Gunther had made it to the scene. His memory counterparts stood mostly surrounded by a group of stallions, two pegasi, one earth pony. That was the view from Gusty’s blurry eyes. Two of the Unicorns that she had seen earlier were missing. As the view cleared up the third one came into view charging towards her. His glowing sword from earlier brandished high. Two other earth ponies were scrambling to put a large number of boxes down in order to help while a lone pegasus peered from over the edge of the box car. Gusty cast a brief glance to her friends.

It was clear that Zeccaran and Gunther wouldn’t last long. The two exchanged blows with their assailants. Zeccaran quickly was knocked down his face bloodied by the pegasi and was only saved by Gunther who jumped in the way of a full rear leg buck of the earther. The wooden body of the dog creaked and he yelped as he was flung a few feet from the kick.

Get him, Gunther! Get up, me! Come on, we are better than this! I think?!

Zeccaran chuckled at himself knowing full well the outcome of the fight. It was an even more pitiful sight through Gusty’s eyes. Although he could get over that, he just wanted the disorienting feeling from looking through her eyes to go away.

Zeccaran quickly got back up and haphazardly punched a pegasus square in the jaw, knocking him away. He received a solid hoof to the gut from the other pegasus. Finally recovering, Gunther attacked the Earth pony with a bite to the leg, but was promptly kicked off. Though the two continued to hold their ground it was clear that they would need help as Gusty reared up into the air once more. Refocusing on the Unicorn that was charging her, she jumped into the air determined to bring the clouds to her aid. The unicorn swung his bound blade as she took flight, cursing at her as her wings outdistanced his magical reach. She smiled triumphantly as she made it to a high enough to cast her magic.

As soon as she reached the position Gusty began concentrating on her surroundings. To summon the clouds it was a process of magic and physicality. After a few strong beats of her wings and the feeling of magic swelling up in the surrounding atmosphere. She opened her eyes and directed her wrath at the unfortunate creatures below her. Zeccaran and Gunther would have to brave the storm like their attackers would. Gusty hoped it would not hurt them too much.

She knew! She freakin’ knew! She hit us with that spell on purpose! Ohhh! If there is ever a time to get her back, I better make it good too! Argh!”

Wind and harsh heavy clouds strong enough to actually bludgeon her targets swirled down in a vicious howl. Thunder crashed and clapped as might winds of her magic induced storm knocked the two pegasi that had begun pursuing her to the ground. The unicorn below her was blown back towards his comrades whilst flying through the air. The Earth ponies in question were forced to steady themselves, only one was able resist the fierce bluster, the rest were forced the the ground in various heaps.

Gunther and Zeccaran did not fare much better. They were lifted into the air and tossed away from their assailants at the cost of what looked like pretty severe impacts with the ground. At least they were safe, or that's what Gusty thought anyway. They weren't moving and she refused to believe that she had just killed her own friends.

Gusty landed on the ground as quickly as she could after casting her spell and tried to take the great group of enemies by surprise. She only managed to dispatch a single Earth Pony, the one who had not been knocked to the ground by the wind. She had exchanged a few sword swings with him deflecting or dodging his blows with ease. She quickly ran the ugly fellow through his poor skill shining as bright as the red flow of blood that cascaded down her blade held firmly in her golden magic. The victory was short lived and as she pushed the poor fool over the other attackers were upon her before she even flicked her sword clean. However, Gunther and Zeccaran rejoined her side at not a moment's notice, ready to help her.

Yeah and had I known she was the one that caused that freak storm I would have left her to fight while I pouted clutching my knee! That thing was sore for weeks!

The combat that erupted was erratic to say the least. Three beleaguered heroes against a force that had gone from nine to five in number. At the beginning Gusty felt that she and her companions stood a good chance. One-and-a-three-quarters enemies for each of them should be easy, easier than math anyway. She, however, had forgotten to account for the unicorns.

Or maybe she forgot to account for how unimaginably unlucky I am? Or perhaps the horror that would exit Gunther’s body in the most putrid manner possible. By Celestia’s beard it was a terrible fight...heh, Celestia’s beard. I need to keep that one.

As the groups briefly stared down one another down, it was Gunther who would make the first move. He missed his attack entirely and went sailing past the earther he had attempted to bite as said pony side-stepped quite deftly. This sent the bandits into action, the pair of the remaining Earth ponies charged at Gusty, both landing solid kicks on her. Fortunately for her, they did nothing. She was, of course, in armor so even the full bucks that they landed had no effect. She responded with a several quick slices with her sword. Her telekinesis made the blade fast and agile, hewing one of her foes instantly. His big head rolled from his shoulders forcing his partner to retreat, the scared fellow’s eyes showing he would rather do anything else than face her in combat.

At the same time one of the unicorns of the group fired a stun bolt a Zeccaran. Like she had, Zeccaran immediately went comatose as soon as the magic projection hit him. He fell flat on his face. The pegasus that was still alive turned and kicked at Gunther, but rather humiliatingly missed and lost his balance, falling down behind his earth pony counterparts.

This really should be a comedy show, it's a total farce of a fight where Gusty has already managed to kill two otherwise hapless individuals. I’m just glad the majority of Equestria is filled with good ponies and these guys were a fluke, otherwise I think the Princesses would have a really terrible time covering up the giant tally of murders Gusty would have.

Gusty readied to attack the unicorn in retaliation but she was not prepared for Zeccaran's sudden spring into action. From where he fell he flipped up, sickle in his mouth. However, he did not attack with the weapon. Gusty balked as his eyes glowed golden for a few seconds and watched as he drew a mischievous sneer across his face. She was unfamiliar with the magic but she turned and saw the grass around the ponies they were fighting coming alive. It grabbed their legs and sought to hold them down. It was an impressive display and Gusty was left projecting thoughts of dark pleasure at him, glad that he was more than a punching bag.

Okay, Dream Overlords. Do we have to make constant jabs at me?

The thought was quickly dashed when one of the earth ponies dislodged himself from the sentient grass and hurled the nearby Gunther at Zeccaran. The action happened so quickly that Gusty almost did not see what had knocked Zeccaran down. Instantly, sharp fiery pain shot up and down her front left leg. She had not turned in time to see the bound blade of the unicorn hit her, but she certainly felt it. Unfortunately, that meant that the observer felt it too.

AHHH! Okay, okay, I get it! You are gonna do what you want, I shouldn’t be mad when you make fun of me or you will make me feel excruciating pain!

Gusty’s view tilted down as she looked at her leg, the blade cut a long shallow line along the limb. It hurt quite intensely, but the wound was mostly superficial, for now. The sight of her own blood got her attention and directed it at her attacker. She looked dead in the eyes of the bright-yellow colored stallion. From her view it was clear that the fellow existed for no other reason than to cause other ponies pain. He grinned with a special malignant delight that Zeccaran determined to simply be the look of a madpony. It was then a fury built in Gusty that rendered Zeccaran unable to even think as she charged at the Unicorn.

She summoned up all of her anger towards evil things hoisting up her sword with her telekinesis high above the unicorn. Screaming with a visceral fury she slammed the sword down upon him. The air filled with fine-misted blood and the familiar sound of bones splitting under her heavy blade crackled in the air. Zeccaran let go the fake-dream-breath he had been holding in wondering where all that power inside Gusty had come from. She turned her view towards the rest of the fight which had stalled. The gory action distracted the three remaining combatants to allow an attack from Gunther, who was unaffected by the pony exploding. The timberwolf had gotten up off of his unconscious master and was already charging towards the unsuspecting group of ponies. However, as he approached he slowed down and plodded up casually to the vertically split cadaver.

Wait...Is this when Gunther...no, no no, no! No! It is! Oh-Ugh! I think I’m going to be sick! Why am I forced to see this? I was unconscious and ignorant! I wanted to remain that way!

Gunther then turned tail above the body and began to defecate directly into the open neck of the deadpony. The sight was incredibly horrific and disgusting causing the three ponies nearby to immediately began vomiting. That was all Gusty saw though as she quickly took the skies to escape the nostril assaulting stench that was filling the air. As soon as she took her first clean breath of air the world went black. She awoke in a heap on the ground. Her everything hurt. She had no idea what had happened. As she tried to regain her bearings she looked on at Zeccaran.

The zebra looked as if he had been in a fight with twice the number of ponies he was engaged with. He charged without remorse at one of the earthers who was still vomiting. He struck violently at the stallion’s neck. Zeccaran's sickle pierced his flesh and slid the entire distance across his throat. The bile that he was spewing turned a bright awful red and he fell forward.

The last earther seeing his companion ended, fled. It was the right decision, Gusty thought, as she watched. Absently she observed a red-enshrined sword fly past her vision and hit the fleeing stallion in the center of his back. He slumped down and was motionless. Behind her there was someone cursing but she could not place its importance due to her concussion.
Turning her attention back to Zeccaran and his plight, Gusty watched as Gunther moved to the next corpse and began covering its entire exterior with runny foul-smelling excrement that no one being should have ever had to witness.

The remaining pegasus kept looking between Zeccaran and the stallion with the red-magic-lifted sword in his back. Zeccaran to his credit took the opportunity to attack. He missed. He missed so badly he threw his sickle into the train car. In fact, he overswung with such force that he tackled the pegasus into the unicorn Gusty had killed. The two then laid motionless in the filth and blood of the poor desecrated body.

It took me a whole week of rolling in dirt to get that smell out of my fur. I just wish I had managed to hit him and not jump into all that filth. Oh, well win some you lose some, better than having to experience that concussion Gusty got with full-force. Thanks, Dream Overlords!

Pain erupted from the back of Gusty's head. She cried out in pain and turned about to see what had struck her. It was a the last unicorn, just as yellow and crazed-looking as his counterpart. Unfortunately, the one remaining she had forgotten about until that blow to the head. Perhaps it had been that he had witnessed his crew get defeated or that the pegasus fellow had tried to run, but he looked especially angry. He also appeared a lot meaner up close than when Gusty had seen him earlier at a distance. That was reasonable though considering all the cranial trauma she had just experienced.

While things looked grim, Gusty had one last trick left before she gave up fighting. She fled. Gusty liked to think of it as a tactical withdrawal. And this time she paid attention to the unicorn as he hurled magic in her direction, making sure to still have her sword levitated too. Flying as fast as her pained body would allow she took cover behind the wagon the bandits had brought with them.

Once in cover, she reached into her pack and found the old bag of caltrops she kept for emergencies. "Don't question why I have these!" she yelled at the sky as she tossed them about her and around the front of the wagon. Gusty had the strange sensation someone was watching her and felt compelled to explain her possessions. "They are for situations just like these!"

Well, she has a point my Overlords...a bad, ironic, rather situational point-but a point nonetheless! At least she didn’t gather them back up after this fight-completely nonsensical item for anypony besides a military engineer to carry around!

Zeccaran was not sure it he was talking to himself or if the ‘Dream Overlords’ actually existed. He decided to not think about it and turn his attention back to Gusty’s plight. Then again there was not much a surprise to be had for screaming had exposed her position immediately. However, as the Unicorn rounded the corner to the wagon he stepped on the caltrops, tripped and fell among them. Without wasting any time Gusty re-levitated her sword from where she had dropped it nearby. She stabbed downward at the unicorns chest as he tried to get back up. The blade ran crimson as it poked out of his front, pieces of lung coming with it. He gasped and then collapsed back into the caltrops. The light quickly faded from his eyes as blood welled out of his nose and mouth and his breathing became gurgles. Finally victorious Gusty heaved a sigh and flopped back down against the wagon.

"Well, that could have been worse?" she said aloud as he looked at the dead Unicorn.

No, in fact Gusty, it was positively the worst. Definitely. Even worse than when we met Stormwalker.

Gusty slowly pulled herself up and look out towards the scene where the bodies lay. Gunther had moved to the pair of pegasi who had broken their backs from falling. It was at this point that Gusty decided she would simply ignore Gunther's action and his existence until he was done with his horrible deeds.

She flicked her sword clean for a final time and sheathed it. Gusty looked down at her still bleeding leg and used some of her remaining magical energy to lessen the wound to just a bad scratch. That special spell power came from her religious faith, she was glad for it, the patch up would allow her to at least walk right.

Adjusting her view she carefully made her way towards Zeccaran who was stirring in the filth he laid in. She saw him sit up partially and then begin puking. She certainly did not blame him. It was at this point as Gusty slowly made her way towards the train cars. Patrons and crew were slowly approaching the battle area. Most looked very disheveled but were otherwise unharmed. Eventually, the main Conductor sauntered up to her. she was covered in blood and sweat but he did not seem squeamish as he greeted her.

"Miss, I don't know what happened, but I have a feeling you stopped one heck of a robbery." He said rubbing his mustache.

"Yeah, I guess. Those guys really put up quite a fight, but we got them." She responded wiping away hot liquid from her brow.

"You...y-you killed them? That’s...that’s blood! I don’t know what to say!" The conductor stammered in shock. Gusty blew a puff of condescending air up at her mane.

"Yes. They were evil. I could tell, trust me." Gusty retorted.

Now that folks is how you win an argument: Look and talk even crazier than the bad ponies you just murdered-I mean stopped from robbing the train!”

Before her the conductor fell silent his eyes wide. He looked past her towards the bodies and immediately turned a pale shade of green, then white. He turned and yelled for the ponies of the crowd that was growing around them to stay away. However, it was too late for them not to see the gory remains of the bandits. They began murmuring and quivering in horror at Gusty's presence.

"S-she killed them all!" "There were so many of them! I don't believe it."
"They didn't even try to capture them, monsters!" "This is horrible, why would you do such a thing!” “Tyranny!!"

Gusty had no remorse for the dead. They had harmed many ponies and sought to harm them further by taking their possessions and leaving them here in this forest. She was a vigilante of justice and the crowd did not have to understand. They were safe and that was enough for her.
No pony in Equestria could have predicted that this mighty alicorn would surface in such a vicious way. Many rumors would quickly spread across the land about a majestic killer for justice that would protect others to the death.

That last bit was overkill don’t you think Gusty? Majestic killer for justice? I-I don’t even. Well, at least I can confirm what Luna told me. Crazy. 100% I almost wish this big teal menace could hear me, it would be nice to stick it to her...maybe if I get the hang of dreamwalking-that’s how I’ll plot my pranks...yeah...there’s an upside to this after all!”

Zeccaran grumbled some more as the dream he was witnessing began to fade away. He found himself suddenly sitting in a rather comfortable place that was not but empty blue hues. It was quite nice actually, certainly better than the excursion into the woods that had followed the incident on the train. He mused over the fame and infamy the event had caused; it had probably propelled them towards meeting the Princesses, not to mention Bunker. Either way that line of thought was lost as a pair of doors gradually materialized in front of him distracting him from his thoughts.

One door was a dingy white with its paint peeling in regular stripes to reveal dried old wood below. It appeared to be the same as the door before back when he entered his own dreams in what now felt like a week ago. The other door was stone with intricate carvings and a visible weight to it that made it look intimidating.And that was before an ominous dark shroud overtook its frame making it look downright unpleasant and unapproachable. Thus, he decided to open up his door instead.

“Might as well, take another trip down memory lane.” He said to himself as he pulled it open by its handle. The bright light from before came flooding back and sucked him into the portal.

Act 1: Chapter 4 - Enter Bunker

View Online

“I like to think of mineself as a stallion of simple pleasures. Beer. Mares...A good fight every now and again. I hardly expected to be taken away by the stuff of legends! Is crazy! Really, really crazy! Hahahaha! But-no no, I enjoy it, truly.”

-Bunker of the Great Forest-

Chapter 4 - Enter Bunker

The world came into view in a careful crescendo of color, blossoming forth into the lush hues of early fall. Shapes the followed the hues as lines and forms began overtaking the messy dispersion forcing them to hold coherence and made visual sense at last. Before Zeccaran fuzzy grass gained its own strands and leaves started blowing across the empty meadow he now found himself occupying. He strode forward confidently finally accustomed to the lack of physical connection to the subconscious world that an observer possessed and peered across the field to find the past version of himself and Gusty trotting slowly towards a broad pond on the other side of the forest-cloaked pasture. On the farthest side of clearing well past the placid body of water there were tiny lights of houses tucked away in the forest. A large knobby mountain pushing itself up in the distance completed the landscape.

Ahh yes. The forest near Hollow Shades, lovely place really. Certainly a rather calm picturesque land. It still irks me that Foal Mountain is egregiously tainted with the evil of the Cult of the Night. The fact that I was once one of their lead members doesn’t help anything either. Frankly, I just wish Luna had left that portion out of my memories...if Gusty ever found out everything, I’d be dead in my stripes!

The smell of leaves and dirt blew up as the wind rushed from the north. The vague smells of a bakery nipped at his nose. The hints of pastries were quickly knocked away as more wind lay flat the grass of the clearing and the smell of forest returned instantly. Gusty stood before him awkwardly shifting from her left to right as if she hoped that something would happen. Rustling of his dream counterpart drew his attention away from the mare.

“Hey.” He looked out over the lake. “We could go fishing. Though fish aren’t always very tasty.” Gusty simply nodded in agreement at his words His past attempt at generating excitement was genuine judging by the awkward smile, but perhaps a touch misguided. The blustery condition of the field almost made him shiver from the familiar feeling of the memory.

Hmm...I just noticed that when it's my memory or dream I don’t observe it from my point of view like I did when I jumped into Gusty’s by mistake. Strange, I wonder why that is? I guess the reason is because it is my memory and I can choose how to view it...odd that I was in third-pony view as a default. Oh well. Kinda interesting to look at things this way.

Dried leaves blew by the two ponies of the past some bouncing off their hooves. Zeccaran watched Gusty carefully as she followed the brown greeneries with her head. They whisked away but not before he noticed something curious among them. A piece of parchment flew about the leaves. They zipped by Gunther who took notice and chased the grouping biting and barking at them as the wind slowly calmed. Gunther caught the leaves and the wayward paper. He began chewing right as Gusty and her curiosity reacted to save the parchment

Running after the timberwolf, “No, no, no! Bad dog!” she shrieked. Lifting Gunther up and shaking him about with her telekinesis she grimaced angrily. He yipped and howled in shock but managed to hang on the paper. He had followed Gusty and found that it was the old wanted poster of himself.

“Let go, Gunther!” Gusty cried. “I want to read that!” Gunther stubbornly maintained his grip and even managed to lose a short growl before Gusty resumed her telekinetic shaking.

Bit off more than you could chew Gunther, ol’ buddy ol’ pal. Heheheh.”

Seemingly unaware of what Gusty was doing, Past-Zeccaran strolled up to the poor flipping hound and waited. Gusty stopped shaking Gunther, her face betraying her befuddled mind. When he settled, floating next to his master Zeccaran stated plainly and without anger. “Give.”

In response Gunther opened his jowls and the poster dropped down slimily into Zeccaran’s outstretched hoof. Dumbfounded, Gusty looked on jaw agape as he stretched out the chewed document. He read it, shrugged, and tossed it over his shoulder. The wind caught its outstretched sides and whipped it towards the alicorn. Before she could think to dodge it the now cold, gooey poster slapped Gusty in the face.

Bullseye! Way to go past me! Ohhh! I needed this so bad right now!

Instantly she dropped Gunther from her telekinesis to which he responded with a relieved sounding bark. Gusty struggled valiantly with the rogue poster only narrowly removing it before it claimed victory. The poster was completely disgusting, Zeccaran could even smell it through the dream as it produced the stench of acid reflux and rotten meat that only dog breath could. Gusty turned a vibrant green as she held the viscous paper away from with her telekinesis. Both the observer and past-self laughed at Gusty some more as she scowled at the poster doing her best to ignore the situation.

Zeccaran struggling to remember what the poster had said exactly strode up to where Gusty was holding it and tried to lean over her shoulder to read it. Instead of touching flesh he phased clean through the memory mare and shrieked in surprise and horror. He caught himself on the ground and breathed heavily as he calmed himself from the intense disorientation he had just experienced.

Okay. Note to self: The subconscious dream world has no physical form and you can walk right through the ponies you are observing...no matter how real they look. Phew! By the stars that was most unpleasant!

He gathered himself up and stood inside the image of Gusty and read the poster as himself, looking younger and less weathered. Below it still covered in Gunther’s slobber were smudged words indicating: “Wanted for special questioning, Dead or Alive: 500,000 bits Alive, 500 Bits Dead. Deliver to Canterlot” written in that old ridiculous wild-west font style

He stepped quickly out of Gusty before turning up to look at her hoping to distract himself from the empty existential feeling of walking through his friend. Her face was pinched in a perfect suspicious glare as she looked between the poster and Past-Zeccaran. Perhaps she was merely pondering why the petitioner would still take a dead body like he was, then again she did not have the meta knowledge he did viewing this event from the future. The patron had turned out to be none other that Stormwalker himself. However, he had not found that out until Luna had mentioned it during a surprise visit a few days after he had woken up in Canterlot Castle back when Gusty had helped break the memory charm on Celestia. That was another whole can of worms that he ignored by shaking his head until his ears started ringing.

When he looked back to Gusty in his memory world, she gave a shrug and tossed the poster over her shoulder, as she scrunched up her nose in a mixed emotion of disdain, confusion, and apathy. The voucher had other plans than just flying away, after being flung he watched as it curved back towards the group. Past-Zeccaran did not see it coming as it looped past him and covered up his whole snout and mouth with a disgusting squishing sound. He gagged remembering what it felt like to be choked by a slobbery paper as his counterpart flailed about like an idiot. Next to him Gusty to burst into laughter. She quickly was rolling on the ground clutching poorly at her sides while he watch himself continue to flip about and lose oxygen. She eventually gained enough composure to use her telekinesis to remove the poster.

Karma sucks. And this was a prime example.

He watched rather angrily as Gusty teased him, unable to defend his past actions. Eventually white stripes returned to his counterpart’s face replacing the purple they had become. Gusty sat there and snickered at him as Gunther came by to like his face dumbly. Silence overtook the memory as they sat there idly.

“I’m going to sleep for a few hours!” Gusty suddenly declared. Both Zeccarans shrugged and watched her unload her things. Gusty unfastened her pack and let it fall to the ground, visibly letting her haunches and flanks relax from carrying the weight of her camping equipment. She dug around in the pack until she found her rolled sleeping bag. She grabbed it in her mouth and tossed it to the ground, simultaneously untying the strings that kept it rolled.

“I guess I’ll just sit here...alone?” Past-Zeccaran asked pitifully.

“Sure, you can meditate or read without me trying to steal one of your scrolls or poke you in the belly!” Gusty smiled.

Oh, I remember that! She took both the scroll and held me down with her magic while she tickled me, laughing like she was some type of lunatic the whole time. Then again...she is some type of lunatic. I had just wanted to read-but noooo!

“Yeeeeeah. I could!” he responded his voice turned from its usual dull sarcasm to a higher, happier sound. “Go on then! Take your nap. I have the most excellent applied magic theory text to read!” he ordered, reaching into his ratty bag without casting another gaze at Gusty. She watched briefly as he pulled a small nearly torn apart book out from the bag and plopped it down on the grass. He opened to random page and practically stuffed his whole snout into its miniature pages.

Yeah, that’s a good book...didn’t I loan it to Amethyst recently? I wonder how much she had read into it.

Gusty busied herself with her sleeping bag which for some reason was several sizes too big even for her. She plucked it open and flopped down with a whoosh! of the grass, leaving him to read in peace.

Where did she get that giant thing anyway? Its big enough for me, her, and Gunther with room to spare. Wait what’s happening? I don’t read that fast! Pretty fast but not like that!

The world around him burst into an frenzied flurry. Above him the sun began to march across the sky in a fast motion as fast as seconds ticking on a clock. His image began moving pages in the book at such a blistering pace that it was not but a blur of white. The sky above slowed finally turning the bright yellow and light-blue of afternoon. The transition shocked the memory into a normal state of time leaving the observer equally stunned by the various dilations and contractions of time.

What the hell was that? Was that you Dream Overlords? No? Then who decided to make it impossible to re-read my favorite Magical Physics book?! By Luna, I wish I had better control over this damned thing!

Before him the the other Zeccaran closed the book with a thwmp! He had finished the book and now sat there idly hoofing the ground. He looked up towards Gusty his eyes betraying his distrust of her resting posture.

“That was a good read.” he said aloud while maintaining his suspicious glare. Gusty did not budge. In fact she continued to lightly snore in her girly way as if he had not spoken so loudly. His counterpart remained sitting and staring at Gusty in disbelief for a solid minute before standing up giving a shrug and a brief rub of his rump before walking towards the line of trees. He poked about idly gathering up kindling and various branches to make a fire. He slowly piled them up and after a brief stint a small blaze began burning. On his last trip before sitting down there was a sudden rustling of leaves amongst the underbrush broke the peaceful silence of the meadow.

Past-Zeccaran swiveled his head around like mad trying to discern the location of the noise. Seeing nothing Zeccaran looked over at Gunther, to see of the timberwolf was intrigued by the noise, but the wooden canine lay on his side calmly blinking, staring off into the distance. He sat down and began watching the fire after relaxing his legs and pulling the book back out. The observer got up next to his past self and angrily looked over his shoulder, unwilling to stride through the image.

He’s in the bushes you idiot! He’s gonna hop out and kick your ass! Come on! Just get up! Don’t sit there! I can’t believe myself sometimes. Oh, just open the book back up sure! Hey wait, written by Twilight Sparkle and G.A.S. huh. I guess my mysterious benefactor has the favor of at least one of Equestria’s Princesses!

A twig snapping jerked Past-Zeccaran’s head up from the book. The pair of zebra’s were clearly able to see the source of the noise this time. A big Earth Pony stood a short distance away towards the forest. He carried a huge single headed axe, its blade as long and as wide as Zeccaran’s chest. Hs body adorned spiked steel armor, pulsed with an obnoxious amount of muscles beneath a dark brown-red coat. He wore no helmet, but instead was covered in blue body paint that made intricate swirl patterns on his face and neck. It clashed harshly with his puce-red mane; perhaps the lack of color coordination provoked the inner artist of Zeccaran’s animal companion. Immediately, Gunther jumped up and began barking at the interloper. Zeccaran looked to see if Gusty would wake. She remained snoring, loudly, unaware of the happenings outside her dreams. The observer backed away from his foolish past-self huffing as he did.

I’m still mad she slept through it. I don’t think I’ll ever get over it either. Well, go on Bunker, kick my butt, get it over with.”

A throaty yell made the zebra look back up at the stallion, pitting the axe in his mouth he charged at his quarry. Past-Zeccaran sat frozen, a look of terror and panic quickly growing and his face. WIth good reason, he did not have any of his equipment on him, it lay on the other side of the fire in a pile. He only had some of his most rudimentary magic to defend himself. Bunker had almost closed to axe range when Gunther jumped in front of him. The brute half-bellowed half-grumbled something unintelligible and batted Gunther away with the long handle of his axe. He briefly looked directly at the fool still on the ground. His fierce green eyes expressing even now one thing very clearly to the zebra. I’m going to kill you. Past-Zeccaran timidly squeaked as he cast a final glance at Gusty.

Wow. I squeaked. I literally squeaked in fear. Hah-Oh well, at least I made it through.

A flashing of green light distracted him from his self-criticism. The stretching and moaning of wood and grass echoed across the clearing as the plant life sprang into action. Tall grass tied itself in wads around the stallion's legs forcing him to a stop his charge. He struggled but remained bound.

“Yes! It worked!” his counterpart cheered from a barely safe distance. He stuck his tongue defiantly out at the trapped bandit. The stallion responded by starting to chop away the grass with his axe. Leaving Zeccaran to mumble an “uh oh” before scrambling over to the somehow still snoozing Gusty.

He bent down next to her and began trying to shake her awake: “Gusty! Gusty, get up!” He tried in vain. The alicorn mare only partially stirred, and began snoring again. This time she did so with her mouth open, drool and snores pouring out without effort. Grimacing, Zeccaran rushed over to grab his sickle before Bunker freed himself. He reached his pack and grabbed the weapon with his mouth just as a tremendous bellow exited the vagabond.

He gave a great swing of his axe, cutting away the defiant weeds before casting a displeased snarl in Past-Zeccaran’s direction. He snorted angrily readying to charge again. Gunther interceded at that moment. The timberwolf had made a good lunge for Bunker’s neck but was thwarted by bad aim and Bunker’s general ability to see. The stallion sidestepped the attack and began a gallop towards Zeccaran. Gunther went flying into the living weeds and proceeded to be stuck there grasped by the plants.

“Dis time no cheating!” he growled before again yelling out his battle cry. He charged clean over the top of the past’s image before turning about swinging his axe downward. The observer watched on, barely recalling how he had stood up in time to dodge being cloven in two. He was even more surprised when Past-Zeccaran slashed at a gap in Bunker’s shoulder plating. The old sickle hit flesh and sent blood down the stallion’s armor as he jumped away yelping in pain and surprise.

Wow, me! Kinda have it together when I’m not trying to fight demi-gods or spectres of the past. Hold up. I lost this fight though. I remember that very clearly. Let’s see, charge him while his axe is stuck. Yeah! Good hit! Aaaaaand he knocked me to the ground...readied his axe...I scream-

“NO! NO! DAMNIT NOT LIKE THIS!” his voice cracked and echoed off of the trees around the edge of the clearing.

And cue Gusty.”

True to form a powerful yawn caused both stallions to look towards the mare in question. She stretched up out of her sleeping bag, loudly smacking her lips. She game another yawn as she scratched her head and turned to look over at them eyes still half closed.

“Zeccaran. I heard you suffering...awhhhh….” Gusty yawned a third time. “So I woke up so I wouldn’t miss it.”

Note to self number three: Gusty can literally feel my pain and suffering through the ether. If I ever need her..just start feeling really bad, or get really hurt. Great prospects there.

“Ohhh...pretty mare…” The Bunker cooed from above his counterpart. He dropped his axe completely and out right ogled Gusty. The zebra looked on in confusion as his female counterpart completely hammed it up.

“Pretty?” Gusty asked. “I always thought I was only average.” she emphasized in her melodramatic Gusty way. She pushed the front of her sleeping bag up against her face and neck, hiding playfully behind it. Meanwhile the vagabond emitted a droning “duhhhh” while staring in the most awestruck fashion Zeccaran had conceivably seen. Then again that was pretty much how all stallions reacted to Gusty. Even Stormwalker had broken his restrained mannerisms to smile while judging her form. The only trouble was Gusty knew what she looked like and was, in fact, not above using it to gain leverage over males.

“You really think I am, big boy?” She purred. Zeccaran watched with growing concern as Gusty’s countenance began to glow with all of her female charm. Her hips shook playfully underneath her sleeping bag. Her pupils dilated, and she pushed out her lips in a pout. He had only see her like this once before, when she had coerced the conductor to give her access to the other half of the bunkroom he had rented on the train. It had worked then, and it definitely worked on Bunker.

“Beautifool goddess! Please let me worship ye! Forgiff me for waking you from your slumber!” he proclaimed in his broken Equestrian. He fell forward hooves extended in front of him. The brute buried his face in the grass and began muttering incoherent apologies.

Come on, Bunker! You are better than this! She’s just pretty! It’s not like she is casting spells on you to make you adore her...although I wouldn’t put it past her. Very vain mare, that Gusty Twilight. I suppose that is why she is always so perturbed when she can’t persuade me or old demon-pegasus with her looks alone. Not that Gusty isn’t gorgeous, far from it, I guess it just doesn’t work on stallions who have had their mind made up about what to do and how to behave...speaking for myself of course.

“Goddess, I am not wooorhty. I am not wooorthy. Not wooorthy!” Bunker chanted as Gusty cautiously paced towards him, a devious, satisfied smile growing on her face.

“Rise, my dear stallion. Do not fret for or fear your goddess.” Gusty proclaimed in the most magnificent set of rolled consonants. The vagabond slowly rose and looked at Gusty, his eyes rapt with anticipation. She extended her left hoof. He grabbed it and kissed it gently, falling again to the ground.

A loud thump! drew the observer back to his past self. Past-Zeccaran had fallen down on his back and was now staring blankly at the sky. He laid there comatose, eyes totally unblinking as Gusty slowly worked on Bunker’s inability to stand. Meanwhile, finally free from the grass that had trapped him, Gunther walked over to his master and licked his face only to recieve no response. Zeccaran turned away from watching his dog lick his past-self’s eyes to a fully formed scene of Gusty and Bunker. He was equally happy and amazed that his aural memory had been good enough to project what he saw now which simply was Gusty trying to smack Bunker into regular behavior. That seemed to be their usual way of resolving erratic actions, simply hit the perpetrator upside the head.

Not that I would have done anything different even now. Gusty’s influence on others is sometimes just too frustrating to handle. Only reason I didn’t fall down like that again is because I’m kinda deadened to it these days, still feel pretty perturbed though.”

“Tell me then, my dear, what is your name?” Gusty asked Bunker who was finally able to act coherently. He performed a half-bow, bringing his left front hoof up to his chest. He lowered his head. His deep voice reciting his name, family and station.

“I am Bunker. Journeyman of clan Junkerson. I am fulfilling my sacred and traditional oath to seek glory and fame in the world of ponies, away from the Great Forest.”

“The Great Forest? It has been some time since I’ve been there.” Gusty mused aloud. It was clear that she could not recall the last time she had visited that easterly place. However, Bunker, as it were, was quick to remind her.

“It is as it was told to us goddess! A hero from the fatherland would venture forth and find you again. You told us yourself, Mistress! The legend has been passed down for seven-hundred years. Ten generations have searched! and...and...I…found...you.” Bunker stammered out jaw returning to its slack position.

“Huh. Where hasn’t Gusty been? At least it makes sense to me now why Bunker followed her so willingly. She’s his local folk legend! Then again...she was also my tribe’s...and-and I swear there was a book about her fighting during Equestria’s founding...like a children’s book? Eh, don’t remember, point is: Gusty is old and just as flamboyant as she ever was evidently

Gusty giggled in that telling way that meant she liked somepony. She was often quite forward about who and what she desired, Zeccaran actually rather appreciated that, it made her predictable, somewhat anyway. He watched as Bunker slowly recovered from starting through Gusty and into some mystical land of grandeur. The mare in question continued to laugh at him as the stallion cleared his throat and grumbled half-hearted condolences to cover up his embarrassment.

“You know, Bunker, you are pretty alright. Very amusing, good at fighting, can smack Zeccaran around for me...I wouldn’t mind if you tagged along. I could use some muscle around here.” Gusty said seductively.

Really laying it on thick there, eh, Gusty?

“Uh-huh! Uh-huh! Uh-huh! I wilt help! I wilt follow!” Bunker answered scooching towards Gusty on his knees. He bit his lips and looked eagerly at her, his eyes dazzling with admiration for his “goddess.”

“Good. But let’s get one thing straight.” Gusty’s tone shifted serious. “I am not a goddess. I’m just a mare. An alicorn, yes, but I am no different than anypony else, and if you are to come along you need to stop groveling. Otherwise I will get bored with you and send you packing back to that forest you said I visited some...seven-hundred years ago you said? I don’t even remember being there, a part of me knows you are right, but...there is nothing I can remember. Okay?”

Is...is that modesty? Real modesty this time? I’ll be a giraffe’s cousin. So all that is just an act, a part of her personality. I guess I shouldn’t take her jabs so seriously then, she is just doing it because we are friends and knows I can take it. I guess that’s why she drug me on this adventure in the first place, and why she always asks me my opinion. What a curious way to make friends.

Bunker bowed his head deeply in response to Gusty’s speach before jerking it up with scared revelation on his face. He balked about opening his mouth only saying half words: “Seven hun-...er. I...but uhm. Argh….Please, forgive me, god-”

“Gusty. Please forgive me, Gusty.” she cut him off. Zeccaran rolled his eyes as he watched the stallion blush, glad he had missed it during the actual moment. He probably would have slapped the big lug had he known about it then. He cast a glance back over to where his past-self lay spread eagle on the ground still staring into the sky with a distressed and confused look on his face. The observer gave a shrug and looked back at Gusty and Bunker who were busy discussing his various deeds.

“Why you travel with wanted criminal?” Bunker towards the comatose version of Zeccaran..

“Zeccaran? A criminal? Pshhh. He doesn’t have the stomach for something like that. In fact he has been really helpful with apprehending a group of robbers and one very, very evil pie.” Gusty said, clearly unable to imagine Zeccaran doing anything harmful to anypony or anything. “I saw the poster. He’s wanted for questioning. Not for anything beyond that. It's actually really weird.” she continued making a thoughtful look.

I am glad you don’t even have an inkling, Gusty. I really am, some of the things I have done...they are unforgivable, even for you. That’s why I have to help you...why I have to do something right before I find the end of my proverbial rope. Ahh...I love existential moments like that. Not.

“Oh!...Oh...that what it said. I know numbers but I can’t read Equestrian.” Bunker proclaimed. His eyes sparkling with recognition. “I thought money was for body...heh. If he is your friend I hope he is okay…”

“Don’t worry about it. He will be fine.” Gusty patronized him with a flash of her eyelashes. “But fresh food would be very nice. If you wouldn’t mind” she made sure to have her lips extra pouty.

You know what: I take it back! I’m doing things in spite of her! And the next time she drags me out of my lab...ohhhhh!... at least Bunker pretended to care! Even if she does she certainly refused to show it, even when I’m over there lying on the ground in a partial coma!

Bunker buzzed away from Gusty in the next instant. He retrieved a bag of things from the bushes he had jumped out of earlier. He returned to the fire with a blistering pace and assembled a fishing rod with such precision that it practically bent space-time. In the next instant he was over fishing. Zeccaran had to fight nausea as the world sped up even faster. Meanwhile Gusty and his past-self slept peacefully.

Come on! Slow down! Who is driving this crazy thiiiinnnnng!

The smell of frying fish, hay, and wild onions drew filled the air by the time Zeccaran opened up his eyes. It was the sort of mouth watering smell of wild and fresh made food that made a pony hungry. The sun was beginning to set in the west and set as a half-disk on the top of the tree line. The food also had to addition effect of lowering the nausea down to a much more manageable level. His main regret was that he was not able to eat the faux dream food, even though his stomach growled at the recollection of the smell.

Bunker was stirring a pot that hung over the fire that had a pile of fish skins, scales, and bad meat set next to him. The concoction he had in the pot billowed steam as he smiled happily behind the vapors. He shot proud a smirk at Gusty once he noticed her sitting up from her bedroll.

A gasp of surprise made everypony look to her left. Past-Zeccaran was sitting up staring at Bunker. At first the he looked on in horror, however it rapidly changed to confusion. Immediately following, he looked as if he would begin to cry, then he loosed a long sigh and stood up.

Yep. That’s right, me. Big, deep breath, let it go...just grab some food use sarcasm and just repress and let it go, nothing you can do about it anyway. Goooood.

He cast a glance at Gusty as he walked up to Bunker’s pot. He seemed resigned as he looked at her, nothing more. Gusty couldn’t help but smile at him. “So whatcha cookin’?” He said dryly turning back to Bunker, completely dodging her grin of glee.

Excellent use of the sarcasm, I give myself an A-plus for that one!

“Hello, striped one. Making fish stew. Is good.” Bunker replied, seemingly not bothered by his previous quarry’s attitude.

“It does smell pretty good.” Past-Zeccaran said closing his eyes and rubbing his left temple with a hoof. “So, just to check you aren’t trying to kill me anymore right? This isn’t poisoned with something that will kill me but not little miss sleepyhead over there right? Seriously, I need to make sure I’m not hallucinating.” he looked fairly desperate by the end of his questions. He kept looking between Gusty and Bunker waiting for either to answer.

This was one of those moments I should have kept my mouth shut.

Bunker began to chuckle. He raised a spoonful of the stew up to his lips, carefully balancing the utensil on the flat of his hoof. He slurped loudly as if intentionally to emphasize its savory taste. “Nope. I misread poster. You worth more alive.” he uttered matter-of-factly.

“Oh good. Wait what?” his past-self did a double take.

Trying to snicker over the noise her growling stomach, Gusty hopped up and trotted over to the pot herself. “Yep. You didn’t read that poster very well did you?” She breathed as she absorbed the smell longingly, waiting with a curious look towards her companion..

“No, I did. But, but...I didn’t think anyone would actually be trying to track down the bounty, though!” the past-zebra answered face still distraught.

No pony would be dragging me to Canterlot except them. And anypony who would try to separate me from these two headaches would rue their foolish decision. That didn’t stop Gusty from teasing me though. Or pulling this next stunt. To this day...I’m still not sure if they were serious or not. Even if they are actually engaged now.

“Well, Bunker and I decided to take you to Canterlot ourselves.” She smiled and winked at Bunker. Briefly a spark of recognition lit Bunker’s eyes, followed by a mischievous grin as he came around the fire to stand next her

“Da. We split award fifty-fifty. She gets all gold, I get new marefriend!” He nodded sagely and nudged her side with his leg. Gusty looked over to him with surprise, while the observer just rolled his eyes. There was no way Gusty would not go along with it. It had bothered him too much in the moment. Bunker clearly knew this, judging by his clever grin and was either some type of psychological genius or luckiest stallion of all time, having the situation just fall into his lap.

They unlikely pair continued to tease Past-Zeccaran until Gusty tried the stew that Bunker had made. It took her all of two seconds to drain the bowl and then go and stick her head directly in the cooking pot, foregoing any sense of decency as she slurped up the food loudly. Both the observing and participating zebras shook their heads at Gusty’s inability to control her stomach. By the time Gusty fell away from the stew’s container she laid flat on her back slightly bloated from the sheer volume of soup she had consumed in such a short time. It was not much longer that Bunker began rubbing her belly in response and the memory and the real deal rolled their eyes in perfect tandem that only a being that was the same person in the same moment could manage. Then again, it was easy to roll one’s eyes at Gusty and her shenanigans, she was an extravagant lunatic with impulsive behavior. It was surely a long series of miracles that had kept her from getting herself killed. If she was truly as old as she was supposed to be Zeccaran had some strong reservations on the cruel fate had allowed her to make it to him, especially since she was now his keeper.

The sun had finished setting by the time the party had completed eating and relaxing. Zeccaran looked over his past self with a dull blanketed ire:

How exactly did I think that just waiting around would be okay? I haven’t been this mad with myself in a good long while! I don’t understand why I didn’t feel what Chrysanthemum and the Cult were doing that night. I just laze away not caring until the drained souls of those poor ponies came floating by to spread the misery of Nyx and all her pomps. And to think those three were only the pre-ritual, the practice; really it’s no wonder when I completed the ritual the next night and the errant goddess of darkness herself came into the motral plane. Oh, how I wish I had been more careful, paid closer attention, or maybe just remembered enough to stop what happened. Arghh...Too late now, but maybe it was all for the better. It certainly got me my comfy lab here in Canterlot...whenever it is that I’ll wake back up in it.”

The slow, low groaning of the dead Gusty to snap up her head from where it rested haughtily on Bunker’s barrel. She looked around the now darkened camp looking through the fresh evening’s shroud before jumping up and drawing her sword with her telekinesis “Did you hear that?” she asked quietly over the faint hum of her magic

“No?” responded the past Bunker and Zeccaran in unison.

“I don’t know what it was but it sounded unfriendly.” she told them.

“Hey where did the stars go?” Zeccaran commented, as he came up next to her.

Managed to notice that didn’t I? Nailed it! Pffft. Not like it’s a terrible unnatural darkness caused by the cursed practice ritual that just finished taking place or anything.”

Gusty looked out towards where the sound had come from squinting her eyes suspiciously. The moon also obscured by the empty blackness or uncertainty making seeing anything even harder. Even through the memory, Zeccaran could feel Gusty’s uncomfortable twitching as her sixth sense registered that the party was indeed in danger. Then she did something Zeccaran had not recalled. The tiniest flinch twitched across her face causing her to blink hard just once as minute sparks of pure white magic danced around the edge of her blue eyes.

The only thing I think I can call that is that weird “divine” magic Gusty uses. As if Divinity even exists anymore: which I’m pretty sure it doesn’t. Except-you! Dream Overlords! I know you are real!....Okay, I’m officially losing it. I don’t even remember half of this stuff anyway. Even in this memory I spent most of the time incapacitated or looking away from Gusty, yet...I don’t like this. Did I die or something? I figured Tartarus would suck a lot more. Oh, well.”

“Something is for sure out there, and it’s evil. Stay on your guard.” Gusty whispered as she bent her knees in readiness. Bunker, who was now on her right, seemingly had acquired his axe from nowhere and without any noise. Slowly, the noises of their foes grew louder. It was vaguely recognizable as the disembodied voices of ponies. They bayed with moans and gibberish-hissing as they shadowy figures’ outlines became visible. The motley group waited carefully watching the specters encircle them slowly. The fire still crackled behind her but its light had dimmed as the shadows surrounded them.

The figures zipped forward in a coordinated attack as one. Their now visible faces and bodies, a see-through green-white. They moaned and passed through one another as they lunged at her. Gusty ducked down to the ground avoiding their flying attacks. Bunker and Zeccaran followed suit either by instinct or by following her lead. As soon as the ghastly creatures whizzed past the party they collectively sprang back up to their hooves in a near synchronized dance. Absently the observer could hear Gunther barking and whimpering a distance away, while he watched.

Poor Gunther. He had such a hard day. Friendly fire from when my spell snagged him. Getting the literal shit scared out of him by wraiths. I need to do as G.A.S. says and pay him a visit in the gardens.

Meanwhile one of the wraith’s had swung back around to attempt to hit Gusty again. It \vaguely had the body of a pony draped in dark tattered robes. It’s too long legs and misshapen hooves were a sickly pale see-through green. Eyes that had clearly been bleeding were rolled back to expose their total whites on an otherwise recognizable face of a mare. Its permanently tortured visage left the jaw agape in pain as the withered, bodiless soul hissed angrily trying to spread its torment to Gusty.

“Wraiths! Don’t let them touch you!” she shouted as if she was trying to remind him of what he had just mused about aloud.

Gripping her sword with her levitation she slashed at the wraith that had clumsily swung its hooves at her. She gritted her teeth in that primal hatred that only Gusty could make. At some point, Zeccaran was certain, she had described one of her duties to her “Divine Origin.” Said duty was to help rid the world of the influence of the evil undead. That divine blessing was actually the reason her battered bastard sword was sharp at all. The thing looked like it had been beaten by rocks for the last one thousand years distinctly hiding its deadliness. So it came as no surprise that when her blade struck the wraith it was cloven in two. The insides of its separate halves glowing white hot from the magic instilled in the sword melting away the spectral beings by virtue of its “pure” strikes. Said split wraith quickly withered and loosed an angry hiss as it dissipated.

Great grunting turned his head towards Bunker as he swung his axe in a wide arc hitting two of the wraiths but doing nothing. Without the proper enchantment his strikes would be like splashing a fish with water. It was impossible for him to hurt the incorporeal beings.

“Take that!” Past-Zeccaran yelled. His past self fully hefted Gunther at one of their ghostly combatants throwing him straight and true. Gunther passed through it with a yelp and landed in a heap on the ground. The wraith responded by making a flying charge, it narrowly missed the zebra jumped to the side.

Scratch that. Both Gunther and I had a terrible day. I resort to throwing my one true friend through a spirit sapping shadow of agony, and Gunther actually flies through said terror.

Said wraith passed by and stopped its advance as it reached Gusty. The other two of the remaining four grouped up with their undead kin as they made a pass on Past-Zeccaran. This time the hideous creatures hit him, their ghastly tendril-limbs visibly draining his life force. However, this placed the four wraiths were now in range of Gusty’s holy spell, that most annoying of situational spells that she possessed. Highly annoyed Zeccaran watched as she reached into her mail to grab her symbol of Origin. It was not much more than a simple triangle shape with various ancient looking swirls on it, there was nothing particularly holy or special about it, other than it was highly effective.

Okay. Another note to self: Get Gusty to let you examine that weird ‘symbol’ of hers. I wonder if Luna has noticed this? Probably, but I doubt she has the clout to just snatch it away from Gusty. She would have better luck convincing Celestia to stop eating cake! Which relatively speaking is impossible. Anyway...ow! Jeez! Those damn wraiths are still just as horrible and shrieky as when she scared them in person. Almost worse. And up they go, save that last one.”

The fourth wraith, seemingly with no idea of who Origin was, floated stubbornly. Zeccaran did not blame it, he had no idea who or what Origin was either, nopony did but Gusty did. Said wraith hissed angrily at Gusty, turning about and moaning with despair as its comrades flew about decidedly as annoyed as an undead could possibly portray. It turned about once more to face her again and rolled its ethereal pony head in a full rotation grumbling in its undead tongues. Before she could raise her sword the wraith reached out with one of its wispy hooves and touched her. She screamed in a vicious uproar of pain as the wraith moaned back at her in a disturbingly satisfied way.

“Vile creature!” Gusty shouted after she recovered. She swung her sword downward into the wraith intending to trace her blade through its eyes. Humiliatingly, at her point-blank range, she missed. Her blade rocketed to the ground propelled by the sheer mental force she had applied. It buried itself in the soft dirt up to almost its hilt.

Ahhh ahhahaha! Ahahaha! OH MY YES! I-I-I...I can’t believe I missed this! This is gold! I’ll have to taunt her about this every chance I get! Wonderful! Absolutely wonderful!

Gusty loosed a girly shriek and ran away moving much faster than the wraith, spluttering and cursing as she went. She stopped after gathering herself behind Bunker.

“If you kill this wraith in one hit, I swear I’ll marry you!” She screamed both in anger and in an attempt to use Bunker as a distraction. She stared daggers at her stuck sword clearly just wanting to retrieve it and kill the damned wraith herself.

Ohhh and now it makes so much more sense! No wonder Bunker was so ecstatic he won the fight! At the time I let it go but this is great!

Loosing a mighty scream Bunker took his axe in his two front legs and rose up on his back ones. Lifting the axe to the full length of its handle Bunker yelled again, his voice a combination of righteous fury and a primal fighting spirit. Gusty watched in awe, her sword forgotten in the ground. The edge of the steel axe-blade lit with yellow light as Bunker swung the weapon.The stroke was quick, nearly too fast to catch with the eyes. The axe impacted the wraith’s center splitting its greenish head and sternum in two, and carrying on completely cleaving it in twain. Instantly the two halfs dissipated into nothingness, the dark sorcery that kept it held together destroyed in a single stroke. Shocked, Gusty fell to her flanks and stared on in disbelief.

“Ha!....HA!...You see!!?! I killed it! I-I-I...I Killed the wraith! And in one hit too!” Bunker cheered his own feat. Gusty barely could acknowledge him. She just looked down at her sword, still stuck in the ground a look of disdain one would have for a traitor coating her face. The blade shimmered in the returning firelight mockingly as if to help Zeccaran tease her.

You promised to marry him on a whim, you promised to marry him on a whim!

The observer danced around Gusty mirroring Bunker’s rhythm as he mocked her with his bad little song. Perhaps it would have been more appropriate had the real Gusty been there, but he decidedly did not care. He completely ignored the charade of

Meanwhile, Zeccaran had begun throwing various objects at the still panicked wraiths above. The wraiths would probably remain in their ever circling state for the next half-hour or so. Gusty was still fairly confounded with the Bunker situation and Zeccaran now tossing his sickle at the wraiths, was making the matter worse.

“Hey,” said Bunker passing by Gusty and looking up at the spiralling undead. “How about those ones? Do I get bonus if I kill those too?” He asked. Gusty looked at him with a straight face, she had no emotions to display anymore. “Sure. Use my sword too, if you can get it out of the ground…” She deadpanned to him.

Ohhhh yeeeaaaah! Here it comes! Round two! Haha! Here we go!

Bunker perked up a deviously confident grin before striding over to where Gusty’s sword was stuck. He bent over grabbing the mouth grip and free it from the dirt with ease. He just grabbed it and went. HOW DID HE DO THAT? Gusty mouthed

“‘ere weeck zzzzzeh’bra, lit meh’ uzze ‘agic ssswoord tah kill wriths.” Bunker matter-of-factly stated through the sword grip. He moved so the bigger stallion could fling the sword easier. Making a few practice twists of his neck Bunker angled his throw for the nearest wraith. He made a quick spin and swirled his neck, the sword flew in slow spins up towards the undead.

Smiling with delight Zeccaran watched as the wraiths’ aerial paths brought them into a tight group. Gusty’s sword spun up and through them passing through each of the putrid beasts. Shrieking and changing from green to white the wraiths slowly dispelled. Both luck and a good throw had finished them in a single instance. Then a familiar sickle flew through the air to hit the puff of fog and then fall harmlessly to the ground. It had been his previous attempt to matter during the combat.

“See!!?? I helped!” his apparition yelled pitifully. He ran over and grabbed his sickle and returned. “I totally got that last one. Heh..heheheh...wahhh…” He finished with noises that were somewhere between a mope and a sob.

By the stars I can be super pathetic at times. This was one of the those times. At least I got a good laugh out of Gusty before that healthy dose of karma smacked me in the face.”

Gusty managed to finally recover as the last mote of the purified white smoke started to blow away a nervous smile on her lips. She looked back and forth between Bunker and the ground. Bunker began snickering pridefully at his victory before attempting to comfort the past.

“It is ok striped one. You were great distraction!” He chortled out. “Maybe next time you hit enemies, da?” The bigger stallion broke into a full laughter. Gusty seemingly pleased with his suffering once again also started laughing.

And there they go again. They are a rather nice matched set aren’t they. Both big, dumb, jerks. Perfect pair really. Yick. Oh, and now they are making out! By Celestia’s beard, Gusty! Slow down! You’ve known him for like six hours, does a guy fighting evil really turn you on that much? Ugh!

Hey wait...isn’t tomorrow in this set of memories the day that...oh no. No. No. No! Not again! Come on! Noooooo!

A powerful wind of astral magic sucked Zeccaran towards a black vortex. He tried to claw on the ground with his hooves but found it a false surface as he flailed helplessly. The dark hole sucked him down into a blank expanse that was slowly filled with grey color. Somewhere deep inside of him Zeccaran was hoping that this new chromatic land was the end, but he knew better.

Act 1: Chapter 5 - The Ouch Foal

View Online

“When performing an dreamwalk into the deep subconscious, it is alway important to leave yourself tells in order to bring yourself out of the memory, lest you be forced to relive it in its fullest form. This is especially important when examining your own subconscious. Nothing like reliving your own worst memories.”

-Princess Luna-

Chapter 5 - The Ouch Foal

“It seems I have acquired a passenger!” Luna proclaimed to herself. The Princess paused the dream she was watching to peer about the astral playground. Nopony was ejected from the projection she had been watching causing her to wonder if perhaps she had been hearing things.

Get me off this merry-go-round of suffering!” shouted Zeccaran’s voice as if trying to overcome its distant echo. Luna snapped her head towards the sound which emanated from the memory she had been examining.

“Yes. Definitely a real passenger, a rather unfortunate one at that. How am I going to get him out of there?” Luna asked the air. “Deeper in I go, I suppose; since the fool has gotten himself stuck in his own subconscious.” She rolled her eyes at the zebra’s amatuer mistake, even though she probably should avoid considering his endeavors rash. It was impressive that he could even perform the magic necessary to travel the collective subconscious and land in his and Gusty’s dreams. It was likely her own dreamwalking that had kept him near himself instead of being catapulting into the great expanse of ponies’ dreams.

Luna drew a deep -breath to steady herself before she activated the memory again. The screen before her crackled to life as she viewed the world through Zeccaran’s eyes. They were still in the same clearing as before. The viewpoint looked around warily as if he was surprised by his safety and prosperity. Luna was unwilling to break the rest of the way into the memory at the moment. Instead she sat and waited as Zeccaran went through the motions of the past trying her best to figure the most efficient way to pull him out of the quagmire.

Grunts of pain accompanied the zebra’s movements as he slowly rolled over and onto his hooves. He looked down at where he had been laying in the dirt to see a large rock jutting up towards the sky. How he had managed to sleep on such an obvious protrusion was beyond Luna, especially with the frustration she could feel oozing from the memory.

“What exactly is he doing now?” She balked watching incredulously as Zeccaran started digging. The whim had seemingly been chosen as a get-out-of-bed ritual as the small boulder was uncovered in a fit of frustration. It took him quite a bit of time but eventually he heaved the massive rock out onto the grass with a triumphant huffing. He stood there, his view transfixed on the stone, Luna wondering how she had missed this portion of the memory the last ten times she had viewed it.

A sharp tingling sensation caused Luna to yelp in surprise. She snapped her head away from the memory she had been watching to scan her surroundings. Obviously finding nothing amiss in her personal realm she turned suspicious, pursed lips at the dream.

“I sense foul magics and nonsense. Now if only- Ah ha!” She smiled with pleasure. Around the image a fuzzy pink aura now glowed, its presence an indicator of powerful magics being cast on Zeccaran. It was one of her many failsafes, and one that had not been activated since Starlight Glimmer had accidently possessed the entire town of Ponyville during a botched experiment.

“How foolish of me.” Luna snickered at herself, “I forgot my own alert message! Maybe I should make it nice bell sound instead of a shock. Nah. I’d forget what it was if it was something that pleasant. Now, lets see what type of mind-altering magics Zeccaran got to experience!” she rubbed her hooves together enthusiastically. Secretly, Luna loved completing the complex puzzles of dark magics like possession they were always extremely interesting. Eagerly, she reactivated the memory the automatic stopper she had designed for her failsafe and began watching Zeccaran re-live the magics.

A sudden grunt came from where he had hefted the boulder. The voice was unfamiliar so the zebra naturally turned to look.The boulder from before lay placidly and nopony was to be seen. Zeccaran still even heard the snoring of Bunker back towards the smouldering fire. He turned back to face the lake to resume meditating.

“No! Do not turn away!” cried the voice of a stallion.

Zeccaran snapped his head back towards the rock. But still there was only a rock. No movement at all except for the grass dancing with the breeze. Rubbed his eyes and looked around still not seeing anything that would indicate another pony was nearby.

“Fear not brave zebra!” The voice came again seemingly from the rock. “You have pleased your rock overlord! Come- speak unto me great striped one!”

Even while observing, and laughing, Luna could tell that Zeccaran was clearly thinking he was hearing things. He was in fact hallucinating, but he was legitimately hearing the rock, despite the fact that the voice was coming from inside his head. The zebra tried to conquer this event by vigorously smacking himself in the face as he approached the stone. The boulder hummed a pleasant tune and ignored Zeccaran hitting himself content to continue its jaunty tune.

“What sort of terrible pony came up with this enchantment?!” Luna cackled at the original caster’s ingenuity. She would soon find out, such a powerful spell had to have been cast from nearby, and if anypony had an excellent six sense it was Gusty Twilight. The mare’s memories of the events following this one would be her next stop. Luna calmed herself enough to start watching Zeccaran and the rock again.

“Sooooo…” Zeccaran began. “What do you want from me? Oh, strange and mysterious rock god?” his voice seemed bored and empty, it probably could not be helped, he was after all talking to a rock.

“Zebra! Use your powers and fetch me some fish!” the tone declared. Zeccaran made a resigned sigh before turning around and casting his view over the lake. He walked calmly up to its edge before sprinting into the water as she sunk beneath the surface. A green flash overcame the image of the dream as Luna pondered what happened. Zeccaran’s dashed through the lake at incredible speed. His front hooves had become the claws of a bear which he used to gather fish as he had been instructed. Making a sharp turn towards an unsuspecting group of bottom feeders Luna spied a tail of a fish attached to Zeccaran where his lower body should have been. Luna grimaced in confusion slowly piecing together what she was witnessing.

“Is...is that a bear...fish?” She said while staring. “Wait a moment….oh! Zeccaran can shapeshift into animals. Hmm. I guess that’s not unlike a changeling, but he doesn’t seem to be able to do inanimate objects or other ponies. Perhaps it is a special type of Zebra magic. That is an area of magic sister and I have rather neglected studying. We should make a point of doing that, soon.” She blathered her thoughts to herself.

By the time she finished figuring out that she was witnessing something new and unique, Zeccaran had returned to shore. With another flash of green of magic he became his usual zebra self before trotting over the rock and depositing the mass of fish atop the stone’s flat surface.

“Behold my lord, fish for your consumption!” He proclaimed with a flourish, playing along or having already lost control. The rock hummed thoughtfully, as if it was contemplating another task for him. “Chew up the fishes for me, my acolyte! Do so and be rewarded!” It chortled.

“Whoever is behind this curse really needs to be found and stopped. They are simply too good at doing terrible things to ponies’ minds! My goodness!” Luna grumbled. She turned from the sight of Zeccaran chewing up and spitting out fish, gagging. Things were certainly taking a turn for the worst for the zebra.

“I need to get him out of there, no more sense of making him going through this all over again. I’ve seen all that I needed to see anyway.” She said, blushing at her own vanity. Luna cast her magic into the memory-dream. The long white-silver tendril entered the portal altering it into a picture of Zeccaran and the rock. The magic made its way towards Zeccaran who was still chewing fish. It contacted his head just as he began to consciously feel his grip on reality slipping. Luna grunted in shock and disgust at having all of the zebra’s ludicrous sensations being forced into her mind.

Zeccaran vaguely looked at the pink sky and neon blue trees and decided: this is fine. Its juuuuusst fine. He mused over their now shared thoughts. The rock roared with delight and merriment, it kept doing this as Zeccaran patiently waited for his next task, enjoying the taste of raw fish. Luna begged to differ but had no control over what the connection sent her. She could hear somepony yelling Zeccaran’s name, but was too preoccupied with trying to wrench him from the mess and free herself from the taste of fish to listen.The zebra otherwise continued his vomiting of the gooey contents of his mouth onto his overlord as Gusty Twilight became annoying enough to garner his interest.

HEY!” She yelled into his ear, “What-What are you doing??” She was completely exasperated. Her look of disgust was blatant and unrefined. What was he doing? Serving his hero-god of course! Thus, he informed her. “I’m chewing the food for my rock overlord!” Gusty just stood there gaping. She turned a little more green than blue against her normal teal coat, looking down at the fish wads on the rock.

Luna coughed and spluttered as she started to pull with all her might to get Zeccaran out of his subconscious. The horrid taste of the foul fish almost enough to knock her from her astral realm. Zeccaran’s sheer natural might in the dream magics made his consciousness pull back against her tugs. Luna gritted her teeth and resumed her work doing her best to ignore the hallucinations and the fetid taste of raw fish.

The rock greeted Gusty like some old Shakespony actor: “What-Ho!? Who is this my dear acolyte? Neigh do not tell me, she cannot know of our bond. She is a non-believer! Lest she be converted!” it cried. Luna found it terribly distracting, forcing her to become fully one with Zeccaran’s memory.

Gusty froze, her face locked in a blank reaction. She stared back and forth between Zeccaran and the rock. Eventually she regained her composure enough to speak. “Uhh...right. Zec, you know Bunker is-no! No. Gunther is missing right? We noticed he stopped barking and-”

She continued but Zeccarn had stopped paying attention. Instead he felt as if he was losing control of his bodily functions. He turned and vomited whilst simultaneously farting with such force Zeccaran swore his flanks caught air.

When he looked back up at Gusty she was not Gusty anymore. Instead a red and green tentacle beast with fangs replaced her. The sky flashed yellow and he could taste fear as it yelled. Paralyzed with confusion and insanity, Zeccaran yelled back. Suddenly a blue and pink stone golem approached and growled. The tentacle monster swung its left four arms in his direction shrieking and screaming.

At this motion the stone golem pounced on Zeccaran. His great weight and awful stone hooves pounding into the small zebras face and stomach. It hurt, but frankly he was too scared to notice how much it hurt and kept screaming and struggling. Futilely he flailed. He kept getting beat the more he struggled. Eventually the world became a grey blur and Zeccaran was certain he had finally died. He relaxed and rejoiced in death’s embrace only to be shaken back into the world of the living this time by some sort of amalgamation between pony and ice cream sundae.

Zeccaran screamed again. He sounded incoherent even to himself. The pummeling continued until there was nothing left but pain and confusion. It went on this way for quite some time. He lost track of time and the day dissipated into his imagination…

OH I DON’T THINK SO!” Luna shrieked at the last moment before being drug down the path of insanity with Zeccaran. Regaining some control from her outburst the Princess of the Night stopped being gentle. This was her realm, her sacred task, and some stupid little spell would not stop her from helping Zeccaran.

She yanked on the mental tendril she had sent to the zebra. It went taut until she pulled again. Luna reared back and concentrated all her mental force on maintaining control of the reality she knew: This was the dream world, and she was its master. The magic of the past yielded to her as she took to using her wings. The portal into Zeccaran’s subconscious began to bulge and buckle as she continued to draw on her line.

With a final tremendous heave Luna felt the walls of the zebra’s subconsciousness collapse in on themselves. Zeccaran came flying towards her, the screen she had been watching absorbed and forming his body. He was screaming hysterically as if he was still reliving his past and his flailing persona hit her mid-air causing them both to be knocked down onto the floor of the empty expanse. Luckily there was no pain in her astral realm and Luna sat up with the small striped stallion in her lap still screaming incoherently, his eyes closed.

“Zeccaran!” she shouted at him. He stopped yelling instantly and opened up one eye and looked up at her. He hastily removed himself from her lap, bowing deeply.

“Princess! Thank you so much for saving me from that horrible dream.” he murmured quietly. He bowed his head even deeper until his muzzle was almost underneath his chest. “This has been absolutely horrible, reliving this...this memory, this nightmare. I am just so relieved!” he panted finally raising his head.

Luna smiled at him gently, surprised and somewhat embarrassed by his subservient nature. She walked across the non-ground of shifting blues and extended a hoof down to him. Zeccaran gingerly took it, kissed it and pull himself up. It took everything she had not to blush, it had not been since Twilight Sparkle had a pony revered her formally. Meanwhile Zeccaran peered around his purple eyes bright with excitement.

“Oh this place! I was here earlier before I got stuck in...my own mind? I’m not sure, where did the doors go to? They were sitting right here” the zebra asked. Her realm moved without her permission and a pair of doors slid in from seemingly nowhere. Luna gasped as she recognized Zeccaran’s and Gusty’s dream-consciousness being pulled into place next to them.

“Here they are! Ask and thou shalt receive. Heh.” Zeccaran nodded approvingly at his natural talent. The Princess stared at him in awe, amazed at his skill. It had originally taken her months to learn how to properly summon specific doors and this striped fool had done it on accident! She lowered her head in pouty anger trying to not snap at the otherwise unfortunate zebra. He had not been given his talents as a gift as she had, but rather a curse, a mirror into his past life. She drew in a deep breath before speaking to him again.

“Yes. How long have you been visiting my realm, dear Zeccaran?” she asked suspiciously. The zebra visibly looked nervous as she eyed him. He shrunk down from her squishing his body uncomfortably onto his sitting flanks.

“If I had to make a realistic guess….probably at least since I started working in the palace. I-I didn’t know I was doing it though! Everything has been super weird, I swear!” He narrowly responded through a pained grimace.

“Very well,” Luna began, “then we shall consider your previous internment as punishment enough for trespassing. Now…” she paused. “I had been doing some research on Gusty again, if you would like to help me, it would be most appreciated. Especially since you were present for the events I have been examining.”

“Of course. I’d love to!” Zeccaran nodded in response. Luna rolled her eyes at him. Perhaps if she did not know his past nor had interest in other stallions she would find him to be a agreeable suitor. No other pony, besides herself of course, was capable of Astral Magic like Zeccaran and that opened up a wealth of possibilities. One such possibility was teaching the zebra how to help with ponies’ dreams and subconsciousnesses. She grinned pleased that it could give her some much needed free time during the night.

“Good.” she nodded. “It would be best to start now then, but perhaps we should stick to Gusty’s mind. Considering that you...went insane for a the next half a day.”

“Don’t remind me. I’m just glad you saved me when you did. It got much worse after that.” Zeccaran glowered looking away. Luna covered up her smile quickly. She would have to keep the part where she had watched longer than she should have a secret. To help distract her companion from her up and coming snickers, Luna cast her magic on the door that led into Gusty’s consciousness. The great foreboding stone portal glowed with its dark aura trying to resist her approach.

The strange malignancy that surrounded Gusty’s mind had always been a mystery to Luna. It was far more powerful than the hallucinogenic spell she had just witnessed the young Amethyst cast on Zeccaran in the memory, but it behaved strangely. That darkness was oily and slippery, capable of sliding out of her grasp every time she tried to examine it. It had proven to be quite the source of frustration for the princess as it was the last portion of Gusty’s mind that she had to analyze for Stormwalker. The magic behaved in a manner she had never seen before and unlike any described in any of Twilight Sparkle’s extensive library of magical physics and spell properties reference guides. Luna watched the black cloud skirt around the edge of her magic tendril and let her touch the door without incident. Solving the mystery of the aforementioned curse on Gusty was the most important thing she could do, but without any leads she was reduced to continually rewatching memories. She futilely prepared to review the familiar scene to see if she missed any important or even seemingly useless details.

Fully activated, Luna’s magic pulled Zeccaran and herself into Gusty’s subconscious. As a flurry of images and sensations assaulted them she guided them to just after the incident where she had saved Zeccaran. They slowly manifested as see-through spectres floating behind the big teal mare. Luna’s skills were significantly more refined than Zeccaran’s and this allowed her to generate the entire world while maintaining a connection to the original consciousness. Zeccaran jumped in surprise next to her as he recognized he was feeling what Gusty was feeling. Luna gave him a short knowing giggle. It took incredible will to not be rendered a babbling mess from such a connection and for a mortal like Zeccaran it was doubly impressive. She pointed back at Gusty and the scene of the zebra himself laying on the ground whilst Bunker held him down. The ruddy burgundy vagabond’s face was pinched in concern as Gusty barked out orders to hit Zeccaran...

Gusty watched earnestly hoping the next time Zeccaran came to he would say a sentence without the words “gravy crazy” in it. From underneath Bunker’s full body Zeccaran’s eyes snapped open and his voice boomed out. “ Cotton candy, evil mix ginger mammy!” Bunker hit him again, again the zebra went limp. Gusty shook her head in dismay.

The magic that muddled Zeccaran’s mind was far from weak. It seemed to evolve as well, changing the zebra’s perception of reality every time he woke. She assumed a spell that powerful required its caster to maintain direct visual contact with the affected, but it Gusty could see nopony in the immediate area, or even any evidence of cover good enough to hide a wizard. Gusty the remembered the wizard probably had made her or himself invisible. That was when she heard Gunther bark.

“Stay here, and…” Gusty stopped as Bunker hit Zeccaran in the mouth just as he started to scream. “Keep trying to knock some sense into him. Who knows, it might actually work. Though, he’ll be really ugly by the time you are done, so don’t hit him too hard!” Bunker turned around and gave her a mischievous grin. He banged his forehooves together with a hardy clop,

“Don’t wohrry, I’ll make sure to hit both sides of his striped head da same amount.” Gusty snorted and rolled her eyes at Bunker, who just laughed dumbly in return.

Luna felt Zeccaran shift uncomfortably next to her. She hazarded a glance at him to see him rubbing his jaw with both hooves, eyes locked in a pensive look at Bunker. Luna would admit: Zeccaran had been a nicer looking stallion than most, that was up until he had his face nearly broken. She would have to recommend magical reconstruction for him later, it was not fair that he had gotten hit so much.

Gusty began moving where she had heard the coniferous canine call. There was a large fern that was growing in the middle of the open field where they had camped. Gunther was tall enough to easily be seen standing or running in the tan grass of the meadow, meaning he had to be on the other side of the bush. Gusty trotted quickly over to the location and began to hear the soft voice of a filly.

Puzzled by the sound of a youth in this wilderness, Gusty dashed around the fern in a full gallop, hoping to catch her quarry by surprise. Pivoting hard, she used her wings to keep her balance on the muddy ground. She came upon an area of flattened grass and a floating Gunther surrounded by a pink telekinetic field. A shrill gasp echoed in the otherwise quiet field and Gunther was lifted up and away to reveal a small foal, eyes wide.

The youngster had a mangy cream-colored coat and a messy light-pink mane. She looked thin, underfed. Her eyes were a bright-lavender sparkling with shock at Gusty’s advent. The young filly took a few cautious steps back, looking about nervously, her mane swinging hard has she did. Eventually she settled on a defeated sigh and looked down at the ground.

A sharp gasp made Luna pause what she was watching. Zeccaran stared on at Amethyst his eyes burning like fire, his mouth drawn into an angry growl.

“ARGH!” Zeccaran bit at the air. “I knew it! I didn’t wanna believe it but it was her! I’ll never let that pesky foal borrow one of my books again!” he yelled. Luna jumped in surprise at his angry outburst. She tried to no look at him but found herself flipping her eyes between the ground and his red-with-anger as he heaved in haggard breaths. It was easily the angriest she had ever seen him He inhaled a deep breath just as harsh as his first and exhaled. His face returned to its normal black and white and he turned to look at her, his face betraying his discontent.

“Tell me, Princess...isn’t Amethyst enrolled in your sister’s school for Unicorns?” he questioned her. Surprised by the inquiry, Luna blinked at him in confusion before realizing she had the answer.

“Of course. Why do ask?” she asked back. Zeccaran pursed his lips and rolled his tongue tentatively around his mouth, bulging his cheeks.. “Who is her sponsor then? I know you can’t get enrolled, no matter how good you are without one. Not even with Amethyst’s level of skill” Luna cast another suspicious glare at him. Sometimes she could see exactly why the Cult of the Night had chosen the stallion as their chief priest. He was thorough and deceptively insightful with his observations and questions. It was decidedly a good thing that she had helped turn him away from his dark past. Having an enemy like this zebra had proven fatal to many a good Nightwatch agent and soldier. Luna smiled, pleased that Zeccaran was now on the right side of the law and morality. He could play the Fool as much as he wanted and it would only bring to light the evils of the world this time, not hide them away.

“Hey. Are you gonna answer or….did I lose you there?” the zebra in question prodded into her thoughts. He was just short of sounding annoyed, masked by an air of concern. “My apologies. I was contemplating some of your more important qualities and judging whether or not I should tell you.” she recovered with a glance away from him. She made sure to smile just wide enough for him to see it behind her mane.

“Oh,” he balked, “I’m surprised you were taking so long to make a decision...but that doesn’t answer my question: who is Amethyst’s sponsor?” he persisted just as carefully skirting her comment. Luna reminded herself that if her wayward zebra friend had history with you, he had a tendency to push his limits when he would otherwise be reserved. She gave him his answer:

“Amethyst’s sponsor is, big surprise, Stormwalker.” she told him. Zeccaran squinted his eyes to the point where they were not really open in response. He pulled his neck back and rubbed his ears before continuing. “You’re serious aren’t you? Like he actually is her sponsor isn’t he? Don’t answer-it’s rhetorical. I’m just...feeling a bit stupefied by that fact.”

Luna giggled at him. His reaction was only natural, all things considered. Equestria’s resident demon went out of his way to not appear as soft as he was in front of his friends and peers. Considering that that group of ponies totalled no more than five and everypony else knew rather defeated the prideful facade he always used. He had not needed much to convince Gusty of his “malcontent” but she had figured Zeccaran had already seen through it.

“What are you going to tell me next, that he is her legal guardian?” Zeccaran asked dramatically. He had either been coming to the conclusion that he actually understood Stormwalker, that or he was phenomenally good at guessing. Luna grimaced plainly as she looked at her zebra companion who went from smiling to an empty slack-jawed expression.

“Uh...good guess?” she smiled sheepishly at him. He responded by slamming his hooves up into his face and groaning. “Why did I ask? I...I should have just not worried about it. Had to be curious, didn’t I?” he chastised himself from behind his muffling hooves. He clearly wanted to know, but for what it was worth he was regretting what appeared to be small loss of sanity.

“Just...just let's get back to this memory, before you tell me that Gusty is the female half of that document.” he moped. Before she could stop herself she responded with a confirming, “Uhh…” Zeccaran looked up at her in his greatest dismay yet.

No…..Luna. No. I don’t wanna know how he managed to get her to sign the paperwork, I don’t wanna even...just start the memory, please, and we will both pretend that isn’t something we talked about or know, okay?”

“Sounds good, because I don’t know either. The stallion is a miracle worker.” She responded shaking her head. “Now...where were we? Ah! Amethyst, for the first time, curious little foal, even more curious now-”


“Sorry couldn’t help myself.” she rattled off as she giggled. She unpaused the memory and if flared to life. The filly that troubled Zeccaran so stood defiantly looking at Gusty. An air of confusion could be felt by the older pony as Amethyst spoke up.

“Ok, lady. You caught me.” the little mangy foal said. She turned her head up and looked Gusty straight in the eye with a determination as hard as steel. “But you don’t scare me!”

Gusty balked, her jaw falling open. In the next instant the small foal fired a series of magical bolts from her horn. They were each the classic red beam surrounded by blue electricity that denoted a stun bolt. Gusty mentally prepared herself for being knocked unconscious by a foal. The three bolts hit Gusty at nearly the same time, each administering a hardy jolt of prickling electricity. But, Gusty did not pass out. In fact, beyond their initial impact she felt perfectly normal. She opened her eyes perplexed by her otherwise normal state.

The filly stood gawking. She was blubbering, her mushy words making little sense. her eyes betraying her fear, slowly teared on their outermost edges. “No..no! That’s wrong! That always works!” She spat out hysterically. Gusty flashed her a dastardly smile. The mare noticed the young filly had yet to take notice of her race. Gusty also knew most folks in Equestria possessed a healthy reverence and sometimes fear for alicorns. So, she jumped on it.

“Do you really think...your magic...would affect an alicorn, little filly?” She mulled out slowly. The youth’s eyes widened and tears more readily flowed from her lavender eyes. Gusty did not actually want her to cry. Both fortunately and unfortunately she had a pretty big soft spot for children. Instinctively, she pulled the foal up in her magic and floated her to her hooves. Still, Gusty was not quite ready to drop her act of the mighty immortal being just yet.

“She really has a propensity for performance. It is a decided wonder that Gusty did not get her sorry flanks stunned into next week. Amethyst must have exceeded her limit of control while trying to balance her Dominate Mind spell and those stunbolts.” Luna commented.

“The mere fact that she almost managed it should be plenty disturbing. Not that Gusty thinks things through; she typically just glides by on the skin of her teeth. In this case it just happened to work out for her. There will be a really great example of what happens when things don’t go her way about twelve more hours into this memory.” Zeccaran surmised.

“True enough, for now we shall watch this out. Let me know if anything stands out to you.” she nodded in agreement with his description. Luna let the memory continue as Gusty spoke to Amethyst.

“Worry not, small one. I will forgive you if you tell me your name, and who taught you to hurl stun bolts at strangers.” She said to the foal. The filly quivered in a mixture of surprise and shock. She did not form clear words in the least. Gusty guessed that she was likely around eight years of age and the magic she was performing made her a prodigy. She waited for the foal to calm enough to say her piece. Gusty cradled her against her chest and stroked her mane as she lower her flanks to sit in the prairie grass.

“I’-I..My name is Amethyst. A-Amethyst Scar.” Amethyst stuttered out pitifully. “A-and. My mother taught me those spells.” Gusty raised an eyebrow in concern. The little filly’s mother had taught her child to attack when discovered and produce witchcraft vile enough to directly influence ponies’ sanity? Hardly a decision a responsible parent would make.

Gusty turned her attention back the whimpering Gunther who was still floating a short distance away. “Well, Amethyst. That aside I’m going to need that timberwolf back.” It was going to be the nice thing she did for Zeccaran this year, getting his dog back. Then she would tease her striped friend about it until he went insane from that instead.

“But...I thought he was wild...I’ve even named him! Woody! Woody is his name.” Amethyst said. Gunther chortled out a pitiful yelp. Gusty caught herself grinning and forced herself to stop. She had to look stern, even if Amethyst’s name was better. The little filly needed guidance not encouragement. Stealing and playing mean tricks on ponies were not positive behaviors. She put on her best authoritative and scolding adult face especially since Amethyst seemed to be recovering from Gusty being an alicorn. Then the questions started.

“Wait, are you a princess?” “No, I-”

“I thought only princesses were alicorns. Then what are you, surely at least a noble?”

“Child I’m not a nob-”

“Then what’s your name? Why are you out here all alone with a timberwolf as a pet? Who does that anyway? Who is that big dumb looking stallion? How about the zebra? My mama will wanna talk to him I thi-mm!”

Gusty covered Amethyst’s mouth with a hoof and lowered the filly to the ground.

She kept her hoof over the child’s mouth as she let go and took a deep breath to calm herself. She kept it there while speaking:

“My name is Gusty Twilight dear child. I am a follower of Origin, the god of Creation. I am upset that you are alone here in the wilderness and wish to help you, but your many questions are making that difficult. So know that I am nothing more than a friend that wants to help you..and get my dog back.”

“I have a question this time.” Luna interrupted the dreamscape. She turned to look at Zeccaran directly, “Who exactly is Origin? Gusty references this...individual quite often in her memories. I feel like they are of inordinate importance to properly understanding what is wrong with Gusty.”

Zeccaran hummed and cast a scrutinizing look towards the nothingness. “While I’m not particularly that well read, “ he paused, “I do know that Gusty describes Origin as the mother of all alicorns...that she is supposed to guard her children...all powerful, but subtle. I’m not sure she is even a real religion anymore. The only pony who ever talks about her is Gusty...It’s almost like she made it up but…” he trailed off brow furled in thought.

Luna let him think while she reviewed her own information internally. She was aware of the information he had described already, however she had nothing more than that either. Stormwalker had initially been surprised about the information but otherwise had been keeping his mouth shut as if he knew more than he was telling. Luna had thought this strange at first but with the stallion’s overall behavior change after Gusty’s appearance she had no way to measure his motivations anymore. This had been a major source of frustration for Luna.

She had personally witnessed the tragedies that Stormwalker had survived. She had watched him slowly degrade from the young chipper stallion she had met upon her return to a dark brooding figure that showed little genuine concern for anypony or anything. He had lost many friends over his lifetime and several lovers by murder or magic. Luna felt supremely jealous that just meeting Gusty had seemingly pulled him from the dark pit he had slipped into after the first time he had entered The Cave. She could not blame the stallion for his previous foul mood, for what had happened remained something truly unspeakable. However, that did nothing to help her understand what he saw in Gusty.

“Luna!” Zeccaran yelled causing her to jump. She had done it again.

“Sorry, sorry...I often get accused of spending too much time in this realm thinking…” she responded embarrassed. Luna often found herself easily distracted with the thought of Stormwalker, these days it was the worst it had ever been. A stray thought of the stallion could derail everything she was doing.

“It’s okay. I wasn’t really saying anything important...just some unlikely speculations on Gusty’s “Origin” it was more an open thought. Kinda glad you missed it. Probably sounded stupid.” Zeccaran consoled her.

“I doubt what you said was stupid, but before I get lost in thought again, let us return to the task at hoof.” she said to him. Zeccaran nodded approvingly as she kicked the memory off again. Before them Gusty and Amethyst unfroze and continued their conversation about Gunther, or Woody if one was Amethyst.

Gusty removed her hoof from the little filly’s finally silent mouth. Amethyst stood leaning to one side staring between Gusty and Gunther. She retained this thoughtful look for a short time before inspiration sparkled in her eyes as she let out a quick gasp.

“Oh oh oh!” she danced merrily bouncing between hooves. “Okay! You can have Woody back. But you have to come get him later tonight. I’m not done playing with him yet.”

Gusty raised an eyebrow in concern.

“My mama will want to meet you, too! So come to that big hill over there by the east side of the lake.” Amethyst pointed toward the thicker portion of the forest and a ridge of sharp hills. Gusty went to interject about how she was to find Amethyst but was interrupted by the filly.

“Just go right to the base of the hill, straight from here, there will be a big iron door there, with lots of cool carvings in the stone around it: I’ll be waiting there with Woody.” Amethyst finished merrily.

“How is this a fair deal to me after what you did to my zebra friend?” Gusty asked pointedly. She was not about to out bargained by a foal..

“Oh! Bring him too. And the magic should wear off soon...I think?” the filly shrugged with a grimace.

Gusty frowned at Amethyst’s foreboding words. Though there was not much the mare could do with the prodigy, at least not yet. Not until Gusty found out what type of parenting she was receiving for certain, she would not separate the foal from her mother. After giving her look of disapproval to the young Amethyst. Gusty begrudgingly accepted. The filly merrily skipped in the direction she had indicated humming and levitating the upset looking Gunther alongside her.

Gusty lazily returned to Bunker and the captive Zeccaran. She found that Zeccaran was unconscious finally and seemed to be more himself. The Zebra had evidently taken quite the number of punches before succumbing to the bludgeoning. His head in general was swollen and bruised. It appeared that he could not see from the swelling around his eyes and his mouth was stuck open from likely a broken jaw. Gusty resolved to patch him up later with her magic once he woke up and was not crazy.

The memory faded out as Luna adjust for the time change and the next area of significance came into view was the trio of ponies hiding in the bushes. They stood nearby the very same door Amethyst had described. Next to her Zeccaran shifted his hooves and leaned closer watching intently as the memory picked up this time with a definitively more zebra flair to it.

Zeccaran poked his nose cautiously out of the bush he was hiding in. This certainly looked like the place Gusty had described. Big, iron door, menacing aura about it and the various runes carved into the smooth stone face of the hill. It was the only area in this forest like it. It actually was only one of three sites in Equestria, but he felt like there was no proper way to explain his knowledge of that so kept it to himself. It had always been some sort of strange memory that returned only when stimulated. He was unsure how it worked but that’s how it had been for years now. Gusty already had begun to question his identity and Zeccaran was certain that she would kill him if he didn’t manage to tell her everything soon. It wasn’t too pressing of a matter though. Gusty was always overzealous. He was more concerned with his wayward dog.

He wondered where Gunther was, unsure if his brief bout of insanity had made up the location of his animal companion. Really, he felt that he might be dreaming and he was still unconscious somewhere by that lake, or dead. However, he did clearly remember that Gunther was to be somewhere right by the door. Zeccaran looked again but failed recognize anything that was Gunther-like. As such, he gave a short sharp whistle into the evening murk and was rewarded with a crisp bark and Gunther bounding out from behind a tree. Bursting from cover he ran towards his dog. Gunther pawed at him eagerly his front legs in the air from the collar that tied to the tree he had been hiding behind. He tackled his wooden companion and received many affectionate licks.

“Well we found Gunther.” Gusty said slowly approaching from where she had been hiding too. “Now all we have to do is find Amethyst.” Bunker strode up beside her as Zeccaran tried to look around past Gunther’s happy onslaught.

The forest they were in was filled with oaks and yews. Their tall branches just starting to show the signs of fall. This place was secluded. No path of trodden grass or the setting sun could be seen here. The trees, too, provided a natural sound barrier, as wind rushed through their leaves causing a cascading rustling to erupt around them. It was too nice a place, used to disguise the hideous darkness in that cave.

“I think it’s time we go in.” Gusty chimed. She drew her sword with her magic at the same time. Bunker pulled his axe off his back as well, leaving Zeccaran armed only with Gunther in his hooves. “Zebra-...err. Zeccaran” Gusty continued. “Let’s go.” Offended that Gusty somehow kept forgetting his name, Zeccaran protested.

“Seriously? How do you keep messing that up?” he glowered.

“I’m forgetful ok?” Gusty shifted her eyes nervously.

“I’ve known you for almost a year!”he exaggerated.

“Well, you don’t talk much.” as she rolled her eyes

“I talk all the time, you just don’t listen!” Zeccaran yelled back to no avail.

“Shut up and free your dog.” Gusty glowered as she walked off.

Zeccaran grunted in frustration and went to cut the rope binding Gunther to the tree he was by. Usually rope gave way quickly to his sickle but this rope was particularly stubborn. In fact, Zeccaran was certain he was not making any progress at all.

