The Amulet of Shades

by Sparkle Cola

First published

Unfortunately, the Nightmare Moon Incident had one further complication...

It's been nine years since Twilight's ascension, and her relationship with her friends has never been stronger. While many things have changed about their respective lives, Twilight and her friends remain very close.

Unfortunately, their heroism will need to be called upon again, but this time, they may not be enough. The Nightmare Moon Incident had one more complication, one final loose end. One pony, thought forever lost to the passage of time, returns. And she will have her mother free... or die trying.

Now featured on Equestria Daily! Eeyup :eeyup:

Chapter One Part A: Exile

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Year of Alicorn Rule 317

“Thought I might find you here, Sister.”

Celestia turned an ear, listening to her younger sister’s wings as Luna came to a landing nearby. Luna stepped closer, coming shoulder to shoulder with her sister as the two surveyed the desolate wasteland before them. A dull shine glinted off of some of the discarded armor strewn across the valley, the light intensifying as the sun moved upwards from the range to the east.

After a minute of silence, Luna turned to her sister, dropping her head slightly before speaking. “Would you like to have more time before we partake in the ceremony?”

“Nay. I am ready to go,” Celestia said. “But what of you---are you absolutely sure?”

Luna raised her head, her eyes narrowing slightly. “Do you doubt my heart on the matter? The council has worked on this for many months, and they have consulted with me every much as you. I am every bit as committed.”

Celestia sat back on her haunches, turning to regard her sister more fully. The darker alicorn stood resolute and proud, meeting her gaze with eyes of turquoise flint.

Satisfied, Celestia turned to look out across the battlefield again, this time bringing a helm near with her magic. “It’s hard to believe that it was only a year ago.”

"Indeed," Luna replied.

Continuing to stare at the helm now before her, Celestia turned it over as she continued. "I fear it has left a stain that will never fade. We thought our unification had been perfect. That after so many years of peace this could never happen… But as for Morning Gleam…”

“Yours was not the only child that did our cause harm, Celestia. We’ve both had children that proved the same: if a leader can multiply his power by playing to the fears and discrimination of the ignorant…”

“Yes, but this time---” Celestia closed her eyes, a tear finally making its way down her cheek before she hurled the helmet away. “It was the greatest armed conflict since the inception of our rule! How many ponies paid in blood for his hubris? I… I can still hear the sound of steel striking upon steel, magical blasts and hurled weapons… the pounding of hooves upon the earth.”

Celestia began to choke up as Luna watched silently, her mane wavering gently in the breeze.

“And when it was over, the town of Silverton and its surrounding regions had lost over a thousand lives.” Celestia gritted out. “Ponies killing ponies! So many hewn down in the name of their cause. It was the greatest honor they could ask for, to be struck down in the field of battle.” Celestia’s hoof came down, cracking against the ground with enough force to shatter stone. “As if their sacrifice would really mean something. As if it would be honored or revered throughout the annals of history.”

Luna placed a hoof gently against her shoulder. “Not all of them were so indoctrinated as that, Celly. You know as well as I that their reasons were many and varied. And many were only moved because of fear.”

"Yet, it was the greatest scene of bloodshed in over two hundred years." Celestia turned away from the valley below, a heavy weight pulling her wings and her ears down as she glanced up to her rising sun. "In the end, they were still doing the work of death, whether it was their own fanatic beliefs or not. It had to be stopped. He had to be stopped.

Celestia closed her eyes as she recalled the two sides engaged in the conflict. She remembered the look of hatred in Morning Gleam’s eyes as he wielded magics most foul, slaughtering opposition by the dozens. She remembered his look of surprise and dismay as she descended upon the scene, bringing about the fury of the sun. More ponies fell, scorched by the flames of her righteous anger as she sundered the two armies apart, laying down a wall of white-hot flames as the field kindled into an inferno.

“You acted swiftly, sister. And you put a stop to the loss of even more lives. You drove Gleam’s uprising straight into the ground.”

Celestia knew this. She also knew why it was no other pony would hear from her son again. And also, why the rest of her kin would receive no more to their numbers.

Luna let out a long breath, resettling her wings for a moment. “His cause was not unique. It was the same arguments as of old. Nevertheless, it was only after he got too close to the sun that he realized his wings were made of wax,” Luna offered.

Silence again permeated the wind, and both Sisters dipped their heads to honor those who were lost.

“I trust the Lords of the Court are ready?” Celestia broke the silence.

“Indeed. Are you ready to depart?”