“Uhh, I think we have a problem.” He said before he began trying to bite the rope. He regretted this decision immediately. While flexible the rope was like biting into steel. Zeccaran hoped he did not harm his teeth and recovered as Gusty turned to ask questions.

“Not my smartest moment: biting into enchanted rope. Nope. Not a good move.” Zeccaran said next to her. Luna just smiled at him, a foolhardy but at least classic decision in the moment. The memory continued as Gusty trotted up, horn aglow.

“Why? Is it enchanted or something?” She promptly began trying to snap the rope with her telekinesis. Zeccaran watched as the rope retaliated with an electrical bolt. It zapped Gusty with a quick crackle causing her to lose control of her magic grip.

“Yep. Enchanted.” she winced, smoke rising from her horn. “Leave him. If Amethyst made that enchantment I’m not breaking it. We’ll have to find her first.” Zeccaran sighed defeated. Gusty was right, that little unicorn was a prodigy, she was probably the only one that could remove the magic. “Ok, I’m coming.”

The whole time, Bunker had been prying the old iron door open with Gusty’s crowbar. Zeccaran watched as he finished, the hinge bolts lay on the ground. With a mighty push and a gruff yell he forced the bolts of its lock apart. He opened the door easily afterwards, a smug grin on his face. Zeccaran went to enter the cave to destroy the illusion of peace the forest gave only to be halted by one of the brutes big hooves. “Wife goes first.” he said. It was perhaps his most gentlecolt-like gesture yet.

Gusty giggled in her “I’m-too-awkward-and-forward-for-chivalry” way and entered the door. Bunker trailed immediately behind, leaving Zeccaran to wave sadly at his trapped timberwolf and enter last.

The cave was dark but lit well enough to show the pony-made architecture. Zeccaran looked up at the intricate crossbars of the stout passage. They were carved out of the granite of the cave, curvy designs depicted the moon, a cat’s eye and stars. They appeared every two meters stretching seemingly forever. In some areas the crossbars had moss hanging from them, helping to emphasize the heavy humid air. The stench of mildew and decay assaulted Zeccaran’s nose, but somehow they were familiar. Too much had happened recently, and the memories of the past blurred together so badly that they threatened to overtake the zebra’s conscious body. The sole source of resistance he had was focusing completely on the task before him, and by doing so repressing those thoughts entirely.

He moved forward, faster than either Gusty or Bunker. He felt he knew the passages of these liars, and he would take his comrades to their heart and rip it out, he owed Gusty that much at least. As they moved down the hall, abruptly the lights around them winked out at once. Before he could stop himself, Zeccaran found himself hitting something hard. It made a bhwaahm! sound that only a magical force field could.

Felt I knew! Ha! I used to literally be their boss. I am...disappointed I wasn’t able to remember on my own. Would have certainly helped out with the walking directly into a trap.” the zebra grumbled next to Luna. She rolled her eyes and smiled. Zeccaran was only to remember things when it was time, that was how it was to be. When she had granted him his pardon, the price was her control of his darker memories and his knowledge of them.

“Show yourselves!” Gusty boomed. She lit up the area with a light spell. It did little to stifle back the surrounding darkness. But it gave enough light to show that they were surrounded by a black barrier behind and in front of their position in the hallway.

An unknown stallion’s voice rang out, ripe with evil laughter. “Look who came crawling back! It’s the zebra!” “Give them the special treatment!” another echoed at nearly the same time. A third more sagely voice finished. “The Priestess will love having him unsullied for torture later. And that alicorn should prove quite useful for our purposes as well…”

“Cowards! Come out and fight!” Both Bunker and Gusty cried out in seeming unison. Zeccaran was going to say something to the same effect but suddenly found himself yawning. Bunker then fell right over. Zeccaran thought this only slightly strange at first but his mind kicked back on just long enough to yell a warning yawn to Gusty who seemed to be faring the best.

“Sleep gasszzz….” He stuttered as his legs went limp on their own. Gusty’s face showed with a slow recognition, she began channelling a spell. It quickly went out. Zeccaran felt the world go dark, his last thought as he watched Gusty collapse was a simple one: CRAP.

The memory ended again and Luna cast a glance back over to Zeccaran. He retained a brooding look as he rubbed his chin. He caught her eyes and motioned for her to continue to the next section. She hoped that they would come across something soon, or perhaps the events of The Cave would spur Zeccaran to a conclusion she had not reached. A sneaky grin perked up her mouth and caused her companion to issue a small grunt of inquiry.

“Now it's time for my favorite stallion. The fun is about to be doubled!” Luna decreed as they zipped through to Gusty’s mind. She just could not help herself.

Act 1: Chapter 6 - The Cave and the Cultists

View Online

“One would be surprised with exactly how many fringe religious sites there are in Equestria. They always meet in secret and even some of the best Nightwatch agents had trouble infiltrating their ‘family.’ And that magic they use...as dangerous as it is incredible.”


Chapter 6 - The Cave and The Cultists

Zeccaran shook his head to clear the sensation of “Astral Nausea” he had contracted. Luna was significantly more skilled at piloting about somepony’s unconscious mind and her speed made him feel extremely queasy. Before him the world came into focus with a startling clarity and he was now viewing events from Gusty’s eyes. He watched her sea-foam mane barely visible, framing her vision. He was not in control of this roller coaster and let all the emotions and senses of his friend wash over him becoming Gusty as much as she was in the moments he experienced. He wondered when and where Luna would stop to converse, he could probably handle being a mare, but not this particular one.

Gusty awoke, her individual hooves pulled away from her in four different directions. Her neck was free but felt heavier than normal. She could feel something moderately warm feeling and actually quite heavy sitting right at the base of her horn. She looked around as her eyes adjusted to the magic-lit room. It was a rather plain room, lacking the carvings of the entrance they had last been in, its grey stone stern and intimidating. From her dangling position, Gusty saw that there was a single door leading in and out. It was made of a very heavy iron and looked about a foot thick. She also found that she had been stripped of her armor and skirt and was spread out very unflatteringly. Gusty was at least very comfortable with her body, but she typically liked some clothes compared to the standard pony nudity.

She was quickly able to find Bunker and Zeccaran who were in much the same position she was in. They were still asleep from the gas that had brought them down. Gusty was glad it was just powerful sleep gas, she had assumed it was poisonous, but evidently not. She then decided to give the chains a pull to see if perhaps one of the links or the fixture was not structurally sound.

The chains, however, had their own idea. With the same amount of force she had pulled on them with; the bindings pulled on Gusty's body. The event tightened her muscles and her joints but she had not struggled hard enough to make the tension uncomfortable.

Her next plan was to try magic. Upon trying to manipulate the chains sharp pain began to build in her forehead right at the base of her horn. She kept trying until the pain was completely unbearable. When she stopped she had gained a headache. The sensation of heat on her horn had also increased. Whatever was up there was probably why should couldn’t cast any spells. Gusty snorted in annoyance and dismay. It was enough to rouse Zeccaran. He always had been a light sleeper since Gusty had met him.

He looked about, his body rigid, not twitching or pulling the shackles even in the slightest. "Where are we? Do you remember anything?" He asked as his chains slowly spun him enough to half-face Gusty.

"No, idea. I would suppose deeper in their compound." She guessed. "Well, yeah...ughh...that really isn't good." He grimaced in response.

"Do you know these cultists or something? I heard one of them mention "it's the zebra!" before I passed out." she questioned.

"I...I really don't know, all I remember that it's a very dark part of my history. They lied to me, or I lied to myself. I..I did some really bad things. The point is: I'm pretty sure they worship Nightmare Moon, an entity of darkness and evil that perverts the purpose of Princess Luna."

"Princess Luna? Is she a regent in this country? Things have gotten confusing for me after all this time.." She mused.

"How old are you? Anyway, yea, she and Celestia are the rulers of Equestria. How did you miss that?" Zeccaran just gawked at her in disgust once he finished. "I've traveled the world and known the royalty of many nations. I just needed to have my memory jogged. They control the sun and the moon and they make the world work here in Equestria and everywhere else I guess. I got it, don't worry." Gusty tried to make herself feel better about forgetting.

"Good.... well, any ideas on how to get out of here with that horn limiter on you? I mean...well...I have used all of my magic for the day at least anything that would help us out. If I use more I'll explode due to feedback." Zeccaran sighed. Gusty shook her head in response. She wondered about Zeccaran's past. She then thought about some of her own. Everything seemed like one big blur. How long had it been? She honestly could not remember.

She remembered many lovers, many children...but none of them were alive anymore...or she did not think they were anyway. Everything seemed spotty like she was looking through a broken kaleidoscope.. She decided to focus on the present like she always did. It never did seem to have repercussions when she pushed the memories away.

The world slowed to a extreme crawl and Luna’s voice echoed over the scene. “Interesting. You have brought us deeper in, Zeccaran! Impressive! Judging from those ‘thoughts’ it is certain Gusty has a connection to her memories, and our most recent meeting was not a fluke. Marvelous! Let us continue!” She quipped as the world spun back into regular motion

Meanwhile as Gusty had hung placidly recalling her past a grunt came from her left, Bunker had awoke. He struggled about and promptly was pulled tighter. Zeccaran laughed at him. The zebra of course knew exactly what these enchanted chains did. He simply found it amusing. It was also a subtle way to get at the brute for punching him so much, whether or not it had benefited Zeccaran in the end. He even taunted the stallion.

"Come on big guy. You are stronger than that! PULL." He joked."ARRRGG...eeeh....eep. Whhhyy. Do t'ese chains, pull back?!" The earther winced as the chains tightened his suspension. Zeccaran snickered some more. Bunker did not catch on, but Gusty did. She even decided to add some positive rewards if Bunker was able to break the chains.

"Come on, darling. Break the chains and we can consummate the marriage rites right here, you won't even need to get me down."She let her voice become laden with real desire.

To her right Zeccaran tried not to gag but failed and Bunker's eyes widened. He pulled the chains with such a ferocity that it appeared that he might actually break them. But, the chains did the same to him. The bindings pulled on his limbs so hard that there were several loud pops as his spine was fully straightened and his haunches and hips extended to their maximum. Poor Bunker didn't even make noise beyond a quick whoosh as all the air was pulled from his frame due to how quickly he was pulled.

Gusty complained a little and then started cheering him on more. However, it was Zeccaran that would first notice the noises as they approached. "Hey. Stop! Stop yelling!" He cried over Gusty's chants and Bunkers pained grunts. "Guys seriously, something is coming."

“Ooooooh! This is it! And I get to feel how Gusty feels and thinks when she sees him! How exciting! Maybe it will finally make sense why he does everything for her!” Luna’s giddy expectations boomed around Zeccaran’s head as she did not bother to slow the memory down. It also left him wondering what exactly Stormwalker did for Gusty behind the scenes. He already had done a lot to ensure Amethyst’s future, but that was not what Luna was talking about. Zeccaran did his best to ignore how creepy Luna could be when learning about ponies and their minds as well. He supposed it was only natural for a being who regularly visited everypony’s collective subconcious to be excited about things like that but he was not ready to accept it. Gusty snapping her head towards the door shifting him into becoming sucked into her personage again.

Tumultuous sounds reflected off the iron door to the holding cell as Gusty watched it in anxious anticipation. Whatever was going on the other side, approaching, sounded distinctly menacing. It sounded at first like the noise of far off combat. There were voices yelling, though muffled it was clear they were being slaughtered. Quickly, a harsh snarling, clicking sort of roar could be heard. It grew in volume along with an occasional burst of malignant laughter. The cries of the ponies being killed grew in fury and desperation. Abruptly, the roaring and laughter was replaced by slow deliberate hoof falls. They approached to door, and as they did. Begging could be clearly heard from the other side of the metal door to the room.

"Stay away monster!...stay away from m---"

The begging was silenced by a gurgling sound accompanied by a limp body hitting the floor outside the big door. It was then that they heard the hoof falls thrice more before they too fell silent. Gusty looked towards her companions. Zeccaran cocked his head in a motion to remain silent. Bunker just hung dumbly his body slightly twitching. Considering Zeccaran to know more than her, Gusty did as he had quietly asked. However, the group would have significant trouble doing such.

The metal of the iron door sank inward. The great bending of the metal produced the sound of ten-thousand nails being bent at once. It was a hard and quick moan. The door was pulled out at its three hinges. The bracing was completely buckled. It was then in the next moment that the door sprang from its place with a massive gong. It landed before them with a very similar noise. The portal only produced darkness, a looming figure stood on its threshold. The shadow slowly moved forward seeming to drag the darkness around it along. It moved towards the light of the room proper. The haunting hoof falls this time were louder and even more precise.

However, the group, Gusty felt that she specifically, were not quite prepared for what or rather who was to appear before them. An enormous pegasus stallion quickly became visible in the light. He stood more than a head taller than both Bunker and Gusty, who were already substantially tall themselves. Like Bunker he was well-muscled, but his body was carved, honed. He had the appearance of somepony with literal lightning reflexes. On top of all of this he wore the most exquisite set of armor from head to hoof, its plating overlapping in the way only a master smith could make it lay.

Blood dripped menacingly from the four blades attached to his gauntlet shoes. The massive wingblades to match his magnanimous wings were also stained crimson. Mysteriously, though he had clearly been participating in exceedingly visceral fighting, his wings and limbs remained free of red. Underneath his helmet, bright yellow eyes sparkled with primal guile his face was drawn into an angry sneer.

The stallion quickly scanned the group before him. He practically growled at the sight of Zeccaran. Completely ignoring Bunker his gaze stopped when he reached Gusty. He balked as he scanned her body as if he was unable to comprehend what he was seeing. His surprise dwindled quickly and his sneer was replaced with a small devious smile.

"Y-you’re an alicorn!” He started, mulling over his words. “and the prettiest damn thing I think I have ever seen." he smirked.

His voice was not quite as rough as his exterior would have suggested. But he spoke with a strange accent that was as much bumpkin as it was sophisticated. It was certainly an odd combination much different that Bunker’s gruff broken Equestrian, or Zeccaran’s finer voice

"Ey! Dat's my wife! Stop staring!" The Bunker in question yelled. He had piped up quite quickly, but the new visitor had been waiting for that moment. "And what are you going to do meathead? Come down from those magic chains? Come kick my ass? As if you could!" the pegasus laughed haughtily.

Bunker to his credit thrashed so violently that an normal onlooker would again think he might actually break his bindings. However, the chains won out and drew him so tight he absolutely could not move. He had no means to even speak any longer either as the strain of the chains rendered his jaw stuck open. Zeccaran actually grimaced at the action this time and Gusty felt quite bad for him, especially once the pegasus laughed at his suffering. The blood-soaked vagabond then quickly turned his attention to Gusty, abruptly ending his laughter.

“The bad boy routine!” Luna squealed shocking the memory still and bringing Zeccaran out of Gusty’s experience. “I love the bad boy routine! He hasn’t done that since I first met him! How can she hate him so much? Giving her the special treatment right out of the gate!” Luna continued to gush. Zeccaran looked over at her trying to reclaim his bearing after being a part of Gusty for so long. One question dangling on the end of his tongue stopped only by courtsey.

“Uh...You know Princess...at first I thought you were teasing but now I think you have a problem.” he told the spectral see-through mare. Luna rolled her eyes and smiled playfully before gliding towards the frozen, cocky, grinning, Stormwalker.

“Whatever do you mean, dear Zeccaran?” she practically sing-songed at him. At this point Zeccaran was certain she was simply antagonizing him, thus even for her, he threw courtesy out the door. “Do you have a crush...on Stormwalker of all creatures?” he asked, disturbed. Luna responded by blushing and casting her eyes up and to the left like she was some school-filly.

“Well...I wouldn’t call it a crush perse....more an extremely healthy desire for him or a deep unyielding curiosity.” Luna answered with a shocking confidence. Zeccan just stared at the Princes of the Night, befuddled by this discovery. He had already learned more than enough about his companions and now he just wanted to be left alone to sleep. However, he just could not keep his mouth closed.

Whyyyyyy?” he asked in a painful lift of his voice. “Zeccaran,” Luna’s voice turned serious, “I know the thoughts and lives of all ponies in all of the world, as the Keeper of Dreams it is my business to know. But...there is one pony who is a total mystery to me: Stormwalker.” Zeccaran sat there transfixed, he was certain a more and more confused look was growing on his face before a gut reaction of his mind forced him to speak. “How?” he blubbered out in his daze.

“The blood that runs in his veins. The twisted fate that he should be born out of era...a demon without peer. Pony magic doesn’t work on him, even my Astral Magic doesn’t. I’ve never seen his mind, never learned all I could about him. He’s the only unknown...the biggest surprise, the-the...the most desirable companion I could have…” Luna responded before trailing off.

“Even after the purging ritual...I still couldn’t do it...he was nothing more than a regular pony then...just a big pony stallion...but normal and I-I...Forget it.” she suddenly cut herself off. “We should continue watching...I-I’ll try to keep my thoughts to myself. It’s just that I really like him..and I know he knows that but he never…” Luna shook her head and the memory started replaying as she looked away from him. Zeccaran fought it desperately trying to make Luna feel better, she had completely lost the chipper attitude she had had.

"Soooooo miss..." his voice tracing from high to low. "I suppose I should get you down from there so you can choose whether or not to help your unconsummated partner...He doesn't seem to realize I know his culture pretty well, heh." He mockingly cleared his throat. "Either way, I'll at least help you out. But, uh, one question: What is your name?"

“Hey!” he shouted at her, ignoring Stormwalker trying to swoon Gusty. Luna looked back over at him her eyes sad, but surprised. “Have you tried telling him you like him that much? I mean...He may be smart but the way you have been describing things makes me think he won’t try anything unless you are serious. Like...like maybe he’s hurt more than you realize.” Zeccaran could hardly believe he was talking about a demon quite like that. Maybe it was simply because he could not stand Luna’s forlorn look, maybe it was something else. He felt like he knew something...like it was on the edge of his waking memory, but just far enough away that he failed to recall. Unfortunately, his effort was wasted, Luna’s look of sadness turned to depression.

“No...I know how much he has hurt...and how I failed to be there for him...I’ve known him for twenty years and yet it's like I have never met him.” She answered quietly. “Thank you for your words, Zeccaran. For now though...help me feel what it is like to have him take interest in Gusty...then I’ll put you back to rest.”

“Of course. But...isn’t that a weird way to say ‘I’ll let you sleep?’” Zeccaran asked concerned by the Princess’s response. “Is it? My wayward zebra?” she replied more to herself than him. A terrible feeling of existential dread overwhelmed Zeccaran at her words. With the mysterious way he had begun this dream it left him wondering if he was even real, if he was just a projection of who he used to be. Gusty’s memory started flood over him as he was left to vacantly ponder if he was alive or actually dead.

Gusty did not like being put on the spot while in such a compromising position. She looked towards Zeccaran for help, his response was to make a face that suggested she had grown extra eyes and snouts. His silent point came across as: Just tell him, he's the only one who can help us. Like it or not.

The memory flooded over what was left of Zeccaran’s consciousness and became all of reality. With nothing left, Gusty was crowned the storyteller, and the episodes of his life would have to wait.

Gusty turned back to the stallion, which was a mistake. Before her, the great pegasus pulled off his helmet. He had a fairly long mane for a male and he flipped it up and swept it back where it clearly held to its usual position, its silken black a perfect compliment to his light-grey coat. Gusty felt her emotions gush as he met her eyes. He was more handsome than Bunker. He was a hundred whole worlds more attractive. She was rendered silent, however the stallion had a solution.

"Here, I'll go first!" He said earnestly, a broad smile on his lips. "My name is Stormwalker. I'm a...mercenary of sorts. I work for the Equestrian Crown, for the Princesses Celestia and Luna." He finished with a short bow, and looked back at Gusty expectantly.

He was too perfect to be true. The good Stormwalker showed up when they needed him, was clearly a supermodel in his spare time, and a skilled warrior to boot, Gusty didn't like it. She took a moment to concentrate. She needed to see if he was evil or not, the question had to be answered. After just one second she could perceive the area around her.

In her mind's eye, everything around her was covered by a dark shroud. It made Bunker and Zeccaran appear decadent, though she thought she knew better. It took just a moment to sift through the sensation, and found the overwhelming shadow's source. It came from Stormwalker. The darkness of the evil that resided in him enveloped the malevolent presence that the cave itself had produced. His evil was so potent that it..-it almost seemed reminiscent of something for Gusty. It made her want to run away just as soon as he got them down from the chains. Typically one for destroying evil, Gusty felt strongly that she didn't even want to fight him, that such actions would be at their best, ill-advised

Still, that was only thing that kept her from outright swooning at his appearance. The crawling on her spine his attention gave her, helped too, but not as much. Evil or not she could not deny his appearance. Worse yet, coinciding with her fear of the evil inside the stallion, Gusty felt that she somehow knew him. She could not place the sensation in her memories but the feeling shook her badly. So it was not with her usual confidence and marevalous bravado that she spoke.

"I-I'm Gusty Twilight" she finally stammered out, decreasing in volume as she went."Gusty Twilight..." the stallion did not miss a beat. "Well, Miss Gusty, I am glad to make your acquaintance. I can feel that you are indeed the genuine article..as far as alicorns are concerned. So without further ado let me get you down from there."

He stepped up closer to her, squinting at her horn. He murmured to himself and made a short grunt of resignation. "Hey Ze-zebra. This is the locking type, right? If it is, this is going to get...interesting." he dramatized.

Stormwalker reached over and adjusted how Zeccaran was hanging so the zebra could better look at the limiter. Zeccaran looked up at the thing on Gusty's horn. "I haven't seen one in a while but yeah it is. You can tell by that engraving on the side." Zeccaran replied calmly.

"Good. Just wanted to be sure." Stormwalker nodded sagely. "Are you gonna do what I think you are gonna do?" Zeccaran grimaced as he looked back at Gusty with worry.

"Yep. Only thing to do." Stormwalker clopped his front hooves together with a sharp inward breath.

Gusty was confused by their conversation. They seemed to know each other. However, she knew Zeccaran's personality well enough to know he would have greeted the stallion if he did. It was then clear that from Stormwalker’s previous reaction that he knew Zeccaran at least, and knew of his past. She would have to interrogate Zeccaran later. For now she was wondering how Stormwalker was going to get the horn limiter off if it was locked to her horn. She voiced her concern.

"So how are you going to get this off then? If it's locked, I mean." She clarified her thoughts as she went.

"Well....uh-I need you to concentrate on something,. 'Cause this is gonna be really awkward no matter what. So when you are ready, just tell me and I'll do the thing." he broke into bravado. "He's right Gusty, you will need to be pretty focused." Zeccaran chimed in.

Gusty grimaced the thought of what the thing was going to be, but did as instructed. Soon she was nearly in a meditation trance. She nodded when her breathing had completely relaxed.

Gusty could feel the heat of Stormwalker's body as he got within a single inch of her. Suddenly, she could feel his snout in the mane around her horn. It almost knocked her out of her state of calm, but she retained it even when she felt his mouth open and close down on her horn. She continued her breathing in regular intervals, steadfastly.

Stormwalker had to extend himself up to reach the top of her head due to her iron suspension. It was then that he slipped. To catch himself he slipped an armored hoof around the back of Gusty's head and into her mane which was not at all fine, though at least was understandable for balance. But, his contact didn't stop there. Feathers finer than the rarest diamonds and smoothest silk wrapped around Gusty's neck. They were warm, delicate, and so wondrously soft that instantly her breathing routine broke and she gasped with pleasure at the sensation of those immaculate wings touching her neck. Gusty, however, quickly remembered who was grabbing her and protested.

"Hey! Stop it! I was only okay with you removing the limiter, not feeling me up with your wings-no matter how-how...how uhm..nice they are!" Gusty blurted, entirely losing her resolve.

"Soorie, Soorie. I shipped. Naah he qui-et'" Stormwalker retorted hardly understandable with her horn in his mouth. "'ere 'e go." He finished.

Immediately, pressure began to build up in the area where he was biting. Gusty tried to go back to remaining calm but Stormwalker's slow breathing and wings which were still holding her neck made such incredibly hard.

Meanwhile the mercenary continued to put pressure on the limiter. It felt like he was going to break her horn. Suddenly there was a loud, Pop! and the pressure on her horn released. She could feel the stallion's tongue touch her horn. Gusty was about to scream in frustration from being violated but Stormwalker removed himself so quickly from her she was unable to object before he started himself.

Gagging, coughing, and spitting broken limiter to floor he managed to rattle out: “UGH!....they always taste so terrible!....glergk! *cough cough* it’s like someone melted down hoof clippings and burned fur into one single foul taste!” The big stallion continued to sputter and choke for a few moments. He even went as so far as to lick at his metal gauntlets complaining that not even the flavor of metal and blood could not make the horrid taste go away.

Gusty and her companions enjoyed his dilemma with merry laughter. Stormwalker to his credit didn’t seem to notice. Eventually, Zeccaran calmed down first just before the pegasus regained his composure.

“Well...hehehe...Gusty you can get us down now. You just have to levitate the pins inside the locks and the spell should break” He quoted. Gusty followed his request on herself first and quickly dropped down from her bindings. She landed gracefully, unfortunately, a little too close to Stormwalker who had finally regained his bearings.

“Careful, don’t get too close.” He purred, stepping closer, “Muscles over there might hurt himself.”Gusty turned about and chose this time to look at his neck, so she would not have to meet his eyes. This was much easier now, on the ground he was much taller than her.

“Would you shut it already? Just because you got me down doesn’t mean I trust you.” she did her best to sound intimidating, though Gusty had the distinct feeling this stallion could not become scared of anything.

“Pretty and smart. I like that...Well, get those two down then, I think I saw the place where they were keeping your things, I’ll go look to make sure.” He quipped eagerly. With that the mercenary grabbed his helmet from the floor and walked back into the black abyss of the other room.

Gusty shuddered in a combination of bodily desire and mental disgust. She did not waste any time freeing Zeccaran or Bunker but the process made it hard for her to focus on where Stormwalker had trotted off to, and she really, really did not want him sneaking up on her.

“I don’t like that guy. He’s a creep and evil.” She complained as Zeccaran’s chains went slack and the zebra fell to the floor. “You’re telling me. He makes my skin crawl just by being in the same room. And he doesn’t have promiscuous thoughts about me! Hell, he barely even looked at me and I’m scared.” Zeccaran murmured this. It was as if he spoke normally Stormwalker would hear him.

Gusty then turned her attention to carefully trying to undo all of the locks to Bunker’s restraints at the same time. Because he was pulled taut from his earlier struggle, it was proving difficult. It was right about the time Stormwalker returned to the holding cell, walking on three legs, Gusty’s cobalt skirt over the forth, that Bunker was freed.

Bunker took about one second to make sure his body still worked right before charging. No one present quite realized what he was doing until he landed a beautiful right hook on Stormwalker. Gusty gasped, Zeccaran hid behind her, and Stormwalker’s helmet flew from his head and clattered onto the floor, several metal twangs ringing in the now dead silence of the room.

You stay away from my mare.” Bunker growled. He was determined to get his point across. The earth pony drew back slowly watching his new rival process his actions.

Stormwalker’s eyes remained wide open throughout the entire ordeal. Upon hearing Bunker speak he very calmly took a single deep breath and closed his eyes. He readjusted his head and neck with a soft crackle and slowly, he turned his face towards Bunker. With his eyes still closed he responded with a cheery smile. That, somehow, was much more menacing that it should have been.

“Well, my friend, everypony gets one on the house. You used it quickly but you landed a very nice punch, well done.” He said quite vigorously. Stormwalker opened his eyes, his smile remained, but his tone changed, while it still sounded vaguely light-hearted everypony present was certain he was extremely serious about what he said.

“Don’t do that again. If you do....I’ll snap both of your back legs in half, disembowel you, and then strangle you to death with your own entrails! It would be a marvelous and horrendous experience, I promise.” Stormwalker retorted with such a snarl that Bunker flinched. And for the first time since Zeccaran and Gusty met him, short though that time was, Bunker backed down. He scooted his way over to Gusty and tried his best to not look intimidated by the mercenary’s statement. Bunker made sure to grumble curses but his lack of confident posture and locked-on-the-floor gaze was telling. His companions could not blame him. Their consensus was that this stallion, Stormwalker, was not at all what he appeared. Gusty shivered at the thought that he might be something much worse in disguise. Given the amount of malignant energy rolling off of him she would not be too surprised.

Stormwalker tossed the skirt he still held at Gusty. She caught it with her levitation, and quickly slipped over her flanks. She was as grateful as she was disturbed that he recognized she was uncomfortable with being undressed. Once she had finished she watched as Stormwalker picked up his helmet. He made sharp jerk of his head to indicate that her motley crew should follow. Gusty remained still in the icy silence of his gestures. Zeccaran moved first, slowly plodding after the immense pegasus. Bunker then made sure to walk in between Gusty and Zeccaran, ensuring the maximum distance from the mercenary would be left for Gusty. She followed as Bunker’s body language suggested and peered into the darkness and at Stormwalker as his form turned to shadow.

The next room was almost completely dark. The group followed Stormwalker’s black mass, until abruptly two wall mounted lanterns were lit seemingly by themselves. As her eyes adjusted to the sudden onset of light, Gusty watched the pegasus carefully as he folded his wings from their extended position. She wondered why he had had them unfurled, there was no way he was going to fly in this room, his wingspan took up nearly all of the room’s width. She then found exasperating heat rising to her face, and realized why he had been standing in such a manner. Sly he may have been, but Gusty was not into evil stallions, regardless of her body’s inhibitions. It also, thankfully, distracted her from the corpse of a young pegasus stallion lying by the wall to her left, with his throat cut completely open and his body surrounded by his blood.

Continuing his silent routine Stormwalker pointed with one of his wings towards a heavy box that was half-open and a large pile of equipment that belonged to the group. Gusty went over first, making sure her skirt was properly fastened on before she began sifting through the material, to keep the creeper’s eyes from venturing too far. She found her sword and pack on the bottom of the pile of material, right underneath Bunker’s spikey platemail. She levitated the stallion’s gear to him as she pulled on her scalemail hauberk and refastened her saddlepack to her sides. She noticed that Zeccaran did not possess many things and what things were his resided inside the box. Gusty watched as he grabbed and donned his small ratty-brown bag and his sickle.

A deep grunt of satisfaction to her left signified that Bunker had located his axe. She turned to see him spin it confidently in his forehooves before catching it and letting it rest against his chest, holding it balanced with one hoof and his neck. The pair made eye-contact. Bunker flashed his eyes in the direction of Stormwalker, and scrunched up his snout in disgust. Gusty nodded in agreement. She was glad that Bunker understood her feelings, sure he had heard them but the stallion was sometimes dense. While not the most intelligent of characters he did seem to have a strong understanding of life few beings possessed, Gusty liked that. She came closer to Bunker and was planning and giving her fiance a kiss, but a stiff throat clearing from Stormwalker gave her pause. Although the mercenary really did have quite the commanding presence, his gesture merely delayed Gusty. She didn’t have time to make the action as passionate as she wanted, Bunker wouldn’t care though. Gusty made sure to kiss Bunker just long enough that Stormwind would have to stop them. She thought that would be an excellent bad nickname for the stallion, she would use it just as soon as…

“Well, if you two are ready, I think it’s time we go get the rest of my stallions, if they aren’t already dead.” Stormwind said evenly. If he was upset he didn’t sound or look it when Gusty faced him again.

She smiled pleasantly at him. “What’s in it for us, Stormwind.” She stated she had no interest in helping him unless it took her Amethyst. It probably would but she wasn't going to let him think he held sway over her.

“Stormwalker.-I suppose gold if you want it...I’ll be honest I was expecting you to help on the grounds that I could have left you there to starve. But, I guess gold and my undying affection will have to suffice.” Stormwind sounded like he was about as enthusiastic as a cat is when it is to be bathed with water. “You struck me as a pony who doesn’t like having debts and liked doing the right thing, I was wrong, clearly.”

Gusty shrugged in response to his attitude. She was beginning to get bored of the great feathered hot-air-sack, he didn’t like to play ball. She sat patiently waiting for her moment to strike as he began speaking again.

“Anyway… The main chamber for the ritual site should be through this doorway.” He indicated a doorless arch Gusty had failed to notice before. She narrowed her eyes suspiciously, concentrating on what possible evils lay down the hall. She readied herself carefully search the distance beyond without confusing it with Stormwalker’s aura. It was actually easier than she was expecting, he wasn’t even outputting any evil energy anymore. She wasn’t quite sure how that was possible, unless he could mask his alignment somehow.

If he could that meant he was much more dangerous than Gusty had already realized. Meanwhile, Stormwalker had been discussing the best way to move on the ritual chamber, she only got bits of what he was saying.

“I have a bad feeling that the rest of my group may have already...We’ll need to move as a single unit and be quie-...traps and...so I’ll take the lead and...no. No. No! NO! Wait! Where are you going!?!” He screamed as Gusty ran down the hall as quickly as she could towards the dark presences she had felt just about the time Stormwalker had said he would go first.

She laughed to herself. Him? Take the lead? Not while I’m around! Gusty could hear him yelling angrily, presumably to her companions, as they all followed her.

“Crazy mare! Either I’m actually starting to like her or I’m gonna kill her!” he grumbled loudly. As if, featherbrain! she thought as she ran.

Gusty continued running down the poorly lit hall well ahead of her companions. She did not stop to turn down the various archways or examine the numerous ravaged bodies of cultists. Many were completed cloven in two, others with most limbs missing, the gore was clearly Stormwind’s doing. However, she stayed focused on the sinister energies building in the direction she ran.

Ahead of her several piles of well illuminated pony bones lay about the path. It was the brightest portion of the hall she had yet come across save the ever growing light of a very large chamber, the destination of her journey.

However, as she neared the heaps of bones they began to shake and quiver. Slowly, they floated up together and creaked with various tones. Before her, too close to stop or brace herself, stood three full-body pony skeletons. They began hissing and clicking in the typical undead way, threatening to cut her off. Gusty chose the only thing that came to mind. She lowered her head and horn and continued charging.

Either the skeletons had enough intelligence to dodge or Gusty was more full of dumb luck than she realized fore she whizzed right past them. Completely unhindered she continued down the hall pleased that her boney opponents did not have the agility to pursue. Gusty was much closer to the ruddy light of the ritual chamber, vaguely she could hear voices in front of her chanting, others screaming. She slowed to a stop only about thirty-paces from the entrance archway.

Behind her there was the distinctive sounds of bones shattering. It was the crunching and sharp snapping characteristic that made the noise of metal breaking ivory highly memorable. Gusty looked back to see Stormwalker not three feet from her, shaking bone dust off his body. Zeccaran and Bunker were there too, looking at Stormwalker in a type of awe and confusion. Gusty didn’t think there was much to see, skeletons were very weak perhaps annoying undead creatures, held together by their raisers levitation and anger, defeating them was elementary.

Still, he immediately chastised her. “What the hell are you doing!? Trying to give away our position!?” he hissed venomously his voice just a whisper over the now much more clearly audible chanting. Gusty went to make a witty retort but was stopped by the gasp of a familiar foal’s voice.

“I knew you weren’t with him! You came here just like I told you to and now you brought him here too! Mother will love this!” Amethyst chimed merrily. The little unicorn appeared seemingly from nowhere, Gusty guessed that perhaps she teleported. Given, the incredibly strong magic she had seen the foal already perform Gusty thought nothing of the feat. Amethyst swiftly trotted up right next to her and stood there proudly, blowing a raspberry at Stormwalker. After finishing her display she looked up at Gusty again.

“Come on! I need to prove to my mom that you aren’t helping him, so kick him in the face or something!” Gusty loosed a fake chuckle. Mostly to cover up the gasp she had started to make. Kicking Stormwind was a particularly bad idea.

“Little gem...umm. Do you know what’s going on here?” she asked Amethyst, both out of curiosity and the need to distract the foal from more off-hoof comments. She had definitely heard Stormwalker grumble something sinister, so keeping the wayward foal quiet was important.

“Well yeah. We are trying to summon a Nigh-” Amethyst started.

Unspeakable evil. You two, we need to stop them,” Stormwalker interrupted, barking stiff commanding orders at Bunker and Zeccaran. To Gusty’s disbelief both followed his instructions without question. She hoped they did so out of desperation but their responses did not seem to indicate such.

“Will do, I’ll take down Chrysanthemum.” Zeccaran pointed to the leader of the cultist up on the altar of the room. “Finally! Something I know how to do! Hitting things!” Bunker proclaimed beneath his zebra counterpart.

She did not know how Zeccaran knew the unicorn he indicated, but she balked as the Zebra charged screaming her name and ignoring the angry cries of the cultists. Then she heard the rest of what Stormwalker was saying. It chilled her to her core. His voice was rapt with anticipation that only obsession could make. The only reason Gusty didn’t take Amethyst and run right then was Stormwalker’s otherwise calm demeanor.

“I’ll be right behind you once I deal with the centerpiece!” He yelled, then quickly turned to her: “Gusty...give me that foal.”

“No. You are going to hurt her.” she replied quickly picking up Amethyst anyway.

The little unicorn didn’t protest beyond a short “whoa!” Gusty was certain he was going to do something terrible to the foal, misguided or not she considered children sacred. She would not ever condone harming them, no matter what the circumstances.

“You don’t understand. That foal is the key to them completing this ritual. Give her to me. I’m not going to hurt her.” Gusty looked down at Amethyst. The foal shook in her foreleg, she weighed her options.

Gusty felt the evil of the room, saw the light of the night. Whatever was going on was indeed monstrous, she surmised. She watched around Stormwalker as the world seemingly slowed. She saw Bunker, standing on the top of a set of wide steps and the raise platform of the chamber, blocking several blows from two separate opponents. The stallion retaliated quickly slashing but failing to break their guard. Another cultist, an earthpony wielding an axe as big as Bunker’s also moved to engage.

Zeccaran fought the three unicorns that were near a strange ritual table up on the same raised portion of the room. The middle one being his target, he seemingly ignored the others’ magic splashing on and around him. He responded with a blob of acid that he summoned from one of his hooves. Gusty was not quite sure how he cast magic without a horn so effectively but he did well with his “nature” magic as he so called it. His acid landed on one of the unicorn males causing him to fervorously try to get it off of himself. Still, even with Gusty in the fight, they were heavily outnumbered, as much as she hated to admit it, they would actually need Stormwalker to win. She decided whatever the mercenary was talking about she would have to listen.

“Sorry hunny. I don’t know what is going on, but I have to trust him on this.” Gusty tried to comfort Amethyst. The foal’s look of betrayal showed that nothing would ever make her forget this moment. Gusty very hesitantly extended her foreleg, Amethyst dangling dumbfounded. Still, Gusty had to make sure the stallion didn’t get too big of a ego from persuading her.

“Here, Stormwind.” She said.

He took the filly in a wing and hoof. Briefly, he looked directly into her eyes. Gusty watched carefully, but she began to wonder if she was hallucinating. Stormwalker’s eyes had changed. His pupils contracted into long slits and his irises emitted a dull glow. Before she could even blink to check her vision, he spoke up.

“Sorry to be this way Gusty, but I lied somewhat. I should have said: ‘I’m not going to hurt her...permanently.” he drolled, a grim smile spread his lips. The tight mouth grin spread wider and revealed a mouth full of razor-like triangle teeth, pairs of two long fangs like that of a dragon’s also appeared on his top and bottom jaw. Primordial fear gripped Gusty’s heart and stayed her hooves and magic. She had seen or felt something like Stormwalker before. The memories of ancient demons and wars sprang across her vision, blurring the line between illusion and reality.

That did not stop her from witnessing the scene before her as much as she would have preferred it did. As she stood still frozen in shock and disbelief watching helplessly as Stormwalker held Amethyst tight in his left wing. His right gauntlet extended its blade. In a smooth lightning quick motion a shssting! rang out as he showed his true colors.

Stormwalker severed clean the little foal’s horn at its bottom ring, leaving only an extremely short flat disk to protrude from her forehead. It was a display of precision as much as it was brutality. He caught the loose horn with his other wing and turned about and ran forward into the ritual chamber proper. To her credit, probably due to shock, Amethyst remained completely silent, her eyes wet and large calling for help from Gusty. Gusty saw this, but still was locked where she was, this time not due to fear, but due to anger.

HOW DARE HE?!? She screamed in thought. Not only had he lied but he just destroyed the foal’s magical potential, one that she had seen herself, and it was a great one indeed. She shook with righteous rage as she finally was able to move and followed the monster before her. He was the most foul of creatures, willing to harm children just to reach his ends.

But it was worse than that, ponies with horns were in contact with magic from birth, and to have that tie cut so completely and so quickly would damage Amethyst far beyond a normal physical wound. It was something Stormwalker could never possibly generate empathy for, even if she managed to rip off his wings as trophies and rob him of flight.

Quickly she reached where the demon stood yelling at the female unicorn called Chrysanthemum. The fight had ceased as all eyes in the room focused on the stallion threatening a foal. She gave Stormwalker her attention too, if only for a moment.

“Look, Chrysanthemum, and all you filth! Look at all your work ruined!” He boomed. It was more a vicious snarl than a voice, but it was understandable. It rattled one’s mind on the unsettling soul penetrating level. It did not bother Gusty too much but she watched as everyone else’s knees shook, even Bunker’s.

“Behold your toil and hardship ripped away for no reason other than to make you suffer! So you did unto me! Now the same shall be my revenge! Throw down your weapons, surrender so I may watch you rot in the Crystal Caves until you die of exposure all you rotten scum and your precious league of shadows!” He proceeded to make a horrendous clicking, crackling sound that was just distinguishable enough to be laughter, the mad laughter of a monster at least. He held up a shock-frozen Amethyst in one wing and her severed horn in the other.

Gusty had heard and seen more than enough. She could feel the malignant energy rolling off of him, there was no reason to reach out to sense it. She had to save Amethyst, and maybe even these cultists from Stormwalker, or whatever he was. She drew her sword with her mouth and slashed right at his exposed neck between his helmet and neck plating. He dodged left with a deft motion as if he knew the blow was coming. Wasting no time, Gusty threw her whole body at him, landing a solid punch as he wheeled his head around at her, but she didn’t knock his helmet off as Bunker had. As he flew from his hooves Gusty grabbed Amethyst from his wing with her telekinesis. She jumped away to give herself a safety distance from Stormwalker’s wingblades, while he recovered.

He caught himself with the grace of a cat. Spinning on one hoof with ludicrous agility, he locked eyes with her after stopping himself. The slits of his pupils widening to thick diamonds.

He didn’t attack instead he asked with an incredulous tone, and slack jaw: “What...are you doing!?” as if he could not fathom why she had hit him.

“Whose side are you on!?” he continued.”She’s our only leverage, the only way we can make them surrender. I want them alive!” He howled arrogantly. Finally, Amethyst began to wail in pain and terror. Gusty went to lower her into her hooves but as soon as the little foal wasn’t high in the air, Stormwalker dove forward and snagged her clean out of Gusty’s magic.

Gusty herself was unsure if it was maternal instinct or a deep hatred for demons but she felt a surge of energy. Before the demon-pegasus even landed she had charged, grabbing her sword with her levitation and holding it behind herself. She collided with him just as his hooves touched the ground.The result was Gusty landing atop of Stormwalker in a heap with Amethyst being flung into the air. This lasted about a second, for Gusty found herself being tossed aside as if she weighed no more than a cotton pillow, but the second had given her enough time to add telekinesis to the wayward Amethyst. She was able to catch herself and the foal before Stormwalker could stop her, this time holding onto Amethyst with her hooves.

She found herself so narrowly dodging Stormwalker’s front blades that she actually saw some of her fur coat being tossed up into the air. Gusty resisted the urge to gasp, and stood her ground once the monster recoiled from his miss. He stood blinking in confusion, but quickly regained his composure as Gusty pulled her old blade between them. Amethyst’s cries persisted as Stormwalker yelled over her, his fury primal, unbridled.

“Do you not understand what she has done? Look around you, Gusty! Those bodies are the remains of the best Royal Guard I knew! That little cretin is the one who killed them, losing her horn is a lenient punishment for her!” he growled.

Unsure if letting her eyes stray from Stormwalker was wise, Gusty peered around him. The room was wider than it was deep. a short five step staircase kept the upper platform above where she and Stormwalker stood. The room had a tall ceiling that arched up to a point above a rectangular box of an altar that sat behind the Unicorn cultists. The spokes of carved runes and symbols representing nighttime followed the dome to an circular hole where the full moon could be seen, where its pale blueish light poured through an wide iron grate. There was an archway behind this altar that led into a black recess of nothingness. Around it, blood covered the floor, walls, and its flush stone trimmings.

Gusty followed the blood up the walls. Behind the ritual table where Zeccaran and the unicorn cultists stood there hung a gruesome sight. Three stallions dangled from metal chains and hooks. They each had the remains of their armor on but their wounds varied in severity. The one on the left had his eyes put out and his wings cut off, judging by his discoloration and the great pool of blood below him he had been left to bleed to death. On the right hung a unicorn. His horn had been busted off leaving only jagged points. He had his genitalia cut off entirely, but the deadly wound came from the gaping hole in his chest. His heart lay on the floor below him. The last stallion, an earth pony, was suspended between his dead compatriots. Simply this stallion had received the worst treatment. Still twitching in his bindings, his eyes glazed with pain, he stared silently down at his own intestines. The organs and the holes they extended from spewed blood with each slow erratic heartbeat. He would be dead soon, Gusty hoped, for his sake.

“The summoner must be the one to kill the sacrifices. I know those older fools here don’t have the magic potential to bring forth that abomination. But she did. And now I plan to use her pathetic life to capture these cultists, so that they can be brought to justice and get my revenge in one fell swoop!” his proclaimed his demon-teeth in a sneer.

Gusty did not believe him. Even if it was true, Amethyst deserved a second chance, she wasn’t even ten years old yet. Gusty couldn’t let her be used as a bargaining chip. Trying to explain all of this to Stormwalker would have been impossible, so she jumped immediately to insults and criticism. Perhaps not the best choice, but it at least could keep her from panicking.

“You are a monster! How could you? You have no sense of morals at all! Willing even to harm foals, to condemn them before they could be redeemed! Handsome face or not you are truly ugly- more disfigured than even the most horrid of creatures! You are worse even than the fiends that manipulated this poor little foal into “doing” these atrocities, if she even did them! I would do anything to protect her from you. Even letting those cultists get away!” She spat.

Gusty did not bite her tongue in time to not say her last sentence. Her words, however, had a strange effect on the pegasus-monster. His look of fury dulled, and was replaced by a grim disappointment. Burning hatred rolled about his eyes with a faint glimmer. His fangs bared, he darkly gritted out a series of questions.

“So this is what you want then? You would allow them the freedom of death? After everything they have done you’d let them have that respite? I’ve wasted all my effort, and the lives of ten Royal Guard trying to capture them, just to have you interfere with some lopsided view of right and wrong?? Because I could have killed, neigh, murdered them all already, I still could. It would be EASY!!!”

As his yells turned hoarse, Stormwalker’s yellow eyes shifted into a bright glowing red, emphasizing his skinny black pupils even further. He pulled off his helmet, revealing his seemingly alive mane. Likewise, his wings seemed to lose some of their sharp lines and feathers, and his tail, narrowly visible behind his bulk mimicked his mane. Whatever power he held it was about to be unleashed, Gusty could feel it. And she certainly did not want that pent up anger unleashed on her, her friends, or Amethyst. Besides using evil to destroy evil was as ironic as it was rightful.

“Yes. And I hope you are thrown back to Tartarus you filthy demon!” She whispered in response to his questions. He sneered, his eyes flickering with disgust at her decision, Gusty would have been offended if she hadn’t been trying to calm down the still screaming Amethyst and not die to the malevolent monster before her.

“So be it then. But know that this mercy, their salvation from the torment they deserve, is on your hooves, Gusty Twilight.” Stormwalker stated with virulent venom. His voice was hushed which gave it an unsettling calm to its tone.

Dropping his helmet he turned about to face the still dumbfounded crowd behind them. Out his wings snapped, their accompanying blades glinting in the moonlight that shone from the hole in the ceiling, it was followed by a curious clicking of something hitting the floor. With a single stroke of their feathers he was airborne, not particularly high into the air but enough to be above the ponies on the raised portion of the room. His speed was incredible for the action, his four gauntlet blades deploying as he neared the three cultists around Bunker.

He landed squarely on the largest of the group. All four blades entered the cultist’s flesh up to Stormwalker’s hooves. A gut-churning crunching and snapping echoed out as the stallion’s legs and chest collapsed under the demon’s weight. Instantly, the frozen ponies reacted and the fighting resumed with a vicious intensity. The cultists quickly converged, the two melee combatants turning to engage the demon as it dislodged itself from its first victim.

Gusty watched in astonishment as Stormwalker ignored them entirely, switching his attention to the pair of spellcasters that had been by the cult leader. Abruptly, this reminded her of the noise she had heard moment ago when Stormwalker had flown off. On the ground within easy reach was Amethyst’s horn. She grabbed it quickly, and stashed it into her bag, readying a spell of her own to put the hornless squawling mess in her hooves to sleep. She looked up at the battle before her as the spell charged.

Zeccaran was slowly approaching the cult leader, who stood alone as her guards moved to engage Stormwalker. He seemed to be pleading with her, one of his hooves outstretched in a gentle gesture. Gusty couldn’t quite hear him but it sounded like he said: “Chrysanthemum, I forgive you, it's ok.”

For some reason this terrified the mare. Gusty had no idea why, maybe it was Zeccaran’s still severely swollen face. She hoped his face was the reason otherwise Zeccaran was probably hiding some terrifying secret she wasn’t ready for herself. However, seeing that he had the situation handled she looked away to find Bunker.

Bunker slammed his axe into the back of one the cultists. The blow knocked the stallion hit to the ground, and looked to have effectively paralyzed him. Abruptly, the other melee combatant was thrown from where Stormwalker had been. He hit Bunker on the side, sticking into one of the spikes on the big stallion’s platemail. Cultist and Bunker tumbled back, rolling over one another several times and stopping in a heap. Bunker quickly got up, cultist still attached to the spike of his armor. Cursing as Gusty watched him struggle to get the dead body off of himself. Hesitantly, she looked toward Stormwalker.

The Unicorns had finally set up and began casting spells at Stormwalker. He made no attempt to dodge one stunray and one acidray. Both impacted his face and neck area, he didn’t even flinch. The red stun bolt fizzled out as if it had hit a wall, while the acid formed into a green ball and rolled down Stormwalker’s face and armor, not doing any form of damage to flesh or metal. The demon smiled belligerently, his fangs glinting in the light.

This was supremely jarring for Gusty. He’s ignoring their spells altogether! she fretted internally realizing that her group had no way to stop him. Finally, the three seconds that it took the sleep spell to charge came to an end. They were the longest three seconds of Gusty’s life. She looked down into Amethyst’s fear-ridden eyes, smiling with as much comfort as she could. She cast the spell, the golden aura of her magic surrounding Amethyst. Instantly, the filly was asleep. Gusty stowed her too in the bag on her back. If she was to wake the alicorn did not want the child seeing anymore of this, she had seen too much already even for several lifetimes.

Gusty looked up to see the head’s of the unicorns go flying up and away from their bodies. Blood misted into the air around Stormwalker and his wingblades. His eye’s glowed with an even stronger light and he loosed a half-growl half-laugh ghastly enough to make the flames of Tartarus glaze over with ice. She inadvertently gasped as she heard it. This caused the demon to look towards her.

She quickly averted her gaze as he looked in her direction. Instead, she saw Zeccaran doing something so completely out of place that Gusty had to rub her eyes to make sure it was real. Holding onto the cult leader by her haunches, he was kissing her. She flailed about in a muffled scream, trying to pull herself away from the zebra. However, he held fast, still pressing his face to hers. Chrysanthemum paled and stopped struggling. Gusty watched in growing surprise as Zeccaran pulled away from the Nightmare Priestess. She promptly vomited. She loosed a few more hysterical cries, tears streaming down her face, and suddenly went limp in Zeccaran’s grasp. The sound of Stormwalker’s unearthly, true voice cut into the scene, forcing Gusty to finally look at him.

“Give her to me now, Zeccaran.” His voice ripped at the very fabric of sanity for Gusty.

It was familiar as it was guttural and horrifying, why this was she remained uncertain. How he knew Zeccaran’s name, she also did not want to know, but Gusty knew one thing for certain. They needed to run. Now. Stubbornly though, Zeccaran shook his head in refusal at Stormwalker’s demand, moving Chrysanthemum to one hoof. His eyes were wide with primal terror as he drew his sickle from his side, tying it to his free hoof as he uttered shaky words of warning.

“I-I-I won’t l-let you take her. E-even if I have to…” His voice trailed off as his expression turned dark and serious. “You wouldn’t dare.” Stormwalker retorted, stepping forward.

“I would. It’s the only chance I have left.” the zebra stated holding out the sickle near a portion of his other forehoof that he was using to balance himself and Chrysanthemum upright.

If Zeccaran had a plan, Gusty wanted to see it through, especially if it could kill this monster they had found, or at least delay him. She looked to Bunker, who was staring on, a fearful expression on his face.

“Hit him- Now!” she yelled, firing a blast of magic at Stormwalker herself.

The demon turned in surprise, and looked at Gusty, only to be hopefully blinded with by the light spell she had cast. From behind the haze of the bright orb she saw Bunker swing his axe in a full-bodied spin-swing. She heard metal hit flesh.

On the other side of the sun-orb she saw Zeccaran start making strange hoof motions. He spoke in a strange language she did not recognize. He seemed to remain in a trance as he made his motions. Quickly the sun-orb dissipated and she could see Stormwalker again.

He stood staring at her. His eyes remained still, their red betraying no hint of the overwhelming pain he had to be experiencing. Bunker’s axe had buried itself in his side just underneath his chest harness and his flank plating. He bled profusely from the wound, his blood gathering in a dark pool between his hooves. The whole head of the axe was hidden in Stormwalker’s flesh, it had to have hit something vital. But Gusty’s hopes were dashed quickly.

Without ceremony he turned and grabbed the handle of the weapon in his mouth. Timidly, Bunker relinquished his astonished grip. Gusty watched on, feeling the same horror Bunker’s face expressed. The demon pulled the blade free, sending his steaming blood and viscera about the floor. Meanwhile, of its own accord the gaping wound healed itself. The entrails that normally would have been freed from such an injury, remained visible and in their place. The flesh around them regrowing and pulling together with a supernatural force and precision.

The display left no mark on Stormwalker, almost as if it had never happened. That alone was terrifying. A creature that could survive such grievous wounds without so much as a scratch was not to be trifled with. However, that did not disturb Gusty as much as the ever increasing likeness this monster had with the demons in her dreams of the past. She wished she could remember them more clearly. Wished in the deepest reaches of her mind, that whatever Zeccaran was doing would work, that this nightmare would end. Meanwhile Gusty stood awestruck, with no means to stop what happened next.

Tossing the axe off towards the far wall. Stormwalker turned on Bunker. He landed two punches from his forehooves before Bunker could flinch. The third was an upwards blow to the chin that sent Bunker reeling back. Spinning with his own momentum, Stormwalker planted himself for a full rear leg buck. He landed it immediately, before poor Bunker could place his front hooves down. The strike sent Bunker flying into the same far wall as his axe had, accompanied with several quick pops that could only have been ribs breaking. He hit the distant location with enough force to cause the dust on the walls to shake free. He then slid down to the floor. He did not move.

Gusty felt hot tears stream down her cheeks. Maybe she hadn’t really planned on marrying the fool, but she had still liked him a lot, even if it had only been a two days. She turned to look at Zeccaran who now stood atop the altar, without Chrysanthemum. He was balanced on his hind legs his sickle piercing into his one of his forelegs. His blood rolled over the limb and hit the altar top. The moon turned a heinous red and the room darkened to black. The only light that shown was the moon and the red light of Stormwalker’s suddenly terrified eyes.

If it was enough to scare that demon, Gusty realized that Zeccaran’s plan might not have been the optimal solution. Still, it gave her time to run over to Bunker. She was a capable magic healer, but from the beating he took, she wasn’t sure if Bunker was even alive. She reached his side only by illuminating her horn which barely produced light at all in this unnatural darkness.

Bunker was breathing, barely. His eyes were closed and remained that way as Gusty called on her own magic and Origin to help her stallion. Her golden aura surrounded his chest, and it seemed to regain some of its natural shape. She gave him a poke as soon as she finished. He did not move which meant it the wounds were no longer causing pain. Gusty slapped him awake.

“Come on! We need to get out of here before-” She was cut off by Stormwalker. “You idiot!” he snarled. “This was the very thing I was trying to prevent! You’ve-you’ve..you’ve doomed us all! Ruined everything!” He stood shaking where Gusty could see him silhouetted in the new freshly-spilled-blood pallor of the moon.

I’ll kill you!” He jumped up to where Zeccaran stood on the altar staring up into the moonlight. His blades snapping out from their gauntlets with shhhck-clings. Gusty gawked in surprise as Zeccaran moved as fast as Stormwalker. He glowed red with the light of the moon and seemed to be surrounded by a group of black ethereal flames. He dodged Stormwalker’s attempt to behead him with ease. The zebra then retaliated with swift and jumping uppercut as Stormwalker’s blades hit nothing. If the demon was perturbed by Zeccaran’s actions he did not show it in his face, as he reeled back. His features were too pulled into a fanged snarl to tell. However, he moved to return Zeccaran’s blow with an even speedier motion that, to Gusty, was not much more than a brief blur.

He slashed open a deep, terrible wound from Zeccaran’s lower left stomach all the way up to his right armpit. Zeccaran calmly placed a hoof over his wound and clambered down from the altar. The magic flames around him extinguishing save over the sword damage he had sustained. He turned his gaze to the moon again, and smiled devilishly. Gusty soon found out why. As Zeccaran limped over towards the archway behind the altar with the now awake Chrysanthemum, the moon’s light stopped suddenly.

Using the dim light of Stormwalker’s eyes, Gusty looked towards the iron grate to see a black inky form fall down from it slowly. It piled up on the altar and took the shape of a blobby pony. It’s head slowly forming after its body. Golden eyes without pupils manifested in stark contrast to its black body. A wide mouth spread across the shadow’s face, seemingly stretching beyond its head. Its teeth twinkled like stars, long and skinny, numbering in the thousands. It was the quintessential nighttime horror.

Gusty had no need to sense the creature’s evil. It was one of those primordial terrors of old that was like Stormwalker. She knew this in her heart of hearts. She knew not how, but the sensation and its implications were undeniable. Gusty felt fear grip her chest but this time she knew she wouldn't freeze up, couldn’t freeze up. Pulling the still semi-conscious Bunker up she started moving to where Zeccaran was somehow standing looking on as the demons stared one another down. Gusty hoped whatever dark magic he had summoned would keep him alive long for her to walk the short distance to him. The red light over his body turned off just as she started moving.

She believed she had enough energy to at the very least stop from Zeccaran from bleeding out. As she approached the dark figure she thought was her zebra friend, she readied a healing spell. Chrysanthemum lit her horn enough for Gusty to see the severity of Zeccaran’s condition. The cultist mare held him up as the zebra gurgled incoherently, biological shock completely overwhelming the magic holding him together. The blade had not only cut deep into the flesh, but had cut clean through all of the zebra’s ribs. Gusty grimaced at the amount of force that had gone into the strike. Poor Zeccaran was already turning grey from blood loss, but she was ready. Casting the righteous spell of her holy touch, Gusty was pleased to watch as Zeccaran’s wounds healed as Stormwalker’s had. Save for a thin pink scar the damage would never show. With a grunt of full-consciousness, Bunker step past her and quickly picked the zebra up and hoisted him onto his back, Zeccaran’s eyes unfocused as he did so.

Demon speak turned Gusty’s attention back to what was behind her.

“Come on we need to go. Now!” Zeccaran surprisingly said, his eyes gaining their focus just as Gusty was turning around. She must have done a better job than she had expected.

Quietly as she gazed at the monsters circling each other around the altar; somepony’s hoof pulled her into the archway that lead to a hallway. Gusty continued to watch the two abominations the entire time.

She motioned her companions to go, adding “I’ll be right there...I just need to see something first.” They listened to her silently, even Bunker, their hooffalls began making their retreat down the long dark corridor.

Gusty devoted the next five seconds to try to memorizing Stormwalker’s features and the Primordial Shadow’s magical presence. Gusty recognized the language they spoke. She would have understood what they said in their hisses and raspy words but chose, rather successfully, to simply not listen. The entire time, the two creatures’ magical energy expanded to astonishing levels. Gusty had never felt raw magic potential like the two demons before her and she had fought their kind for thousands of years. Well, she thought that, if the alicorn was being honest, she was unsure if those memories were even real.

Gusty focused on Stormwalker, trying to recall those very memories. He had found his helmet again, its sharp edges increasing his already vicious look. As he and the Shadow continued their snarling debate the demon-pegasus’ wings lit with flame, their flesh ceasing to exist. His tail followed suit. His mane stuck out defiantly from his helmet, it's flaming presence passing through the metal and burning away the tassels that characterized the standard pony helmet. The effect brought enough light to the room that Gusty could see his pulsing muscles and crazed eyes. His mouth was nearly as wide as his Shadow counterpart, his bigger more triangular teeth pulled up into an arrogant sneer. In short, he was just as much an eldritch horror as the creature Zeccaran had summoned.

Suddenly the ghastly pair stopped conversing. They roared at one another. Their clashing throaty yells piercing into a chilling harmony. The Shadow’s magical presence flared up even greater than before, tentacles of pure darkness extending out from its body. Stormwalker’s inflamed visage struck out, burning with a heat so ferocious that Gusty had to step back several paces to not get burned even at the far distance down the hall she was already at.

Their fight began. It took all of Gusty’s remaining willpower to watch for just a few more nanoseconds. The two monsters, moving with speed and grace too fast to understand, ripped at one another. Their bodies entwined into a struggle of fire’s light and oil’s darkness. Their cries of pain and hatred alone enough to motivate Gusty to leave.

So she ran. She ran faster than she ever had.

Gusty galloped down the corridor never looking back. Hoping that she would wake up from this mess of a dream. It couldn’t be real, she thought to herself. Either way, I’m not staying to find out!

Her adrenaline snapped, fear pouring its feral intensity into her body.

Quickly she caught and overtook her companions. Yelling at them to run faster as she passed. She continued sprinting for a countless time feeling the little Amethyst bounce about on her back, still safely in her sack.

Carved archway upon carved archway passed as she ran. Finally a dull light appeared ahead, quickly growing into orange haloed door to the outside. She broke its threshold and saw the red moon’s ruddy hues before her. Gusty took to the sky without waiting for her friends. She soared up to the low blue clouds of the sky beating her wings harder than she had ever before. Gusty could still feel the battle of the demons deep in the caves behind her. The freedom of the sky did little to calm the sensation of evil she felt. So she flew, beating her wings endlessly. She flew until time blurred together and she lost herself. The only thing that mattered to Gusty was escaping the tingling sensation of danger that hounded her. She felt that she never would.

Act 1: Chapter 7 - Retreat

View Online

"Magic has simple physics. The larger the creature the more magic they can hold in their bodies. Excellent examples of this are Princess Celestia, Hydras, and Tirek. While not all magic is the same in these examples, each creature, particularly Tirek, is an example of magic being related to body structure. In essence, Hydras are huge because they need lots of 'space' to store the massive amount of Simple Magic needed to regrow their heads. Celestia is significantly larger than the average pony because she needs the additional mass to compartmentalize the Complex Magic she has. Lastly, and most obviously, Tirek became larger the more magic he absorbed. This is the basic principle behind the physics I will be describing.

-Excerpt from Twilight Sparkle's Doctoral Treatise-

Zeccaran watched as Gusty flew off faster than his eyes could track. Beside him Chrysanthemum released a sigh. He turned from his position on Bunker’s back to look at her. She looked haggard and scared. Her previous beauty withered and broken by the dark events of the cave.

“We must reach the village before one of those monsters wins their fight.” She said to him.

Zeccaran nodded in agreement.

“Yeah, hopefully some guards or somepony will be able to get word to Canterlot.” He responded as he slid down from Bunker’s tall back.

He was finally feeling capable of walking now that the nausea had subsided. There was nothing quite like getting hacked open from navel to neck to induce sickness.

“But what about her?” Bunker interrupted Zeccaran’s thoughts. “Demon or not, Stormwalker said she is enemy of state. She will be taken if we go to guards.”

Zeccaran was impressed the Bunker had thought that far ahead, especially when he hadn’t planned that far himself. He was pretty smart for a barbarian that Bunker. Opening his mouth to say they needed a plan Zeccaran found himself cut off by Chrysanthemum.

“It doesn’t matter. We need the whole country of Equestria to know what is going on in that accursed cave. I fear that it will take more than the might of both solar sisters and all their armies to defeat the victor of the demons’ duel.” the priestess declared.

“Are you sure? I didn’t save you just so you could get executed!” Zeccaran felt his mouth protest before he could think about what he was saying. Chrysanthemum looked surprised, so did Bunker, Zeccaran continued the thought. “You’re still my friend, even if you are a bad influence.” He said placing a hoof on her withers

“Thank you. But my life is of little consequence compared to the totality of life on this planet. Especially after all that I’ve done... “ Chrysanthemum paused. Zeccaran could see pain and regret in her eyes, slowly it was replaced with determination. “But this is my chance to maybe actually do some good.”

Zeccaran wasn’t really sure he had heard her correctly. He waited for her to continue, she did so jokingly much to his relief.

“Besides, the Night Mistress would be most upset if the world was to be destroyed by those abominations.” She remarked with a sad smile on her face. “We should get going.”

The trio of ponies began walking away from the entrance to the Cave. Chrysanthemum and Zeccaran walked next to one another while Bunker brought up the rear. Zeccaran wasn’t completely sure where they were going. He remembered that there was a town nearby nestled by a small river off somewhere in these woods. It was the dead of night and the town was likely closed up and ponies were asleep. Unhappy and unfriendly ponies did seem better by contrast to getting eaten by a demon. Zeccaran wondered about the possibility of royal guards being stationed in the town.

Some decent time passed as they plodded along.

While walking Zeccaran tried to piece together why the Cave had had such a strange affect on him. He had remembered being there before. He had remembered the ritual of the Dark Pact. He had even completed it. But he didn’t even know what the Dark Pact was anymore. He only knew how to perform it. The Shade he had summoned, the magic he had felt course through his body before Stormwalker had knocked it out of him. He had used it before, he’d seen them all before, he had done this all before. But he couldn’t piece it together.

Why don’t I remember more than that? He tried to divine. How could it be that he, a druid, possessed these strange and malignant powers?

It certainly wasn’t who he was now, and he never wanted to go back to whatever past he had. Zeccaran knew going back would mean something terrible. The only path he had now was forward, away from the darkness. He knew such in his heart of hearts but why he knew he had no idea and had struggled to understand for years now.

A prickling on the back of his neck at the base of his mohawk reminded him of the other issue he now faced. He had become the Nightmare Shade’s physical conduit. He was the black monstrosity’s tie to this plane of existence. Zeccaran could actually understand what it was doing, how it felt, how it fought, the sensation belonged to a beast not of this world. He hoped it would go away soon. Even if that meant Stormwalker won the fight, he didn’t want to become a slave to the Shade. Over their connection the creature chuckled darkly with delight. It was winning the fight. He began walking faster trying to put more distance between himself and his unholy ward.

They continued trotting north for about an hour. The ever growing delight of the Shade intensifying as they went. Zeccaran looked over at Chrysanthemum. She noticed his gaze.

“What’s the name of this place we are heading to?” he asked trying to break up the silence and distract himself from the Shade at the same time.

“The town is called Hallow Shades. It's not a very big place, but it has a train station and a royal guard barracks. We will be able to immediately get word to Canterlot from there.” She responded.

“How much further is town? Sun is coming up.” Bunker interjected. He pointed at the faintest pink hues in the sky to the east.

Chrysanthemum looked off towards the north again. She turned back. “Probably hour or so at this pace. If it weren’t for these damn trees I’d say we run there but as it stands…” Zeccaran nodded in agreement, they couldn’t press their pace, the ground too uneven and filled with unpleasant roots.

He could see the thick trees huddled together tightly in the forest making the only path the beaten and twisted route they were on. Bunker grunted behind Zeccaran and they fell silent continuing on and leaving the zebra to listen to the Shade.

Their connection now strong enough that Zeccaran could actually hear what it heard, think what it was thinking. It was performing the most excellent manic laughter he had ever listened to. It had defeated Stormwalker, only needing to strike the final blow. Caught in the moment Zeccaran stopped walking too distracted by the Shade to help himself. The Shade spoke in that abyssal tongue he didn’t understand, but the message was clear through its thoughts. It told Stormwalker to die. The Shade lunged at Stormwalker only to suddenly be stopped. Zeccaran felt its cold inky tentacles embedded in something warm but there was something wrong.

The Shade just barely started to panic when pain rolled out from Zeccaran’s chest and encompassed his whole body. He vaguely started to scream before the shock of the torture intensified enough to knock him from his hooves. He blacked out. He could still hear the screaming. Shrill tremors that threatened to peel him from this realm and toss him into the Void alongside them. It was the Shade. It wailed and wailed and pleaded and shrieked. Then all was silent.

Zeccaran woke to Bunker shaking him. He wasn’t sure what had happened. He felt odd, like a great weight had been lifted off his body.

“Zeccaran. What was that?” Chrysanthemum asked. He opened his mouth to answer only to gasp in revelation. The Shade no longer was communicating. The connection was empty, destroyed. It was dead.

“He killed it.” he whispered, finally. Chrysanthemum’s eyes widened in terror.

“But how...” she murmured.

“I-I-I don’t know...the Shade had him beat then something happened...maybe he took it with him to the Void.” Zeccaran tried to make sense of what he had seen and experienced.

“It doesn’t matter. We need to move as fast as we can. Come on!” the mare said.

Chrysanthemum pulled him up from the ground. She began practically jumping to level pieces of ground between the gnarled roots of the forest. Bunker quickly followed suit, his size not impeding him in the least. Zeccaran did his best to catch up but only barely kept pace. They continued at this heightened pace for some time. The zebra found himself getting dizzy from exhaustion.

He bumped into Bunker who had abruptly stopped.

“Hey, what did” Zeccaran paused to breathe, “What did we stop for?”

Chrysanthemum gave him a “shhh” and motioned he come up closer to her. Zeccaran kept trying to calm down his heart rate, he wasn’t used to running for such a long period of time. He wouldn’t ever admit it but he was out-of-shape, tired, and frustrated with today’s events.

The constant fighting was wearing his nerves thin. Discovering an eldritch horror and personally summoning another one also broke upon his mind like waves against soft rocks. Anger was beginning to well up in his chest and even though he knew that if they were spotted by any of the Equestrian Military his day would only get worse it was the only thing they could do. Finally, catching his breath enough to look up from the ground Zeccaran stretched over Bunker’s shoulders to see what was on the other side of the fern the group hid behind.

A patrol of Royal Guards trotted slowly along a dirt path. It was the first road Zeccaran has seen in a month, no doubt it led into town. Eventually, the guards made it past their hiding spot walking away from town. Zeccaran wondered where they were going at such a leisurely pace and felt paranoid that they were only moving away from the village of Hallow Shades so they could turn around and trap Chrysanthemum. Royal Guards,especially the Inquisition Units, like the ponies that had come with Stormwalker, were hardly stupid. The thought made his already pulsing head hurt.

He was still trying to wrap his head around the whole Shade business and the strange influx of new knowledge...and memories? Honestly, he wasn’t sure what was reality and dream anymore. He had been cut in two less than an hour ago He didn’t know how he had known this place or even how he knew Chrysanthemum. But he knew. Zeccaran could actually feel that what he thought was real, he knew the mare in question and he knew the cult. He just wished he knew why, the how was seeming more and more frivolous by comparison.

“Let’s go.” Chrysanthemum whispered. She took the lead and passed around the shrubbery.

Zeccaran nodded and followed his once-friend. They jumped out onto the road and began a full gallop, no longer hindered by the trees. His chest and legs had begun burning sometime ago and now as they neared the blurry outline of buildings in the early morning gloom.

They were almost there, there were no guards, nothing stopping them from finding help. A smile started to appear on Zeccaran’s face. He felt an immense sense of relief. Ahead of him Chrysanthemum slowed down and loosed a deep sigh. Bunker made a short laugh next to him. Something was finally going right today. The sun slowly was breaking the horizon through a gap in the trees on the other end of the road past the town.

“Hold it right there!” shouted a stallion’s voice heavy with a Canterlot-accent.

A pair of Guards shot from around the nearest house and snapped both a horn limiter and pair of forehoof cuffs on Chrysanthemum. They moved with careful precision and it was over before Zeccaran could even open his mouth to protest. Chrysanthemum let out a short shriek of surprise in an almost comically-late fashion before one of the Guards shot her with a point-blank stunbolt and hoisted her onto his back.

“Hey! Wait! W-we have an important information that the Princesses need to know!” Zeccaran proclaimed finding his voice.

The Royal Guards looked at one another briefly before the smaller one turned and addressed him with a disbelieving look.

“Seriously! She has important information on what just happened, a key witness.” Zeccaran started. “And what about due process? You didn’t even read her rights or-”

“I’m gonna have to stop you right there.” Smaller Guard cut Zeccaran off.

“She’s a twice escaped multi-murder convict. She lost her rights a long time ago, guy.” he growled.[

“The only reason we didn’t use more force is because the Colonel specifically gave us orders to make sure she was completely unharmed.” Bigger Guard said pulling closer to his counterpart.

“The Colonel?” Bunker blurted out.

“None of your business, either of you. And if you have some form of complaint to make you should go to Canterlot and visit open court. I’m sure the Princesses would love to hear all about whatever it is that you are sooo concerned about.” Smalls condescended.

“You aren’t even going to listen to me?!” Zeccaran countered desperately.

The two Guards shook their head and started walking away, Chrysanthemum limply hanging from the bigger one’s back.

“No reason to listen to two blokes who were colluding with an international criminal.” Bigger grumbled his voice fading.

“Should...should I hit them with axe?” Bunker turned to Zeccaran and asked as soon as the guards were out of earshot.

“Arrgghh!….No! As much as I would like you to, getting arrested for attacking Royal Guards helps nopony.” Zeccaran gritted his teeth. He spit on the ground in anger.

“What now den? Find wife?” the barbarian conjectured.

“Yeah...let’s search the town, I guess. Stupid Equestrian justice system.’ Zeccaran grumbled.

The unlikely pair of stallions fell silent as they began to see who was awake at sunrise in the tiny town of Hallow Shades. There were very few buildings in the dusty village though all had grey stone walls and red-painted tin roofs. A town meeting hall, one rather large inn which was swarming with Royal Guards, and about twenty homes were all that occupied the three streets of the town. There was a rundown and underused looking train station as well but nopony was even staffing the ticket booth.

Zeccaran and Bunker continued wandering around the town for about an hour. They began yawning by the time the sun was further up in the sky and the journey around the town grow more sluggish with each passing minute.

Zeccaran caught a fragrance of early morning pastries being baked. He quietly began trotting towards the scent. Bunker behind him mumbled something incoherent about sweet rolls and the need for several. They followed the smell for a time passing back through the town a coming to a hexagon-shaped building they had missed earlier.

It was a bakery. Slightly larger than few homes of Hallow Shades the confectionary shop sat near a broad, bubbling brook. Zeccaran could almost see the pony-lifting aroma as he strode towards the front door. He drew in an extra deep breath before opening the squeaky door to reveal a quaint little shop. The walls were a cheery sky-blue and the floor was tiled with a checkerboard of off-white and dusty pink. A large display case hid dozens of donuts and small cakes on various shelves behind glass. Nearby was a countertop and a cash register. Three tables arranged with four chairs each were the only other things in the room.

“Hello?” Zeccaran asked the empty room, wondering if the closed door that was behind the counter hid ponies.

“Da. Is anypony der?” Bunker said much louder as he shut the door behind them.

A sudden clattering and clanging of metal rang out dully for behind the door. The door sprang open and a lime-green pegasus mare with a blonde mane rushed out of the obvious kitchen. She gave a quick scream before catching her breath.

“H-hello! oh...uh...ummm.” She stammered.

“One big rusty red fellow, and a zebra...You must be Miss Gusty’s friends!” she proclaimed with a huge smile.

Both Zeccaran and Bunker loosed a “duhhhhhh” as she continued.

“Here! Have some of our fresh bakes on the house!” she said as she opened up the back of the display and pulled a whole tray out.

The young mare quickly dashed around the counter and placed the tray on the table nearest Zeccaran and his friend. She looked earnestly at them motioning for them to sit and eat. The two both grabbed similar looking muffins and began eating. The entire the nameless mare st a smiled pleasantly seemingly happy beyond reason. Zeccaran had to ask.

“Uh..mmm!” he swallowed his current bite first. “How do you know Gusty anyway?

The mare drew in a deep breath, “You wouldn’t beeeelieve it!” she gushed.

“In the middle of the night my husband and I heard this crazy noise up on the roof and then all the sudden a big teal alicorn smashed right through our bedroom window!” the mare was practically yelling in her excitement.

“At first we were scared until she bumbled right out of our room down the stairs and ate all of our day-olds from yesterday.” She continued.

“And she said, I’ll never forget: ‘These are the best pastries I have ever eaten! I want to buy your shop!’” The mare did a rather excellent rendition of Gusty’s authoritative voice.

The pegasus cleared her throat, “Then she reach into her bag, pulled out a sack of coins, and not just any coins, mind you, real gold bullion! After my husband counted it all up it turned out she offered us about seven times more than both what the shop is worth and all the money we have ever made here! So we sold out….and and and and! You wouldn’t believe, she said we should stay here and comfortably run the bakery just like we always wanted to so long as from this point forward she gets only ten-percent, ten-percent of the profit. That’s it! This has easily been the best day of my husband and I’s life!...and she mentioned her friends might come along so the least we could do was make you all a wonderful breakfast to show our thanks!” she finished with an positively radiant smile on her face.

Zeccaran subconsciously felt the last half of the muffin he had been eating fall out of his jaw. He just sat there unable to respond. He picked back up the last half of his food and shoved it promptly back in his mouth and stared at the plate as he chewed. Bunker did something similar but Zeccaran barely noticed.

He had known Gusty to have some sort of non-equestrian gold, but had no idea she had the amount the mare had referenced. Better yet Zeccaran wasn’t quite sure why Gusty bought the place. Their food stuffs were good certainly but he just didn’t get it.

“So, she just showed up at like...I don’t know, 1 to 2 in the morning broke in, ate some of your food, and offered to buy your home…and. You. Let. Her……” he more stated than asked.

“Yep!” the mare chirped as she did a spin one hoof with her wings. She was as happy as a clam.

A curious set off loud hoof-falls could be heard moving from above them towards the far wall. Zeccaran realized he had missed a set of stairs and down them came Gusty Twilight. Most of her mane was wadded up near her neck and she trounced down the stairs in a zombie-like state. She was without her bags and other equipment and only wore her skirt and the undershirt for her mail.

“Coffee...” she mumbled, taking no notice of Zeccaran or Bunker or even her host.

Zeccaran didn’t bother to say anything to her and just watched as she then practically kicked open the kitchen door and strode through ungracefully. She quickly returned with a huge mug of coffee in her magic. Remaining transfixed on some other realm Gusty sauntered over to the table where they sat and pulled out a chair to join them.

Zeccaran stared on in mild horror as the teal alicorn drained the big mug of still steaming coffee in a single go then picked up two danishes and shoved them in her mouth. It took maybe a few seconds for her to chew them up and finish her breakfast. She was a wind-up clock, as soon as she finished, Gusty’s mane flushed out into its usual position, her eyes brightened up, and a her usual mischievous grin appeared.

“Good Morning, Zeccaran, Bunker. Glad you made it!” she sing-songed.

Zeccaran facehoofed.

How are you in a good mood?” he asked prodding a slice pie he had been eyeing.

“Well...I guess I decided to change up how I do things and it relieved some stress.” she said thoughtfully.

Every time Gusty had “thoughtful moment alone” Zeccaran got a little more scared. Against all odds they had turned out OK this time, but it hadn’t been because of Gusty. Whether or not she had saved him earlier, the reason they weren’t still fighting for their lives now was because Stormwalker had somehow managed to kill the Shade. He really didn’t know how to address the situation, he decided to start with Gusty’s most recent sentence.

“It...relieved some stress, really? That’s it?” he questioned incredulously. It didn’t help that he was tired from running and not having slept and being cut open like a melon.

“Yes. I have decided I to change my attitude to better suit Equestria and more effectively help ponies.” Gusty replied regaly.

“Okay. Great. Just great!” Zeccaran complained.

“Vhat is vrong, tssebra?” Bunker raised an eyebrow at him mouth full of cake.

Zeccaran turned to look Bunker in the eye. He received a look of confusion. He returned his gaze Gusty only to garnish the same result from her. He opened his mouth to try and explain his frustration but only made grunting noises instead. It wasn’t that his two friends wouldn’t understand him or why he was upset it was just that Gusty wouldn’t care and whatever Gusty wanted Bunker went along with. He absolved instead to just hit his head on the table a few times before sitting back up and jumping to a different topic as she was curiously missing.

“What about Amethyst? How am I supposed to get Gunther back? Aaaand they took Chrysanthemum so what do we do about that?” he scowled at Gusty.

Gusty’s face pinched into a quick scrunch. “Oh.” she said.

Zeccaran rolled his eyes.

“Well good news, is...since I decided to change things up I focused all morning on remembering some ancient clerical spells in order to fix Amethyst’s horn. To make it whole so to speak.” she summarized.

“I actually got it re-attached just before I came downstairs. It really sucked using all that magic but, with practice it won’t be too bad. So, we just go snag Gunther later today after you guys presumably take a nap?” Gusty shrugged.

Zeccaran forcefully exhaled from his nostrils.

“You fixed her horn….on your own….What even are you?” he chastised, his anger growing.

“She’s a Celestia-given gift is what she is, and as interesting as this story is, I’m not sure I want to know more of it so I’m going into the kitchen to help my husband ready for breakfast rush!” their lime host declared.

With a sharp about-face the mare pranced away to the kitchen door humming merrily, content to ignore what Zeccaran could not. He jealously leered at her good fortune and rubbed his eyes trying to refocus his mind. Gusty was right, he needed some sleep. However, there were matters that had to be attended.

“Ok. Fine. What about Chrysanthemum?” he asked again.

“Do what with Cultist Mare? She is criminal of realm.” Bunker interjected.

“Well, it’s not fair, she should have a chance to be redeemed. I mean she really changed after getting away, and it wasn’t fake I’m sure of it.” He argued.

“Zeccaran, for her it is far too late for regret.” Gusty started. “Her punishment will be measured out as she deserves it regardless of her newfound remorse. Face it. She was evil and she’ll get what’s coming to her regardless of what you think or any evidence we can give the Royal Guard.”

“Ok. Fine. But wanna know the kicker to her being gone?” Zeccaran spat through gritted teeth, trying to ignore Gusty’s callous nature.

Gusty raised an eyebrow with almost arrogant aloofness.

“You know that Shade I summoned? Yeah. Stormwalker killed it.” he remarked with a hoof wave.

Gusty’s eyes widened and her jaw dropped. Zeccaran was glad that she was grasping the volume of trouble they had stirred up. He knew for certain Stormwalker hadn’t been lying about working directly for the Princesses. If he had somehow survived, within the week their little group would be branded criminals of the highest order. He hoped Gusty realized that this was a very real and imminent threat to them.

Suddenly Gusty’s eyes narrowed and she stood up from the table. Taking a quick step up to him Gusty put her face against his own her teeth barred. Zeccaran had no idea why she was doing this, or what she hoped to accomplish. A crazy over-powered mare she may be but Gusty was nothing compared to the previous night’s events. The realization made Zeccaran feel particularly numb when she started grilling him with questions.

“How do you know the Shade is dead? How do you know Stormwalker? And, most importantly, how did you know those Cultists and how to complete their ritual?” She growled at him.

He paused. He only really knew the answer to the first question. Everything else seemingly kept jumping out of the dark recesses of his mind at random and inconvenient intervals. Zeccaran decided he really did not have the brainpower to properly answer her question. His mouth was dry from drinking the coffee and even with the caffeine in his system he was starting to fall asleep. He just slowly put his hooves over his face as he responded.

“I lack the adequate words to answer your question right now Gusty.” His voice extra nasally behind his hooves.

“What do you mean, you don’t have the right words? Gusty was practically snarling. “What are you hiding from me!?”

“I’m not hiding anything, I’m literally too tired to explain. Now if you'll excuse me.” He said standing up.

Zeccaran walked towards the stairs as Gusty kept hurling questions at him. He really couldn’t hear her anymore, he barely even had his eyes open. Everything was slowly grinding to a halt for him and it felt like it took several minutes to reach the stairs. Zeccaran took his fateful first step up the nicely carpeted ascension to hear the extremely fast thumping of small hooves.

Amethyst was suddenly standing at the top of the stairs, the most enormous grin on her face. She released a long high-pitched squeal of joy before shooting down the stairs.

“My hoooorn’s baack!” she sang out.

Zeccaran had made two more steps up when Amethyst intercepted him. She didn’t bump into him terribly hard but it was enough in his tired state. Being knocked off balance and having a lethargic reaction time, Zeccaran found no ground beneath his hooves. He fell down the few stairs he had climbed and landed in a heap on the ground. He hit his flanks and his head and decided that there was no reason not to be “knocked out” and closed his eyes. He heard Gusty mumble something but he he was quickly asleep and free from his aching mind and body.


Gusty scooped up Amethyst as the filly danced about the dining room. She looked back at the now snoring Zeccaran. She grunted in frustration. Amethyst, meanwhile was continuing to sing-song the praises of her returned horn and was busy lifting random tables and chairs into the air and spinning them enthusiastically. Gusty got Amethysts attention long enough to shoot a quick scolding at her.

“Hey settle down a little, I don’t want to ruin these ponies' home, silly!” she said to the foal.

“Oh! Okay. Could you put me down then?” Amethyst asked. Gusty obliged.

“There’s some cake I see that I want!” the little pony chirped.

Amethyst rushed over to table where Bunker still wearily sat and hopped up onto a chair. The foal shoved her whole face into the remaining the cake. Gusty snickered at the tiny unicorn and walked over to the table to busy herself plying Bunker with questions. Besides asking Zeccaran anything and getting an answer was like pulling teeth.

“Alright, hot shot,” she started. “Did you overhear anything important Zeccaran and...what’s her name..Chrysanthemum? Said to each other?’ She asked.

“No.” he stated.

Gusty stomped a hoof and gritted her teeth in anger. She looked away from Bunker upset that the Cultist Mare had bother to keep her mouth shut.

“Only thing of importance dey talk about was warning Princesses. Then Royal Guard take her away and ignore Zebra’s attempts to tell them: ‘Is bad idea.’” Bunker continued.

She looked up at him hoping there was more.

“Cultist Mare did not talk at all elsewise. But, why not ask little cake-covered filly? She likes you, no? Was Cultist child, no?” Bunker conjectured groggily.

Gusty took pause. She hadn’t bothered to ask Amethyst about Zeccaran and his past. Considering that the little filly had mentioned several times that she and her mother knew him Gusty felt foolish for overlooking the detail.

However, she didn’t want to pressure Amethyst into anything. She had just went out of her way to prove she held the moral high ground the night before and wasn’t about to give that up. Perhaps if she distracted Amethyst with a task today while Bunker and Zeccaran rested she could get an answer out of her.

An idea occurred to Gusty that would both speed up their trip to Canterlot and help Amethyst trust her more.

“Hey, Bunker, honey?” she said to her stallion.

“Da!” said Bunker with a jerk of his down leaning head.

“Why don’t you go upstairs and get a nap in. I’m going to take Amethyst to get Zeccaran’s dog.” she said.

Bunker yawned and nodded simultaneously before gradually getting up and starting to leave.

“We are gonna go get Woody!?” Amethyst suddenly squeaked excitedly.

“Yes, but not with your face turned pink from the icing!” she replied.

Gusty grabbed an unlucky napkin from under the serving tray with her magic and began cleaning the filly’s face. She took the opportunity to ignore the fact that Amethyst had been rather intently listening to her conversation. Again, Gusty had forgotten an important detail; Amethyst was exceedingly intelligent, not even for just a foal.

When she finished cleaning her ward Gusty picked up the filly with her magic and plopped her on her back. She grabbed the last bit of cake that sat on the table and stuffed it in her mouth. Just as she was making her way to the door a clatter came from behind her.

“Leaving already?! You are always welcome here Miss! Please do come back!” cried her hostess.

“Don’t worry I’m just going to run some errands.” Gusty consoled the young mare.

She nodded enthusiastically at Gusty. “Okay the breakfast crowd will be starting soon anyway, see you later!” she waved from the counter.

Gusty paused briefly as she watched the pegasus fill up the display with steaming baked goods. She noticed Bunker staring at the sleeping Zeccaran on the ground.

“Drag that striped fool upstairs with you would you, sweetie?” she asked him.

Bunker grunted and grabbed Zeccaran’s tail and began dragging him up the stairs. Gusty smiled glad that her companions were quickly out of sight and wouldn’t bother the shop’s business.

She left the shop with Amethyst in tow. They walked around the town for a short time, Amethyst merrily humming from her back. Gusty stopped to grab a bag of apples from the local market stall before taking flight over the small village with the intent of returning to the entrance of the Cave.

“Awesome!” Amethyst gasped as they got up high above the trees.

“Hold on tight, kiddo!” Gusty said turning her head enough to see the filly brightly smiling.

Gusty executed a hard dive making her zip towards the trees. Amethyst squealed in a mixture of shock and joy. Gusty pulled a tight loop into a barrel roll making the little filly’s voice become even shriller and more excited. She made a few more hard banks to the left and right and listened to the child raspy screams of surprise. Gusty found herself laughing at her young ward’s screams.

“Had enough?” she yelled over her shoulder as she leveled out from an spinning dive.

“Never! This is amazing! No pony has ever taken me flying before!” Amethyst’s smile could be readily heard in her reply.

Gusty wasted no time putting on speed and performing all manner of tricks and flips as she made her way towards where they had left Gunther. Amethyst screamed with delight the whole way, panting in between dives and clinging to Gusty’s neck tightly as they traveled by the extra low clouds.

Gusty released the breath she had been holding for what seemed like a whole day now. She was pleasantly free from the feeling of terror she had been experiencing the night before. The relief lifted her wings higher and made Amethyst seem happier than she already was, it made Gusty feel quite good about herself. The night of demons was over but it would seem that there was still more to do before she could believe Equestria and its myriad of innocent ponies were safe from the monsters of the Cave. First, though she needed to talk to Amethyst about her mother and try to see if the little filly would like Gusty herself to care for her.

Her wings were hurting from all the extra exercise by the time the small clearing where the iron door into the Cave came into view. Gusty slowed down by pitching her wings flat against the air and was forced down quickly to the ground. She flapped as she came hurtling to the ground causing a hover just as her hooves started to touch the ground, landing with grace.

Amethyst hopped off of her back and darted towards the tree where Gunther still lay dejectedly. The poor timberwolf yipped in shock at the sight of the filly while Gusty got distracted by the empty portal into darkness. There was a trail of blood leading from the door. The trail looked like it had been left by something being dragged from the depths of the Cave. The occasional deeply smeared and scorched hoofprints in the dirt suggested that the marking belonged to Stormwalker. What was left of him evidently determined to crawl away from the battle. There was a copious amount of blood on the trail leading off into a deeper part of the woods. The fluid was the deepest of reds nearly black and gathered in great pools with enough volume to make Gusty wonder if he had drug his ruined body off into the forest to die. She hoped as much.

Amethyst giggling and Gunther barking made her turn her head towards pair. The filly noticed her gaze and looked away to the ground as if she was embarrassed. Gunther held a stick in his mouth and otherwise looked happy to be free of the magic rope he had be tethered with. Amethyst snapped her head up and practically jumped over to Gusty in one leap.

“M-miss Gusty, how did you fix my horn?” she asked her voice rapt with anticipation.

Gusty was taken aback for a moment but managed stifle her gasp. She was more than happy to tell Amethyst, she just hadn’t been expecting her to flat ask the question.

“I used a very old spell, child. It’s not pony magic.” she answered.

The spell was a very ancient clerical spell. It could literally make severed limbs or broken bones mend in an instant. Gusty had never used it to repair a horn before, in fact she hadn’t used the spell in what felt like centuries. Since the spell could “make things whole” it was all that she could think to do with the injury. Gusty had been elated that it had proven to be so successful. She had always been awesome anyway, right?

“Can you teach me how to do stuff like that?” Amethyst chirped merrily, “I always wanted to learn magic that is more fun or can help me or other ponies...but…” she started to mumble gloomily.

Gusty felt a surge of happiness spring forth from her heart. It made her throat and face burn but it made her feel exceedingly vindicated. She had known Amethyst was worth the trouble. She picked up the foal in her hooves determined to make her her own apprentice, maybe even a daughter.

“Of course!” Gusty gushed. “I’ll certainly try. It’s not magic meant for just anypony but I bet you will be able to learn how to do it!”

She swung the filly around in her hooves causing Amethyst to giggle. Gusty flopped to the ground dramatically and let her ward land on her chest, who continued to giggle merrily. Gunther even came over and plopped his face on Gusty’s stomach making for a rather awkward, but genuine moment. For a while they grew quiet and looked at the blue sky selecting clouds and comparing them to animals.

“Where’s my mother, what’s going to happen to her?” Amethyst blurted out quickly.

Gusty was unable to stop herself from drawing in a loud breath. She had not been expecting Amethyst to start the conversation first. If she was being honest the older mare was glad the foal was smart and concerned enough to start the talk. She had no idea how she was supposed to inform Amethyst that her mother was currently be carted off to some dungeon or worse. Still, even now under the best of circumstances she was hesitant to answer the filly.

“I know she wasn’t a very good pony. And...she made me do things I didn’t want to a lot but she still took care of me...she was still my mom…” Amethyst continued her voice sad.

Gusty found her gumption hearing Amethyst be remorseful of her twisted mother’s loss. She pushed up Amethyst's face gently with her free hoof and looked into her eyes. The filly was crying her lips pushed out in a cute little pout.

“Little gem, I must tell you.” Gusty started her voice shakier than she wanted it to be, “Chrysanthemum did many terrible things besides last night, things you probably don’t remember and shouldn’t try to either.”

Amethyst scrunched up her nose and sniffled dismally.

“The Royal Guard took her away as she came into town this morning with Zeccaran and Bunker. They said the soldiers were taking her away to be imprisoned again. And it pains me to say this: She won’t be escaping again, they likely will execute her.” Gusty finished.

Amethyst just looked away. Her face pinched in pain. Gusty stroked her mane as a few tears fell from the filly’s eyes. She rattled out a rough sigh and lowered her head to Gusty’s chest her usual happy glow faded.

“Now what am I supposed to do? Even if they don’t kill her, mother will never be released. Where do I go? What will I do?” the little filly groaned.

She surprisingly wasn’t crying but instead had the air of someone experiencing an existential crisis. Gusty found it profoundly disturbing that somepony as young as Amethyst was capable of being such a pessimistic adult. She resorted to hugging Amethyst as the filly pouted and grumbled dolefully. She tried to wait to let Amethyst calm down some but Gusty refused to let any child suffer if she could remedy it, especially for this one who she had started become exceedingly attached to.

“Amethyst?” she stroked the foal’s mane again, “I could always take care of you.” Gusty said kindly.

Amethyst sniffled again and looked up at her, her eyes sparkling with surprise.

“You would?!” she breathed at Gusty. “After everything I was really surprised you wanted to even teach me magic!”

“With a watchful eye even the most rebellious little fillies can do lots of good.” Gusty replied booping Amethyst on the nose.

“Hey quit it!” the youth jumped up onto her full diminutive height on Gusty’s chest, her face extra scrunchy.

Gusty laughed and sprang up from the ground forcing Amethyst to catch herself. She ruffled the foal’s mane after Amethyst continued to make a cute little annoyed face at her.

“Come on little gem let’s walk back to give Zeccaran and my future husband time to sleep.” Gusty chided.

Amethyst rolled her eyes.

“Why wouldn't you fly?” she complained.]

“Do you know how old I am?” Gusty smugly retorted.

“No. Do your old wings hurt?” Amethyst squinted.

“Well they do hurt.”

“So do my hooves though!”

Gusty blew a raspberry at her young companion who blew one equally spitty back at her. They laughed at each other.

Gunther started following them merrily barking and running around them in wide circles as they entered the forest. Amethyst broke from her side and jumped on the back of the dog with surprising agility. Gunther didn’t object beyond a short bark and slow of pace in his running.

“I’ll just ride Woody then.” she smiled triumphantly.

Gusty grinned at her new daughter and continued to plod along, glad things had went as well as they had. It certainly was a giant leap of success compared to the last couple of days. It would take them about an hour to get back to the village of Hallow Shades. Gusty gave in and flew them after while, Gunther yowling in terror the whole way as Amethyst held him in her magic through the trip in the sky.


Something hot and slimey was licking Zeccaran’s face. He slapped it away, much more content to sleep. The licking returned immediately this time more insistent. He opened his eyes and drew in the smell of timberwolf breath connected to a familiar face. The zebra wasn’t sure what to do upon seeing his canine companion and simply sat there getting licked for a bit. He eventually got up and gave his dog a hug before stretching and getting out of the bed he found himself in. He had fallen asleep at the bottom of the stairs and evidently had been transported here.

He started to walk towards the door when it burst open. Gusty stood glaring, filling the space.

“Good! You are already up. We need to get moving!” she proclaimed with a wry smile.

“To where?” he asked still groggy.

“Canterlot.” she decreed sagely.

“Thought you’d never ask.” He responded dryly.

Zeccaran pursed his lips wondering what extensive line of thought Gusty had taken to come to the conclusion he had the night before. He followed her down the stairs to find the confectionary shop relatively empty. Beyond Bunker drinking coffee and the two ponies that owned the place, the only other face was an elderly stallion who was reading a newspaper.

“It’s time to go, he’s awake!” Gusty practically yelled to the room.

Amethyst appeared with a hissnap!

“Does that mean I won hide and seek?” she asked.

Gusty gave her a nod. Zeccaran stretched again, feeling like he hadn’t gotten enough sleep while his companions gathered their things. Gusty put on her mail while Bunker refastened his armor straps. Having his bag already attached he sat idly noticing that his male host, a blue colored unicorn fellow was attempting to creep towards him along the wall, a large paper bag in his levitation. Gunther was busy licking his legs and sniffing the stallion over, who in turn just kept saying: “nice doggy, good doggy” on repeat.

Zeccarn whistled at his companion.

“Gunther! Leave him alone!” he demanded.

Gunther turned around to cock his head to a side like only a dog could.

“Come here.” Zeccaran again demanded pointing next to himself.

Gunther obliged and the stallion visibly relaxed. He floated over the paper bag to Zeccaran. He could smell it was filled with something deliciously baked.

“Something for the road.” the fellow’s tenor voice rattled off.

“Thanks!” Zeccaran replied.

“I will never know how that thing is your pet.” he shuddered, shuffling back to his too-busy-to-be-scared wife.

Zeccaran gave a short laugh and shook his head. He stowed the bag of treats in his satchel before stalking over to Gusty and company with Gunther. They were finally ready to get moving, all their bags and equipment strapped to themselves. They started heading to the door Amethyst getting telekinetically lifted onto Bunker’s back by Gusty. They made it out the door and down the stairs of the porch and out in the road before the thumping of hooves caused their party to stop.

The young mare burst from the door. “Gusty Twilight! Do come back and visit would you?” She yelled, “You really changed my husband and I’s life, you are welcome any time!” she was all smiles.

“As soon as I can, I will, I promise!” Gusty shouted back.

“Good bye!” she waved.

The group waved back as her husband appearing, waving too.

Zeccaran realized he hadn’t gotten her or her husband’s name. He shrugged, they were nice ponies, it was better he didn’t know their names in case they were somehow implicated in helping his group. He looked around the town as they walked wondering why that the Royal Guard hadn’t come for them yet. At this point they were could easily be considered arrested for an obstruction of justice charge.

In fact the town seemed to be devoid of military activity. Earlier that morning they had been almost everywhere now only the few townsponies strode the streets, making the town seem even smaller than it was. He was confused. Why would the authorities let them go? He couldn’t think of a real reason so he let it go and kept moving with his friends.

They came to a sign alongside the road on the outskirts of town. It had a few different pointing plaques. The pointing north along a very underused path said: To “Equal City” 79mi. The one directing ponies to the west stated: To Canterlot 188mi. Zeccaran grimaced wondering why they weren’t taking a train.

“I know numbers. Is place we are going the bigger one? Why not take magic steam wagon?” Bunker asked before him.

“Spies travel on trains.” Gusty replied boldly “And spies help badness like Stormwalker and his minions. We walk.” she concluded.

Bunker nodded. Zeccaran was left to wonder why Gusty was so paranoid. Then again he wasn’t one to criticize her for being neurotic when it came to avoiding trouble. That had basically been his modus operandi before he had met her. It left him simply agreeing to trot the long distance in as much haste as possible.

“Besides about one-hundred of those miles are walking around and then up the mountain to the city. We aren’t doing that. We’ll fly up once we reach the eastern face of the spire.” Gusty said as they had begun moving.

“You are the only one that can how is that gonna work?” he asked her.

“Can’t you shapeshift, ‘Mr. One-with-Nature?’ Like turn into a Great Eagle or maybe some other flying thing that should work.” she smirked smartly mocking him.

“Oh. Yeah...sorta forgot.” he grimaced in shame.

Gusty just laughed at him.

Thus, they began their journey. It was early afternoon perhaps two o’clock and they briskly trotted for hours uninterrupted by a passer by or otherwise. They stopped and took a break for about forty minutes eating the goods the bakers had given them and enjoying some water. When they picked back up to move again the sun’s disk was still just above the horizon, visible through the slowly lessening trees.

The Canterlot Spire had come into view some time ago, probably about an hour after they had left Hallow Shades. Now though the mountain was much more prominent in the horizon. As they had started moving Gusty had broke into a light gallop in an evident race with Amethyst. The two kept that pace the rest of the evening as the sun set and the moon’s not-quite-full face shown itself lowly above the trees behind them.

He hadn’t gotten much sleep and by the time Gusty and Amethyst gave out Zeccaran had been running on fumes. He flopped down the ground a wheezing mess. Bunker did something similar.

“Why do females always run so fast?” he grumbled next to him.

Zeccaran could hear Gusty and Amethyst giggling a distance in front of them.

“Well we made it, we really hauled but we made it!” Gusty was yelling between breaths.

He looked up to see a rock face a short distance away, illuminated by the bright light of the moon. They really had made it to the base of the mountain. He was ready to sleep now so he could be well-rested for the morning’s very upcoming and unfortunate flight up.

“Hey, you guys,” Gusty said as she walked closer, “Amethyst and I are going to scavenge around for some kindling and extra firewood. Here’s the last of my starter logs.”

Gusty plopped down one of her bags to the ground and a dozen or so medium to small logs rolled out. Zeccaran and Bunker just gaped at the wood. Neither were aware Gusty had run that distance with that much lumber and were both impressed and shocked.

The mare quickly trotted away towards Amethyst who was making her little horn into a flashlight. Zeccaran pulled himself over to the wood and slowly took the logs and made them into a pointed cone. Bunker righted himself after a while too and they sat their in silence but otherwise breathing heavily. Gunther came plodding up while they waited, he panted heavily as he laid down having just caught up with their group. Zeccaran petted his friend’s head, the poor timberwolf was not nearly as fast as a pony and he was proud the dog had managed to keep pace so well.

A series of chicken clucks could be heard suddenly. Bunker turned his head toward the sound while Zeccaran only directed his eyes there. The bush from where the noises emanated moved back and forth violently. Out popped the heads of six chickens. Zeccaran pulled up his lips in disbelief, there was no reason someone’s yard poultry had made it so far into the wilderness.

The chickens all released a violent hiss like a snake before crawling from the shrubbery revealing their bodies. Each were covered in scales with four stubby clawed limbs that looked to be wilting. Zeccaran knew what they were immediately, even before their eyes began to glow bright red.

“Cockatrices! Don’t look them in the eye! In fact close your eyes!” he cried, pulling his sickle from his bag.

The fiend creatures moved to surround them as Zeccaran mostly closed his eyes and looked to the ground. He was not in the mood to be turned to stone after surviving all the other ridiculous things he had been forced to endure in the last twenty-four hours.

“How do I hit them if I cannot see them?!” Bunker yelled in panic.

Zeccaran had no idea. He had a bad plan in mind but it was his only plan so he blurted it out.

“I’m going to run around and try to get their attention just swing your axe down when I tell you!” he screamed back.

He started running towards the damned bird-lizards as soon as he finished. He planned to entice them and run past Bunker while they chased. Since neither of them could really look at the birds without getting turned to a rock it was their best chance. Fortunately, the cockatrices took his bait.

They took it too well in fact. As they began chasing him leaving Bunker alone they nipped at his back hooves. Cockatrices bites couldn’t case much damage, but they hurt. It was like having somepony light the affected area of flesh on fire from the inside. Zeccaran made his first run by Bunker, grunting in pain.

“Now!” he yelled just as he passed the big stallion and his axe.

“Yeearrgh!” Bunker screamed, followed by the sound of the axe hitting bone. “Did I get one!?” He yelled, his eyes still closed.

Zeccaran turned hard around the unlit campfire and looked as he ran. Bunker and completely smashed one creature into bits.

“Yes! Let’s go again!” he bellowed triumphantly.

He started his second pass the cockatrices close behind. Zeccaran sprinted as hard as he could past Bunker again.

“Again!” he declared.

Another cockatrice could be heard splitting as he passed. His legs re-erupted in fire. The four remaining and snapped onto one of his legs. He started screaming in terror and pain desperately bucking his leg before falling to the ground. He dared to look at the beasts long enough to see that his leg was now bleeding profusely from the sheer number of bites and tearing motions the cockatrices where making. He kicked at them with his other leg to no avail.

“Zebra where are you, how do help!??!” Bunker yelled as he swung his axe at nothing.

Crackling, ppttdeww!’s of stunbolts passed his just over Zeccaran’s head. He looked towards where they had come from to find Gusty and Amethyst standing with horns still smoking. The cockatrices attacking his leg fell limply to the ground their faces locked in something similar to ironic horror. In the next instant Gusty’s old sword floated over in her golden magic and stabbed each one of the horrid beasts though the chest in quick succession.

He laid flabbergasted but glad the monsters were dead his lungs heaving from running and trauma. Gusty walked up and looked him over and noticed his mangled leg. With a flash of her white light as she picked up the damaged limb, the pain he been experiences disappeared. It was such a stark change of sensations Zeccaran only managed an awestruck gasp.

“Filthy creatures.” Gusty said lifting the corpses away and tossing them into forest.

“Bunker you can open your eyes now, and stop swinging your axe around like a lunatic” she drolled out.

“Oh!” Bunker said stopping.

Zeccaran just didn’t know what to do. He managed to stand and see nothing but darkness. He heard sticks being dumped to the ground and the sound of flint and steel clicking. In a moment a fire started to glow behind the silhouette of Gusty and he could see.

“Hey Bunker, “ she said. “Take first watch ok? Wake me up before you fall asleep for the night.”

Bunker nodded and sat down silently staring angrily at the bushes as if he expected more cockatrices to appear. Zeccaran plodded up to find a very asleep Gunther.

“You only ever manage to get in trouble when i’m not around, huh?” Gusty said to him as she unrolled her sleeping bag.

“Yeah I guess so.” he responded laying down next to his dog.

“Well goodnight then.” Gusty unceremoniously said as she flopped down pulling a tired looking Amethyst in the roll with her.

Zeccaran just laid where he was and ponder how he had gotten tangled up with this mess. He decided that it wasn’t worth his time and fell asleep with his head propped against Gunther’s belly.

Act 1: Chapter 8 - Canterlot

View Online

"Well at least I'm not a great big jerk on the inside too!"
-Gusty Twilight-

Gusty looked up at the sharp rock face of the mountain. At the top was her destination, Canterlot. There, where those mysterious alicorn regents governed, she would get some answers. Answers for that demon in the cave, answers for their harsh justice system, answers for whatever questions she would ask them. Gusty needed those answers. The thought of actual risposte was the only thing keeping the nagging sensation of something watching her from sending her into insanity.

It had been bad enough already having those strange flashbacks during the last few days. And they all had started with the monstrosity named Stormwalker. If he had not been lying, the princesses would know more about him and if he was connected to what was happening to her, she hoped. Though that would matter little if she couldn’t bring her daughter and companions to Canterlot Palace by lunchtime today. And frankly, Gusty had long ago run out of ideas on how to get up to the city atop the spire.

She had been awake the longest, having woken to the sounds of a particularly annoying songbird that seemed to not tweet in tune with the rest of the morning avians. Bunker had recently finished making breakfast and she had even eaten whilst staring at her problem hoping that a solution would come to her. She felt as if she had known it just yesterday but now it was lost to her mind. Her young surrogate daughter’s yawning drew her attention from the rock face.

“Mmmmm!” she cooed poking her head out of the sleeping bag she had shared with Gusty, “What smells so good?”

Gusty thought about the flaky, salty-sweet pastries Bunker had made from the flour he had gotten from the bakery mare. It made her mouth water even though she wasn’t hungry anymore. “It is morning biscuit, mine mother taught me how to make.” Bunker said. Gusty absently watched as he gave Amethyst a few of the “biscuits” and smiled as she munched happily.

Meanwhile, Zeccaran rolled over and groaned, from where he sat on the other side of the small fire. Sitting up he looked at her and made eye contact. He held it briefly and then yawned. “Sooo, Gusty, how are we all supposed to get to Canterlot exactly?” he said as his voice raised up from natural low of his yawn.

Gusty grimaced at him. “Well...I...I really don’t know.” She said shrugging. “I can’t carry you all up there, even if I did it individually, I would get too tired, or I would take too long.”

It was the among the several scenarios she had already thought of, saying it aloud made it sound even worse.

“If I tried to levitate you or Bunker even then it would too much of a strain, we have things we actually have to do once we are up there.” She paused, as Gunther barked at a passing moth. “And wow. I totally even forgot about your dog, how in the world are we gonna get him up there!?”

Zeccaran smiled. It was his mischievous, tormenting smile that he put on when he knew something she didn’t.

“What?” she asked him.

He giggled lightly to himself.

“Come on out with it!” Gusty demanded her frustration forcing her into a slight yell.

“You forgot. It was your idea and you forgot! ” Zeccaran laughed merrily.

She scowled at him in deep irritation.

"Watch this!" he declared between bursts of chuckles.

Gusty watched. She was not pleased with what she saw either. Dull green light surrounded Zeccaran, his body began shifting and changing, and almost immediately what replaced Zeccaran on the ground was a large eagle. Only the eagle still had the dark mauve eyes of the zebra she knew too well.

Somewhere in her mind Gusty had known he could shift shape. That was the key to it all. She bit her tongue to avoid vehemently cursing in front of Amethyst.

“I forgot you can turn into different animals…” she grumbled through her teeth.

Zeccaran offered her several squawks that sounded like he was laughing at her. She decided to ignore him, poorly. Such shape-shifting, to her knowledge, was rare among creatures these days, but she had seen many a druid in her travels. More than anything it reminded her that Zeccaran actually possessed real magical skill. Nature-based or otherwise he had a lot of utility. Still the whole situation left her facehoofing herself.

“Well, now it’s really easy to get up there. Bunker help me clean up camp and we’ll get on up to the city.” She said.

“What? Just because he can turn into bird you think we can scale mountain in few hours? Is crazy.--Whoa!” Bunker stopped as Gusty surrounded him in her levitation and picked him up off the ground. He flailed about trying to keep his balance on a nonexistent center of gravity.

“Hold still. You are making it harder to hold you! I need to see if I can do this for the 20 to 30 minutes it will take to fly up to the city.” she demanded.

Bunker continued screaming “PUT ME DOWN!” or “I'M GONNA PUKE” as she tried to practice. Gusty gave up when she decided that she would just do it anyway. Bunker would have to learn to sit still as she flew, otherwise it was gonna be a bad fall. She took the entire time Bunker was cleaning camp to tell him so too. She told him the same sentence every time he finished pulling things into his pack or her saddle bags.

“Squirm like that when we start flying and I don’t know if I will be able to catch you should I lose my grip on you.” she said admonishingly for the last time as he fastened the buckle on his bag. Gusty rathered not have her significant other plunged to his demise on the account of his weak stomach. But getting to Canterlot and informing the leaders of the country of the events of the cave was absolutely imperative, and even though she liked him Bunker’s life paled in comparison to the rest of all ponydom.

“OK! OK! I get it! Don’t struggle too much or fall to horrible death on ground.” He groaned.

She nodded with a smug grin and opened her wings. She flapped once pulling her hooves off the ground before realizing the rest of their supplies lay on the ground. “Amethyst!” She yelled.

“I’m right here, and now I can’t hear!” Amethyst cried from her back. At some point the little filly had scrambled up onto her without Gusty noticing. Gusty simply pointed at her saddle bags.

“Strap those to me with your magic. And we’ll get up to the city.” she said to her young filly.

It took her daughter a few moments but everything was quickly tied either around her belly or strapped down to her armor. Gusty re-readied her wings. She looked over at Bunker who had been waiting with a grimace while she helped Amethyst get all the bags attached to her. He paced back and forth looking up and down and occasionally bouncing on his hooves. Eventually they made eye-contact.

He was silent. His eyes worried. “I won’t drop you. Just trust me and relax,ok?” She told/asked him. He nodded sharply.

“Do it. To the top of the mountain we go!” He proclaimed, Gusty letting him finish.

She surrounded him in her magic and began to pump her wings. Zeccaran in his big eagle form did the same, Bunker’s equipment in one talon and Gunther in the other.

Slowly they began to ascend. Gusty led the zebra-bird back and forth in a long elliptical so they would ascend in a lazy spiral near the rock face of Canterlot Mountain. The entire time Bunker remained pliable in her telekinesis his eyes closed as he floated behind her. It took longer than Gusty expected, like following a winding river across a flat plain, its curves and meandering path stretched and crooked, such was the journey up to the city gate.

Finally above the edge of the cliff, Gusty gazed on the alabaster walls of Canterlot. They seemed dull compared the soft green of the grass that grew all the way to the edge of the rock. She lifted Bunker over to the ground first and let her magic grip fade, she then glided down and landed gently in the soft foliage. Beside her Zeccaran gasped for air as he converted back into a pony his body was drenched in sweat.

After blubbering for several minutes he mumbled, “That was my work out for the week.” Gusty simply nodded in agreement, she was also tired from the mile high flight.

Eventually, Bunker spoke up. “You know. Though I did just basically nap whole flight, don’t we need to get inside the city?”

Gusty felt a resurgence of energy. She desperately needed to get inside the white marble walls and find the palace before anything else happened.

“Let’s go!” she said hopping up.

Everypony followed her lead. Amethyst even giggled some at Zeccaran and quickly helped herself down from Gusty’s back and jumped onto the back of Gunther. Hitching a ride there while she teased the zebra, who was still spluttering and wheezing.

They approached the big gold-gilded iron gates of the city. Gusty instinctively folded up her wings. She always did when meeting new ponies. Typically they made quite the racket if they saw she was an alicorn. Oddly she thought, Zeccaran had not, it was that respect that had let them become friends initially. But for now, her wings were better out of sight, out of mind.

She looked at the busy crowd pushing in and out of Canterlot hauling wagons and carts. A single pair of guards stood watch. They wore golden armor that shined in the sun. Each wielded a simple spear, both unicorns, one white-coated and blued eyed, his counterpart light-brown with amber eyes. Gusty walked regularly not worried about their presence, they seemed far too bored to notice her party. Well, that is what she thought, it was wrong of course. A mare nearby shrieked when Gunther barked at her idle whistling.

“Was that a timberwolf!?” The white one shouted, his spear being brought down to point towards Gusty. His brown companion halted hoof-traffic exiting the city by promptly slamming the gate shut with his horn. Everypony already outside hurried away, the few folk trying to get into Canterlot backed away from the party. Exposed, Gusty proudly trotted up to the gate guards

“Yes it is! And let me explain to you boys why he is perfectly tame, we’ll start with my daughter who, oh-so-casually rides upon his back…”

It took about 10 minutes for Gusty to convince them, but they decided Gunther was not a safety hazard. They agreed to not bother the oaken dog any further too. Satisfied, Gusty finished up her argument.

“Now if you would just let us inside we are really in quite the ru-”

“No. That dog can’t go. Safe or not, the mere sight of him will cause a panic. He has to stay out here. We will watch him for you, and tell next shift too.” Brownie said. Gusty had already forgotten their names.

“Good enough for me.” She said.

“But-” Zeccaran started.

“Shut it, Zeccaran. We need to get moving.” she silenced the zebra.

It was all business now. She needed to find the princesses and tell them about the Cave. She needed answers. She needed to keep surging forward. In her impatience, the guards opened the way and the group quickly trotted into the city. Gusty picked up Amethyst with her telekinesis and put her on her back.

“Good bye for now Gunther!” the filly proclaimed from her perch as they left the poor tree-mutt outside the city. Confused merchants gazed past them trying to see what Amethyst yelled about as they passed the interrupted commuters.

Quickly they found themselves in a wide cobblestone square surrounded by restaurants and shops. Gusty looked about for signs to indicate what way they should take to get to the other alicorns. Besider her Zeccaran made some sort of exclamation. That distracted her from the smells of food that had managed to halt her advance.

“What?” She asked.

“Mom! Look!” Amethyst said. Gusty saw Zeccaran pointing at a huge pillared and spired structure. It had both battlements and impressive aesthetic towers. Its roofs were covered in ivory, gold, and some ruby and purple colored material. It was as impressive as it was opulent. Gusty actually gasped, the building was truly beautiful.

“Ok.” she started after she got her bearings back, “We know where to go. Let's take the street that points towards its steps, there!” She began running towards it. Ponies just got out of her way, staying to the sides of the streets as if they were used to galloping groups of misfits charging down their streets. But not that it mattered, at this point Gusty didn't even care if Bunker and Zeccaran could keep up with her.

After another 10 minutes of running she was walking up the white marble stairs to the main doors of the palace. Bunker and Zeccaran had kept pace quite well. They were next to her as she ascended the steps. She cleared the top, and wide path adored with a fine, thin red carpet stretched out before her and went into the palace and led to a set of stairs. The stairs split and angled to two identical doors on the left and right. The room was immaculate, filled with blue and gold banners. Each having specific sides of the hallway. They were elaborate in design and showed images of alicorns. The blue featured the moon too, while the gold ones featured the sun. The rest of the floor of the antechamber and further down the main hall was made up of some type of extremely shiny purple tile. It was very impressive and was a great showcase of the wealth this nation had. Though that wasn’t important to Gusty. She desired something much more valuable, knowledge

The teal alicorn pulled Amethyst off her back and opened her wings to their full width. She stood as tall as she could and proceeded to walk as daintily as possible through the open front doors of the palace. In the exact same fashion as the city gate, a Brownie and a Whitey stood at the sides of the open door.

They looked at her briefly then exchanged glances. “So what are you gonna do with your half of the reward?” Whitey asked.

“I’ll buy that ring for my marefriend.” Brownie said.

Gusty gave pause to look at them again. They stopped speaking immediately. Each took up a position next her.

“If you would come with us Miss Gusty…” Brownie said. “...quarters have already been prepared for your arrival.” Whitey finished.

“I appreciate the hospitality gentle-stallions but I must speak with the Princess Celestia at once. Assuming that Princess Luna is asleep.” Gusty stated, turning on her diplomat’s voice. “But you could take my bags, my companions’ bags and my daughter to the prepared location. Just show me which room Celestia is in.” She had said this while simultaneously heaving all of her and her party’s equipment on the two stallions.

She hoped it would work as a distraction. She even took her sword off and made sure that they had both Bunker’s axe and Zeccaran’s sickle.

“Awwhhh. But I want to meet the Princess too!” Amethyst complained. Gusty picked her up from her ground and held her up and smiled at her. “You will, but not right now. Right now Mommy has to talk to the Princess about that demon.”

“Oh you mean that stallion named Stormwalker? Ok. I don’t want to go then.” Amethyst said grimacing. “Come on boys. Take me to our room!” She barked authoritatively to the two guards.

Gusty beamed with pride. Already able to boss full grown males around! She couldn’t be happier with her surrogate daughter as she set her down to take the lead before the guard stallions.

“Miss” asked Whitey, as they all progressed down the hall, “Did your daughter just mention Colonel Stormwalker was a demon?” Gusty froze. She hadn’t realized that Amethyst might have just blurted out some important clue about her party’s mission.

“No. I don’t think so. She probably is just confused. She was there when the demon in question appeared and Stormwalker was was there too, etc. Kids mind’s you know..” she lied.

“Makes sense to me” chuckled Brownie. “He’s mean in a fight but he’s easily the nicest guy I’ve ever met.”

It had worked. Gusty exhaled carefully and started walking again. Though she was unsure about how nice Stormwalker was.

They went into the palace and up the stairs on the right and beheld an elegant platformed flooring that lead down to a large foyer with an immense glass roof above it. They traveled down the elegant place and proceeded down a hallway that seemingly stretched for a half-mile to a set of enormous golden doors.

Shortly, the stallion’s stopped at a crossing hall.

They quickly explained that her new residence was all the way down at the very end of the hall on the right. Celestia was located in a room down the left hall at the end of the only left turn. They carefully indicated that the princess would be having brunch like she usually did in the “Amore Room” as it was called. They mentioned that the door would be painted red and departed. Amethyst leading them to the right, acting like she knew where she was going between all the suits of old body armor and tapestries.

Gusty followed their instructions turning at the small hall and found herself standing outside the so described red door which was partially open. She could hear a mare’s gentle voice and a stallion’s deeper tones coming from the room. She tried to make sense of what they were saying but couldn’t really.

Bunker stood there looking at her confused. “Why not just go in?” He asked softly.

She frowned at him.”Because I want to hear what they are talking about. It might be something I wouldn’t hear otherwise.” She snarked back.

“What? Why would not one alicorn not help another?” He continued.

“We all have our reasons.” Zeccaran said as he slowly put his hoof on the door and ending the conversation.

He locked eyes with Gusty. She nodded to have him open the door.

The zebra opened it with a silent and light pull. Harsh sun poured at Gusty’s eyes making the figures in the room silhouette into featureless grey outlines briefly. She walked in first. As her vision cleared she saw about a dozen guards lining the sides of the room. Their spears at their sides. A large window with its dark red curtains was on her left. Paintings of beautiful landscapes and intricate carved pillars on the other. The back wall was a full mural of a city in the clouds. In the center of the room a dark mahogany table was set with food and fine china.

Gusty saw a tall, slender white alicorn sitting facing her. Her pretty face, highlighted by a dazzlingly magenta eye, looked at her with curiosity and surprise, a seemingly alive mane of a borealis obscured the rest of her features. A long horn managing to protrude from its thick, ever-moving mass.

Time then slowed as an all-too-familiar presence focused in on her. The ever-nagging sensation of being watched spiked to a feeling of direct and present observation. As fast as her body would allow Gusty looked at the other pony at the table. He wore matte steel armor. His half-folded wings bore long dark blades, and his mane was a shiny black. His ears swiveled back to point at her, fast even in her slowed perceptions.

Stormwalker turned around and met her fearful gaze. Gusty was rendered immobile and was forced to stare at his face. Over the top of his left eye and down his face he bore a broad scar that looked like it had once split his skull apart. Gusty looked for his fangs and his slit pupils but found herself disappointed. He was still just as handsome as before, maybe more with that rugged scar. But Gusty could care less, he was a monster no matter how pretty he was on the outside. Her resolution made her notice how extremely tired he looked, bags deeply creasing his face below his eyes. He even seemed to be thinner once he stood. How he had even survived the fight with the Shade she did not know. Even for a creature like him that could regenerate, such a foe should have proven fatal.

Time seemed to catch itself and restart normally. In the next instant of staring into the eyes of that winged demon, Gusty saw disbelief, anger, happiness, shock, fear, relief and many other emotions flash through his eyes. But he settled just fast as he had quickly flashed through those emotions. He chose determination as if ignoring the whirlwind of ocular expressions he had experienced. He stood up from his chair and faced her. His big body and fully extended wings blocking Gusty from seeing Celestia.

Detain them.” He snarled.

Gusty went to move but found herself suddenly looking up at the vaulted ceiling of the room. The sudden change reminded her of the stun-bolts she had taken during the train heist, really it could be nothing else. She was now pinned to the ground, a hard and unforgiving combination of metal and flesh was pulled tight around her neck. The tremendous weight of what felt like one of the marble pillars of the room held her to the ground.

As her vision and head cleared she looked around enough to her left and right to see Bunker and Zeccaran each restrained by a pair of the Royal Guards. They were held down in much the same way she assumed she was being held. Gusty was quick to realize that it would have taken at least four of the guards to equal the strain on her body that she was feeling. It was possible. They did actually seem quite competent. However, there was no way that the hot breaths of the thing holding her was a guardspony, Stormwalker was too narcissistic to let the guards pin her down. Into her ear he spoke aloud, in his demon speak, as if to confirm what she was thinking.

“I know you can understand me. Please, listen to me. And listen very carefully” he said. His words seemed to be cautiously chosen. Even in this Abyssal tongue they were sincere and pleading in tone.

Some time, long ago, Gusty had learned the awful language, back in the Cave she had intentionally ignored Stormwalker’s words. Now, with one of his forehooves pulled around her neck and his mouth which felt as if it was literally in her ear she couldn’t not listen to him.

She jerked about briefly, hoping to possibly loosen his grip. His leg was like iron shackles and provided no give at all. She half-grunted-half-growled at him in anger and disgust for having to respond to his demon-speak.

“What do you want, demon?” she answered in his language.

“Paint whatever picture you want of me. But, for no reason. No reason at all, in any way, shape, or form, tell Celestia about what I really am. I don’t care if you describe me as a butcher or whatever else. Just don’t describe my true form. The results will be catastrophic!”

Stormwalker was actually scared sounding. That alone confused Gusty.

He survived the Shade, does he not posses the ability to do as he wishes? She thought. Perhaps he was still recovering, or Celestia had a way to defeat him. No matter the the reason, Gusty decidedly did not plan to do as he wished. In fact, she was certain this was all an act to get her to come along with his plans quietly.

“I don’t believe you! Why would I ever listen to you again? Vile demon! Do you think you could deceive me so easily?” She retorted whilst trying to free herself again. She made no progress but she did manage to look about the room.

Bunker and Zeccaran and even the guards looked particularly concerned with the conversation she and the demon-pegasus were having. Eventually she managed to find Celestia, who looked more confused than anypony else. Before she could make eye-contact or speak to the other alicorn, Stormwalker pulled his foreleg tighter around her neck, forcing her to look to the ceiling again.

"No. I don’t.” He started. “Unlike before, I have no reason to deceive you. But since you won’t listen to me...I’ll play the part of the evil villain you take me to be. Let’s just say that that whether or not I’m telling the truth, your lack of cooperation will put the million or so innocent ponies of Canterlot in mortal danger. Something I know you would never do.” his stated with soft confidence.

Damnit! Gusty gritted her teeth in thought. If she revealed his secret, either way, she would be responsible for the lives of all the city. How did he already manage to have such a strong sense of my morals? She quarreled with the thought. The demon only been around her for about thirty minutes. Was he simply guessing or did he possess powers I don’t yet comprehend? She realized as the rest of her mind resigned that she would have to listen to him, against her better judgement, again.

“You win this time,” She snarled back to him, her own voice in the demon-speak even harsher than his. “But the moment I can get away with telling her, I will.” Her admonition was met with a low chuckle.

“I would expect nothing less, my dear. Though I hope I can persuade you from such foolish-”




The mare’s voice echoed in the room, even through Celestia’s anger her regular Equestrian almost sing-song compared to Gusty’s previous conversation.. Stormwalker’s grip on her neck loosened significantly and Gusty gazed upon the glorious creature’s full profile.

Celestia was nearly as tall as Stormwalker, just barely taller if you counted her horn. Now visible her tail was much like her mane, ever-shifting and enormous in both length and volume. Her head, her chest, and each hoof was covered with golden regalia, She certainly fulfilled the part of royalty in both physical beauty and regal bearing, but something was preventing Celestia from being perfect. This time Gusty could see both of her eyes. They had a hard piercing glint in them that was somewhat colored by disappointment. Celestia’s gaze was fixed on Stormwalker. She kept opening her mouth to say something but would stop and frown, each time her grimace deepening. After a few seconds, the princess finally caught herself

“Release them! And explain yourself!” She demanded, slamming down her right hoof.

Gusty felt her heart jump for joy. She couldn’t imagine Stormwalker talking his way out of this quagmire. His whole plan was about to be ruined by his own arrogance. Gusty grinned mischievously and looked around the room, only to see the Royal Guards not following the princess’s orders. Instead, they looked over at Stormwalker, concerned looks on their faces.

“It’s okay boys. Objective completed. Go ahead and let them go, you are dismissed.” He said calmly.

Gusty felt the demon’s weight lift off of her body and his hoof completely remove itself. She also caught the edge of Stormwalker’s left wing as it folded while he stepped away from her. Its soft texture giving her chills. Similar to the chilly anger that rolled from Celestia’s tongue.

“By whose authority do you dismiss my guards. Colonel?” she said, venom dripping down every word.

“And how dare you treat our guests this way!” Celestia continued, Gusty felt her smile returning. “And that-that, foul language! Whatever it is: I want nopony ever speaking it in my presence ever again! And tell me what you said to Gusty, Colonel. Now!”

“That is business meant only for Gusty and myself. Long ago you told me that you didn’t want to know of what we spoke.” Stormwalker seemed as affected as a rock would be from tongue lashings his voice even and calm.

“Not that I expect you to remember though,” He suddenly snarled. “That’s how memory spells work, right? You start to remember then…” Stormwind trailed off. Gusty was pretty sure the demon really loved the sound of his own voice.

Gusty turned to look at Celestia to listen to her response. But the mare only stared off vacantly before shaking her head and blinking rapidly. Gusty’s compassionate instincts kicked in.

“What did you do to her!?” She yelled at Stormwalker.

He looked at her over his body with his good eye. Gusty actually balked at his sad and empty expression unaware that he could make such a face.

He looked tortured as he spoke, his demeanor differed so great than what she expected Gusty was unable to snark a response.

“I may have been the reason, but it was her own doing.” He looked away from Gusty and back at Celestia.

“I-...I thought I...” Celestia paused. “It seems I have forgotten why I was upset with your explanation. Still. That was no way to treat Gusty and her companions.” Celestia groaned out in response.

“They left me for dead in a cave, fighting an eldritch Shade that could have easily killed me and destroyed this whole world, and you expect me to treat them with kindness? I know we are overlooking the occurrence due to the circumstances but that doesn’t mean that what they did was acceptable.” Stormwalker snapped back, covering up his earlier gloom

“Neither were your actions.” Celestia continued their argument forgetful of her own sudden lapse.

“Better the temporary damage to a single pony than to sacrifice the world, the decision was the best and only choice I could make. You know full well I would have never done that had they not already completed the ritual before I got to them. I even planned on ensuring her horn worked again myself.” the demon lied, Gusty knew better to believe him, especially that last sentence.

“It seems that our arguments always end in this circular-type of stalemate. If I say anything else you can just counter it with ‘it wasn’t the compassionate thing to do, but it was the right thing to do And I cannot say you are wrong because the completion of the ritual would have meant the Shade being summoned. Which I would say happened anyway so all you did was harm an otherwise innocent foal, and you would say “that these three fools here are responsible,” Celestia waved a hoof with bravado, “and you would be right, but you are only right because you apparently scared them enough to do it...Let’s just leave it at this: you did what you had to and neither of us liked it but you accept your decision and I do not.”

Gusty had barely managed to follow Celestia’s argument. She rattled off the whole thing so quickly Gusty was certain she broke some sort of world-record time for eloquent words in five seconds. Typically she was really good with following logic trains but it seemed that Stormwalker and Celestia were actually debating some obscure moral point that weighed the value of lives against one another. She suddenly found herself unsure if Celestia was going to be able to help her at all, even if she did divulge Stormwalker’s true nature to her fellow alicorn. Still it was worth the risk.

“So, just cut out all the banter we could have had at once, huh?” Stormwalker jabbed back at her. “I won’t lie I actually enjoy arguing with you-so, I’m disappointed. Or perhaps you are now focused on gathering a new perspective with which you intend to thoroughly jape me?” he tilted his head towards Gusty but remained looking at the princess.

Gusty saw Celestia smile at Stormwalker. It was a genuine, happy smile. One that would only be shared between the closest of friends. Gusty thought perhaps Stormwalker had had a simple, survival-related, reason for keeping his true nature a secret, but seemingly like all things pertaining to the demon-stallion there were layers of intrigue to pull away.

Why can’t he be straightforward like the other demons? She scoffed in her head.

Stormwalker half-turned around. His head remained peering at Celestia, Gusty could barely make out the edges of his right eye. “Alright then, ‘Tia. Seems we will have to pick up this argument at a later time.” He began to leave the room.

He paused before reaching the door and cast a smug smirk at her.

“Oh, Gusty.” purred the demon.

Gusty felt the return of the prickling sensation, Stormwalker’s leering gaze crawling up her back.

“Try to stay out of trouble, we wouldn’t want another fight would we?” he smirked.

Gusty blew a long angry raspberry at him.

He slid out of the room on and pulled the door shut with a wing, his smile never fading. Gusty continued to blow her raspberry out of anger and boredom. She had been anticipating this moment for several days and it was completely anti-climatic.

Gusty was unsure if he had even been there, it was almost as if she had just been dreaming. Still blowing her raspberry she turned around and rolled her eyes. She caught Celestia’s gaze. Her alicorn counterpart seemed to be looking about her group a grimace pulling her pretty face into a smirking frown.

“Explain. Now.” Celestia demanded as her eyes narrowed. “It is rare that the good Colonel lies and when he does it's like trying to find a needle in a haystack.”

Gusty began recounting the events adding a lot of significant detail about her dislike of Stormwalker. She was careful to leave the details Stormwalker’s demonic transformation just like he had forced her to. Celestia nodded politely as she told her story her face slowly becoming more annoyed. Eventually, a moment before Gusty accounted how they had summoned the Shade Celestia grunted in frustration. She broke her patient look for an upset one.

“Literally the same as the Colonel’s. Are you sure there aren’t any other details? Anything he may have missed that you didn’t? How about you my fair zebra? Zeccaran was it?” She turned a nearly angry glance at Zeccaran.

“Well, everything Gusty told you is right.” the zebra started. “I keep trying to think of anything we missed but there’s nothing out of place.”

Celestia sighed in a resigned manner. “Are you sure?” she asked again.

“I am concerned about the method of Chrysanthemum’s tribunal but as far as that night is concerned the only thing I have to say is that Stormwalker is a very unpleasant creature once upset. He gave Bunker the beating of a lifetime and basically cut me in half. Only reason we aren’t dead is because of Gusty and her magic. I’m sorry but there’s nothing more. Had I known the details of the ritual before I got there I wouldn’t have summoned the Shade, but… well, like I said we were pretty desperate.” Zeccaran concluded.

Gusty noticed Celestia’s brow furrow in thought.

“How did you know how to complete the ritual? She asked slowly her eyes narrowing. Gusty realized she wanted to know how he had done that too. Zeccaran had really more struck her as a skilled fool, not a prophet of some dark cult. It didn't help that he had been dodgy when she asked him herself.

“Yeah. How did you? I meant to ask but we’ve been too busy…” she said.

Zeccaran’s jaw hung slightly open in response. He pulled up a hoof to his face and rubbed his mohawk.

“I don’t really know.” Gusty looked over to Celestia and they exchanged a look of raised eyebrows of doubt.

They looked back at Zeccaran. He seemed genuinely lost in thought trying put things together

“It’s like... it’s like I had this dream. That I knew the process from before somehow. But I can’t place it.” Zeccaran said hitting his head with his hooves alternatively “Like, honestly it’s there. But I can’t make it make sense. It hurts to try.” Zeccaran gave up shaking his head in defeat.

A flash and hum overtook Gusty’s senses as a golden aura of magic hung over Zeccaran’s head for but a moment. If she had blinked she would have missed it, Gusty turned to see Celestia’s horn slowly extinguishing its magic.

“A memory spell. Not my specialty, but my sister’s. If anypony will be able to decipher the hidden meaning behind the ritual and your mental troubles it will be her.” Celestia determined.

“Luna? Is she awake? I need both of you for...something…” Gusty narrowly restrained herself from blurting out Stormwalker’s secret. If all three of them worked together she was certain they could overcome the demon and keep the city safe. But, the trouble was that Stormwalker had intentionally separated them. Gusty was sure he had gone to ensure Luna would be preoccupied with something he made up, or worse, did to her.

“Oh, no. Luna should be asleep for another hour or so.” Celestia smiled warmly her eyes looking to another place. “She would happy to help once she is awake, in fact, I’ll go wake her now, myself. Please, return to your room and I will meet you there with her. It’s been a long time since we both were needed to solve a mystery…”

Celestia led the way out of the room, Gusty and her male companions followed.

“High Winds, please escort Miss Gusty and her friends to their room.” The princess asked kindly, before turning and continued away from the Pegasus guard she had addressed. He saluted her before turning and simply asking them to follow him.

She and her party followed the young guard back the way the came. They continued past the intersection that led to the throne room and the entrance hall, on the left and right respectively. Persisting through a massive ball room and entering another long hall were many guard ponies bustled about. After a moment and going up a narrow set of stairs that arched over up to an indoor balcony having past through the staircase's its mirrored brother mid way down the hall. Once on the second floor the moved down the hall following it as it turned right. As the hall then turned left they came to a a gilded white door. High Winds gave a short bow and a wave of his hoof indicating for them to enter. He then turned and left down the hall that had led to the door, quickly disappearing never to be seen again.

Gusty was pleased to find herself entering a lavish living space. Beside her Bunker loosed a low gasp as they strode onto a silken carpet of white. It was soft enough to almost convince Gusty it was a cloud. Otherwise the room was adorned with dark purples and blues featuring two massive couches and a dark mahogany coffee table. On the far wall full-paned Prench windows and doors reached up to the extra tall ceiling allowing anypony inside to see the sky and a view of the city with ease. The doors led to a small balcony that featured black metal patio furniture. There was also a door on either side of the room, one was open.

Amethyst came bounding from the open door on the right of the living room. She was chewing on what appeared to be a cookie. “Momma! They have a kitchen, and it’s full of food! I even made some cookies!” The young filly floated several out of the kitchen in her pink magic and gave them to Gusty.

Bunker went towards the door on the left and opened it and entered. Gusty followed him into what was a short hallway finding a bathroom, a small bedroom clearly made for a filly, and a master bedroom. Bunker whistled in admiration at the sight of the enormous bed in the master room.

“You know. I hate to say-but..” Bunker yawned widely. “I is pretty tired from the last couple of days...and big bed…” he swooned visibly. Gusty rolled her eyes and gave him a shove.

“Just take a bath first, I don’t want the sheets ruined until we both are in there.” She gave him her best naughty grin. The big stallion nodded while biting his lower lip.

“I’ll be sure to rest well then.” he said before kissing her and practically skipping towards the bedroom’s attendant bath chambers.

Gusty returned to the living room to find Zeccaran idly staring at a wall. Amethyst was buried in the thick cushions of the couch munching cookies and humming to herself. Gusty cleared her throat enough to get Zeccaran’s attention, and motioned for him to go out to the patio. He trotted lazily towards the big glass doors with her. Once outside Gusty broke her silence.

“We have to tell them.” She began. “Stormwalker has to be stopped. You saw what he was capable of, and he beat that Shade too! He’s a monster, the princesses need to know! And that memory spell on Celestia! And you! Tell me what you know about those cultists! Ugh! So many questions!” she grumble-growled.

“Umm. Gusty. That’s all well and good but, we’ve got company…” Zeccaran pointed towards a tower that extended away from the main palace about fifty yards to their right.

From a small balcony of the spire there were number of unicorn guards visible. On the pointed roof of the battlement the hulking mass of a familiar shadow gazed down at Gusty, flanked by a pair of pegasi. The shadow nodded its head and the hiss of red stun bolts filled the air, even though the unicorns couldn’t see the command.

Gusty dove down below the marble railing as the four unicorns fired. Zeccaran who had followed suit screaming. “Ok get ready to fire back, I’ll distract them, then we’ll dive beck inside.” Gusty nodded, then gasped as fire sparked on Zeccaran’s hooves. She barely had time to catch her falling composure before the zebra stood on his hind legs and yelled hoarsely, “NOW!”

Fire erupted from Zeccaran’s hooves, the heat was incredible and the display terrifying, but his malice was directed away from her. The bloom of flames shot towards the unicorns who promptly took cover behind their own marble banister. The fire missed them miserably and didn’t even hit the tower where they were but the effect was undeniable. Gusty readied her own stun bolts, unlike the train, she wouldn’t be outdone by other ponies.

just as soon as the unicorns stood to check if they still had their manes she fired a stun bolt. It hit the one poor fellow squarely in the face. He dropped down limply, hidden by the banister. The remaining unicorns returned fire but not before Gusty noticed the two pegasi leaving the shadow’s side. Though distracted she managed to dodge the red balls of knock-out energy. The pegasi were quickly closing and Zeccaran was looking more nervous by the second as he narrowly escaped the electric crackle of the bolts himself.

Gusty then decided to bring out an old favorite of hers, a holy shield . It didn’t work like a normal barrier shield a unicorn could cast, in fact it didn’t prevent anything from entering its perimeter. Instead, the shield would disorient anypony foolish enough to enter it. She had cast it on Amethyst the day before when the cockatrices had attacked but now she cast it on herself. The shield would hopefully show off its worth this time. She took to the sky to meet the incoming pegasi.

The pegasi passed through the outer barrier of the shield before they could pull away. Gusty only caught a glimpse of their befuddled faces before they past her not even sort of trying to swing their hooves at her. She turned to see one of the pegasi fly headlong into the wall next to the doors of her apartment and then slide unconsciously down to the patio balcony. The other randomly veered back towards the tower he had flown from and crashed through a window on its bottom floor.

Gusty heard a growl come from the angry shadow atop the spire. More stun bolts flew but missed her, she retaliated with two more of her own. The two bolts both hit the same unicorn and sent him spinning in a circle. He comically hit the one mare that was with the unicorns and knocked her out cold.

Gusty started a laugh, “Ha! Some Royal Guards these ponies were!” she chortled out.

The shadow on his perch yelled down at her and the remaining unicorn. “Forget the zebra! Focus only on her!”

Before jumping from the spire and diving towards her. The shade of the big beast cleared and Stormwalker’s visage matched his voice.

Gusty barely had time to keep Stormwalker from tackling her out of the sky. Her magic had no effect on deterring or disabling him at all. Holy spell or not it could be broken by willpower, something the demon clearly did not lack.

After passing through her shield he agilely flipped out of his dive with phenomenal grace even in his armor. She made eye-contact with Stormwalker for the briefest moments. In his eyes all she could see was desperation, primal and ravaging. Gusty’s heart jumped into her throat. She was overcome with the urge to run from him. He had something debaucherous planned for her and Gusty didn’t want to find out its details.

She immediately put as much distance as her wings could make between them. Gusty was up and over the roof as a sss-pop of a teleportation spell completing buzzed to her left. It was the last remaining unicorn. He hurled a stun bolt at her but missed miserably. Gusty turned around as she zipped by him only to see Stormwalker a few feet behind her and gaining rapidly. His big wings and evident skill in the air making him faster.

A massive rush of air and the swoop of Stormwalker’s body passed just in front her nose. A great clammering and shattering of roof tile followed. Gusty passed just over the top of him shocked he had missed.

“I overshot! I friggin’ overshot! I don’t believe it!” The demon-stallion cursed loudly.

Gusty wasted no time reaching her full flight speed. She buzzed along the roof of the palace perhaps two yards above its sloped surface. The occasional sounds of the unicorn teleporting after her caught her attention. She turned her head just in time to see a much more well-aimed stun bolt fly at her. She tucked in her left wing and rolled to her side in the air, making the magic lance miss. She was about halfway to the front of the palace where she could reach some actual guards or better yet, Celestia. Gusty turned to check on her tail, only to find Stormwalker gaining on her from about twenty feet away.

She reflexively gave a brief shriek and returned to flying as fast as she could. It didn’t seem to matter though, the demon was too fast in the air. She could feel his wings displacing the air near her back hooves within a few seconds She partially looked left to see where he was at, catching him in her furthest peripheral. He was making his move to tackle her recklessly. Gusty didn’t have to time to react. She closed her eyes a braced for impact.

Gusty felt the heat of the stallion’s body graze against her own. It passed over her down flapping wings and touched her back then passed by giving her chills. She opened her eyes and looked to her right, the direction the heat had moved. Stormwalker’s armored backside was all that could be seen as the stallion crashed through the roof this time. He sent shattered tile and splintered wood flying as he vanished into the palace. Gusty heard several very choice curses in Abyssal die away as he fell further into the building.

She found herself laughing with delight. There was no way this was happening. Not when she had confirmation the very same klutz that had fallen through the roof had killed a Shade and utterly devastated a group of ponies without breaking a sweat. Gusty kept cackling until the hiss of a narrowly missed stun-bolt forced her to stop.

The unicorn was back at it. She flew off attempting to outdistance his ability to teleport. She quickly was nearing the front of the palace and her chance to alert the guards loyal to Celestia. The unicorn had been slowly losing ground the entire time. Gusty was confident she’d be able to ignore him when as snap-hiss occurred just in front of her.

The unicorn had managed to teleport all the way out in front of the palace’s edge. With him had come blood and decaying sparkles of mana burn. Gusty could see the red coming from his ears, eyes, and the base of his horn as he started to fall to the ground. Now in the open air herself she dove to catch the poor fool before he met his end on the marble staircase below, if he wasn’t already dead.

She caught him just before the ground. Checking for a pulse Gusty was pleased to find one. She hovered to the entrance patio as the two guards from earlier rushed up, their faces gaunt with worry. “He’s alive! Get him some help quickly, he mana burnt himself. I need to find the Princess!” The guards obliged with quick and gruff agreement and took their wayward comrade away. Gusty hoped the injured stallion would be alright, he probably was just following orders like any good soldier would.

Gusty rushed into the palace to find Celestia…


Zeccaran pursed his lips as Stormwalker and Gusty flew over the top of the palace. The unicorn teleported after them leaving the zebra to stand idly on the balcony alone.

He turned to look at the door behind him. The big glass panes were covered in a strange blue sparkling aura. Puzzled he pushed the blue field to find it soft but firm. It refused to give even the slightest distance to his touch. Zeccaran knew of two ways to dispel shield magic: specific dispelling curses or overwhelming the caster’s power with repeated attacks. Lacking dispelling curses Zeccaran took the only option remaining and pulsed out another beam of fire.

After the fire abated the zebra beheld a completely unaffected shield. Around the wood and glass, the alabaster stone had been scorched black from the blaze. Whoever had cast the shield was indeed a powerful mage, but this wouldn’t deter him! Zeccaran angrily fired another jet of flame at the shield and the door.

The results were the same.

Zeccaran fell to his rump and glared at the shield. At a loss, there wasn’t much else to do besides perhaps throw himself to his death from the high balcony. However, the shield aura suddenly sparkled like twinkling stars and then disappeared with a small whoosh. Zeccaran stood up in disbelief gawking at the now empty silence of the breeze as the light hum the shield had been making had ceased. He slowly reached up for the door and pulled down the handle to open it.

The door gave with no issue and Zeccaran trod into the quiet room. He could hear Bunker snoring from another room and see Amethyst sprawled out on one of the enormous sofa’s her eyes closed. A set of dainty hoofs made noise as somepony entered the living room from the kitchen.

Zeccaran could hardly believe his eyes. A tall mare entered the room, her fur the most magnificent midnight blue imaginable. Her mane and tail alive waving and sparkling like stars in the night’s sky. Her beautiful teal eyes looked at him room inquisitively, their long lashes and light blue shadow deepening her gaze. She wore the symbol of the Moon wrapped in silver and onyx, like the tiara that was buried in her star-swirled mane. It was the Second Princess of Equestria: a pony Zeccaran thought he’d never meet, even with the last few days’ events.

He fell down in a low bow. “Princess Luna!” he murmured reverently. He heard her walk towards him, she released a small hum of confusion.

“Strange. Why are you not asleep? When I cast the spell everypony was in the apartment.” He voice was relaxed but archaic.

“Gusty and I went out on the balcony, Princess...where we were attacked by Colonel Stormwalker and a group of guards. What’s going on? Why were you trying to make us fall asleep?” Too curious Zeccaran dropped his formality midway through his answer. He had to ask, he needed to know.

“Oh. Oh, dear. And if you are in here, t-that means that Stormy must have failed to capture Gusty...which…” She fell silent looking at the ground. “I NEED TO FIND MY SISTER!” she proclaimed face strained with worry. Zeccaran watched, with his questions unanswered, as Luna bolted toward the door.

Knock knock knock.

Luna froze mid-gallop. She looked back and forth before turning around as the knocking ensued again. She met his eyes and motioned for him to answer the door. Zeccaran made a face of weary acceptance and plodded up to the door.

The zebra opened the door to reveal Celestia and her shining white coat.

“Hello Zeccaran. May I come in?” She asked kindly.

“Sure, I figure you can answer my questions since your sister won’t…” Zeccaran was starting to feel rather stepped on and his attitude was becoming snide.

“My sister?” the big mare asked her neck swiveling to watch him as she entered the room. “What do you mean?”

Zeccaran pointed back at Luna he was peeking up from behind one of the sofas with a frown. As elated he was to have finally met the real Princess of the Night the zebra felt angry that she appeared to be an ally of Stormwalker.

“Luna! I’ve been looking for you! What are you doing in our guests’ apartment?” Celestia questioned.

“Oh! Sister, I had asked one of my guards alert me if they were to arrive during the day, I seemed to have missed Miss Gusty though.” Zeccaran knew that Luna was lying but what she said seemed rehearsed. Celestia didn’t notice and continued to speak, Zeccaran waited looking to pick the best time to seek the truth.

“Well, I am glad you are as excited as I am about Gusty Twilight, but what’s more important is actually Zeccaran here” Celestia started. “He has a rather powerful memory charm placed on him I was hoping you could take a look at it for me so we could piece together some of the more confusing events of the Cave.”

“Ah. Well...um…” Luna nervously glanced back and forth between him and Celestia. “Sister I placed that spell on him. When we have a more appropriate time I will gladly remove it and go over my reasons with you but right now there are more important things for you to attend to.”

Zeccaran wasn’t sure if he had heard her right but he was pretty sure Luna had said she was the culprit. Why would she have done it? It potentially explains some of my memory loss or these weird bouts of returning knowledge, but how...His thoughts were interrupted by Celestia.

You?! You put the spell on him?! Luna tell me everything. Tell me now!” Celestia screamed.

“Tia..I-I..I can’t.” Luna stammered.

“What do you mean you can’t? Luna something is going on here. I know it is! For most of the last two days I feel like I can’t remember things. And I keep getting random flashbacks of...of...terrible things. From when our parents-and...Stormwalker from when he was younger...ugh...why can’t I remember anything about him? I’ve known him for his entire life! And I can’t even remember his first name! You better not have placed some memory curse on me at his request! Recent events have made it abundantly clear to me that he cannot be trusted!”

Celestia angrily yelled most of her rant. Zeccaran watched as Luna shrunk down onto her rump looking smaller and smaller as Celestia shouted. Once the elder alicorn finished she began panting, her face was flushed as if she was embarrassed and guilty. Luna slowly stood up slowly looking at the ground dejectedly.

“Sister, you placed that curse on yourself over twenty years ago.” she said solemnly. Zeccaran’s mouth gaped open in shocked comprehension. He had noticed Celestia’s strange “zone-out” earlier but hadn’t taken what Stormwalker had said seriously.

“If I had placed the curse why is it breaking now? Celestia asked the question on his mind

“I’ve looked over the spell myself, It seems that when you created it you made a failsafe. It had to do with Stormy. I think you are only supposed to remember if he does something that harms innocent ponies. But at his request he asked me to leave my diagnosis at the most basic level for he feared removing the charm would greatly endanger the nation.” Luna had regained most of her confidence.

“There might be more to it too. Gusty’s presence could have been a trigger, but I don’t know. The spell is incredibly complex, even more so than the dreamwalking I do. Either way, he was...scared I think, of the spell breaking. He has always been somewhat scattered when it came to his describing his relationship with you…”

Celestia nodded briefly but otherwise made no reply. She stared off in silence her face confused and sad. Luna crossed the distance and hugged her sister making Zeccaran feel rather alone and small compared to the situation. He opened his mouth to finally speak when the door was slammed open.

“Celestia! Zeccaran!” Gusty shouted. “The guards said you both were in here, come on we need to find Luna before...oh!”

Zeccaran snickered as Gusty was rendered lost for words. His friend shut the door behind her and looked as if she was trying regather her thoughts. It lasted but a brief moment.

“Princesses! Your beloved Colonel Stormwalker has attacked Zeccaran and myself. On top of that he is much more than he seems!” she proclaimed

A bad feeling crawled up Zeccaran’s back and settled in his throat. Standing he spoke: “Gusty wait! There’s more to this than-” He tried to say. Gusty interrupted him, her voice in near hysterics.

“I couldn’t tell you sooner, he threatened me with the destruction of the city. He’s a demon. A horrible ancient monster like I haven’t seen in forever! And we have to stop him!” she belted out.

“Or ok nevermind….” Zeccaran let his voice drop away. He became of an icy silence as Celestia’s breathing grew loud and rapid. Her face was obscured from his view, but Gusty’s triumphant smirk was easily visible.

Sister, you need to remain calm...I’ve known about this for some time” Luna placed a hoof on her sister’s shoulder, "...he’s on our side, even with recent events I’m sure you understand that he ha-” SLAM! the door being kicked open stopped Luna mid-sentence

Zeccaran turned to see Stormwalker shoot into the room and shut the door with another slam. He started talking before turning around. “OK. Luna I don’t know how, but she-she..she got away.” he turned and looked at the group his face initially showing no recognition. His eyes were their normal golden-yellow but with slitted pupils and his fangs hung from his mouth.

]“We need to find Celestia and keep Gusty away...from....her….” Stormwalker’s pupils widened to diamonds in surprise, his voice trailing away to reveal Celestia’s harsh breathing again.

This time Zeccaran could see her face. It was simply the perfect definition of righteous indignation. Lips curled, eyes on fire, and nostrils flared so wide he could see pink flesh inside them. Zeccaran felt like he needed to hide behind one of the sofa’s.

Stormwalker managed to regain some composure, though that was a generous description. As Zeccaran scooted his way towards his chosen cover he watched the demon’s mouth work to speak.

“I...Uh…….ummm. Ok. yeeeeaaah I gotta go.” He said before performing an excellent about-face and opening the door and darting out it.

Celestia loosed an angsty growl. “Demon! Murderer! Get back here!” She shrieked before galloping away.

“Sister wait!” Luna yelled following her elder sibling. Zeccaran was left to watch Gusty laugh. The teal alicorn fell onto one of the sofa’s and squealed with girlish delight. But her merriment only made the feeling of dread increase, something about the way Luna had described the situation set off warning sirens in his head. He spoke up.

“Gusty. We need to go help Luna. I think Celestia might be the one to destroy the city trying to catch Stormwalker. You just missed it but Luna was describing the enchantment Celestia put on herself. We should help.” He sternly commanded.

Gusty sighed dejectedly and sat up to look at him. “Fiiiiiinne” she rolled her eyes at him. “But only because I want to see Celestia knock the shit out him. Let me get Bunker.”

Zeccaran exhaled his breath. He was shocked Gusty was listening to him, or that she didn’t hit him over the head with some random object like last time he had had an idea. Gusty went off into the apartment and quickly returned with a very groggy looking Bunker who was dragging his axe on the floor.

“Come on sleepy head we have to help the princesses!” She barked levitating the big stallion into the air. She looked briefly at Zeccaran and then ran out the door. The zebra followed his friends as they began running through the palace.

A trail of destruction marked their path. Suits of armor were knocked across the elegant tile and banners were twisted and knocked down everywhere they went. Several pictures that had dotted the halls had been shattered to pieces their glass littering the floor like snow. Zeccaran had to make a full leap to avoid cutting the soft of his hooves. Gusty had taken to the air once they had reached the main hall, Bunker still held in her magical grip. The big earth stallion looked rather amused as he was carried about. Zeccaran dodged around the rubble from a completely smashed marble pillar and caught Gusty who was now on the ground trying to push the throne room doors open.

Zeccaran had thought the devastation had been bad before entering the throne room. He was shocked to see that the halls had merely been the icing on a debaucherous cake. Everywhere the room was coated in circular scorches and the occasional deep gash of some enormous blade glinted the walls, floor, and even ceiling. The stained glass windows on the side of the palace that led to the gardens were all but destroyed, only a few panels remained. The throne itself had been cut in half diagonally, leaving its upper section and left armrest tumbled over on the side of the raised dais.

“Come on! They must have gone out into the garden!” Gusty proclaimed taking to the sky and flying out the largest opening in the window frames. A tingling sensation tickled at Zeccaran’s hooves and back and he was suddenly flying out the window before he realized what was happening.

He let out of a shriek of surprise before he was lowered down to an eagerly waiting Gusty and Bunker.

“Argh! A little warning next time Gusty! You know I hate it when you levitate me.” He scowled at her angrily.

“What you were gonna jump?” she replayed sarcastically.

“Yes! I would have been much more comfortable that way!” He yelled at her frantically flailing his hooves trying to touch the ground.

Gusty let him go and Zeccaran fell the short distance remaining and glared at his friend. She giggled.

“Come on! They have to be out here somewhere!” she commanded finishing up her chuckles.

Entering a full gallop Gusty made headway towards a large set of decorative hedges covered in a rainbow of flowers. Zeccaran and Bunker chased after the mare the former simply hoping she would slow down enough for them to catch her.

The two stallions entered the hedgeworks to find Gusty staring intently at a bed of blue flowers. Zeccaran was too shocked to speak. Gusty motioned them over.

He found his voice: “Gusty what about…” The smell of the delicate beauties hit Zeccaran’s nostrils like a train. The intoxicating aroma made him realize why Gusty had stopped

“I have to try one.” the mare in question murmured, lowering her head.

She chomped off one of the brilliant flowers from its stem and began chewing. Gusty gasped in what could only be described as full food ecstasy. She fell back on her rump and grasped her cheeks as if she was trying to keep the flavor from fleeing her mouth. She mumbled incoherently before swallowing and snapping three fresh flowers from the patch up in her levitation.

“You guys have to try these! They are amazing!” She proclaimed gleefully as the flowers floated over to Zeccaran and Bunker of their own accord. Zeccaran watched Gusty devour the third flower.

“‘Ey, why not? We are ponies after all, da?” Bunker made a strong point.

Zeccaran snatched the whole flower out of Gusty’s magic in a single bite.

Exploding torrents of salty-sweet savoriness threatened to overwhelm the zebra’s senses. Switching to a tart yet delectable cornucopia of wondrous richness Zeccaran thought he might pass out for sheer sensory overload. With great reluctance he swallowed the flower.

Things then got....weird.

He looked back up at Gusty to find her a cheery pink. His jaw hung loose as he also noticed a purple afternoon sky and a blue sun. Next to him Bunker blathered incoherently before throwing himself at Gusty.

“So pink! And so cute! And ARRRGHHh!” Bunker, screamed with delight, evidently experiencing the same weirdness as he was.

“OH DEAREST BETROTHED! LET US FORGET THE TROUBLESOME DEMON AND CONSUMMATE OUR LOVE!” the stallion bellowed. Zeccaran too relaxed to move or care, simply sat and enjoyed the sudden and immense sensation of euphoria.

He relaxed his back and legs and toppled onto the soft eggshell grass. It was magically soft and felt like thousands of fine toothed combs delicately cleaning his fur.

Vaguely he heard Gusty pushing the over-eager Bunker away.

“I guess they aren’t for everypony.” Her voice was deep and echoey like they were in a massive cave or a concert hall.

Zeccaran simply didn’t have a care in the world in that moment. He felt wonderfully complete; as if nothing could ever ruin this exact moment.

Glass shattered in a inharmonious sort of way that only glass could. It seemed perfect in its sound and rhythm. Zeccaran slowly sat up to look towards the noise, to see if it would happen again. Instead he only managed to yawn and close his eyes. The world behind his eyelids was even more vibrant than outside them. Zeccaran continued to revel merrily without noticing anything and eventually falling asleep…

Act 1: Chapter 9 - The Truth

View Online

"I find it interesting the lengths that some ponies will go to to spite one another. I deal with it every day trying to settle civil disputes but it never ceases to amaze me. Thanks to some of my students, this is the furthest depth of conflict the average pony ever experiences, and it is normal to help others despite oneself. Yet...There are those that have never received that help and they still help others, and I think that the true mark of grace.
-Princess Celestia-

Gusty watched as Zeccaran and Bunker rolled onto their backs simultaneously. Both mumbled and laid out on their flanks ignoring what had so firmly grasped her attention, just moments ago.

From a window near the base of one of the palace’s spire’s Stormwalker exploded outwards. Glass rained down past him as he twisted through the air dodging two separate blasts of golden magic. Slamming his wings down he jerked nimbly to the right, as Celestia came bursting from the window shattering the rest of the glass left in it.

The alicorn’s eyes glowed white hot and her horn blazed just as bright. In her magic she held a massive double-bladed axe. She was screaming so harshly that Gusty could not understand her. She shot several balls of flame at Stormwalker, who did not bother to dodge. They hit him and dispersed around his sides like he was the peak of a mountain against clouds. Celestia crossed the distance to the demon-pegasus as the last of her spell blew away. Dipping backward and pumping his wings, Stormwalker jetted away from a swing of her axe, his back facing the ground as he did. Celestia resumed shouting, her voice a deep and bellowing howl, this time close enough to be understood.

“Stand and fight me!” Celestia demanded, lips in a curl.

“Is that what you want? Truly?!” Stormwalker yelled back his voice equally as loud and powerful as Celestia’s.

Curiously, Gusty would note that he did not sound like he did in the cave. His voice was clean, lacking all of its demonic characteristics.

“You will answer for you deception, answer for your lies!” she screamed

Celestia followed up her proclamation by a shoulder-butt into Stormwalker. She continued her assault with a swing of her axe from behind the demon. Gusty watched without surprise as he turned mid-tumble and blocked the blow with his front pair of blades. Stormwalker forced the levitating axe back and slipped his blades behind the axe’s mounting to its pole. He batted his wings down in a sharp motion and executed a full 360 turn and sent Celestia’s weapon flying towards the ground free of her magic. The huge tree-cutter spun end over end and slammed down blade first in between Bunker and Zeccaran, narrowly missing them both. Gusty grimaced in surprise. Like before she noticed that Stormwalker had no reason to do this, he could easily defeat Celestia. However, it seemed that he had no intention of hurting her. This meant Stormwalker was likely trying to manipulate Celestia into doing what he wanted.

Gusty had a perfect way to put a stop to that. Charging the same “truth” spell she had used on the bakers she had first arrived a their home in Hollow Shades. Gusty cast the magic on Stormwalker. It was a divine spell after all and even a demon of Stormwalker’s caliber had to follow the commands of the spell. This time he would be forced to speak the truth. The spell formed in her own gold magic and turned into a faint purple misty beam as it flew to and then hit Stormwalker. If he had noticed her cast the spell he showed absolutely no indication.

“I’ve tried so hard! So incredibly hard to avoid this exact situation! But nothing I’ve done has been able to prevent it!" Stormwalker screamed in anger

Gusty watched as Celestia’s axe floated back up to her. The other alicorn loosed a growl of frustration.

“Then why not come to me? Why not collaborate with both Luna and I?” she shrieked questions at him.

Celestia made a horizontal slash at Stormwalker. The beast caught the swinging blade with his right forehoof’s blade and held it from hitting him. The axe shook violently as Celestia continued to try and force it onto the hovering monster.

“You have control over her don’t you?!” Celestia viciously snarled.

“No. I never have. She simply is not you. She actually listened to me!" Stormwalker answered with what Gusty was sure was a lie, but something about the way he said it made her think her spell was actually working.

Celestia pulled her blade away and fierce fighting ensued. Sadly, Gusty’s white counterpart could not even hit the demon. He dodged and flipped out of the way of her every attack, even her great beams of pure golden energy and the dozen fireballs she fired. The smell of burning plants caught Gusty’s nose and she turned to see that most of the beautiful garden was on fire. Celestia was causing an extreme amount of collateral damage. The sharp clang of the great-axe hitting a nearby fountain and smashing it to rubble drew her attention back to the fight before her. Celestia and Stormwalker had picked up their conversation as if they were not even fighting.

“And you expect me to believe you?! Why would you ever think something so foolish?!” the mare responded mirroring Gusty's thoughts.

“I have to! I want you to listen! I need you to believe me! Now more than ever!” the demon pleaded desperately, his voice straining.

He certainly isn't lying about that. Gusty thought.

Winning over Celestia was crucial to him. He wasn't the sort of creature to just announce his true intentions. Gusty smiled to herself. The spell was working for certain. Now all she had to do was wait for him to blurt out the rest of his plans.

“Then you should have trusted me from the beginning!” she followed up his shrillness with her own.

Celestia’s axe floated back up to her and she swung diagonally at Stormwalker. He caught the weapon with his own two and forced himself closer to Celestia. Sparks flew as his hooves and wings pressed forward to the alicorn.

“I did, and I always have! But this isn’t about just you! It’s about Luna’s safety. It’s for your safety, my safety, the whole nation’s safety! I had to lie to you all these years!" Stormwalker yelled.

Celestia fired another beam of energy at their point-blank range. It split away from Stormwalker and hit the ground. Wherever it touched instantly the grass and even stone burst into flame.

“Look at what you are doing! Why here? Why now? Why over Canterlot?” he balked down at the flames.

Celestia ceased her spell and pulled her axe away from Stormwalker’s blades. The stallion let it go without a fight. Slowly, they floated down to the ground. Shocked he had managed to calm Celestia down, Gusty gawked awkwardly until a cool wind and a midnight blue pony caught her attention overhead.

Luna swooped down and landed next to her sister. From where Gusty sat looking towards the palace, the sisters were on her left, Stormwalker on her right. The pair of siblings met eyes if only for the briefest of moments. From blue-white colored runic portals a dozen ethereal cyan swords came forth. Luna’s horn glowed with her indigo magic and she looked directly at Stormwalker. Her eyes were fierce but sad.

“Stand down, Stormy.” Luna stated. Stormwalker pulled his neck back in surprise and stared at her with his top lip raised in a look of confusion, making his fangs extra prominent.

“Celestia is right...at least when it comes to the danger you pose, I must stand with her. Especially after the Cave.”

The stallion scoffed incredulously. He looked back and forth between the sisters his face in horror and shock. His nostrils raised up in disgust and anger after a moment. He looked directly at Luna.

How dare you!” he spat.

“You know what happened to me! You know what was taken from me! You were there, you watched! You let it happen!!” Stormwalker growled

Luna offered no response beyond lowering her head.

The Princesses loosed a series of furious attacks. Blades and magic flew at Stormwalker with repetitive whistles of the splitting wind. He batted away the attacks with efficient and deft motions that were not more than blurs to Gusty’s eyes. The sisters finished their volleys to gasp upon seeing him unharmed. The stallion opened his wings to their fullest and hovered off the ground. The force of his wing beats laying the remaining grass around him flat in a perfect circle.

“You think things went the way I wanted?” he chuckled darkly.

“Do you think that I wanted to let them have the sweet salvation of death? When I had the chance to seek the small amount of closure I could?!” His voice was becoming harsh and angry like it did in the Cave.

Even from the distance she sat Gusty could feel his power building into a frenzy. If he unleashed it, the two princesses would not stand a chance. They did not stand much of a chance anyway and he was holding back. Without any real way to help Gusty started looking around the area to try to find something to defuse the situation. Nothing struck her as useful. Clanks of metal and the hissing of the wind being torn turned her eyes back to the fight.

Dodging and zipping between blades Stormwalker shot down to the ground in a flash and landed between the two sisters forcing them to stop their attacks.

“You think that when the rest of my life will have been sinning so others did not have to, I would abstain from this smallest of pleasures?” he asked. His voice was broken and sad.

Stormwalker held the flat of the wingblades out to the sisters’ throats before folding his wings away and closing his eyes. Gusty could tell he was trying to show them they had already lost. Had he wanted to kill them it would have been easy for him to do so simultaneously, his example just now was irrefutable.

Celestia and Luna teleported away into the air on different sides of him. In an impossible hail of colors, explosions, and metal hitting metal the Princesses unleashed their most vicious attack yet. Smoke rose around Stormwalker obscuring him from vision. Where he stood the ethereal blades of Luna continually plunged one after another and Celestia’s axe danced back and forth with dazzling speed. Each alicorn also unleashed spell after spell into the every growing mass of hazy air.

The attacks ceased finally after a full minute of grueling assault. The sisters flapped down from their positions in the air. Both panted heavily when they landed, sweat rolling down their faces and shoulders. The smoke around Stormwalker slowly began to clear and Gusty could make out the stallion.

He had gotten hit by five total attacks. Three of Luna’s cyan blades stuck out from his back, while two other cuts, one on his neck another and on one of his forehooves slowly closed. Minimal blood had sprung from the wounds. In the next moment flames shot out around Luna’s swords and they were disintegrated in an instant.

“You may not listen, but I will defend myself. I am not wrong in my convictions.” Stormwalker said quietly.

Gusty was surprised she heard him from this distance. The sound of bubbling water was quite loud from the nearby broken fountain.

Stormwalker’s trademark inflamed visage burst forth. His eyes glowed bright-red even in the afternoon sun. He clicked his fangs together and unfurled his blazes from his back and dropped into an actual martial stance.

The sisters readied themselves. Their weapons raised high they both loosed a unison battle-cry and charged at Stormwalker.

Desperately returning to her search for something useful Gusty found herself staring at the broken fountain and the shooting water spout. It had to work. Casting a levitation spell Gusty started trapping the water in a perpetually expanding ball. As soon as she deemed it ready Gusty flung the massive orb of water into the fight.

With a splash and the hissing of steam, Gusty watched the sisters stop attacking Stormwalker. Meanwhile the steamcloud was glowing with the still burning flames of the demon-stallion. It was not until that the massive water ball she had dropped on them finished exploding that the fire in the steam ceased.

She ran up to the scene hoping desperately that she could convince them to stop. Gusty had heard enough to know that Stormwalker had the best interests of the two sisters in mind. Even if his motivations were not perfect, he did not intend to hurt them. She still could not trust him, but Gusty felt that the demon would at least keep the innocents of the country safe. In the end he would hold them ignorant of his dark secret so he could enact whatever scheme he had concocted.

Still none of the three attacked each other, seemingly her spell and her patience had worked. Now if only the creatures before her would tell her the rest of what exactly was going on, she would be most grateful.

“Hey, everyone,“ Gusty spoke with resolve.

“What?!” all three snapped back at her.

Stormwalker stepped out of the steam, while Celestia and Luna tried to dry their manes enough to see past them.

"I hate to interrupt but Stormwalker is telling the truth.” she continued.

“Impossible,” Celestia stated, her voice normal but full of disdain. “He is nothing but a monster, his words are meaningless.”

“Normally, I would agree with you, but I cast a spell on him to prevent him from lying at the beginning of the fight hoping he would spill some sort of deep secret,” Gusty responded. "He even blurted out that he needs you to cooperate for his plans to work. That's not something he would just blurt out!" She smiled again.

“And you think it worked? Maybe you haven’t been around him enough but magic doesn’t work on him.” Luna sneered.

Gusty was rather surprised at Luna’s harsh tone. She persisted intent on making her point.

“It’s not just magic, its holy magic,” Gusty emphasized. “It even works on demons like him. Go ahead, Stormwalker try to lie.”

Stormwalker shrugged and gave a look of confused agreement.

“I am a Class Five Composite Shadow-kin. I have a great hunger for other demons and l love Gusty’s freckled face and how her flanks are shaped.” he smirked.

His smile was quickly replaced by a look of complete befuddlement. Gusty found herself blushing and wanting to gag. Stormwalker made a several grunts of amusement.

“That’s super weird,” he mused. “I was trying to say I was a fluffy purple bear who ate chocolate and liked to smell flowers. Yet, I can describe what I was thinking, because that’s not lying? Man, this just strange. I am a grey pegasus-demon. Nope. Can’t lie.” He bit his lips with his fangs, somehow not drawing blood.

Gusty rolled her eyes at him. She was pretty sure the other two alicorns did the same.

“Well, I hate to say this but Gusty may be right. He certainly isn’t trying to attack us now. And based on what he has said...and my experience with him...” Luna cut in.

“LIke that means anything. He is probably just trying to manipulate us. You cannot trust demons like him, Luna. They always have ulterior motives.” Celestia retorted.

“And if I do you will never know them. Even if I can't lie and divulge the 'everything,' it's not as if you could actually stop me. So why not play my game? For once…..might not be so bad, all things considered.” Stormwalker draped on melodramatically..

The sisters sighed in rough agreement.

The group of immortal beings fell silent for a time, none of them looking at any of the others. Gusty decided that she would make this the moment she asked the other question that had been on her mind.

“How did Zeccaran know how to complete that ritual in the Cave? Rather...who is he even?” she asked expectantly.

“That depends. I do not know Gusty Twilight, but Luna does. Sister?” Celestia’s answer was just short of demanding.

“There is much to tell. When it comes to that unfortunate soul. I feel that it is better to show rather than explain. Where has he gone? We will need him for what I have in mind,” Luna concluded.

“He’s over there,” Stormwalker pointed “He’s asleep next to that burgundy fool by the one hedge that is not on fire,” he finished by casting exceedingly disapproving look at Celestia.

“Then let us gather him and go the western conference room,. It should be quite private.” Luna said.

Gusty led the other three over to Zeccaran and picked him up in her magic. The group began making their way back to the palace, with Luna in the lead and Stormwalker trailing behind. Gusty could see a few attendants and Royal guard poking their heads out of windows or peering through holes in the walls of the building.

“Out of curiosity, and not trying to sound too conceited here, but how in the world did they fall asleep in the middle of that fight?” Celestia questioned looking at the floating zebra.

“I think it might have been those blue flowers we tried. I thought they were really great but, those two passed out.” Gusty responded with a shrug.

“Oh! Well…They’ll be fine but those flowers are called Funny Bells. They...are light hallucinogens...and aphrodisiacs….I’m surprised they did not make you pass out too, typically when tried for the first time, they have extreme effects,” Celestia grimaced with an embarrassed smile.