Celestia gave one last look over the field. "Goodbye, my son. May the fields you wander in now be far greener than what you found with me. Come, Luna. The dead live in the past, and we must tend to the present. Let us take the oath of respice prolem prohibitus. Here is where our lineage will end, so that we can govern in greater peace. So that no other pony will suffer for any failing of mine.”

***

Year of Alicorn Rule 514

Night darkened the landscape as the weary unicorn made her way down into the next valley. Behind her, the remaining glow of the western sunset had faded into the trees. Her aching body was nearing exhaustion, but at least the geas that compelled her allowed her to sleep.

She hated the geas, almost as much as she hated the pony who had left her with this curse. All she knew was that she had to go east. Delay too long? A crushing sense of guilt and anxiety would ensue. An urgent compulsion that would begin as a flicker, eventually giving way to a raging inferno that demanded her submission: a sense that she needed to act or die. Her own magic was no match for this kind of power. Not even her amulet, which she considered her life’s work, was able to negate it. Not when the originator was Princess Celestia herself. And now that Princess Luna was banished, Celestia would retain her power forever more.

Tempest scanned the valley below, compensating for the muted glow of the moon rise by intensifying her illumination spell. The trail turned, descending into a shadowy thicket, but beyond that the glen seemed to open up into an area with comparatively less trees and cover. Further, there was a murmuring sound of a burbling brook. After the low point of the glen, the terrain changed again, climbing steadily upwards and turning rocky and sheer with a few cliff formations.

Cliffs were of no concern: she was more than capable with her teleportation abilities. But since night was falling, it was time to set up camp.

Camping... Why would anypony camp for fun, anyway? Where was the fun in it? If it were me, I would rather curl up on a comfy mattress warm in my quarters, reading by the light of my horn under a blanket, thank you very much!

Really... where was the appeal in packing a bunch of uncomfortable gear and bland rations on one’s back, hauling it clumsily through rough terrain, grunting and straining to set up a drafty shelter, and then cooking food in the most inconvenient of manners, seasoned with wood ash?

Tempest's thoughts were suddenly interrupted by the spatter of a raindrop hitting her nose. She rolled her eyes in exasperation. Arriving at a clearing and finding the area acceptable, she surveyed the brook, taking note of a variety of tall grasses and underbrush and noting some edible reeds and berries. Finding no sign of predators, Tempest busied herself with her saddle bags, unpacking and arranging the contents in preparation to set up camp.

Her thoughts wandering while she worked, Tempest thought back to when her life became much more interesting. Fifteen years ago, on her birthday, her adoptive mom's best friend helped her apply to Sisters Academy. Mavis Morel was the odd pegasus that lived next door, by far the minority in a predominantly earth pony village, but despite that, she was the closest Tempest had to a family member other than her adoptive mom, and due to her connections she was essential in the school's applications process.

Several months into Tempest's studies, at the tender age of fourteen, Tempest was brought before Princess Luna in her private office. It was then that she learned of her parentage, that Luna was her birth mother, and the Captain of the Lunar Guard, Storm Sabre, was her sire. Before she was released back to her dorms that evening, she had learned not only that she was a princess, but that for the good of Equestria, and to keep the status quo, she needed to keep the information in absolute secrecy.

It seemed wrong, at least at first. It seemed covert and shameful. Why should her birth and her parentage be hidden—as if it were something sullied or indecent? Why should she be given such a noble birthright, and yet never be able to claim it? Apparently, about two hundred years before she was born, the princesses swore an oath that they would never have offspring again. Apparently, Tempest had been a mistake. Apparently, if the information were to get out, incredible political pressures could be applied by the noble class. Plans would be set in motion, either to mar Luna as the rightful ruler, or to target Tempest as a means to gain prestige and connections. It was better for the time being, Luna insisted, that Tempest complete her schooling without such a whirlwind of chaos. Tempest had to agreed wholeheartedly. This remained the situation during her first two years at the Academy.

Until...

Without warning, Tempest's anger flared up into a fiery, bitter stream of rage. She thought about that night, and how she had been powerless to do anything about it. All she had been left with was a desperate gambit, a promise: A covenant made to her mother, on the last night that she saw Luna alive, before she had been banished to the moon.

Tempest squeezed her eyes shut and blew out a heated breath. In the past, her anger had served her well, driving her to complete her research and development into what she thought would be an ultimate weapon. Now however? Now it was impotent, useless. Now she was left feeling worn thin, and empty. There was nothing left to drive towards. Nothing but oblivion.

However, I suppose my sentence is a kindness... A boon, compared to what Celestia did to her.

But even so, I am left with nothing! My plans came to naught, and now my failure is absolute! Every time I see the moon rise, and I see Mom’s visage upon it... it only serves as a monument to my failure. Every time the sun rises, and the light shines upon my face, the warmth is no longer comforting, no longer gentle: it is mocking, scorching, unrelenting. And it burns me to my core.

I.

Hate.

Celestia.

It had felt good to unleash her fury in a dizzying array of attacks upon the surprised alicorn. Tempest's amulet had been hoped to win out, along with the element of surprise.

Unfortunately, her attacks hardly left a scratch.

All she could cherish now was Celestia's stupid and stunned expression as she hammered away at the usurper's magical defenses. For a short moment, the feeling was intoxicating; glorious... But now? Now Celestia would get away with her act of utter betrayal and ambition.

A swooping sound approached from behind, followed by a few wing beats and the familiar sound of four metal-shod hooves clopping onto the hard earth. Tempest chuckled weakly—at least this particular pony was making it easier to say goodbye to what she was leaving behind. Gazing back at the yellow-orange pegasus, she watched as Lance Corporal Summer Wind folded his wings and tossed his red mane to the side. Her eyes trailed over to the insignia marking the paldrons of his armor. It was the newly incorporated farce of a seal, the mark of the now fully integrated Royal Guard.

It looked like Aunt Celestia's cutie mark, only repackaged.

Tartarus take Celestia and her recycled military insignia!

Tartarus take Celestia's lackey!

“The time is 1917, checking in as per my orders. You've been under continuous surveillance since 1400, Ms. Convict, and you seem to be making good time. Anything to report?” The guard sounded bored, but Tempest could still sense the spiteful indifference in his words.

And why not? She had only recently attempted to take down his beloved ruler. Given the chance, he would probably smile as he ran her through! Apparently, however, his orders were instead to ensure her safe passage to the coast, so that she she might board a ship departing for Gryphus.

Tempest schooled her features into a neutral expression so that she might make her reply. “I have nothing to say to you, Summer Wind. Go back to your spying, you perv." Tempest turned back to the folds of canvas that would soon make her shelter for the evening. "What happened, spent too long fishing at the lake back there? Maybe wishing I would just get eaten by a wyvern?”

The guard opened his mouth to reply, but then he stopped with a nasty smirk. “Wyvern, eh? Yes, that would be something." He stroked his chin with an armored hoof. "Sadly, I would be entirely unable to overpower such an opponent, and you would meet a rather messy end."

He altered his voice to make it sound all the more pinched and whiny. It suited him. "Oh, sorry, Princess Celestia. Yes, I tried, but I couldn’t save her. Yes, torn limb from limb. Yes ma’am, I will go wash out the latrines. Thank you for your leniency..."

He turned around and chuckled, tightening a few straps on his armor. "Sleep well, Ms. Convict. There are many such beasts in these parts, but wyvern wings have a very distinctive sound." He chuckled again, the sound growing more malicious as he took off, heading into the tree canopy for his night watch. "It might be the last sound you hear!”

Tempest watched him go. “Armor bound, metal headed jerk.” She still wondered why her aunt would even care if she made it to the coast. Her exile had come so suddenly, it was like the sequence of events had given her whiplash. There hadn't been any trial. No formal sentencing. All she received was a speedy healing by the palace medical staff, a pair of saddlebags hastily packed by the castle guard, and then a maximum-range teleport spell provided by Celestia herself. Oh, she was sent away with one more thing: the armored Pig-a-sus, Summer Wind.

Tempest glanced at her Amulet for a moment, thankful that Celestia had let her keep it. Watching as the jerk-a-sus began to unroll his bedding on a sizable branch half-way up a tree, Tempest smirked as she had a thought. “Hey, SomeWind!" Yep, there was the old unenthused glare she was used to. "It’s uh... kind of a chilly out tonight. You want me to use my Amulet to kindle your tree? It’ll keep you nice and toasty warm!”

“You do that and you’ll have no defense at all if a predator comes around. You can’t stay awake the whole time you know!” Tempest gave an insolent grin at the slight hitch of worry in his voice. She had definitely struck a note there. He had undoubtedly heard about her ferocious battle with Celestia. What he didn't know is that the amulet was mostly drained. The grin slid off her face however as he rolled his bedding back up and took flight over to a more distant tree. She thought about informing him of the risk if he set up his post at that distance, but she clamped her mouth shut.

I won’t give him the satisfaction.

Panning her eyes from the line of trees over to the more rocky terrain across the bank of the brook, Tempest returned to her task of setting up her tent. A howl of some sort sounded in the distance, but it was probably fine.