Gusty only snickered and gave Celestia a knowing wink. The flowers certainly had worked well on her fiance, she would have to try some more later. Maybe after a few actual dates.

It took them about five minutes to reach an actual door to the palace and a five more to reach the room Luna had mentioned. Entering from an area behind the throne room, they passed destroyed statues, still burning banners, and tossed about decor. Gusty could hear Celestia’s breathing get short and raspy as the white alicorn no doubtedly felt some strong remorse for ruining her abode. Finally, they arrived at a tall mahogany door. It was embroidered with raised carvings in the alabaster wall that was painted with real gold paint. The inscription in the elegant gilding was marked in black, easy to read, and spanned the top of the door.

Discussion with open minds creates understanding, compromise, and harmony” stated the engraving in its fine script.

Luna pulled the door open with her magic and revealed a room with similar purple fashion as Gusty’s apartment, perhaps more elegant. It was a square room with a vaulted ceiling, a fine crystal chandelier hung from the high location. The floor was carpeted with a soft rug nearly as comfortable as the bed in Gusty’s apartment. The wall opposite the door was comprised entirely of a massive window that showed the setting sun far off in the Equestrian plains behind the city. The other walls were trimmed up to mid-pony height with the same dark mahogany as the door while above them the stone was painted a calm cobalt blue, ironically about the same color as her skirt. In the center of the room, arranged around a wide coffee table several thick-padded chairs were set, along with a single but incredibly large sofa. All were sewn with a pleasant dark blue cloth.[

Gusty pushed the aloft Zeccaran through the air to one of the plush chairs. She set him down and curled up his body so he would not fall off the seat. Celestia walked past her and selected a chair on the opposite side of Zeccaran. Gusty choose the seat next to her friend and Luna sat down in the position closest to her sister a seat away from her. Stormwalker slowly strode past them all and laid out his full length on the sofa. He took up the entire thing, his body and armor making the piece of furniture creak in protest. Gusty scoffed at his lack of manners and posture. Face on his leg plates, he looked over to her and met her eyes. She looked away refusing to return his gaze, he did not deserve her patience and kindness yet he was getting it anyway.

“Sister are you ready? Gusty?” Luna asked looking between them.

“Don’t wait on me, Luna.” Stormwalker commented.

After looking at Celestia whose face mirrored Gusty’s annoyance with Stormwalker, they both turned back to Luna and nodded. Gusty was unsure what was going to happen but the Princesses possessed incredibly powerful magic, so she expected it to be interesting. Especially since Luna was going to show her some of that very magic now, Gusty thought.

“Then let us begin,” Luna murmured, just barely able to be heard.

Luna’s horn lit and she closed her eyes. Gradually, the intensity of its indigo glow brightened to a dangerous dazzling white crescendo. Gusty’s vision was completely overwhelmed by the sight and her vision blurred out to a grey then a black. She promptly felt herself fall asleep.

The feeling of physically falling asleep but remaining conscious jarred her mind into a frenzy. Gusty desperately searched about the empty blackness looking for some indication that she had dozed off not just died instead. Slowly her panic subsided as one of her recurring nightmares started to play. It brought its own panic but it was familiar and welcomed compared the sensation of the Void she had been experiencing.

Gusty watched as one of the shadowy figures of a demon long since slain walked towards her, its phantom appendages making sounds like hooves as it strutted dominantly. It was the only thing with her, behind it was an blank expanse of nothingness that had neither color nor light. Only an ashen floor illuminated by an equally drab light marked her environment.

“Gusty Twilight,” came the voice of a mare. The sound seemingly emanated from the dream itself[

Gusty looked about trying to figure out where it came from and trying to find her sword so she might smite the shadow of her past instead of it eating or torturing her as it usually did.

“Gusty…” clearer now, the voice belonged to Luna.

A vicious shriek echoed in the dark place Gusty resided. She turned to see a shimmering blue mist slowly pulling itself out of the chest of the specter. The shadow withered and flailed about until the fully formed body of a pony was created by the sparkling cloud. A squishy splatter of water and gelatin marked the ghost of her past exploding into dark blobs and landing about the grey floor of the dream.

From the mist, Luna solidified and stood before Gusty. The mare had a look of deep concern on her face as she looked around the dismal location.

“Your dreams are a most curious place…” she remarked to Gusty still peering about.

“Come, we must leave your mind and instead tread into Zeccaran’s...and mine,” Luna whispered seemingly into Gusty’s ears.

A plain white wooden door appeared surrounded by Luna’s magic forming from absolutely nothing. The gilded doorknob twisted with a creak and the portal swung open revealing on an white light that Gusty could not see past. With a small grin Luna motioned for her to enter. Gusty did as the other alicorn wished.

Touching the blankness of the glowing surface Gusty felt her hoof tingle with the sensation of another’s magic. Closing her eyes, she pushed through the portal to reveal an sky blue void that was pleasant and warm feeling. Celestia stood waiting for her legs and wings stiff. The elder princess looked at her with interest and a wry grin.

“It has been some time since Luna has had trouble with somepony’s dreams. You will have to tell me how you keep her out. She is constantly pranking me in my dreams.” Celestia’s posture relaxed as she spoke.

“I didn’t know I was stopping her…” Gusty responded in kind.

She wondered what the princess had meant by trouble with somepony’s dreams. Frankly, the whole mind-walking thing they were doing now Gusty found unnatural and dangerous. One false move could push the subconscious too far and completely destroy the mind of the pony who was subject to the spell. She resolved that she would have to trust Luna.

While she did not know Luna very well the way Celestia spoke of her in such confidence was reassuring. Gusty found Celestia’s word to hold quite the bit of weight, especially since Celestia had been the only other creature that distrusted Stormwalker as much as her. Despising demons went a long way in Gusty’s book. She smiled at that thought.

A slow, low hiss came from behind her along with the dainty hooffalls of Luna marking the mare exiting the portal, enticing Gusty to look at her. The blue mare was humming pleasantly as if she deeply enjoyed her work

She abruptly stopped her humming and her face became serious.

“Well,” She sighed. “What I am about to show you both is…” She paused and pursed her lips. “It was the moment that broke them, when they lost everything they had worked for…” Luna’s voice was sad and guilty.

“Both?” questioned Celestia before Gusty could open her own mouth.

“Yes. Stormy and Zeccaran.” the younger mare answered.

Gusty narrowed her eyes. Stormwalker and Zeccaran had known each other. Why was Zeccaran hiding that? She wondered. Had he known what Stormwalker was the entire time?

“I’ll fill in the gaps as they come. For now let us relive the past....from my eyes” Luna said looking at her.

Luna’s horn lit and a great rectangle of the plain sky blue hollow they were in became the deepest, darkest shades of green. Slowly, the darkness cleared away to show a familiar image. It was the altar from the Cave but this time it was surrounded by two dozen of the cultists in their dark robes. In the foreground of the image several hundred ponies cheered and stomped their hooves in eager anticipation. The room was packed so thickly with ponies it almost gave Gusty claustrophobia.

From behind the altar a young looking Zeccaran strode out. He wore lapis lazuli colored regalia. On the garments a large silver crescent-moon was etched on his chest. The white stripes of his face were painted a deep midnight blue exactly the same color of Luna. Most strikingly his eyes were not the calm purple she had become accustomed to but instead were strikingly unnatural light blue.[

The Zeccaran on the altar waved a hoof commandingly and the crowd was silenced. Gusty could feel their anxious waiting. They did not need to wait long, the faux-Zeccaran spoke.

“Brothers and Sisters! Tonight is the night that we finally get to meet our Mistress!” he declared with a great wave of his front hooves.

The crowd erupted with frenzied cheers.

“The sacrifice has been prepared and soon we will oust the betrayer from the throne and free all the ponies of Equestria!” Faux-Zeccaran continued with a broad smile on his lips.

More screams, even more desperate than before.

He turned to the left and the vision Gusty was watching followed where the false prophet gazed.

The small crowd of the Inner Circle parted to reveal a pair of stallions carrying a very beaten Stormwalker. He lacked armor and was limp when they carried him. While it was clear that he had been tortured, the demon looked as good as he usually did, but he lacked the stronger lines on his face and his body seemed younger. Stormwalker had apparently had aged like a fine wine and was more attractive in the real world. That thought made Gusty want to kick herself.

Stormwalker stared out into the crowd and looked directly at her, or perhaps he was looking at Luna in the memory. Gusty was unsure. It felt as if he could sense through time and space that she was watching him. How extremely unsettling, Gusty thought, But, why is the only thing I feel from him pain?

The real Luna shifted uncomfortably next to her, brushing her side. Gusty could only imagine what it would have been like to be there. Even just watching the memory made her feel the dark energy in the room and the malicious intent of the crowd.

She looked again to Stormwalker, trying to understand.

Gusty only saw the eyes of a broken stallion. There was no determination or rage that she had often seen in those yellow eyes. An immeasurable sadness emanated from him, and the will to live was quite absent from his gaze. He was more than content to die on the altar, Gusty could feel it.

Stormwalker completely lacked the presence he had in the waking world too. It was like he lacked all his power. He made no attempt to struggle as they stallions carrying him laid him on the altar and chained his limbs to the four corners of the platform.

“And now!...It is finally time.” Zeccaran said matter-of-factly.

He produced a sickle from his robes. The very same sickle Gusty had seen him use so many times before. Holding its handle in both hooves, he raised it up so it glinted blue in the light of the full moon from the iron grate above. Stormwalker looked up at the blade longingly.

Without ceremony Zeccaran plunged the point of the sickle into Stormwalkers abdomen just below his ribs. The blade went deep into the stallion’s body easily piercing his diaphragm and stomach, but he showed little reaction. He turned his head back to the crowd and Gusty could see by the look in his eyes that Stormwalker was not even witnessing the room, for all intents and purposes he was already dead. Gusty could not imagine what had brought him to such a lowly state, she didn’t want to either.

Zeccaran began to drag the sickle down the center of his offering while chanting the same incantation she had heard him do when she had been in the very same room not two days before. The incantation was a long one and Gusty watched with gritted teeth as Zeccaran roughly forced the sickle through Stormwalker’s intestines.

I can’t even- That has to be incredibly painful! Gusty pursed her lips in thought while she watched.

To his credit the stallion showed no reaction as his flesh was gradually rent and split with the dull blade. A portion of his innards spewed out to the side of Zeccaran’s hoof but refused to bleed and give, only leaving their red-pink mass to twist up and away from his body. Undeterred the faux-Zeccaran continued cutting open his sacrifice.

Pulling the blade out from Stormwalker he put it back in his robes. Raising his front two hooves to the moon and speaking the final words necessary in a hurried and excited passion. Stormwalker’s blood rolled out from the wound and touched the altar.

The moon turn red and all light in the room darkened away just like before. The seeping form of a Shade fell from portal above. It pooled around the cut and partially formed a toothy smile before being sucked into the wound.

Light returned to the room abruptly. Gusty watched as the light in Stormwalker’s eyes kindled to a look of absolute horror. His shackles tightened as his body stiffened

In her ears the ponies around her whispered in confusion.

“What’s going on?” one said. “Shouldn’t we see the Night Mistress?” another.

The Zeccaran up on the altar turned around, his look just as confused as the rest of the ponies in the crowd.

“No.” came a soft male voice.

The whole room fell silent as they looked for the voice. Gusty didn’t need to search, she knew his voice too well already.

“No...no...no...no….No!” Stormwalker spat violently as he thrashed the chains holding him. “I don’t want it back! Never again! Please just let me die!” He shouted. He looked down at his open wound, with a desperate craze in his gaze.

The deep cut and all his bruises and other injuries healed before Gusty’s eyes.

He started to laugh. It was a cold empty sound. The dark chuckles chilled Gusty’s chest like she had just swallowed a whole pound of ice. The blob of cold sat there frozen as the demon on the table continued his haunted titters.

“Arrrghhh-AHHHH!” the demon screams burst suddenly.

Metal groaned and snapped as he ripped off his chains and stood up on the platform of the altar.

In his full visage of flame and malice he loosed a deep echoing bellow that physically moved Gusty’s chest. Gusty only briefly caught his eyes.


It was the only way to describe the brief thing she saw, but she knew too that he was going to spread that suffering. From what she had seen, Gusty knew it wasn’t the kind of pain that could be held in.

Immediately, the flames of his body shot into the crowd. The acrid smell of burning flesh caught Gusty’s nose and forced her to cover her face with a hoof. This memory certainly was crudely ingrained in Luna’s mind if the smell of burning bodies remained as vile as it did.

The eyes of Past Luna looked left and right as the hundreds of ponies around her were slowly scorched to black crisps. They continued to wail and flail about in total misery as they fell to the ground in droves. Past Luna ran up towards Stormwalker out of the flames. How she had been untouched was nothing short of a miracle. Gusty decidedly that Stormwalker had intentionally avoided hitting her, he probably had something much more base intended for her.

“Stop this! You have to stop this!” She yelled at him, as she ran towards him.

The world dimmed leaving Gusty confused as to what happened.

She looked over at Luna, Celestia on the other side of her sister was doing the same.

“What happened?” Gusty asked her before Celestia could, her face equally as confused Gusty felt.

“He hit me, quite hard...in retrospect I probably should have seen it coming. I don’t know why I thought I could stop him, but I had to try. He was my friend after all, or at least he had been…” Luna explained. “Here,” Luna’s horn flashed. “I came to right... here.”

The memory cleared up and it showed two Cultists of the Inner Circle looking between Luna and something out of her field of vision, obscured by her blue-starry mane. One of them lowered their hood to reveal a much younger and healthier looking Chrysanthemum. She grabbed her comrade pointed to the area out of view again and ran towards it.

Curiously, there was no sound to this portion of the memory. Gusty theorized that was because Luna had likely hit her head on the altar before sliding down to where she had been laying.

With a shhooowishhh, sound suddenly returned to reveal Stormwalker laughing over the top of the all the dying ponies in the room. This time his merriment was malicious. The hoarse giggling made her chest tighten in fear. Past Luna turned her view to find Zeccaran laying on the steps of the raised platform slowly trying to back away from a gore covered Stormwalker.

The demon was holding a partially alive member of the Inner Circle in a wing by his legs. Slowly and deliberately the flesh on the cultist’s limbs were charred to a hideous black. The demon hefted the stallion up in the air and slammed him into the ground where he continued to writhe and scream in a heap. The blacked portion of his limbs remained stuck in Stormwalker’s wing.and immediately the smell of scorched tissue returned even stronger. Past Luna looked down to the stallion on the floor to see bare blackened bones in place of all of his regular legs.

Stormwalker strode over to the stallion, the flesh in his wing turning to ash as he did. Rolling the ashes of the stallion’s legs into ball with his ethereal appendage the demon stuffed the mass into the open and wailing mouth of the poor fellow. A harsh sizzling noise silenced the stallion and Stormwalker laughs intensified.

Upon seeing the stallion’s mouth cauterized shut, Past Luna turned from the scene and vomited onto the carved stone floor.

If she not had not been in the dream world Gusty would have turned and done the same. She might even still once they left this place. It had been an incredibly long time since she had seen such horrors. They had been wrought by the same type of demons too. Gusty decided to hold that thought for later, the memory continued while she regained her focus.

Past Luna looked back up after grunting and beheld Stormwalker standing over Zeccaran. The zebra only lay there his mouth open and his eyes locked open in disbelief and terror.

The demon began to beat him. He did not burn him, he did not bite him, he used only his front hooves and his weight. Again and again he hit different parts of Zeccaran’s body, none of it lethal. It was clear that he meant to cause as much pain as possible, perhaps not even planning to finish the zebra. After a minute or so Stormwalker had worked his way to Zeccaran’s face and was hitting him with glancing blows, cutting the zebra’s face and smearing away the blue paint.

“Now we go even deeper, into Zeccaran’s mind...” The Luna on her left said.

The edges of the vision Gusty was witnessing gradually faded to a gray. The bland pigment fully overtook the entire scene after a time and Gusty was left wondering if this is what Zeccaran’s mind was like the achromatic expanse before her.

However, at the furthest distance she could see within this dream or mind or...

Gusty had completely lost track of how deep she had been brought into the astral layers of these memories.

She found herself questioning what was right. Stormwalker had not always been as he was now, dark and brooding, a monster and, Zeccaran used to be a Cultist! After everything it would seem that somehow Stormwalker had ample motive for revenge. Whatever had happened before the scene she had witnessed must have been truly terrible to make a stallion wish for death like the way Past Stormwalker had. Then fate denying him the mercy of release painted a clear picture of an angry empty monster motivated only by revenge and his own self-destruction. It did not condone hurting Amethyst but made the other things had done much more reasonable. Gusty felt the shiver of the glacier in her chest return, agreeing with a demon’s motivations made her feel dirty. A speck appeared at a distance and drew her attention away from the small identity crisis she was having for herself and the two stallions in question.

The dot grew to the size of a pony rapidly: before her Zeccaran stood placidly. He peered off to nowhere, his face an empty calm she had never seen him wear.

Images of a striped foal being taken up into the hooves of a cloaked pony overtook Zeccaran. The foal was crying while the long snout of the shrouded character was smiling gently.

“No need to cry little one. You are safe with us.” an unfamiliar mare’s voice cooed.

Next, flashes of the same cloaked pony showing a young colt magic and books. They booth seemed happy and eager in each others’ presence.

“All this knowledge and skill are yours, my little devotee. With them you will help free Equestria from the clutches of Nightmare Moon who masquerades as our precious Princess Luna, the True Night’s Mistress.” The voice this time was coming from the cloaked figure.

Then those images blurred away and Zeccaran stood dressed in the same outfit Luna’s memory had shown him. He and Chrysanthemum were huddled around the hooded mare each holding a hoof. They were young adults in this much more clear image.

“All that I have sacrificed, all that you have both sacrificed...don’t let it go to waste.” the mare croaked. Her voice was old and haggard.

It was rather unsettling to hear her as bereft of life as she was, but Gusty found it even more unsavory that Zeccaran and Chrysanthemum were crying.

“You can fulfill the Prophecy. I know you can….” The old mare coughed. “My only regret is that I won’t be there to see...it….” her legs relaxed in her attendees’ hooves.

Unlike the rest of the events, these faded away to grey to reveal Zeccaran still standing there in the emptiness of his mind. His calm look had left him but nothing else was different.

Gusty turned away from the image. She was beginning to develop a headache from what she witnessed. She gazed at Luna who had not moved even an inch from her position last time Gusty had spoke to her.

“Luna, what was all of that, memories?” she asked trying to make sure what she had seen and heard were real, or at least as real as someone else’s memories could be.

“Yes, the bits that I left him anyway. The other parts I purposely destroyed, so perhaps he could have a second chance.” Luna met her gaze as she spoke. “I think he puts it best. When I entered his mind that day...he was exceedingly repentant.”

Gusty raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean? What has he done?” she questioned.

“Honestly, for the sake of the pony he has become now, I cannot tell you. Know that his actions were as terrible as they were multitudinous. His remorse….let him describe.” Luna spoke. She turned away from Gusty and looked back at the still frozen Zeccaran.

Crrrsnap! Popped Luna’s horn and instantly Zeccaran took to screaming and crying.

He fell to his stomach and pounded his forelegs onto the blank ground. His face bowed to the grey dirt in humiliation and distress.

“How how how, how?! Why why why, why?!” he chanted swapping between them in perfect sequences of four.

A pool of tears comically formed on the grey floor as Zeccaran continued his barrage. Gusty wanted to laugh but felt too much pity for Zeccaran and restrained herself. The zebra stopped pounding the ground and chanting and instead merely sobbed into the surface. His breathing was haggard, like he had just run a marathon.

Slowly he looked up at Gusty. Well, looked up to Past Luna was the more accurate description. His eyes were their normal purple and his face was taut with horror.

“Princess Luna….If you are here. Here in my mind…” he started before turning away. “Then...that that means the ritual failed.”

He continued, “If the ritual failed then that means...it means that they have been lying to me...for all these years….that-that, that….!” Zeccaran covered his face with his hooves.

“I summoned Nightmare Moon…..that I’ll I’ve done has been for some great evil I didn’t understand!” Zeccaran frantically spoke. He looked directly into Gusty’s eyes, like Stormwalker did, through time and the separate planes.

“I’ve done...so many terrible things….all...all those ponies I practiced on...they told me that they couldn’t actually feel anything….that everything was a perpetuation of Nightmare Moon, that she was the one who returned all those years ago and ...and now controlled all the minds of the populace…”

“But...but it was all lies… and I believed it... the day that old mare took me in...I listened to her -and-and followed everything she said….I sh-should be killed for what I’ve done!” He started to yell.

Zeccaran’s tears flowed readily as he kept trying to speak to Past Luna. His anguish was palpable even through the multiple levels of dreams, Gusty shuddered trying to ignore the sensation.

“Not even killed! I-I should be tortured! Slowly! Oh princess...all th-the innocent lives...all the blood I have on my hooves! Please! Please! End me! End me, now!” Zeccaran demanded, his face in a deep unmoving scowl of torment.

“I’ve seen your mind, Zeccaran.” Past Luna’s fine voice said. “And I know what you say is true.”

“Then please...If you cannot punish me, then let the monster I created finish me off, I deserve whatever he does to me…”Zeccaran pouted, his eyes locked on the ground.

“No. I cannot let you die. I cannot let him harm you.” Luna said.

Zeccaran looked up at her in pain. His hurt was so great that if one was to count all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the planet only to lose count on the last piece and the great realization of wasted years of life and burned and cracked hooves came crashing down in that single moment it would not make up one millionth of the suffering Zeccaran’s face expressed. But, such was his fate.

“W-w-why?” the zebra meekly asked Luna, his voice empty and dead.

Luna bent down to where Zeccaran sat and pulled him into a hug. Kindly, pulling him into her wings and meeting his face, Past Luna answered: “Because everypony deserves a second chance, my dear zebra. And I know there’s good in you.”

Zeccaran ‘s eyes rolled back in his head and he went limp in Luna’s grasp

“And maybe...this way…Stormy can have one too,” Luna sighed.

Crrrsnap! Crackled Luna’s horn once again and the vision Gusty was watching blurred into a myriad of intense colors and patterns. The world seeming blurred away in those colors until abruptly the Cave’s altar room returned. Gusty blinked trying to make the image she was seeing more acceptable. She was unsuccessful. Before her Stormwalker loomed over Zeccaran, the sight flickered viciously in all its mangled glory.

“Beg! Beg for your life, you cretin!” boomed the demon-stallion as he tossed Zeccaran against the raised altar.

Gusty could hear the audible draws of Luna’s scared lungs. The mare’s vision moved closer to where Stormwalker approached the still frozen-faced Zeccaran

“I want you to plead! Suffer! Endure all the pain I have!” Stormwalker screamed. His voice was not more than the harsh grating of metal Gusty had heard in the very same room she now watched.

Zeccaran made no reaction to Stormwalker’s demands. His face was empty, his mind no longer capable of comprehending his sensory input.

Luna shouted something that Gusty did not understand. The name, perhaps, was obscured by the dream. Either way, her proclamation drew Stormwalker’s gaze. It was then that Gusty finally saw the twisted and crazed look the demon-pegasus had become memorable for.

He growled menacingly at Luna. His eyes dripped with dominance and cruel desire, Gusty was glad to not be on the true receiving end of that eye-contact, still she shuddered with disgust and fear. But,Stormwalker turned back to Zeccaran ignoring Luna’s cries, his fanged mouth drew into a too-wide smile and he chuckled darkly.

“If you will not fulfil my demands then you shall suffer,” he clicked arrogantly. “Suffer and pine for rest of your miserable life!”

Your actions shall prove fruitless. Your heart will know no peace. None shall pity you, none shall offer you even the smallest mercy. And for any happiness you manage to briefly touch, you shall be rewarded twenty-fold in pain and strife. Your very life shall be a constant nagging at your mind, eroding your will, destroying your joy. Those that love you shall use you as a tool and your heart shall be forever a servant to misery. Such shall be your punishment for denying and destroying my happiness. Now live and rue your existence, you scum!”

Gusty gaped at the Stormwalker’s monologue. It was classic villain material, but something felt off. She could almost swear she felt real magic being woven by his words. It was a power almost no creature could possess, but the signs were there. The righteous anger, the unadulterated hatred, the pure, dismal suffering, Stormwalker had them all. What was worse, whatever Zeccaran had done, he probably deserved the curse, if it was real. Gusty doubted it was though. The sensation she had felt had come from Luna’s fear and muddled memories. Similar things had already happened so Gusty let the thought go.

Stormwalker turned away from Zeccaran with a flourish of his fiery cape and stared directly into the point of view.

The vision of the past shook as Luna looked back at the abomination. He spoke at her with a sneer.

“What are you staring at, hmm? You want him alive don’t you?” he snarled.

Luna’s shaking stopped. She blinked rapidly but remained eyes locked with those deadly, red orbs of the demon.

“H-how did y-you kn-know that?” she asked her voice doing the shuddering for her

He strode up next to her and backed Luna on to her flanks. Her breathing became even more haggard and scared than before. At this distance Gusty could even smell the demon’s sweat through the dream. How the memory conveyed such amazing detail was beyond her. Frankly, she wished it would remain sight and sound only, instead of throwing in these thick smells of desperation.

Luna’s view looked down to see Stormwalker tracing a hoof up her chest and neck, before forcing her to look back at him.

“Oh my sweet moony mare, there is so much about you I know...perhaps more than yourself.” he purred, whilst licking his fangs.

“Do what you will with him. His lack of reaction has made him the most boring of toys. Come to think of it...I have run out of things to play with except...for you.” A dark grin spread his mouth too wide.

Gusty found herself swallowing nervously for Luna.

“Enough!” Luna proclaimed standing. “Y-you have had your fun. Now cover yourself. The reinforcements I s-summoned will be arriving very...soon...and-and-and. I-uh...I-uh we can’t have you looking like that!” Luna stammered out. The whole memory shook while she tried to act confident in front of what must have clearly felt like her doom.

Gusty would have to commend her later for her bravery. She had been under the impression that only she, herself was unafraid of Stormwalker. Gusty eagerly waited to see what said demon would do after being scolded like a child.

Luna looked back into Stormwalker’s eyes and held his gaze.

He looked back but it was like he was not looking at her. His gaze saddened and darkened and he lowered his head. His breathing became shallow and rushed as he turned away from Luna and picked up the oversized cloak Zeccaran had originally been wearing at the beginning of the memory.

He tossed it over himself. It completely hid his face save the end of his snout and seemingly made the flames of his body disappear. Gusty surmised the garment was magical, as she was shocked that it both was not on fire and not emitting any light from the unnatural flames beneath it.

“That’s right...I...It's like I’ve gone back fifteen years…” He mumbled his voice barely audible.

Luna turned away from him and rushed over to Zeccaran. Slowly, the memory faded to a deep impenetrable grey and was no more.

Gusty shook her head as the astral plane of Luna’s mind returned in its twinkling sky blue. It was so starkly pleasant compared to what she had been experiencing it disoriented her.

She looked over to the sisters. Luna merely stared at the sparkling ground her eyes showing no emotion. Her body was rigid and she stood tightly. Celestia’s mouth hung partially open and she looked to a distant point off to Gusty’s left. Her face was shrouded in what was best described as guilt, Gusty had no idea why, she would have to ask later.

Gusty herself rolled her shoulders in attempt to shake off the horrors she had witnessed. It did nothing to help. She turned to talking.

“So...that was...terrible...if that even sort of scrapes the surface.” She said.

Celestia and Luna both remained silent.

Gusty grimaced. She had been hoping for more, especially from Celestia.

She wasn’t sure how to feel about Zeccaran, he wasn’t the same pony as he had been. What Luna had done and truly given him second start if she had erased his older memories. How ethical that was she did not know how, but Zeccaran legitimately wanted to do good so she could not count it a bad decision.

However, she had to admit to herself, she did feel strong pity for Stormwalker. He had not always been such a monster. There had been a stallion that was willing to fight and die for what was right hidden in him the entire time. Perhaps that was why he had not chased them down after the Shade. Maybe he had truly had a change of heart, those sad eyes of his made her actually wonder. Gusty had seen no other pony have such clear, dismal eyes.

No! He’s a monster, not a pony! He did not have to turn into what he is now. You can’t show him mercy, you have to end him. If he lets you, then easier the task shall be! Your pity will be a swift end to his unnatural life! a voice inside her shrieked, she found it disturbingly convincing.

Gusty cleared her throat, solemnly agreeing with her errant line of thought. She would give it all her faith and help him the only way she could.

Luna loosed a deep sigh and relaxed.

“I truly despise reliving that memory, but it had to be done. I hope that it explains everything.” She breathed.

“It does...and leave me feeling like I need to apologize, especially with how close we used to be.” Celestia chimed in, striding up to her sister. “What of you Gusty?” she asked.

“I will do what I must. It matters who you are in the present not the past.” Gusty stated.

She wanted to appear strong in the face of such trials. What she was going to do next required it. This time Gusty swallowed nervously with intention. Her heart was already beginning to race with anticipation.

“Shall you take us back to the waking world Luna? I have a demon to purge from an exceedingly unfortunate stallion.” she ordered with gusto.

Luna gave her a quizzical look but her horn lit up anyway. The dream world started to fade away and Gusty felt herself waking up. It was a slow and arduous process. Gusty was unsure how long it would take or if it would take any real time at all.

Act 1: Chapter 10 - Demon?

View Online

"Truly understanding another pony takes time. It takes you knowing them, being friends with them, getting inside their head, finding similarities between them and you. I've never been terribly good at it, but sometimes certain ponies make it happen in spite of me. No need to mention names. But, sometimes there are ponies that are so good at it that they reflexively empathize, and sometimes it is that simple act that can completely change another pony's heart and mind.

The tumbling up sensation stopped and Gusty finally woke. She stretched upright in an attempt to alleviate her sore over-slouched back. She yawned and rubbed her eyes as she finished. In their respective chairs the other alicorns began stirring as well. With her vision slowly clearing Gusty turned to notice Zeccaran still sound asleep. That was probably for the best, she was tired for having just to have borne witness to the treacherous events of the zebra’s past. Luna had used poor Zeccaran as the catalyst for the experience. He probably had relieved the worst moment of his life in real time, Gusty ignored the thought.

“I’m not sure I understand your meaning, Gusty” Luna’s voice drew her back to the blue mare.

Gusty snapped her head to avoid looking at Stormwalker. Luna grimaced at her in concern as she stretched her wings from her position and yawned.

Gusty gave her a deadpan stare.

“Yes, as we were saying before, Gusty, Stormwalker-awwugh...well he is the demon.” Celestia answered through a yawn.

“What? How can that be? No demon I have ever known regretted their power. Nor hated their own visage or spared a helpless creature within their power, like this poor soul has. He can’t be a full demon. He cannot.” she scoffed.

The sisters had clearly never dealt with the real thing. She stood up from her chair and readied herself to look much closer at Stormwalker than she really wanted to.

Luna stood up and put herself between the demon and Gusty.

“You don’t understand. He is most definitely a full-fledged demon. If you make any sort of attempt to remove the demon part of him he will die!” she proclaimed

Gusty went to protest but was stopped by the monster himself.

“Luna, the choice is mine not yours.” he quipped commandingly.

“But I-” Luna turned about and was cut off by Stormwalker.

“Luna.” His voice held a quiet seriousness to it that made Gusty shiver.

The younger sister stepped aside to reveal Stormwalker still on the couch. He lacked his armor, it was piled neatly on the floor next to the furniture. His whole body exposed down to his shiny grey coat. Gusty looked away briefly to catch her breath before returning her gaze to study him with a calmer mind.

Stormwalker was covered in many rugged, harsh scars. His chest alone had five separate dark pink-grey marks each undoubtedly having brought him to the edge of death. He had two more on his back and many more on his legs. His neck even sported a long curved blemish. Each one had a story to tell and Gusty again found herself wondering why he would continually push the limits of his regeneration.

It would seem that he actually wants to die. She mused to herself as she looked over the toned chest and flanks the stallion possessed.

Stifling the oncoming blush Gusty levitated the coffee table that sat between them and gave a short pause.

Can I do this? Can I end him in cold blood? Without him even trying to fight back?

“If you can take this curse from me Gusty, I want you to do it.” Stormwalker’s voice made her look at his face. The long, thick crescent scar over his left eye made her wonder how he had even lived through his most recent attempt at suicide.

Well, at least I have his approval. She thought as she released her held breath. Gusty started walking to him, emptying her mind as she had done so many times before.

He turned his head and met her eyes. His slitted pupils widened with anticipation. Clearing away her thoughts got significantly harder, but Gusty persisted, quickly closing her eyes. She achieved a shaky zen of meditation as she finished crossing the short distance.

But for once, Gusty was unsure how to proceed. Purifying a demon was something she had not done in what felt like several dozen lifetimes. She remembered that to start the process she had to start praying to Origin. Gusty kept her prayers internal as she sat down on the floor just beside the couch. There wasn't much point to chanting in the dead Celestial language she used to speak with God, no pony present would understand.

First step: pray with truest intent, most pure of heart

When Origin answered her, Gusty’s very touch would be able to remove any trace of a demon and its residual energy. Typically, she would do this to a defeated demon while their soul was still in limbo, but it didn't matter when you performed the ritual, it just was a lot easier when the target's body was incapable of fighting. Her current situation wouldn’t make a difference, she hoped. Stormwalker would take time to destroy though, simply because the amount of power he held, even now she could feel his raw strength pulsing in the air around her. Gusty prayed harder and threw the whole of her being into preparing his last sacrament.

The righteousness of her god burst into her body making her feel light and nimble. She breathed in a deep calming sigh and leaned up to make her head even with Stormwalker’s. Gusty opened her eyes and quickly clasped her hooves just behind his jaw, and angled his head down. She was forced to gaze into his eyes as the power she held inside shot into Stormwalker.

His pupils contracted into thin slits his irises turned their brilliant red. Otherwise he did not react to the ritual. Gusty threw every bit of faith and power she had been gifted into her cause. The edges of her vision blurred with a gorgeous myriad of colors. The power of Origin was truly awesome and even more of it poured from her and assaulted the demon.

As she pushed more of the purifying faith into Stormwalker, he began to look more and more confused. It evidently didn’t phase him in the least. Gusty was not particularly surprised by that detail, he possessed incredible power in his own right.

The next step: Pull the purification power out of the body of the target demon.

Gusty started doing just that. It was difficult to gain a sound grip on the energy but she was quickly successful. She pulled with the full force of her faith, her mind, and even a little bit of her luck.

Stormwalker’s eyes sparkled with surprise. Gusty expected him to scream in pain, but he remained silent.

Gusty pulled even harder until the full force of his dark energies came forward and condensed in his chest and head.

Final step: Smite the evil you have drug forth with the power and name of Origin.

Gusty readied her horn to channel the full fury of her ancient and divine gift. When the pressure in her skull built to an unbearable level she loosed the beam of pure energy at Stormwalker’s face.

He didn’t even bat an eye and let it hit him directly. Gusty admired his bravery, there was something to be said about facing death without remorse.

The spell lasted for nearly three minutes. Midway through Gusty closed her eyes focusing the entirety of her being into completing the purification. Perhaps it would save his soul if she gave it her all. She doubted it. Still Gusty found it amazing that a half-demon turned mortal possessed the will to control the power of the Shades he had been forced to absorb. If he hadn’t become such a monster he might have made the most noble of stallions, certainly the most handsome.

The spell ended and Gusty opened her eyes.

Stormwalker’s red eyes glinted at her in the dying light of the spell, his look an amused one. In his body Gusty could still see the dark energies swirling about unhindered by her spell. Her throat tightened in frustration. Quickly she focused her mind and sought to find the certain evil that she knew was there.

Emptiness. Nothing in the entire palace and maybe even the city held evil in it.

The ominous shadows that danced about inside Stormwalker slowly faded from her view as her connection to Origin lessened. Gusty balked, her ability sense evil showed that there was simply nothing malignant about the stallion in the least. The purification ritual would have destroyed anything that could have masked itself as well, yet Stormwalker still sat there a look of benign concern growing on his face.

Gusty couldn’t believe it. It was impossible.

She cleared her mind and called upon the same power of Origin and felt its power well up in her body immediately. Gusty cast the ritual spell again. She tugged with desperate fury at the darkness she knew was in him committing to end him regardless of her own safety. Gusty kept up her assault until her mind hit what felt like a brick wall.

Stormwalker reached up and touched the hooves she still held to his face. His touch forced her to look more directly into his eyes.

What exactly were you expecting to do with this ritual? He asked.

Gusty wasn’t sure if she had heard him or if she was hearing things in her head. Stormwalker’s eyes glimmered before his voice came again.

If you keep going you will only succeeding in absorbing the power my body contains. And that, dear Gusty, kills you. Not me.

Gusty shuddered. She and Stormwalker had just become more intimate than she had even thought possible.

What’s it to you!? It’s not like you care about what happens to me! You already have two alicorns under your control you don’t need a third! She projected back at him, before continuing.

It was all the more reason to keep trying to remove the dark energy she swore she could feel. It was definitely a good way to distract her from the interjection of someone else’s thoughts into her mind.

Sudden feelings of responsibility and guilt flooded into Gusty’s mind. She tried to push them away. They weren’t her emotions to begin with and they certainly couldn’t be real, no matter what her heart would tell her. They couldn't come from Stormwalker. Demons were unable to create such a tangible sensation Gusty was adamant of that, yet they weren't hers either. She was starting to suspect this demon in particular was simply skilled at funneling her own emotions back to her. Gusty pulled harder on what she felt building in Stormwalker, ignoring all that she felt and “heard” from him.

Gusty. That’s enough you really need to- he was cut off.

All sound ended in fact.

The world darkened and even Stormwalker’s glowing eye’s winked out.

Gusty felt herself falling again.

It was similar to what Luna had done but it felt more urgent.

Gusty began to panic.

Was he right? Was this it? Did I just kill myself?

She felt like she was hyperventilating. Yet the air she sucked in was never enough and she was unable to calm herself. The sensation of falling increased and she felt the need to vomit but could not.

“I’m dead….he was right.” Gusty said aloud to her lonely void.

She felt a terrible sadness and regret pool hotly in her chest. She desperately wanted to cry but lacked the means to do so. Instead she pouted in an ever growing pit of despair and depression. The feeling of time ceased to function in her head and Gusty just continued to fall her thoughts racing on in a spiral of hurt and loss.

She continued like this for some unimaginable time, until a familiar sensation settled on her haunches

“Do you honestly think I would let you die, Gusty?” Stormwalker’s voice echoed.

Gusty looked around the falling Abyss to try and find where his words had come from.

“Do you really think I would let you kill yourself for my sake? You are worth so much more than me.” he sighed.


The sensation of falling abruptly stopped. The action might as well have been her falling into an enormous pit of cotton candy. She felt solid ground beneath her hooves and she “stood up” as best she could in the empty blackness she found herself in.

At a distance a small flickering light appeared from nowhere. The vague outline of the great pegasus-demon could be seen as the flame before him danced.

Gusty hesitated for a brief moment before trying to move through the black soup of this strange place. The ground acted like regular non-Abyss ground. She remarked internally that it felt like soft grass. As Gusty approached, the candle began to glow hotter and its flame no longer twitched.

Around her a world began to take shape. Grass covered a small hill that she walked along and the sky above turned to a cloudy overcast day. Stormwalker stood facing her his expression calm and reserved. Behind him a seemingly empty expanse of blustery plains stretched out as far as she could see.

“Where am I?” she demanded once she reached him.

“A place no one else has ever gone to: a place I thought I would always be alone.” he answered.

Gusty curled her lips up in pure revulsion. She knew exactly where she had gotten herself stuck. Her main complaint was why she had been forced here of all places.

He continued: “That was until I met you of course...and you tried to pull that ‘cleansing’ nonsense.” Stormwalker smirked playfully at her.

“I want out of your mind, Stormwalker.” Gusty demanded, just-short-of-snarling

“Not yet. This is an excellent opportunity for us to understand each other better, and I won’t have you leaving until you have learned something.” he answered.

Gusty openly scoffed, groaning absolutely as loud as she could.

“Look, I don’t want to be here in the first place. I was trying to kill you. Not coming to say ‘hi’ inside your head.” she stomped a hoof angrily.

“Oh, I know. You made a good effort, really, and I thought you were actually gonna manage to cleanse my body and put an end to this rather cursed existence I lead.” He said with a pleasant air, “But that was before you started trying to actively absorb my...bad side’s energy...so I had to stop you and-wow. Did I ever get a surprise!”

Gusty stifled a gag. Seeing Stormwalker merrily smile made her sick. She could not stand the thought of him enjoying touching her mind. It was the only way he could have pulled her into this living hell. She glared down at the soft grass and then back up at his handsome face. Gusty wanted to both kiss him and stab him, just to say that she had done both.

She grunted angrily wishing for her sword, she would stab him first, probably at least seventeen times, after that he hopefully would be less attractive. Gusty, pushed the thought aside and instead focused on what he had found so shocking about her.

“Well, what did you find when you violated my mind, demon.” She glowered at him.

He his eyes widened, his face pinching into concern.

“Nothing good. I can tell you that for certain,” his voice was serious. “It was like I was looking through a piece of thick glass that someone had broken into a million pieces and then tried to glue together with fog. And what I could see…” he sighed.

“It was bad...really bad.” His tone made her meet his gaze.

“I don’t know how you hold yourself together. It’s...quite admirable. Though it has only been two days since I have met you, I have often wished I had your resolve.” he smiled kindly.

Gusty found herself blushing, even in this not-real world. She hated that he could manage to evoke embarrassment out of her. Not that she could stop it. Anypony honestly complimenting her made Gusty feel sheepish, or perhaps modestly appreciative. Still she had no idea her subconscious was in such a tenuous state, not that she would let him know she was interested.

“Are you saying something is wrong with me? How very vulgar of you to insult me like that. Are you stupid?” Gusty snapped.

“Uh...?” Stormwalker quipped. “I mean...it’s not something you had control of, someone did something terrible to you. Honestly, I owe it to you to try and find a way to fix it.”

“What? No! I don’t want your help!” Gusty shrieked.

“Well, it’s not a matter whether you want it or not, you’ve already got it.” Stormwalker grinned, his fangs glinting with gleeful mischief.

“Fine then. Why? Why do you want to help me? Hmm? Tell me. Now. I won’t stand for anymore of your tricks.” Gusty held his gaze angrily

“Because…” Stormwalker hesitated. “You helped me.” He mumbled out before he looked away from her to some undisclosed point on the ground. He took in a deep breath and sighed harshly before meeting her eyes again. His demeanor becoming hard, determined, yet reverent.

“And because you are the only pony ever, to not only stand up and tell me I was wrong, but you proved it too.” He said a little unevenly, like he was nervous.

Gusty just raised a brow in concern. He had to be joking.

“Listen, I didn’t used to be such a bad guy, not that my reasons for the Cave are much of an excuse but...” He paused as Gusty’s jaw continued to drop, “The point is: you showed me that I don’t have to give in to my bad side no matter how horrible the circumstances may be.”

Gusty swore she felt her chin hit the grass below her. He was serious. A demon was actually seriously congratulating her for fighting him? He had to be insane, most demons were, but this one had taken his mental depravity to a new level. Gusty gaped at him incredulously unable to form the adequate words for how repugnant the thought remained.

“You don’t believe me, do you? Like, not even a little bit.” his smiled slowly faded to disappointment.

Gusty still lacked words and she just started shaking her head. She quickly placed a hoof up to her face and looked away from him, she was too flabbergasted to continue this farce.

“I need you-need you to understand, that after Nyx...I have new powers that I don’t understand how to use. I need more of your help. I-I...” He looked at her his voice breaking as he plead. Gusty compiled her composure and fixed him with hard glare. He turned away his mood solemn and broken.

“Nevermind, you won’t ever listen to me until prove with irrefutable evidence that I mean well for you and everypony else.” he he whispered.

"Oh, by my moon and stars you demonic fool!" Luna shouted freezing Gusty's memory in place. She let herself collapse down to the ground in sobs. She had followed the rabbit hole to the very bottom of its pit and found the one thing she had been looking for, the inside of Stormwalker's mind. Luna gritted her teeth as her lungs heaved reflexively from her tormented weeping. She had not realized when she had begun crying but it mattered little now.

"Why didn't you ever ask? I would have helped! How was I supposed to know? How was I supposed to understand, Stormy!?" she shrieked at the memory of her favored demon. Luna wallowed in her anger and guilt, ashamed that it had taken until it was spelled out for her before she understood. The only thing Stormwalker had ever wanted was genuine help without the need for his benefactor to be repaid, for somepony to help because they actually cared about him. Her heart and chest tightened at the thought of all the opportunities she had missed. She turned up to look at his face and the sad little smile he always had when he looked at Gusty.

"You fought Nyx! The literal embodiment of darkness and hatred by yourself! And you-you-you won! And you told Gusty! You didn't tell me! The very mare she tormented for one-thousand years! Do I mean that little to you!?" Luna whimpered as loud as her breaking voice would allow. She cast her eyes away from his nonreactive face, realizing she was just screaming at an illusion. Zeccaran's words suddenly echoed in her head, loud over her crying.

Luna stood up remembering what he had said. She had to watch the end of this and gather strength before she moved on. This would be the hardest thing she had ever done, and all the anxiety of having a crush would have to be swept away if she could ever live with herself again. "She may have helped you first," she looked over at Gusty's annoyed face, "But I promise to make up for all the times I didn't, I won't back down again!"

A rush of wind hissed over the grassy hill. Gusty looked up from her hoof to see massive looming black clouds building behind Stormwalker. He turned around and faced out on the empty plain she had seen before. The ominous weather reminded Gusty of what she had imagined for the very demon’s mind she was in, how ironic that he had chosen such an appropriate image for her to see.

Sudden sunlight broke the clouds and scattered them away with ease. She decided that she had seen enough of other ponies’s mind today. She was done with demon minds too.

“Let me leave.” She said to him.

“Would you not stay?” he asked without turning to face her. His voice was hushed, sad.

“Not even for the briefest of moments?” He turned to look at her quickly trotting over to her.

Gusty scrunched her snout in disapproval, but she could hardly stop him from coming over to her. She was certain that even if it wasn’t his mind she could do next to nothing to stop him from doing what he wanted.

He sighed briefly. He unfurled his big wings to their fullness. She looked away from him resenting how easily he used his body language to his advantage.

“Very well. Just put your hooves back up to my face, it will help with the transition back out.” he said calmly.

Gusty grunted unhappily but did as he asked. She tried to not look into his eyes. Unfortunately for her, he was tall enough that placing her hooves back on his face meant she had to. She stared at his slitted pupils and wondered what he was thinking as he looked back to her.

“Okay. Here we go!” He whispered.

Gusty felt his hot breath race down her neck and fought the chills. She was quickly distracted as Stormwalker’s eyes flashed to their red and glowed brighter than ever before. She quickly felt like she was flying up, even her mane and tail caught an ethereal burst of air, lifting the former away from her face.

Gusty suddenly remarked at the softness of a new ground below her back hooves. She drew in a breath and exhaled. Stormwalker’s eyes softened from their bright glow and returned to yellow. This close to his face she could see the smile in his eyes. It wasn’t evil like she had expected it to be, but rather it was gentle, perhaps content. She pulled her hooves away from his head quickly with the intent to forget the sensation and sight of him.

“What...was that?” Luna asked, her voice ripe with something...Gusty was unsure what.

She looked back over at the moony mare and was unable to divine her emotion, it was somewhere between confused and jealous. Jeafused, perhaps? Gusty let it go and answered Luna the best she could.

"You have no idea, Gusty" Luna commented on her rival's assessment. "Come on, almost done." she sniffed.

“An awful experience that’s what it was” she complained. It was an unsettling at best, even when she learned her mind was busted which was rather intriguing, it was still exasperating.

Stormwalker shifted on the couch beside her. He got off the furniture and stood up as Gusty moved out of his way. Due to his size, she was forced to stand next to him lest she knock down one of the princesses.

“I found it rather enlightening. It would seem that there is much more to Gusty than we could have possibly imagined.” Stormwalker chirped.

Gusty grunted in disapproval. She again found herself at the mercy of that damned demon.

“Go on, perhaps?” Celestia raised a brow looking right at Gusty.

“The short sweet version is that something truly horrible happened to Gusty a long time ago, before you two even were born. If we want to figure out who she is and why she suddenly resurfaced now, we have to find out what that something was, so we can help her.” the demon concluded with elegance that made Gusty scoff.

“That is a difficult task. Even with what little of her subconscious mind I have already seen I can say that such an endeavor is the most monumental of undertakings.” Luna commented.

Gusty raised an eyebrow. She wanted to interject but was unsure what she would have to contribute. She had not even known that she was in such rough shape in the first place.

“I agree with Luna. The work involved will be complex and difficult at best.” Celestia nodded with pursed lips.

“I’ll handle all the research and information gathering. Luna, I don’t care how long it takes I want a full mental diagnostic report. Celestia, why don’t you have Gusty accompany you to Afternoon Court sessions and any meetings with foreign diplomats. Somebody somewhere has to be able to recognize her and that’s our best chance while maintaining proper security.” Stormwalker issued out orders.

Gusty stuck out her tongue to augment her fake gagging face.

“Look who’s suddenly barking out orders now?” Celestia prodded, “Very well I suppose I should help, as compensation for trying to cut your head off earlier.”

“What!?” Gusty spouted off in shock finding her voice.

“You want to help him!? What happened to ‘he’s an untrustworthy monster!?’” she gasped at Celestia.

The white alicorn drew up a sheepish look.

“It is rare that my emotions get as riled as they did. His calm demeanor while handling my...outburst, was enough for me to settle down and think about what he was saying...and with the explanation of Luna’s memories-I have no reason not to trust him. I might be still a little scared of the big oaf but that doesn’t mean I think he won’t do the right thing.” Celestia responded, embarrassed.

Gusty just gaped at her unable to respond.

Am I the only one that understand how dangerous, how evil he is? She thought to herself.

She had just gotten some real allies to help her deal with the demon, and now they were following his order. Gusty couldn’t help but fume and curse under her breath not caring if anypony else heard.

“That aside.” Stormwalker interrupted her thoughts,

“There is no time like the present. I expect both of you to put forth your best effort on this.” He said to the sisters as he nudged past her to take up the center of the room.

“I’ll start tonight.” Luna chirped.

“Good.” Stormwalker practically purred while turning back around to face Gusty.

He touched a hoof to her cheek and gave Gusty the most seductive bedroom eyes she had ever seen.

“She deserves the most we can do at the very least. I promise: I'll help you get through this.” he sighed looking into her eyes, with those damned yellow circles.

Gusty felt a hard blush trying to raise its head. She defended herself the only way she had left. She raised her left hoof and slapped him as hard as she could. Her leg stung from the impact but she was pleased to see the strike had left an excellent red mark in the shape of her hoof.

Stormwalker returned his hoof to rub his cheek with a wry smile.

“I suppose I deserved that. Well, I should get going. The Archives aren’t going to search themselves!” he laughed as he turned around to leave.

Gusty wished their was something better than the furniture with which to levitate and pummel him. She hated how easily he had convinced the other alicorns of his “good nature,” it made her question her gut. Questioning her gut made her feel like she was questioning who she was as a pony. Listening to her instincts had been all she had ever known when it came to destroying evil, she despised how that was now coming into question.

“Hey wait! You aren’t seriously going to do research right now are you?” Luna cried, pulling Gusty away from her sulking.

The younger princess had caught Stormwalker at the door.

“I most certainly am.” he retorted opening the door and strolling out it like he owned the palace.

"Curse you, Gusty! You think so painfully slow!" Luna grumbled, "And to think all you did was try to be concerned for him and his fate. And all this affection he just oozes towards you and you throw it away!" Luna heaved a sigh, "Not that I am any better on that front...I'm just as disappointing a companion as you."

“You aren’t even going to tell me about-Hey! Stop walking off and talk to me! Guar-” Luna was cut off by the door closing from her blue magic.

Celestia shrugged at the event and took to staring at Gusty. She stared back, her bad mood not abating in the slightest. The taller alicorn walked over closer as if sensing her continued anger and gave her a short nuzzle.

“Don’t worry about him. He’s actually a big push over once you get to know him.” Celestia said placing a hoof on her shoulder.

“Hardly. You don’t know him like I do. You didn’t watch him...hurt a foal….to be there in person...to feel the terror of seeing flames spring out of his back and his eyes turn that, that horrid red. To feel his malice, pure and unbridled let loose before you....” Gusty responded through gritted teeth.

Celestia gave a light chuckle. She shook her head in a just-short-of-condescending way and looked back at Gusty with amusement.

“Perhaps you are right. But I remember a time when he was an innocent young stallion with a gentle heart, even though he was the same foulness he is now, you’ll come to like him, I’m sure of it.” she told Gusty reassuringly.

“I’ll sooner stab him with my sword and toss him out a window. The rotten pervert wouldn’t even die from it either, the jerk.” Gusty grumbled back.

Celestia burst into outright laughter. It was a rather beautiful sound that was refined yet relaxed. Gusty wondered how many ponies had ever heard the princess laugh so candidly.

“You are going to be an absolute treat during court meetings! Speaking of which why don’t we not have you come to Afternoon Court until the day after tomorrow. I’ll have an aid or maybe even Luna give you a tour of the palace, that way you have ample time to settle in here.” Celestia said trying to stifle her laughter by talking.

“Okay.” Gusty nodded in agreement feeling particularly tired from the day's events.

“I’m going to go back to my room.” she said through a yawn.

“Very well, do you know the way?” Celestia asked.

“I should be fine.” Gusty replied.

“Alright then, it’s time for me to go to bed anyway, early morning tomorrow.” the taller alicorn yawned too.

She paused briefly before casting a glance back towards the room proper.

“Shall we leave Zeccaran here? Is that alright?” she asked Gusty.

Gusty levitated her friend to lay out fully on the enormous couch instead of having him balled up on a chair. The zebra looked significantly more comfortable and even grumbled something tonally similar to a “thank you” but otherwise did not move and continued his soft snore.

“He should be fine.” Gusty responded pleased with her work.

Celestia led their way out of the conference room. She kept walking down the straight of the hallway casting a wave back to Gusty who turned to the right. She walked down the hall towards the throne room. Entering from a small door she found herself behind the right side of the still overturned gold seat. Busy castle ponies and a few construction contractor looking stallions milled about picking up broken glass or setting up scaffolding. They certainly did get here fast, the restoration business was clearly a lucrative and often used business here in Equestria.

Gusty continued through the ruined room and down the ornate stained-glass hallway with the marble arches she had followed to the throne. What was left of the glass depicted a curious set of six ponies. She didn’t quite understand what they were supposed to describe but the characters in the fractured pictures had a certain vibrancy to them she found endearing. She particularly liked the look of the rainbow-maned pony and the pink-on-pink pony, they seemed fun. Otherwise, Gusty continued, making her way back to her room past the devastated art.

She finally arrived after finally navigating a particularly dangerous section of the hall that included a collapsed section of roof, shattered armor suits, and strange spikes of morphed stone, she hadn’t seen it when she had been flying through before, it must have happened before Stormwalker and Celestia made it into the gardens.

Gusty tossed open the door to her gifted apartment and walked in feeling even more tired than before. She found Amethyst still asleep on the sofa, the cookies she had been eating lay on her belly and the cushion she was on. Gusty smiled down at her daughter and picked her up in her magic. She gently moved Amethyst with her into the hall to where her bedroom was. The big window that peered off towards the northeast reveal that it had become nighttime.

Having had an extremely full day Gusty moved into her bedroom to the massive and massively comfortable bed and placed Amethyst on it before slipping into the heavenly soft location herself. She yawned as her daughter mumbled in her sleep and closed her eyes to slowly drift off to sleep. Life was certainly going to be a lot different for the time being she mused as dreams started to take her, but she was ready for it this time.

"Freedom at last!" Luna cheered as the memory ended and she snapped her eyes open to the blue of her bedroom. She took the bare minimum of time needed to re-accommodate herself to the waking world and its realities of physics such as gravity and friction. Standing up from her bed she hopped down from the raised dais where it lay and bolted towards her door.

She was too frustrated, too concerned to try teleportation, thus she ran down the winding stairs into her personal study and its various mirrors, books, and maps before exiting. She turned right swinging past the corridor that led to Celestia's side of the main tower and found the next staircase which she jumped down steps in groups of threes before hitting full flight as she glided down past the ground level. She passed confused guards merely shouting them aside as she slipped down the support structure and into the basement. Once there Luna entered the main underground corridor and zipped down the hall past the Advanced Research facility towards the Nightwatch Barracks.

Outside some of her Batpony Guards stood waiting doors open having seen her coming. They waved her in stoically as she was forced to skid to the ground due to the narrow halls of the Barracks. She turned through the facility, used to the familiar passages until she came upon the commanding officer's room embossed with the name of her quarry. She kicked it open and dashed inside to find a small gathering of stallions. Behind his desk Stormwalker was pouring a glass of whiskey for himself while the other stallions were gaping at her sudden arrival, glasses in various states of full.

"Get out! All of you get out!" she screamed at the lower staff as she charged her horn ready to toss them herself. They scrambled out of the room in short order all leaving their beverages behind. Luna levitated one of the fuller ones over before draining it. The liquor burned as she swallowed but it helped her catch her bearings and slow her racing heart. She turned and closed the door using one of the chairs the officers had to hold it shut since she had broken the lock.

"Luna, are you okay?" Stormwalker asked standing up from the enormous chair he was in. She remained silent as he looked at her. "Because, it's not every day you kick in the door to my office and start doing doubles...what's wrong?"

She shook her head and looked him dead in the eye. "Show me you." she ordered quietly.

"What? I'm not sure I understand what you-" he started, "You know exactly what I mean, Stormy." Luna finished. He looked at her concern growing in his eyes before it relented and was replaced with acceptance. Stormwalker closed his eyes and instantly flame replaced his wings, mane, and tail and he stood before her in his true form. She could see the cracks in his legs and chest where his armor did not cover. There raw white-golden magic boiled just below the surface in an ever-moving dance of power. She saw the long razor fangs glinting unnaturally in the light of his fire and finally he opened his eyes to look at her. They started red their pupils expanded to be round and empty but slowly turned yellow and slitted like that of a dragon or cat.

Luna drew in one last breath before striding towards him. He watched her carefully his eyes still showing the same interest and worry as before. Perhaps Gusty didn't see that part of him, perhaps she couldn't, but she did and with as much confidence as she could Luna pressed her face against his neck. She awkwardly threw her hooves around him causing him to inhale sharply in surprise. After a moment he nuzzled his snout into her mane causing her to feel like she was being lifted off her hooves. But she wasn't done yet, this action meant nothing if she could not speak to him, so Luna backed up and met his eyes once more.

"Guardian Angel, I-I have s-something to say to you." she stammered holding his gaze. He briefly bit at his bottom lip his eyes sparkling with an emotion close to wonder. He gave the smallest nod for her to continue and that was all it took for the words to come tumbling out in a never ending cascade. And for the first time since her time as Nightmare Moon, Luna hoped the night would last forever.

Act 2: Chapter 1 - An Old Friend

View Online

Twas a pleasant spring day in late March. Pleasant breezes of the year’s first warm day danced from the hall window. They followed their sunray brethren slipping their way through the open door of Gusty’s bedroom. She leaned up from beneath the soft covers of her bed and yawned slowly. Crunching splutters of her husband’s snoring filled her ears as he rolled over, only vaguely disturbed by her waking. It was set to be a most boring Tuesday. There were no guests of note on the court listing and that left her demotivated. She sat there in her plush bed contemplating putting a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door to her residence and going back to sleep.

However, the thought of Celestia’s disappointment encouraged her just enough to slide her back hooves down to the ground before flipping her body fully on to all of her limbs. Gusty yawned again. She absently watched the small dust particles caught in the beams of sunlight. She recovered and lazily strolled over to her clothes dresser. Locating her favorite cobalt skirt with a smile she slipped it on. It had been pressed and cleaned regularly, its grey-blue was now a sharp crisp color. It bounced pleasantly against her flanks now that its fabric was restored. She also selected a bright yellow shawl that served more as a hue complement than a real piece of covering. Moving on to her vanity she levitated up a simple silver necklace that Bunker had gotten her as a wedding gift.

Remembering her husband, Gusty levitated up her wedding legband and snapped it around her upper left leg. It was a platinum gold almost as pure white as the silver on her neck. It held three diamonds, two smaller one larger. Where Bunker had gotten it was a mystery to her and no amount of ‘persuasion’ could get him to divulge how he had gotten it. She looked into her vanity’s mirror to find her mane a total mess. Gusty took to brushing it thoroughly. After some decent work on her unruly head hair she had brushed it to perfection, her cerulean-seafoam curls glowing in the sunlight. She was just finishing when quick, small hoofsteps caught her ears by surprise.

Amethyst’s thin filly frame slipped by her bedroom door. Gusty stood up from her vanity’s cushion chair and followed her daughter. The schoolfilly had breezed quickly into the kitchen leaving her mother in the dust. By the time she had reached the room, Gusty was astounded to find toast already in the toaster and potatoes being chopped by a levitating knife. Meanwhile, Amethyst sat reading a thick book that she didn’t recognize as her daughter’s usual school material. Sharp hissing of hot oil on potatoes sparkled out as she slowly sat down at the kitchen’s table across for her daughter marvling all the while at Amethyst’s skill at fine-tuned levitation.

“What are you reading, my child?” Gusty asked finally catching herself.

“A book, Uncle Zeccaran gave me.” Amethyst barely mumbled in return.

“Really? What’s its title?” She questioned more out of obligation of conversation.

“Thaumatic Magic Theory and the Laws of Magic Conservation and Potentiality.” The filly merrily replied.

Gusty performed at least three double-takes before being forced to slap herself sane.

“Uh...Did I miss like ten years and you are now some sort of college student?” she asked her daughter.

Amethyst giggled at her. She closed the book and kept laughing as the finished home fries, toast, and suddenly jam from the refrigerator came floating over to the table complete with plate, fork, and knife. Gusty was rather dumbfounded. She had not taken the comment to be funny in the least, truth be told the older mare was scared that what she had suggested had actually happened. Quickly, her daughter calmed herself and was all smiles.

“Mom!” she proclaimed through a mouth full of potatoes. “We just celebrated my birthday last week, I’m only ten years-old!” she finished after swallowing.

Gusty nodded in agreement.

“But, I don’t know, sometimes magic class at school is super easy, so I asked Uncle Z for the hard stuff!” She tittered.

She rolled her eyes at her daughter. Few ponies were as capable of magic as Amethyst. Gusty was fairly certain that the filly had more magic than herself, she just hadn’t developed the means to access all of it yet. She just closed her eyes and shook her head at the thought.

“What?” Amethyst asked confused.

“Oh nothing, dear. Let me brush your mane before you leave.” Gusty answered.

Amethyst was mostly done with her breakfast when Gusty had returned with the brush. She pushed down the filly’s unruly pink mane until it was smoothed over the sides of her head. It became wavy and hung placidly down around Amethyst’s cute face, framing the filly’s bright purple eyes perfectly.

“There. You look extra pretty now.” Gusty smirked, pleased with her work.

“Okay, mom.” Amethyst rolled her eyes. “I have to get going now, see you at supper!”

Amethyst produced a bag previously hidden by the table. She tossed her book inside and strapped it to herself as she ran out of the kitchen. The quick opening and shutting of the door to the hall promptly followed, leaving Gusty to sit in silence.

After a time, she got up from the table and went to check on Bunker. He was still out cold. After last night’s rather lengthy and intense activities she wasn’t terribly surprised. She had made him do all the work, mostly because she rather liked a dominant stallion in the bedroom. Even though Bunker was not, he had performed admirably and was more than satisfactory but while she slept well, he now laid in a near coma. Gusty moved away from her thoughts and the door to her bedroom.

She began making her way towards The Declaration Hall. It was Celestia’s prefered location for Morning Court. If the Weather Pegasi Schedule hadn’t gotten messed up it was supposed to be an excellent day to be outside. Gusty decided that she needed to get there quickly if she was going to convince Celestia that today was a good day to be extra girly and day drink as much wine as they could as they made fun of anypony foolish enough to grace Morning Court. She grinned at the thought of her friend. Over the last two years they had become quite close, sharing stories of lovers and friends.They had come up with a system of body language too. It was for the express purpose of communicating in front of rambling petitioners without revealing their intent. Such was mostly making fun of some of the more ridiculous requests.

Gusty had reached the giant hall that led out to the inner pavilion of the Palace. Instead of walking the rest of the way through the Gala Ballroom and the state offices, Gusty unfurled her wings and jumped off the second floor balcony. She soared out the enormous two-story tall glass doors which stood open. She whistled past the Royal Library and the outdoor bakery. The fragrant smells of Celestia’s personal confectionary creation center tickled her nose as she gained height enough to sail over the top of the round-domed Statehouse as it was called. She zipped around its ivory spire and made her way towards the open balcony of the Declaration Hall. The portion of the Palace she was headed to nearly floated over the main city square and she pulled around its edge with grace.

She slid quickly into the open patillo, using the turn to slow her speed. She glided to a stop just as Celestia’s face turned to meet her with a smile.

“Good Morning, I see you are dressed to kill. Do you have something in mind?” the white mare trilled behind an ever more mischievous grin.

“Oh, yes.” Gusty responded clapping her hooves together.

The Royal Guards in the room began slowly sliding away from her and Celestia.

“What would you say to...day drinking an unholy amount of wine?” she drolly questioned.

Celestia’s grin turned into wild smile. The hiss-pop of a teleportation spell echoed around the room and behind her friend loomed a dark shadow. The sunlight picked up its slack to reveal an enormous wine cast clad in mahogany stain and gold barrel bars. Gusty shivered at the sight, she could already taste the two-hundred year-old perfection and its smokey aroma. A pair of crystal wine glasses popped into existence. Celestia floated one over to her knowingly as they made their way to the tap.

“I sometimes find it rather shocking how alike we tend to think, dear Gusty.” Celestia cooed.

“I don’t, we hangout all the time, Court is just an excuse for us to look like we are doing something important.” She chuckled back to her friend.

Celestia just laughed as her pale-yellow magic began twisting the tap into the huge cask. Gusty bit her lips in anticipation


Gusty spun on her hooves to see what had thrown open the doors to the stairs.

A pair of armored rams, rams, had slammed the big jade doors flat against the wall. All the Royal Guard’s horns could be heard charging spells and spears chinged into ready position. Unabashed, the rams held up what they each carried, long bannered trumpets. They played a heavy fanfare and stepped to the side rigidly. Four more of the rams, more formally dressed in what could only be described as ritual kilts and blades entered in a box formation. The group strolled up casually to Celestia and Gusty before coming to an abrupt halt.

The four ramguards parted. They revealed a small ewe. She shone bright like the sun behind a fleece as golden as a dragon’s horde. Gusty blinked rapidly trying not to turn her head away from the shining flaxon fur. She narrowly succeed as the ewe stepped up past the burning beam of sunlight that made her sparkle with such ferocity.

The ewe drew a great breath, “Well, hello der dearest friend Celestia!” she proclaimed.

Gusty about fell over from the absurdity of her accent. She hadn’t heard anypony talk with such a crass brogue in a desperately long time. Beside her Celestia graciously lowered her head in a bow.

“A pleasant surprise, indeed, O’ Gertrude the Golden.” Celestia quipped perfectly.

Fleeting senses of familiarity were common for Gusty, but Gertrude seemed particularly friendly, comfortable in her mind. She looked at the old ewe whose ice-blue eyes were a touch bug-eyed. She continued speaking and making jokes to Celestia in her accent.

“Now who be yer young friend here, Celly, lass? Gertrude asked as she turned to look at Gusty with playfully squinted eyes.

The briefest of moments passed while the ewe met her eyes. The old creature loosed a gasp of something between terror and joy. Before she could react the ewe launched herself into Gusty’s face. Caught entirely off-guard the ewe successfully tackled her to the ground. The whole room fell silent as they looked at each other nose to nose. Suddenly, not two seconds later the ewe began a slew of mad laughter. She hopped up off Gusty’s chest and helped her up still cackling.

“I hardly believed me eyes!” she snorted through her chuckles, “Gusty Twilight! Bonnie lass it has been almost three-hundred years!”

“What?” she balked back to the ewe. This caused Gertrude to laugh harder.

Gusty looked over to Celestia for help, but only received a confused shrug from her friend. She wished she understood what the ewe was talking about. Her sensation from before was stronger but remained only a vague memory, she didn’t have a way to connect the dots. Meanwhile, Gertrude had finally recovered.

“Oh, that be a helluva good jape, great Gusty! But, I would rather ye take me a slight more serious than tha’.” She stated.

“Uhm….how do I know you? I know I do but…” Gusty tried her best to explain.

“Ah! Mine heart! Thee doth wound it with thine cold tongue! Cease this jest, dearest lass!” Gertrude choked, nearly on the verge of tears.

Gusty sat there trying to figure out how to explain she couldn’t remember, but wanted to. The more she thought about her situation the more nervous and scared Gusty became. The condition was a circular one that left her unable to respond beyond looking sadly at the ground. The room again became deathly silent over the haggard breathing of Gertrude. An all too familiar sensation of an unwelcome presence drew her attention to the still open door. Not a moment later Stormwalker strode into the room, drawing everyone else’s attention with his metal clad hoofsteps. Gusty just wished he would wear his helmet.

“I had heard that the Dame of the Baylands had snuck her way into Canterlot, unannounced.” He said in his incredibly close to arrogant way.

“Aye, young Lord Stormwalker.” Gertrude responded dismally.

“Fairest greetings Dame Gertrude. Something seems to be troubling you?” he bowed deeply with his front knees bending.

“Be I so easy to read fer ye? Aye, Gusty be making the impression she doesn’t know who I be.” The Dame pouted.

Stormwalker’s eyes, too pony-like for Gusty’s taste, sparkled in surprise.

“You know Gusty?” he asked eagerly stepping up past the guards.

“Aye, she be the reason the Bah-ahah-ahyland exist, boyyo! And you ask me if I know her!” Gertrude retorted through her bleats.

Gusty certainly knew of the Baylands. With great glacier-carved mountains, fjords, and thick pine forests, it was an unforgettable experience. But, Gusty doubted she had any connection to the formation of the country there. The picture had become clearer but she hadn’t quite finished bringing its final details into focus. She put her focus on Stormwalker again who had cocked a prideful smile without any obvious reason.

“Then Golden Lady of the Highlands, you should know this; Gusty is not seeking to forget you on purpose.” he answered.

She stood there in confused anger, having no idea why Stormwalker of all creatures had come to her defense. She had hoped her borealis-maned friend would have instead, but she had remained silent.

“Yes. There is a rather long story to tell, but Gusty is not slighting you, I promise.” Celestia finally chimed in. Gusty rolled her eyes.

The Dame looked between the demon and the alicorn critically. She bit her lip and narrowed her eyes before turning and spitting vehemently.

“Then be explaining such to mine ears, betwixt th’ both o’ ye.” She stated displeased.

Stormwalker looked around at the pony guards before jerking his head. They began exiting the Declaration Hall immediately. Dame Gertrude took the cue and shooed her own ram guards out as well. They shut the door behind them, leaving the two mares, ewe, and demon alone.

“Get comfortable, this is a strange and long story.” Stormwalker piped up.

Gusty groaned. She had become more than disgusted with this “helping” act the demon performed. He hadn’t put on his show in quite the spell, but each time he did ponies, and this time sheep, bought the story as if it was some sort of cure-all drug. Instead of listening to Stormwalker pander on with his tale, Gusty decided to focus on Gertrude.

The old golden ewe increasingly felt familiar to her. She looked over her small dainty frame. Gertrude bounced eagerly in the chair Celestia had popped into existence some time ago. The full Bayland brogue of her questions made Gusty start to think. She remembered the Baylands and what took place there. Sudden dazzling of Gertrude’s coat sparked everything to life for Gusty. In that moment it came flooding back.

She remembered using her magic to craft Gertrude’s Golden Fleece. She remembered fighting off the raider and bandits that plague the fledgling alliance of sheep families. She remembered building the Castle-upon-Barra, the shining accomplishment of all the Baylands’ Thanes. The vast sprawling forests and hills flashed before her eyes and the face of a small frightened lamb overtook them. She cried to Gusty’s chest her ice-blue eye’s wetting her fur and leaving her chest to ache as if she had taken an arrow. More came flooding back, the lamb became a ewe, her bravery and virtue propelling her forward until a horde of sheep and rams sprung up from the grassy hills only to kneel before her. Gusty smiled with pride at her adopted...daughter!

Reality snapped immediately back into focus. Gusty held her breath as she looked to meet the eyes of Gertrude. She hoped to convey the pain of forgetting such a wonderful friend and family member with her eyes. Somehow, the ewe turned her head to oblige her. Gusty let herself become overwhelmed with joy. This time it was she that bounded forward snagging the now aged-ewe in hooves and spinning around in a circle. She cried openly as she chanted “Gerty, Gerty, Gerty!” her pet name for the Dame, as she squeezed her old friend as tight as she could.

“Ye remember finally!” she bleated. “That’s all it tak’, eh? A wee little promptin’ from ye’s Lord Stormwalker?”

Gusty stopped spinning, staring confusedly back at Gertrude. It was the second time she had called the demonspawn a “lord.” She cast an accusatory glance towards the creature in question.

“What’s this ‘lord’ business Gerty keeps calling you?” she demanded.

“What is your deal? Don’t tell me you missed the part where I hail from a distinguished house of nobles.” Stormwalker responded.

Gusty just scrunchy-faced him in response. A demon, a military officer, and a noble, it’s no wonder the guy is so incredibly cocky, she thought to herself.

“I’ve been to every Weekly Noble Court meeting since we met! How did you not…” He started before trailing off. “Ugh...what am I gonna do with you, ya big teal moron?” he grumbled.

Gusty elected to ignore him and instead begin recounting tales of she and Bunker to Gertrude. The old ewe laughed at their escapades completely having forgotten her previous sadness. Feeling emboldened by her new ally, Gusty continued to joke and giggle with the Dame. It was only in her periphery that she noticed Stormwalker whispering to Celestia. Their conversation was muddled out and nonsensical compared to Gertrude and the influx of happy emotions she continued to experience. They chattered on for a good long time before Stormwalker yelled over them.

“Hey! Gusty, Gerty! Pay attention!” he boomed making them both jump.

“Oh why di’ ya haff a’go and ruin our fun, boyyo?” Gertrude scowled.

Gusty turned her nose up in agreement. They had been having a wonderful time. He probably was simply seeking to ruin it for his own sick twisted pleasure, Gusty believed that anyway.

“It’s not often that another country’s leader comes to Equestria unannounced to seek personal counsel with me, Lady Gertrude. What did you originally come here for?” Celestia asked calmly.

“Oh! How careless of me!” Gertrude proclaimed jumping away from Gusty. She took a deep bow and continued. “Dearest friend Celestia. I come afore ye with a humble request.”

“Y-you do?” Celestia looked up to Gusty with concern.

“Aye. We sheep of the Bah-aylands not be ones to be a’ asking for help. But, this be a matter most important to our homeland.” The Dame spoke trying to control her natural brogue.

This concerned Gusty. She felt she was remembering correctly: if Gertrude was asking for help it was extremely serious, but Gusty hoped she had recalled that fact incorrectly. The way the Dame tried to make herself especially clear, however, filled Gusty with the sensation she was unfortunately right.

“Since the year did turn, a griffon leadin’ a grand band o’ bandits, hath declared he-self the Pirate King. Dey constantly, raid mine merchants’ vessels and terrorize me and mine kin. We hatha been stopping them where we can but da blasted devils be slippery. Thrice hath they made attempts on mine life, and with the newest generation of Thanes being upstarts I fear they wilt lead to the old country fallin’ apart. Please, can Equestria led us aid, in this our hour o’ need?” Gertrude pleaded.

Gusty bit her tongue. She wanted to shout “Yes!” to the Dame, but she was not regent of the country. Given Celestia’s conservative approach to international politics, Gusty doubted she would agree to more than armed aid for trade convoys. She silently watched Celestia stoically mull over the Dame’s request.

“I have an idea: I cannot actively send our military beyond our borders, but any vessels that make it to our territory can expect strong escorts into our lands. That is the extent I can provide military and economic support without causing an international incident. However, I can send Gusty and her friends to assist you in anyway you wish. I’m sure Gusty would be more than happy to do so, with or without my consent.” Celestia responded with a sly smile on her face.

Gertrude snapped her head back to Gusty.

“Ye would be willin’ to help us once again, bonnie lass?” she asked, teary-eyed

“Of course!” She snatched up Gertrude in a relieved hug, “It will be just like old times.”


They hugged it out for a while. Gusty’s warm fuzzies had nearly reached their maximum by the time they stopped. She was excited too. A new adventure and a new challenge awaited her and her crew it was sure to be most enjoyable.

“I can arrange for an armed escort to transport you, Gusty n’ Company, and your personal guard back to your home, Lady Dame.” Stormwalker cut in. Gusty had almost forgotten he was there.

“Well ya can now eh laddie? I wouldn’t say no to such an offer. I be assuming they be ponies of ye’s personal hire?” Gertrude re-brogued curiously.

“The finest air-chariot pullers and the best marksponies shall accompany you, that I can guarantee.” he answered.

“Then we shall leave on the ‘morrow before sunrise!”

“Very well. I have much to prepare.” Stormwalker spoke as he began to leave.

“Look at yeh laddie! Ye own stallion these’s days. I remember a time when ye were still suckling Celestia’s teat.” Gertrude teased. Gusty was rather disturbed by the subject matter, but being a gossip herself remained silent.

“That was a long time ago.” Stormwalker snarked turning around near the door. “Over twenty years to be exact.”

“Don’t dredge up those times Lady Gertrude, they are so...embarrassing.” Celestia chimed in.her face flushing red.

“Oh, please. You are only embarrassed because you enjoyed my undivided attention more than you would ever admit.” the demon admonished

“Oh ho ho! What happened between the two o’ ye?” Gertrude smiled, unsure, “I thought ye were an excellent couple.”

“You used to be with him?!” Gusty burst unable to contain herself any longer.

Celestia rumbled a moan somewhere between annoyed and flustered. Stormwalker nodded with a sneer before rolling his eyes and exiting. Gusty, glad he was gone, looked over to Celestia in disbelief. Her friend hid behind her mane, even with her face under the ever-moving mass her ears were red from her trials.

“Methinks ‘tis best I be a’headin’ elsewhere’s for now. Spy ye in da mornin’ Gusty lass!” Gertrude surmised in a sage manner before slipping out the door herself.

Gusty started at her friend.

“Maybe I forgot to mention him on purpose.” She sighed. “I guess I have a lot of explaining to do.” Celestia whimpered still behind her mane.

“I would hear the story, Tia. If you have any insights on his weaknesses I am more than interested.” she conferred as she moved up to the big white alicorn.

“So cold. You didn’t even make fun of me for being such a fool.” Celestia said pushing her mane aside finally.

“Are you kidding? If I didn’t know he was a demon, like you didn’t, I would have been all over him. It’s such a shame a stallion of his calibre is a filthy, evil monster.” Gusty spat back.

“I don’t think you caught my meaning. If I hadn’t betrayed him, burned every bridge, I would still be the object of his affections, well...I hope I would have.” her friend moped.

Gusty found herself baffled. She had no idea about what Celestia was referencing. The only thing she could think of being of import was the self-inflicted memory charm her larger counterpart had created to forget the details of Stormwalker. Celestia began explaining after noticing she was sitting there inquisitively staring, that explanation spared none of the details.

A myriad of topics concerning Celestia and Stormwalker’s relationship, including but not limited to; sex, pranks, and romance were imparted onto Gusty’s ears. Evidently, the once rather virtuous Stormwalker had been chosen by Celestia as her personal guard. He was a naturally gifted counter-assassin and, much to Gusty’s shagrin, lover. Celestia painted a picture of a different stallion than she had met in the Cave or that stalked the palace halls now. The other alicorn lamented her own shortcomings, that she had not been strong enough to understand him.

“I don’t understand what to do. He...I think he’s still my friend, but he’s distant, cold.” she sulked. “I feel responsible for his fall. If I had just been there for him...if I could have just controlled my fear. He trusted me more than anypony else, and I betrayed him.”

Gusty gave her friend a wayward glare, “You can’t blame yourself for his decisions. They were his not yours. You had every right to be scared. I’ve seen him in his true form too, terrifying is an understatement.” she told Celestia.

“I can and I should. I didn’t run away from him, I didn’t end our relationship. I deleted it. I made it so all the memories and good times we shared only existed in his heart. Even now that I remember...the damage is done. “Celestia responded looking through Gusty. “It broke him...I know it did. I can see it when he looks at me. I can feel him want to become close again, but then it passes behind a dark cloud of sorrow and pain.”

“Hardly. All it did was make him less of a pony to you. Made him appear as he truly is.” Gusty had to keep herself from snarling.

“No. You are wrong Gusty Twilight. You are wrong about him.” Celestia said back.

Gusty raised a brow trying her best to get Celestia to meet her eyes.

“Since he met you in that Cave those two-and-a-half years ago...Slowly, so slowly I didn’t notice until recently, he’s becoming that same quirky and kind stallion I fell in love with. It actually makes me jealous you can do that to him.” her friend blushed.

Gusty simply sat there stunned. She had nothing to say back to Celestia, at least not anything that would make her friend feel better. Her plan of getting Celestia to divulge the demon’s weaknesses was also a failure, the white mare had not mentioned anything of note. Gusty was annoyed by this supremely especially since she had learned much more about Stormwalker than she had ever wanted to, it almost made him seem like a pony. What was worse was the way Celestia talked down on herself for doing the only thing that was rational in Gusty’s opinion. It had taken an extremely strong mare to resist the call of love and deny herself the happiness she had clearly attained, fear or not.

Gusty sighed deciding her friend was more important than her grudge, one day she would have her advantage, but it was not this day. She comforted Celestia with a number of slightly-more-than-Platonic nuzzles. The white mare gave her a hug in return before regaining her composure. Celestia insisted that she take the rest of the day to get ready and inform Bunker and Zeccaran about the mission. Gusty left the Declaration Hall to fulfil her friend’s suggestions and tried to forget the particularly gory parts of Stormwalker’s bedroom skills. She grinned in anticipation. A new day and new evils were peaked over the near horizon and she could hardly wait to get started.

Act 2: Chapter 2 - The High Road

View Online

“Get up! You lazy zebra!” shouted the shrill of a certain teal mare’s voice into his ear.

Zeccaran rolled out of his chair in a total stupor. He wasn’t due for a Gusty invasion for another two weeks. Her presence now only raised questions in his still mostly asleep mind. He slipped and fell onto his stomach with a moan.

“Do I have to? Can’t I just lay here?” he complained keeping his eyes closed against the bright light of her horn.

He got lifted up in Gusty’s telekinetic grip. Her hooves were quickly placed on his shoulders and he was shaken more awake. He yelled in surprise his eyes snapping open to see a broad smile on his friend’s lips.

“Okay, okay! I’m awake!” he said slapping her hooves away.

Gusty squeed and looked at him eagerly. “Get your bag, we must get going at once!” she declared. Zeccaran looked at her realizing he was dreaming, his door and all its upgraded security measures had been left untouched.

“How did you even get in here?” He questioned.

“I walked in!” she smiled slyly.

“What, through the wall? You clearly didn’t use the door.” he countered.

Zeccaran squinted his eyes suspiciously. This was a particularly weird dream, typically by now Gusty would have just opened the door, magically avoiding all his locks and mechanisms.

“Yep! Check it out!” she giddily bounced.

Gusty turned a rather dark-gray color and strode directly through the stone as if it wasn’t there. Zeccaran stood there with a terrible sinking feeling.

“I’ve been meaning to try it out. It’s called Meld into Stone! I wanted to see what you thought of it.” Gusty’s now gray face poking through the wall again smiled at him.

“Ohhhhohoho noooo….” Zeccaran griped dismally.

He started putting some of his scrolls in his bag. Grabbing his emergency smoke and concussion grenades he had made from the bottom drawer in his desk while he continued to groan. His sickle was stashed there too, he tossed it in with the other supplies. Zeccaran turned around to see Gusty’s head protruding from the wall still eagerly waiting. He moaned again. It wasn’t a dream.

He had known the day would come, but he really wished it could have waited maybe a few more hours, no days, no weeks, years! Zeccaran had rathered it never arrive.

“Let’s go.” He said slowly trotting over to Gusty.

She loosed a gasp and grabbed him with a suddenly extending hoof. Zeccaran felt fairly strange the instant she touched him. Gusty’s hoof reached around his shoulder and she hefted him up off of his hooves. She plopped him on her back. Zeccaran then could see through to either side of the wall and down the thick wall to the end of the hall.

“How...how are you doing this?” he stammered.

“Well the language is rather specific, I have to be carrying you and all other objects or the spell doesn’t work!” Gusty giggled.

“What?!” he gaped at her confused.

“I don’t know, did I say something? I kinda spaced out there.” she remarked back at him, convincingly equal in confusion.

Zeccaran wanted to complain but found that deducing how Gusty’s brain worked was not his job. Maybe he knew better, maybe it was cruel fate egged on by some dark all-powerful malevolent god, he didn’t know. Gusty pulled him the rest of the way through the wall and proceeded to sprint down the hall unabashedly carrying him.

“Where are we going?” he asked as they rounded the corner to the security checkpoint. Curiously, the security ponies were absent. Such was Gusty’s good luck, Zeccaran again found himself wanting to complain but knew he was only preaching to the choir.

“To the Baylands!” Gusty chirped excitedly. “I already arranged for Celestia to babysit Amethyst, Bunker is already at the departure point, and I cannot wait!” she yelled as she ran.

Zeccaran, realized he had asked the wrong question.

Why are we going?” he petitioned.

Gusty kept on running, ignoring him as she rounded the corner to the main hall and shot towards the center corridor that led to the Residents’ apartments. She practically took to the air as she sped down the hall. Ponies dodged out of her way without so much as a single cry of surprise. Zeccaran supposed that was because they were used to Gusty running amok.

“Because, their leader, the Golden Dame is my friend.” she finally responded with huffs as rounded the corner to the left.

“Is that it? Wait, like you know her from before?” he questioned, concerned. If Gusty was starting to remember things the world had just become a much more dangerous place. Zeccaran knew that much for certain.

“Well, yes. But it was Celestia, and grubby old Stormwind, that said I should go to try and recover more of my memories.” Gusty answered between heaving breaths.

“I hope they know what they are doing then!’ He shouted in surprise as Gusty began bounding up the stairs at the end of the residence halls.

It had been a time since Zeccaran had been to this portion of the castle. He actually had been under the impression that the area they entered from the basement was restricted to military personnel only. It probably was, but given everyone’s understanding that Gusty was not a mare to be trifled with they weren’t stopped. Then again, the officers and guardsponies they passed were quite literally diving out of the way. Judging by the speed of the passing windows, if Zeccaran fell off his current transporter it would be an exceedingly painful experience. He held on tight as Gusty zipped around the corners of the halls and entered the main lobby of the Office of Military Intelligence

Gusty kept sprinting, going up the lobby’s patillo like stairs. He desperately wished to get down from Gusty’s tall back. Such an idea was pointless until she stopped, unless he really felt like breaking his legs which he didn’t. He closed his eyes and gritted his teeth hoping this farce would be over soon.

“Wait! Why am I running?!” Gusty suddenly cried.

Schwiishhh-pop! Came the sound of teleporting, accompanied by the usual sense of nausea at being sucked through time and space.