Probably.

The guard had oaths to keep, and he would swing back around to a more appropriate distance once she was asleep in her tent.

Hopefully... Either way, she needed to rest, as the option to stay for a while was unavailable.

Clearing a small spot on the ground with her magic, Tempest dragged kindling and larger pieces of wood to the center. Sending an incendiary spark from her horn, she stayed with the growing fire until the larger sized fuel was burning as well. Turning in place to warm her backside, she poured some milled grain into a pot and added some sweetener before she trotted over to the stream for some fresh water.

Gruel. Sure, it is warm and can fill you up, but the taste? Not even its name sounded appetizing. A coincidence that it rhymes with cruel? I think not.

It wasn’t fine dining, but it did warm her belly. After cleaning up her mess kit, Tempest retired to her tent. She hoped with the vegetation nearby that she could find some berries to add to her breakfast before having to break camp and depart. That would improve her gruel’s taste considerably. With the thought of fresh berries, she sighed and rolled over , trying to get comfortable.

***

Thirty-one meters in the air, silently clinging to her perch on the tree like a bird of prey, a pegasus mare watched through narrow gaps in the tree line. She raised a hoof to tuck her blond braids back under her cap before adjusting her amulet-tech visual enhancement device to zoom in on her target. It was the best kind of tech that amulets had to offer, dubbed the VEOS-V, short for Vision Enhancement Optical Scopes—fifth generation. It was something now gaining regular use by the Royal Guard Special Ops Division. A camouflage body-suit almost completely covered her purple fur, helping her blend seamlessly into her cover.

The night vision function of the magically enhanced lenses showed the tent in a stark grayscale contrast. Mavis had deactivated the magnification setting in favor of switching to night vision after the unicorn’s horn went dark. Hopefully the hornheads back in Canterlot would get it right next time. If a VEOS Mark VI was planned, maybe the research and development team would fix the interference between the magics of the magnification mode and the night vision mode so both could be used simultaneously.

Adjusting her position, Mavis panned far to the right to observe the pegasus guard that was setting up his station. He was about 50 meters away, near the top of a taller hardwood, and he seemed to be quietly removing his armor. Mavis' eyes narrowed a bit. If this guard's intention was to protect his charge while she slept, doing so without wearing his armor was a lousy way to fulfill his duties. Mavis continued to watch, studying him to see what he had planned.

***

The hoof wrappings that Mavis wore were useful to protect her chronic tendonitis. This would be their first time used as restraints. Unable to find room on the branch Summer Wind was sleeping on, Mavis leaned back from the branch directly over his head, hanging from her knees as she regarded him from her upside-down position. Visually scanning all four of his limbs to ensure he wouldn't be able to pull himself free, she gave a grim smile of satisfaction. This soldier would get quite the dressing down for being derelict in his duty. Unless his plans were more nefarious than that.

Reaching a hoof forward with a feather-light touch, Mavis pressed a potion vial against the sleeping corporal's lips. Drawing her other hoof back and taking careful aim, she delivered a measured blow to his larynx with a muted thump, striking just hard enough to trigger his swallowing reflex.

Summer Wind coughed out a gasp before snapping his mouth closed to swallow, flinching against his bindings. Already in motion and striking like a waiting cobra, Mavis had inserted the vial into his mouth before he could close it. Sputtering and choking, the guard flailed around in his bindings like a fish in a net, the vial battered aside and falling to the forest floor. Mavis merely pressed his chin upwards with a hoof, closing his mouth with a none-too-gentle force and getting into his face.

“Stop struggling, Lance Corporal Wind," Mavis hissed. "Stand and report!” Instead of settling down, the guard's struggling became more frantic, coughing and gagging before he gasped out a response.

“I… you… what did you give me?! Who are you?”

Mavis activated a glow-crystal and held it up to her face while pulling off the VEOS-V with her other hoof, allowing him to see her properly.

Summer Wind stopped his panicked struggling as his head drew back in shocked recognition. “M-Major Morel? What in the blazing flanks of the sun are you doing here?”

“Blazing what? You want to check your terminology corporal?

“I… I mean, uh, ma’am, yes ma'am! What in the name of Celestia are you doing here, ma’am!”

Mavis lunged forward again, this time contacting his head with her own and driving it back into the tree trunk behind him with a thump. The bindings around his wrists snapped taught with the motion, lifting his forelegs up like a marionette. “As a matter of fact I am here in the name of Celestia, lance corporal!" Mavis growled in a dangerously low voice. "Now come to attention and report!”

Out of reflex, the pegasus attempted to salute. Comically, his hoof pulled uselessly against the binding while he tried to stiffen and straighten his body out, stifling a cough. Mavis smiled inwardly, as she knew she now had his undivided attention. “I have been tracking Tempest for ten days now ma'am, as per my orders. I have been providing security during her sleep cycle, getting my own rest in the morning, and then reacquiring the target in the afternoon to continue surveillance." The bindings wavered as he tried to salute again.

Mavis drew back slightly, furrowing her brows and cocking her head to one side in mock confusion. Now that he had pushed back a pace, she lowered herself down onto his branch, all the while keeping firm pressure against his chest with a hoof. “What? I’m sorry, corporal, but I don't think you are clear on what time it is.”

Summer Wind’s eyes widened slightly. “Ma’am?”

The pegasus bared her teeth and pushed forwards, this time pressing her entire barrel against him, snapping the bindings taught. “I asked you what time it is, lance corporal!” She spat. “Because I know I couldn’t have been watching you sleep while on duty—that wasn’t what I was seeing through this VEOS on my forehead. Right? Corporal?”

The pegasus slumped slightly in his bindings before turning his head away. He spoke through a clenched jaw. “Yes… Ma’am.”

Mavis’ eased up the pressure on his chest as her voice suddenly turned more conversational, but in a way, more deadly. “Good. I just have one more question, corporal. Did you or did you not know of the plot to murder Tempest while she was to be ferried across the sea from Turtle Bay to Gryphus? Tell me plain.”

Summer Wind’s eyebrows shot up. “Plot to murder...?" Summer Wind's eyes got bigger as Mavis produced a wickedly curved hoofblade out of nowhere before pressing it mercilessly against his throat. "I knew nothing about it! This is the first I've heard!" Mavis continued the pressure, her eyes turning cold as a winter's night. "I swear it on Celestia’s throne!”

With a quick movement, Mavis cut through the bindings, allowing him to recoil into a fetal position before losing his balance and rolling backwards off the branch. Summer hastily spread his wings and flapped back up to re-assume his station on the branch, saluting and breathing heavily.

“At east, corporal. You are dismissed.”

“What? I… but my orders.”

“Your orders are now my responsibility. I have intel that Tempest’s life is in danger, and I will see that she is delivered safely, as per Princess Celestia’s orders. That potion I administered was a truth serum, so I am satisfied you were not part of this plot. You are relieved, lance corporal!” Mavis spat out, her tone chill and final.

Stunned, the stallion could only blink a few times, looking at the tent of the sleeping unicorn before turning back and giving a final salute. "Yes ma’am. I will head back and report in.”

Mavis glared for a few more seconds before relaxing and softening her gaze. “Farewell.” She stood aside to allow the guard to pack away his supplies. Without another word, he took to the cool night air as she watched him depart. Following that, Mavis took off as well, circling to find a better perch.

Eventually, she settled on a fork of a massive oak, wide enough to set up her hammock comfortably. Such was important for a mature mare of 61, as her body was increasingly sending her status reports of unwanted information. She was still strong and wonderfully fit, but that didn't mean her knees and shoulders didn't tell her about it in the mornings. Really, for the most part her camping days were over, especially sleeping in a tree like a filly.

Mavis gave out a deep sigh, working to adjust herself into a more comfortable position. She tucked her blanket around her and then sat up and refocused her VEOS-V. It was going to be a long night—where did she leave that pouch of coffee?

***

Other than an owl, the night had been peaceful. At regular intervals, Mavis had taken off to circle the periphery, roughly every fifteen minutes or so. She had two main goals: ensure Tempest's safety, and stretch her own stiffening hips and wing joints. It has been a really long flight.

It had been an hour since Lance Corporal Wind had departed, and by this time he was likely several miles into his flight. Unless he stopped somewhere and tried to go back to sleeping on duty. Mavis continued her vigil, working on a third pouch of coffee before she glanced down and noticed something new. Some kind of massive thing, silvery-metallic colored in appearance, was moving across the brook. It was closing in on the tent, and it was moving fast.

Hardly having time to think, Mavis lurched upwards out of her hammock, splashing her coffee to the side. How in the bloody Tartarus did she miss something like that during her patrols? It was huge! It moved like a reptile, stocky low to the ground, and its head was massive - as wide as a pony was long. Eerily, it didn’t make a sound.

Having assessed the situation in an instant, Mavis threw herself down towards the creature, donning her hoof blades as she dove. There was only going to be one shot at this, but she had speed and surprise as a tactical advantage. She just prayed that it would be enough. Flaring out her wings slightly to adjust her approach vector, she angled up and veered for the creature’s neck.