Zeccaran open his eyes to see a set of two golden air-chariots. They were positively the most elaborate carriages he had ever seen. They had full-covers arching over their raised fronts giving them somewhat ball shaped appearance. They had full windows without a pane to be seen that slipped up from the floor to the hard metal cover. Inside there were seats, cushions, and curtains visible through the glass. The back featured an elaborate hatched door and what looked to be a small private chamber.

The great sky-wagons sat atop the main battlements of the Wall, the main defensive barrier that surrounded the Palace’s back and gardens. Around the chariots armed ponies swarmed about, they weren’t Royal Guards. Instead the ponies, almost all of them pegasi, wore dark-grey steel armor adorned with an strangely familiar crest depicting a cloud shooting lightning away from it. He couldn’t recall where he had seen it before. It did not matter Zeccaran was quickly distracted by a loud female voice.

“Late as usual, eh Gusty, lass?” somepony brogued from the crowd.

Zeccaran looked up to his right towards the early morning sky. He only needed to look at the image for the briefest moment for his brain to kick the rest of the way on. It wasn’t somepony, it was somesheep. He facehoofed remembering what peoples lived in the Baylands.

“I’m not late. I arrived precisely when I wanted to.” Gusty responded coyly. Zeccaran took the moment to hop of her back while he had the chance to no break bones. He looked into the crowd of bodies again to see a pair of heavily armed and armored rams escorting a small golden ewe towards them.

“Well, what have we here, eh? Ye moost be Zeccarah-ah-an” the ewe bleated with a smile.

“Hi.” he waved lost to her thick accent, and trying his best not to smile.

The ewe crossed the distance to him in the blink of his eyes.

“Hullo, laddie! Any friend o’ Gusty’s is a friend o’ mine!” she purred as she hugged him. Zeccaran assumed she was actually trying to crush his sternum. He had no idea how the little, very old, ewe was so strong, he just wanted her to stop.

“Nice to meet...you...too!” he eked out with the last bit of air in his lungs. She released him just before he blacked out. He stood there panting as Gusty and the Golden Dame laughed at him. The Dame caught herself after a moment and offered a formal curtsy.

“Th’ name’s Gerturde, sir zebra an’ Gusty tell me that ye be a ex-” The ewe was cut off.

“Alright ya featherbrains, mount up the chariots!” came the booming voice of Stormwalker. Zeccaran barely had to look over the crowd to see the enormous stallion. Around him the milling mercenaries immediately began readying the craft for flight. Meanwhile Stormwalker himself began personally fastening a fiercely blushing female flyer to the near chariot mount. A pair of mercs brought a clearly surprised Bunker over to them and stood there stoically as their compatriots bustled to get things ready.

Dame Gertrude’s guards along with a pair of unicorns clad in leather hopped onto the far carriage. One of the mercenaries guarding them turned at the sound a of a whistle before waving the group over with a hoof. The pair helped each of them up onto the large raised platform of the chariot, Zeccaran went in first. He beheld a large assortment of traveling bags and a few packs he recognized as Gusty’s. They had been hidden by the craft’s raised front paneling and two rows of seats. He took the leftmost position in the front row and turned to watch as Gusty, Bunke,r and Dame Gertrude got on before selecting their seats. Bunker sat next to him while Gusty and the Dame took the right pair of chairs, loudly gabbing on about the trip.

Stormwalker thumped his armored front legs up on the hatch threshold drawing everyone else’s attention.

“Are the accommodations adequate, Lady Dame?” he spoke in a silken tone.

“Aye, lad! They are most comfortable! Thank ye!” Gertrude responded with a bounce and a grin.

“Gusty?” He prodded further, leaning into the carriage.

“This meets the bare minimum of travel comfort for a mare of my stature.” Gusty responded tepidly, nose in the air. Zeccaran noticed she still kept one eye trained on the stallion regardless.

“I suppose I will have to try harder next time.” He responded with small bow of his head. “Have a safe trip.” he added with a sly smile and a wink, before closing the hatch.

Zeccaran could have sworn he could hear a chorus of mares shrieking in a desperate harmony of attention-seeking high-pitched screams. Zeccaran just rolled his eyes. That stallion was the heaven's’ gift to mares to be sure, but he didn’t have to flaunt that he knew such like some petty piece of shit.

A static buzzing suddenly filled the cabin. A buzzing Zeccaran recognized as an invention he had made. He had only recently finished the design and its first fully functional prototype. It was a total mystery to him how Stormwalker had acquired the technology, much less had it installed into a chariot.

“Hello? Is this thing on?” came the gratey voice of a stallion.

The group collectively confirmed the device was working.

“Alright good. I’m the lead driver of your carriage...uh. We will be taking off presently….uh. There will be no stops on the trip...uh, if you need to relieve yourself please see to the private room at the back of the wagon.” the nameless fellow drolled on through a series of pauses.

“Food has been readied and placed underneath your seats. That will be all.” he concluded. Zeccaran leaned his head down to find several sealed thin cardboard boxes stacked neatly under him.

Through the small front viewing window the five pegasi attached to the chariot began beating their wings. The craft shook lightly as its wheels were lifted off the ground. Zeccaran found himself subconsciously clutching to the seat as best as he could with his hooves. On his left one of the tall battlements fell below the edge of the viewport. Once they were level with the tower’s flat top they stopped ascending with a harsh jolt causing Bunker to groan uncomfortably next to him. The pegasi shifted their wing beats to unison downstrokes and the craft began to rattle as the started moving forward.

Zeccaran hazarded a look at his earther friend. Bunker was practically wrapped around his seat. “Shit, shit, shit, shit.” the stallion murmured his eyes wide.

With a grand decrescendo the shaking came to a stop as they flew over the city. Zeccaran watched as they slowly picked up speed, the ground breezing by ever faster. The were out over the open air of the Equestrian Plains some huge distance from the ground. He released the breath he had been holding. He was certain the flight was going to have no trouble now that his nerves had settled.

“How long is this trip to your homeland, Dame Gertrude?” he asked leaning past the still rather petrified Bunker.

“Hum. Methinks it be ‘bouts a two day trip from Canterlot.” The golden ewe responded with a thoughtful look. “Boot, wit’ this mighty carriage, I be betting we get there’s in only a day-an’-a-haf. We shan't be landing ‘til the ‘morrow’s afternoon.”

Zeccaran nodded in agreement. He had no need for words at this point. He was actually starting to feel sleepy. He was fairly certain that he had only recently fallen asleep earlier in the morning. He yawned, deciding there was no real reason to be awake he slouched back in his chair and was quickly asleep.


Zeccaran awoke to an argument.

“I just don’ understan’ lass. Why wouldn’ta ye not indulge da’ stallion if he showed interest in ye?” Gertrude was questioning in tone somewhere between accusatory and desperate.

“There are not words enough to describe what is wrong with him, Gerty.” Gusty answered with a near growl.

Zeccaran reached below his seat and grabbed one of the food packages. He noticed Bunker stretched out on the rows of seats behind them asleep. He smiled at the red fool and his ability to sleep through the females’ near yelling. He began eating, absently listening as he looked out towards the setting sun.

“Oh come now! We be the closest o’ friends, aye? Tell ole’ Gerty why.” the ewe schmoozed.

Gusty loosed a long melodramatic sigh. “He’s rude, arrogant, and a damned demonic scoundrel.” she spat bitterly.

“An’ tha’ haff stopped ye before? Nay, me says. Th’ mare I kennt taken such males as a challenge!” Gertrude responded sharply.

“Well, he’s not worth the trouble, nor the challenge.” Gusty scoffed.

“Never would such a day ere’ pass, I had thinked. Alas, I be wrong. Well, no harm meant den, lass.” the Dame apologized.

“Don’t mention it.” Gusty graciously accepted.

Zeccaran could finally make out the edge of the ocean glinting in the sun’s last rays by the time they stopped. He kept peering out the glass enjoying the new silence, admiring the beauty of the earth. He slowly picked at his meal as the sun slipped the rest of the way below the horizon causing all the sky to turn a vibrant pink-orange. The packaged food consisted primarily of granola and oats in a copious volume. A pile of sun and spice dry hay was a decent side along with an apple and a pear. The traveling food even had a heavy pound cake for a dessert, wrapped tightly in a wax paper. He felt quite satisfied by the time he had finished eating.

A curious set of bleats made Zeccaran turn around to find Dame Gertrude asleep, wadded up on one of the seats. The small ewe was just barely visible beneath Gusty and her mane, who was using her friend as a pillow, both snored lightly the Dame’s bleats merely new to his ears. They were an odd pair of friends Zeccaran remarked silently, but he supposed they were no more strange than he. The motion of a shadow on the far side of the carriage made him look up sharply. The strange apparition had flashed in and out behind the dark clouds on the right of their vehicle.

He stared in that direction waiting to see any movement between the fluffy waves of the quickly darkening clouds. He was starting to turn away and ignore what he had thought he saw when the shadow appeared again. The spectre broke the bank of the aerial moisture, banking away from the carriage in an evident effort to make it to the next wall of clouds. A strong unease settled on him as the silhouette disappeared again leaving him to scrutinize the darkening sky. He waited for at least ten minutes before the shadow popped out of the thick sky-soup this time flying up and eventually above their ride. Lightning flashed in his eyes as he continued to try and track the shape, the explosion of brightness caused him to lose it.

There was a softened but growing moan as the deluxe chariot changed directions in a gradual turn. Winds began to buffet the wagon as the scratchy voice of the pull leader came over the comm.

“We are diverting course around this storm. We have a really strong tail wind so we aren’t expecting any delays. You can expect some light bumps from the turbulence coming of this storm. Good luck sleeping through it.” he said dryly over the hiss of wind.

“Yeah, no problem.” Zeccaran responded over the snores of his companions. Tonight was going to be long unpleasant experience. More flashes this time accompanied by low rumbles of thunder shook the frame of the chariot. No one else stirred, Zeccaran bit his lip in frustration wondering why he had to be plagued with this nonsense weather. He turned his view back outside hoping to see some remains of the sun’s light only to be disappointed. However, the curious feeling of being monitored returned as did the mysterious silhouette.

This time he was able to gage the size of the thing following them. It was roughly thrice his size. The black outline’s near proximity to the carriage allowed him to better look over the dark creature. It moved with a sharp grace that made it hard to distinguish its body structure, not that he had much time to do that anyway. As if the shadow had noticed he was watching, it picked up an immense burst of speed and zipped away through the weather leaving them far behind. He followed it as it became a speck against the increasing number of lightning flashes, his sense of foreboding growing endlessly.

Stressed and dead tired from the length of focus he put into following the spectre Zeccaran barely registered the clouds clearing away hours later. He stared anxiously out the window, blinking as fast as his hurting eyes would allow him. The first yellows of dawn broke to the east as he continually flashed his eyes back and forth trying to follow the shadow as it hid in the clouds. He grimaced his eyes in pain as the dark speck tailed their path through their air, whoever or whatever the entity was it had no interest in being spotted with any clarity, yet it was determined to follow them. At this point had he not been actively searching for it all night he would not have believed it was even real, he was fairly certain no one else with him would believe the situation. Finally, his face warming from the sun Zeccaran shut his eyes slowly trying desperately to relax.

He yawned, trying to force his eyes back open but failed miserably. He slouched down into his chair his back relaxing from its straight position for the first time in what felt like days. He quickly passed into a worried sleep, it was almost as if he was back in Canterlot concerned about one of his projects. A smile spread his lips at the thought and a fuller sleep plunged him into complete darkness and relaxation.


“Zeccaran, get up!” “Zeckie boy, rise!” shouted Gusty and Gertrude in tandem.

Zeccaran flew out of his chair propelled by the magical power of being suddenly woken. His back uncoiled, catching against his chair and flinging him into the air in that way that sudden wakefulness could. He landed uncomfortably on the deck of the carriage with a heavy Thwump! and lay there angrily, knowing Gusty they were not waking him for anything particularly important. He gradually rolled over and look back at the two females who had scared him with a glare that could melt glaciers. However, Gusty and Gerty missed his stare, instead they rolled on the floor laughing loudly. They continued to mock him in that perfectly chastising way that only girls could, he ignored them as he stood up and looked about the carriage noticing something missing.

“Hey, where is Bunker?” he croaked, his voice a rasp. Gusty recovered upon hearing his question. She looked around the space they occupied and gave a confused shrug. “I..I don’t know.” she said with a dumb look. Sudden racket turned their attention towards the private chamber. A great spluttering and coughing came from the small room as the group outside recognized the unmistakable sound of someone retching. The sounds persisted for a few minutes as everyone outside looked to various parts of the carriage not wanting to see each others’ looks of disgust. The noise came to an abrupt stop with a primal grunt and the door swung open to reveal a less-burgandy more sick-green Bunker.

“Ack, I think pear was rotten.” He blubbered as he moved towards the seats. He flopped down haphazardly, before turning his gaze over to Gusty. “Wife you say we are close to place we are going?” he asked with a heavy, sickly sigh. Gusty instantly perked up.

“Yes! Zeccaran look!” She exclaimed rushing over to him. She snagged him with her hooves and nearly slammed his face into the glass. Below them lumpy hills jutted up out of the sea like someone punching into a sheet from below. The land expanding in various wads and fjords for a short while before he could see the sea slapping against white limestone sea stacks the size of needle heads at this distance. The island was a dark forest green on the near coast and down in the valleys and lakes. The jagged hills were closer to an olive with various grey outcroppings of harsh rock and cliff, it was a majestic land to be sure.

As they slowly began to descend a clearing became evident atop a cliffed section of the southern coast. Little yellowish dots of thatched roofing began popping into focus marking a rather large settlement. A rectangular grey outline surrounded the dozens and dozens of homes and became clear, appearing as a thick stone wall. Near the forested hill that dropped into a valley a great grey castle-like mansion faded in as well, its slit windows and few stained-glasses glowed with active light even during the midday sun.

“Ahhh! ‘Tis a wonderful sight. Home.” Gertrude cooed behind him. “First things first lads and lasses, when we land, a great banquet shall be had! Mmm...Muh haggis, Ah’ can’t wait!” Zeccaran actively resisted the urge to vomit upon hearing the word haggis, he had read enough books to know exactly what that horrid stuffed atrocity was like. He rolled his tongue around his mouth in an attempt to taste anything but the idea of haggis.

“I can’t wait either! Ooooo! I am so excited to help! To be back with good old-fashioned folks!” Gusty chimed in practically dancing as she nearly shook him out of his hooves. He swatted her grip away successfully as she became distracted by Gertrude. Zeccaran loosed a sigh of relief as they continued to land. It perhaps took them another fifteen minutes before the wheels of the chariot sank into the soft ground outside the manor walls. Gusty and Gertrude had chattered like chickens the whole way down and just as soon as they had stopped moving the two of them bounded out the back hatch and into the grass.

Zeccaran cast a long look at Bunker and then over to their luggage. “Females.” the stallion offered with a roll of his eyes. They gathered up the bags and piled them up outside the carriage before loading them onto each other's’ backs. The stallions moved around the front of the wagon to find all the pegasi mounted to the contraption asleep. Zeccaran approached the lead driver and clapped his hooves together next to the stallion’s ears.

“Ah! What!” he woke with a start. “Oh...hey….see you around some time Zec, we gotta sleep for now…” he blathered eyes barely open. Zeccaran gaped, he recognized this pony now that he saw his face. “Stiff Inspection? Is that you?” he asked the usual checkpoint pegasus. He was shocked that the fellow had left the palace, at least now it explained why he hadn’t been at his station. “Yeah...sorry...I gotta…” the stallion instantly started snoring his body limp in the chariot harness.

“Is small world.” Bunker said having stood waiting for Zeccaran. He remarked that his friend had accurately described the strange coincidence. Overall, with the two teams of pegasi passed out from nearly thirty-six hours of flight there was no one to talk to and nothing to do besides follow the two unlikely friends of a ewe and an alicorn inside. Zeccaran absently motioned for Bunker to walk with him to follow them towards the manner. The Ram Guards from the other wagon had finally reached Gertrude a pair now flanked the females in front of them and another pair flanked he and Bunker.

They began advancing to the gate which opened with a long eerie creak that wrought iron and wood is known for. Their slow-as-molasses pace allowed Zeccaran to hear a strange sound over the top Gusty and Gertrude’s chattering. It was something close to a hiss but sounded more chemical. The sharp smell of smokey pewter hit his nose in the next instant and he stopped walking, the guard nearest to him did the same, casting his gaze at the center of the wall. Bright fire erupted from the bricks and the world went dark as the body of the ram was slammed into his own.

Sharp ringing woke him up from the darkness. He rolled over to his side trying to find any sense of balance as something hot and sticky feeling poured down his head. It was a thick crimson flow of blood, but his skull didn’t hurt in anyway he thought. He sat up to see the shattered remains of the Ram Guard who had slammed into him. His upper torso had been blow apart in a foul manner that exposed his ribs and skull. The flesh seemingly had been sheared away in a vicious instant as portions of lungs and stomach still attempted to pump and breathe inside the broken ribs and spine. Zeccaran did not feel any form at disgust at the sight, the ringing in his ears rendering him unable to under comprehend the terror he should have felt. The poor ram flopped about somehow still alive his bone and sinew only front legs clutching futilely at his face.

He finally flopped down, his face, what was left of it, looking directly at Zeccaran. All the surrounding tissue of the creature’s features and been seared away leaving only bloody bone and scorched horns. Somehow, the ram’s bright blue eyes had survived the explosion and goring of his face. They remained transfixed in his skull twitching violently as their light slowly faded to a dull stillness. Head still reeling the zebra wondered if he had met a similar fate and couldn’t feel it. The stillness of sleep and the black void overtook him, it was a joyous release from all his trials, his only hope was that it would last.

Act 2: Chapter 3 - The Low Road

View Online

Gusty lowered the shield she had cast out of pure instinct. Smoke and a haze composed of pulverized stone clouded the area. A spluttering bleat turned her eyes down to Gertrude, the old ewe’s brow was scrunched in concern as she strode forward into the unnatural fog still coughing. She followed her friend into the bluster hoping desperately that Bunker and Zeccaran were somehow alive. Gusty began flapping her wings trying to clear away the smoke as she approached, her nostrils catching the fetid stench of burnt flesh. Beating her wings harder she pressed on into the explosion’s main detonation zone squinting her burning eyes trying to overcome the feeling of dread.

“Gertrude! Do you see them?” she yelled over her wings’ constant beats. A deep grunt came from the ewe somewhere on her left. She adjusted her body and pumped her wings more revealing her companion pulling Bunker out from under a pile of broken stone. Above and around them the wall of mortar itself was on fire with an unnatural blaze. Gusty immediately hefted Bunker away from the location in her levitation, Gertrude silently nodded approving of her actions. She placed Bunker well outside the smoke field and turned around to see blood rolling along the ground towards where Gertrude stood peering towards the clearing haze. With the smoke rising away from the ground and now primarily coming from the walls Gusty could see bodies coming into view.

She felt herself gasp as she rushed towards the smallest of the forms, desperately charging up her healing spell. Kneeling down into a slide Gusty slipped right next to a blood-soaked Zeccaran looking over his body trying to determine where the blood had come from. She quickly realized that the gore covering him was not his own, the zebra was unconscious but otherwise unharmed. Around him pieces of the two guards were scattered about like confetti. Most of the pieces of flesh were partially burned or still on fire as Gusty held her nose shut with a hoof, desperately doing her best to not get sick at the smell.

Like Bunker, Gusty hefted Zeccaran out of the smoke with her levitation. She followed her quarry, hustling past the wretched stench of the poor guards, gasping for clean air once she was free of the smoke and haze. She laid her striped friend out before she began trying to slap him awake by shaking and buffeting him with her wings. He woke in a daze mumbling incoherently but was otherwise capable of moving as she stood him up. Gertrude had experienced similar success with Bunker, from what she could tell. The stallion stumbled around next to the ewe but remained upright as the four of them retreated towards the manor proper.

Armed rams and ewes of various sizes began pouring out of the manor. They carried with them great buckets of water strapped to their sides as they rushed towards the fires. They shouted angry questions in their thick brogues while passing each cast a confused glance at the disheveled party. Gusty sat there baffled as the Baylanders busily bustled unphased by the event, she barely noticed as two new Ram Guards took their position next to her and Gertrude, their curly horns glowing with what could only be magic. They held their swords and shields out away from them while pressing their bodies against the Dame as if they suspected another explosion to happen at any moment.

“Brothers an’ Sisters!” Gertrude’s voiced boomed as she climbed atop one of her guards. “Let not this attack fluster ye spirits!” The portion of the crowd that was not carrying water stopped, their fearful gazes turned to their leader. “I have brought before ye a legend to our people, our country’s, our freedom’s, mother, Gusty Twilight!” Gertrude bounced back on her rear legs as she waved at Gusty.

Hissing of flames lightly crackling reigned over the silence of the mixed herd of Ovis. All their eyes transfixed themselves on Gusty, each slowly criticizing every inch of her. She gave them her best smile, uncertain of her purpose or what Gertrude had in mind. They seemed unimpressed, their looks of surprise slowly converting to suspicion. Gusty responded with a simple, “Hello” and a wave of her hoof. It had been a distinctly large volume of time since her fellow beings had questioned who she was as a pony. Somewhere deep in her heart a spark of confidence grew into a flame, she needed something extraordinary, something that resonated with her faux-blood kinsmen. A cocky grin spread her lips as the perfect idea came to her as she located the largest ram in the group.

“You!” she yelled while pointing at him derogatorily. “I challenge you, for your rights to be a suitor! Step forth, we shall settle this now!”

The crowd instantly burst into laughter, many wholesale fell back on their rumps, all laughed except the ram she had goaded. He stepped out of the herd revealing his immense size and muscles. The laughter ceased almost immediately, their eyes wide with sudden anticipation and excitement.

“By what rights do yeh, be challenging meh, interloper.” The ram snarled as Gusty stepped forward to match him. “By the rights of my name, by the power in my blood, and by the honor in my heart.” she responded, casting a beam of magic into the sky to hide her intent.

There was no way she could beat a ram in a ritual honor duel without protecting her head. Their horns were too hard for her to properly just use brute strength, forcing her to instead use some guile and cheat. The flashy beam she cast gave her enough time to set up a see-through shield around her forehead and horn. The inertial armor of pony magic would provide her the perfect chance to win. Her opponent lowered his eyes back down to her after watching the beam dissipate in the clouds above.

“And what be yeh’s name, be it as the Dame claims? Gusty Twilight?” he said before spitting in her direction.

“Yes.” she retorted, spitting towards him.

“Aye.” he mulled, his frown turning into a wicked smile, “Then yeh’s honor shall be mine to claim, flim-flammer, prepare yehself.”

He began scratching at the ground, readying his first steps in the way only a ram could. Gusty bent her knees and braced her back hooves preparing to spring towards him just as soon as he began his charge. She knew how to perform a ritual duel, but it felt like she was digging through ancient texts trying to find the nuances necessary to not get herself killed even with her shield crutch. She did not get her chance to remember as her opponent lowered his head and began his run. Instinctually, Gusty forced her legs down and out breaking into a full spring across the short distance to match him. She angled her horn slightly above his skull in order to not gore him and be disqualified, for this was truly a challenge to see whose head was thicker.


They impacted and bounced off of one another. Gusty shook her head clear to see the ram already backed up and making another shorter charge. She braced her legs and sprung at him with all her might.


They collided again, Gusty backed away quickly her body hitting a zen of instinctual adrenaline. They charged one another, their horns and skulls coming together in regular loud cracks that echoed over the silent manor grounds as their peers watched in awe. Gusty lost count around twenty strikes, her body was sore from the stress and a vicious headache had risen long ago. Her opponent did not look much better, his eyes were unfocused, but his body kept lurching him forward compelled by evolution and honor to move without consent of his mind. They struck each other again, Gusty felt her back legs slump. She gritted her teeth and pulled herself upright. This next joust would have to be the last, or she would lose. She turned her tail to him backing away confidently, gazing over her left shoulder to make sure he did the same. Once in position she turned to face her opponent, he wobbled in a balanced dance of determination to win.

This time, Gusty patted at the ground with her front hooves, lowered her head and snorted in anger. A hoarse yell exited her throat as she flung herself toward the ram, her body screaming in burning lactational rejoice as she pushed herself in this workout.

Crehbraaak! Thwump!

Gusty grabbed her temples trying to alleviate the pain of her ringing ears and throbbing face. She opened her eyes to see her opponent unconscious on the ground his eyes closed, mouth open in forced slumber. She gawked in surprise, she had won. Tapping the shield on her head she felt the invisible barrier shatter and fall away unable to withstand even the slighted bump after the contest. She released a sigh as she began to smile only to nearly have the wind knocked out of her in the next second.

As she had let her guard down, an enormous cheer had erupted from the crowd as they rushed forward and hefted her onto their backs. “Gus-ty! Gus-ty! Gus-ty! Gus-ty!” they chanted over shrill shrieks of merriment and wonder. “She beat ‘im in twenty minutes! That’s a record!” shouted several rams at different times as they bounced her around the crowd’s soft woolen backs. Gusty wanted to talk back but it took everything she had just to not scream in pain from her headache, she smiled awkwardly as they carried her towards the manor. “She’s real! She’s real!” a ewe was shouting into her ear as they passed Gertrude and entered.

Her friend met her eyes and beamed with pride. “That’s right she be real!” she boomed over the crowd, “Our mother lass returned to help her herd!” The herd loosed a mighty roar in response. “An’ in this trying time we must’nt forget our traditions and honor and show Gusty Twilight all the hospitality that she hath missed!” Gusty found herself carted away into a long grey hall arranged with an equally long stained-pine table.

Out of nowhere the crowd promptly deposited a groggily awake Bunker and an equally confused Zeccaran on her left and right. They looked at her in general disturbance of mind, neither saying anything The herd that had brought them in excitedly dispersed their brogues running shrill as they ran out of different doors to the room rattling off ideas about what needed to be cooked or who would tell jokes and perform. Gusty returned to rubbing her temples, as a salad and beer was placed in front of each of them. Just as soon as the party favors had arrived did Gertrude and her two guard plop down with a heavy thud just across Gusty’s party.

The Dame of the Bayland’s shoved her face unceremoniously into her pile of greens and took a long drag off of her beer. “Now tha’ something I hath not seen in a good long time, Gusty lass!” she spake before burping in an especially rustic way that changed in pitch as she performed it. “I kennt not that ye had what it took, ye have seemed different since our reunion.”

She grunted in response, still not quite over her headache, but too stubborn to use magic to make it better. Instead, Bunker stepped in: “Wha--what did she do? What did I miss?” he asked looking at Gertrude in earnest.

“Yeah, last thing I remember was there was this huge explosion and I was surrounded by bodies...I actually thought I was dead, until I woke up to a crowd cheering.” Zeccaran also chimed in as he picked at his salad tepidly.

“Ahhh! Ye lads missed quite the treat! Gusty challenged Jarl MacGerson to a duel and she beat him!” Gertrude responded with a delighted gusto.

“What!?” the two males questioned in unison.

Her friend immediately began recounting the tale two her husband and her punching bag. She snickered to herself at her imposed description of Zeccaran. Meanwhile, Gertrude slammed her hooves on the table as she reached the first collision in her story. Gusty having lived the events look around the room to watch as the herd of sheep and rams began piling into the long table, many gathering close as the Dame retold the tale they had all just witnessed. Vaguely Gusty recalled Gertrude to be an excellent story-teller, she possessed a sharp animation and broad use of adjectives that was impossible for the writer to accurately describe in her delicate brogue. Bunker and Zeccaran sat in awe as Gertrude slammed her hooves down again to depict the final meeting of skulls.

“An’ she knocked laddie MacGerson out cold!” the crowd roared in applause and laughter as Gertrude hopped all the way onto the table and kicked plates everywhere. Gusty smiled and cheered at her own applause, finally over her headache.

“Where be the beleaguered Jarl, anywho?” Gertrude shouted over the crowd, “He be owing me a drink for tha’ foolish wager he made those five years ago!” the herd of Ovis laughed again in their thick accents up until a the sharp sound of the hall’s oak doors opening caused them to stop. The whole group fell instantly silent as all eyes swung towards the ram at the door. Gusty bit her lip to refrain from laughing at him. It was MacGerson and on his back he carried a massive cask.

“I heard yeh’, I heard yeh’, you infernal Golden menace of a Dame!” He grumbled harshly as he wobbled towards the table with his gigantic parcel. He gave it a bounce into the air with his back legs and the cask landed on the table just before Gertrude. Its clammering and shattering of plates loud over the silence of the crowd. Unable to take the quiet any longer Gusty grabbed her beer, took a deep breath, slammed it down, promptly refilled it from MacGerson’s keg and held it aloft for all to see. The crowd look at her, the slightest, “ahhh” rising from them as they watched her carefully. She looked over the room narrowing her eyes as she stood up on the bench making sure she had everyone complete attention. In the far side of the room she spotted a group of instrumentalists staring at her, bows on fiddles and mouths on pipes. Gusty quickly slipped the stein up to her lips and chugged the whole thing just like she had done her first. As soon as she finished she turned to guarantee her aim was free of innocent obstacles and threw the ceramic mug as hard as she could at the ground.

It shattered into millions of pieces almost as fine as dust Waiting until the exact instant the the sound of busting plaster stopped, Gusty screamed: “Let the festivities!-Begin!” The herd roared in approval as the musicians started playing and dozens of sheep in the packed room began dancing to the bouncy music.

The party that ensued was one the majority of which Gusty could not remember. The music continually got louder to try and compensate for the increasing volume of the crowd. The entirety of MacGerson’s giant keg was emptied and another two just like it quickly followed. Somewhere in the midst of the clamor of eating, drinking, and making out with Bunker, Gusty was fairly certain her hosts had put on a bit of theatre and acting. It was a rousing good time, especially the bits she would be able to recall later. The event lasted for hours until the only beings not collapsed from exhaustion and alcohol were Gusty, Gertrude, Bunker, and somehow, someway, Zeccaran. Gusty picked her head up from the table where she had been resting it, noticing that the final fiddle had stopped playing and cast an amused look to her zebra friend.

“Hhhehow?” she slurred dramatically at him as she draped herself over Bunker.

Zeccaran took a long sip of his beer, set it down with an astute grace, and turned to meet her eyes. “I used to drink…” he belched, “a lot.” he finished with a smart grin.

Gertrude said something so amazingly slurred and broguish that all Gusty could do was laugh at her. The old ewe made rude gestures as Gusty replied, “I-I can’t understand.anything you said!” Gertrude rolled her eyes, slumped forward, and started snoring like the rest of her herd. Gusty kept laughing which caused her husband to start too, his giggles unfortunately caused him to spill his mug of beer down his front and all over the table. This resulted in even more laughing which probably lasted too long for any normal sober mind. It was all quite relaxing and enjoyable. Gusty relished such moments, they seemed to be depleting in frequency and quality, but ones like this one made it all worth it in the end.

The door to the long hall gave out its creaky wail and Gusty, sat up to look down the table to see who had come tardy to the party. The sight she saw confused her greatly. In the big arched doorway stood a small hooded figure, a dark presence clearly floating around the being. Gusty gawked at the new uninvited individual as it stalked angrily into the room closing the door behind it.

“Hey!” she shouted to the figure, “Who...are you?!”

The hooded character spat in her direction. Gusty gasped at their audacity. It was incredibly rude to perform such a garish gesture. She drew in a deep breath ready to impart the knowledge of respect into the hapless individual that had slighted her. It was going to be the best stern-talking-to that anyone had ever received, that is what she thought she would do, but that was before an enormous burst of magic knocked Gusty from her hooves. She looked up from the ground to find an billowing cloud of smoke taking up the area in front of the interloper.

“Die, tyrant Dame!” came the shrill voice of a young ewe from under the hood and cloak. Gusty did not recognize it, especially because she was still pretty drunk. Regardless of the sobering entrance of a belligerent individual, she was not sure if she would remember much of the evening.

In the next instant another bright flash of light caused her eyes to water in pain. When she wiped the tears away the hooded enemy had disappeared from existence. Gusty performed a double take, she surmised the ewe had some dark ability to teleport, not that it mattered in the end.

From the clearing smoke came a the growl a large predator, its guttural call like that of a great cat. Suddenly the growl was overtaken by the unmistakable hiss of a snake. Gusty swallowed hard fearful of what she was hearing, as she watched the silhouette of a large creature take shape. Then came a noise that was supremely confusing for her alcohol-addled mind, it was the bleat of a goat, sharp and distinct compared to her Ovis company that still they strewn about the floor. Gusty stood there aghast as the mutated beast before emerged into full vision.

The creature’s body was striped like that of a tiger’s, it’s front legs and paws match that theme as well. But from its chest protruded two heads, one the predator cat the other the head of a goat, its long slender horns sticking up away from its broad head and goatee. Cloven hooves and strong thighs, took up the back portion of the monster, matching only the goat’s tawny fur. Finally, and most disturbingly, the tail of the mutant was an enormous black cobra with sharp yellow eyes, that nearly glowed in the low light of the long hall. HIt raised itself up angrily hissing at Gusty its fangs out in their shiny ferocity.

Instinctively, Gusty drew her sword and began backing away from the creature as it turned all of its heads to focus on her.

“Hey! Is that a Chimera?” Zeccaran shouted from the table. He had hopped up on the surface and was wobbly looking at the abomination. His proclamation disturbed Bunker who flopped off of the bench in a daze, somehow landing on his hooves after his tumble.

Gusty tried to motion for them to be quiet, but the Cobra tail turned and hissed at them, the Tiger and the Goat remaining transfixed with her. The Goat lowered its head while its shoulder-mate loosed a full roar as the Chimera charged at her. Gusty grimaced in painful acceptance as she realized she was not going to be able to dodge the charge. The brought her sword in front of her and prepared to take the blow. Just as the long piercing horns of the Goat got near her, she knocked the creature’s head away avoiding becoming impaled, but it was only a partial success. The wind exited her lungs as the body of the Tiger pinned her to the ground and the big cat wrapped his jaw around the collar of her mail, just at her lower neck, his reach impaired by the Goat’s horns which were stuck in the wooden floor. It was the only thing that saved her from having her neck broken as she tried to breathe again.

The weight of the monster was suddenly lifted off of her as a burgundy blur impacted it and sent the Chimera skidding across the floor in a heap. Bunker, now next to her, reared up on his hind legs screaming, “Da! Take that freaky animal!” in his thick accent. The Chimera picked itself up just as a mug hit the Tiger head in the face pushing shattered ceramic in its eyes, eliciting a roar of pain from that portion of the creature.

“Have a drink, ya great big jerk!” Zeccaran shouted from his position on the table. Gusty smiled at her husband and Zeccaran, most pleased that they were definitely going to pull their weight. Bunker turned and helped her up, nudging her wayward sword towards her. It was then that the Chimera loosed its mixed battlecry

It was a horrid screeching noise that grew in volume and timbre as it persisted. The power of the scream exploded the high windows of the long hall sending glass everywhere. Its intense volume caused Gusty to grab her ears in an attempt to keep her eardrums from popping as the powerful waves of sound crashed into her for almost twenty straight seconds, preventing her or her party from moving. When the Chimera finished the room of previous sleeping drunks called forth in pain and horror as the disheveled mass of Ovis clambered this way and that trying to avoid the monster that had made the loudest noise.

Gusty kept holding her ears as she turned to see Gertrude being drug out of the room by her guards. She was bitterly complaining about not getting to help them defeat the beast that was sent there to kill her. She nodded approvingly to the guards as they performed their duty, Gertrude needed to be protected if the Baylands were to have a successful transition to peace once this partisan conflict was resolved. The shattering of another beer mug turned her eyes back at the Chimera. Zeccaran now ran down the length of the long table his face terrified as he tried to out pace the Chimera, as they approached them.

“I’m going to kick -hicc- that stupid thing so hard it can’t run any..anymore...ayy..” Bunker grumbled drunkenly next to her as he hopped up onto the table as well. Gusty momentarily pouted as she hefted up her sword in her magic, before readying to strike the Chimera after Bunker was to kick it. She wanted to be the one to do cool stuff, if she was being honest though she was probably too drunk to manage anything.

The Chimera passed by her, the Cobra tail hissing and spitting at her as it chased Zeccaran and headed towards Bunker’s trap. The venom landed mostly on her skirt which was upsetting to begin with because it made it look like she had no control over her bladder. However, things got immediately worse when the poison began burning away the cloth like a forest fire would a dry woods. She hastily pulled the garment off making sure not to touch the virulent acid, before tossing it on the ground. She looked back up to see Bunker land a solid rear leg buck into the Chimera’s chest, it flopped off the table wincing in pain as it backed away from the two stallions. Gusty realized this was her chance, she looked at her sword and extended her wings.

She made a flying charge at the creature, raising her blade high with her magic, ready to slash down with the force of her flight and her levitation. She passed over the disoriented Cobra who was being sat on and made her strike. She aimed her blade for the head of the Goat, hoping to disable that portion of the creature. She watched her sword’s leading edge slice into the neck of the Goat causing crimson to fountain up and away from the strike. The blade’s weight caught her levitation rebounded off of bone and she passed on by the Chimera. When she landed and turned to face it, Gusty saw blood streaming from the back of the Goat’s neck and more red liquid running from its nose, its head hung limply by the Tiger’s. The back legs of the Chimera slipped slack and the Cobra reared up its full length to support the Tiger and the rest of its disabled backside.

A splitting headache caused Gusty to crumple to the ground as the pain from her ringing ears suddenly spiked to the forefront of her consciousness. She could only vaguely hear the Tiger roar angrily as she tried to overcome the return of her full hearing. Zeccaran seemed to be suffering from the same return as she was while Bunker was busy ignoring the battle altogether. He appeared to be searching for something under the long table, what it was Gusty had not the foggiest notion. She ignored her drunk husband’s actions instead readying to continue the fight.

The Chimera drug its body towards her growling and hissing as it approached, unwilling to give up or flee. Gusty flapped down with her wings trying to regain her aerial advantage, but somehow the beast managed to make a short lunge at her, the Tiger’s maw kept from closing on her neck only by her sword and sheer luck. The great claws of the big cat scratched through her armor and poked into her ribs with supernatural force causing her to shriek in pain.

The Cobra’s head suddenly flashed over the top of the Tiger’s and bit her between the ears with precision ferocity. Panic forced her to instinctively buck her back legs as she screamed in horror at being bit by the snake. In the same instant her kick impacted the limp back legs and stomach of the Chimera and sent it flying away from her. She blinked in surprise as the beast was knocked away shocked she had suddenly become the world’s strongest mare in her terror.

She was quickly distracted from her surprise by a flash of Zeccaran’s trademark green magic. When she gazed towards her friend instead of the Zebra she was accustomed with a massive eagle had taken his place, just like he had done when they had first gotten to Canterlot. This time the great bird loosed a fearsome cry before snatching the Chimera in its talons. The Zec-Eagle barely had enough room to fly but somehow it managed to fly up to the vaulted ceiling of the long hall. At the peak height it performed a flip and slammed the Chimera down on the ground where it groaned in pain and laid haggardly breathing. Gusty nodded in approval, pleasantly astonished with Zeccaran’s action and ability.

The Zec-Eagle floated down to the table and produced another flash of green light before returning to normal. Her friend lay out on the table heaving in as much air as he could clearly unable to move. “Alright...I’m done….can’t do anymore...please keep it from killing me.” he groaned from his location.

Gusty was just about to start chastising him when she was interrupted. “Ah ha!” Bunker screamed triumphantly. She looked over at him to see him wielding his axe with a delighted grin. She did not get a chance to make a rebuttal or even moment to think, her husband bounded over the long table making a quick trot to the withering Chimera. Once next to the abomination he raised the axe up with a fury of a desperate stallion burning in his eyes. He brought the big blade down into the center of the beast, cutting deep down it's Tiger/Goat split. Blood and gore flew up and away from the axe as he dislodged it and swung down again. A thick squishing splatter of flesh being rent and bone breaking filled the hall. More viscera flew up onto Bunker’s face making Gusty blink in surprise at his ferocity.

He kept hacking at the body with his long-handled blade, his face twisted in a bitter determination to ensure that the Chimera was dead. Gusty made a wobbly flight over the top of the long table and Zeccaran trying to approach her husband. “Bunker! Stop!” She shouted at him as he continued to assault the bloody carcass and its now spilling innards. She yelled again to no avail making her feel disoriented, as if she was a ghost yelling at a relative. Eventually, she yanked the axe out of Bunker’s grip with her magic. In response he flopped down on his rump breathing like he had just completed a marathon.

“It...khhhehhp!” he coughed, “It needed to die...had...had to make sure.” he panted out. He looked at her his face weary for a brief moment before he smirked into a wry blood-soaked grin. Gusty had always had a good feeling about Bunker and his abilities, but she was pretty certain this had just taken the proverbial cake. Maybe not the most perfect stallion, but he was one that did his job and did efficiently, she could not help but smile back at him.

“I donn’t care what yer job be ye persistent ne'er-do-wells! I haffa help Gusty!” Gertrude’s voice boomed in extra brogue over the moment she was having with her husband. The Dame appeared through one of the doors followed by the same pair of Ram Guards her face in a sharp scowl.

“Gusty Twilight the cavalry hath arrived!” she yelled as she charged for about five paces. She slowed down and gave Bunker and the broken body of the Chimera a once over before stopping altogether her face locked in astonishment.

“You are getting slow, Gerty.” Gusty smiled at her friend-daughter. Gertrude just wobbled there gawking still just as drunk as Gusty was suddenly starting to feel like. With the fight over and her heart starting to slow the world truly started spinning and she fell on her backside as she tried to remained focused on the Dame ewe.

“Ah--I be...it seems I be, dear Gusty lass.” Gertrude looked down to the ground with a grimace. She rubbed her forehead and loosed a long sigh before turning around. “Yeh two! Take Gusty an’ ‘er husband to der their room! And carry that sleepy Zebra too!” the Dame commanded. She gave Gusty a short but appreciative nod before turning around and slowly plodding away as her guards came to help. Just as they began showing Gusty and Bunker where to go the ewe spoke up from the edge of the door. “On the ‘morrow we haff much to discuss Gusty Twilight...much to discuss.” she said shaking her head somberly before disappearing.

Gusty waved with a intoxicated giggled and leaned on her husband. Bunker leaned back smiling at her a fleck of Chimera flesh stuck to his fur below his right eye. She reached up with a hoof and cleared it from his face with a quick flick of her ankle. She looked over him again wondering about the stallion she loved and his quiet demeanor. The guards opened the door to their room and practically shoved them inside before slamming the door shut behind them. Clearly, the guards were not very good a partying.

She pushed her husband towards the broad bed that inhabited the simple room. “Let me just clean you up.” she cooed provocatively at him. Gusty took the top bedsheet of in her magic and brought it over to herself. She used it to start wiping all the extra gore off of Bunker starting up at his face and slowly making her way down his body as she forced him onto the bed. He chuckled in approval as they landed together, but it was a chuckled quickly overridden by a sharp gasp of pleasure. Gusty, when put in the mood, had a tendency to be particularly needy, craving certain tastes and pleasures that only a mare could experience.

Bunker after his initial surprise quieted down and enjoyed her endeavors. She wanted to congratulate him for rather deftly turning her on, actions were stronger than words of course, and it was very hard to talk with her mouth full. It had been about a year-and-a-half since they were married and Gusty knew his limits, and knew that he could keep going so she finished him off before making a simple declaration: “Take me.” She smiled deviously as his eyes widened before he clasped her with his hooves and rolled them into a location where he was on top.

Once in position, her husband wasted no time following that instruction. He had gotten quite good at pleasing her and vice versa. Gusty felt especially gratified by him, with the adrenaline rushes she had been experiencing all day and the alcohol, she had expected to be satisfied properly, but not the current grand experience. However, all things, especially the great ones, come to an end and Bunker fell on the bed next to her. They cuddled each other closely having finished their love-making, slowly drifting to sleep. In the semi-consciousness Gusty mused that maybe she simply forgotten how good things felt, or perhaps it was something else? She drifted to sleep peacefully agreeing that whatever it was that it was a problem for “Future Gusty” to handle and she would just enjoy the wonderful sensation of bliss she felt as she fell fully unconscious. Today had been an exceedingly good day.

Act 2: Chapter 4 - Delusions and Politics

View Online

Gusty awoke with a splitting headache and a desperate need for water. In a corner room there was a wooden pale stationed upon a stool. She could just barely see the glimmer of water reflecting the ancient and somehow still burning oil lamp from the night before. Rushing over she stuck her whole snout into the cool liquid before pulling back and drinking several healthy gulps. Satisfied she stood up and noticed a bar of soap and a rough cloth sitting next to the bucket. Upset that she had just drank her bath water Gusty turned to observe Bunker snoring on the stiff but functional hay-stuffed mattress. Her mind was cloudy making it hard to recall everything that had happened the day before. Gusty could remember two things though, someone had summoned a Chimera in the middle of the party and Gertrude wanted to talk to her.

It had proved most unfortunate that her thirst had betrayed her. Gusty decided that her first course of action would be to find more water to bathe. One cursory glance over herself had revealed her to be covered in blood, vomit, and her own bodily fluids. The smell had not hit her nose until she noticed but as soon as it did Gusty was quickly rushing out her dark little room’s door and into one of the manor’s hallways soap and cloth in tow. She balked looking left and right, gladly finding that no one was around to see her still in this state. The left end of the hall called to her as she made her way towards the small oak door at its end. She pushed it open to be sprayed by rain, causing her to slam it closed instinctively. Now noticing the quiet hissing of the heavy downpour on the roof her, Gusty took a deep breath and readied herself to go out in the squall. It would be the easiest way to cleanser her matted fur of the filth she had acquired.

Cold rain hit her face and shoulders causing her to shiver once the door was open again. Fully outside she was instantly coated in water as the wind howled. Undeterred, Gusty skipped towards the middle of the garden she had discovered and began scrubbing herself with the bar of soap and rag. A bright flash of lightning turned the grey abyss around her bright enough for her to see the outer wall of the manor-castle. She smiled her body hot enough to send steam streaking off of her flanks in wispy trails as she cleaned. Normally she would have shivered from the icy cold rain and the blustery, hissing wind but she felt unimaginably happy and energized.

‘It’s really nice out today.” she commented to herself with a deep breath. Removing the last of the filth from her body Gusty began a slow trot towards the door she had exited. She let the rain cleanse the soap from her as she went, expanding her wings and letting everything run down to the ground.

Yes, quite nice out.

Gusty paused, confused. That voice had been hers, if a bit sarcastic too, but it had come from inside of its own accord. She looked around almost certain she had heard somepony besides herself. She scanned the muddy ground and look critically at what appeared to be a small cropping of carrots finding just herself. At the same time the strange disembodied sensation she had experienced disappeared as quickly as it had billowed up. She shook her head and felt a shiver coming on just as she opened the door back into the manor. However, what she saw inside the manor befuddled her beyond comprehension.

The tall ceilinged hall with its slit-bar windows was gone and all that replaced it was an empty, milky whiteness. Gusty had walked in initially not giving her full attention to the location until she had found her hooves touching nothing yet propelling her forward, floating. She was not panicked by this strange occurrence, in fact Gusty found herself rather liking it. The sensation gradually crescendoed into a feeling of plush cushions on her back and neck and the feeling of wings wrapped around her body. The white faded to black and her chest tightened with passion and love as the pony, the stallion, who held her kissed her fiercely. Her mind first went to Bunker, but he did not have wings.

Is this a dream? She thought to herself. Her tongue intertwined with the dream stallion’s. He was quite good at what he was doing, fantastic even. Her heart rang and clenched with desire and her body trembled with his fiery touch, making her want more. Yes, definitely a dream, a Super Bunker dream! Haven’t had this one in a while...maybe I’ll actually make it to the end this time.

The blackness she had been looking at changed to the blurry image of Super Bunker. She had never made it this far, never opened her eyes, just kept them closed, kissed, and felt horny until she woke up. Giddily Gusty let the dream become clearer enjoying the touch of the fantasy. Curiously, the dream stallion was a grey color, his features sculpted and handsome, his wings a familiar softness that…

Gusty flailed and pushed him back to see Stormwalker, his fangs at a moderate length and his yellow cat-eyes blinking in confusion. “Gusty what’s wrong?!” he asked, surprise and concern evident in his voice.

“You! You are what’s wrong! Monster!” she shouted at him. It was the same harsh voice she had heard before, hers but not hers. The happiness in Stormwalker’s eyes flickered out with shocking speed. He turned to his right, working his jaw as if he was trying to say something but was too broken to say it. The gashed scar over his left eye seemingly deepened and his face acquired lines and age in a way Gusty had never seen before. A single tear ran down the length of the disfigurement as his visage flashed into fire and worry; his eyes snapped up to meet hers. Something pulled Gusty away from him, he desperately chased after her, his face growing smaller and more desperate before disappearing into the Abyss.

This isn’t a dream, it's a nightmare! She screamed internally. A sudden swirling feeling forced her to pull her hoof away from her face. Trying to reorient herself Gusty balked as she quickly found herself back in the hall of the manor, panting. Gusty blinked incredulously, casting her vision everywhere she could trying to make sure this was reality. Her breathing was rough and burned her chest making it impossible to calm down. She was still sopping wet from the rain, but was now cold and uncomfortable feeling.The door to the room she had stayed in creaked open and a groggy Bunker trotted out.

“Oh!” he jumped upon seeing her, “Gusty, you are awake, an-and clean too! Good muh-morning.” Bunker quipped, his speech still partially slurred. He stretched awkwardly before walking towards her. He was visibly resisting hugging her, he had evidently realized he was still just a messy as she had been.

“I-I’m surprised y-you woke up.” she commented to him. Gusty was unsure if it was the cold water coating her fur causing her voice to shake or the strangeness she had witnessed only moments ago.

“Da. I thought I heard you talking so I woke up and found you out here, did you sleepwalk outside in rain, heheh?” Bunker joked at her. He had woken up seemingly in a mere moment of clarity. Gusty was jealous of this, even now after being in freezing rain and having a particularly screwed up vision she felt sleepy.

“Shall...shall we get some food then?” Bunker asked drawing Gusty attention. She nodded unsure of herself for the first time in years. She followed Bunker towards the opposite end of the hall that she had reentered from stepping carefully. Feeling like the world might again slip into some unimaginable horror, Gusty paced through the door her husband opened with unease. She found herself in a small dining room a few servant Ovis mulling about dusting and setting the small rough hewn table that adored the room. The folk of the Baylands did not have much in the way of Equestrian conveniences but they managed to put on a elegant air of simplicity.

They did not seem to have a use for electric or magic lights, making the room lit with candles and polished mirrors. The plain construction and decorations of the walls did well to emphasize the proud, fierce culture of the sheep of these messy hills. Gusty felt a powerful longing for the simpler time that the Ovis of the Baylands were trying to emulate. However, she had been called here for the exact opposite reason. It was as stark a realization as the several servants that seemingly appeared from nowhere and began drying her still dripping fur with thick rough towels. Gusty accepted their actions but awkwardly fidgeted as the pair of young ewes finished and bid her a good breakfast.


“Oh! They have turnip stew! Mine favorite!” Bunker declared from the other side of the table. Gusty noticed a bowl full of a pasty beige porridge sitting at her seat. She slipped into the chair and peered down at the hoofhandles of her breakfast’s container. Feeling apprehensive Gusty slowly reached down to grab the bowl. Across from her Bunker busily slurped loudly, claiming that the food was delicious beyond compare, he could not even do better. She trusted his half-gurgled opinion knowing how well Bunker cooked, Gusty took a sip.

True to form the porridge was as delicious as her husband claimed. Gusty looked back up at her companion just as soon as she had finished devouring the succulent stew. He smiled at her, his wry grin betraying his dastardly underpinnings.

“Last night was good, yes?” he asked moving his long blonde mane out of his face.

“Well, what I remember was fantastic. I had a wonderful time.” she answered him.

“I would hope you did, do you think we were successful?” her white stallion asked her. He looked serious and concerned as if he was not up to the task of satisfying her. Feeling somewhat embarrassed by this Gusty found herself blushing, he was always excellent at pleasing her.

“W-well I think we were. I’m certainly not going to kick you out of the house!” she stuttered before trying to tease him. He laughed at her motioning around the alabaster walls and marble floors.

“You would kick me out of the house I built?” he mocked, “The house I toiled and built just for you?”

“Yeah! I would! You insistent stallion!” Gusty cried before taking matters into her magical grip. She levitated her husband over to her and slammed her face into his, kissing passionately. He cackled madly at her, failing entirely to kiss back as she showered him with affection.

She set him down before hopping away from the gilded table. She pranced over towards the curtain draw that separates this room from the next. “Come,” she said starting to pull on the line that held the thick cloth suspended down across the doorway.

“Let us wake our young daughter like she used to do to us!” she chuckled. Her husband came up to her looking confused as she struggled with the rope. He placed his hooves and wings on her, his face growing worried enough to make his horn appear to droop.

“Gusty, what are you doing?!” he almost yelled at her. His voice was harsh and distorted as if he was yelling to her through a glass of water. Gusty’s only response was to stare back him equally befuddled by the strange shift in her sense of hearing.

“Gusty!” came a much clearer, more recent voice from her husband’s mouth. In that instance, the beautiful room she had been standing in burned away. The flowers and plants that had lined the walls were replaced with suits of armor and torches. The rope she had been pulling on turned into a thick tassel that hung from a banner display. Before her stood the burgundy stallion Bunker, his face panicked and stressed. She was not sure what was happening to her today but it needed to stop. Now. However, the only thing she could think of was to move forward and trying to distract her mind from past and the what-could-have-been.

“Are you alright?!” Bunker asked for about the fifth time.

“No.” she shook her head still feeling disoriented, “But...I’m all here now. Sorry.”

“Do not apolot-gize.” Bunker slurred in his accented voice. “Everypony has bad mornings. Let’s go talk to matriarch sheep. She will help you move on.” He decided for her.

Gusty nodded and followed Bunker’s lead. She leaned on him some as she walked down the brown and grey stone walls devastated by their change from royal blue and cream. Keeping her head down, she followed her current husband doing her best not to have more hallucinations not that she had any control over that. They came to a door where Bunker stopped and turned to her. His face betrayed the strong tone he tried to take.

“Seriously. You are alright, da?” he asked muzzle scrunched in concern. She had never told anypony about the visions, but somehow they always knew about them. Gusty had often suspected Stormwalker and his meddling had something to do with that but how he had gotten the details was beyond her.

“Yes, I’m doing better, I’m just very disoriented, having such lucid memories spring up is really disconcerting. At least I think they are memories…” she answered Bunker.

“Don’t think too hard. Is what causes them methinks.” He warned with a sage nod. Gusty could not help but giggle at him. If anypony was going to be able to help keep her grounded it was definitely the rough hewn stallion before her. She drew in a deep breath before pushing through the door. The portal opened up into the Long Hall, the very room that had been destroyed by yesterday’s party. It was positively spotless causing Gusty to gawk with shock at its cleanliness.

“Top o’ da mornin’ tah ye, Gusty!” declared Gertrude from her grand chair. Positioned far down the Long Hall on Gusty’s right, the ewe waved enthusiastically.

The latter portion of the great table that had adorned the room had been removed to accommodate for the plush wooden throne. Guards flanked each side of the seat, staring with a barely concealed apprehension around the room. Before the throne Zeccaran sat wobbily on the floor his head turned only enough to see Gusty and Bunker enter. Gusty trotted towards her old friend with haste eager to move on to the matter she had been called here for.

“A good morning to you too, Gertrude.” she nodded once up to the throne.

“Aye. If it weren’ for the circumstances It’d be a great day.” Gertrude began. “Ye do know why I asked ye to come here, no?” Gusty nodded in response before chiming in herself.

“It was pirates of some sort right?” she tried to confirm her memory. Over the last couple of days things had gotten extremely blurry. Secretly Gusty hoped she had not been misinterpreting the passage of time but she never felt like she could confirm nor deny what was happening around her. Even now as Gertrude talked to her, Gusty noticed her mind wander and try to make sense of the situation of its own accord as if it was a separate entity from her entirely. The sensation made her paranoid, her instinctual defense was to lash out at anything and everything. It was like she was constantly being watched and mocked, but she could never find who was behind the veil.

“Gusty! Am I a borin’ ya lass?” Gertrude interrupted her thoughts.

“No..no sorry Gerty...I just am feeling strange today. Please, tell me again.” She tried to apologize to her once-daughter.

“I be needin’ ye to look through ta’ homes of a few of my Jarls. I be wishin’ to eliminate them from mine list of suspects.” The Dame rubbed her chin with a cloven hoof. Gusty gladly accepted the challenge causing Gertrude to smile slyly.

“Uh...are you sure you want us to do the searching?” piped up Zeccaran for the first time since Gusty had entered the room.

“Aye, lad.” Gerty answered with an approving look.

“You do know we aren’t known for being very stealthy, right? Snooping is not our strong suit.” the zebra pushed his point further.

“Oh, I kennt it lad. ‘Tis why I want you to do it!” the old ewe beamed. This left Zeccaran to just balk repeatedly until he shrugged in acceptance. Gusty smiled, pleased that Gertrude had kept him from complaining more, a feat few could manage. Looking back up to The Dame, Gusty waggled her brow eagerly.

“So, who do you want us to interrogate first?” she clopped her hooves together. This was what she had been waiting for: some old fashioned evil hunting.

“Interrogating? Nae, lass. Go invade the manor of Jarl Angus. You have mine blessing to be as accostin’ as ye wish. But don’ be causing any permanent harm. An’ when he and his rams catch you tell him ‘twas me that sent ye.” Gertrude scolded. Gusty kicked at the ground in begrudging acceptance of her friend-daughter’s decree.

“Alright...I guess. Where does this Angus live anyway? Might as well get started today.” she said narrowly overcoming her own pouting. She had been hoping to smash a few skulls instead of just being a nuisance. It was in that instance though that Gusty realized this: she was being told to make a problem. Making a problem, might just include punching unsuspecting manor guards. She smiled deviously to herself before looking back up to Gertrude.

“Oh ho! I kennt that look. ‘Tis the look of The Bah-aylands most notorious rabble rouser!” The Dame laughed mischievously. “The house of Jarl Angus is but a day’s walk on the road that leads north from town. The manor be nestled in the thickest of our forests deep in the Emerald Valley. Follow the road, and ye will find it a handsome repose come the day’s walkin’.” She finished.

In return Gusty merely flexed her wings and stretched her neck. Walk? Never! She thought to herself continuing her charade.Gertrude caught on after a few moments and facehoofed herself.

“Aye. I be gettin’ old indeed. What purpose doth an alicorn have for roads when she can fly?” The Dame declared more to herself than anyone else. Gusty just laughed at her merrily before pantomiming like she was walking with a cane. Gertrude made a huffing noise before catapulting herself at Gusty with such alarming speed that she was unable to dodge. Getting knocked from her hooves the alicorn did her best to land softly as she laughed even harder at Gertrude. The unlikely pair landed in a heap on the floor, the ewe laughing like mad.

“Ain’t too old fer ‘dat tho’!” she crowed from atop Gusty’s chest. She laughed at her diminutive attacker more than happy to indulge her for the moment. Waiting perhaps five seconds, Gertrude was lifted away in her golden magic much to the ewe’s flagrant protests.

“Ya know, Gusty lass, I’m surprised at ye.” The Golden Dame said thoughtfully after dusting herself off.

“What do you mean?” Gusty questioned.

“Ye have been mysteriously comfortable with the recent attempts on mine life. I recall a time when such an occurrence would send ye into a frenzy...” Gertrude let her voice trail off. Gusty found herself looking away from her once-daughter an iron-like taste welling up in her mouth. The ewe was right: her realized apathy brought back the feeling of dysphoria that she had only just chased away. She wanted to care. Deep in her soul, that was what Gusty wanted: to care, truly, and not have the overwhelming sense of emptiness absorb her.

“Well…” She started, trying to muster her courage to look at Gertrude again, “I never really asked who you think is behind this; it’s not really pirates, right?” Gusty finished, finally looking at her companion.

“Tut tut tut.” Gertrude puttered. “Seal us in a cone of thine magic, before I be spellin’ out the truth to ye.” The old ewe looked around the empty Long Hall as if she thought the very bricks were eavesdropping.

Gusty shrugged and went to oblige her. It had been an eon since she had cast any form of shield magic, let alone one that stopped the flow of sound. Grimacing as she slowly began summoning up the magic she needed, Gusty did her best to maintain the concentration she needed to cast. Fwawhm! barked her horn and around them a golden dome of her magic flowed down and sealed flush with the floor.

“What’s actually going on, Gerty?” she asked the ewe. Her concern sliding too far into her voice for her liking. Releasing a deep, almost weathered sounding sigh, Gertrude looked up at her, the ewe’s eyes betraying her fear and sadness.

“Methinks that one of mine own kin seek to plunder the throne from underneath me.” she said grimly.

“What!? Why!?” Gusty shrieked in horror. In her mind there was no reason fathomable for such an atrocity. It was among her list of unforgivable sins; to kill a member of one’s own family for personal gain. A small flame of determination lit dep in Gusty’s heart in that moment, waiting to grow brighter as she listened to Gertrude’s explanation.

“It would seem that mine daughter...dare I say it?” Gertrude paused, her eyes unfocused, “Mine own daughter be the chief suspect in this matter most ill. She be the only other creature in all the land with the sway a-an-an’the political position to allow these-these...brigands in an’ out our lands without raising questions.” the Dame of the Baylands’ responded shakily.

Gusty swallowed the lump in her throat as Gertrude looked back up to her. The ewe’s eyes shone scared and lost just like they did on the day they had met those centuries ago. Fighting against the onset of more memories trying to distract her, Gusty pulled Gertrude into a hug.

“I promise I’ll get to the bottom of this. I won’t let it be her.” she comforted her companion. Gertrude sighed pitifully in their embrace, her shuddering breath betraying her best efforts to hide tears.

“Oh, mama lass. I hope ye are right. I pray ye are right. But fer now...just go do as I ask...It will help bring any co-conspirators into the light.” the ewe said to her timidly. Gusty pulled partially out of the hug and nodded plainly to her friend-daughter. “That’s ta’ plan anyway. This old Golden Fleece be good for something yet.” Gertrude smiled rubbing her nose with a sniff.

“How..how is it going to help?” Gusty questioned. She turned her eyes up to the golden dome they were in and ended the spell now that Gertrude had regained her composure. There were no more secrets to be told anymore anyway.

“Mine Fleece? Don’t tell me ye don’ remember tha’!” Gertrude boomed, her voice bouncing off the hard stone walls with harsh echoes. Gusty only shook her head in response too curious to interrupt the ewe’s building bravado.

“None can tell lies to the owner of the Golden Fleece! Go ahead there zebra, ye try it!” she declared to a wincing Zeccaran. He jostled his shoulders and rubbed his ears before nodding that he would.

“I really hate spiders.” he declared before a look of stupor overcame him. “Yahp. Yahp. It works. I, in fact, really hate spiders. That was just weird; it was like I had some type of word-vomit of truth.”

“Well, it clearly works. All we have to do is follow through with your plan then, Gerty.” Gusty commented while Bunker laughed and pointed at Zeccaran who was now randomly naming off fears. She rolled her eyes at them, ready to depart immediately, and faintly annoyed with their shenanigans

“Oi! Lads! Quit yer bickerin’ and go with Gusty! ‘Tis time to start thine quest!” The Golden Dame bellowed. Gusty quite literally jumped at the immense volume the little ewe output. Bunker and Zeccaran were startled in the extreme, both attempting to scramble over each other out of pure instinct.

Pffpbbttt!” she stuttered starting to laugh. “Come-come on you to morons!” she waved for them to follow her. Moping in defeat the two stallions followed her out of the Manor, away from town of Castle-upon-Barra, and out onto their journey into the lowland forests.


“Could you seriously not choose a smaller animal that flies?!” Gusty hissed quietly at Zeccaran. Beside her in the tree the giant eagle peered back at her. The bird cocked its head to the side a somehow amused look on its face. With a sharp flash of green light Zeccaran took the great raptor’s place a cocky smile spreading his lips.

“No. Eagles are the best.” he said just shy of sarcastic. Gusty fixed him with a scowl before pushing a hoof over her shoulder and into Bunker’s chin.

“You could have at least carried this fool part of the way too-but no!” her voice growing louder with each word. Both Bunker and Zeccaran promptly shushed her causing a deep seated spitefulness to build in her chest. She would merely wait to get back at them later, for now she had a task to complete.

Still huffing, Gusty turned her eyes towards the not-so-distant Castle Angus. Their trip here had only taken a few hours, as Gertrude had said; flying was much, much quicker than hoofing it. The journey had taken them to the bottom of a valley that led into a fjord. The area was populated by thick high branched pines that extended out towards the hard sheer rock faces of the landscape. One of those trees and its wide hardy branches served as their current perch, several hundred yards from the battlements of Castle Angus. Having carried Bunker the entire distance on her back, Gusty was having a hard time taking in the beautiful countryside. She was still recovering from the workout and trying to figure out the best way into the castle.

“You know, now that I think of it these folk won’t be looking for flying creatures would they?” Zeccaran mused quietly from his own branch. Gusty cast him a quizzical look, on her back and evidently unwilling to remove himself, Bunker grunted too.

“Well, essentially the only creatures that live here are sheep, Ovis. They can’t exactly fly, so any sentries on the watch towers would be looking down towards the woods and the road. The cliffs are too far away for anyone to hit the castle even with the most accurate of cannons...so yeah, we should get up pretty high and dive in behind them!” Zeccaran concluded. She responded by letting her jaw hang loose, it could not be that easy.

“Da! Zebra is right. Pirates would come from the sea or ground, not from sky unless they make full assault. And sheep-folk would know if they plan attack like that.” Bunker commented, “And behold! Sky is grey and low, is perfect day for us. The old gods send weather to aid us!”

“I think you just don’t want to get down from my back.” Gusty retorted, narrowly stopping herself from growling at her husband.

“Eh. Is comfy. I could stay all day.” He responded casually.

“Now is not the time to tease me.” She scowled. Bunker merely chuckled into her folded ear in response. Zeccaran nodded approvingly at the other stallion entirely ignoring the daggers she stared at him for encouraging the behavior.

“Let’s just get to the task at hand. And this is your plan Zeccaran, get to flying and I’ll follow.” she stiffly ordered. Zeccaran grinned mischievously and was enveloped by his usual green light becoming replaced by the enormous brown eagle-shape he oh-so-adored.

He gave a quiet squawk and chirp before flapping his big wings in a flurry. Gusty waited for him to get decently airborne before she followed him up into the sky. Her wings burned from their already strenuous trip as she strained to follow the zebra-eagle. She gradually ascended biting her lower lip in an attempt to ignore the screaming of her appendages. Zeccaran was leading them away from Castle Angus as they climbed towards the low grey volumes as the cloud bank meandered down the valley closer to their objective. The maneuver felt vaguely similar to what they had done when the party had first arrived in Canterlot. Gusty fought the nostalgia of that adventure as she squinted her eyes as she entered the first cloud. It was extremely difficult to fight the urge to just relax and sit in giant cushion instead of the painful flight she was enduring.

It took only a couple of minutes of following the brown blob in front of her before she felt their flight path pitch into a dive. In an instance they broke the clouds with hurtling speed. They sped down past the narrow watchtowers and past the main keep before coming to a halt just a few feet above a balcony. Hovering, another flash of light changed Zeccaran back into a Zebra and he fell silently onto the platform. He looked up at her curiously, clearly wondering why she had not followed suit. Unbeknownst to him however, Gusty was desperately trying to maintain her wing beats. Slowing down after such a dive, with the extra weight and the three hour trip made it impossible to do much beyond hover exactly where she was.

She gestured with a jerk of her head for Bunker to dismount from his back. He made an unsure sort of grunt before slipping off her side. Just before he landed, Gusty caught him in her levitation to minimize the noise. Undaunted by the experience, Bunker waved for her to cease flying, continuing their silent charade. Biting her tongue to keep her pained moaning quiet she started to glide down to the platform, only to lose control of her flight path. Wanting to scream but having already viced her tongue she hurtled toward the balcony. She closed her eyes as she was going to impact the wall, her stubborn wings too tired and locked up to use.

To Gusty’s surprise, she instead found a soft body cushioning her impact. Opening her eyes, she beheld Bunker, who had somehow stretched up enough to keep her from hitting the building with full force. Together they slid down the side of the castle and landed mostly silently on the overhang where Zeccaran stared with a bit of a confused scowl.

“Thank you.” she whispered to her husband. He nodded in response before pointing towards a watchtower that was nearby, the ram look out staring out away from the keep, but one ear turned in their direction. She motioned cautiously for them to enter the room attached to the perch. Stacking up carefully, they let her use her magic to open the dingy wooden door and proceed first. The two stallions slipped in just behind her, Zeccaran being last, taking the door in his hooves and gingerly closing it making not a sound until its latch clicked placidly into place.

“Oh thank the moon we made it in!” he hissed still fairly muffled sounding.

“Da. We did good. Sneaky-sneaky not mine style but, ey. It works.” Bunker nodded in agreement. “What is dis room anyway?”

Gusty turned around to behold a lavish bedroom. She faintly gasped as she observed an exquisite armor display, an extremely comfortable looking bed, and a full fireplace and mantle on the far wall next to a large well-worn armchair.

“I think we waltzed right into Jarl Angus’ bedroom.” she said, feeling confident. This was a perfect way to startle the Jarl, Gertrude would be pleased. However, the big, forest-colored blankets of the four-poster repose called her name. Shamelessly Gusty trotted over and fell onto the bed with a deep sigh. Meanwhile Bunker and Zeccaran began looking around the room, both interested in different knick-knacks.

“I really didn’t think it would be this easy. Is this how it is when something works? I think I have forgotten what it feels like.” he commented while fiddling with a rather out of place snowglobe from the mantle.

“Yeah. I guess this is what it is supposed to be like.” Gusty answered him. “I’m actually really happy we didn’t have to hurt anypony. I have a weird feeling that the Jarls have nothing to do with this.” she mused aloud.

“Is dat what Matriarch told you in secret-bubble earlier?” Bunker questioned. His voice was metallic and brittle sounding from the piece of armor he had picked off the stand with his snout. Gusty looked at him curiously, confused by his matter-of-fact tone, behind the metal.

Rolling over in the bed to fully face him she looked at Bunker suspiciously. “Since when are you smart enough to make such observations?” she squinted. Bunker was far from stupid, he was actually rather intelligent for a pony who could barely read. However, it surprised her that he was actually vocal about something. That meant he was confident about what he had concluded. Either that or he had been taking the reading courses she had forced him into much more seriously than he let on. That was something Gusty would have to ask him about later, a bumbling from Zeccaran drew her attention back across the room.

“Hey, check this out.” Zeccaran said, pointing at some sort of lever. The zebra stood next to the mantle curiously prodding the mechanism. “Wonder what it does…” Pushing the lever down from its upright position a loud mechanical grating and turning overtook the quiet of the private chamber.

Gusty’s ears forced her to look towards a creaking sound now coming from the wall, next to Zeccaran. The wall seemed to be eating itself as a portion was pulled away from a center line and box of sorts was pushed forward. Said box folded open and a full-size claymore was revealed before the box jerked to a stop. In perfect slow-motion the great blade began to tumble down towards the ground. Gusty watched in horror as the sword flipped end over once before bouncing of the stone finishing in the floor near the fireplace. Zeccaran gritted his teeth, Bunker grimaced deep enough to pit the armor plate he was holding, and Gusty slipped off the bed with a gaping jaw wide enough to breath fire.

As if staged by the most predictable playwright imaginable, a rustling came from the door that led into the keep. “Did ya hear that too, lads?” was asked in a refined brogue.

Just short of growling, Gusty angrily pointed at the door with a hoof, while lifting up the ceremonial claymore up off the ground in her magic. She glared directly at Zeccaran with venom acidic enough to melt steel. The zebra responded by waving his hooves about in gestures of surprise and confusion as if their now-in-jeopardy cover was not his fault. She had no time to scold him as the door to the room opened with a long grumbly creak.

The door revealed a broad, grey-old ram. A pair of oblong golden rings hung from his horns that glinted as he stepped into the murk of the room. Past the threshold he paused, surveying the room in confusion as he squinted. A few idle seconds passed before his eyes shot open wide, having spied his unexpected visitors. Before he could react, Gusty slammed the door shut behind him with her magic and held the scavenged claymore to the back of his neck, forcing him to walk deeper into his bedroom, and become surrounded by them, the intruders.

“What business hath three pony assassins with me an’ mine?” he whispered cautiously his eyes falling on Gusty. She slipped around the four-poster and strode up to him confidently, as she pressed Jarl Angus’ blade closer to the back of his neck. It was rather convenient to have the great sword, especially since she and her companions had left in such a hurry. Leaving one’s normal, familiar equipment was usually a blunder. But as they had spoken earlier, maybe, just maybe, things were going right today. Gusty believed that they were, so she pressed on, trying to be as intimidating as she could.

“Lass, ye ain’t goin’ ta kill me wit’ mine own sword are ye?” he asked her. Gusty drew a sneer and pressed the point of the blade into his wool, making her actions speak as loud as her thoughts. It was not enough pressure to injure him, but it was enough from him to step up closer to her and look up at her face dismayed.

As the tension in the room got more desperate, she could feel the eyes of her husband and friend . They moved towards her, not the Jarl. She was unsure why they did not trust her to do what Gertrude had asked, but it did not matter. Gusty decided that she would have to break the act.

Pulling the claymore away from Jarl Angus’ neck, Gusty rotated it in her magic so the flat of the blade matched the flat of the ram’s head. She swung it down with moderate force, more to get his attention than to hurt him, besides he was a ram, blows to the head were something he could take.

“Gerty says hi!” she yelled, breaking into a smile as the blade vibrated with a low tone from the blow.

“Oww…” He rubbed his head his face annoyed. “Are ye out of yer mind? Calling the Dame, ‘Gerty,’ ye crazy mare.” he looked at her, a befuddled grimace replacing his irritation. On the edge of her hearing, Gusty could hear both Bunker and Zeccaran release a stressed sigh. All things considered, she had no idea why they thought she would mess this up, perhaps they had become too accustomed to the trauma of an unsuccessful plan.

“Hold up now.” Jarl Angus looked at her again, squinting with great scrutiny. “It can’t be.” he grumbled under his breath.

“Lass...may seem a bit forward but; are ye Gusty Twilight?” he asked whilst chewing on his cheek. His posture became more confident, more relaxed.

“Maybe.” she retorted coyly. Turning away from him, Gusty spread her wings for her point to hit home. Who else was she supposed to be anyway? It was not as if there were other teal alicorns that had visited the Baylands.

The ram began laughing like the crusty, old Ovis he was, in full. “Now this be a sight for sore eyes indeed!” he spewed out between cackles.

“I had-” he interrupted himself with more laughter, “I had never expected to meet ye, only ever hear’d the stories from mine grandfather when I was but a lamb!” he placed a hoof up to his grey brow. “An’ I never really believed that alicorns can’t age, buh’ I can see I be proved wrong!”

Gusty began laughing along with the old Jarl. He shakily introduced himself before asking her to introduce her companions. She pulled her husband over first.

“This is Bunker, my husband.” Bunker waved silently as she released him.

“Husband! Doth the Dame kennt that!?” Angus balked.

“Yes. She was even more surprised than you!” Gusty responded eagerly

“Well, he is a fair sturdy fellow, but-ah never-ye-mind. Who’s the striped fella over yonder?” he shifted subjects flawlessly.

Lifting up Zeccaran in her magic, Gusty squeaked with pleasure as he squirmed angrily at the forced meeting. Their eyes met for the briefest of moments which Zeccaran used to impart on her the deepest glare of disgruntlement a pony possibly could. Unfortunately, for him this merely spurred her on.

“This is Zeccaran. He is a very good friend of mine.” she rubbed Zeccaran’s messy mohawk as he floated beside her.

“And if my friend would put me down I would like to inform you that the Golden Dame has requested your presence, Jarl Angus.” the zebra grumbled through gritted teeth.

“Mine presence! Ack! Spoil all the fun then lad.” The Jarl threw up his hooves in annoyance. “Now how am I going to say I threw a better feast than she did for her own mother!”

“Is she really, that big of a deal here? Like-Gusty isn’t...actually...Dame Gertrude’s real mom, right?” Zeccaran asked with that, ‘everypony-here-is-crazy’ air to his voice.

“Kin is more than blood ye, irreverent zebra! An’ aye. Gusty Twilight be the great benefactor of the Highlands. The Dame that bring da’ clans ta’gether well before I been conceived.” Jarl Angus answered with a classic brogue bravado. Zeccaran merely sighed and rubbed his temples in response. Gusty and Bunker laughed at their friend and his over-thinking of the situation. However, Angus was quick to interrupt them.

“Sparing the little infiltration into mine home. Let me guess. The old golden Gertrude wishes me to spin up the rumor mill ‘bouts the return of ye, eh, Gusty?” he asked with a waggle of his shoulders and horns. The motion caused his decorations to clink and jingle. “And to come speak before that magical fleece of hers, aye?”

Gusty nodded merrily.

“Then lest we not delay! The finest caravan shall escort us to the Castle Manor of the Dames. Wards! Mine young wards, send for mine entourage, we go to her majesty today!” Jarl Angus bellowed, sauntering towards the door.

Feeling particularly good about herself, Gusty pranced after him bringing her hooves up extra high. “Come on you guys! It's time to get pampered.” she yelled over her shoulder as she reached the door just behind the Jarl. She was not even sure if Zeccaran and Bunker followed, frankly, with such a successful day, Gusty was not worried whether or not they would.

Act 2: Chapter 5 - The Gravity

View Online

Several months ago...

Luna sat next to her sister in the latter’s personal study. It was a large space, filled with books and scrolls, its high ceiling vaulted. Currently, the room had been arranged such that ponies could better sit around a central pile of folders, charts, and devices that sat on a grand, low coffee table. Stationed on floor cushions around the said dark oak surface were Equestria’s greatest magical minds. Twilight Sparkle, her pupil Starlight Glimmer, and Sunburst, the Crystal Empire’s Crystalier. They were waiting for Stormwalker to return with some reading material for Sunburst while chit-chatting over details It was an open-ended discussion, mostly focused on the magical inconsistencies of certain ponies of interest.

“But how does he change shape? And conjuring fireballs? How did he get that magic?” Sunburst questioned.

“Well, for the first part, we know it’s the same magic Changelings use; how he got it is a totally different story. Though we haven’t ruled out the possibility that he is an amnesic one…” Starlight responded.

“Subject Z is decidedly a Zebra. Changelings cannot fake blood types, nor psychological resonances. Princess Luna confirmed both already, leaving us with the ‘how’ only.” Twilight concluded. The party cast a glance in her direction, Luna nodded cordially, unwilling to interrupt their discussion. While she held a masterful understanding of dreams, the magic of dreams, and psychology she was only a master in those cloistered areas. She was certainly no prodigal spell caster like the two mares at the table nor a certified magical technician like the stallion. They accepted her silence and body language to continue without her verbal input.

“We have theorized on forced inception through rituals and magic siphoning. Can we take that any further?” Starlight Glimmer asked the fateful question.

“Well, we would need to know the timeline of when those events took place, and how long it took him to develop the magical ability. A detail we are lacking in our data.” Sunburst answered turning his gaze to Luna with a sad smile. She grimaced and looked down still unsure if it was proper to tell these ponies the truth about Zeccaran and why she cared to save him. Frankly, for anypony else the zebra would only invoke loathing. After all that he had done and what he had become, Luna felt it best that nopony know all the details. However, she needed to give them some type of answer, some small piece of information.

“Consider…” she paused, biting her lip, “Consider at least a yearly ritual, for...I would say, at least thirty years.” Luna finished. Tension and wide eyes instantly filled the room save for Celestia. Her sister gave her a graceful nod with closed eyes, approving of her answer. That did little to relieve the creeping sensation Luna was getting from the three ponies’ concerned looks.

“That covers the basic concept of the idea. How about his Thaumatic Magic Level, Twilight?” Sunburst broke the silence and his gaze.

“Yeah. You never did tell me what it was either.” Starlight said, switching all of attention to Twilight Sparkle. She made a distinctly poor half-smile of embarrassment she was known for.

“Well...depending on the day...he fell in the five-thousand to six-thousand range…” she replied timidly rubbing her mane.

“Five-thousand!” shouted both Starlight and Sunburst.

“That’s more than me!” the former spat in disbelief.

“It’s nearly the same as the Princesses! How is that possible!?” The latter dismayed.

Celestia cleared her throat causing the uproar to miss several beats. Luna was curious as to why her sister chose to interrupt, perhaps she had gained some insight she had not.

“I believe a potent example would be Sombra as for the how. Instead, I think you should be focusing on the ‘why’ of Zeccaran. Why would a previously ordinary zebra be involved in the Cult of Nightmare Moon, and why would they concentrate all their energy into grafting new magic into him. Is there perhaps something they saw that we do not?” Celestia asked with a calm demeanor. Luna had not considered this train of thought. Even she, who had personally invaded and re-written Zeccaran’s mind, knew very little on the specifics of why he was chosen to receive the “upgrades.”

“Perhaps this has more to do with his body’s storage capacity and type. I believe that is one of the fundamental tenets in your First Law of Magical Energy Dispersion, Twilight: if I am remembering correctly. I haven’t reread that book in a while.” Celestia continued. Twilight pursed her lips her look thoughtful as she considered what her mentor had said.

“You know...I had been thinking of that, but it felt more important to figure out the details. I guess ‘why’ he can in the first place is the best place to start. And with Subject G having an even more extreme capacity...I guess that’s why we are here. Everypony here had something to do with gathering or analyzing data for my book, save you two of course..” Twilight mused looking back and forth between Luna and Celestia.

Luna nodded. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the barest hint of a grin perk the edge Celestia’s mouth. Her sister would never openly admit it, but as much as Twilight was her student, the small lavender alicorn was also Celestia’s idolized heartache. Since the debacle between she and the galant Stormwalker, Celestia had become significantly more interested in the company of mares. Luna often wondered if that was her sister’s means of self-inflicted penance, or if perhaps she just would never feel the same way about any other stallion again. Regretfully, she had never shown any indication in her dreams of locked away anxiety and Luna had to accept her sister’s behavior at face value; her current stallion had been but a faze to Celestia. She had always liked mares, and her behavior towards her love interests had remained consistent with that fact, regardless of what Luna tried to discern. And, regardless of the shame her sister felt for how she ended that last relationship.

Silence had descended onto the room after Twilight had spoken and it had taken until now for Luna to notice. She felt rather awkward as she shifted her focus between the ponies at the table and then each of their coffee mugs. When she had made her rotation back to Starlight Glimmer the mare heaved a sigh before blowing a raspberry and continuing.

“With all of us here and with most of the information already gathered we could probably put together a reference system for Subject G.” She paused to dramatically look around the room. “Is there some type of calculation Mr. Stormwalker wants us to do?” she directed the question to Luna.

She was about to answer when the door to the chamber opened his a bit of a creak. In walked her stallion a collection of dingy looking books balanced on his back. He looked at Starlight with a cheeky grin on his face, Luna was not surprised, he probably had heard her question, he had the ears of a cat.

“Not at this time Starlight.” he said. “I have already run the projection, and needless to say it’s grim. So for now I would rather focus on solutions to other troubles surrounding Gusty Twilight.” Starlight shrugged in acceptance as Stormwalker slowly moved around the coffee table and set the books he carried in front of Sunburst.

“You know. Not to distract from these lovely ancient books...but I have to be frank Twilight. I really don’t understand the significance of the value difference in those projections. If Subject Z has as much magic as Luna or Celestia why doesn’t he just use it?” the orange stallion asked. Luna had to agree some of the importance was lost on her because she simply lacked the finer understanding Twilight, Starlight, and Stormwalker possessed.

“Simply put most of his reading is based on his potential magic. He cannot access all of his magic in a single go. He’ll experience burnout. Like when a unicorn uses too much of their reserves too quickly.” Twilight answered.

“Oh. Okay. I guess then I should ask how the scaling works for the unit measurement. I’m just trying to establish a baseline for how I am supposed to think about these numbers.” Sunburst continued.

“If I had to give you a rough quantization…” Stormwalker answered first. “It would be about five-times more powerful per one-thousand units. And those units are not necessarily castable magic. Since the projection is based on the absolute minimum a given creature’s total magic capacity is measured at with one of these bad boys.” He picked up one of the antennaed device switching it on with a quick click. It hummed as it booted up

“This is a Thaumatic Magic Meter.” Twilight chimed in taking the device in her magic. “It takes into account all the Active Magic and Potential Magic, like I mentioned a moment ago. That total is the Thaumatic Magic Total. Its this value that we can use to calculate the minimum Thaumatic potential for said subject.”

“Oh. okay. So the larger the projection number the bigger the power difference. That makes sense, but how do you translate the value?” Sunburst asked his voice concerned.

“For example Sir Stormwalker’s reading is sixty-eight thousand units. The meter then started producing errors due to its inability to compensate for his contained magical purity concentration. This has to do with the Second Law of Potentiality; and, how you can calculate the purity of magic in a creature’s body by dividing the measured ratio.” Twilight continued further but that was the length Luna understood. Besides Stormwalker and Starlight, Luna was certain nopony else understood Twilight’s description. Even Celestia looked on with a small grimace as her student rattled off the details. While the scientific community had proved Twilight’s formulas and laws accurate, beyond all shadow of doubt, that did little to reduce the clutter of information that went into understanding magic on a physical level.

“Anyway, as you can see we can solve for his purity level by combining his creature type, per-unit storage containment pressure, and multiplying by the background magic constant. And that answer is greater than his overall total capacity by ten-percent, meaning, based on the previous chart: he has a ninety-eight to one-hundred percent magical purity over at least sixty-eight thousand units! Amazing, right!?” Twilight finished.

The room fell silent as Twilight continued to grin merrily at the board of calculations she had popped into existence midway through her speech. Starlight and Celestia took to staring at one another, and Luna found herself also trying to seek her elder sister’s attention. It was to no avail but Sunburst wasted very little time trying to catch up to what the lavender alicorn had said.

“Uh...uhm. Twilight...that’s great an all but...I don’t even know if that answered my question.” the orange fellow slowly spake. Luna nodded to concur, she understood the base concept quite well but somewhere in the description Twilight had gotten sidetracked

“Oh. Right. Your answer is up here.” She stood up on her hind legs to the beginning of the calculations on her floating chalkboard. Twilight tapped a hoof on a circled number, “Its sixty-eight thousand because he doesn’t lose any potentiality due to the degree of magic purity he stores in his body. That’s what the rest of this calculation is for.” she sheepishly ran her hoof over the rest of the board.

“A-an-and the Princesses are in the eight-thousand to ten-thousand range.” Sunburst stammered casting a fearful look at Stormwalker. Twilight nodded. “What even are you?” he said to the larger stallion with a deep rasp of shock to his voice. Surprisingly a small chuckle began emanating from Celestia, Luna turned to see her sister’s face pinched with amusement.

“No need to worry Sunburst he is quite benign.” she nearly sing-songed as she calmed herself. Luna appreciated such high praise from Celestia, few understood the lengths Stormwalker would go to ensure the safety of the world and those he loved; Luna was pleased her sister did. “In fact the whole reason we are gathered here is so he can help somepony who rather unreasonably hates him.” Celestia finished. Again, Luna had to agree. Gusty Twilight was far from a kind soul and Stormwalker’s reasons for helping her were beyond something even Luna understood even though she and the stallion were dating.