Time seemed to slow in that last moment as she completed a quarter roll, pointing her left wing towards the sky while the right wing came close to the ground, a typical maneuver that would allow the hoof blade to strike across an unaware opponent. It was one of those rare moments that one could feel all of their senses heighten, as the moonlight filtered in through the forest canopy and the very texture of the tent fabric came into crystal detail. At the last moment, Mavis retracted her wings to deliver her strike. The last thing she noticed before impact was that the head of the creature was already pushing forward, deforming a panel of tent fabric as he made his way towards an easy warm meal. Gritting her teeth, Mavis readied herself for the blow. She hoped she had made it in time.

End Chapter One Part A

Chapter One Part B: Exile

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Mavis' hoofblade slashed across the back of the monster's neck. She hoped that by scoring a cut as deep as possible, she might damage the creature’s spinal cord sufficiently to paralyze it, or at least render it unable to mount any further threat. Not knowing whether the armored plates covering the neck area were comparable to those of a dragon, Mavis pushed her mind to think of how she could react once her hooves met the ground. If her attack were to simply bounce off, she needed to have a plan B ready to go fast.

That’s IF my hooves meet the ground first.

There was a deep schlick as the blade hit home, carving a slit through the brute's flesh before jerking to an abrupt stop against something much harder. The impact wrenched Mavis’s right shoulder backwards, violently slowing her down and causing her to cartwheel over. The forest pitched over sideways and then upside down as Mavis spun out of control.

With her flight speed hot, Mavis knew she only had an instant to react in an effort to minimize the damage. She flared her wings and shot her hooves out in a desperate effort to slow her angular momentum, but the roll caused her to hooves to simply be in the wrong spot. She didn’t even have time to cringe before she hit.

Tumbling across the ground, Mavis registered slashes and impacts as branches and vines tore at her hide. Those slashes were soon forgotten as she collided with a tree trunk, pain exploding across her left ribs and wing as she bounced off to the side. The impact knocked the air from her lungs, and she winced as she struggled to breathe. Struggling to reorient herself, she noted there was also sharp pain at her right elbow, with almost electric-like shocks shooting down to her hoof.

A throaty roar let Mavis know that she had at least scored a good hit. Whether it was good enough to protect her own hide or not was yet to be determined. Gasping, she fought to regain her footing as she scanned the foliage ahead. If this creature was as hardy as it seemed, she wouldn’t get the luxury of checking her wounds. Planting her three good hooves on the ground, she gutted through her vertigo and stood up. The creature couldn’t be more than ten to fifteen meters behind the bramble she just crashed through. Why couldn’t she see?

Confused for a moment, Mavis reached up to tap at the night-vision setting of her VEOS-V. Instead of pressing against the embedded amulet on the side of the device, her hoof pressed against the side of her forehead.

Ah, bloody brilliant. That roll in the bushes must have dislodged my goggles. Tartarus, tonight just gets better and better!

Snapping her gaze back and forth, Mavis spread her wings, preparing to take flight at first visual. Ground-to-air combat tactics, the same ones she’d drilled into the minds of the recruits back in Canterlot, demanded that she get a positive visual before blindly picking a vector for take-off. She had seen it time and time again: still-green recruits taking flight in a panic, flying right into a waiting snare or trap, or Celestia forbid, the jaws of a creature. She knew better. She also knew that it had been about ten years since she'd seen any real action in the field, having only worked as an instructor. She wiped some grit from her eye and looked around wildly again.

“C’mon you reptilian fortress. Give me a—”

The rest of what she had to say was drowned out in another roar as the beast charged straight in, tearing through the foliage as if it were nothing but tulips. Either the brute was too stupid to flank its prey, or it’s armor was so tough it couldn’t be bothered with what little damage she could do. Mavis hoped she had enough tricks up her sleeve to not lose a limb. Or her life.

Well, come on then!

Mavis reared up, hoofing a flask from her bandolier. She ripped the stopper away with her teeth, and crouched, preparing to take evasive maneuvers. The monster continued charging forward, ever intent on its prey. Its prey merely flicked her wrist, sending the opened flask sailed right down the brute's gullet. The impact was heralded with a muffled burst before a flash of fire erupted from its mouth.

Grinning in satisfaction, Mavis sprang back, giving ground before she pivoted on a hoof to spring off into flight. However, her left wing had other ideas, and on the first downward flap Mavis cried out in pain, a tearing sensation lancing through the shoulder joint. Without grace or form, she tumbled forwards about three meters before flopping onto the back of her head with a thud. Dully, she noted the knock sounded a little hollow. Scrambling and trying to ignore the numerous pain sources that were now clamoring for attention, she rolled over her other shoulder and tried to regain her hooves.