Meanwhile Stormwalker had motioned for Sunburst to come and examine the books. The orange fellow’s horn hummed with his equally orange magic only to have the levitation fizzle out. “That was weird.” he said rather rhetorically.

“Yeah. Fair warning these are extremely magical...even volatile in nature. You won’t really be able to use magic around them or on them.” Stormwalker answered the unspoken question, as the other stallion grabbed the volume the old-fashioned way and opened it to a random page.

“Where did you...wha-what language is this?!” Sunburst proclaimed just shy of a screech. Luna rolled her eyes, too used to his own baleful heritage, her stallion had neglected to give the technician the translation book. Sunburst stood gawking at the pages his eyes pouring over the runes wide with growing horror.

Grabbing the translation book with her magic, Luna slipped it up against the back of the book Sunburst was staring at and slammed it shut, knocking it from his hooves. Tapping him on the head rather forcefully until his look of shock dissipated, Luna waved the translator in front of him.

“You will need this, Sunburst.” Luna told him firmly. “And here is the list of spells I recommend casting on yourself before reading again.” She pulled out the scroll that had been stored beneath her cushion and passed it to him. The technician nodded blankly in acceptance.

“Will that...will that make the voices stop?” he asked so quietly Luna barely even heard him over Twilight and Starlight in the background.

“Yes. The spells will. Luna, give him the first four. He looks kinda...distressed, still.” Stormwalker said sheepishly. She obliged him immediately wasting no time casting the anxiety relievers and mind shields, there was no need to have Sunburst suffer. As soon as her magic hit the orange stallion he visibly relaxed. He released a long sigh and whispered a very quiet “thank you.”

“Do you think you can manage to review the historical information in these?” inquired the larger stallion. “I would like you to review any information having to do with the Cirra-Draca Wars and the Great Hunt.”

“A-are these e-events, I sh-should be familiar w-with?” Sunburst stuttered still recovering. He rubbed his front hooves on his own haunches with a shudder. Luna understood the sensation the young technician was experiencing. The icy embrace of those foul texts were not something one was soon to forget.

“Hardly. They have been kept secret by family for several millennia. These are the only copies in existence, trust me, I’ve looked. But I could be wrong, I don't have an ancient histories degree like you do.” Guardian Angel answered. Sunburst stated a small agreement before a spark twinkled in his eyes.

"Why would your family keep historical texts of the Cirran Empire hidden?" the historian asked eagerly awaiting the answer.

"Well...when your family is directly descended from history's greatest demons you tend to want to keep it a secret..." the other stallion answered.

"You mean there are more creatures like you?" Sunburst balked. Luna snickered, the poor fellow was already making assumptions. It was refreshing though to see him rebound so quickly from his previous moments of torture.

"No no no no no. There isn't anyone like me anymore. The last member of my family that was like I am died back when Celestia and Luna were foals." Guardian Angel responded gingerly. He had always been touchy about his heritage, regardless if that lineage allowed him to do all the good he could these days.

“Alright, I’ll see what I can do then.” the historian nodded confidently, “Guess all that reading is finally gonna pay off!” he chirped, scooping up the books in his hooves and pushing up his glasses. The meeting progressed smoothly afterwards the group visiting various topics and hypotheticals of Gusty Twilight and her tenuous mental state. It had always been interesting to Luna how other ponies qualified psychological states with words. She personally still liked Starlight’s “frazzled and unhinged” description the best, it made her smile with its frank depiction. Otherwise, the meeting of minds slowly drew to a close with each of them standing instead of sitting. Her mind suddenly wandered to a previous topic.

“You know...I just realized you mentioned the difference in total magic power before.” Luna wondered aloud. Her words brought the goodbyes to a stillness as everypony looked at her.

“It’s just that if every thousand units a creature is five times more powerful...how does that factor into her ability to cast magic on you?” she asked Stormwalker. Her words caused Twilight to start a thoughtful pout as she put a hoof up to her face.

“Well, Subject G would need to overcome his total capacity. And that’s not even in normal pony values of twenty-five percent of the total number, Sir Stormwalker is in purity units, she would have to generate a phenomenally large amount of magic, just by my calculation in my head that’s impossible, even with her clear ability to subvert the laws of magic conservation.” Twilight answered in an astute tone.

“Twilight. Don’t call me sir.” Stormwalker scolded lightly. Luna giggled at that being the only thing her stallion had heard. His earlier grimaces during the meeting must have been oh-so-very-serious. Still smiling, Luna winked at him and his almost virulent modesty. He rolled his eyes.

“Oh. Sure, sorry.” Twilight smiled. “So, same time next month?” she asked. Everypony nodded in agreement and started to file out of Celestia’s study.

“Yes. So long as I can find another reason to distract Gusty for the majority of day.” Celestia tutted with a grin. The group laughed, Luna found herself laughing perhaps the longest. Stormwalker motioned for her to follow him and the meeting dispersed.



Stretching a hoof around the back of his neck Zeccaran let out a long sigh. A long week passed before him as if it had been only moments. A different Jarl a different day, that was the new established routine. It would seem the legend of Dame Gertrude’s magic fleece forcing folks around it to tell no lies proved true. He was still hung up on a younger Jarl that had been accosted by the Golden Dame. She had forced him to reveal several rather scandalous family secrets simply for answering her questions with questions instead of flat responses. If not by blood but by attitude did Gertrude the Golden prove herself Gusty’s daughter. Zeccaran had finally come to terms with the improbability simply by observing the two’s behaviors.

Given Gusty’s amnesia, and her evident age, Zeccaran was finding himself more surprised that other denizens of the world were not actively visiting Equestria. Perhaps they were and that was why he and Gusty had been whisked away by the currents of fate. Regardless, that did little to calm the queasiness in his stomach as Dame Gertrude slumped in her throne. She huffed, her face pinched and angry as she looked to a far away location.

“Troublesome be da ways o’ mine agitators.” she grumbled. “They doth not use the Jarls, and they doth hide in the shadows like rats in a cellar.” Zeccaran watched her carefully wondering how far the intrigue went. At this point he just could not help but say something about it.

“Dear Dame, don’t you think it would be strange for an internal conspirator to use outside forces to try to disrupt your government? I just don’t understand what pirates would gain from helping another party.” he said tentatively. Beside him Gusty huffed a sigh before giving him an agitated look. She had been remaining mostly quiet during these meetings and it was that silence that had prompted Zeccaran to question what was occuring.

“Be that as it may lad,” Dame Gertrude sat up in her seat, “Not one outsider ever have a purpose for the homeland. Too rocky to farm. Too stubborn to mine. Too rough to live. ‘Tis why we Ovi hath claimed it long ago. Ye be a fool thinkin’ a griffin would want to live in these cloudy lands. There nothin’ to keep up their sport!” she concluded.

The small area of the throne fell silent again as Gertrude rubbed her chin. “There be one last kinsfolk I be needin’ to speak to an’ I fear her reaction the most.” she grumbled softly, just narrowly on the edge of hearing. A loud set of clunking hooves accompanied by the echoing bang of the Long Hall’s door made Zeccaran look down towards the main entrance. A ram dressed in in what Zeccaran had come to recognize as typical army gear for the Baylands rushed to the wooden throne.

“Dearest, Golden Madam!” he cried, bowing deeply when he reached them. “We hath lost contact with anotha’ tradin’ galleon!” the soldier looked up with deep concern shining his his eyes contrasting his stoic face.

“Curse those conniving coat bags! Fuck them an’ their harlot fuckin’ mothers!” Gertrude cursed violently. She stomped down from her seat and kicked over one of the partitions that made the area somewhat close away from the rest of the Long Hall. Still fuming she turned her face and neck strained with barely retained anger.

“What the hell happened, lad?” she asked pointedly to the soldier.

“As she sailed past Point Arklet da’ heavy fog that had been layin’ out on the sea push inland coverin’ our vessel. All were silent as we watch ta’ fog pass an’ when it did pass, the galleon was gone. Vanished, as if by magic.” he spake stiffly to his leader. Zeccaran’s mind immediately went into overdrive trying to conceive what type of spell could even do such a thing to a full sailing vessel.

Perhaps a teleport spell? No. Too many small things to teleport on the ship. He thought to himself. Besides they would need a very powerful unicorn to do that, and there are not loads of them just lying around wanting to become pirates. He moved on to another idea. Perhaps something simpler was the answer; the easiest solution was generally the right one. Zeccaran was merely having trouble deciding what was the best option for such a heist.

If they used the fog for cover...then how did they change the ships direction… He pondered more. However, nothing came to mind. The most reasonable thing he could think of otherwise was using an very large airship to lift the vessel out of the sea and move it with the fog. That seemed extreme even for the most well equipped group, that was something difficult even for the Royal Engineers of Equestria. Any further thoughts of Zeccaran’s were promptly stopped by a loud bit of snorting from Gusty.

“Then why doesn’t anyone go looking for the ships?!” she cried her confusion evident. Zeccaran wanted to face hoof at such a statement. His grand teal companion consistently forgot that not everyone could move so freely as herself, It was with great misfortune that the wayward messenger-soldier decided to correct Gusty.

“Mistress, ye doth kennt that not every creature can fly such as yourself.” he stated plainly, his tone condescendly informative. Zeccaran just barely noticed Dame Gertrude cover her face in frustration just as he did.

“What do you take me for, soldier boy!?” Gusty shrieked her hooves clopping angrily as she strutted up to the poor fool. “An idiot!? Huh!?” she growled. Zeccaran shook his head, almost nothing could save the ram now, not when Gusty had gone ‘righteous-fury’ mode. The soldier mumbled several incoherent statements as the alicorn loomed over him menacingly. Zeccaran decided he needed to do something before she unreasonably pummeled the ram into the floor.

“Hey, Gusty.” he said cautiously as he approached from his spot. “I think what he is saying is that they have looked before...and lacking the ability to fly, they haven’t been successful in finding the hijacked ships until it was too late.” Zeccaran finished. Gusty turned her accusatory gaze to him, her face drawn in a harsh sneer.

“Well spake, zebra.” Dame Gertrude rattled off instantly as Gusty had opened her mouth to retort. The golden ewe bounded down from her throne making a long leap once she hit the bottom level of the dais.Gertrude landed squarely on Gusty’s back.

“Thanks to ya, lass! For volunteering to look!” the old ewe bounced enthusiastically on her perch. Zeccaran breathed a deep sigh of relief. Meanwhile Gusty pursed her lips and furrowed her brow in an unspoken conflict. A dastardly grin overtook the alicorn’s face after but a second of her concentration. Zeccaran found himself drawing in another haggard breath in a feeble attempt to prepare himself for whatever crazy scheme that had just bloomed in his companion’s head.

Returning to strutting around the throne Gusty made a few authoritative huffs before speaking, “Yes. That is exactly what I was doing.” she paused to cast her nose dramatically in the air. “Bunker, Zeccaran. We have a supply ship to find!” Gusty declared. Gertrude merely applauded from Gusty’s flanks while Zeccaran turned to give Bunker a look of general displeasure. The other stallion had a neutral look on his face to which he added a bit of a snort and a shrug. Zeccaran should have expected this, but he was hoping that maybe somepony else would at least talk to him about the over-the-top prima donna behavior of Gusty.

“Well. make haste then, oh mother o’ mine! Find me that ship!” Gertrude proclaimed before jumping off of Gusty. The old ewe knew exactly how to play this game with Gusty. Zeccaran approved, but would rather she not boost the teal alicorn’s ego. The mother comment only made that worse.

“You guys let’s go.” Gusty ordered plainly starting a quick trot towards the exit of the Long Hall. Bunker did not move and neither did Zeccaran. Gusty made it to the exit before turning and waving confusedly.

“Hello!? Was I talking to myself!? Come on!” she shouted from down the hall. Bunker moved first leaving Zeccaran to direct an unhappy glance at Dame Gertrude. The golden ewe just started laughing. She bounced her way back onto her throne and cackled the whole way. Zeccaran was forced to start walking to catch up with Gusty and Bunker.

“Maybe we will find something...I guess…” he grumbled to himself. He doubted it in his heart. This whole day was already leaving a bad taste in his mouth. The grinding sense of idle waiting had been chewing on his mind for the last week but somehow this little adventure they were about to go on felt worse yet. Giving one last sigh he finally found himself next to Gusty, who beamed with eager joy. Her smile made him smile back, maybe it would be an alright time; at the very least it was better than doing nothing.

Act 2: Chapter 6 - Of Our

View Online

One month ago…

Luna found herself impatiently tapping a hoof on her cushion. It had become a regular occurance to sit around Celestia’s meeting table. The usual ponies were gathered and they idly drank their coffees and talked about upcoming summer plans. Nothing of particular was said as they were waiting for their final and newest member to finally bother to show up. Eventually an exasperated raspberry was blown by Starlight Glimmer.

“While I do enjoy just waiting around for late ponies, I would like to get this meeting started.” She huffed. “And if the Great and ever-so-punctual Starswirl the Bearded would show up I would actually like to do the calculation for Subject G this time.”

A curious crackling sound similar to a flickering candle caught everypony’s attention. Near the cushion that remained empty a small white bob of smoke fizzled into existence. It began to spark with short burst of bright white lightning bolts as it expanded to about the size of a buckball. The ball of smoke and light then condensed to pinprick of snow white before a loud crack! echoed around the room accompanied by a bright flash. Luna blinked away the stunning noise and light to have her senses focus on the familiar face of her old teacher.

“Speak of the devil and he doth appear.” she giggled at Starswirl’s excellent timing.

“Sorry for being late.” Starswirl said to nopony in particular as he dusted himself off. “It's not everyday that I have to teleport halfway across the world on such short notice.” He finished.

“Starswirl!” Twilight and Sunburst yelled. They instantly became rattling off questions about what he had been doing and how big or difficult the spell that brought him here was. Luna noticed that Starlight did not show the same enthusiasm but rather fondly smiled at her friends’ behavior. Luna could hardly blame Starlight, Starswirl had the tendency be very strict and brazen with his judgements. His doubting personality did little to help that bit either. Given the achievements Starlight had garnered through her reformation and redemption it was no surprise she had a dislike for Starswirl’s harsh attitude.

Joining in with the other ponies Luna greeted her old teacher in an effort to not over-empathize with Starlight and calm her nerves. Starswirl was probably going to behave just as he always did, and if she was being honest that usually led to trouble. It was not long before the greetings and formalities died away, the lump in her throat growing as the old stallion cleared his own.

“Now Celestia, while it is indeed always a treat to visit,” he began, “Do you mind telling me why you have summoned me here?”

“Well..um. Yes about that.” Celestia responded folding her ears sheepishly. “I actually called you here because somepony else asked me to.” Starswirl furrowed his brow and adjusted his pointy blue hat in his usual inquisitive way.

“Then who asked you to do that? If it was not you behind this gathering of minds…” he looked around the room failing to notice who was standing behind him. Luna waited as the only remaining silent member of the gathering stepped away from the room’s windows.

“That was me.” Stormwalker said as he slipped up into the empty space between the wall and the table, silently, regardless of the armor he wore. Starswirl jumped from the other stallion’s sudden emergence from the shadows cast by the curtains.

“And who might you be, oh-determiner-of-Celestia’s-will?” The old mage said as he recovered turning to face Stormwalker.

“Jee. Ey. Stormwalker, at your service.” the pegasus bowed. Luna felt herself shiver as he briefly caught her eyes as he rose back up before directing his gaze fully to Starswirl. Sometimes she wished he would pick better times to give her those eyes, but no matter the timing she was always glad he did. An indistinguishable grumbling came from Starswirl making her also look at him.

“Hmm...where have I heard that name before…” the older stallion mused.

“They’re...initials…” Stormwalker responded rather tepidly.

“No, no. Your last name. It is a family name, correct?” Starswirl amended.

“That was fast. Should I direct you to think of your younger years too while I’m at it?” came the snarked answer. Starswirl’s only retort was to stare back up at Stormwalker his eyes squinted and his muzzle pinched in concentration. The tightness in Luna’s throat started to increase as she slowly watched Starswirl come to the conclusion her stallion had predicted he would.

“You are...you are one of those..Stormwalkers..aren’t you? The Cirran Lord sort of Stormwalker.” Starswirl’s voice was soft and measured. He lowered his eyes to the floor shrouding his face with the brim and bells of his hat.

“Kinda figured you would recognize m-” started the grand stallion before he was cut off by an instant hissing similar to a swarm of angry bees. Even while scrutinizing the situation Luna was certain she missed most of what happened. Without so much as lifting his head Starswirl had summoned and used some plethora of blades, each impacting and creating a disturbingly wet thwump! In the same instant the wizened mage had fired at least four spells into Stormwalker’s face each sparkling and dazzling with their own unique color and hiss.

“That should take care of him.” Starswirl said matter-of-factly. He flipped his bowed head up before turning around to look around the group. Luna was pleased to see it was not only herself that was frowning in dismay at Starswirl. Starlight was full on glaring at him while Twilight gaped in shock. Celestia was even looking rather peeved which frankly was not a good sign. Now it all hinged on how her stallion would react.

“Ouch.” Stormwalker said with annoyed tinge to his voice. All eyes instantly switched to focus on him. The ponies gathered beheld a strange sight. A pair of blades stuck out of the big stallion’s head, several more protruded from his neck. Between the plating of his armor near his chest and heart he resembled a red and grey pincushion. Standing there with a frustrated look on his face Stormwalker’s wing reached up to pull out the horizontally stabbed blade from his temple almost as if by reflex.

“What was I going to say?” he asked the air as he turned his head about, causing the wounds on his neck to start flowing with blood. Meanwhile the blade he had grabbed was discarded to the floor staining the carpet with his icor as it thumped down.

HOW ARE YOU EVEN TALKING!?” Starlight boomed.

“Wha? Sorry I really need to uh...uh-get this sword out..of my head, it's hard to think like...this. Believe…….me.” Stormwalker responded blandly through several vacant pauses. Starlight fainted which was certainly the most normal of reactions in Luna’s opinion. She herself had vomited then fainted when she had first witnessed Stormwalker absorb otherwise lethal damage. Demon with god-like regenerative powers or not, there was something inherently unsettling about watching him take blows like these today. Another thump indicated the blade had been removed and Luna looked back up at her stallion.

“Oh! It’s all coming back to me now!” he said cheerily. “Very impressive Starswirl!” he smiled reaching up to his neck with a hoof this time. “Eighteen strikes and six spells, each a unique dispel or a curse, in under half-a-second!”

The next sword he had been working on slipped out of his neck and landed near a now totally white Sunburst. The young scholar flinched instinctively at the weapon falling down near him but otherwise remained stock still.

“If it was anyone else I’m sure they would be deader than a doornail! Very well done.” Stormwalker continued to congratulate his attacker. The remaining blades in the stallion’s jugular were pulled free and tossed to the floor in a clamor of thumps and clangs. He then became tugging on the remaining number stuck in his torso, grunting as he tried to slipping them past his overlapping plates like his attacker had.

“Sorry about the floor ‘Tia. Can’t be helped though. Having swords stuck through your heart really hurts.” He said looking up to Luna’s sister. He was totally unaffected by the scene leaving everypony else to wait in the stunned silence. Luna cleared her throat in an effort to get his attention but he waved a wing dismissively at her. Thankfully, other ponies were less subtle with their attempts to cut the building tension of the quiet.

“I g-guess the n-new readings are more accurate than I gave them credit for, huh, S-s-sir Stormwalker?” Twilight Sparkle stammered out. The stallion grunted in response as he pulled one of the blades free from his chest with a disturbing slopping sound. Luna felt chills coming over her spine when he tossed the rapier like weapon to the ground.

“Twilight, I told you: You don’t need to call me ‘Sir anything.’ You are more than welcome to call me by my first name. Most everypony here is. Save Starswirl. I think he needs to remain off the list until he can say hello without stabbing me repeatedly.” He answered calmly before directing a glare at the still slack-jawed mage.

The room again fell silent as Stormwalker picked the remainder of the blades out of himself. Celestia had otherwise chosen a spot on the wall to stare at to which Luna herself was also drawn, only occasionally shifting her gaze to look at the other ponies. Twilight had began shuffling with a folder and a meter-like device, intently focusing on them. Color was slowly returning to Sunburst, but the stallion retained his one-thousand yard gaze. Starlight looked to be coming around but was grumbling incoherently. Finally, Starswirl swapped from a awestruck gape to a pinched look of unbridled anger.

The old mage took a step towards Stormwalker just as the great pegasus was removing the last blade. With a grace and speed almost too quick to see he rubbed the two sides of the sword along the length of Starswirl’s horn. The blood from the blade coated the wizard’s focus thickly, like heavy oil on an over-painted canvas. Starswirl released a growl like snort as he drew his face into a sneer, his eyes cold.

“What was that supposed to accomplish? It is clear you are just toying with me.” he scowled with even his words.

“Just need you to pay attention to the task at hand, and not me.” Stormwalker replied. “As everypony else here has probably noticed you know exactly what I am just by the mention of my last name. Which hopefully will help shed some light on a curious teal mare that I know Celestia has been writing you about.”

Starswirl just snarled, shaking his head with a bob as if he was trying to cast a spell. Somehow, it was rather comical, Luna bit her lip to hold in her laugh. The mage tried again, his blood-coated horn not even sparking in the slightest. He released a frustrated sigh, broadening his stance and lowering his head. It was a fruitless and ridiculous effort and even biting her lips did little to stop Luna from full on cackling at Starswirl’s strained face.

“Why. Can’t. I.” he grunted and bobbed his head with each word. “Cast. Any. Magic! ARGH!” he growled through clenched teeth. Celestia joined in on the laughing finally, her usually restrained demeanor breaking entirely. Poor Twilight and Sunburst fidgeted uncomfortably averting their eyes. Both were slowly turning red doing their best to not let their idol see their small smiles.

Ahhrg! Sorry everypony seeing blood makes me faint.” Starlight Glimmer yawned finally recovering. “Starswirl-what is wrong with your face!” she proclaimed. Luna held her own laughter at bay long enough to see Starlight start to smile with a bit of a mad gleam in her eye.

“Why are you puffing your cheeks out like that!” She cackled. “Don’t you realize that thing on your head is a Horn Limiter! Who even put that thing on you?! H-how” She paused to breath and laugh more. “How long was I out?!”

“Horn Limiter? What?!” The old mage balthered. “It’s blood. He only put blood on my horn! You mean to tell me his blood can literally stop magic?!”

“Well...It certainly doesn’t look like blood. Seems kinda black and hard looking. I would have fainted again if it was red.” She answered. Everypony except Celestia, who was still snickering to herself, had calmed down by this point and their gazes had shifted to Starswirl’s horn. Luna marveled at the speed that the demonic blood had hardened into a glassy looking shell over her old mentor’s swirled cone. Whatever magic Starswirl had been attempting to cast it must have been exceedingly powerful to burn Stormwalker’s blood black with such speed. Even outside of his body the deep crimson substance typically took at least an hour to congeal to such a degree.

“And to answer the second question: yes. When Twilight and I ran the original tests, Mr. Stormwalker here produced a serum capable of defeating even the most powerful of spells. And that was before his most recent...how do I put it...power spike?” Starlight finished with a strong lift in her voice. Upon receiving the new information Starswirl went slack-jawed. He performed several glances around the room before settling on Stormwalker again. Luna felt the lump in her throat return as her stallion quizzically peered back at the mage.

“What makes you think I’ll believe any of this nonsense?” Starswirl asked directly to Stormwalker as if no other pony was present. Luna tensed her haunches ready to defend her stallion should Starswirl start something supremely stupid.

“You understand and rely upon empirical data.” Stormwalker calmly replied. He reached a wing over to the table and snagged the dingiest-looking folder, his face remaining locked with Starswirl’s. He practically shoved the folder and its many leaflets into the elder stallion’s face as he slipped it open and raised it up for Starswirl. The mage snatched it angrily with a hoof and finished stuffing his snout into the documents, reading.

“What..what is this?” Starswirl grumbled, his eyes narrowing as he scrutinized the material.

“All magical information pertaining to...S-sir-excuse me” Twilight paused to clear her throat. “Jee Ey’s unique condition.” she finished.. Her sudden interjection caused Luna to jump in surprise. Of all ponies it would make sense that Twilight would want to impress her idol, but Luna was still taken aback she was willing to debate semantics with him. Then again, it was Twilight Sparkle.

“These calculations...the formulas and projections. They are related to that book you recently wrote isn’t it?” Starswirl asked turning to Twilight.

“You actually read it!?” the lavender mare exhaled softly.

“Yes. But it would seem I need to re-read it, again. Most of these-”

“You re-read it!?” Twilight cut off Starswirl with a squee. Luna found herself smiling at the young princess’s enthusiasm. She bounced out of her seat with a childlike joy that was pure and innocent in a way that Luna envied. Once next to Starswirl she began reciting information and asking him an enormous volume of questions to the point where he put a hoof over her mouth to settle her down.

“How accurate are these readings on his Thaumatic Magic Levels?” he asked with a hushed tone. Starswirl nervously kept shifting his eyes between Stormalker and the document. Luna breathed a sigh of relief, glad the old stallion was beginning to see the grievousness of his recent actions. Her released exasperation caused Stormwalker to look over at her and give her a playful smile. He would never admit it but her stallion enjoyed scaring certain ponies with his power and prowess, Starswirl had just unwittingly made that list.

“They are...well...one-hundred-percent accurate…I took the measurements and did the calculations myself.” Twilight answered quietly. The room followed suit as everypony was reminded of the level of monster that stood in the room with them Starlight and Sunburst took to staring at one another, and Luna found herself trying to seek her elder sister’s attention as well. Celestia did not notice her and instead was gradually having the edge of her smile turn to a frown as she carefully watched their old mentor. Luna was unsure what was upsetting her sister, but assumed that whatever it was gravely important to Celestia and left her alone. Meanwhile, Starswirl had slowly been turning an even paler shade of white than normal as he stood gritting his teeth nervously. He gave a small cough as if he knew the whole room was waiting for his reaction. However, he missed his chance.

“So, as you can tell Starswirl we are dealing with some unimaginably strong forces.” Stormwalker shattered the silence like a rock would scatter glass. Starswirl nodded in response with a slow methodical beat of his neck.

“However it is not me we are dealing with. The pony in question that is an otherwise imminent threat to the world’s continued existence is Gusty Twilight: you know, that new mare Celestia is friends with these days?” the pegasus continued. Stormwalker shifted his posture as he backed up some from Starswirl and Twilight.

“Pray tell dear demon how do you know what Celestia writes to me? Debate of the world’s well-being aside: I find it rather convenient that you hold all the cards.” Starswirl stated. Luna released an exasperated breath, the old mage just would not let the circumstances go. She was about to object but was abruptly cut off by Celestia.

Starswirl the Bearded! I sent you those letters because he asked me to! Do you think I would not include the details he wanted?” Celestia scolded just short of yelling. Luna swore that Starswirl’s hat did a full flip from the reflexive jerk he executed after being shamed.

“Well, said. After all you crazy old colt; Celestia is my friend, one of my only friends really.” Stormwalker said, joining in too. Luna bit her lip in a pout, maybe she was wanting too much, she was already his chosen mare, she was well above the title of friend entirely, but she was somewhat jealous anyway.

“Oh sure. She’s best friends with the exact same type of monster that murdered her parents. Right in front of her.” Starswirl sarcastically monotoned. “What type of idiot do you take me for?! I was there when it happened! And If I was not certain the culprit was dead I would say he was you! You look exactly like him!” He shouted his pallor turning a furious red as he spoke.

“Starswirl…” Celestia’s voice cut icily above him even though it was just a murmur. “Come with me for a moment.

Luna watched in relative horror as Celestia levitated up an otherwise helpless Starswirl. She stomped towards the stairs that led up into her bedroom leaving the rest of the gathering to gawk.

“‘Tia...I appreciate what you are doing,” Stormwalker cut her off at the foot of the stairs. “But you were quite reasonably distressed when you found out the truth.” He said giving her a kind smile. “After what you had gone through-”

“Guardian Angel. Let me do this.” she interrupted him. Luna swallowed audibly, all too aware of how hard it was for Celestia to make such a statement. She had not dared to utter the stallion’s first name since she had had her memories restored. Over the last few years Celestia often confided in her, telling Luna how immensely ashamed she was of what she had done. However, her boldness was rewarded by Stormwalker promptly stepping out of the way. Celestia trotted past him quickly ascending the stairs with her prisoner and slamming the door to her room behind her.

“Now that...was scary.” Starlight said breaking the ice. Luna was grateful for that to be certain.

“Yeah. I didn’t know Princess Celestia could be so intimidating.” Sunburst chimed in as well, pushing up his glasses stare conquered.

“I just wonder what she is so upset about.” Twilight mumbled with a confused grimace.

“Oh...I don’t know…” Stormwalker scowled. “She is probably upset that her father-figure shows up for the first time in about seven years and then openly criticizes her life choices, in front of her friends and peers.” The ponies shifted uncomfortably at his words as they realized what Luna already had known, but in detail. Frankly, she also wanted to know exactly what Celestia was saying to Starswirl, and every moment caused her curiosity to grow.

“I think you have a point, my dearest stallion.” She said pulling herself up out of her cushion. “And I believe it is my duty as the younger sibling to eavesdrop accordingly.” Before anypony could object, Luna teleported herself into Celestia’s personal bath. She carefully slid up to the ajar door, past the sink of the cozy little room, and peered into the rest of Celestia’s private chambers.

“Well are you going to say anything or just stand there fuming?” Starswirl questioned in a surprisingly dull tone. Luna smiled glad she had not missed a thing.

“How dare you! How dare you! How dare you! How. Dare. You!” Celestia growled repeatedly. Luna bit her lips shut just in time to keep herself from gasping. She pressed herself closer to the wall of the bathroom peeking out the cracked door. All she could see were the shadows of her sister and her mentor cast jaggedly on the far wall.

“I ask you to come here, under the pretense, that I need your help; and I do, in fact, need your help. And the first thing you do is proceed to insult and belittle the only decent adult relationship I have ever had!” Celestia’s shadow bobbed angrily as she spoke.

“Wait.” Starswirl raised a hoof. “You...you and he? Impossible.

“Why is it impossible for me to take interest in a stallion? Especially one as attractive and devoted as he is?” Celestia fired back immediately. Luna had to agree, even if she was rather biased, her sister made a strong point.

“I find it hard to believe that you of all ponies would fancy a demon. A demon, Celestia.” Starswirl continued to admonish. His shadow stepped up closer to Celestia’s making Luna’s heart race as she carefully inched closer to the door’s threshold to hear better.

“You know nothing about him.” Her sister hissed.

“I know enough to know that upon realizing what he was you cursed yourself with a memory charm to forget him.” the old mage snapped right back. This time Luna was not quick enough to bite her lips and she gasped. Starswirl had went too far, and Celestia’s silent rage was palpable as Luna stared on in terror as her sister’s silhouette began to move. But it did not move towards the bathroom as she expected instead she strode past Starswirl coming into view of Luna’s small vantage point. Celestia faced the wall her eyes closed and her face strained with a mixture of anger and pain.

“What I did was entirely unacceptable. And the mere fact that he even still talks to me, much less considers me a friend, is a testament to the quality of the stallion he is!” Celestia breathed barely a whisper on Luna’s ears. “I will not…” she paused to breath haggardly gaining strength as she opened her eyes. Luna sunk her teeth into her lips again trying her best to not cheer Celestia on. “I will not allow anypony, short of the mentally deranged Gusty Twilight, to insult him like this. Not. Anypony. “ Celestia snarled through clenched teeth her eyes never leaving the wall.

Starswirl’s shadow moved closer to Celestia, his hooves clopping loudly. “Why? Why do you care so much about him?” he asked, his voice strained. Luna hoped he realized how deep his words cut Celestia. As her sister had said, only Gusty was allowed to be so vile, and that was mostly because Stormwalker himself had expressively insisted to Celestia that she simply had no control over her disposition. Starswirl, however, did; and that was one of his unfortunate short-comings. Celestia made a noise somewhere between a grunt and a sigh as Luna watched her posture slump.

“Because he..”she trailed off for a moment. When she drew a breath again, her voice was hushed and gentle, “He was the only pony to ever make we want to chose him over the world. Over saving Luna...over Harmony. Over anything I ever planned or wanted to do.” she said her tone empty and longing.

“I couldn’t hurt him then, I couldn’t hurt him now.. Even if he is a monster-I-I can’t. I was never scared of what I saw that day. I was scared of how he made me feel. What he made me feel. A thousand years of turning away suitors...a thousand years of trying to figure out how to fix the world...I was ready to throw it all away. But, somewhere in that moment of terror, I found a way out of the situation altogether. I couldn’t go through with my plan to save Luna, to release Discord, to fix every mistake I had made before, with him affecting my judgement. And I couldn’t lose him either...so..so I-I cheated. I used magic to forget our relationship but not him. To never again form new memories, and only relive the first day he flirted with me…” Celestia fell silent.

Luna waited patiently for Starswirl as he slowly entered into her sliver of vision. He stood next to Celestia for a long time. Eventually the old mage reached placed a hoof and Celestia’s tall haunches.

“I..I was rather unaware of that information.” he said with a bit of a grunt. “I know you know what you did was wrong...and I-I-I...I really don’t know what to say.” He idly cleared his throat and waited a few more moments.

“Otherwise...judging by your reaction, and I’m sure Luna could confirm it later. He really is as well-intentioned as you claim. I can’t imagine what he went through…” Starswirl said.

“I do not need a reminder.” Celestia mumbled, her voice more broken than angry.

“Have you apologized? Now that you remember...I mean..” the old stallion fell silent casting his head back towards where Luna hid. He pursed his lips and gazed into the darkness where she snooped, pleading. Luna refused to come to his rescue, letting him be forced to fix the mess he made “How did you get the memories back?” he asked vacantly diverting from the previous subject.

“Him. He did it.” Celestia answered quietly.

“I was already presuming that...I just want to know how he did it, my morning sun. For...for my peace of mind. The information your pupil described to me...was unsettling to say the least.” Starswirl mulled carefully over his words, his demeanor reserved.

“On accident.. It was on the first day after he had recovered from fighting Nyx, after he became...different than I remember.. I guess he just thought about me too hard. His mere presence was capable of annihilating the magic I had placed on myself.” Luna hazarded a breath as her sister paused. “Since then he completely restrains even the barest hint of his strength, unwilling to touch the magic he wields unless it is the most dire of circumstances.” came Celestia’s solemn reply.

“Nyx...the Guardian of the Abyss?” the old mage asked, his voice unsure. “The same one that Luna had trouble with?”


Luna had heard enough. The rest of the information was redundant, things already known to her. Backing away from the cracked door with a slide not step, she stood up straight and closed her eyes casting another teleportation spell. It did not matter if they heard her exit via magic now, Luna was pleased to have heard what she did regardless of the consequences.

Back in her previous cushion, Luna blinked in surprise to only see Twilight Sparkle and Guardian Angel left in the room. The papers for this meeting and found their way to the floor and Starlight and Sunburst had disappeared. She wordlessly peered at her remaining compatriots silently asking what had happened with her face.

“Starlight saw the blades on the ground...and you know how she is with blood.” Twilight said with a bit of a grin.

“Then I told Sunburst just to call it a day, before Twilight brought up that time I killed that dragon. Said Spike was scared of me. Catapulting us into a heated debate of justice...” Guardian Angel finished trailing off. Luna gave them a pensive glare

“You two were eavesdropping too weren’t you?” She questioned. Both of the two cohorts rolled their eyes up and looked at the ceiling trying to play innocent. Luna pinched her brow down at them, Guardian Angel the first to break without even looking back at her.

“It’s not eavesdropping per se...Worse probably.” He chose his words suspiciously.

“Really?” Luna asked, “And how does Twilight factor into this?”

“I listened as he recited what was going on. I was curious too.” she rubbed on of her forehooves with the other, a blush brightening her cheeks. Luna glared disapprovingly at Guardian Angel, she stepped up closer to him looking up at him and his crescent scar. He shifted his weight in his usual fidget way when he was caught in various clandestine activities. He never could lie, not very well anyway.

“You try controlling this much power.” he grumbled. “I was really interested in what she had to say and Starlight passed out pretty much as soon as you teleported. I just couldn’t help but observe what she was saying and feeling, Celestia is very loud mentally when she is upset. I couldn’t tone it out so I started talking to Twilight about it.”

Luna shook her head at him. Guardian Angel’s strength far exceeded anything she understood. If fully repressing his power still allowed him to read the thoughts and feelings of ponies around him, she shivered at the thought of his full capabilities. Sometimes Luna wished he would just show her everything, take control like she knew he could, unleash his potential and change the world as he saw fit. He never would do such: that just was not him. It was that importance of others over himself that had made Luna fall in love with him originally, and it still was the same now.

“All that aside…” she sighed trying to not swoon over him in front of Twilight, “I suppose we are otherwise finished?” Luna asked. Guardian Angel looked distant for a moment before nodding confidently. Not a moment later the sound of Celestia’s door clicking open could be heard echoing down the stairs. Hooves of two relaxed ponies began clopping down the staircase their voices quickly becoming intelligible.

“Well I suppose I will have to be more reserved in the future then.” Starswirl said with his usual gruff banter.

“Indeed. Luna and I are not foals anymore my dearest teacher.” Celestia answered her voice back to its full, relaxed candor. Whatever Luna had missed must have put her elder at ease with the situation. To say that Celestia never had a moment of weakness was a lie, but what Luna had seen upstairs was something she had yet to process. She waited for her sister and Starswirl to reach to bottom of the stairs and look about the study in confusion.

“Where are the other two?” Celestia asked. She walked forward a bit and bumped the now neat pile of blood-stained blades with a soft clink! She looked down with surprise, “Oh, I seem to have answered my own question. Starlight passed out again, didn't she?”

“Good call, Princess.” chirped Twilight. She and Celestia chuckled a bit before Guardian Angel loudly cleared his throat.

“We shall have another meeting like this a month from now, and I want you to be in attendance.” he said looking over at Starswirl specifically.

“Sure, I would love to, have an actual meeting that is. However, I would like you to get this demonic annoyance off of my horn.” the old mage retorted.

“I can help with that!” Twilight jumped up and rushed to Starswirl starting to escorting him out. “It will take at least two weeks of regular soaking before the first layer is off and then we will have to scrub it nearly constantly, I have some spells I have been wanting to try that should work great!”

“Two weeks?! Constant what? Twilight where are you taking me?” Starswirl blathered on as Twilight continued to squee as she levitated him up into the air. The other three looked on in shock as Twilight loosed a gleeful, yet maniacal bit of laughter and darted out of the study Starswirl screaming several scared obscenities as he came dreadfully close to the walls.

“I guess it's true what they say about Twilight, you can’t tell her no.” Guardian Angel said as Starswirl’s screams died away. Luna just gaped at him incredulously. He was right of course, but that did not mean should could not play along.


After a brief bit of travel...

Gusty grinned down from the cliffed coast with garish pleasure. She had guessed her mark right and below her sat the wayward galleon. She sat idly alone her sails fully furled and tight against her masts. At the distance the trade vessel sat it was not much more than a model kept it a bottle. Gusty could have easily recreated the illusion if she only had a clear jug to hold up to her eyes.

The galleon was a welcome sight. Having carried both Bunker and Zeccaran in her magic to this remote bit of land, she felt the rush of vindication relieving her achy head. She pointed sharply down to the ship spitting unintentionally as she started talking.

“See! I told you we could find it! No problem.” Gusty leaned closer to Zeccaran with every word. The Zebra pursed his lips giving her a narrow-eyed glare as if she was trying to sell him fake fruit.

“No problem huh?” he mulled over not breaking eye contact. “Then what do you call that airship floating above it?” Zeccaran concluded smuggly. Gusty snapped her eyes back to the still-fog-shrouded galleon certain her friend was lying to her.

Unfortunately, Zeccaran was telling the truth. Partially obscuring the sun as it broke the midday clouds, an airship floated above the seafaring vessel. Even at their distance Gusty could see four long chains reaching from the airship down to the galleon. She was unsure of their purpose but Gusty supposed that they were used to drag the galleon to where she sat now.

“By the moon, I wish I had a spyglass or something.” Zeccaran grumbled to her left.

“Why?” she asked him turning to see him squint futilely towards the vessels.

Zeccaran gave her a roll of his eyes as if he expected her to understand exactly what he was thinking. “Because...that way we could see what kind of airship that is, and what sort of opposition we would be going up against before flying out over the open ocean like maniacs...which I get the feeling we will be doing regardless.” he answered with a twinge of anger in his voice. He was right of course, Gusty did not care who or what was guarding the vessels. She would reclaim the crew and the goods at all costs. She was not about to let the ship that was to return with food and supplies for its cargo of gold be taken without a fight.

“Aren’t you just Mr. Thinkpants!?” Gusty mocked Zeccaran as she spread her wings. “Let’s get going.” she ordered. Without wasting any time Gusty levitated Bunker up in her magic leaving her striped friend to his devices. She was about to make a bit of a running leap off the cliff and out over the ocean when Zeccaran scoffed extra loud.

“Bunker, come on, guy. Help me protest this farce.” the zebra complained to her husband. Gusty cast a mischievous glances between Bunker and Zeccaran waiting dramatically for their conversation. From her levitation Bunker merely grunted, seemlingly not taking a side in the endeavor at all.

“No...No I don’t argue. She is carrying me over giant fall to death. Is not winning situation.” he replied thoughtfully. This left Zeccaran to sulk with a bitter look on his face. It did not last long, a characteristic flash of light occurred and a great grey eagle replaced the zebra. Gusty could consciously feel her smile growing wider, no matter the outcome she was having fun.

She absconded from the cliff just as soon as Zeccaran met her eyes with his unnaturally large eagle ones. Floating husband at her side, Gusty pushed her wings to build up speed to give the brigands on the airship as little time as possible to respond to their approach. It was fortunate that the previous few days of poor weather had finally broken clear. The ocean was an even pane of glass brutally reflecting the yellow midday sun. Shooting towards the airship, Gusty could barely keep her eyes open as she built up speed and the light began to streak from her speed. Without bothering to see if Zeccaran was following her, Gusty banked her course out in a wide arch to the right of the floating vessel. It slowed her down and alleviated her sore eyes. It did little to make the sunspots in her vision go away, only time could do that.

Their approach had led them quite close now and the deck was unobstructed by the sun. Gusty spied a single creature on the airship. It was a large beast next to what appeared to be an equally large wench. Perhaps it was simple boredom that led Gusty to dive from her advantageous position in an attack. Nopony would ever be certain of the correct answer, but in the case of the wench operator that answer did not particularly matter. Such was because of a simple reason: Gusty had remembered her equipment this time.

In a fluid motion Gusty carefully set tag-along-Bunker on the deck and drew her sword. She was moving quick enough that she had no intention of hitting the operator with the blade until she had kicked him to the ground with her momentum. She completed this action with an unmistakable crunch of snapping ribs and a hoarse squawk from the wench-boy. Gusty had not even realized the huge creature was a griffon until she had heard his bird voice. With great haste she used her blade’s pommel to begin pummelling him before he could make a fuller alarm call to his no doubt nearby compatriots.

Reviewing her unfortunate quarry internally, Gusty noted that the griffon was at least twice her size. He was mostly composed of muscles and was stocky compared to the graceful builds of the typical lion-raptor beast. He looked like the quintessential dumb muscle that pirates or bank robbers used to scare civilians. Intimidating on the surface but no smarter than a box of rocks and with the right persuasion totally harmless. However, Gusty’s persuasion was simply being faster, nastier, and much more determined than the now bloodied and bruised heap of a sky-cat that lay on the deck, unconscious. He was lucky, Gusty could feel no evil on him, so a thrashing was all he got.

"Damn. You beat him good." Bunker said trotting up looking down at her handiwork. Gusty nodded smugly with a bit of an affirmative humming added in.

Oh. Very nice. But you could do better.

“Hey did you hear that?” Gusty asked confused by the voice she had just heard. Bunker shook his head with a broad smile on his face. His merriment was short-lived, however, as eagle-Zeccaran landed on the deck and shifted back to his normal equine shape. Gusty was about to ask her friend the same question but he cut her of quite effectively

“What the fuck is your problem!?” he shouted. Gusty tried to shush him to no avail. She did not mind, alerted deckhands meant more heads to smack. “You should have just gone ahead and killed him at this point! You beat the absolute piss out of him! I don’t even know where his beak is supposed to be anymore!” Zeccaran continued. She looked eagerly around at the various hatches waiting for something to pop out and become equally as bludgeoned as her previous victim.

Pesky, but well-meaning I suppose.

Gusty folded her ears trying to determine who it was talking to her through time and space

“Are you even listening to me?!” her zebra friend shrieked bring her back to him. “Like what the shit is the matter with you, you damned hell-mare!” Since, Zeccaran’s screaming was not drawing any attention, Gusty decided to play his game for now at least.

“Well, I didn’t kill him, potty-mouth.” she said. Bunker chuckled softly before restraining himself. Gusty was rather certain that in her husband’s eyes she could do no wrong. She flashed him a devilish smile to which he merely tried to shrug off, he did so poorly the edges of his mouth perking in a grin again.

“Don’t encourage her you idiot!” Zeccaran piped up angrily. “I mean look at this!” the zebra bent down to examine the swollen griffon. He prodded a portion of the fellow’s lower neck gingerly. A bit of strange green-grey ooze bubbled up out of the griffon’s feathers. It stank with a wretched odor of a dirty body.

“That’s gastric acid, and probably a bit of spinal fluid too. I saw how many times you hit him in the head and neck. Not to mention when you kicked him in the chest” her friend looked up at her from where she was positioned with a scowl. “If he doesn’t receive help right now he will die, Gusty. You just beat a griffon to death out of spite. Proud of yourself?” Zeccaran scolded sternly. On many accounts Gusty was, in fact, quite proud of herself. She did feel somewhat guilty, it was not like the bird was inherently evil...but he did perpetuate it.

“He was helping starve innocent Ovis, Zeccaran. My past family. He kinda deserves it.” she answered, more sure of herself.

“We aren’t at war with these pirates! We are here to try and fix the problem! Not make it worse by butchering some of their low ranking members!” he retorted.

“How do you know he is low ranking, huh?” she questioned back snidely

“Because he was hand-cranking that wench!” Zeccaran pointed a hoof to the device Gusty had all but forgotten about. “You gotta be the bottom of the totem pole to be ordered to crank a wench like that, with your bare claws. Now fix him up some at least. I mean sheesh!” he ordered. Gusty huffed defeated. Zeccaran was probably right, thus she reached down to touch the griffon’s wounds with her hooves. Focusing her magic, Gusty closed her eyes using not just her horn but her whole body to properly channel the healing charms where she wanted. Knowing full well that she could repair all of the damage by the grace of her divine-granted power by accident she took extra care not to fully restore the griffon.

When she opened her eyes the griffon’s beak was back to where it belonged on his face, and the collapsed portion of his chest and neck looked natural and unaffected. His eyes were still blacked and both cheeks swollen but he clearly was in better shape. “There are you happy now?” she growled at Zeccaran. The zebra held up a hoof and bent down to check the bird’s vitals. Gusty could not help but roll her eyes indignantly as her friend stood back up with a nod and a smile on his face.

“What is this flying ship anyway?” Bunker interjected stopping Gusty from slapping Zeccaran. She ran her eyes over the deck of the plain-looking vessel. Near the stern she could see a small raised area where the ship’s wheel sat exposed to the open sky, away from the balloon above them. Otherwise there was not much on the deck besides them.. There certainly no weapons to speak of save perhaps the four total wenches that were attached to the chains. Zeccaran cleared his throat bring her back to look at him.

“This is a Condor-class heavy lifter. Looks like it’s tow chains have been heavily modified. But this isn’t a combat vessel by any means...but where is the crew? This thing should take about six creatures to fly.” he said thoughtfully. It was no sooner that he spoke that flapping of nearby wings could be heard.

“Hans!” shouted a surprisingly thick Canterlot accent. “Hans what are you doing, why did you stop cranking?” Gusty practically spun in a full circle before she saw the source of the voice. A griffon equally large as the unconscious Hans pulled himself over the deck rail. Unlike his fellow pirate, however, this griffon was lean and sleek and had the look of a real predator. Deep in her core fear tightened Gusty’s chest and reflex and instinct took hold in the next instant.

Kill him.

Gusty listened to that little voice this time, she did not care if it was the voice of fear or some other thing, it did not matter. Sword still in her levitation Gusty flipped the blade around and sent it flying like a needle to cloth. It hit the new griffon square in the chest as he landed on the deck piercing clean through his leather cuirass with a disturbing schlick. She pushed the blade fully through his chest until the hilt caught on his bones. The bird’s eyes had gone wide the moment the blade had flown towards him and his gaping beak began to run with blood as he stared down in vague horror at the blade through his heart. But Gusty did not stop there, she pushed the blade with her magic even harder lifting the griffon from his paws and slamming him into the deck rail pinning him down with a heavy thump. He groaned in pain but otherwise made no noise as he locked eyes with her.

More, you still need more.

It came again, words in her mind, that were hers but not hers. “Where’s the crew of the galleon?!” She screamed at him as she closed the distance. Gusty shoved her face nearly against his beak making their locked gaze even more intense.

“They are...in..the brig.. of this ship.” he sputtered as fresh blood welled-up into his mouth. His previously sharp grey eyes went unfocused and Gusty gave him a slap coating both her hoof and snout in his blood-spatter.

“What about the rest of your crew?” she demanded as his eyes focused up for the last time.

“Piss off. Bitch.” he croaked as more blood rolled down his beak and stained his tawny feathers a deep crimson. Gusty turned off her levitation and went for the more visceral feel of pulling the blade out of the griffon with her mouth. He squawked as she involuntarily twisted her sword with her mouth as she drew it from its gorey resting place. When she turned her vision back to him he lay motionless. The blood from the wound slowing as his heart gave a final throw. Beside her Bunker and her friend remained silent leaving only a bit of empty flopping of the balloon rigging rustling.

Good...very good. You still have it.

Gusty turned about this time, certain there was another version of her somewhere talking to her. She had not used her copy spell since Celestia had first taught it to her over a year ago. It was mostly for mischief and confusing nobles so she doubted that was the answer. Whatever the case the sensation the voice had be causing ceased leaving her to stand there silently waiting on something to happen.

A solid minute passed before Zeccaran spoke, “I forgot how brutal you can be sometimes.” he said. His tone was empty and bland feeling similar to the whistling wind in its indifference of passing life. Gusty pushed that idea of empty repose away, it felt too cold and too familiar to contemplate in the moment.

“Now what?” Bunker asked breaking the silence finally and snapping Gusty fully back into the moment. They did have more to do if they were going to return the stolen payment to Gertrude. Gusty would accept nothing less than the safe return of the whole crew and the goods and quickly hatched a plan.

“Bunker, you go down into this ship and free the prisoners. Zeccaran and I will apprehend the rest of the pirates down below.” she told him quickly.

“Da. Will do. Stay safe down there, da?” her husband gave her a quick nuzzle before turn and darting to the nearest hatch. He had it opened before Gusty even turned to look over the edge of the airship. The sound of the heavy metal hatch closing rang out before she turned to motion Zeccaran to go first. Bunker would be fine, besides, he deserved to be the hero for once on one of these little adventures. Otherwise Zeccaran nodded in agreement, surprisingly not nearly so vocal about the upcoming engagement.

Gusty caught his eyes as he vaulted the deck rail. His purple orbs showed a simple disappointment in them. The sight made her realize that Zeccaran expected better of her. Somehow that made Gusty feel incredibly upset with herself, as if a bit of her had gotten lost in the moment and the need to help Gertrude. She decided that she would have to listen to what Zeccaran said; she was here to solve a problem. For the pirates down on the galleon that was a fortunate change of heart, she would capture them instead of giving them a warrior’s death.

The moment passed and Zeccaran began falling towards the galleon. Gusty hopped over the rail herself and began falling. Below her Zeccaran flashed green and was again an eagle. He tipped his body downward in a perfect dive speeding away from her as she let her wings glide her down. It took a few minutes for her to safely slip down without straining her wings. Zeccaran beat her to the deck by quite some time where he alighted on the center mast’s lowest sail rigging. Gusty could see five beings down below staring at the giant imposter-eagle in awe. Two pegasi, two griffons and a third pure bird-like creature. The bird-thing resembled a giant parrot, but instead of wings he sported an additional set of claws and scales, he was rather menacing truly.

The parrot creature was yelling up at Zeccaran: “Cousin! Why do ya bother us!? Ya are so far from the Elkanten Mountains!” He missed Gusty as she swung herself around the stern of the galleon still at a decent height. Thankfully, the rest of the crew did not notice her either as Zeccaran loosed a grand sckreeeee! like only a great eagle could. She landed cautiously on the deck near the vessel’s helm as the pirate’s “ooo’ed” and “awh’ed” at the strange sight.

Bending down to nearly her belly Gusty crawled toward the railing that overlooked the main deck where Zeccaran held everyone else’s attention. She peered through the wooden pillars choosing two targets to stun before they even got a chance to react. Gusty figured she could not reliably hit more than two before they tried to dodge. Her horned hummed loudly as the stunner spells waited to be cast. Standing up she lined her marks, the two griffons, one grey, one black, and fired before even Zeccaran looked up at her.

The red beam’s of the trademark spell hissed from her horn and stuck both targets in quick succession. One of the pegasi immediately took notice of his fallen comrades. “Oi, mate! You alright?” he knelt down next to the grey-colored griffon, not even realizing what had happened. Gusty took the opportunity to duck back down below the railing, her quarries none-the-wiser.

“What the hell happen?” the parrot-creature boomed over the confused voices of the pegasi. “Wilkins! Berg! Get up ya, lazy good-for-nothin’s!” he continued. Gusty quickly chose to slide her way over to the side rail of the helm and jump overboard. She did not look back and refused to overthink what she was doing, if she did it would not work. Spreading her wings she caught herself just above the placid ocean water and sailed along the edge of the galleon until she reached the main mast. Pumping her wings Gusty climbed through the air the twenty feet up to the deck.

Charging her horn as she went Gusty landed on the deck at the same time as she was ready to cast more stunners. Her adversaries were facing away from her again, luck still on her side Gusty took aim and quickly fired. One spell hit the intended target true, sending the gabby pegasus from before off his hooves. The other only nicked the hooves of the remaining pegasus causing her to let out a shrill shriek.

“Arh! What the fuck was tha’?!” she screamed.

“Magic! We’re under attack!” the parrot fellow squawked.

Not a moment after another skree! from the Zeccaran-eagle sounded in a broad echo. Gusty along with the remaining two pirates reflexively looked up at him. The grand bird dug his beak into the furled canvas ripping out a section in strange display.

Cloth in mouth he dove down from the rigging swinging around the parrot and the pegasus. The parrot managed to react drawing his sword and slashing at the ribbon of sail snaking around him and his companion. Gusty came to an epiphany as he swung down at the canvas. She reached out her levitation out towards the sabre catching it before it cut fully through the section.

Yanking the blade and the still clinging parrot up away from the cloth the pirate shrieked in surprise. Gusty twisted the sword as she pulled wrenching it from the bird’s grip and dropping him down into the trap Zeccaran was making. Evidently the pegasus had at least taken some of the stunbolt from earlier as she made no attempt to fly and was quickly enveloped in the canvas. A tremendous volume of cursing was coming from the parrot as he clawed vainly in an attempt to escape. Green flashed and Gusty snapped her eyes over to an actual Zeccaran who was running around the unfortunate pair with the canvas in his mouth.

Snagging a loose portion of the sail in her magic Gusty began wrapping theri makeshift binding tighter behind Zeccaran as he ran. “Faster before they wiggle out!” she yelled at him.

“Rats! Come out from behind the sail and fight like real ponies!” came the defiant voice of the parrot. “Fuckin’ cowards, if i had my sword I’d-mhmmh!” he was cut off as the sail was pulled over his face and flailing limbs. Gusty pulled the remaining slack from Zeccaran’s mouth and slipped in through the section she had just tightened pulling it into a loop-knot. She tugged on the tie until she could feel the strain of the captured ribs.

Letting go of her control the wad of sail and creature fell over awkwardly. Muffled yelps of pain grumbled from the mass when they landed. Meanwhile Zeccaran trotted over to her, giving the scene an approving glace.

“Well done. Honestly I can’t believe they fell for the bird routine.” he said thoughtfully.

“Same to you, good sir.” she raised her nose a bit along with her tone.

“Although I’m surprised you changed up your...methods, I’m glad you did. With these guys captured we might actually get some insight He mosied over to the slender black griffon who was vaguely moaning still stunned. “Got any rope?” he asked a devilish grin on his face. Gusty did bring rope…

It took some time but soon enough the five pirates were tied together on the deck. It had been especially difficult to free the parrot and pegasus that they had trapped in the ruined sail. Gusty had restored to just stunning them in order to tie them up without a fight. They sat before her each snarling in their own way as if they could not believe they had gotten outsmarted by a Zebra and a girl, as they kept putting it. Evidently, they did not care for the skirt which Gusty took exception to.

“Where’s your boss?” she asked in a kind tone that not even she was ready for. Collectively the pirates all turned their eyes away from her unwilling to even look towards her. Gusty instinctively cast her trusty “truth” spell and walked a full circle around the group.

“You can tell me, now; and avoid being brought before Dame Gertrude or…” she was met with more silence. “How about a different question? What were you stealing?” she prodded more. The parrot loosed a chirp and jerked his head towards her.
“We will only tell ya the truth ya…” he trailed off. His facial feather flustered and his eyes spun scared as he realized what was happening to his speech.

“That’s right you will.” Gusty smiled. The rest of the small crew exchanged looks as Gusty drew her sword with her magic for effect. She did not say anything else and simply began pacing back and forth in front of the group. They all began to shift uncomfortably as she watched them waiting for one of them to attempt to answer. She did not have to wait long.

“The money and the trading goods. That’s what we were stealing.” the grey griffon replied hoarsely. Gusty nodded sagely waiting to see if he would slip up, the griffon opened his mouth to say more but caught himself snapping his beak shut defiantly.

“Where are the stolen things, then?” she asked.

“All but tha’ chest over ‘ere is already topside.” The male pegasus answered this time. Again, the pirate went on to say more but caught the words before they slipped out. Gusty was quickly deciding this was a dangerous waste of time; she was fighting the urge to torture these creatures and the part where they were being uncooperative was not helping. She came to a conclusion hence.

“Zeccaran. Help me tie them to one of the chains. They don’t deserve a seat on the deck of the airship we have...acquired.” she said not breaking eye-contact with the parrot. His eyes twitched angrily and chirped a series of angry like sounds before he turned away. Zeccaran obliged her as Gusty hefted the mass of bodies into her telekinesis and hovered them in the air above the galleon’s deck.

Once they were secure she exchanged her levitation for the chest of goods. “Don’t forget what chain they are tied to Zeccaran. Otherwise they will starve to death when we cut the lines up top.” she cautioned. Her friend shrugged, suggesting indifference but that was more his way of showing he understood.

“Up we go then.” Gusty purred taking flight. Zeccaran followed suit shifting into the eagle form again. As they past the pirates they gasped in shock and surprise at the zebra’s ability to shapeshift. Gusty cast a look down at them their collective faces turning white as they gazed at what they clearly considered a marvel. She shook her head at the thought. It was no use caring about their fate, piracy in pretty much all parts of the world was punishable by death. Simply, she would just not be the one to carry out the sentence.

Gusty sighed as she climbed. She was unable to shake the feeling that they had gotten incredibly lucky with this engagement. If there had been even the smallest change in circumstances the endeavor would have backfired. For now all that she had to worry about was figuring out how get the airship back to Gertrude, hopefully Zeccaran or one of the captured Ovis knew how. Still, regardless of her success Gusty just could not shake the sense of foreboding and it was not receding like usual no matter how hard she tried to repress it. Not Bunker’s smiling face, not the happy and hearty, liberated crew, not even Gertrude’s overjoyed shouting when they returned calmed that feeling. It was going to be a sleepless night.

Act 2: Chapter 7 - Situation

View Online

“No! Stop it! Leave them alone!” Gusty’s voice echoed off of the stone of the mountains. Zeccaran jolted involuntarily, jerking his eyes towards her yelling. He watched her cast magic at a vile apparition of ash and fire. The beam of energy passed through the abomination a cold manic laughter resounding from its opened, fanged, and fired maw. Gusty desperately slammed her sword into the beast as she screamed frantically in primal terror.

This was the third time Zeccaran had observed this scene. Inflamed creatures swarmed everywhere sowing destruction on the foliage around the small homestead of a time long past. He painstakingly re-examined every detail again, trying to figure out why Gusty kept having this nightmare. Unfortunately his skill paled in comparison to Luna’s but that did not mean he would not try his best for his friend.

Above them smoke and grey clouds obscured the sky but did not hide the forms of a horde of dragons. One by one the great lizards were drug down from the floating smog. Once felled the unfortunate drakes were mobbed by the moving haze of ashen and rage-filled demons. Their feasting and revelry loud, disturbing, as they rent the dragons to ribbons and consumed them while they still lived. Horrendous roars of pain and agony caused the mountains around the small clearing to shake as they were ripped. All the while the alpha of the devilish monstrosities fought Gusty, its chilling cackles louder than the dragons, Gusty, and the blazing fires.

Zeccaran felt a fresh wave of nausea cause him to gag. The dream came with smells. Simply nothing would ever allow him to overcome the smell of burning flesh, flesh that still lived. How Gusty experienced these types of nightmarish visions regularly and still functioned was a miracle. In fact, how she maintained the semblance of sanity she so-well-portrayed bested that other miracle. Still, he just wished there was something he could do to help her.

“Gusty!” he yelled his voice muted and distant compared to the nightmare. “Gusty, wake up!” Zeccaran bellowed again, no louder than before. He sighed as he continued to watch Gusty fight the alpha-beast. She never heard him. This was the third time he had yelled for her to wake. It failed to be the charm, as the old saying goes. Continuing as usual the dream forced Gusty and the monster to fight. This had been the third night in a row, after all.

“Stupid number thing. I hate the number three. Couldn’t have been four or six, or something more creative?” Zeccaran spoke aloud to himself. It was not like Gusty was listening, and he felt rather alone being sucked into her dreams night after night. The irony of the number coincidence also had upset him to the point of rhetorical complaining. A scream from his friend brought his attention back to the nightmare before him and away from his own thoughts.

Gusty was struggling with the creature, her sword cast away. The nightmare would end here like it had the last two days, just as soon as his friend would slip and the monster would bite her neck. She shrieked dodging a set of kicks and a bite from her opponent. Gusty screamed harder still as she lost her balance and fell backward landing with her belly and throat exposed. The demon immediately took the opportunity and pounced, sinking its fiery teeth into Gusty’s neck. Zeccaran sighed loudly, soon enough he would be kicked awake due to being ejected from the dream. Even though it would disturb his own slumber it was better than dealing with this horror.

But the dream did not end.

Time seemed to slow as Gusty futilely struggled beneath her predator. “Oh no.” Zeccaran said to himself quietly. It was the only thing he could manage as the moment grinded to a crawl.

His friend’s horn lit with her golden magic and her previously lost sword zipped towards them. Zeccaran watched in silent terror unable to stop the madness. Gusty swung the blade down in the next instant causing blood to spatter on the ground in heavy thumps. Decapitated head of the beast still attached, the alicorn sprang up stabbing her levitated blade deep into the chest of the still the flailing, headless body. Blood pulsed from its neck in a fountain as an unnatural heartbeat continued to function even with a blade pushed through it.

But the moment passed and the glow of fire and magic that the beast possessed dissipated. The body went limp after staggering a few steps towards Gusty, falling down in a heap, the ash and fire around abating and revealing the simple but bludgeoned form of a headless pony. Gusty freed her blade from the corpse and used it pry the head from her neck. The face of the creature landed facing Zeccaran, a long tawny-brown mane had replaced the fire and empty pained, yellow eyes met his, their sparkle quickly disappearing. It was that moment he finally realized what the creature was: Shadow-kin. With the magic drained from her body the monster was no more than a pony, a very dead pony.

“This isn’t a nightmare! This is the past! A memory! Gusty wake up, you have to wake up! Stop reliving this moment!” He shouted charging towards his friend. The scene had gone silent since Gusty had defeated the Shadow-kin. The baying of the dragons and the howls of the other demons had ceased, making his hoof falls obnoxiously loud. However, no one took notice of him as he continued to yell hoping to somehow reach Gusty and pull her out of this terrible moment.

The other Shadow-kin began gathering in front of Gusty on silents wings, each losing their inflamed visage. They looked at the defeated alpha-mare and back up to Gusty slowly. Zeccaran had reached where the alicorn stood now and attempted to give her a push, in a futile attempt to rouse her. He knew he would just pass through her, unable to stop the dream, but determination was all that he had left. As he skidded to a halt Zeccaran turned to look at the horde of monsters. Out of them, he recognized a face, causing him to freeze in horror. The face of Stormwalker, the one creature in the world that incited fear and desperation in him. He was unblemished and unscarred but Zeccaran was certain it was him.

He stood at the head of the gathering of demons, his face slowly twisting into a look of pure rage. But it was different than Zeccaran remembered, he had seen Stormwalker in his darkest of moments, the hatred and anger directed at him specifically. This creature deviated from that look, its gaze was more hallow, more cold and pragmatic. It was nothing like the fury, the lively disgust that Stormwalker had: the look of angry stallion wronged by the world. That thing that stood before him in the dream may have looked the same but he was nothing like the demon he knew in the waking world. The sinking sensation realization made Zeccaran’s stomach backflip in his gullet. Whatever he saw now, it was something worse, something unimaginably worse.

Sekthla nal! Y zewt nal eryja!” the monster shouted. It was in that strange tongue that Gusty knew, but was not more than nonsense to him. The horde of Shadow-kin spread apart at an almost leisurely pace carefully attempting to surround Gusty.

“Monsters! Demons! Prepare to die!” she shrieked in response. Charging headlong at the gathering at one-to-twenty odds sword raised with a banshee like yell, Zeccaran could not help but smile at the sight. That was simply how Gusty worked, she did not care if she would die if she brought some big evil down with her. Zeccaran marveled as the Shadow-kin stared on in surprise at the charging alicorn none of them capable of reacting until she had run through one of the beasts with her blade.

The miracle was short-lived.They immediately let her push into their center surrounding Gusty and making it impossible for Zeccaran to see her beyond her flying sword. The dream began to fracture and contort the image more a blurry mess of color. Sounds became unintelligible grunts and the heavy musk of demons, similar to that of a deadly but fragrant poison filled the air. But worst of all, Zeccaran could feel what Gusty could feel. Pain. Unimaginable amounts of pain. There was not a part of his body that did not hurt but his head and the ache of loss and hurt in his chest became completely overwhelming. He had no idea how long it persisted but it devastated him.

Two weeks ago: the day Gusty arrived in the Baylands.

Luna found herself staring at several charts and graphs floating in Twilight’s magic. She was pointing at a green line with a pencil on a diagram labeled “Magic Potentiality Vs. Body Conservation Total.”

“As you can see, instead of decreasing or stabilizing, Subject G’s Potential Magic capabilities actually increase as she reaches her body’s Conservation Total. According to my Theory of Thaumatic Magic, this should be impossible. It certainly breaks several rules of physics and the Second Law of Magic Potentiality. Which is again, Sunburst, the rule that defines that a creatures size and structure is directly related to their volume of storable magic and that magic’s potential power.” Twilight said through a scrunched muzzle of concentration. Luna swallowed hard trying to make sure she consumed all the information Twilight had been going over. It was a hollow gesture to pretend to eat up the details but at this point it was all she had.

“Well...you said yourself that not all of your Potentiality Laws are provable by measured statistics, that they function mathematically, but with actual units it can only be an estimate. I’m not nearly as studied as you or Starlight in that field, but doesn’t that mean that exceptions can be made?” Sunburst asked.

“Yeah. But that is why Thaumatic Magic Theory is a theory not a law of magic. Obviously notable examples that don’t fit the mold are: The Elements of Harmony, Discord, The Crystal Heart, Sombra.” Starlight chimed in. The three magicians exchanged nods working towards their solution having become quite engrossed in their work. Guardian Angel looked over to Luna from where he stood near Twilight a sly grin perking his lips, eyes fixing upon her deviously..

After everything Luna still felt apprehensive using his first name around other ponies. Even among friends like the present, the name did not suit him and his powerful presence. Perhaps it was simply because she did not want to disappoint him. Even now as she sat here looking back into those dangerous, beautiful yellow eyes she could feel him listening to her mind, her every breath, deeply interested and concerned for how she felt. He narrowed his eyes and his grin turned to a full smile before he broke his gaze.

Her stallion cleared his throat, before addressing the gathering. “Let’s not get sidetracked. The specific peculiarities are not important. We need a baseline calculation for what she could do should Gusty access that font of power. Fitting her into the theory can come later. Assessing the damage she could do must come first.” he said steering the other conversation.

“You are right. That’s why we are here after all!” Twilight smiled, clearly excited for practicing some mathematics. Luna narrowly held in a grunt of disdain, always horrified anypony would like calculations as much as the lavender mare in question.

Meanwhile her stallion had motioned for and Celestia to move closer together as he approached. He pushed his muzzle past their manes and right near their ears

“I have a distinctly bad feeling about what they might find. I recommend keeping the information absolutely need-to-know.” he whispered. Celestia moved to exchange places in the center of the listening group.

“I believe that is a reasonable course of action. Given Gusty’s...peculiarities, I’m just glad she hasn’t burned down Canterlot.” her sister murmured even quieter than Guardian Angel. Luna nodded in agreement, and Celestia and her stallion switched placed again.

“It seems that whatever is affecting Gusty’s mind is the key to unraveling this mess. I am going to move the timetable up for my trip to the Frozen North. Hopefully there will be some materials still left in my ancestral home.” he said. Luna switched into the middle this time.

“Must you run off when we actually have time to prepare the country?” she chastised. Guardian Angel was obsessed with seeing this through, she supported him but he needed to be given a hard time, “Could you please try to be quicker this time?”

“I’ll see what I can-”

Nope!” Starlight suddenly yelled. Conversation abruptly ended the three immortal beings turned to look at Starlight.

“Nope! Nope! Nope! Nope! Nope!” She recited in hysterics dancing about.

“What is the matter, Starlight Glimmer?” Luna jumped up and rushed around the table to her. There appeared to be nothing wrong with the mare, other than she was panicking. Luna looked over her more carefully still finding nothing as she scooted down to the floor next to her.

“The math! The answer! I-I-I-I-I just.” Starlight finally responded staring not at her but through her. “It's not something I can’t handle, I’m thinking about just erasing the memory.” she said before tossing her face down into her floor cushion.

Luna turned to look at Twilight, to find a mare horrified by a piece of paper. The lavender alicorn’s pupils were dilated to the point that all but the thinnest line of color remained. She glared at the sheet full of notes with a shock and terror only matched by the stillness of her body and the shallowness of her breaths.

“It's...impossible...but we checked it, seven times...even did the process backwards…” Twilight said stoically, her voice a perfect empty monotone. Luna exchanged her magic for Twilight’s and turned the paper over to read. The mathematics present there made her head spin, but her eyes managed to remain focused on one thing a disturbingly large number that was double-circled.

“Twilight. Come here” Celestia stepped toward her with a purposeful concern. She immediately surrounded her student with her wings upon seeing the smaller mare in her state. “Starlight what’s going on?”

Luna cast her gaze to the still buried unicorn to see her jut a hoof out of the pillow where she hid her face. Pointing directly at the floating paper that Luna held with a silent accusation. Celestia looked at her with deep concern.

“I don’t even know, sister. I presumed you know more than I. It looks like there is just a number written here that they keep fretting about.” Luna answered feeling rather put on the spot. Nopony hurt Twilight in Celestia’s presence, and Luna was not about to take the blame for a defiant piece of paper.

Turning as movement caught her eye, Luna managed to see her stallion snag the scratch sheet out of her magic with a lightning fast flick of his wing. He pulled the paper closer to himself, squinting at it critically. A look of horror washed over his facial features like a mighty storm surge. His wide open eyes flashed to red their pupils contracting to thin diamonds as if he was trying to destroy the paper with just his gaze.

Luna shivered as a long chill snaked up her spine. Something disturbing enough to cause her stallion that much distress meant that the situation had gone beyond dire. However, after performing a series of sharp inhilations through his poignantly shining fangs his face relaxed returned to a more pony-like state. He waved the paper with his wing as he bit his lip, turning away from where Luna peered at him.

“Two-hundred eighty-nine thousand.” he said to the group. Luna only understood the number to be quadruple the value Twilight Sparkle had listed for the stallion that stated it. However, she watched in shock as Starswirl took his hat off and tossed it away where it landed atop a more white than orange statue of a Sunburst. The old mage then flopped onto one of the open cushions near Starlight in a manner that suggested” “We’re boned no need to do anything.” Even Celestia’s mane managed to stand still as a look of surprise and confusion took over her face similar to the little lavender mare she still cradled. The room’s attitude had shifted to pure dread by the simple utterance of that number.

While she did not specifically understand the details Luna knew this: if somepony had fourfold the power Guardian Angel held they were not virtually god. They were decidedly god. And were that god Gusty Twilight, a dangerous neurotic madmare, then the world fell neatly into her playthings and whimsy. The realization, though it had been gradual, hit Luna now with full force. She fell to her flanks with a bit of a whump! and found herself looking down at the ground. The room remained quiet as the ponies gathered each coped with the fateful truth.

“So what do we do now?” Twilight Sparkle quoth smally. “How do we do anything now?”

Luna did not look up, her will and strength sapped from her body by her mind. Everypony else soundlessly agreed, none able to answer that dreadful question. The stillness only grew as she tried to overcome the grim prospect she now faced.

“We stop her. We restore whatever it was she lost. Grant her control and solace so she doesn’t destroy everything and everyone. That’s what we do.” Guardian Angel broke the silence. Luna and the room look up to the stallion as he turned from the group. He walked over to the windows on the outer wall. His distorted reflection in the glass betrayed his stress and terror that his voice hid.

“I only fear that our time has suddenly gotten shorter. Sending her to the Baylands…I shouldn’t have let her go.” he grumbled. Luna wondered if anypony else noticed the fangs and dragon-eyes in the gray backdrop. More than anything she wanted to comfort him but Luna knew better than to try until later.

“Do you think that remembering will make her more volatile?” Celestia asked craning her neck to look at him.

“Don’t skirt the issue. Yes. It will make her significantly more volatile. I...I-I should have had this meeting sooner. Should have been more proactive-not-not reactive.” He began to fret shaking his head and staring more intensely at the bleak weather. “I had already run the numbers myself but, I didn’t trust my answer...didn’t think. Fuck! I hate being right! I always think of the worst possible thing, and then it happens!” he loosed a growl of angst as he finished. Concerned glances were exchanged between the ponies of the room as the demigod stomped his hoof down into the floor with enough force to cause the room to shake.

Starswirl cleared his throat, “I’m rather new to the topic of this unearthly mare, but, and correct me if I’m wrong, you have been attempting to fix, I say in quotes, her mind?” he asked tentatively. Hearing Celestia’s story really had loosened his metaphorical belt, thank goodness. However, his question was her expertise.

“Fixing is a broad term.” Luna started. “We are trying to holistically establish some form of coherence for her mind. A task that has been making little progress over the last two years.” The ponies of the room instantly focused their attention on her. However, that was the furthest she could speak on the subject; she turned her eyes up to Guardian Angel who continued gazing out the window, his only indication of acknowledgement his rear facing ears. Luna did not need to wait long.

“Everything Luna is going to tell you...Does. Not. Leave. This. Room.” he said with a hard even grave fierceness. Starlight, Sunburst, and Twilight instantly agreed, Starswirl remained on the fence.

“What if I wish to tell the other Pillars?” he questioned after stroking his beard.

“No. This is above top secret. Even a hint that Equestria is politely harboring the apocalypse will spread like wildfire. The whole world will erupt in riots.” Guardian Angel answered with a snarl. Starswirl accepted the response with no other comment while Luna grimaced. Her stallion’s short demeanor was expected but it did little to calm the nagging feeling of unease she got when he became truly angry.

“Well, with that out of the way. I can explain the nitty-gritty.” Luna started right up, trying to overcome her scruples. “Something cursed Gusty with a very powerful dark magic. And then something equally powerful trapped that dark magic in her mind as a defense mechanism of sorts. That’s the shortest version. Things get incredibly complicated after that.”

“What do you mean?” Starlight sad slowly sitting up to look at her.

“I’m trying to summarize this as best as I can without sounding steepled. The point is: if certain trigger events happen, Gusty regains memories relevant to the events. This normally would not matter, but because of her built-in defense Gusty’s mind has a limit to how many trigger events can occur.” Luna continued.

“That seems particularly strange.” Starswirl conjectured. “Why would anypony cast a mind alteration spell on themselves in such a way?”

“I had thought that too. However, upon further examination of Gusty’s subconscious I came to a conclusion. Gusty was too afraid of the curse to do anything else. She intentionally designed the defense spell to have a limit and a reset. It is meant to prevent her from ever coming too close to falling under the dark magic’s influence again.” Luna answered her dreamwalking and psychology pedigrees prominently showing.

“Do you have any idea who cast the curse on her?” Sunburst asked.

“I do, but I’d rather not say until I have further evidence.” Guardian Angel answered instead, leaving Luna with her mouth partially open. She sheepishly closed it before waiting on everypony to listen to her again.

“More secrets then, hum? I bet I know who did it too. But for your sake, I’ll keep it to myself.” Starswirl interjected as well. Guardian Angel gave him a deeply disapproving glare before nodding for Luna to continue.

“Yes, now...as I was saying,” she cleared her throat. “Celestia mentioned Gusty’s relatively volatile nature. At least according to my observations there is a specific pattern that this follows, peaking just before she is to experience a memory reset.” The room had gotten awfully stuffy as she finished her summary. Silence prevailed before a shuddering breath escaped Twilight Sparkle making the gathering peer at the purple mare still shrouded in Celestia’s wings.

“So...what you are saying is...the more Gusty remembers the more likely it is that she uses all that power.” She stifled a bit of sniff before continuing, “A-are...are her resets always violent?”

Luna chewed on the question and it tasted bitter. With her trips to Gusty’s subconscious, she knew the answer was a fifty-fifty split. However, she did not know how to tell the gathering, the only other pony that knew was Guardian Angel and he had placed his bets on the bad side of things. Luna found her voice after a time, “Her reaction is irrelevant, we need to find a way to help reduce the stress she experiences. That way even if it is violent we have a way to help her. To contain her.”

“Then tell us the rest, sister. We are Equestria’s brightest minds after all. And, we can hardly solve the problem without details.” Celestia purred with a confident grin. “Besides I’ve grown rather fond of that teal troublemaker.”

Luna nodded and started getting down to it. This was going to take awhile.


The pleasantness of sleep ceased and Luna slowly opened her eyes .This left her to gaze on in wonder at her stallion as he sat up in the bed without his armor on. They had spent the remainder of the night together after the meeting had finished. Everypony in attendance had sworn to do their best, each pledging at least two new ideas to help Gusty Twilight. Luna sighed at the thought, keeping her eyes on Guardian Angel she pushed herself up to look at him more closely.

She reached out a hoof to trace a scar that ran from the base of his neck down in between his wings. “Stop that.” he fake scolded her as he lifted a flight pack from somewhere on the floor and set it on the bed.

“When did you get that ready?” she murmured to him.

“After you passed out during round three” he answered with a broad smile. Luna pursed her lips, frustration welling up in her throat, not ot mention a bit of a rush of natural rogue. She remained silent, rubbing the base of his silken wings with her hoof, wondering what he was thinking. If she did not know better she would have bet he was thinking of other mares. Honestly, she was more upset that she was going to have to go without him for about a month. Luna was certain that something bad was going to happen, to make it worse. He carefully looked over to her with his scarred left eye.

“You are worried.” he said plainly.

“Of course I am. My lover is about to run off to a veritable frozen hell!” she retorted sitting up and scooting up next to him. He wrapped his left wing around her tightly and she instinctively nuzzled her face into it.

“No. You aren’t worried about me. Something else...something ominous...did you have some sort of vision?” he asked her curiously. Luna kept her head facing his wing until he gently placed a hoof on her cheek and guided her to look at him. Of course he could just read her thoughts and find out what he wanted, but that was not how Guardian Angel played it. Luna scrunched her nose becoming more disgruntled with the situation.

“It's just that I don’t like this whole thing. You already know how I feel about you risking your life for that mare. So, I don’t need to remind you of that, but...I don’t know Guardian Angel...I just feel like something is going to happen, something out of our control.” She answered trying her best to not sound pouty.

“Yeah but that’s just how it goes. Gotta do my job after all.” He responded like it was no big deal to him. He had never been very good at lying. If something terrible happened that he could not rectify it would devastate him. Luna just needed to remind him that it would, even if he was tricking himself.

“Oh, so now you like doing the dirty work? Going out and about getting yourself killed, over the most far-fetched of hunches?” she grumbled for him.

“Hey somebody has to save the world, might as well be me right?” he answered standing up from the bed. Luna reflexively found herself using her magic to attach his bags to him, strapping them down. He turned in surprise when she finished their eyes meeting. Luna began to blush again, still sheepish around him despite their courtship. He leaned in to kiss her gently making her cheeks feel more like they were on fire than just flushing.

“I have to get going.” he stated blandly as they finished, noses still touching.

“Oh, just stay, you big baby.” she teased. They laughed together looking deep into each other's eyes. Luna wrapped her hooves around his head to kiss again.

“I love you, stay safe. And take this.” she quickly tied one of her scarves around his neck. She had been saving it for just this occasion, having left it out on her nightstand so he could not dodge when she levitated it to him.

“Love you too, but- what is this?” he stood up pointing to the cloth.

“You know…in case you get cold.” she made up an excuse for her insecurity. He gave her a condescending look of ‘really?’ as he started to take it off. “No no no! Keep it on...please. It just makes me feel better if you have it.” she answered knowing he would not take the scarf without the truth. She smiled at him, before he shook his head in acceptance, a grin of his own perking up the corner of his mouth. He looked up at her longingly for a moment before heaving a brief harumph.

“Alright. I’ll be back as soon as I can.” he spoke gently. Luna nodded hardly able to let him walk out of the room. She stood up as he began to make his way towards her chamber’s balcony. He turned as she reached the door to the open platform. Guardian Angel gave her one last long look.

“I’ll see you again soon, love.” he murmured just before he flapping his big wings and floating off the balcony and up into the sky. Luna dashed out to the platform waving as he began to speed off, his head still turned back to look at her. Words almost escaped her mouth before she bitterly bit her tongue, refusing to break their promise. Guardian Angel hated ‘goodbye,’ Luna hated not saying it.


Zeccaran awoke with a start. He looked around the room from the hay-pack cot where he lay. The pain had come to a screeching intensity before jolting him back into reality. Wasting no time he hopped out of the cot and slipped outside into the hallway. He crept along the wall quickly reaching Gusty’s room wondering about the time of day. The dingy light from the torches that bathed the hall would suggest it was still very early morning, but with how often it had rained here in the Baylands Zeccaran was unsure. He turned his attention to the door carefully lifting a hoof up to push it open.

An even fainter light glowed somewhere inside the small quarters, accompanied by a faint set of sniffles. Zeccaran cautiously pushed his head around the corner of the door frame, allotting himself only enough for one eye. There in the murk of the room, illuminated by a withering golden glow, Gusty sat upright in her bed. She sobbed softly, carefully wiping away her tears not even taking notice of the open door or his face peering inside.

“Gusty.” Zeccaran whispered stepping further through the threshold. His hooves, even as quietly as he placed them clopped loudly against the distant sniffs of Gusty and the crackled of the torches. She took notice of him then her eyes watering further as she looked up. Gusty drew her pretty face into an ugly snarl before swinging a hoof towards him in a motion that indicated he should leave.

Somewhere in his mind he was compelled to push his luck instead, “Do..do you wanna talk about it?” he whispered a little louder this time. Gusty’s snarl turned into an outright look of fury.

“Just leave me alone!” she hissed hoarsely. Zeccaran cast his eyes away from his friend. He wanted to help but dealing with such great trauma depended on the pony. He firmly believed sharing it went a long way to alleviate at least some of the existential dread. However, all he could do for Gusty was stand here and see if her initial reaction was merely an ingrained defense and not how she felt.

“Zeccaran. Please...I can’t right now.” came a meek and unfamiliar voice. If the moment had not been such a gravely affair he might have done a double-take. He looked up to Gusty to see her hiding behind her mane her face obscured by shadow and hair.

“Okay. I understand.” he whispered back with a nod. He would just have to leave her alone. But, Gusty was a strong mare, she would overcome the stress and the mental contusion, he just had to remind her that she could. He turned to leave simply because he had nothing more to offer when mumbling from Gusty stopped him. He had to diligently tune out other sounds to even get the barest gist of what she was saying.

“...you do know what it’s like.” he caught part of a sentence she grumbled. “To have your life stripped away and everything…” she squeaked unintelligible words. “I thought I had escaped these memories...this-this suffering, and now its coming back...stronger.

Until this moment Zeccaran would have never described Gusty as vulnerable. Perhaps she trusted him enough to show him this moment of weakness, perhaps this was who Gusty truly was; a frightened mare, unable to discern the waking world from her nightmares and memories. The small flame of righteous fury lit itself in his stomach. All of Gusty’s behavior, the posturing, the tomfoolery, the overall mania, it was her cover up. He wished he had realized it sooner, maybe he had immediately. That was probably why they had become friends. He was now determined more than anything to help her, even though there was little he could do.

“I’m sorry, Gusty. Why don’t you try to get some rest?” he murmured to her from the door. She cast up a pitiful look to him.

“I can’t sleep again...not-not...for now, anyway.” she mumbled.

“I said rest, not sleep.” Zeccaran gently reminded.

“Oh...oh! Okay yeah, I get it. I should rest. Restore my energy. That’s a good point. Thanks!” Gusty gasped, loud enough to make Bunker roll over next to her. A decent amount of her usual spunk having returned briefly. Zeccaran smiled and waved her goodbye before pulling the door shut behind him. That was a good deed, a good enough deed that he probably was safe from karma for at least a week.

Unfortunately, that was not the case for Zeccaran. As he sat back down on his hay-cot he realized that he was too awake to fall back asleep. This left him to sit mournfully on his bed realizing that the universe had heard his thoughts and intended to jape him in precisely this way. He stood up from his cot thus, and began to make his way towards the Long Hall, merely to abate the boredom. With no specific path in mind he made his way from the guest hall and into that grand main room of Castle Manor. As he opened the door into the chamber he bumped directly into a guard.

“Oi! Ye clumsy oaf! Watch where ya…” he paused after pushing his helmet back up. He gave Zeccaran a cautious look. “Zebra! Da irony. Mine mistress sent me ta fetch ye. A parcel doth arrive for ye early in da’ mornin’.” he spake stiffly through his brogue.

“A parcel? In the morning? What time is it now?” Zeccaran balked completely taken off guard.

“”Tis a quarter past eight, lad. Day’s already begun an hour ago.” The guard grumbled. He clearly lacked an understanding of how late Zeccaran had been up the night before. “Come, ye parcel awaits.” he stated with a motion of his hoof. Zeccaran decided it was best to just follow, there was no need to ask about the strange mail he was receiving.

They walked down the Long Hall before turning into another hallway that branched off the grand room. It was similar to the guest hall, still as brown and plain, but was significantly more narrow. The guard walked him further down the thing stretch before they arrived at a small door, only just large enough to fit the ram. They slipped inside into a bustling chamber full of servants and mail. It was a decent sized room, with stack of packages and piles of letters on the walls and tables. The guard pointed to a rather large box that had curious bars on one side like a jail cell. All the breath left his lungs as recognized the box and a happy presence inside it.