Ow... Wing must be busted. Tempest, I hope you are a light sleeper, cause I would really rather not become the main entree tonight.

***

Tempest flew off of her bed roll, startled awake by a painfully loud roar. Tumbling out of her tent, she whipped her head back and forth before noticing some thing in the dim light of her dwindling campfire. Whatever it was, it was huge, and roared as it ran headlong into the bramble, making its way towards the brook. She didn’t know why the beast was heading away from her campsite, but she wasn't going to stop it and ask a few clarifying questions. The thing might just pick up a quick snack and chew thoughtfully while thinking up a reply.

Wait a minute. Where’s Summer Wind?

A sudden eruption of green fire caught Tempest's attention, the flames spewing forth from the creature's mouth.

Not good! Of all the predators for me to come across, why did it have to be a dragon? I suppose Summer Wind is already lost to it's clutches... unless he turned chicken an fled.

Tempest brought up her magic and focused on her Alicorn Amulet. It didn't have near the energy that it used to, but she judged it was still more than a match for a moderately sized dragon. Digging deep into her magical reserves, Tempest directed her magical energies into Amulet, releasing a furious bolt of energy. She watched as her aim proved true, piercing the creature cleaning as the energy continued on, flashing great shadows from the surrounding brush as it slammed into the opposite bank of the river. The beast crumpled to the ground from the shot, twitching a few times before growing still.

Giving a sigh of relief, Tempest's hackles suddenly rose again as her eyes were drawn to some movement behind the smoking heap. Readying her magic again, she began to tap into the amulet again before she noticed a pegasus mare emerging from the thicket. The pony had a cap over her mane, though the covering struggled to completely contain her prodigious braided locks. She wore a camouflage bodysuit, fitted with utility pockets and a bandolier, and her left wing seemed to be hanging at an odd angle. The mare made eye contact and grinned, inclining her head with a bow.

“Well now! That was quite the shot, if I do say so meself.” She reached up, straightening her cap and tucking her blond braids back under. “In my humble opinion, t’was rather anticlimactic though, don’t you think, Temp? Skewering the poor brute with a beam of supercharged plasma? For Celestia’s sake, have ya ever heard of overkill?”

Tempest couldn’t believe her eyes. “Mavis?” Tempest gasped. “ What in Luna’s starry skies are you doing here?”

“Well lass, somepony had to make sure you didn’t go losin’ yer head during your little camping holiday.” Tempest grinned at Mavis’ Griffish accent, something the mare could easily hide, but seemed to always let out when relaxing around friends. Mavis tried to extend her wings in one of her cocky poses, but winced with the attempt. Growing concerned, Tempest intensified her light spell and trotted forward for a closer look.

Before Tempest could see her clearly, Mavis had turned, trotting back into the brush and reeds again. As Tempest wordlessly followed, the pegasus unclasped her bandolier, dropping it to the ground while she started to search the vicinity muttering to herself. Tempest found herself unable to contain her curiosity any more. “Did you lose something, Aunt Slushy?”

Mavis bolted upright and whirled on her. “Oi! I haven’t taken on the guise of your kooky neighbor for years, you little upstart! That’ll be Major Morel to you!” She ducked back down to root through a few more clumps of taller grasses, grumbling under her breath about not receiving a visit from her little ‘upstart niece’ in over six years and only receiving the occasional card.

Tempest pursed her lips, watching the pegasus look around for another few moments. She'd known her aunt for too many years to take any offense at her brusque manner, so she waited for the other horseshoe to fall. Mavis had been present in her earliest memories, a constant influence to her and a best friend of her adoptive earth pony mom, Sweet Potato. Ms. Morel gradually became known as Auntie Morel, until at age six Tempest had given her the moniker Auntie Slushroom after watching her brew mushrooms into a sludgy potion of some kind.

After a moment, Mavis turned around with a smirk. Before long, the smirk morphed into a grin, until Tempest returned it with a snicker, until the both of them finally broke into hearty fits of laughter. Tempest sat back on her haunches, wiping the tears from her eyes. She couldn’t help herself—she had been traveling without hope or a friendly face for ten days, and she was emotionally past exhaustion. This exchange was like a breeze of cool air on a stifling night. She trotted up and met her old friend in a warm hug.

The pegasus winced again and gave a cough of pain. “Ah! Easy on the ol’ ribs there, lass; and watch the wing. Took a bit of a tumble there when I tussled with your party crasher.”