Dashing over to the box, Zeccaran instantly ripped open the door to the cage. Out bounded his slobbering mess of a dog, tackling him to the ground. He did not even notice the screams of the several mail-ewes and the angry, defensive shouting of the guard who had brought him here. He never would get over why everyone thought the wooden dog was anything but friendly. That was when he found himself being ushered out of the room and down the hall he had come. The bitter cursing of the guard along with the hard bones of his skull shoving them down the narrow passage, out a door, and tossing them both out into the lawn of the Castle Manor.

“Well, that wasn’t very nice.” Zeccaran grumbled as he stood. Gunther barked with a plain concurrence. Noticing something strung around his dog’s neck the zebra trotted over and snagged it off his canine companion. It was a rolled scroll, with the Royal Equestrian Seal holding the ribbon that was tied to Gunther in place. Zeccaran gave the presumptuous parchment a tug and the ribbon broke leaving him with the scroll to read. He he unfurled the parchment eagerly, curious as to who sent Gunther to him and what they had to say.

Dear Zeccaran,

It came to my attention just after you left that Gunther had been left behind. I hope it does not take too long for him to arrive in the Baylands. I do not rightly know what he eats but was counseled to provide him with a rations of “jerky.”. May he find you well and again accompany you on your journeys.

Yours, Princess Luna.

“Oh, Princess of the Night, it is no wonder I listened to those cultists, they painted your generosity so very accurately.” Zeccaran mused aloud. He re-rolled the letter and tucked behind his ear as he had not taken his satchel from his room. Gunther wagged his tail violently at his voice, the dog eagerly bouncing on his legs.

“Come on, let’s see if we can sneak back into the Manor.” Zeccaran said to his dog. Gunther just panted ecstatically as his master began trotting along around the the side of the of the building. The timberwolf yipped chasing Zeccaran after a moment, clearly enjoying being free from the cage he had travelled in.

Zebra and dog traversed the side of the castle jogging together through the grass. The facility was larger than Zeccaran had realized, and it took them several minutes to walk fully around the building to the front doors. However, the reached them without incident, trudging along through the dark misty morning. Having spent too much time indoors Zeccaran marveled at the rough hewn grey and brown stone that composed the exterior of the Bayland’s central location of government. It was functional, not extravagant like the Palace in Canterlot. It was hard to believe that this place was the only true center of government in the whole of the country. Dame Gertrude held the Ovis together by sheer force of will and should something happen to this place Zeccaran shuddered to think.

The pair arrived at the main entrance, it was unguarded.

“Welp, in we go, Gunther.” Zeccaran said to his dog with concern. Typically there were at least attendants to watch over the door but today had already been pretty wierd so he shrugged it off and gave the heavy oak doors a push. He slowly slipped them open to find the Long Hall lit fully, golden light reflecting off of Dame Gertrude at the end of the chamber. He could hear talking as he and Gunther began making their way down the hall to the Throne’s partition.

“Then who was the unlucky ram that sired this tart?” Gusty’s voice echoed off the brick of the hall. She sounded quite back to her old self her voice coy and chipper. Laughter of the Golden Dame rang out haughtily at her comment.

“I am no tart, Great Gusty, I am a danish.” came what sounded like a younger more refined version of Dame Gertrude. The hall roared with more laughter at the terrible pun, Gusty cackling right alongside her old ewe daughter. Zeccaran was nearly to the partition by the time he could make sense of who was standing about the grand wooden throne.

Gusty and Bunker sat in lush chairs happy smiles on their faces. But on the raised pedestal sat a curious sight. Two Gertrude the Goldens sat on the throne, each as shiny-sparkly as the other. Zeccaran blinked several times before he came to realize he was not seeing double. The two ewes moved at different times and spoke with differing voices but otherwise were identical.

“You know, if I hadn’t had a second there, I’m pretty sure I would have freaked out.” He said loudly as he passed the partition. Gunther yipped in such a way that it sounded like he agreed. Everyone present jumped only at his dog’s bark, they did not even acknowledge that he had said anything at all, leaving Zeccaran to sigh dramatically with annoyance.

“Where did you get Gunther from?!” Gusty shouted in pure confusion. She was clearly feeling better, hopping up and looking over the timberwolf as if she thought he was an elaborate fake. Zeccaran simply passed her the note from behind his ear and cast a confident look at one of the Dame Gertrudes. He was still unsure which one was the real one, he had to wait for them to speak again. In the meantime Gusty tossed the crumpled note aside with a grunt and a roll of her eyes.

“Well, that out of the way, I would like to introduce to you, Gabriella, my friend Zeccaran and his dog Gunther.” she said with a wave of her hoof towards him. He cast curious glance towards the throne to watch as the ewe on the left to a bit of a bounce down the platform into a curtsy.

“How do you do fine sir?” the young golden ewe said in her sweet voice. Zeccaran blinked his eyes in surprise as she extended one of her hooves in perhaps one of the most formal gestures of greetings. Carefully fulfilling the obligation he to her hoof in one of his and lowered his face to it, he did not bother to kiss. She probably preferred his lips not touch her anyway. He looked up the ewe curiously.

“Judging by the flaxon fleece, milady you are indeed the Dame’s daughter?” he questioned. Zeccaran was still wondering if he was seeing double.

“Indeed I am. And, aren’t you just refreshing? Careful and respectful, good with ettique. So very much more tasteful than my mother...and her..er...mother.” Gabriella the Ewe bleated with a roll of her eyes. Behind her Gusty and Gertrude started to snicker loudly. Loud panting, however, distracted them both from the elder creatures as Gunther padded up right before her Gabriella. Zeccaran drew in a sharp breath of apprehension, while the ewe did not appear to be upset with his dog’s presence he was reflexively preparing himself for the worst.

“Hello, doggie.” the ewe cooed stepping up confidently. “Never have gotten to see a Timberwolf close, is he soft?” she asked reaching for Gunther. Zeccaran went to answer but was interrupted by Gunther whimpering and backing away from Gabriella.

“Gunther what’s wrong? She just wants to pet you.” He said giving his dog a confused look. Gunther responded by moving behind him, keeping his body away from Gabriella.

“Is he okay? What’s wrong doggie?” She asked leaning around Zeccaran to look at Gunther, who continued to yip in stress.

“What is wrong with Gunther?” Gusty questioned as she approached. “Da. He is acting...weird.” Bunker agreed backing her up.

“I-I don’t know...she is just trying to pet him...but he doesn’t like it.” Zeccaran stammered. He was beginning to think the situation was spiralling out of control. Gunther never acted like this, he honestly loved everything around him and only attack things when Zeccaran specifically ordered him to. Gusty trotting up and around him did little to calm him down, sure she was feeling better now, but now Gunther was having trouble? It was all too coincidental for Zeccaran’s taste and the introduction of the Gabriella sent shivers up his spine.

“Well...he lets me pet him! What’s the matter ol’ woody? Are you scared of the color gold?” Gusty cooed. Zeccaran turned to see her petting Gunther with no issues at all. Perhaps he was just being paranoid, or maybe it was the lack of sleep and stress of Gusty’s recent troubles finally taking their toll. He scrutinized Gunther some to see if it had just been a fluke. Evidently it had been, he let Bunker pet him too as the stallion approached and rubbed his dog’s ears. Gabriella began to cautiously step towards him around Zeccaran but the instant she moved Gunther turned worried glowing eyes towards her.

“No pooch, shan’t like mine daughter! What troubles ye Gunther!?” brogued Dame Gertrude hopping down from her throne. “Surely, he be a stranger to her. An’ to me as well.” She strutted up to Gunther proudly and offered a hoof to him. He licked it gently. Zeccaran swallowed hard in a silent fit of rage and befuddlement. He simply could not fathom why his dog disliked Gabriella.

“I be wrong, dear daughter. What did ye do ta’ the dog?!” Dame Gertrude bumbled in shock to her daughter.

“Nothin’! I swear...I-I have no idea why he wouldn’t like me!” Gabriella shouted. Gunther started barking at her raised volume. Zeccaran cast him a withering stare and he stopped. The dog resorted to quietly huffing through his nose in short bleats. Zeccaran just shook his head in defeat.

“I’m sorry. He is just being temperamental. He hasn’t done this since I got him.” He half-lied to the younger ewe. She just shrugged in response a sad little smile on her face. Zeccaran felt disenchanted by his dog’s behavior, it ached particularly intensely because he had actually started having a good day.

“It’s alright, Sir Zeccaran. Not everyone can like everyone.” Gabriella said rather sagely. He turned to contradict her for the sake of argument when a crack of what sounded like thunder stopped him. It stopped his train-of-thought because it sounded like it was manufactured thunder.

“Aye, a strange noise I hear. ‘Twas a bit o’thunder? Nay…” Gertrude grumbled to herself. She was thinking the same thought he had been entertaining. The group remained silent until another boisterous blunder of sound rang out.

“What is that?” Gusty murmured making all eyes look at her. A look of confusion washed over the alicorn’s face as she peered at something on Zeccaran’s left. He turned to behold a pale-faced Gabriella, a gaze of wrath twitching her eyes. Her visage caused him to jump back on instinct, but as quickly as he witnessed it the look vanished leaving him to balk at seemingly nothing.

“Mistress Gertrude! Lady Dame! The city! We are under attack!” shouted a guard accompanied by the banging of opening doors and the stomping of armored soldiers.

“What?! Is it the pirates?! Be they so brazen?!” Gertrude asked her voice sharp and painful. She dashed towards her soldiers barking off marching orders before shouting more questions. Zeccaran found himself being pushed by Bunker and Gusty as they forced him to follow the Dame. Gabriella took the right of the two larger beings Gunther the left and Zeccaran did his best to run in step ahead of them. The mass of bodies and metal pushed along quickly, clambering towards the exit.

“Do we have the harpoon cannons ready?” Gertrude was asking as they exited the Long Hall into the harsh daylight.

“No ma’am.” responded the ram she was speaking to, his ma’am closer to a ‘mom.’

“Then forget mah other order ye nincompoop! We need those cannons ready to fire immediately, they have airships! Ye told me they were ready two days ago!” she growled with a fire Zeccaran was happy was not directed at him.

“I don’t know, ma’am. When we went ta’ emergency stations, we found them disassembled!” the officer crowed right back.

“Who would haff done tha’?!” the Dame shrieked. She loosed an angry sigh, “Then where is the enemy?”

Roar of cannon fire stopped the officer from speaking and the crew of soldiers around them gasped. Zeccaran looked up to the sky wincing from the ringing in his ears. He started wincing instead from the sight of floating sky-ship instead. Its cannons firing a full broadside, an Eyrie-class aerial battleship hovered just above the Castle Manor. It would seem that his studying was paying off a lot sooner than expected. But, that would do little for the innocent citizens of Castle-upon-Barra, their homes already on fire and the screams of the injured reaching into the sky, the situation defined the word grim.

The hovering vessel above had enough firepower to level the Castle Manor and the city along with it. The harpon cannons compromised by either an infiltrator or someone on the inside, the craft was all but invulnerable to arrows or catapults which were the height of the weary Baylands’ army. He could probably disable the ship if he could get onto it without getting killed, but that thought made him shiver in his hooves. He was going to have to try, but without much else to contribute, Zeccaran found a simple statement escape his lips.

“Well, shit.”

Act 2: Chapter 8 - Battle of Castle-upon-Barra

View Online

Chapter 8 - Battle of Castle-Upon-Barra

Gusty growled angrily up at the pirate ship. A cold vicious fury settled itself down in her chest threatening to stir her into a violent outburst. She had too many questions to answer and the why of the brigands’ appearance now the first and foremost. Gabriella’s arrival, the most awful nightmares she had had in a lifetime, that pesky voice, the suffering of innocents, and the massive disadvantage her kindred folk now faced: it was shaping up to be a catalytic fight. For the first time since watching Stormwalker cut off Amethyst’s horn Gusty felt righteous; and that would be the undoing of her enemies.

She had to find a way to stop the pirates, but the opening volley was certainly just a warning before they targeted the Castle Manor. Gusty closed her eyes knowing that their survival and the survival of the townsfolk fell solely on her. She had not cast a shield spell over such a large area in ages, but giving it her all was her best chance of helping. Concentrating with a gruelling angst, Gusty felt her horn buzz to life at her command. She pushed her perceptions out, testing the furthest she could throw the barrier. Gusty, reaching her peak at an indiscernible distance, cast the spell and frantically opened her eyes.

From her horn sprang a grand golden beam that hissed towards the airship above. It came to a instant stop below the keel of the floating vessel before erratically spreading out from the point is globby extensions. Slowly but surely the sparkling barrier enclosed the town and the castle and not a moment too soon. The bellow of another volley belched from the airship in a torrent of flame and smoke. The hurling explosives and cannonballs shattering or bouncing of the shield. Gusty heaved a quick sigh of relief before turning to the crowd of gathered rams and ewes.

“That barrier will only buy us a little time! Hurry, fix the weapons and get as many of the townsfolk into the Castle Manor as we can! Children and their mothers first! Now go!” she ordered to the Ovis. They obliged her with a brisk hustle, all of them dispersing to follow her commands.

“Aye, I said it before lass, but ye hath not change one bit!” Gertrude interjected with a proud look on her face. Gusty nodded, her hooves giving her the urge to bounce eagerly. “Come.” her old companion said with a knowing look. She motioned them back inside, “I can’t be lettin’ me own mum fight in not but ‘er skin, let’s go get yeh dressed!”

Gusty followed Gertrude back inside. The ram guards that had been absent during the morning’s discussion reappeared and pushed her, along with Bunker and Zeccaran close against Gertrude as they navigated the building. Their overcation made Gusty wary of every corner even more than usual. She constantly peered around herself knowing that no one loyal to Gertrude would have disabled the harpoons, and whoever they were; they were probably still in the castle.

As they turned down into the hall that led to her room, something struck Gusty. Gabriella had been with them when the guards had collapsed on them, but she was suddenly absent. How she had slipped away from the entourage was a mystery that Gusty resolved to unravel as soon as the pirates were dealt with.

However, with what Gusty attributed to luck, they reached the hall that led to her room, the full guard taking up the entire space. They allowed the full party with Gertrude in tow to enter the temporary residence. Gertrude rushed over towards the two armor stands as soon as they passed into the gloam of the room.

“Hauberk.” she said. She tossed the untied mail jacket to Gusty almost too fast. Still, she caught the armor and lipped it over her head and neck, starting to tie it with her levitation as she pulled it in place.

“You two quit standin’ about, shite! Get tha’ stallion in he’s platemail.” Gertrude barked at the guards standing in the open door. “Skirt. Frilly buh’ stylish.” The favored cloth tumbled towards Gusty, who gladly caught it in turn, slipping it over her hips and onto her flanks. Gertrude sped up her pace throwing various things about the room before finding Gusty’s sword in one of her suitcases.

“Ah...dah old blade o’ the mother ‘erself.” Gertrude quietly slurred as she walked it up to her. She loosened the strap and with a quick hop managed to slip the scabbard and fastener around Gusty’s neck. She took the sword and belt in her magic levitating it into place before tightening it. A long shiver traced its way down her spine, and persisted across her body afterwards. Gusty came the realization that she was nervous, her adrenaline did not make her feel cold like this shaking did. She looked around the room her eyes flicking to anything and everything for only a few brief seconds. Gusty felt already tired and she had not even begun fighting, she could not tell if that was from the massive shield spell she had cast or the general lack of sleep.

...............................................................are you ready? Mother?.................................................try me...

There are........................................................................................................just relax….
strike through their hearts…
...................................................................................................................................................................hey there, sweetheart.

“Gusty! Shite! Snap out of it!” Something slapped her across the face and Gusty found herself looking at Gertrude. She rubbed her head instinctively, a headache trying to rear itself up to hamper her further. Still reeling from whatever that had been she looked down in a mild terror at her surrogate daughter. How many of those did she have anyway?

“Listen ta’ me.” Gertrude hopped up and pulled her face down low holding eye contact with Gusty. “We be needin’ ya, an’ tha’ means ya can’t let them dirty cunts up in their fancy ship to scare ya!” Gusty had no way to respond besides a few blubbers. Everything happening today was the worst case scenario for her. Days of disturbing nightmares, the attack, more voices, she was falling apart and no matter how hard she tried to hold herself together it was getting worse. No anchoring plan, no staying in the moment had been helping since she had met Gertrude. It was a secret that she had not had been successful in keeping. Still there was a margin of comfort coming from the ewe’s bright eyes, just enough to keep her on topic, for now.

“We haff a plan. Ye’s shield made it certain to succeed. Kennt tha’ even should we lose dis’ city to dem pirate bastards, we be able to save the townsfolk and call on Equestria fer aid. The pirates jus’ fired on their resident diplomat. You.” Gertrude beamed with pride. She had clearly been plotting the events in advance. Even though it would take Celestia time to mobilize and arrive, the pirates were finished. All they had to do now was minimize the damage. Gusty released a relaxing sigh and drew in an even more soothing breath.

“You’re right.” she said. Gusty ran a hoof through her mane still feeling out her mood. “But, we still have to stop them from attacking the town. I can’t believe my shield has held as long as it has. I’m going to go up there to distract them for as long as I can. If you have anyone that can come up to help send them as soon as you can.”

“Aye. Soon as we finish buildin’ tha’ giant ladder I’ve been dreamin’ of.” Gertrude snarked.

“Ha ha. Very funny.” she retorted. It sounded meaner than she intended but Gusty did not have time to parcel out the conversation further. She snapped her head around until she found Zeccaran and Gunther. She narrowed her eyes at her zebra friend, sizing up what he could do for her in the coming fight, perhaps ferry a few Ovis. She rathered Zeccaran not engage in direct combat; he had a tendency to get himself into dire situations. Who was she kidding, this already was a dire situation. She motioned him over so she might abate the sensation of needlessly yelling across the small room.

“Can you carry reinforcements up to the airship with any speed?” She asked.

“Well, I figured I would just disable the ship if you cou-” Gusty cut him off.

“I’m trying to be realistic here. Not make some sort of hair-brained scheme. Can you, or can’t you, carry up soldiers to help board the airship?” she asked again.

“I’d be slow, but I could get them up there.” He paused before casting a sidelong look at her. “What in the world are you planning on doing? Capturing it?” Zeccaran continued giving her a immensely concerned look.

“Ready!” Bunker broke the staring contest with an powerful rolled “r.” Glimmering in the torchlight, his armor made him look even bigger than usual its spiked plating intimidating, but in a good way. Gusty nodded approvingly to him, before returning here eyes to Zeccaran. The zebra heaved a weary sigh in response.

“Alright. But for the record I don’t think this is a good idea.” he grumbled as he made his way for the door. All the gathered Ovis began rustling in place as Gusty and her companions made ready to leave.

“Move it, ya bunch o’ rotten sons o’ trollips!” Gertrude yelled seeing them trying to push through the crowd. The soldiers parted allowing them to continue moving. A familiar object, soft but heavy landed on Gusty’s back and the Dame Ewe returned to barking orders from her perch. They were quickly on the outside of Castle Manor, the golden dome of the shield still holding despite the fresh wave of cannonfire exploding on its outer surface. A nagging sensation in her mind made her recall something missing.

“Hey, where is Gabriella?” she asked over her shoulder to Gertrude. Bouncing up closer her neck kindred lamb pointed towards a crowd that was moving towards the government building. At the lead of the worried group of townsheep was the prodigal heiress.

“There! Leadin’ follks to safety. Smilin’ all the way, no less!” Gertrude further emphasized. Gabriella certainly did beam with a radiance as imperishable as her wool. Gusty was pleased to see her following up on the plan. It made the scruples she had disappear, knowing that nothing besides the obvious was out of place further readied her for what was about to transpire.

She cast her magic around Gertrude and lowered her to the ground gingerly. Giving a quick glance to Zeccaran she directed her ire to the pirates above.

“Bring Bunker and Gunther first. Then whoever else you can scrape up.” she said never taking her eyes off the airship. Drawing her blade, Gusty unfurled her wings and started her ascent. The airship began maneuvering making her waste no time trying to build as much speed as she could. She had no idea if it was moving to react to her or for some other reason, at this point there was not much time to think at all.

The answer came in the form of flames. Great billowing waves of bright yellow and orange erupted from the bow of the vessel just below its attack ram. The liquid fire, at first, flew in an arch before impacting the shield where it blossomed in an out-of-place display of beauty. It was at that moment that the grand dome Gusty had cast shattered with the disturbing silence only shield magic could. Falling away with an ethereal grace, the barrier’s protection gave way as flame belched through the initial opening. The quiet of the open air was replaced by a deafening roar not unlike that of a dragon’s.

She did not have time to cast a shield on herself. There was barely any time to maneuver to dodge the beam of unnatural flame spewing from the airship’s bow. Her body strained as the attempt was made with little success. Burning, truly a searing pain erupted along her flanks and wings. She did not get hit with the liquid itself, but the amalgamation of chemistry and magic ignited the very air with its intensity. Driven only on by pure force of will did Gusty stay in the air, beating her wings down hard in an attempt to choke the certain fire that burned on them.

Instinct took over and Gusty cast her old sacred healing spell on herself. As soon as the spell started she could tell she was out of practice. Having projected an enormous shield not fifteen minutes before further reduced her magical effectiveness. Worry tightened her muscles as she beat her wings down and kicked her legs to see how sore she was going to be before even seeing an enemy. To her delight, the burning had completely subsided, and she actually felt good enough to fight. She hazarded a glance over her backside her nerves making it even harder to see her body as she flew. Her skirt was burned off along with some fur on her flanks and back legs but was otherwise unharmed back there. Her wings, however, were scorched severely. By the looks of things she had prevented the majority of any permanent damage and only her secondary feathers had been burned, but a number of her primaries on her right wing were missing. The secondaries would grow back but flying had just become a bigger workout.

Shocked by the speed she was still maintaining, Gusty heaved a sigh. Somehow her sword had remained in her telekinesis through it all. That made her just barely capable of engaging her enemies. That was then that Gusty’s mind began racing. How was what she doing going to help? Could she stop the ship from firing on the town? Even if she boarded the vessel, how would she fight the crew at such a disadvantage? How could she distract them? What was their objective? Just how organized were they?

Gusty ran out of time to think, her flight path had passed above the deck of the airship. The armored vessel’s main platform swarmed with a multitude of creatures. Reflexive panic welled-up in her throat as all their eyes slowly swung towards her. The instant passed and she was sailing past the grand contraption’s main ballon. The momentary horror had cleared her mind just enough for the sight to make her realize something important. A section of the balloon right in front of her had a loose armor plate that hung welcomingly. It glinted dully in the midday sun as if was flashing her a mischeivous grin.

It was rare for such a golden opportunity to present itself in the heat of combat, but Gusty would dare not waste it. Beating her beleaguered wings at an angle she made the hard turn right at the exposed rubber. Shooting pain from her scorched wings rocketed down into her shoulders and back, threatening to make her drop her sword all over again. In the back of her mind she was already kicking herself for how sore she was going to be for continuing to fight. But if she stopped to think about what she was doing, Gusty knew she would probably fall right out of the sky. That would instantly make her a liability for Gertrude and the rest of the Ovis below, and that was something she could not allow. So she pressed on, against all reason and thought flying directly at the chink in their armor.

Just before she was to impact the exposed balloon Gusty slashed it viciously with her sword. The flexible material was stronger than it looked forcing her blade to tumble as she tried to force it into the balloon being only partially successful in cutting a seam before it was inside the structure. However, her body did the rest and a great shifting and ripping could be felt as Gusty tumbled into the balloon’s superstructure.

It was hot inside the pitch dark chamber. Sweltering perhaps was a better description. Gusty felt sweat instantly start pouring down her neck and haunches, making her feel weak and disoriented from just the sheer change in temperature. She ignited her horn wtih a light spell to try and regain her bearing. The interior of the structure appeared not more than she expected, large, oblong, and dull grey. Gusty could see where she had entered from, but the balloon was not losing air as fast as she wanted. In a near panic she looked around the desensitized chamber for anything that looked useful for furthering the air pocket’s dispersion. Finding nothing a feeling of dread started to well up in her chest as she cursed to herself.

“Dammit all! I just fucking get here and then I can’t do anything!” She growled through her stress and sweat. “Wait a minute-”

A terrible thought had come to Gusty. While she was in an enclosed structure had access to the outside, she was even able to see sunlight through the hole she had made. She had not used it since the train almost three years ago but it would have to do, no matter how hard it would stress her body. Gusty concentrated, drawing all her magic into her body preparing to cast her trusty Cloud Master. The spell was going to hurt her more than it would the balloon but in this moment disabling the airship mattered more than anything else. The channel complete, Gusty fired the spell.

Hissing and shrieking of wind and magic overwhelmed all of Gusty’s senses. The energy stored in her body burst forth with angry force. It sent stinging tendrils of aching pain deep into her hooves and chest and head. She was just shy of her limit, and her vision momentarily flickered to black. A low growing groaning of metal brought her vision back, beholding for her a beautiful sight. The small hole where she had enter the balloon was a gaping breach whose dust and smoke showed the rapid pull of the exiting air.

“Yes!” Gusty shouted in joy. Her exclamation made her relax her flight posture and she was sucked out the superstructure. She released an overtly girly scream when she lost control, tumbling through the air as she stressed her wings more than necessary. Gusty finally righted herself and after a quick shake of her head to try and clear her mind she looked down on the ship’s deck.

Below Gunther and Bunker stood in two seperate encirclements. Dozens and dozens of various types of pirates surrounded them both, each pressed against the deck rail. Seemingly the only reason neither of them had not been killed were their elevated positions away from the center of the decking. It was lower than the areas near the railing, designed to give deckhands cover for when the cannonade came flying. Gusty gave a quick glance over the rest of the deck, to see it still swarming with pirates, many carrying repair tools into a steel scaffolding that lead up to the main balloon. Sharp squawking drew her attention towards the stern of the vessel, and its elevated wheelhouse.

“Throw ‘dem borders overboard, lads!” shrieked a massive griffon his claws sunk into the ship’s wheel. Gusty held in a shiver at the sight of him, he had a certain menace about him that made her cast her malicious intention spell.

Her vision was briefly overwhelmed by the black and white image the spell projected into her mind. Sure enough, the griffon was as black as the darkest ink, almost as black as Stormwalker was on the first day she met him. Stormwalker? She had not thought of him in almost a month, a welcome reprieve no doubt, but now his mere name made her feel disoriented. They were hopelessly outnumbered up here and he certainly would be useful. She slapped herself trying to regain control of her thoughts, it did not help.

Oh, him?..............................................................................................................................Come on, focus!
..................................................................the key to win..............................................................
Mom, can I go outside to play?................................................................................................................Stop it! Stop it, please!
......................................................................................................................you like it............................................
...................Silly filly, you can’t do…..........................................................................................................give in.

Gusty screamed. She kept screaming too, as she grabbed her own head in agony. The feeling of being so completely overwhelmed overturning all her senses. She hated this. Gusty knew she had felt this pain before. She could not remember when, or how many times, but it always brought her to a screeching halt with a splitting pinch in her temples. However, in her shrieks of painful epiphany she did remember the one thing that mattered. The only way to make the terror and the suffering stop was to lean into the sensation.

Good, girl.

She opened her eyes and looked down at the pirate captain through her migraine. Primal fury turned the edges of Gusty’s vision into a hazy red. She beat her wings down to end her hover and shot towards the griffon. It was a break neck dive faster than she had flown in an age. She was still yelling from before and that was not lost on the pirate. He jerked his hooked beak in her direction and reached for his broad cutlass.

Gusty hit him before he could get the blade halfway from its scabbard. She had not bothered to use her sword, opting to just jam her forehooves and body into his chest and head. He loosed a mighty squawk, unbefitting a captain, when she impacted him. A sharp spluttering of spit covered her face as the bludgeon of her hooves and weight of her body exhausted all the air from the griffon’s lungs. She kept pumping her wings and pushed the pirate up into the air and over the deck rail before she slowed to let him fall. He could fly of course but it would take him some time to recover and return to the airship. That was what Gusty was hoping at least.

Turning sharply, Gusty was stopped in her flight by a rummaging sound followed by a sharp, crack! of wood slamming into wood. She snapped her head towards the sound to see the ship’s wheel bouncing tightly against its furthest port turn position. Instantly, a sharp moan of metal and wood bending to compensate for the sudden change in direction bellowed from the airship’s body. The whole of the vessel jerked to the left and a combined yell of surprise from all those onboard resonated like a growl of breaking glass. Every creature on the deck including Gunther and Bunker was tossed to the deck, Gusty was happy she was still flying glad to avoid the harsh decking.

Zipping over the fallen pirates, Gusty made haste to her husband and canine companion. She momentarily sheathed her still dutifully levitating blade as she passed over her enemies. The ship being jostled looked to have actually saved them both from being captured. She landed next to Bunker and immediately throw her hooves underneath him and pulled him upright.

“About time you show up!” he grumbled. “Was getting lonely, beating pirates by self.”

She opened her mouth to respond when a throwing axe whistled right past her nose and embedded itself into the deck rail. Hopping automatically in surprise, Gusty landed staring right at the horde of recovered pirates. Internally, she immediately began berating herself for putting her sword away. Externally, she was desperately trying to draw her blade and not get hit by a charging goat of all things. Only successful in the former, Gusty grimaced from the impact, certain the cloven-hoofed devil had broken a few ribs as he slammed her into the deck rail. The attack had left her ears ringing but put the goat the disadvantageous position of being in striking distance of Bunker and his axe.

“Yeeeearrrrggh!” her husband bellowed as the axe came hurtling down on the diminutive pirate. It struck true and hot blood splattered up onto her face. Bunker’s trademark axe was nearly as big as the goat and rent the pirate in twain, leaving his innards to gurgle over the sudden and eerie silence of those in the fight. Gusty wiped her face clean before growling angrily towards the band before her. She was matched by Gunther who had slipped his way over to them. The pirates looked up from their felled comrade each readying weapons of various rapport, from cutlasses to clubs.

There they stood against a mixed group of parrots, griffons, ponies, and goats. They certainly were a ragtag band, but they looked hardened, vicious. A lump swelled up in Gusty’s throat as that momentary pause of time happened before any fight. This was going to be a bad one.

A raw yell came from the first six pirates breaking the lapse of clarity. Charging with a crazed intent the brigands bounded up stairs to the platform where they stood. Gusty surmised that was going to be her party’s only advantage. They were backed against the elevated catwalk and deck rail toward the most forward portion of the bow, meaning the pirates could only run uphill right at them. That moment of confidence was ruined when the row of griffons behind the deck bound pirates took to flight and swung out and around where they stood. It would take them a moment to swing back in to attack; Gusty just hoped that was all the time she would need to beat back the ones running at her.

The fastest of the group was a pony, a short stout fellow that held a cutlass in his mouth. He was missing an eye but moved with the confidence of someone with three. He slashed at her as he jumped up to her position. She was forced to dodge, her levitating blade not in position to parry, but was successful. However, the pirate was not done he pivoted as he missed aiming a full buck at her. Gusty knew this was already wasting too much time, and in her fury and desperation she slashed down her blade at his kicking legs with all her mental strength.

Hard metal hit soft flesh and he howled in pain as both his rear legs toppled harmlessly to the deck. Even in this moment she did not want to just maim her quarry when it was causing such suffering. The pirate rolled back and forth on the deck his dark red blood already pooling rapidly from his stumps. Gusty did not finish him, she did not have the time, a parrot spinning a heavy iron chain swung it towards her.

Falling flat by instinct alone, Gusty managed to not take the apparatus across the head and neck. It would have killed her had she failed to move, the thought propelled her onward. She sent her sword flying toward the parrot, he cawed angrily batting it away with the spinning chain. That was his demise however, Gusty jerked her head to emphasize the harsh flick of her blade. The chain swung around her sword as planned and wrenched itself from the parrot’s claws. In the next moment, Gusty swung the blade in the opposite direction, unravelling the chain and sending flying directly towards its owner’s head. The strike rang true and the foul flightless bird-creature was suddenly without a head. His neck erupted in a fountain of gore as his body hopelessly continued to flail for several moment before flopping down to the deck.

Gusty picked herself up to see Gunther, eating. He was eating one of the goats that had charged, growling demonically at the other pony that had charged. Blood dripped down from his big teeth and his eyes glowed with a swirling malice that held the poor colt before him in place. The foul stench of a burst bowel instantly hit Gusty’s nose when Gunther dug his muzzle back down into the felled pirate.

“Please...no...I don’t want to be...dog food!” the pony whimpered. Gusty turned to see Bunker toss a pirate over the deck rail, the fellow that had been tossed begging much like the colt. In the same motion her husband spun in a full circle swing and cut his other opponent in half at the waist. Gusty swung her head around looking for the griffons knowing that they would be attacking in the next moment.

She came to with a massive griffon standing above her. A kudgel gripped in both talons, raised high above his head, he snarled angrily. Gusty instantly started to struggled to do anything to escape, but as soon as she moved sharp pain erupted along her flanks and belly. The griffon had her pinned with his lion claws and weight, her motion digging them deep into her flesh. She had no idea where her sword and gotten to: even if she had it was not going to be fast enough to help her. She did not even have time to cast a stunbolt. She raised up her front hooves ready to try and deflect the blow when a shriek of an eagle gave her pause.

Fizzing and popping of magic filled the air and the griffon that pinned her was knocked away by a beam of dark green kinesis. A pair of heavy whahumps! rocked the deck and before Gusty could even roll to see who had just landed a Royal Ram Guard bounded over her and into the wad of pirates. His big armored body throwing his smaller foes away as he gored, and kicked with fury. Dark green kinesis blasts catapulted from his horns to any unfortunate enough to stand still, Gusty smiled, quite happy to pick herself up carefully. A flash of green light made her jump and scream instinctively.

“Hey are you alright?!” Zeccaran’s voice pulled her out of the battle stupor. He was suddenly picking her up.

“I-I-I think so.” She heaved trying to calm herself. Her head suddenly had begun hurting again, along with a persistent bit of agony on her belly near the inside of one of her flanks.

“Yeah right. You are bleeding from you head and stomach. Come on, you need to get out of here.” Zeccaran scolded pulling her towards the deck rail. He kept looking back over his shoulder in a way that made Gusty very nervous. She probably had not chance to actually get off the ship at the moment and her fool of friend was just going to toss her against her will.

“Look, I’m going to try to patch myself up first.” She said stopping him. An angry bellow louder than the roar of battle drew Gusty to look back down to the main of the deck. Blood and bodies covered most of the surface, but they were still outnumbered. The yell apparently had come from one of the rams, a cutlass stuck out of one of his shoulders, but it had only succeeded in sending him into a greater frenzy.

Gusty took the moment to channel what healing magics she had left. She cast the small ritual on herself and immediately felt better. The pain on her stomach ceased and her head was clearing. Healing magic was the best. She always appreciated that simple gift of Origin. It came in handy from the most dire of circumstances to the most mundane of occurrences. Using it gave Gusty a second wind, that even she knew was a foolhardy feeling but puffed up her chest nonetheless.

“Come on, we have to help!” She proclaimed starting to move.

“Are you crazy?!” Zeccaran shouted behind her.

“Probably cause I’m already spent!”

Gusty bounded across the deck towards the Royal Guards, who were slowly getting backed against the wheelhouse. There were still a sizeable number of pirates and by the looks of things they had gotten over their initial shock and awe of the Guards’ entrance. A familiar yell turned her vision to see Bunker swinging his axe in a mad spin surrounded by a smaller but equally full group of hostiles.

However, she was now flanking the both collections of pirates, and even without her sword, that was going to prove to be extremely useful. Starting a low flight, Gusty sped towards the nearest pirate by the wheelhouse trusting her husband to be fine, while also ignore Zeccaran’s panicked yells. She bowled over her quarry with her flying charge, letting her instincts carry her into a bit of a zen. A nearby fellow noticed her but was quickly punched in the mouth with her right hoof, before having his sabre stolen with her magic. She used the scavenged blade to impale a rather fat parrot that was not facing her and who also let out a long shrieking alarm squawk. The group of brigands all immediately turned to face her.

Gazing over the crowd Gusty saw the Royal Guards each jump in a single leap up atop the wheelhouse, shattering the guardrail there with their horns, taking advantage of her distraction. Unfortunately this put her in a bit of a bind as all the pirates stared at an unarmed and injured mare.

“Ye rotten cunts coulda ne’er won a fair fight!” Shouted the male brogue of one of the guards.

“Aye! An’ ye might lose this rigged ‘un too, ya bunch a clumsy bastards!” the other taunted too.

They both laughed like maniacs from their heightened position. The pirates all stood looking about in confusion. They started to pack closer together their eyes all searching the area for the one griffon that should have been on the helm. Gusty grinned and laughed too, having knocked the captain off the ship had proved useful after all. Especially after the pirates began muttering about not seeing him and what should they do without him.

A piercing whistle hushed the crowd and all eyes looked up towards the sky from whence it came. Gusty had been beginning to wonder when he would show back up and the captain did not disappoint. Hovering alongside four equally large and intimidating griffons, each of them wielding a large crossbow, the Pirate King scowled.

“Abandon ship ye, filthy lubbers! We fight a different day!” he shrieked. Immediately, all the pirates rushed towards the side of the ship where he and his lieutenants hung in the air. They dove over the deck rail, without concern for the fall. A bit of thumping and the sound of wood against bodies made Gusty realized they had some form of aerial lifeboat.

The whir of said craft’s engine peaked to a high pitched ringing as the last of the pirates cleared the deck. Gusty sat confused, unable to react as the pirates ran away. She was not done with this fight, and even if they were pirates, they had to have some honor in battle. Gusty ran toward the deck rail ready to pursue her routed enemies.

“Get back here you cowards!” she screamed just starting to take flight. White hot iron found its way into her neck and chest, taking the breath from her lungs. She fell against the deck rail unable to make noise beyond a small squeak. It was pure agony to move, but Gusty twisted her neck enough to look down at the top of her mail. A crossbow bolt sat deeply embedded into her neck and chest, and judging by the difficulty she was having breathing a lung.

“Stay back, filthy pony. I shan’t be havin’ ye ruin another a’ me plans.” chuckled the Pirate King. At the sound of his voice the last vestiges of Gusty’s adrenaline and magic dropped into her bloodstream. She did not feel pain as she sprang up from the deck, nor the strain on her horn as she fired as many stunbolts as she could at the five griffons. Nothing mattered beyond felling them and ending their tyranny.

Unable to comprehend if she was being even slightly successful. Gusty was in full flight before another bolt was fired at her. It missed, so she persisted. Another, a miss, she persisted. A third, another fouled shot. She was almost to the Pirate King another stunbolt readied on her horn. Trauma inflamed her left wing forcing back against her side. Losing all flight all flight speed she began to fall. But to Gusty there was nothing to see or fear except the voices from before. It dawned on her that she had no idea if she was alive or dead, but in this hell did it matter?

Act 2: Chapter 9 - Denial in Both Cases

View Online

Power. As a concept it is simple. But in reality, it behaves more like an narcotic. Once you taste it you crave more of it. And it takes a supreme will and help from your friends to overcome that urge
-Princess Luna-

Chapter 9 - Denial in Both Cases

Typically pain was a reminder to body that it yet lived. At the moment it seemed more like a terrible nuisance, prodding her in the sides. Like a needy foal the discomfort increased its attack on her slumber forcing her to subconsciously recognize she was desperately thirsty. Still, that was nothing, she would just relax ignore the troubles and sleep more. That’s when the talking started, as if it had never fallen silent in the first place.

.......................so you survived…................................................................................. I’ll never get used to this.
Gusty… ...........................................................Will I survive next time?............................How’s she doing?
..............................If I just trust my instincts….........................................................................no. trust me…

No longer in a state of panic she was able to finally discern who was speaking. There was the ‘not-her’ voice, her own voice, Zeccaran, and Bunker. It felt good to come to terms with the unearthly sounds but there was nothing she could do to control them as they rattled on asking many more indistinct questions, making unintelligible grunts. They had a rhythm to them that kept her relaxed compared to before. She actually felt a peace, the assault of her own mind rendered null by her state of being.

That issue, however, remained. She still had no idea if she was alive or dead. Clarity in this dark void had long ago been sucked away by the ethereal sensation of floating and relaxation. Most would say a relaxed mind blossomed with thought and understanding; she disagreed. More of the talking, the voices, came and went for an immeasurable but yet instant amount of time. Consumed eventually by pain and a sharp banging of some low type of drum in her head, there was no longer release, instead the annoyance became urgence.

Dull orange light overcame her eyes as she struggled to open them. The torch that cast the burning beams flickered enough to allow her to adjust to the brighter than pitch room. Barely, able to move she tenderly turned her head in an attempt to look somewhere besides the torch. Fresh waves of pain rocketed down her neck and into her chest making her squeak in surprise before she could bite her lips closed. She reflexively jerked too, causing little daggers of agony to stab into her left wing and stomach. Tensing and holding herself still with great effort she tired again to return to the posture she had been in while she slept. It proved futile, even the simple act of drawing breath caused her torment.

The sudden throbbing of her temples made her forget the rest of her body, and with her free right hoof she reached up massage her forehead. Her left was tethered to her chest and sternum probably to keep her from ripping off the rusty bandages that covered her body. The pounding in her skull reminded her of the rather sore, smarting protrusion that stuck out of it. She must have truly burned out her magic before blacking out.

Foolishly, Gusty came to the realization she was her. Her memory of the last few minutes of the fight remained fuzzy but everything else had come rushing back. Everything else came with her general sense of reckless abandon and obligation. She could not remain injured, incapacitated, inside some dark little room somewhere, hopefully, in Castle Manor. Ever determined, Gusty drew magic into her body to cast her sacred heal, hopefully before the influx of power knocked her back out. The magic welled up into her chest quickly, thankfully not causing her even the slightest twinge. It was not supposed to be able to hurt her but with the beating she sustained Gusty barely trusted herself to move much less use her powers.

With her healing magic readied she released her mental focus onto herself. She rejoiced silently as her chest and ribs stopped aching, thankful she could use this special magic without using her still quite sore horn. But she could get over that because of one reason: drawing in a deep breath Gusty exhales in a perfect long sigh. The scant few minutes she had spent writhing in discomfort and suffering had been more than enough for her. The simple act of breathing restored her, she was still stiff but the headache and worst of the pain had subsided entirely. She attempted to stretch her wings to find them bound with bandages. With her horn remaining tender she resorted to ripping them off with her mouth, as well as the sling that held her right hoof to her chest.

After several minutes of struggling, Gusty was free from the bonds. She was pleased to see her body mostly restored, feathers that had been burned the day before now back in place but perhaps a bit messy. The area on her chest where she had taken the crossbow bolt had returned to a healthy sheen of fur and flesh making a broad grin spread her lips. Few were the things that could keep her down, and this had not been one of them. She concentrated, planning on removing the pesky headache and the general stiff and sore extremities with more of her magic. She cast the spell again happy to spend as much of the special energy to catch the blissful high it gave when it was more than she needed to fix any injuries.

Delighted, as the sacred rite poured its power back into her Gusty let her mind wander. Oh, how other ponies would crave such a potent magic, how would they use it for personal gain. That was why it was given only to her, all those years ago, only those of pure heart and spirit could even learn the power, much less use it. She pondered the idea of teaching Amethyst or Celestia, it was something that warranted serious thought and she would return to it later. The blissful feeling of the healing art slowly faded away and, with fire rekindled, Gusty strode purposefully toward the door out ot the dank little room. She had no idea how long she had been incapacitated and it was time to find out.

Gusty tested her horn out by utilizing her levitation to open the door instead of pushing down on the handle manually. She smirked when everything felt totally normal, she felt like she could practically lift the whole of Castle Manor with her levitation, truth be told. She pushed the door open instead, it would not do to cause such a commotion. Glaring light and gasping ponies awaited her past the threshold of the room.

Two stallions had been guarding the room. One was suited in traditional Royal Guard gold, save a more decorative helmet and a orange half-cape. He was a unicorn, tall and broad. The other was dressed in the strange steel and bronze plate mail of a certain stallion’s personal soldiers. Conveniently a pegasus, a lithe slim fellow that had a seasoned look about him. Balking at their presence regardless, Gusty stood trying to reorganize her thoughts before the two fools started ordering her back into the room.

“My lady please, you should go back and get some rest.” the Royal Guard nodded barring her way. The other fool braced himself against the door frame taking up the rest of the space before adding: “Please, miss, it would be for your best interest and ours.”

Feeling particularly offended by their request, Gusty placed a forehoof on each of their breast plating before giving them a hardy shove. They did not lose their balance or topple away, but she moved them a short distance, enough to try to slip past without having to flatout bowl them over.

“I’ve had enough rest; and if you know what’s good for you, you’ll get out of my way.” she grumble-growled. She desperately needed to see what had happened to the city, to see if everyone had survived.

The steel-clad fellow cast a wayward glance to the Royal Guard who returned his gaze briefly before nodding in a silent agreement to an equally silent question. They stepped away slowly each staying close to her as she moved into the hallway.

“You will have to accept our company” the Guard started as he caught the snide little raise of her lip, “for a short time. But, only until we are certain you are one-hundred percent of course.” He recovered well enough, but he clearly underestimated who he was dealing with.

“I’m just fine, I actually feel better than I did before the battle broke out. Now, please.” Gusty emphasized her words by extending her wings and forcing the two guards to back away from her. She would not be escorted around like she was some sort of defenseless maiden.

“Miss. We can follow you as loosely as you like, but our orders were clear: We are to maintain a constant vigil over you, regardless of circumstances, until it is determined you are able to fully function. And that is what we will do, whether or not you like it.” said the bold, reckless fellow, as much as Gusty expected him to be for a soldier of such ill-repute.

She loosed an angry groan. “Fine. Just don’t walk in front of me, or be anywhere where I can see you.” They both nodded at acknowledgement of her demand. Slipping past her field of vision and standing a distance behind her when she turned to give them a quick look. No longer hindered but fresh with the chills of somepony watching her, Gusty slowly plodded towards the end of the short hall. A different hall than where her room had been located, she was unsure if the door ahead of her was the way out. Ultimately, Gusty decided that it did not matter and she yanked the ironbound wood open with her magic. Before her a bustling ponies and Ovis hustled by the open door passing left to right in the grand corridor of the Long Hall.

Boldy pushing directly into the moving crowd Gusty began making her way toward the end of the hall that usually housed the throne. However, she saw ahead of her a different sight, thanks only to her height. Tables and charts filled with maps and figurines, but that was the least interesting of the scenery. Dozens of the steel-clad pony guards filled the area in a tight circle, accosting and examining anyone that got close. Inside that ring there were a mix of Royal Guards, both Equestrian and Baylandian. Gertrude remained nestled amongst them as she moved back and forth between different displays. Zeccaran was there too, staring at a pinned up schematic, and covered in what Gusty hoped was oil. Likewise Bunker was nearby, leaning from one set of hooves to the next, also as filthy, seemingly occupied with what his zebra counterpart was doing. Curiously, Gabriella was missing, vaguely, Gusty wondered if she did not have the stomach for the logistical portion of wartime politics.

Upon reaching the outer circle of guards, Gusty gave them a harsh scowl. The apparent commander of the group, a large unicorn fellow about the size of Bunker, gave a hoof motion to his nearby compatriots. The barrier of bodies parted enough for her to pass into the busy center of information. It closed only after her two shadows had made through as well, she would have to try harder to skip her security. However, her interest was taken by Gertrude who was busy grumbling over a map next to two slightly more decorated looking attendants; one stallion, one ram, mirroring the general population of Castle Manor at the moment.

“We hath use our element o’ surprise already” the old ewe mumbled looking at the detailed depiction of the Baylands.

“But dem pirates be cornered up here in the northern mines” the familiar bulky ram replied while pointing to the little double red flag on the map. “Without their flagship they are a poor enemy, milady. We should strike while the iron ‘tis hot!” cited wily MacGerson.

“I agree with the Jarl.” The unicorn stallion stated, his voice thick with a Canterlot-accent, “We can crush these brigands with a single blow if we move now.”

“But what ye both be forgettin’ is tha’ regular folk won’t tahk well to foreign military operating within our borders. Ye’s ponies’ help in securing our economy in our hour o’ need was enough for the lay-ram. Doing more would cause much in the way of civil unrest.” Gertrude paused. “It puts me in a foul position. I kennt mine clans need the help to oust the pirates completely, but I can’t use the help I gots, without having an uprising of mine own kin on me hooves!”

Sensing the perfect time to butt in, Gusty cleared her throat loudly, “Isn’t that what I’m here for?” She said rather coyly. Gertrude and her two attendants looked up the later pair showing only mild interest. The former made up for their lack enthusiasm by gaping jaw and wide eyes of shock and confusion.

“Gusty. Be mine eyes betraying me?” she whispered just over the bustle of the crowd.

“I don’t know why they would be. Unless somepony cast a rebellion spell on them!” Gusty smiled at her own ridiculous sarcasm. Gertrude fixated on her in response unable to move or blink. With an abrupt change, she flinched, before raising lip and brow in surprise. Her expression ended with blur that resulted in Gusty finding air beneath her hooves. Gertrude completed the tackled and jumped repeatedly on her chest and stomach.

“Ye crazy mare! Don’ ever scare me like that again!” she shrieked, her voice a shrill combination of squeaking a bleating. Gusty levitated Gertrude up to prevent getting beaten up all over again by her friend’s extreme excitement. The Dame’s screaming had drawn the attention of the gathered group and by the time Gusty had gotten off the ground, she was greeted by her two oil-covered companions.

“Gusty, you are alright!” Zeccaran and Bunker shouted both hugging her tightly. Her husband’s open affection she could handle. She had not been ready for Zeccaran to help him pounce her and almost knock her to the ground all over again. Feeling her cheeks flair red with embarrassment she looked away from her husband and friend. She spied Gertrude, still floating securely in her levitation, eyeing the situation with jealousy.

“Oh, come on Gerty.” she said lowering the Dame Ewe to the ground, “Group hug.” She jumped up and landed in the center of the ponies clinging to Gusty’s face and neck due to her diminutive stature compared to the majority of the group. They remained that way for a time, the crowd around them silent, waiting for them to finish. This just made Gusty feel more self-conscious and with the introspection came the voices again.

.................I can do this, I can do this...........................................................I promise: I'll help you get through this
You can’t trust him............................................................................................No! It’s the only way!
................................Welp, looks like we are going in. ................................................. Da!...........................
...............Because you helped me......................................................Why would you help me?

The cascade of words ended as quickly as they had come, but that fact did little to make Gusty feel better. She blinked a few times to make certain she was still in Castle Manor and not back in the twilight zone between life and death. Although she remained anchored in reality, the background hum of indistinct voices of both friends and enemies remained. Abscently still caught in the hug, Gusty wondered if they had always been there, and she could simply not hear them before. No matter what the answer was she would be forced to learn how to tune them out. The embrace of friends came to and end.

“Well, I guess you are doing better. We weren’t sure if you were gonna wake up, if you didn’t make it through today we were gonna send for Celestia to personally come.” Zeccaran said giving her a curious look. Bunker nodded neck to him, a huge grin brightening her husband’s face

“Aye! Nothin’ short o’miracle to see ye up and at’em! Even with tha’ magic o’ urs.” Gertrude concurred wiping tears from her eyes. The Dame adjusted a small little crown of silver that Gusty was fairly certain was being wore purely to distinguish her from her daughter. Either way it was the first time Gusty had seen here wear it and the head gear seemed almost out of place on the ewe. However, there were other matters to attend to: like ditching her new pair of shadows. She looked around the small gathering to find them standing next to one another as far from her as they could possibly be.

“Alright you two! Come here.” she shouted to the two guards. They headed instantly, before she had even asked them to come over. Once the reached her she continued: “As you can see I’m doing just fine. I’m surrounded by my friends and family and you can stop following me around: no matter how short of a time you had been doing it!” she declared.

Instead of the two answering her demand she was interrupted by Zeccaran and Bunker

“Stiff Inspection?!” “Captain Garrison?!” they yelled respectively, in unison.

The two oil covered fools then proceeded to ask their individual compatriots when they got here, why they were guarding her, and then turned to look at each other in genuine confusion. Seemingly aware they had simultaneously made idiots of themselves, they just stood waiting for answers before slowly backing up closer to Gusty.

“To answer your question, Sir Bunker: by order of her Royal Highness Princess Celestia I was sent with specific orders to ensure the safety of Gusty Twilight until such times as she fully recovered, then I was to deliver her this message.” He paused to clear his throat before turning to make eye-contact with her. “The Princess wishes you well and says that while she expected you to stir up a bit of trouble for the pirates she did not expect you to become so egregiously injured in the process. She expresses regret that she was unable to help tend to your wounds personally, and recommends you take higher degrees of caution now that you have recovered. Not that she expects to persuade you.” he concluded.

It was definitely a message from her friend. Had it not been for a change of pronouns Gusty might have thought Celestia was playing a rather bad joke by enchanting her voice to sound like a stallion’s. Satisfied, she nodded approvingly to Captain Garrison, who saluted in response before dropping into a more relaxed posture. Bunker motioned to his friend in a way that expressed that they would catch up later. Gusty smiled at her husband’s prioritization of her, he still had to tell her what had happened after she blacked out. There was just one more obstacle, and she turned to face him.

“Guess it’s my turn then?” He said with a tone so intentionally dry it sounded like he was mocking her.

“Get on with, stallion. I do not have time for your employer’s games.” Gusty scowled at Stiff Inspection.

“He said you would say that.” The parched rhythm of his voice disappearing with a cocky grin. Gusty let out an angry groan, even on a different continent that demonic asshole managed to annoy her.

“Anyway I have a letter here,” Stiff Inspection said pulling a metal parchment tube from his armor and pulling a scroll out.

“I’m not going to re-”

“I know; he said you would refuse... so I have to read it.” the messenger stallion chuckled again. He was accompanied by a small giggle from Bunker. Gusty turned on her husband, staring daggers into his soul.

“What!?” He proclaimed starting to outright laugh. “Is funny. Stormwind always one step ahead of you, da?” Gusty just scowled harder doing her best to ignore Zeccaran making small squeaking noises behind her which was the zebra’s way of concealing his most intense laughter, she did not dare turn to see his face. A brief moment of clarity struck Gusty, that though she was being made a laughingstock, the background murmurs were much easier to ignore when she was having a moment with her closest companions. Now if only getting embarrassed did not suck quite as much as it did. Another clearing of a throat brought her full attention back to Stiff Inspection.

“Dear Gusty Twilight.-- I find your reckless behavior most unappealing. How daft a mare are you? Only a total moron would have charged so foolheartedly into death. You should have known better. If you could not even hit me the lowliest of creatures when I am unarmed and unprepared; how do you expect to defeat well-armed and ready opponents? Perhaps next time you should think before you act. You were lucky to survive, I was not there to pull you out of trouble like the last time you bit off more than you could chew. Be a dear and refrain from such foolish actions in the future would you? -- His Eminence Lord Stormwalker of Cloudsdale”

Gusty flat out growled. She lifted the pegasus delivering the filth-rag-ramble to her in her magic. He did not struggle and instead merely looked over the edge of the parchment with mild annoyance.

“Ma’am, first of all, don’t shoot the messenger. Second, I’m not done.” The Stiff said.

“You think I’m going to sit here and listen to this dribble for one more second you have another thing coming!” She started to telekinetically slam him into the ground when Zeccaran gave her a shove.

“Stop that. He’s just doing his job.” he grumbled at her. Gusty cast an angry glare at him, no one ever understood the gravity of the disdain she had for Stormwalker. And the fact that everyone else was merrily going along with this nonsense only made her angrier. Circumstances and a lack of the demon in front of her however stayed her hooves and mellowed the righteous fury enough to keep her from harming somepony who had nothing to do with her frustration, directly. She gave a sharp nod to Stiff Inspection to continue before setting him down.

“Pee. Ess.” he continued as if he had never stopped reading in the first place. “I am extremely amused by how upset you have become Gusty. I hope you realize the sarcasm in the main message, I just so enjoy ruffling your feathers. Please stay safe and I am overjoyed you are doing well. -- Loyally yours Gee. Ey. Stormwalker.” The messenger then proceeded to crumple up the parchment and throw it in Gusty’s general direction.

“I’ll catch ya later, Zec, sometime when the company is a little less hostile.” he said as he strode away.

“Yeah, just come by the airship after dinner tonight!” Zeccaran called after him. Stiff Inspection gave a nod over his shoulder before slipping out of the guarded area. Gusty felt her jaw drop a cold chill of shock traveling quickly up her spine.

“D-did you say...airship?” She asked Zeccaran tentatively. He nodded with a mumbled yes of confirmation. “What? It didn’t actually work did it? Tell me I'm still comatose in my room.” She pleaded with him.

“Uhm...you’re back in your room comatose? And I definitely haven’t been restoring a very damaged Eyrie-class warship for the last ten days?” he gingerly responded, his voice spiralling up in tone until it was almost just a squeak.

I’ve been out for ten days!?” She shouted while the gathered group just nodded stiffly back to her. Gusty reach a hoof up to her mane and stroked it nervously. It was no wonder why Gertrude had tackled her or why Zeccaran and Bunker only could smile and hug her. Stuck still by the realization Gusty barely registered Gertrude speaking to Jarl MacGerson and the Royal Guard from before.

“Madam Dame, we hate to interrupt but,” The guard started, “Important plans await ye’s choosin’.” finished the ram.

“Aye, aye, aye...just a moment then. I hath one last bit to tell Gusty.” She said. “Oi! Gusty lass! Snap out of it!” Gertrude shouted pulling Gusty the rest of the way out of her stupor with a clap of her hooves.

“Wha-what?” she whimpered rubbing her temples before looking down at the ewe.

“It seems ye have a not-so-secret admirer.” Gertrude snickered up to her. The golden fleece of the ewe sparkling in the overtly lit planning area as she shook from contained laughter. Gusty curled a lip up in revulsion, she was not about to go there.

“An’ I don’t kennt what ye think, bu’ if I weres-ye I would take advantage of such-a situation especially if he be soft for yeh.” her past-daughter murmured. Gusty glowered at Gertrude; the mischievous little ewe had went there. She closed her eyes and tried to sigh strong enough to lower her stress, unsuccessfully.

“First of all: Bunker is right here.” She reinforced by literally slapping a hoof onto her husband’s withers. He responded with a curt nod and a grunt towards Gertrude, it was likely played up for her benefit, Bunker was good to her in that regard. She released another long breath trying to make her tone sound less furious than it was truly. “Second: Are you suggesting I be...unfaithful.” she simmered. The word nearly burned her tongue as she said it.

Gertrude gave her a careful squinty scrutinizing look, leaning up towards Gusty’s face as far as the smaller individual could. Upon reaching the very end of her hooves the ewe broke her gaze and burst into a short fit of laughter before recovering, wiping her eyes.

“No! Never! Ye be thinkin’ I was suggestin’ something ill!” she snickered still calming down. “I merely suggesting, no, I’mma tellin’ ya: That stallion would do anythin’ for ya iffan-a ya just ask.” Gertrude bleated still shaking from her wide smile. “An’ a little flirtin’ never hurt!” she started to laugh fully again.

Gusty pursed her lips thickly and decided that trying to stare at her forehead was a better use of her frustration than tongue lashing Gertrude. How could she blame her past-daughter for not seeing through Stormwalker’s facade? He had fooled everyone else besides her, and Zeccaran she supposed; even Bunker seemed to at least enjoy the rampant demon’s dry, unfair sense of humor. Thus Gusty continued to trying to catch a glimpse of her face without a mirror out of sheer spite at the thought of him.

“Well.” Gertrude said after a moment, “Thanks for the laugh mum. Bu’ the powers that be demand mine attention. I’m sure these two fools will glady fill you in on what happened at tha’ soiree ye crashed.” With that said the Dame Ewe turned and left. Gusty stood there idly attempting to re-rail her train of thought back to what had happened after she had blacked out. Anything was better than fixating on her chief nemesis anyhow. Around her the bustle of ponies and Ovis increased and the clopping of hooves and the murmuring of voices became louder. The effect made it harder to ignore her underlying current of unease and mental background chatter. Eventually, several moments longer than it should have taken, Gusty turned to look at Zeccaran and Bunker.

“You doing okay?” Zeccaran asked, as he unconsciously rubbed some oil from his face. “You look a little spacey.” Gusty nodded more in agreement to his statement

“Yeah I’m okay.” she responded dully. She wanted to be strong and ignore the tugging fear from her mind. But, somewhere there was a part of her that knew she was not alright, and that even though she could survive it, her symptoms would only get worse. Gusty quashed that tiny little thought into oblivion, banishing it deep into a place she could not hear it.

“So what the heck happened anyway?” she asked, pushing herself forward. “Did we really capture the airship?”

Clearly sensing it was his moment to shine Zeccaran puffed up his chest and even stepped toward her some. “Yes. Yes we did. And I saved you from falling to your death!” he proclaimed. Gusty just returned his declaration with a raise eyebrow and a cocky grin.

“Yeah right. I’ll bet Bunker did it.” she retorted.

“Bunker can’t fly. I can turn into a giant eagle.” the zebra deadpanned back unwilling to play ball. “In fact besides you, I’m the only one in the entire country of the Baylands that isn’t a pirate that can fly.” Gusty gave Zeccaran a long disbelieving look more to frustrate her companion than to question him. She was as interested in the story as continuing to push the zebra’s buttons. Cocking her head to the side, Gusty blinked rapidly at him causing Zeccaran to expunge an exasperated breath.

“Anyway.” he grumbled as he pinched his eyes shut. He looked up bags evident under his eyes that Gusty had not noticed before. “I had been chasing you across the deck when you took the crossbow bolt to the chest. I was literally right behind you when you went berserk.” he shuddered.

“Da! It was crazy! The very air was electric-fied!” Bunker chimed in his eyes wide and sparkling as if he was reliving a cherished memory. “I had not seen such a display of power. You are true warrior, wife.” He gave her a very proud hug. Gusty squeezed him back for a time to hide the small blush the compliment gave her.

“Well, did I hit anyone?” she asked Zeccaran from over her husband’s shoulder.

Zeccaran paused and rolled his eyes up towards the ceiling in a strained look of concentration. “Yeah…you actually managed to down one of his lieutenants. You didn’t knock him out, rather just blew a wing off. I don’t know what type of magic you were casting but what looked like stunbolts were more like beams of explosive energy. You even blew a sizable hole in the aerial-tug they were using to escape.” he answered.

“It was incredible! Was like fury of righteous angel!” Bunker concurred breaking off the hug and almost too enthusiastically keeping his hooves on her shoulders.

“Wow...I didn’t know I did that at all! I guess the lieutenant is dead then? If that didn’t kill him the fall probably would have.” she mused rather beside herself. She knew she stopped holding back there right at the end of consciousness but the thought of herself firing stunbolts strong enough to rip apart flesh and metal was unsettling.

“Yeah, he is dead, but he didn’t die because of you.” Zeccaran answered.

“What?!” Gusty was completely shocked. There was no way a griffon could have flown to safety after having a wing tore off by magic. They were simply too heavy.

“Yeah he managed to glide down and fall into a bailing cart. He was promptly captured.” her friend answered.

“Then what happened?” she asked.

“It was right after you hit that guy that you took the bolt to the wing that knocked you out. Luckily I was watching from the deck and when you started to fall I was able to transform into an eagle again. I dove and caught you at pretty much the last second. Dislocated both of my shoulders doing so, but you lived. A couple of soldiers helped me stabilize you and put my joints back in place. Then between me, Dame Gertrude, and a local doctor we managed to remove the bolts and not kill you in the process. Trouble was you had taken a couple blows to the head during the fight and we weren’t really sure how well you’d fair in the long run since you never did wake up until today.” Zeccaran concluded.

Gusty took a moment to process all that had been said. Lacking the proper preparation for such a harrowing tale about herself, she had to work through the blur of the battle and injuries she had repaired with magic not an hour ago to make sure it had happened. However, It could explain why she felt incredibly hungry and why her mouth was sticky and dry.

“Hey! That’s right! You be more careful! It would bring me great dishonor if wife dies.” Bunker said in the most scolding voice Gusty had ever heard him use. “And worse...it would make me cry! Me a warrior of the Great forest!” he added nuzzling her. Gusty felt bad at first but shooed him away after he kept nuzzling, she liked displays of affection but that was enough. In truth, she cherished Bunker’s concern and would simply have to reward him later, he would appreciate it.

“Then what happened to that Griffon then if he was alive?” as she scooted closer to her husband for the simple approval of his bodily contact.

“Well...somehow...in the midst of an interrogation that Gertrude and Gabriella were conducting he started spasming. He was quickly foaming at the mouth and bleeding from his eyes, and was very dead. Someone poisoned him somehow. It was an inside job for sure and frankly as far as I’m concerned the only two real suspects, dare I say, are Gertrude and Gabriella themselves. No one had access to his cell except them, that we know of, and since security was tightened after what happened with the anti-balloon cannons I can’t imagine a spy having slipped through, short of being invisible or a changeling.” he said with shake of his head. “And the odds of those two things are pretty low, especially with Stormwalker’s personal troops here.”

His words left a cold terrible ache in Gusty’s stomach like she had been stabbed with a frozen knife. “There is no way Gertrude would do that.” she said coming to terms with the other options, knowing already which she was picking.

“I think maybe I’ll talk about that later. We are being watched.” she said quietly.

“Uh..okay?” Zeccaran responded. “So what are we going to do now then?”

“Food!” Bunker nearly yelled. Gusty swooned at her husband, he knew exactly what she needed.

“Bunker’s right. I need to eat, then we can come back and help Gertrude, whether its toppling the pirates or getting to the bottom of this conspiracy I don’t care.” Gusty announced her agreement.

“You are just now thinking about the conspiracy? Didn’t you think it was odd that as soon as we got here were almost killed by a bomb!?” Zeccaran shrieked at her. The area fell silent as Rams, Guards, and Cronies all turned to look at the group. Gusty just levitated her zebra companion up into the air and put one of his ear to her mouth.

“I don’t know. I can’t know until I eat. I’m literally starving, now come on!” She glowered into his ear. Message received Zeccaran fell silent, Gusty left the planning area for the nearest smell of food. Bunker followed humming rather merrily beside her as she carried their fifth wheel behind them.Zeccaran definitely had a point but for now it would have to wait.

Act 2: Chapter 10 - Diplomatic Immunity

View Online

“Sometimes best thing a normal stallion can do is shut mouth and prove worth with action.”


Chapter 10 - Diplomatic Immunity

In the northern conference room on the big sofa sat Princess Celestia. It was her favorite piece of furniture. It coupled nicely with her favorite room, excluding her private quarters. In fact, she even had a cup of her most prized tea, a green jasmine, blowing its steam and perfect scent up into her nose and eyes both. Truly the instant was picture perfect save for one issue; across from her each with their three sets of limbs tied in heavy shackles sat three Griffon Empire Imperial Emissaries.

They had arrived three days ago, about ten hours before she received word that the capital of the Baylands had been attacked. Not only had a ally nation entered a conflict, but the Equestria Diplomatic Delegation had not received their immunity upon the start of the conflagration. To make matters worse, the delegation included one of Celestia’s newest and closest friends, and upon hearing that she had been seriously injured the Princess had the delegates detained.

It had been a clear statement of the Griffon Empire’s intent when the reported attack was conducted from an Eyrie-class aerial battleship. Even if the purported crew were “pirates” mere “pirates” had little chance in successfully stealing one of the Empire’s state-of-the-art dreadnaughts from her moors in Griffonstone. Should that had been the truth then at the very least there had been a significant and dangerous error in oversight amongst the military state’s top personnel when it came to informing the rest of the world about a rogue vessel of such scale and power.

With the same gravity of the deadly situation, Celestia precisely hovered her tea to her mouth. She kept her face expressionless as she peered over the rim of the fine china directly at the most senior member of the Emissaries and took the loudest sloppiest sip she could manage. The middle-aged griffon, Faulkes was his name, cringed and looked away. The diplomat knew exactly how tenuous his situation had become. Celestia was certain, although she had kept her expressions and words professional, he knew of the seething rage lurking just beneath her calm surface. She could not tolerate acts of war, much less acts of war for no reason other than to have a war, particularly when they had put a personal friend in a coma.

Ever since the griffons had reformed their society after Torch’s Massacre, six years ago, their new government’s chief form of diplomacy had been military action. Truly, it was nothing short of a miracle that she even had negotiators to detain. Levitating her tea away from her face some she cleared her throat in that little authoritative way that got ponies’, and in this instance griffons’ attention. They all looked back at her cautiously as she cast one last cursory glance over them.

“I know it has been several days since I have talked to you three, but I would like to hear an explanation as to why a Empire-made ship was used to attack one of my ally nations.” she went right to the point. There was no need to mince words when the only question left was whether or not the Griffons were sponsoring an armed invasion of a peaceful sovereign nation.

“Princess…” Faulkes started before just trailing off. He quickly found the floor more interesting his eyes shifting rapidly as his brow pinched in thought. “...I have no explanation for that.” he said.

“Indeed. Perhaps you also have no explanation for why you would assume Dame Gertrude would not ask for help from Equestria? Her only international ally? Maybe it is tied to how Gertrude appeared in my court one day, unannounced with only four bodyguards?” Celestia retorted. Even through the thousand years of regency and grace, the smallest of edge could be heard in her voice. She was grateful for the milenia of practice, it was the only thing keeping her from outright yelling.

“Umm...yes..that is a rather long set of coincidences.” Faulkes concurred, still refusing to give any form of coherent answer. Celestia fixed him with her best plain stare, before pulling her tea back to herself to take another boisterous drink of the calming liquid. All three of the diplomats cringed this time. Several of her more cherished friends that had attended court over the years always mentioned how unpleasant the sound of her slurping tea could be, and how it usually worked to her advantage during debates or negotiations. They had always told her it was both intimidating and disgusting to have somepony voraciously, callously enjoy a beverage when lives and fortunes were on the line. Celestia could already see their assessment had rung true for Faulkes and his attendants, and she intended to push that advantage for all that it was worth.

“Then perhaps it is time that you explain some of these coincidences to me. Let us start with an easy one: why was it that you arrived here the same day of the attack?” she queried.

“Well, we notified you through traditional channels, your majesty. I have no applicable reason things fell that way. We arrived on schedule...and I was surprised as you. Even more surprised when you had my staff and I thrown into shackles.” Faulkes appealed attempting to play the victim card. He actually did a good job, his iron binds helping quite a bit. It perhaps would have fooled a younger, more mortal ruler. It was a veiled insult, touching carefully on how Equestria typically handled foreign affairs, with total amnesty for all non-combat delegates. However, Celestia had long ago run out of patience for games. She could practically smell the international intrigue and the Empire trying to justify for war or at the very least military action.

“Insults?” she questioned as such, “Perhaps you misunderstand the direness of the situation Sir Faulkes, or perhaps no one has told you, an Equestrian diplomat, more specifically, a Royal House Inductee, was injured in the attack. Equestria is at war with the Empire. Or perhaps that had escaped you?” Celestia glowered allowing the correct amount of disdain to further seep into her voice.

“I-I-I..umm. I-I have not had contact with any of my superiors, the null-field on your vee-eye-pee cell is quite potent.” the diplomat stammered sweat visibly swelling up through the feathers on his face. “Even now we have not been allowed to speak with them.”

“Why would you? You are prisoners of war after all. In fact you are my most valuable asset in preventing full-scale conflict.” Celestia answered before taking another obnoxious lap of tea. She was loathe to lie on the topic of her statesponyship but if a few lies could prevent a war then a few lies she would provide. She would have to thank Lulu and Stormy later for their contribution to the anti-magic arts. The null-field that allowed her to be in this position was of their research team’s design. Had the diplomats been able to contact their command they would have been prepared to counter her in this meeting. Ultimately, should the investigation reveal that the events in the Baylands had been sponsored by the Empire she would be quickly telling the Imperial Emissaries the truth.

After overcoming their initial shock, Faulkes and his two staffers immediately began arguing about the severity of the situation. They managed to keep themselves speaking in vague enough terms that no worthwhile information was released. They persisted trying to either blame one another or their commanders before Celestia got bored.

“So should you wish to discuss relevant policy with regards to peace before unnecessary deaths start accumulating I would be overjoyed to indulge you.” she cut over the top of their bickering. Faulkes turned and looked at her brazenly, his eyes wide and his face feathers standing on end.

“Princess Celestia, the Griffon Empire has no intention of escalating the conflict. Even without speaking to my superiors I know that for certain.” he answered. “What assurances do you require to prevent escalation?” he asked hurriedly. With the weight of his countryfolk’s lives in his claws the senior diplomat stopped playing games. Celestia smiled, it would seem that the Empire had no interest in fighting Equestria in a formal war. Whatever powerplay they had been trying to execute in the Baylands had failed too thanks to Gusty and her crew, now all she had to do was seal the deal.

“I would require several things. First and foremost total disavowment of the ship and crew that made the attack. Even should our investigation somehow prove them seperate from the Empire, it will be the first sign of trust.” Celestia acquiesced an answer. She wanted to instill a levity of commitment to this plan in Faulkes. The griffon and his staffers shook their heads in agreement. Celestia sat her tea down and popped a quill and parchment into existence so she might right down the agreement formally.

“Yes. Please, we need a formal document to bring back to the Emperor and his council. Even if it has unfavorable terms it can at least still be negotiated that way.” Faulkes said with a rapid approving nod. “What else do you need?”

“Reparations of a yet undetermined sum be paid monthly to the Baylands for two years. I would suggest food, or goods nothing too extreme. However, the council will have to negotiate that with Dame Gertrude herself. Not doing so will be considered violation of this agreement.” Celestia said as she wrote with her magic.

Faulkes visibly relaxed where he sat bond in chains. “That is...much more reasonable than I was expecting. For what do we owe such grace?” he asked looking at her in wonder, the griffon gasping for deep breaths as if he could not believe he was awake.

“I am not such a fool to expect the Empire to take kindly to my interfering in their plot to overthrow one of their enemies’ government. When it comes to international politics I have been around the longest and know sometimes even the most terrible of situations needs a delicate, thoughtful touch.” she replied continuing to fill out the appropriate verbiage in the agreement.

“I-I-I don’t ...I-d…..how did you know?” Faulkes finally stammered out. From behind her paper Celestia froze, plumed pen still touched to its surface. Even all the years of stoic reactions to devastating news and having to tell mothers their children had died had not prepared her for Faulkes to admit the Griffon Empire had played a part in the attack. She kept the document close to her face as she calmed her breathing and her face. It only took her a few moments, but her rage still found its way into her voice.

“A certain mind within my most trusted predicted most of it. He knew Griffon culture the best, especially after your recent government change. I trusted his judgement and placed agents in the Baylands the instant he advised me.” Celestia responded coldly.

“When was that?” Faulkes asked in return. He looked defeated, clearly aware of the severity of the espionage misstep.

“Not quite a month before Dame Gertrude would quietly arrive in my court.” she said. Faulkes looked between his staffers and they each twitched a bit in a silent conversation. They did this for only a moment before Faulkes sighed and turned to look back her with new, severe bags under his eyes.

“In this instance, I have been advised by superiors previously, and I am ready to sign any agreement. But, I must ask one question first; is Dame Gertrude alive?” he offered his question.

Celestia charged her horn instead of answering. Before her as she pinched he brow in concentration manifested a small purple orb. Spell complete Celestia fired her magic into the orb thinking only of the receiving pony in the Baylands. It took about a minute before a scratchy hiss sound began emanating from her orb.

“Princess Celestia? How may I serve you, your highness?” came the voice of her second guard captain.

“Captain Garrison, would you please find Dame Gertrude and ask her speak into the spell?” she asked the guard.

“Of course your majesty, she is right here with me.” Garrison responded.

“Ohh! What magic ye be throwin’ into mine home, Celestia lass?” the brogueish voice of her favorite foreign friend asked.

“I’m sorry for the inconvenience Gertrude, I was curious about the progress of the defense. It is most important.” she said. Celestia carefully used her voice to try and coerce Gertrude in doing something candid.

“Ha! We idn’t on the defense! Thine bonnie lass Gusty Twilight had seen ta’ tha’. The warship tha’ attack us be in our possession an’ we have those pirate fools trapped in the northern mines!” Gertrude cackled through the whispy sound of the voice projector orb.

“That is excellent news. I presume my little heiress is doing well then? Since Captain Garrison is nearby you now.” she asked. Celestia could hear Faulkes shifting uncomfortably in his shackles almost whimpering as he had to endure the embarrassment of a ground bound race of Ovis having captured a aerial battleship.

“Ohhh...Gusty be doin’ fine. Mayhaps better than before tha’ incident, a resilient mare tha’ one, haha!” Gertrude further hammed it up. She had always been good at reading an international dilemma, it was why she was Celestia’s favorite ally.

“That will be all then Gertrude, thank you.” she responded with a smile.

“Aye, ma’am. Be sure to cut a good deal for me an’ mine! Until next time.” Gertrude said just barely hiding a laugh. The voice projector spell fizzled out in the next instant.

She turned to look at Faulkes who had most of the color drained from his brown face, making him look more like the white-headed variant of griffon. Ever so carefully Celestia levitated her tea and parchment document back into her face never breaking eye-contact with him. She took another noisy sip of her lukewarm tea and kept writing the rest of the agreement out. It took her just a few minutes to ensure that none of the language would allow for any loopholes. Lowering her equipment from her face she used her magic to release Faulkes who quickly but stiffly strode forward and looked at the hovering contract.

He read it slowly in silence his color slowly returning to his face, but sweat and flayed feathers remaining. Eventually he finished and looked at her as if he was staring at some kind of eldritch horror. Unfortunately, this caused her to giggle rather unbecomingly as she dropped the quill and document on accident, making Faulkes bend down to pick up the items while he turned his face away from hers red hot from her laughter.

“Where would you like me to sign and where would you like my superiors to sign?” He questioned shakily after she finished her titters.

“Anywhere in the blank section below the body of the agreement...and do make that thirty day deadline, Sir Faulkes.” she said ominously as she released his attendants. The three griffons each signed the document before turning to leave. Faulkes, however, stopped at the door.

“Princess you’ll have this back by next week. You will have to forgive my initial reluctance to cooperate, I was under strict orders to maintain silence unless certain criteria were met.” he stated, his tone a haggard one. He met her eyes briefly a look of soreness expressed in them like the legs of an old arthritic stallion.

“One last question if I may, Princess?” He asked cautiously. Celestia nodded more than happy to indulge the poor bird’s inquiries.

“The stallion that knew...was he the one that killed Tor-” he started

“Yes.” she answered quickly before he could finish. Faulkes nodded in return, biting the edge of his tongue in the griffon equivalent of biting a lip. He remained transfixed like that for a moment before drawing in a rigid breath.

“I do not look forward to explaining to the Emperor and his Generals how much more we owe to that stallion.” he mumbled through his now swollen tongue.

“I would consider yourself lucky. The only reason he hasn’t been present for this meeting is because he is out of country.” Celestia mentioned with an intentional half-heartedness.

“Then I’ll remember to say a few more prayers to the gods to keep that luck strong. I’ll need it. Farewell, your majesty.” With his last goodbye stated Faulkes followed his staffers out the door and disappeared behind an escort of her guard.

Celestia remained seated on the sofa slowly pondering over who she should tell first about the Empire’s involvement. The expected revelation had come in such an unexpected manner that she was still mulling over the circumstances that would have allowed the plot to unfold. She came to a simple conclusion that left her mind racing; if Stormy had been right then the Baylands was about to enter a civil war. She had her excuse to intervene now thanks to Gusty’s Gusty-ness and Gertrude’s shrewd planning. But, if Gertrude took the risk to sneak herself out of country under the threat of being captured and sought her out specifically to request support then that could only mean one thing: the Dame Ewe knew her opponent personally. Or at the very least knew that whoever was attempting to overthrow her knew exactly what she was doing at all times.

This conclusion left Celestia stumped. Who amongst Gertrude’s Jarls would allow griffons to stake claim to their country? Most of them were the children of the Ovis that tossed the lion-birds from their land in the first place, none of them would ever allow them to return. With no reasonable suspect Celestia resolved to discuss things with Luna. Should they come to an epiphany her younger sister could quickly communicate it to one of the team through a dream. Hopping up from the sofa less gracefully than she intended, Celestia beat a hasty route to her sister’s chambers. She hoped that with their minds combined they might find an answer to who was sponsoring the Empire’s interference.

Whoever it was had just become Equestria’s most wanted individual…


Having executed a hasty retreat from Gusty’s disturbing display of consumption, Zeccaran found himself staring at his precious, the Midnight Onyx. That was what he was calling her anyway. She sat tethered to one of the Castle Manor’s towers a wide plank set from the deck just below his hooves on the battlement. With Gusty laid up over the last half-week he had been left alone to his thoughts along side Bunker and the Onyx. The peace and quiet made him desire something to do, much like during his normal times in Canterlot. The ever nagging foreboding of existence also helped compel him to keep his mind occupied. It would not do to become enraptured in his own prison of thought.

Still, he had not forgotten the precariousness of the situation they faced. It had not taken him long to realize who was behind the plot. Just having been around them a few times Zeccaran could see the bad blood amongst the Bayland’s regents. He even suspected Gusty knew something more than she claimed. However, he was working only on circumstantial evidence and the coincidence of more physical things like the Onyx. Even with all of the substance in place he had no idea why Gertrude and Gusty both would allow the Baylands to fall under attack in such a manner.

The only thing he had concluded was that something personal was preventing them from settling the rebellion. For Gertrude this made sense, with the chief suspect in Zeccaran’s mind her own daughter, the ewe likely could not work up the grit to imprison her child, much less execute her. Gusty, however, had no excuse, he felt certain that if he turned evil, or just had a bad thought, Gusty would pound him into the dirt. Perhaps she felt sympathy for Gertrude’s plight? Then again, he was not entirely certain Gusty could perceive the emotions of others beyond what she assumed upon them.

Regardless, the debacle had led him to work endlessly on the Midnight Onyx. It had only been three days but the ship was combat ready. Working around the clock with a lot of help from Bunker and several of Stormwalker’s mercenaries, they had repaired all of the damage done to the vessel. It was a true feat of ingenuity and teamwork. Trees had been chopped, local smiths had been contracted, magical skill was tested, and over five-hundred square yards of canvas was sewn all to make the airship operational again.

Surprisingly, the majority of the structure was wooden, with only the keel, the deck frames and two suspension beams were made of steel. This allowed the beast of a blimp to sport a fully enclosed balloon that spanned the entirety of the lower superstructure. It completely filled the space below the cargo compartment which was a scant two decks below the top deck. Tendrils of even more balloon were stitched to wooden decks and structure beams to the point where they nearly covered the walls. It was no wonder that when Gusty had destroyed the top balloon the vessel had remained in the sky. Marooned she had become but certainly not carreigning to the earth, that was what had allowed the pirates to escape. Thus over the three days he had personally inspected every inch of the internal balloon and the inner wood structure finding it to be nearly as durable as the metal armor the ship carried.

It is a good thing G.A.S. asked me to study these vessels. He thought as he presently made his way to the engine room. I would have never been able to fix this thing had they not. Those mercs of Stormwalker’s seemed to know too, but that hardly makes sense. That would mean that at the very least G.A.S and Stormwalker are working together, and I can hardly picture ol’ Stormwind doing anything to benefit me.

Finally having arrived in the most aft portion of the vessel that was the engine room Zeccaran began undoing the locking mechanism on the door. He was only able to access the engines thanks to an earth pony that had been helping him. She was a sharp filly to be certain but seemed out of place in her almost too big armor. Having broken the locking mechanism she had helped him replace it and make a new sequence for the doors mechanisms.

Since the lock was purely mechanical, they came up with a code for which gauges and levers. One had to swap the mechanisms into their correct positions before even getting a chance to access the combination lock. Then after successfully putting in the lock code the gauges and levers needed to be switched into their final position in thirty seconds or the door would lock and become electrified for at least an hour. Most would see it as paranoid and overtly complex for something that could be circumvented by magic or explosives. They also would not understand the volume of either needed to breach the door, an intruders time would be better used just destroying the Onyx instead of disabling it.

She was creme-colored...I really should have gotten her name. Why can I only remember the colors of mares, these days? He grimaced at himself. He had just put in the lock’s combination in and was struggling to meet the thirty second deadline. Completing the mechanical sequence with one second to spare he heaved the heavy wheel that was the final thing barring his way inside. With a shove and a grunt he pulled the thick door open to look at the most difficult part of his repair process: Twin eight-piston Grover-class engines and their super-condensing boilers.

Whoever had been working on them before had not been properly cleaning them. He was still trying to clean the hardened coal gunk off of the inside of the boilers’ blowers. The build up was bound to happen but all you needed to do was turn one boiler off and let the pipe cool before giving it a good scrub with a steel brush. Sure it turned off one engine but this monstrosity only needed one to maintain a modest airspeed. With both running the airship was capable of catching slow pegasi, a feat that was truly an unpleasant statistic.

“What a mess.” he grumbled to himself as he grabbed an new steel brush from the tool box left in the engine room. He got to work grudgingly not trusting anypony but himself to work on this piece of equipment. His thoughts began to wander again as he got to scrubbing.

Seems awfully convenient for Stormwalker to have armed forces on standby he petitioned internally. Perhaps Gusty has a point there. Still that leaves the why. Maybe he decided to take precaution due to Gusty? That seems like him. He paused to switch hooves and he finally chunked off the most stubborn portion of re-burnt coal. But if I was an impossibly rich monster I would want to crush two wheat stalks with one stone right?

Zeccaran scrubbed more fiercely as he continued to think it over, almost afraid of where his line of thoughts was taking him. So how do I do that? I would have to know that this airship is going to be here. I would have to know that I needed technicians on site to look over it and to repair it. I also would have to know that Gusty would disable it, not destroy it. Those are some pretty long odds. He would have to be omniscient...and even so arranging the circumstance seems...tedious.

He just finished finally cleaning the exhaust blower as he let the thought die. He closed up the port and opened the main hatch to the firebox of the boiler. Inside sat unused coal looking rather sooty and wet from what appeared to be a leak from the main body of the boiler’s water chamber. He did not have a patch piece or a welder handy and he did not feel like going and getting one either so he closed the hatch back up and moved to the main body of the boiler. The machine was massive, easily the size of a small cottage and took up the whole aft quarter it was in; thus it took a moment to reach the access port near the steam bulge that collected the pressure. Popping it open, he stared at the piping that forced the steam to drive this engine’s eight pistons.

He trotted back to the toolbox to grab a set of crank clamps to give them an inspection. He slapped the clamp onto the pipe and started to give it a squeeze with the incremented crank. He got the first pipe tested successfully without it showing any bend before the threshold point. Moving on to the next his thoughts digressed to his previous debacle.

You know… He mused internally. That theory works only if Stormwalker and G.A.S. are the same pony. But I still don’t see him helping me...unless i’m just being used as a fucking pawn for something greater...and Equestria getting its hooves on a world-class aerial dreadnaught, or rather him getting his hooves on it which seems like a feasible end goal for that mad-stallion.

Zeccaran moved onto another pipe his second test successful. Although this seems about the most roundabout way to get one. It makes me wonder if he was planning to hijack one of these himself at a later date. He has to have his own set of spies...he already has his own special military. I just wish I understood why Celestia and Luna would allow him to have either. What’s worse is now I’m pretty sure that kind little letter I received way back when was just a clever ploy to make me work hard. And now I’m too invested to quit too! He should really try his hooves at international espionage I think he would be good at it...then again...he probably already is…

Brushing the thought aside Zeccaran focused entirely on what he was doing. He did not desire to have his musing stray back to the subject of that monstrous stallion and his spheres of influence. He persisted repairing and inspecting the number one engine even after his limbs and head started hurting. Hours blazed by and eventually after securing the pistons to their drive wheels and propellers he stared at the last piece of the puzzle: the stuck open exhaust maintenance door. All he had to do was route the blower exhaust to the outside funnel and he was ready to toss a fireball into the firebox to light the coal and boil off all the water on it. He had even managed to fix the leak and fill the boiler chamber up about halfway with fresh water.

Standing on his hind hooves he reached up to the blower and placed his whole weight on the close flap he had completely refurbished after its cleaning. Trouble was, he had tightened the hinge without greasing it and now he stood shoving the flap closed with brute force.

“Close...you...rotten...bastard!” he growled at the metal each time a mighty shove slightly pushing the blower closed. He lowered himself down and stared menacingly at the door. In a fit of frustration and exhaustion he flung himself towards the flap, making a jump to hit it with his shoulder. He slammed into the steel, causing a loud shriek and moan to erupt both from himself and the door. When he finally rolled over after falling to the floor in pain he looked up to see the blower flap shut and ready for activation.

Rushing over to the piston control he pushed it into neutral for the pressure to build to useable levels. Swinging open the firebox door Zeccaran forced a fireball from his tired limbs directly into the coal. It impacted the dark matter and erupted in golden-orange flames with heavy hisses and cracks as water was flash boiled off and the suddenly dry fuel sparked into its pire. Worn and sore Zeccaran barely remembered stumbling over to the pressure meter to watch it quickly climb into its little green indicator. He smiled abscently as the lucidness of sleep overtook him and pulled him down into its bliss along with his feeling of success.

However, the relaxation lasted only for a brief stint. Too brief for it to be truly rejuvenating, Zeccaran was left pining for the relief he had felt as he began dreaming. Fortunately, it was a pleasant dream, he was outside looking up at the moon taking in the warm night’s air in the Canterlot gardens. The scene felt disturbingly realistic, even the dream-Gunther who rested next him felt as harsh and barky as he did when Zeccaran would run his hooves over the Timberwolf’s back. That was how he knew it was a dream at least; he had let Gunther go hunting on his own shortly after he had gotten his dog off the airship. He would not be back until tomorrow.

A flash of light briefly blinded Zeccaran and by the time the dream scene had become a less painful experience he could hear the dulcet tones of Princess Luna’s voice. At first he was confused as to why she was visiting him. The last time she had come to entertain him in the dream-world had resulted in her commandeering his consciousness. He had gotten comfortable with the occurrence, she had done such to him several times now, thus he waited for it to start again. Rather disappointingly, nothing happened besides Luna and now Celestia talking, so he started listening instead of just waiting.

“I have always found him quite interesting, more a miracle than anything” the elder sister mused.

“A miracle? In all seriousness, ‘Tia, really?” Luna asked incredulously to the statement.

“Well, of course. He’s a marvel of modern magical ingenuity, there hasn’t been a similar instance in an individual since well before Starswirl’s time, with objectivity to how it was done, of course.” Celestia answered with a rather scholarly air.

“Pah!” the younger sister scoffed. “I do not know what is worse, that he was resilient enough to survive the procedures or that he was resolute enough to justify all that death and remain in control.”

Zeccaran stood up from where he had been staring up into the sky. He could not see the princesses but knew that Luna was likely having them spy on him though a partial portal. Plodding along aimlessly the zebra listened closely trying to determine where the two Equestrian regents were hiding by just sound.

“Wait, where did he go?” Celestia wondered. With his mind’s eye, he could almost see the oversized sun-pony squinting through the portal looking for him.

“I believe he is aware of our presence and is looking for us…” Luna’s voice trailed off behind a fizzsop! of magic being cast. Another flash of light stung Zeccaran’s eyes, forcing him to blink away tears and rub his left instinctually. When his vision cleared both Princesses stood before him in the dreamscape lording their height unintentionally.

“Here he is!” Luna declared merrily in contrast to her previous bit of sulking. Of course Zeccaran knew she deeply enjoyed “dream-seeking” for ponies, but the sudden change of mood felt forced. He pushed the thought from his mind, Luna had probably already noticed it, but he’d could at least feign ignorance that way.

“Good evening, your majesties.” He replied with a bow.

“A good evening to you, Zeccaran. Sorry to interrupt your sleep but I come with a matter most important.” Celestia spewed in her graceful manner. It was no secret he prefered Luna, but he was always kind and formal to Celestia face to face, there was no need to be rude when he could keep it inside. Then again, Luna’s broad grin told him somepony had heard his description of her sister’s speaking.

“It’s no problem, I’m just more surprised you are here with Luna instead of just asking her to ask me…” he answered voice trailing off. He was truly baffled why Celestia had come to speak to him personally, she had never done so before.

“Certain matters require a personal touch my dear zebra, but in truth Luna and I are here together to see if you can shed some light on the local political turmoil of the Baylands. And...to inform you of some rather unpleasant news with regards to international politics.” the sun mare responded with a rather upset tone. Zeccaran only could look back in confusion, what had been happening back home, he wondered. Placing a hoof up to his chin in thought he refrained brief to motion in a circle that the princess should continue.

“To bring you up to speed as quickly as I can let me just say this: Griffons.” Celestia obliged. Zeccaran cocked his head at her in response he had an inkling of an idea but felt skeptical.

“Okay.” he started. “If what I think you mean by ‘griffons’ is right...then at least I have an explanation for the fully loaded warship I’ve been repairing.”

“Indeed. SImply put the Griffon Empire’s involvement has been exposed and dealt with accordingly. Whoever is sponsoring the rebellions in the Baylands is now without their support. Which leads me to my, well...our question.” Celestia said as she turned to her sister. Luna made a small nod before meeting Zeccaran’s eyes.

“Do you have any insight on who would be trying to dethrone Dame Gertrude? Sister and I have been going over the reports for the last twelve hours and are unable to reach any conclusion.” the mooney mare stated rather plainly. He struggled to hold her gaze, the irony of them asking such a question to him making him feel rather stuck.

“Funny you should mention that…” he rubbed a hoof through his mohawk in a vain effort to straighten it. “I have been thinking about the last three days and came to answer...but I don’t like it to the point where I’ve been coming up with ridiculous theories for other perpetrators.” he replied with a deep grimace.

“Who are you thinking it is then?” Celestia chimed in. Her forward posture displaying her eagerness regardless of her calm question.

“Did you know Dame Gertrude has a daughter?” he asked instead of just stating that she was a culprit.

“What?” both alicorns balked. They looked at each other then back to him with strained faces somewhere between total shock and pure dumbfoundedness.

“Guess that’s a no.” he said to them. It took them both a moment to recover, each pacing about the dream in her own manner. Celestia hoof on chin as she swayed back and forth and Luna head down eyes squinted hard at the dream-ground trotting in a loose circle.

“That is rather unfortunate information.” the elder princess finally stated after her counterparts third circuit.

“Indeed. While I am not as familiar with Gertrude as you are sister I think I know where you are going with this.” Luna said despondently.

“Yes. But, it is the only option I can think of; how else can we explain the Dame’s lack of action. How else could she justify the suffering of her own people?” Celestia confirmed. Zeccaran looked between them inquisitively. They clearly had understood what he had been implying, but perhaps they had a new angle, a better answer to that question.

“Gertrude...she is much like Gusty...perhaps more extreme. She has always put her friends and family above all other things ever since I met her all those years ago.” Celestia continued not looking at either Luna or Zeccaran. Her gaze was somewhere else, like she was deep in her own mind.

“Is that why she is so informal around us then?” Luna inquired.

“I’m afraid so. Gertrude does not view us as rulers of another sovereign nation but instead simply as ponies, not alicorns or demigods...just ponies. To her we are simply equals, something that has lead to her country and her foreign policy to be disdained by the rest of the world leaders.” Celestia stated. Zeccaran took time to mull over her words and the implication of how it played into the situation.

Without a proper network of allies, any upstart in the Baylands could garner support from foreign nations over Gertrude. In all other instances the Dame Ewe would have discovered them and dealt with them immediately, leaving the only option Gabriella.

“In effect because of her mentality,” Celestia interrupted his thoughts, “Gertrude is a mother first, and the leader of her people second. And when it comes down to it, no matter how far things go, no matter what her daughter does, no matter how much suffering or death she causes, Gertrude, as her mother, cannot bring herself to hurt her.”

“But, that means that Gertrude would allow herself to be dethroned...and an Empire-friendly ruler would take her place.” Luna cut in, her voice shaky. “Being the only major land mass in the Great Ocean, they could easily stage a full invasion from there onto our western shores! This could completely change the world’s political climate!” she rattled off her eyes settling on Celestia. Zeccaran had to agree, the Griffon Empire having access the Baylands was not something Equestria or the rest of the world needed.

“We have to convince Gertrude that she must do something to stop her daughter.” Luna stated firmly. He found himself nodding in agreement also looking at Celestia waiting to hear her thoughts.

“I think she knows that. I also believe it was a stroke of fate that put Gusty in my court to be that catalyst. But...even with her memory loss, I do not believe Gusty can harm her surrogate granddaughter.” Celestia stated.

“Then what do we do to stop Gabriella?” Zeccaran asked the fateful question. Celestia’s eyes widened for a brief instant and her face snapped over to her younger sister. Luna did not notice at first until Zeccaran flicked his eyes back and forth between them.

“Sister?” she said to the sun mare.

“Luna. I want you to listen to me very carefully.” Celestia’s voice was deadly serious in such a way that it almost gave Zeccaran the chills.

“I’ve dealt with his kind of stallions before: Choose. Your. Words. Wisely.” the Princess stated. Zeccaran felt his spine shake of its own accord this time. Whatever Celestia was referencing he did not understand, but who really could understand the point of view of mare that was considered a goddess? However, Luna took the advice with great trepidation written on her face. There had been words exchanged that he had not been privy to, Zeccaran was certain, and Celestia’s warning meant little to a stallion that would willingly do anything Luna asked of him. Eventually, Luna cleared her throat and with a brief shake of her head spoke.

“We would like you to do whatever Dame Gertrude asks of you to resolve this matter.” she stated.

“Sure. That shouldn’t be too hard.” he replied. Both alicorns sighed before him, but somewhere in the back of his mind, Zeccaran had a feeling he might regret thinking it would be easy.

Act 2: Chapter 11 - Breaking Points

View Online

“There comes a point when even the most controlled individuals will break. I have seen it more times than I care to admit, especially because in the past I have been the one causing them to fall apart. The issue is of course: how far will the broken body go? I find it is further than either of the two parties want it to.”


Chapter 11 - Breaking Points

It was the day after she had awoken and Gusty lay in her bed next to Bunker feeling pleasantly bloated. Having not eaten during her brief coma had taken its toll on her inhibitions and she had gorged until passing out. The swelling would go away by the end of the day of course, but the best side effect was the continued relief from that extreme hunger. Slipping out of the straw cot, Gusty pushed her front hooves out away from herself in a stretch. After overcoming the regular morning stiffness she trotted around the edge of the bed to prod Bunker awake.

Her husband groggily rolled onto the ground with a thump and laid spread eagle on his stomach. He mumbled incoherently from his position on the ground. His was a pitiful sight and Gusty chose to leave him lay. There was no sense in dragging a half-conscious stallion around Castle Manor when all she was going to do was talk with Gertrude. Exiting the room Gusty unsuccessfully fought off a yawn before turning to go towards the Long Hall.

It only took here a few moments to arrive at the Hall and only one more before she reached Gertrude. The Long Hall still remained a hub of activity as ponies and sheep conversed and ate.

“Good morning, Gertrude!” she called from behind the ever-vigilant wall of guards. They parted after she had spoken, and allowed her into the raised dais of charts and schemes. Walking up to where Gertrude stood next to Jarl MacGerson, she gave her past-daugther a curious look.

“Mmm.” Gertrude responded barely turning her face to her. Since Gusty had remade their acquaintance this was the least cheery and the oldest the Dame Ewe had ever looked. Taken aback, Gusty stood there unable to speak for a time. She found her words again, only by the concern she had for her friend.

“Gerty.” Gusty scooted close to the ewe and whispered into her ear with a lean, “What’s going on? You look terrible and are acting like somepony died.” she said. The Dame Ewe sighed deeply before placing a hoof on Gusty’s head and lowering her further down so she spoke into her ear.

“Aye if only lass. An investigation turned up most foul news.” she murmured before grunting despondently. “The anti-airship cannons that were sabotaged...were broken using Ovis magics. An’ only one other mage kennt where I hid them.” Gertrude finished. Gusty leaned up cast a disturbed look down to the Dame.

“A-and w-who was that?” she asked shakily.

“I already told ye who it be.” Gertrude’s words were broken and hollow. Gusty could see now that what she had attributed to stress and a bad mood was actually disbelief and sadness. Her past-daughter had always been a good actress when it came to hiding her emotions, and this time was no exception. It left Gusty feeling particularly unsettled, Gertrude had told her who was the last subject on the list. At this point it looked like open conflict could no longer be avoided leaving Gusty to sit silently, empathetically feeling the remorse of a mother torn between decisions.

Alongside her friend Gusty watched as MacGerson thought aloud over logistics and when it was best to strike the pirate stronghold. He was a smart ram, suggesting distraction and an attempt to lure out the brigands to negate the need for a siege. Nearing the end of his planning Zeccaran and Bunker finally appeared amongst the planners.

“So what’s going on today? Any new plans to get rid of the griffons?” Zeccaran asked striding up to them. Gusty looked her friend over consciously remembering how out of place the striped zebra was here in the Baylands and everywhere else for that matter.

“Nay.” Gertrude interrupted her thoughts. “The plan remain the same. I be thinkin’ over when to execute it.”

“Oh. I see. Well, whenever you give the word Lady Dame, we’ll see it through.” he responded with a kind solemness. Gusty wondered if Zeccaran had figured out the scheme. He probably had, for all his shortcomings and awkwardness, her zebra friend was extremely intelligent and seer-like. Zeccaran bowed before stepping aside remaining quiet as Bunker stepped up to give her a nuzzle. He gave the Dame a rather gruff good morning but otherwise remained looking at Gusty.

“You feel alright, da?” he asked with concern in his face. He said placing a hoof on the side of her neck. Gusty cleared her throat trying to overcome the foreboding sense tugging at her nerves.

“I’m doing well, thank you.” she said rubbing his hoof with her own. He nodded with an approving smirk and lowered his limb down. He stood aside and peered over to MacGerson who was still in his game of charades against the country map. A bit of a bustling turned Gusty’s attention to the ring of guards who were letting a small precession through into the planning dais.

In the center surrounded by four upset looking Ram Guards was Gabriella. She nearly growled as she walked, her face as stressed and angry as her mother’s. Making her way directly towards them she and her attendants stopped before Gertrude. Gusty watched on in silence as the heiress ewe stood still, staring at her mother. A part of Gusty had always known it would come to this moment. From the moment Gertrude had uttered that it was a family member she had known that a confrontation between her daughter and her spawn was inevitable. Gusty had done her best to ride out the waves of danger and conflict, hoping desperately for a different solution when she knew there was not one. But, one thing still held her aspirations for a peaceful solution, and that was Gabriella had no move left to make besides directly, in front of everyone gathered, attacking her own mother. Gusty prayed that the younger ewe’s sense of kin had not eroded entirely and in this next few moments she would placidly accept her fate.

Gabriella mumbled something incoherent. All gathered pursed their lips unable to hear what she had said. “Speak up daughter.” Gertrude interjected. “No need to whisper.”

“I said…” Gabriella paused, drawing a deep haggard breath, “Why do you keep me here in such company mother? You have already won.” Gertrude harrumphed and looked down from her throne at her daughter in pain.

“I know not what ye be talkin’ about, dear daughter lass.” she replied. She sounded confident but Gusty could see in her past-kin’s eyes the deep, crushing sadness of a suddenly childless mother.

“You don’t?! Pah!” Gabriella shrieked. “You play coy with me even now? Why?! I’m a damned traitor and you won’t do what you must?! Were all those things you taught me...lies?!

A brief gasp finished its light echo and Gusty could sense all the eyes in the whole of the Long Hall looking at Gabriella and Gertrude and their golden fleece. The words being said were only a portion of the electricity riding through air and everyone present was ready to jump at the slightest motion. Gusty knew she was no better than the rest, her adrenaline sat precariously on a cliff’s edge ready to drop. The moment was only amplified by the silent head down response Gertrude was now offering.

“What would ye have me do?” Gertrude finally replied with a heavy sigh.

Your job.” Gabriella gritted her teeth, her eyes bulging with her strain and anger.

“I can’t, my sweet little lamb. I could a’never perform such a punishment on ye.” the elder ewe responded her face even more strained than before. Gusty swallowed hard as Gabriella stomped her front hooves and lowered her head.

“Then there is nothin’ left. I’ll have to make you claim the victory you already have!” The heiress lowered her body further into a broad stance. A sharp pitched hissing filled the air in an instant, and bright light tinged a forest green radiated from Gabriella. Straining her eyes Gusty watched as the younger ewe aimed herself at Gertrude.

A beam of sparkling energy, mirrored with a swirling blob of shadow streaked towards the elder ewe. The magic itself seemed to suck the light out of the room as it traveled forward its clear malevolence drawing all eyes. In a strange contrast to the frozen room, Gusty marveled at the movement of Jarl MacGerson. Besides the ray of destruction he was the only other thing with the apparent ability to react. Even now as her mind tried to process the moment Gusty stood immobile, unready for the ultimate betrayal of Gabriella. Time itself seemed to agree with her and the instance would be forever cemented as one of the longest ever known.

MacGerson intercepted the beam and was knocked into Gertrude. The clatter of a ram and ewe being tossed into the wooden throne was overtaken as the room erupted into an instant fight. Two of the four guards that had been accompanying Gabriella had started firing kinetic bolts into the Ram Guard around the throne. Meanwhile all of the pony soldiers that were unicorns sent a wave of red stunbolts flying into everything. The explosion of color would have been rather beautiful and Hearth’s Warming themed had a great melee not started knocking over tables and bodies.

Gusty fixed her eyes on where Gabriella had been standing only to find a horde of ponies swarming with spears and magic swinging towards a retreating group of rams. Unable to even think about anything besides detaining the wayward ewe princess, Gusty cast a shield on herself. It was not a simple bubble instead a skin covering like the one she had used to fight MacGerson. Charging into the crowd a guttural below left her throat, her fury manifesting itself of its own accord. Some of the outlying soldiers dodged her charge but the rest were bowled over by her shield and her weight. She caught the barest hit of Gabriella nestled between a group of rams.

Their eyes met for the briefest hint of a moment. Gusty watched as the ewe realised that she was going to be chased until caught. Gabriella screamed something to her cohorts and all the rams she had guarding her looked up to Gusty. Beams of energy started flying towards her and bouncing off her shield. Somehow this only made her more determined to press forward, even though she was without her sword or armor.

The group of rebels broke the encirclement of Stormwalker’s troops when what could only be described as a bomb exploded. Even though her shielding Gusty was knocked to the ground and almost had her lungs emptied of air by the blast. Recovering quicker than anyone else Gusty stood up to see only two rams and Gabriella slinking away from piles of unconscious bodies. Whatever had been triggered evidently was not meant to be lethal only exceedingly disorienting and it had worked, except it had not disabled her. She would prove that failure their undoing.

Gusty cast a fresh shield and dashed after the small band of rebels. Gabriella and her rams took notice as they turned to slip through a door. The two guards practically ripped the hinges out of the wall, one pushing Gabriella through the door and closing as he went. The other braced his legs and waited as she charged at him. In Gusty’s opinion it was a fool’s errand the ram could not slow down an alicorn, even one that was too upset to try and teleport.

Firing a stunbolt as she approached Gusty pushed off the ground with her legs. She flipped her wings out to keep the airborne from her jump. The ram meanwhile deflected the stunbolt, distracted by his own desire to remain conscious. Gusty swung her legs out twisting her body to let her weight and flight angle hit the unprepared guard. Her hooves hit his neck and face and he crumpled grasping at the affected areas. Now standing atop the fallen ram, Gusty blasted the door open with her horn, not bothering to waste time opening it. Through the portal she beheld a familiar hall, one that she had refrained from entering.

Memories of Gertrude’s childhood came flooding back and the pain of today’s events intensified all the more. Ahead turning towards the little room that was the residence’s private kitchen, Gabriella and her guards slowed to corner.

“Gabriella!” she shrieked as she charged after them. Gusty had to stop the younger ewe, if she escaped then full-blow war would start between the Ovis of the Baylands. That was what had always been at stake. She had known such, but until this moment it had not struck her with the same urgency until the threat of being unable to help reared its ugly head. Pressing forward she fought the urge to turn a look at the rooms she had once called home....

Home. This was her home. She knew it, every corner of it, and had slaved alongside like-minded kin to build it. Gusty had thought all of the rebellious Jarls had sided with her plan, that a single government would serve them all better. It had allowed trade to be established with Germane and Prance. But now it seemed that they had thrown that idea away. Gusty knew assassins or kidnappers had taken Gertrude...it was Gertrude she was chasing after right? Even if she was wrong the alicorn’s paranoia would not allow her stand idly at let the events come to pass.

Her heart pounded in her chest, everything she had worked for would amount to nothing if she could not reach Gertrude. A rebel ram stood in her way as she entered the kitchen, jumping she full on roundhoused him in the face. She could not hold back anymore the little golden darling ewe was the key to helping all the scatter folk of the Baylands. She charged forward through the kitchen her previous meal she had started long forgotten. Gusty pushed open the door that lead into the private garden of the residence. There amongst the other flowers Gertrude was held hostage by a pair of rams.

The two brigands charged at her, their horns lowered, but Gusty held her ground. Bracing herself she let the two fool’s bounce off her shield with heavy thumps. The one on her right recovered quicker and she made a sweeping kick with her back legs knocking him over as she spun. Wasting no time she jumped on his stomach, pounding him with her hooves and weight. She heard several ribs break and all the air exit the bastard’s lungs.

A roar made her look up to see the remaining ram charging her. She had just enough time to activate her telekinesis and stop him from hitting her. She lifted him up as he scowled and struggled, cursing her name and purpose. With a hardy spin and toss she flung the errant ram against the freshly built structure of the Castle Manor, his body going limp as he hit the stone. With nothing stopping her she rushed over to Gertrude and pulled her into a hug, exclaiming her joy.

“Get off me, ye crazy mare!” Gertrude proclaimed before giving her a solid punch with cloven hoof. Stunned by her daughter’s vile outburst she dropped her reflexively.

“How dare yeh call me by that name!” the little Gertrude continued to shriek, “I’ll ne’er be called a mother who betrays her oaths!”

Frighten and confused, Gusty looked at her young kin with as much pleading as she could. A bright flash of emerald light sprang from Gertrude and smashed into her, knocking her from her hooves. A brief blackness and suddenly the world refocused from the rusty edge memory. She rolled onto her side at stared pitifully at not her daughter, but Gabriella.

It had been another hallucination, leaving Gusty writhing in a deep emotional pain and fury. She had just managed to capture Gabriella, had stopped everything from happened, but now lay disabled, crying a the lost time and the defiant ewe’s words.

“It’s yer fault ya know!” she yelled at Gusty her own brogue shining through. “She’s treats me like a babe because of you!” Gabriella’s voice was not but a snarl, around her unnatural winds of magic began to spin as she lowered her head long enough to darken her face even further.

“Yeh, know how long I’ve been acting out? How long I’ve been trying to make her treat me like a normal ewe...a regular grown ewe with consequences? Ten years!” the heiress screamed, the magic around her intensifying. “An’ now after everything. The Griffons, the murder of dozens of innocent traders, an attack on our very capital, and me directly attack her. She sends you!” Pausing to heave angry raspy breaths, Gabriella cleared her throat in a lamentable cough. She had begun crying, out of anger or out of despair Gusty did not know.

“Because even now she would rather me be captured an’ slapped on the hooves, than to do what she should have done long ago, and punish me!” The hiss of the rushing air hit a fever pitch and Gabriella’s voice became more of a sharp wail than a yell. “Now begone! And let me leave this land and the ewe I once called mother!”

Standing up her fury and heartbreak for gertrude pulling her up Gusty ran towards Gabriella. Mind racing with thoughts on how to stop Gabriella from teleporting did the first thing that could work, a stunbolt. She fired the red sparkling spell only to watch it reflect off the shifting waves of magic around the rebel princess. Regardless of its ineffectiveness, Gusty had closed all the way to tackling distance and lunged. Just as she neared her quarry her body suddenly stopped mid-jump. She looked at Gabriella in total confusion, the young ewe glowing white hot from her magic. In an instant she disappeared and Gusty felt a massive concussion wave hit her floating body and toss her towards the castle.

Spinning and unable to control where she was being flung Gusty closed her eyes and tried to relax her body. It was her only remaining defense, especially because she would rather break a rib or two than a wing. Breaking wings was just that much worse. The thought was knocked out of her as she slammed against hard stone. Breath left her lungs but other than that moment of horror the blow seemed to have been mostly glancing. She nearly blacked out again however, as she felt gravity take hold and pull her downwards. Unfortunately, there was little she could do, as just trying to calm her brain and lungs from the lack of air took all of her control.

Sound returned after she hit the ground. Sharp pain in her side made her gasp hard enough to return her to normal breathing. Springing up, her rage building to a nearly uncontrollable level, she looked around. Stomping her hooves into the dirt with righteous anger, Gusty cursed her own mental weakness and Gabriella for her false words on Gertrude. A clamoring behind her made Gusty turn to look back at the door into the building. Zeccaran and Bunker alongside a mixed squad of ponies burst out of the door.

“Darling wife!” Bunker nearly growled as he sprinted up to her. “You go running off like banshee!” He looked her over with heavy scrutiny, interested in every out of place hair on her body. Gusty pushed him back from her lightly. She was no longer in the mood to be fawned over, even by her husband.

“I’m fine. How’s everything inside?” she asked shortly.

“Miss, we need to get back inside to help. You ran off before the area was secure, my squad was the only group that managed to follow.” One of the golden-clad stallion’s spoke up.

“Then let’s go!” Gusty shoved past the group of idle ponies and started a quick trot back through Castle Manor. They passed through the guest wing and stood peering into the Long hall quickly. There was still a decent amount of fighting, but with her blood boiling over Gabriella’s betrayal, she was about to put an end to it. Her ears caught slew of slurring and cursing, from atop her toppled throne Gertrude hurled spells into the melee below her. Her fury erupted and she started a charge before even commanding the soldiers to follow.

No longer measuring her strikes Gusty repeatedly charged and fired her horn as she ran towards the crowd. It seemed that more than the initial few turncoats that helped Gabriella escape, were now present. In fact the only Ovis that were not actively fighting the Equestrian Special Force were trying to desperately pull Gertrude down from her perch and into cover. This simply made Gusty’s charge all the easier and brutal.

Her first blast connected with a large ram and sent him flying, blood and broken bones spattering his nearby compatriots. The other shots from Gusty’s first volley went high, just over the heads of the crowd.. She had reached the fight now, but did not slow to punch or kick. Instead Gusty snapped her wings out and entered shallow flight stepping on as many traitors’ necks as she could on her ascent. It put a few more combatants out of commission. Turning to levitate as many of the poor fools as she could with her magic, Gusty watched the party that had come to fetch her slam into the fight.

The stallions in the mixed group refused to use lethal force, striking with stunbolts, batons, or sapps. Gusty did not understand their mercy, but they were not under her command. Seizing the opportunity, she let a copious amount of magic well up in her horn before flinging out the iron psychic grip of her telekinesis. She managed to snap up every Ovis that still stood, pulling them up to her height in the air. The collection of ewes and rams, those that could look at her in their frozen stasis, had their eyes widen to an extreme.

They had realized their folly too late, however, and with a flick of her head she sent them flying into a wall. There exploded a chorus of screams and shrieks of agony, accompanied by the disgusting sound of flesh being lacerated and bones breaking. But, Gusty was not done, and her fury was not yet quenched, so she still held the unlucky host hostage. Another flick of her neck this time to the opposite wall caused another wave of disturbing proclamations of minds and bodies. Finally, pulling her quarry back into the center of the Long Hall she flung them down to the ground, their screams much subdued on their third impact.

Gliding down and landing amongst the ponies, Gusty drew in a deep breath. Around her the Equestrian Special Force all slowly backed away from her, their eyes betraying their fear. Three of them stood their ground, and with her rage subsiding, Gusty recognized the faces of Bunker, Zeccaran, and Stiff Inspection. The adrenaline broke and she was suddenly panting and kneeling, her husband and friend next to her. She pushed them away, the heat from their bodies aggravating her.

“M-move.” she stammered, nearly in tears. She had to reach Gertrude to make sure she was still safe, her paranoia insatiable. Forcing Gusty to partially believe that somehow between her outburst and when she had seen the Dame Ewe atop her throne something more had happened. Both Zeccaran and Bunker followed her past the bodies of moaning Ovis, their hooves tracking the wanton blood.

Behind them Stiff Inspection began barking out shaky orders. The bustle of hooves sloshing through the gore made her stomach churn. “T-Tend to the wounded! Equestria will not allow the death of any Ovis i-if it can be h-helped!” the young stallion ordered, his voice getting grittier as he spoke. She knew what she had just done, at least in the logical part of her brain, but it proved difficult for her emotions, even with all the evidence behind her. She had not unleashed her fury in such a manner since she had met Stormwalker. He, however, was significantly more durable than the poor folk she had mained. The thought froze her in her tracks, as she desperately worked to regain control of her stomach and her mind.

“Gusty, are you alright?” Bunker asked cautiously. He rarely spoke her name, out of respect or some sort of language tick. However, when he did, it meant he was saying was imperative to both her and himself. She shook her head in response, unable to answer with words. Bunker nodded back to show that he understood. Her husband was smart; he knew what was best ways to help her, and right now that meant staying silent and supporting her.

Finally able to move again, Gusty stalked up onto the raised dias and over to the overturned throne. Royal Guard stood behind the broken structure huddled around the sounds of crying. Rounding the chair, Gusty placed a hoof on the nearest ram, he turned to face her briefly, pain and confusion evident in his face. Stepping aside once he saw her, he let Gusty and her party into the tight circle. There, cradling the broken body of a very dead Jarl MacGerson, sat Gertrude the Golden, face covered in tears. Gusty released a deep sigh of relief. All that mattered was that her old daughter was safe, and that the threat had been eliminated.

She slipped down to her kin and wrapped the small ewe in her wings. It was the best comfort she could give Gertrude. For this level of betrayal, all Gusty could offer was her presence and the occasional hoof stroke of Gertrude’s fleece. The Dame Ewe remained sobbing into MacGerson’s remains and her wings for a length of time Gusty could not describe. The feeling of hollowness in her chest increasing she held Gertrude tighter hoping to have at even the smallest portion of her emotions return. Eventually, her past daughter slowed her sniffling and tears. The sound of hooves pulled Gusty’s attention up to the gathering of guards.

Stiff Inspection stood at attention before the Rams and her companions, looking down to Dame Gertrude with heavy bags under his eyes. He removed his helmet respectfully before clearing his throat enough to where Gusty felt the ewe in her wings shift to look at him.

“Lady Dame…” the pegasus paused, “While it is certainly not the best time, I am required to inform you that due to this attack from within your own court, Equestria will no longer be able to keep this force stationed here.” he stated gravely.

“W-what are ye sayin’ lad? Wha’ happen’d to Captain Garrison?” Gertrude hoarsely questioned.

“My apologies, Your Eminence. Captain Garrison is amongst the slain. I am the next in command, Lieutenant Stiff Inspection, ma’am,” the stallion replied stoically.

“Oh.” was all the Gertrude managed to respond with.

“I was informing you that this special forces unit: The Equestrian Special Guard Service, must return home, as this is no longer strictly a Griffon Empire plot. And as to not display a high level of hypocrisy on the international level, the unit will board the Midnight Onyx, and await her departure once our negotiators, Gusty Twilight and the vessel’s private captain, Zeccaran, conclude their business. This unit will no longer be able to offer you protection as a result. I’m sorry,” He answered with a deep bow of his head.

“Ack. Begone then. And tell Celestia I understand her position,” Gertrude retorted meekly somewhere between a grumble and a sob. She leaned against Gusty’s wing a few stronger sniffles coming out as she did.

“An’ begone with the rest of ye too! I want nobody present save the Equestrian Diplomats!” Gertrude suddenly squeaked from her position. Around her Gusty watched her guards give each other nervous looks before retreating from the dias and forming a loose barrier a good distance from them. Stiff Inspection flapped his way further down the hall to where a number of ponies had formed ranks. Bunker and Zeccaran stayed nearby as they had been ordered.

“A bubble if ye would, mum.” the golden ewe murmured. “Like before all this happened…” Gusty obliged her daughter’s request without a word. Once the sound shield was up Gertrude released a rattling sigh and stood up from where she was nestled.

“Mine friends…” she looked to each of the ponies around her. “Mother…” Gertrude paused for a while looking down.

“I hath a simple request. A t-t-t-terrible request…” she broke into a few haggard sobs and stopped herself from stuttering.

“Gerty…” Gusty stood to snap up her kin in a hug again but was halted by the ewe when she raised a hoof.

“I must ask ye to enact the laws of the Baylands...I cannot fathom the deed mineself.” She paused and looked at Gusty, rather she looked through her. The Dame’s face was of a hard, sad ewe that had seen too much hardship, a leader broken upon the ideals she so desperately clung to. Gertrude cleared her throat one last time.

“Find mine daughter, mine...mine ex-daughter, and end her. Spare her and her pirate crew no mercy, no quarter. See that this civil war never happens. I-I...I cannot ask this of anyone else...an’...an’ I cannot speak of it again. I-it hurts mine heart too great.” Words spoken the Golden Dame turned her face to the floor to stare at Jarl MacGerson. A new waterfall of tears fell from her face and she plodded daintily up to the slain body of the ram that had saved her and placed her face against his side.

Gusty had heard her past-daughter’s words but could not accept them. Already seeing the pain in Gertrude now was more than enough the reason to try and redeem the wayward Princess of the Baylands. Gusty swore to herself she would find a way, even though she did not like the idea of helping someone who was willing to kill her own mother. The alicorn looked up at her companions briefly. Zeccaran’s face was dark with a grim determination Gusty could not place. She turned to her husband to see his face sad and empathetic, he motioned for her to comfort Gertrude some more, a notion she agreed with.

She sat back down with a bit of an ungraceful thump and leaned down next to Gertrude. She placed a hoof on to Gertrude’s back and gently asked if she would not mind having the shield lowered. Her daughter shook her head smally.

“No, mum, leave it up. I’m not ready yet.” she whispered to Gusty. Remaining silent she just kept her hoof on Gertrude’s back trying to find something to say. Eventually, her curiosity go the better of her and Gusty asked a question she knew was loaded with emotion, if only to help Gertrude cry out her bottled feeling more and help her relax.

“You are awfully torn up about losing him, Gerty, why?” she asked quietly. Gertrude stiffened briefly, and a few powerful jerks of her neck from forced heavy breaths followed, but she managed to answer..

“He was...j-just...just a friend. A good friend” Gertrude bleated. Her soft voice and sad face broke Gusty’s heart. She bent down and cradled her daughter again. The ewe hugged onto her and her fallen companion.

“He died….he died because of me!” she shrieked, breaking down into even more pitiful fits of tears.

“No, Gertrude. Don’t say that. He did what he did for the greater good. Even with your fleece had Gabriella hit you it wou-” Gusty was cut off.

No! Tha’s a lie! He died in vain! In vain! Because...b-because Gabriella is right… I can’t do mine job.” Gertrude stammered uncontrollably. Gusty felt her chest tighten. She had not believed the rebellious heiress. She could not have believed her, neither she could believe what Gertrude was saying now.

“Gerty…” she murmured with a horror in her voice.

“I c-could’a never...n-never done what I was supposed to...to have it buildin’ all these years…” Gertrude paused long enough to cough and draw new haggard breaths. “I never earned this crown ye gave me, mother! I n-never deserved it….I learned everything about family and rulin’ from you. But I never learned why ye were harsh when I misbehaved...w-why...tha’ consequences make a ruler….a leader. It took me losin’ everythin’ to understand...an’ now...now she’s gone... forever…I can’t take back what mus’ be done now...I-it’s too late...I haff to do it now...I haff taho rule...and reap what I sowed….an’ everything will have been my fault….MacGerson...the Griffons...mine own daughter…” The Dame Ewe broke down into unintelligible blathers as Gusty squeezed her against her chest.

But, Gertrude was wrong. If she had never understood the importance of consequence, of sacrifice, between a monarch and a mother, the it was she, Gusty that had failed. She began to cry with Gertrude instead of just trying to comfort her. This loss, Gusty felt it deep in her soul, that she had had something beautiful, but had unwittingly ruined it long ago. And now, her actions in the past had destroyed the lives of two otherwise wonderful ewes.

Her current companions looked on in sorrowful confusion, ignorant of her true emotions. Neither would have been able to help if they had known. Even If Celestia was here, all she would have told her that she had no control of what had happened to her and how it affected her behavior.. Luna would have said it too, ready to pull up an number of numerous examples. Stormwalker would have said nothing and just tried to cuddle her with his wings regardless if she bit him. How terrible it was that even the other immortal beings of the world could not begin to comprehend the pain, even though one of them managed to know what to do. The thought made her tears become sobs, because in the end, it was Gusty Twilight that was one that was broken on the will of others and the loss of all the family she once had. This tragedy was merely a potent reminder. She just hoped the sound barrier would hold long enough for her to recover.

Act 2: Chapter 12 - Cracked Perseverance

View Online

“It would be unwise to test my patience further. While I have retained my civility, I must draw the line here. I will not allow any additional insults to be made against Gusty Twilight. Unless, perhaps, dear Prince, you are intending to challenge me to a duel of honor? Though, I must admit, the thought of pummeling you into the ground sounds particularly enjoyable...”

-Minutes from the Equestrian Commonwealth’s first quarter meeting-

Chapter 12 - Cracked Perseverance

Gusty stood idly on the deck of the Midnight Onyx waiting for her to depart Castle Manor. She scratched at the collar of her mail uncomfortably with the day as she stared down at the rest of the deck. The blood and the gore had long been scrubbed away and the heavy wood of the airship shined even in the dusty grey of the morning. Ponies of different shapes and sizes rummaged about talking to each other informally. Like her they eagerly awaited their departure, uncontent to sit still. Turning from the bustle of the so named Equestrian Special Guard Service, she walked up one of the sets of stairs to the helm. Bunker and Zeccaran sat there arguing over something trivial by the ship’s wheel. She ignored them as they bickered, still stuck on yesterday’s events.

It had been a sleepless night. Between trying to get Gertrude ready to lead her people again and listening to the old ewe weave the tale of she and her daughter’s falling out, Gusty was emotionally exhausted. The Golden Dame’s doting stories had also solidified Gusty’s determination to do anything besides killing Gabriella. She did not have to tell her past-daughter what her intentions were. In fact, whisking the rebellious princess away to jail in Equestria felt like the best decision. Should Gertrude come to visit in thirty years or so, she was sure the elder ewe would be overjoyed. That was her plan at least, Gusty could not fathom killing Gabriella, the thought made her head hurt even now.

“Bah! You pull mechanism like you are jerking tree limb!” Bunker’s proclamation was interesting enough to make her focus on it instead of the looming headache. Gusty took a few steps closer to the arguing stallions to hear better.

“Well then what do you suggest? Just leaving it out of gear?” Zeccaran shot back sarcastically.

“You watch, zebra boy. While you work on engine for four days I learn how to use engine.” Bunker moved his compatriot out of the way with a hoof and stood up on his back legs to brace himself on the wheel.

Reaching for a seemingly insignificant lever he gently pulled the mechanism down. As he did Gusty could hear a loud hiss slowly start to build in strength. Suddenly a low rumble of something mechanical below the deck groaned. A dial was reached for next that listed piston power in various colors, Bunker twisted the indicator to the red “Max” before pulling the dial out away from its face. There was a clunk afterward along with a belch of air and smoke from behind the stern of the vessel. With a sly chuckle that mirrored the suddenly vibrating deck, Bunker reached for a final lever and slammed it down to match its twin.

A tremendous roar of the magically-fired steam engines echoed across the trees and the town of Castle-upon-Barra. Bunker stood clutching the wheel with his hooves laughing like a madstallion. With the mighty sky vessel readied, he turned to Zeccaran with a smile that was more a sneer.

“See!?” he shouted, “It is like pleasing mare, takes finesse, no?”

“Bullshit! How in the world do you even know what any of those do?! I barely know what they do and I’ve literally studied the engines for almost three years now!” Zeccaran growled with a stomp of his hoof.

“I find manual in captain’s quarters while you dig around in engine room. I read and try levers out while in neutral gear, see?” Bunker pointed to how he had pulled the throttle dial out away from its frame.

“THERE WAS A MANUAL!? WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME!?” the zebra shrieked with such intensity that Gusty actually reached to cover her ears.

“Da.” Her husband calmly grabbed his backpack that set near the wheel, before producing a thick dusty looking book. He gave it to Zeccaran a small grin growing on his face. The zebra snatched it and opened it to a seemingly random page and stuffed his snout into its words. After a few moments he looked up, his eyes narrowed and his scowl becoming reserved, but no less menacing.

“Would have been nice to know.” He slammed the manual shut. “Could have definitely sped up the repair process.”

“Eh. I just tried out its examples over last two weeks in spare time. You read book, you’ll learn. Is made for babies.” Bunker nodded. Gusty at this point was smiling broadly. Her husband had always been a capable sort but this had taken the proverbial cake. She just opened her mouth to tease Zeccaran when an increasingly familiar set of hooves followed by a throat clearing stopped her. She turned to look at Stiff Inspection.

“Are we ready to depart? It is best we return to Canterlot before inciting more violence here,” he petitioned the group.

“Yeah. We are ready to go, just got the engine primed, I guess,” Zeccaran answered. The soldier nodded and began to turn away, Gusty ground her own voice box to get him to stop. He paused and looked at her curiously, the bags under his eyes betraying his stress.

“We are not leaving the country you know. Gertrude has a final task before we leave,” she told him. Stiff Inspection turned fully around to look at her.

“Excuse me, I believe I just heard someone making my mission harder, say again?” he asked his voice betraying his irritability..

“We were asked to go to the pirates’ hideout and kill or capture the group.” She was not much for lying, but at least this was a ‘mostly-truth’ situation.

“Ah. Delightful. Well.” He bit his lip looking down to the deck and then back up to her. “I suppose then it is time to inform you this unit will remain here with you regardless as our objective, once the Griffon Empire’s involvement was confirmed, is to return you to Equestria.”

Gusty shot him a quizzical look.

“I did not mention it before, nor did Captain Garrison. This unit’s only purpose is to protect you and your companions. Once the situation escalated, we were to remove you from it. Thus, I must ask why you are so insistent on following the Dame’s orders?”

“That is because the Princesses specifically asked us to.” Zeccaran chimed in for her.

“Indeed. I guess that puts me in a difficult position, as I can’t exactly deny the Princesses will. I intended to just insist that we leave, but…” Stiff Inspection rubbed his temples with his wings.

“This is a special mission that only myself, Zeccaran, and Bunker will be participating in,” she stated, “You don’t have to accompany us.”

“Yeah. That’s not gonna fly. Letting you run around in a cave is not exactly ensuring your safe return at all costs. As per my orders.” He paused for a moment before heaving a sigh. “Welp. Can’t be helped. So much for not inciting more violence.”

“Who ordered you to protect me at all costs?” Gusty retorted feeling violated by the issued command.

The lieutenant answered with a simple hard look into her eyes. Turning about sharply he floated down from the helm on his wings. His silence had been enough of an answer, and the answer nearly made her blood boil. Stormwalker.

Damn him, she thought to herself. I can’t believe even not being here he manages to cramp my style.

Gusty continued to pout to herself wondering how she was going to flush out pirates while being followed by a platoon of guards. Looking down she mulled over how she would take revenge, trying to find inspiration in the shiny planks below . The deck of the airship suddenly sparked a memory in Gusty. Especially since she had not seen him since she had woken up about a week ago. Anything to take her thoughts of that stallion.

“Hey!” she exclaimed looking towards Zeccaran. “Where is Gunther?”

“Not to worry, he’s on the ship in my cabin. I’m not about to forget my dog.” her friend raised a hoof in defense.

“Where’s he been anyway?” she prodded further.

“I let him roam. He had spent most of a month in a cage just getting shipped here,” he answered sagely.

“Wasn’t that dangerous? To let a wolf roam around sheep?” Gusty almost could not believe Zeccaran’s irresponsibility.

“He was fiiiiiine. Nobody here is even scared of him,” was the answer she received. Gusty rolled her eyes, she was simply relieved the timberwolf had not eaten some innocent lamb or worse. The rumbling of the airship’s engines prevailed for a moment as she looked between Bunker and Zeccaran.

“My dear husband…” she let her voice trail off as Bunker looked at her. “Take us to that pirate hideout.” He nodded enthusiastically before beginning to fiddle with the controls again. The engine’s roar quieted some as the stallion made his adjustments. However, as soon as he slapped the gear control the massive rotors behind the vessel screamed with a violent fervor. The wind the buffeted, hissed, and snarled as the propellers tore the air apart. The great floating ship began to slowly lurch forward. Bunker hastily adjusted the wheel as the deck tilted from misaligned steering rigs. He waved them away after completing his task.

Zeccaran!” Gusty tried to bellow over the rumbling air. “We should go inside!” He nodded and they began to make their way to the main deck. Most of the soldiers were quickly moving below deck through the central hatch. They moved slowly as the wad of bodies pressed down the stairs into the bowels of the vessel.Through the group of milling ponies Stiff Inspection stalked up to them his face somewhat more relaxed than before.

“Does he know where he is going?!” he shouted some. On the main deck the sound of the rotors was lessened by the helm’s elevated platform.

“I can assure you he doesn’t! He just happens to know how to fly this thing!” Zeccaran screamed. The zebra was stuck too loud from before.

“Alright, I’ll guide him then. Once he get this thing up to full speed, it shouldn’t take more than two hours to get there.” Estimate given, Stiff carefully walked past them and up the stairs. Tired of waiting Gusty lifted Zeccaran in her magic and ushered them both inside the initial cabin space. Almost all of the extra sound died away and she heaved a sigh of relief. Her friend scowled at her from her levitation making her grin and set him down.

“Come on.” Zeccaran motioned for her to follow him. It was the first time she had actually been inside the ship after all. The hall that they were in had several doors each presumably the fine sort of cabins with the big windows on the stern of the vessel. However, her companion led them past the doors and to the end of the narrow hall.

Bending down Zeccaran grabbed a latch that was laid flat in the wood floor and pulled it up. The wide trap door swung upwards without much issue and revealed sharp angled stairs that led down below the top deck. The polished steps were just large enough for her to fit comfortably and she followed the nimble little zebra down into the bowels of the vessel. Pausing briefly in the new hall Zeccaran took in a deep breath. He resumed trotting in the dimly lit hallway and stopped before a plain door. Gusty turned to her left to notice the path they were on opened up into a large bunk room opposite Zeccaran’s room. The space ended in a set of large doors.

“Hey, you coming in here or what?” her friend pulled her away from gazing idly around the room. She looked back at Zeccaran and followed him into what appeared to be a rather dirty workshop. Strangely, it seemed that her companion had managed to find several contraptions that he kept in his lab in Canterlot. Gusty stared in a vague sense of deja vu as she looked around the miniature lab. A short yip surprised her and before she could react Guthner was licking her face. She pushed the wooden canine down, giving him a stern look before stroking his back.

“Looks like this is your own little slice of paradise,” she said more to the air than to Zeccaran. Rustling paper drew her eyes from a diagram on the wall to where the zebra wrestled with a partially rolled map. Grabbing the edge of one of the tables with his mouth with a jerking motion he laid the map flat and placed random objects on it as paper weights.

“There,” he grumbled before signalling her over. Gusty took a few steps and leaned over his shoulder. She beheld a strange depiction of some place she did not recognize. She looked at Zeccaran in confusion.

“This is a map of the mine where Gabriella and the so-called Pirate King are hiding,” he responded to her silent question.

“Oh!” she exclaimed as he continued.

“Yes. I had only one other chance to look it over, so this is the perfect time to find a way to trap them.” Zeccaran nodded more to himself that to her.

Gusty started to pour over the map only to find herself growing increasingly frustrated. She understood the shape of the various passage and chambers but the way the map was laid made her eyes want to cross. She managed to persist long enough to establish that there were two tunnels that branched off of the main shaft. These tunnels formed a loop like formation that had a number of interconnecting passages. Other than those being great places to confuse one’s pursuers she felt deprived of proper reference.

“How big is this place?” she asked. Her exasperation clear even to herself.

“It’s huge. Easily bigger than Castle-upon-Barra,” Zeccaran commented. He reached a hoof over the table at the same time as the whole ship gave a low creak as it turned. After waiting for the sound to stop he tapped his leg on a formation Gusty had looked at but ignored.

“These are what I think they will be hiding in. Each one as an emergency tunnel to the next one over. They could make their ‘last stand’ and then slip away,” he stated. “The rest of the area is either too open or too dangerous to try that in.”

“Why so?” Gusty gave him a confused look. Perhaps she had missed something about the map’s depiction.

“Because this area experiences regular cave-ins. Look at the way the path randomly changes direction.” He traced the area he was speaking about.

“But they don’t know we know that...in fact I bet they don’t think we’re coming for them,” she declared.

“Awfully confident of you...no. I think they know,” Zeccaran disagreed, “But maybe you are right, about the map, they likely assume we could not access the cargo bay where I found it.” He rubbed his chin for a moment looking down at the map in concentration. Gusty had no idea what he could have been concocting, Zeccaran was crafty in that way.

“They know we have the airship, but even with Gabriella teleporting there, it’s been...not quite a day. They will be probably preparing to engage Ovis. The main army of the Baylands, not this ship or the soldiers on it. Even though you pretty much told Stiff to piss off. Real smart call by the way. Just throw away the additional help we need to round up these brigands. Ohhh, it’s a special mission for just me and my friends!” Zeccaran had gone from analytical to mocking her recent decision.

“I don’t want them involved. There’s no reason we can’t handle this. We managed to capture the Midnight Onyx with virtually no help.” Gusty shot back.

“I guess you forget the part where you were put into a coma for nearly four days.” He looked at her with great disdain. “Or maybe you don’t remember due to the head trauma?” Gusty blew him a raspberry in response, it was all she had left. Stalking away the skant short distance she could from the table she heaved a sigh of acceptance. Zeccaran was, unfortunately, right.

“Well where should we deploy this special guard then?” she turned to ask. “I still don’t want them running around in the tunnels. Following me...”

“Fair enough. Although I’m sure they won’t listen to us. But we might get the majority of them to to lay in wait outside the cave.” He looked as if he was deep in thought momentarily be for his face relaxed to an almost annoyed expression.

“So just drive up park the Onyx and have them wait for the hapless pirate to come running, huh?”he inquired lazily. Gusty nodded her approval. She had rarely fathomed planning things like this and was more than happy to defer the strategy to him. Afterall, she was always more of an active player in a battle, her recent actions here in the Baylands quite potently proved such.

“You want the pirates captured, correct? Since you are actually the diplomat-soldier on this operation I just wanted to be sure,” he asked. Her friend was giving her an extremely serious look as if he had come to some deep realization upon stating that she was in charge.

Gusty cleared her throat, and gave him a concerned bit of squinting, deciding she need to be more specific. “I want all of them captured. I will not see to the murder of my daughter’s kin. No matter what Gertrude said.” For a brief moment Zeccaran’s face darkened before he nodded at her words.

“Gusty.” He gave a pause that felt too long. “Understand as emissaries we are obligated to fulfil Gertrude’s wishes. And...after everything she told you yesterday...I think we have to.”

She practically snarled at Zeccaran. Closing the distance she puffed out her chest and stared him down. Gusty could not endure the thought, and she would not allow her friend to think it either. However, to her surprise he did not flinch instead his gaze was harder than the steel of her sword. The last time she had seen Zeccaran make such a strong glare was back in the Cave of Nyx, when he denied Stormwalker his revenge. Whatever the zebra had decided in his mind, she was not going to stop him, not if the threat of a demonic beating had not deterred him. She relented her stare and looked away from him, ungainly grunting as if she had missed something important and no longer could participate in the conversation.

“Just don’t do anything stupid.” she told him and let silence reign over the moment. An excruciating pain welled up suddenly like a bursting dam, in her temples. Moaning instinctually she sat back onto her rump grabbing her skull with her forehooves. The pain’s intensity made her stomach do a flip and nausea made her suck in short sharp breaths. Zeccaran was next to her in an instant.

“Whoa! What the heck is going on!?” He caught her from falling over as the world spun from vertigo. His voice sounded distorted as if he was yelling through a metal tube or a tin can on a string that a child might use. He held her as the onslaught of suffering dissipated to a particularly uncomfortable throbbing in the center of her forehead below her horn.

“Not sure,” she managed soon after, “seems like a sudden headache attack I guess.” Gusty cautiously stood using Zeccaran briefly as a brace. She closed her eyes as the oil lamps flickering lights made her eyes flash colored images of something she knew was not reality.

“Are you okay then?” her friend asked.

“No. But I will be if I take a nap, I’m sure it will be fine,” she replied already groggy from the mere thought of finding relief from the migraine. Nearly stumbling as she pushed forward out of the little workshop, Gusty realize that her words were not even convincing herself. It took everything just to shuffle towards the bunk room and ignore the similarities this sensation had to past events. Zeccaran followed her closely making sure she made it to a bed.

“Do you want me to wake you up about ten minutes before we are there? That way you can get your armor on?” He asked softly into her ear as she collapsed on the rough spun pillow.

“Yes. I guess that means you had the Guard gather up my stuff then?” Gusty could hardly believe the hoarseness of her own voice. The reprieve of relaxing her legs was already taking its toll and she struggled to retain consciousness. It did not help that the pounding in her skull made it feel like her thoughts were going faster than her waking self could comprehend.

“I did. What would you do without me right?” Zeccaran teased in far off echoes. She managed a smile before she could no longer hear her friend. The world receded into a blanketed darkness that managed to relieve her stress and pain. It was a welcome sensation and Gusty relished the moment of empty bliss for the short instant it lasted.

Awaking with a bit of a start Gusty found herself in her home. It was not her current home, no, it was someplace else she had lived. It seemed a whole age had past since she had had such a lucid experience. However, with how severe her flashbacks and other mental projections had been of late it made everything seem like it was a long time ago. At least this time she knew it was fake and not a reality that would be shattered when she woke up.

Looking around the room she found it bordered by curtains and alabaster pillars. It was the same place she had seen her first day in the Baylands. Somewhere in her mind a stray thought reminded her to go wake her daughter. A part of her knew that it was just a figment of the dream another part made her wonder why it was always a female child. Gertrude, Amethyst, how many other “daughters” had she had? The thought came and went as she followed the familiar path through the curtained structure to her daughter’s room.

She drew the dark blinds away from her daughters part of the home. Creeping into the chamber a deep sense of nostalgia and love foamed up into her heart and cheeks. Having done this before Gusty could not help but play out the memory as she approached the lump of covers on the strung hammock bed. She just needed to time it right to jump on the swinging bed to cause enough spring and bounce her sleeping daughter into the air much like she would Amethyst.

Gusty found her ideal position and waited to make her leap. The bed swung towards her and she dove towards it like a leaping cat. She came to a soft stop hovering above the bed as the canvas continued to swing, the soft hum of levitation in her ears. The lump of covers rustled some and out popped the head of an alicorn. She was a pretty little thing, with a rich brown coat and a shiny black mane even in the dull light of the coordinated room.

“Aren’t I a little old for you to be trying to scare me out of bed, mom?” she asked her voice even finer than Gusty remembered. Her tone however was dry enough to make the Saddle Arabian Desert seem wet. Gusty liked to think she got that from her father. The younger alicorn put her down on the still moving hammock and gave her a look of curiosity. She could not help but smile at the moment and the memory. In a way the sensation of displaced euphoria brought her thoughts to how she come to this point. Why did she have these memories, these dreams? She wondered what had happened and how long it had been since the petite mare in the hammock had been dead. How she knew that, Gusty did not want to know, but the fact remained.

“Are you going to say anything or are you just gonna sit there and stare?” her daughter questioned as she continued to gaze at her in a stupor. Gusty rolled over making the bed rock in an unstable way, trying to push away the thoughts of her existence.

“Just wondering why you are sleeping in later than me is all,” she teased. Gusty used her magic to pull the blanket tight over her daughter’s face. The younger alicorn struggled as the aggressive cloth and Gusty’s giggles began their assault.

“Dammit, mom!” she cried flopping out of the suspended bed a particularly angry look on her face.

“Watch your language, young lady,” Gusty scolded.

“I’ve been old enough to cuss for a good thirty years and that’s what you say to me? Some things never change do they?” the tousled youth grumbled. Gusty found herself subconsciously kicking herself for forgetting that demi-goddom came with a lack of age; it had been too long since she had real time spent time with other alicorns. The last three years with Celestia should have been a reminder about time’s lack of affect on such folks. However, when you are surrounded by normal everyday ponies as your main companions you quickly forget that. It was getting hard to deflect the personal cliff diving experience the more she thought about the disparity so Gusty resorted to more actively participating in the dream.

“Well...how have things been?” she asked more as a conversation starter than a serious question.

“I just told you yesterday.”

“I want to hear it again.”

“You really are getting old aren’t you?”

Gusty rolled her eyes. That joke was ancient even when her past-child had said it then. A sudden change in the lighting of the bannered room turned her attention toward one of the outer canvas walls. It seemed as if clouds had suddenly billowed up to block out the sun. The darkness felt almost unnatural, Gusty squinted her eyes at the still curtains her daughter also silent and suspicious of the change.

“Mom. What’s going on?” she murmured just barely loud enough to be heard at the short distance. Gusty immediately shushed her with a hoof. A sharp screech of metal and beast pierced the eerie calm like a knife into butter.

Before she could react the canvas curtains that covered the openings between the pillars burst into flame. Through the orange and yellow blaze tumbled a dark creature, its body as much fire as it was flesh. That feeling of primal fear tightened her chest and stilled her hooves as it turned to look directly at her. However, Gusty had control of her mind this time and she knew that the being was just another demon, and this was her dream. The lucid experience merely intensified as she wished for her blade, pleased to see it waiting for her as soon as she looked to the floor.

A blast of magic erupted from her daughter’s horn with such a blinding radiance Gusty had to close her eyes. As quickly as she could force them back open she beheld the smoking form of the demon, unfazed by the massive attack. He smiled at them, how she knew he was male Gusty found to be upsetting, but not nearly as upsetting as her daughter’s panicked cries.

“I-i-it didn’t work! Mom! The spell! It didn’t work!” The younger alicorn pressed herself closer to her.

“Don’t worry sweety. I’ll take care of him.” Pulling her sword up with her levitation she kept the blade between herself and the monster. He spat out a bit of cold, curdled laughter. The sound was all too similar to the demon Stormwalker from her waking world. However, this creature was not him, but perhaps a past iteration of the cursed blood. This became quite clear as he started stalking towards her in an attempt to flank her position by the hammock.

The beast of old wore dark matte steel plate. It lacked some of the more modern frilling and aesthetic ribbons around the collar and abdomen but the shape and quality of the build was unmistakable. The creature before he was a Stormwalker for certain, and that meant she needed to strike first, and fast, before the beast realized her full capabilities. He hissed beneath the jagged helm moving closer to her daughter than she liked.

Before he could do more, Gusty made her move. This was her fight to lose and whether it was a memory or dream, she was in control, at least for now. Rushing towards the beast instead of just trying to levitate her blade to him, Gusty grinned as he dodged her body but not the blade. He was no Stormwalker she knew. Even in her dreams that beast of a stallion would have managed to dodge somehow. She caught her charge turning again to face the creature. This was about the time she realized something horrifying.

The demon had dodged in such a way that he landed between Gusty and her daughter. The wound she had caused at the base of his wing slowly patched itself together making him grin in a mad fashion at her. And as she looked at the precarious situation, flame burst through the curtains that led into the rest of the pillar tent home. Her jaw dropped as four more of the beasts swooped into the room immediately surrounding her child. The younger alicorn shrieked in surprise as they descended upon her.

Fury propelled Gusty forward and the dream became more of a blur. It seemed that though she was consciously aware of what was happening she could no longer influence the events. It was if a part of her wanted to see her daughter mauled, or worse captured by these filth. Gusty fought against the suddenly faster monsters, no longer sure if what she was doing made sense even in the context of her subconscious. All she could hear was her daughter screaming in pain and fear.

“Mom, hurry! Please! Mom!”

The words made Gusty’s heart hurt. She slapped down another of the ghastly horde only to have it replaced immediately. The frenzy of terror and battle pumped her blood with a force that ached her entire body and Gusty desperately wanted to wake up. She knew it was a dream, she had been in control, but now everything was just a train with no brakes headed for a crowded station. The sensation made her twitch uncontrollably, her nerves wracking her entire body until her eyes snapped open.

Covered in sweat and panting, Gusty blinked trying to get the persistent images of that moment out of her eyes. She hazarded a look around the bunk room to find that the world had not ended though to her it felt like it had.

“Oh, fuck,” she grumbled to herself. Her coat seemed to try to hug itself to her tighter as she stood, but provided no warmth only a sensation of claustrophobia. She attempted to focus on anything but her swimming head but found that task too monumental to accomplish and stumbled forward with the shifts in her balance.

Unsure what to do, Gusty let the whims of the remaining hallucinations to take her where they would. Her thoughts began drifting to other episodes like this, inevitably the first one being caused by her least favorite creature, Stormwalker. As if the images she saw were purposely trying to toy with her the face of the demon-stallion appeared. She closed her eyes and thought of how impressed she was by Bunker’s ability to pilot the contraption she rode. The response was just quick but not as strong, the colors and images blurring into something less intelligible. That was enough for Gusty to make her way up to the cabins.

Cautiously ascending the stairs up to the officer cabins, Gusty lifted the trap door with her magic. Once fully on the next level she let it drop and leaned against the wall, her sweat having turned cold from the stress of the reactive spirits before her eyes. Once she recovered she tried the nearest door to a cabin and found it locked. A sudden set of barks emanated from the door and the sounds of a dog’s claws echoed through the cracks in the frame.

“Sorry, Gunther.” She backed away from the door, “I need to be alone for a while, buddy.”

A vague whimpering replied as she moved to the next door. She ignored it, the sensory overload making it easy. She tried the handle with her magic, feeling unable to lift her hooves up to the lock. The door swung open and she found a large room with an equally large bed along with a vanity. She moved haphazardly towards the chair of the vanity so she might lean forward on its flat surface instead of trying to lay flat. Gusty noticed her trunk of clothes and several other suitcases that she had brought before their sight only a reminder of easier times.

Gusty sat ungracefully in the plushy chair and looked at her face in the mirror. She looked tired. No, that was too generous, she looked completely exhausted. Still, she looked better than she felt, even with her mane having become a mess from her brief nap.

Leaning her head forward, she rested on her hooves before voices of different folk echoed in her head. Most were words from the previous few days. But, slowly one became dominant, drowning the others out with its sharp, hissing tone.

Weak. Little. Alicorn. Where’s your fire?

Afraid of a few fancy lights? I thought we were stronger than that.

Gusty closed her eyes tightly at the sound. It was the not-her voice. Churning, a very angry, growling sort of criticisms at her it continued its tirade

Letting poor Gabriella live? Might as well just make out with Stormwalker.

I already know you like him. Already know how weak you are.

Gusty hated that little voice. She hated it because in a way it was right. In the past she would have followed Gertrude’s order just simply on the grounds that the damage that had been done warranted it. And, now it taunted her, as if it was not truly a part of herself but instead a separate entity. Unfortunately, Gusty could never challenge what it said, because in the end it was a figment of both her hallucinations and her own self-loathing. At least nopony else knew that bit, except perhaps the stallion in question. Her realization brought her around some, and made her want to fight against the little voice. What else did she have to do for an hour, right?

Now, I’m fighting the voices in my head. she thought, I suppose it can’t get worse?

Only if I cannot make you see reason.

As if a projection of my own anger is anypony to listen to.

Oh, this game has been going on for a very long time my dear.

I wasn’t even aware we were playing you mustn’t be any good.

Ha! Already on the offensive, that’s what I like to see!

The not-her had won just like that. Gusty could feel it. The anger had made her lash out, if perhaps in a harmless way, but the implications made her feel, dirty. She sat up briefly to glance at herself in the mirror. She beheld not herself but a twisted monster.

It looked somewhat like her, but its eyes were blackened pits, and its mane pulled away from its head in crazy directions. It still managed to hold the shape of a pony but otherwise the thing she looked at was such horrid version of herself she shrieked in shock.

Remember, I always win. No matter how many times you restart the game!

The image in the mirror smiled with its wide jagged jaw as the words met her ears. Petrified she stared back in horror hoping for anything to pull her out of the moment. She did not have to wait long, the sweet bliss of true unconsciousness faded her vision dark. Gusty let the natural reaction to such a terrible creature take her far, far away from beast. At least that was what she hoped it did.

Act 2: Chapter 13 - Legacy

View Online

“Duke Jetset. We find the continued degradation of your attitude to be most unwelcome in our court. We do not have time to be pointing hooves at one another, or developing paranoid theories. As far as a conflict with the Griffon Empire is concerned, there is not one. The arrangements for reconciliation have already been made and they hold no further ill will towards Equestria or her allies. Further we do not appreciate your continued….ha! Listen to me, you managed to get me so upset I started using the ‘royal we!’ This meeting is adjourned. If any of you have further complaints please stay to speak with me.”

-Celestia, in a recent Court-

Chapter 13 - Legacy

Gusty awoke slowly. She had wished to remain in that dead sleep and far away from her troubles for a while longer, but it was just not meant to be. Rubbing her eyes she decided against looking in the mirror again. Although she was not experiencing any symptoms at the moment she would rather not encourage the mess to return. Gusty had no idea if they were close to their destination, however. Deciding it would not hurt to double-check her equipment.

Groggily she rubbed her eyes with a hoof as she walked over to examine her trunk and other goods. It looked like it had been Bunker who had packed up her things as an arm of one of her colorful blouses hung out of the trunk. Gusty used her magic to lift the lid and stuff the clothing back into the compartment. Another large bag sat nearby and out of want to avoid an idle mind she undid its to string. A number miscellaneous items fell out onto the floor in a rough clamor. Scanning the pile she recognized her old travel pack and its faded brown hemwork.

Gusty picked up the pack and unfastened its buttons to examine what it contained. A collection of practical items were held within: a carpenter’s hammer, three grappling hooks, several lengths of rope, a short wood splitting axe, and her trusty, rusty crowbar. It came as a rather numb realization that she had not used the equipment in almost three years. It made her feel like life in the Palace had spoiled her. That became all the more evident after she closed the bag and began to tie it to her hips with her magic. Fastened in an extremely tight roll at the bottom of the pack was her sleeping bag. Gusty grinned, she had been rather pampered even here in the Baylands. She wondered briefly if that would change, but sumized that it probably would not. There were too many individuals looking to be her caretakers.

Creaking and moaning of wood and steel could be heard at a distance within the ship. It slipped towards her, the volume of the vessel’s complaints increasing as the airship tilted about four degrees to one side. The maneuver made Gusty feel as if she was falling forward. She realized the ship was purposely trying to slow down, they must have nearly reached the mines. Sighing she meandered towards the exit out of her cabin and then opened the door onto the deck.

“Now hear this: All hooves to battlestations!” boomed Stiff Inspection’s voice over the hiss of the wind. Gusty moved forward starting to shut the door behind her as Zeccaran came trotting around the corner. He stopped with a jolt and balked at her momentarily before catching his composure.

“Gusty!” He moved closer so as to not yell quite so hard, “I was just going to get you. Are you doing alright?” her friend asked. His eyes moved over face and looked back up with a grimace.

“Don’t answer that,” he hastily chattered. “I told Stiff about what we had in mind, he agreed to it under one condition.”

“What is it?” she groaned. Things were already off to a great start.

“He just wants to accompany us. He’ll leave the rest of the unit to spring the trap at the front of the cave, but he will go with us inside,” Zeccaran answered. Gusty gave him a stern scowl.

“Look, I know this guy. Walked by him everyday when we were living in the Palace. He takes his job very seriously. He’s going to tag along regardless.” Her friend shook his head on reflex.

“Sounds an awful lot like his boss,” she grumbled. She waited for Zeccaran to continue.

“Yeah, but if you let him tag along, you can keep him where you want. He’s willing to cooperate, so just humor him, alright?” he pleaded. The zebra acted like he was desperately trying to avoid conflict and that made her feel uncomfortable. It was not like Zeccaran to not want to tease her about her decision-making. Gusty mulled over the situation and found herself at a loss for words. She merely nodded in concurrence with her friend, unable to perceive any real issue with Stiff Inspection accompanying them.

About the same time as Zeccaran heaved a sigh of relief the airship slowly began to swing towards even keel. The speed of the vessel dropping significantly as it kept the new list to the opposite direction. Gusty hazarded a few steps forward to get out of the sheltered area where the door into the vessel was located.

The tops of trees slipped by and she blinked in surprise. Evidently Bunker was quite good at this. The ship continued to slow and lower to the ground, her engines roaring as they tried to compensate for the pull of the earth. Soon enough Gusty could not see past the foliage and the mighty vessel moved no faster than a walk as the engines churned down to idle and a hiss of compressing air could be heard escaping the pistons. Gusty moved towards the deck rail, staying along the raised catwalk structure instead of walking up and down the stairs of the center portion of the deck work.

Leaning over the edge some she peered towards the front of the ship, hoping to see their destination. She was not disappointed. Ahead of them nestled against a rocky wall of hill and granite she could see wooden buildings and tunnel leading to darkness. Arranged around the few shacks were spiked barricades that looked like they had been hastily constructed over the last week. They were not much good for defending against the Onyx and her compliment, but as Zeccaran said, the pirates expected ground forces.

Even at this lumbering pace they were fast approaching their destination That was when the first command was yelled.

“Make ready!”

Gusty turned to watch the Special Guard bustle into action. A stream of ponies moved to grab a long hose that was being pulled from the main cargo hatch in the center of the deck. They drug it towards the bow where a portion of the split-level planking lead into the superstructure instead of the deckrail’s catwalk.

“Fix pressure!” Several affirmative responses came from somewhere where the hose had been drug. The line of canvas-sewn tubing suddenly pulsed bulbous from whatever was being pumped inside it.

“Pressure set, sir!” responded a stallion that had run up to the center deck. Gusty looked around for Stiff Inspection, waiting for his next order.

“Take aim!” She found him standing on the bow, on the same side of the ship as her. The pegasus leaned over the edge of the deckrail eyes fixed on the exterior camp. A few brief moments passed, long enough for Gusty to lean up and look towards where the lieutenant was staring.


Memory kicked in and Gusty nearly dove for cover as a beam of fire was flung down onto the wooden structures. She had been on the receiving end of that weapon and pitied any lookouts that might be stationed below. As soon as the beam of gelatin fire got within a few feet of the buildings they were on fire. Once it landed the blaze practically turned blue from its intensity, not a moment later a pair of shocked caws echoed out. A pair of terrified griffons tumbled out of one of the structure just in time to have recognition hit their faces before the terrible fire weapon traced its ooze over them.

They were not far enough away for Gusty to not see the melting beaks and talons, or the burning feathers. Shockingly, for creatures that were burning to death, they did not scream. Flailing helplessly the two griffons rolled around on the ground as they were consumed, quickly stopping. The fire continued to smolder over their bodies until they were shriveled black husks, locked forever in silent wails. Blanching Gusty turned away from the scene, the image an all too familiar sight. She just hoped the smell of charred flesh would not make its way to her before she could get inside the cave. That stomach curdling stench would probably be enough to render her actually sick.

The thought and sight of burning folk triggered another reminder. She had wanted the pirates captured. It would seem that Stiff Inspection had missed that rather crucial detail. Gusty stomped towards him along the edge of the deck fuming.

“What the hell was that about?” she seethed once she was next to him. The stallion gave her a quizzical squint of his eyes.

“You didn’t even warn them! What if they wanted to surrender!?” Gusty shrieked at him. Stiff Inspection to his credit turned fully to face her.

“They were alert sentries. Unless they were put down immediately the would have alerted the rest of the hostiles,” he responded looking up some so he might meet her eyes. “In fact it's a miracle that they did not raise an alarm as a full-armed airship came cruising right at them!”

Gusty was left to stand indignantly as he turned to bark out orders. He shouted something about tethering the Onyx to some nearby trees before she recovered her composure.

“Fine. But why would you think they wouldn’t surrender? They are pirates! They don’t have any real loyalty.” She had finally found a counterargument.

“Listen to me, ma’am, those are not pirates.” Gusty balked at his words unsure how to respond, fortunately she had no need.

“The units stationed here are Griffon Military. Before his untimely death, Captain Garrison received a message from Princess Celestia indicating the “pirates” are a collection of international mercenaries and Griffon Special Ops units. This message had included that your companion, Zeccaran, also received confirmation from her Majesty that these events have had external support, at least according to my briefing.” Stiff Inspection’s face hardened the more he spoke.

He was a brave stallion, Gusty would give him that. It was not often a regular joe would stand up to her, he must have been cut from the same cloth as the zebra he had mentioned. However, she was more upset that Zeccaran had failed to mention this to her, especially since she had just helped him devise a plan of action not two hours ago. She turned to look where he had left him to find her striped companion missing. She adjusted her neck reflexively to make it look like she was trying to pop a stubborn vertebra and resumed looking at Stiff.

“Well…” she grumbled, knowing she had to concede to his argument, “If they are unarmed when they come running out of the cave instruct your soldiers to give them mercy. There is no reason to kill them unnecessarily.” Those words of Zeccaran from over a month ago had proven to be the truth. She intended to do better than the last time she conducted a raid.


She also elected to ignore such commentary and stuck to giving pleading eyes to Stiff Inspection. His hard glare broke but his tongue was still sharp.

“Very well, but I doubt many will throw down their arms even if they are attempting to escape whatever insane scheme you have planned,” he retorted.

Bustling of hooves drew Gusty’s attention to a small crowd of ponies moving to disembark. It looked to be about half of the Special Guard, they formed two lines and slipped down a rope or glided down to a gathering point a distance away from the still burning buildings by the front of the mine. Stiff Inspection yelled down to them her decree to which the crowd replied with an unison “yessir!”

“Well, gather up your husband and Zec and let’s get going. The sooner we can get this mission finished the happier I’ll be,” he said turning to her.

“Agreed.” She nodded moving to leave.

“I’ll be waiting down at the entrance to the mine.” as he finished his sentence the pegasus flapped up into the air and down towards the rest of the troops. Gusty moved away from the bow, and took a brisk trot towards the aft of the ship. Bunker lumbered down the stairs from the helm to meet her on the main deck.

“Where is Zeccaran?” he asked curiously. Gusty shrugged, the zebra had disappeared when she was not watching. Bunker’s guess was as good as hers at this point. A bit of barking made them both look towards the cabin entrance.

The moan of the door and the groan of a zebra creaked as the barking suddenly became much louder. “Gunther! Calm down!” Zeccaran bellowed over the top of the wooden canine. The dog bound out from the partial cover of the cabin entrance nearly bowling both Gusty and Bunker over. He stopped barking long enough to give the two ponies several licks on their legs before resuming his chant of freedom.

“Ugh. Damn dog acts like he was going to be trapped forever.” Zeccaran grumbled as he trotted up next to them. “I guess it's time to get this show on the road.” Gusty had not noticed her zebra friend’s haggard appearance but now that they were away from the din of the cabins she could see everything. Frankly, he looked awful, although she was not in any position to judge.

Collectively the group began moving toward the side of the airship that faced the mine. Gusty opened up her wings and vaulted the deckrail, letting her feathers glide her down safely. She landed nearby a bustling squad of pegasus-ponies whom were busily assembling what looked to be a folding ladder. She turned back to look up at the Onyx to see how her friend and husband were going to get down. In typical Zeccaran fashion a flash of green light and a brief yelp of surprise from Gunther and a large eagle landed next to her in a moment, dog his claws. Zeccaran changed back, his position changing to standing on the canine’s back

A mighty yell came from the deck and Bunker was soon flying toward the ground. Gusty balked for a moment shocked her husband would just dive off from a forty foot fall. However, her brain kicked in at the last second and she threw out her levitation and caught him just above the ground. Momentum stopped she released him and Bunker trotted over with a still worried look on his face.

“You cut catch close, dear. I thought I was going to break mine ankles!” He cried.

“Well it helps if I have a little warning. Instead of just reacting on instinct,” she retorted. Bunker snorted sarcastically with a purposefully snide scowl. He broke into a grin quickly after she rolled her eyes at him.

“Alright. Forward, then!” he decreed, and began walking. Gusty peered over to Zeccaran who shrugged from his perch before hopping off of his dog and following. Quickly, the group made it to the mouth of the mine. Gusty rushed them along, unwilling to let the wind carry the smell of burned bird to her nose.

With his sour look showing in full, Stiff Inspection motioned them toward him. He stood against the grey rock away from the open shaft and pointed for them to do the same.

“I still can’t believe you want to do this.” He waved a hoof towards the mine. “I can’t believe I’m under orders to help you either!”

“Yeah well thank your boss for that,” Gusty glowered, “If it wasn’t for him you and your ponies could be halfway to Equestria by now.” The group pressed themselves up against the rocks as she argued with the soldier.

“More like I wonder what you did to earn his favor. It has to be more than your looks, because you are a complete jerk,” Stiff grumbled as he poked an eye around the corner of the shaft’s entrance.

“I am not!” Gusty hissed back almost loud enough to give away their position.

“Yeah sure. Last time I checked you are perpetually trying to kill him too, makes your case pretty flimsy there, missy.” The pegasus pulled himself away from the entrance and fully faced the group. She went to berate Stiff Inspection but was cut off just as she inhaled to let him have it.

“Alright. Best way for us to do this is sneak along the left wall. According to the maps and the bit of scouting I did we should be completely undetected until we are fairly deep into the facility. Then...I hope you guys have something up your sleeves you haven’t told me.” He shifted uncomfortably in his grey-colored armor. Unfortunately, Gusty did not have much of a response, she had not thought this operation would require much finesse. Afterall, would not being trapped in a cave with the same group of ponies that wrecked your crew be enough? Luckily, Zeccaran had an answer.

“I think this might work. Let me know if it is scary,” Zeccaran spoke. In the next instant his trademark green flash replaced him with a massive bear. The beast’s muscles pulsated under its fur, razor sharp claws pawed at the air as it leaned back on its hind legs. Loosing a terrifying roar, Gusty nearly forgot it was her friend, until one flash of light later the zebra was back.

Stiff Inspection and Bunker had both turned pale, the latter more obviously than the former. However, they recovered as quickly as Gusty had and stood warily eyeing Zeccaran. It was definitely scary enough. Stiff cleared his throat after a moment.

“You know Zec, are you sure you’re not a Changeling?” He asked tentatively. Gusty cast a eager glance at her companion, she had often wondered the same but never bothered to ask.

“Yep. I know I’m not. Changelings can do anything. Rocks, ponies, trees. I can only do non-sentient animals,” Zeccaran answered.

“Still, how does a zebra come by the magic to do stuff like that, regardless if you are a Changeling or not?” Stiff questioned.

“Ever heard of magical grafting?” her friend’s voice was soft and squeaky like he was embarrassed by whatever process ‘grafting’ was in the first place. However, it sounded wrong, and by the way Stiff Inspection briefly turned green it was safe to assume that she was not the only one to think such.

“Ah. Makes sense. Sorry I asked,” the soldier replied with a deep grimace.

“Why didn’t you ever tell me this?” She asked as well, now that Stiff was done. Her jealousy was not fully serious but Gusty felt it necessary to act jilted.

“You never asked.”

“Yeah...you got me there.” She was already eating her own words.

“Alright, let’s take these fools by the beaks then.” Stiff Inspection turned about and began to slide alongside the rock face into the mine. Gusty followed suit, looking over her shoulder once to watch Bunker and Zeccaran fall in line. Slowly, but with a eerie certainty, the group slipped deeper into the mine.

Gusty carefully trotted behind Stiff Inspection doing her best to not make noise. She was not skilled in the art of stealth and it could be heard echoing on the rock walls of the space. Electing to distract herself from such an obvious shortcoming, as even Bunker was quieter than her as he moved, Gusty chose to become entrenched in thought as they traveled underground.

She had been feeling much better than the few hours leading up to this endeavor. However, it would seem as she progressed more the worse her head hurt. It was similar to before, yet somehow behaved as if she was feeling someone else’s headache. The sensation was strange and now that she focused on it, Gusty could hardly keep her mind in the present. It did not help that the little not-her voice started to murmur tiny angry curses at whatever it was that plagued her. With a tremendous effort of will and determination, Gusty pulled herself back into reality.

No hallucination or episodic terrors had ever caused her such an odd experience, it was like she could not control her body, or even her own mind. The moment left her pale and shaky, wondering if this was going to be the moment she forgot everyone. That was what Stormwalker and Luna had said might happen. Gusty scowled at the thought; she was not ready for it. The moment suddenly made her wonder about Amethyst. She knew her daughter was safe under Celestia’s care, but the thought of forgetting the prodigal little filly filled Gusty with a sudden and terrible sadness. A prodding on her sides made her turn to look at whoever the culprit might have been.

“Gusty. You don’t look so good,” Zeccaran said just as soon as their eyes met. She did not have much of an answer and simply dropped her head in response, trying not to cry.

“Doesn’t matter, we have to do this before we can go home,” she murmured her voice doing its best to hide her state, but failing.

“Quiet! The guards are right at this next intersection!” Hissed Stiff Inspection, even quieter than Gusty. She bit her lips closed in response, this needed to be finished with haste, but that was something that forced her to rely on others. Gusty hated that circumstance, other ponies were good, but just did not do things the way she wanted. However, the soldier was her best chance of finishing up business, even if that meant they had to pick off guards before grabbing Gabriella and running like hell.

Stiff Inspection motioned for her to step aside and let Zeccaran through. The pegasus made a motion that looked like he was half-heartedly trying to scare a foal. However, the message was simple, he wanted Zeccaran to spook the guards. A flash of green light passed and the bear-zebra stalked out of the shadows where the group waited. The intersection that Stiff had mentioned was brightly lit compared to the dim corridor that Gusty found herself standing in now that she was fully forced to live in the present.

If she remembered the picture of the map correctly, this was the area directly before the main chamber of the mine. A set of iron rails that had led them here broke off into separate sections in front of them, the path to the right sporting a dirty minecart. It was the perfect intercept point for the sentries, but somehow Gusty had a feeling Stiff Inspection had just made it the worse place to see a bear. Further, while she was not certain of where exactly they needed to go to find their quarry but a bear growling and swatting at some guards would certainly provide an ample distraction to find the answer.

“Is that a bear?!” squawked one of the presumed guards.

“I didn’t think the Baylands had bears!’ Came another griffon's voice.

“What the heck are we supposed to do about it?” the first one questioned back.

The Zec-Bear made a low and angry rumble. Standing up his back legs he roared towards something that was not quite in Gusty’s vision from her vantage point.

“We need help now, because the two of us aren’t gonna be able to take down that thing, run!” the second griffon answered as soon as the roar finished. Flapping of wings and scrapping of claws and pads echoed to Gusty’s ears. She moved to follow Zeccaran as they gave chase to the guards. A strong hoof held her in place suddenly.

“What the are you doing!? Go get into position!” Stiff Inspection growled into her ear.

“What are you talking about?” she asked totally bewildered. She looked between the soldier and Bunker both of which slowly grew a look of concern.

“It is plan, go over to other side of corridor and get horn ready to blast guards when they chase Zeccaran back here.” Bunker answered having recovered first. He, of course, was the stallion that was more acquainted with her general lack of focus.

“Yeah, don’t worry about it. Just be ready to do as I say, I’ll make it pretty clear.” Stiff Inspection flared out his wings as he spoke revealing a pair of wing blades that she had not noticed before. She merely nodded in agreement and moved to where Bunker had instructed. It took everything Gusty had to not fade back into her thoughts as she trotted over. She forced magic into her horn and focused on keeping the spells ready, trying to decide which to use, but settling on stunbolts. They might not do any damage but they would guaranteeably incapacitate anyone hit. She just hoped that was what she was supposed to do, every little thought sent about a dozen more flying through her head in panic and it was only worsening the more she had to wait.

Eventually the eternity of the minute she was forced to endure passed and the sounds of a surprised and upset bear could be heard approaching. Immediately after the grumble of an angry crowd of griffons rebounded down the shaft.

“Keep after it, I don’t want it back in the cave!” shouted an authoritative voice. It was unfamiliar, perhaps one of the top lieutenants that had shot her back during the siege on the Castle Manor. The thought made Gusty’s blood practically boil underneath her fur. If anything was going to keep her together for the time being it would be remembering what had been done to Gertrude and her countryfolk.

With her focus peaked and holding Gusty took aim at the intersection from her little depression in the cavern wall. Leaning her head forward to shoot as straight as possible she looked upward along the length of her horn, its swirled cone glowing red, ready to fire. The Zec-Bear came running to the exit, before stopping to growl and narrowly side step a crossbow bolt. It gave the effect that the ranger was a poor shot, watching a bear dodge his missile, but that would make it all the sweeter when Gusty blasted him and his companions down. Zec-Bear slipped into the dark portion of the shaft just as his pursuers made it to the intersection

Entering her field of vision were eight griffons and three ponies each with various arms. Just as soon as the most sleek of the griffons shouldered his crossbow she fired a set of stunners directly into the crowd. All five bolts found their marks and half of the griffons and a single pony fell to the ground incapacitated. In the next moment from their side of the shaft Stiff Inspection and Bunker sprang out, charging the bewildered group by air and ground.

Stiff Inspection was fast, not Stormwalker fast, but fast enough to catch one of griffons by surprise lopping an arm off before the lion-bird had even drawn a blade. It happened fast enough that the griffon took several seconds before he realized he had been dismembered and began screaming as his heart pumped a synchronized fountain of blood from his veins. Speeding past the felled bird the pegasus flipped sideways mid-flight and bounced himself off the far wall like it was a springboard. He caught a unicorn that was attempting to fire a spell at him and knocked him down to the ground and stood atop him, his foe unconscious from the impact of hooves to his head.

Bunker likewise found great success. He bowled over the final pony in a full charge leaving the poor fellow lifeless on the ground after several sickening crunches. Crashing into the griffons about the same time as Stiff had knocked the arm off the fool on the edge of the group, Bunker let his axe slip from his mouth into his hooves, swinging widely at the center of the lion-birds. He successfully caught the sleek fellow in the midsection as the group attempted to dodge. The griffon squawked angrily and clasped at his stomach, dropping his crossbow, blood springing out from his claws. Bunker jumped back as the group quickly drew blades and pushed their leader away from the front of the fight.

However this put the combat at about even odds as the incapacitated griffons from the stun bolts began to recover, the pony she had hit remained down. Evidently the mare’s smaller stature not allowing her to recuperate as quick as her comrades. With six on four a much better set of numbers, Gusty drew her own blade with her magic and stepped out of her cover, horn blazing with te