Startled, Tempest let her friend go only to see Mavis turn and start searching through the thicket again, mumbling something that sounded like ‘stupid vay-oh’s fives.’

“So… are we hunting mushrooms again?”

Mavis hesitated for half a second before she resumed searching “Mushrooms… Yeah, good one Lass... I think—” Before she could reply further, Tempest activated a modified light spell, brilliantly illuminating everything within a ten-meter radius by making the ground glow. It was probably overkill for what she needed, but after seeing Mavis for the first time in such a long while, Tempest was filled with an immature yearning to show off a little.

“What in the name of—“ Mavis clutched at her heart before whirling about and pointing an accusing hoof at Tempest. “Warn me before you do something like that, you... you horn-headed boffin!

Tempest only cocked her head innocently to the side. Snorting, Mavis glared for a moment more before bending to search again, this time squinting in the glow. Two seconds later, her eyes lit up she found what she was hunting for. “Ah, there ye are!” Standing back up, she used a combination of her right wing and left hoof to slip a goggle-like device over her forehead.

As Mavis walked past, Tempest’s eyes widened in surprise. “Is that amulet-enhanced eye-wear?” Her voice quivered with excitement. “With three crystals set along the right side of the device, does it have more than one function?”

“What, these things?” Mavis gave a mild harrumph in mock irritation. “If you hadn’t been such a hermit these past few years, doing Luna-knows-what, you would have known more about the newest applications your amulets have helped to pioneer. These are just the most recent developments in visual enhancement, though it’s only for military purposes. And a word of advice: don’t fly while the magnification mode is activated—should be printed on the side as not recommended. Never been given such a start in me life!”

“Oh?” Tempest failed to hide a smirk.

“Bah. You groundbound ponies wouldn’t understand. I know! Sprint as fast as you can towards a brick wall and then switch the mode on. Give ‘er a try an’ experience the thrill!” She held the device out.

Tempest was openly smiling again. “No thank you.”

“Anyhoo, this is the VEOS-V, the unified guard's new Vision Enhancing Omni-purpose Surveyor." Mavis slipped the goggles back on before she started tapping little amulets to the side, each tap producing a slightly different color gradient on the lenses. It can magnify objects at a distance ten times, and this crystal here enhances night vision for those of us lacking thestral blood. And this third crystal below is a new feature: heat detection, illuminating anything hotter than the surrounding environment.” Mavis furrowed her brow and began to mutter to herself. “If I hadn’t been such a git, I would’ve had that mode activated and caught with that beastie sooner.”

That reminded Tempest. “Where is Lance Corporal Summer Wind?”

Mavis wrinkled her nose in distaste. “What, that wanker? I relieved him of duty. Turns out he was a little lax on his assignment… Any reason he took up a station so far off?”

Tempest felt some color rise to her cheeks. “I might have… offered to warm him up.”

Mavis raised a brow in surprise. “Oh?”

“By lighting his tree on fire.” Tempest gave a weak smile.

Mavis’ other brow headed up to join the first before she gave a loud guffaw. “Oh really?” She continued to chortle for a few moments. “Well, in all honesty I don’t think he felt too threatened.”

“Why is that?”

“Well, let’s just say I spied him setting up his bed, getting ready to take a kip.”

Tempest frowned as she thought about that. She wasn't sure what Mavis meant by 'kip,' but could infer her meaning by the context.

“Still… Tree on fire, eh?” The older pegasus smiled mischievously. “That isn’t like you Tempy… but I like it. Oh—and you are welcome, by the way.” Mavis placed more wood on the fire, the flickering light revealing a wince as she pushed it into the flame. “I sprained me left wing in the battle. While it doesn’t hurt as much as my elbow, a wing is a mite more important out here!”

"Um, yeah, thanks.“ Tempest said. "Anything I can do?”

“Well, now. I’m glad you asked, Tempy." Mavis turned from the fire, the soft light flickering across the right side of her face. "I need my gear." She pointed her good wing up at a large oak where her gear was ensconced along with her hammock. "But in my current condition, it’s rather out of reach. Would you mind too terribly magicking it down for me?”

Tempest followed her hoof, spotting the station in the upper reaches of a nearby tree. “Sure Mav. Although, I can’t really see much up there. I don’t suppose you’d mind too terribly if I gave your VEOS a trial run?” She tried to hide her grin.

"Cheeky little upstart."Mavis said, chuckling in the back of her throat. She pulled off her goggles before hoofing the device over. Tempest took it eagerly, pulling it over her eyes before blinking in surprise as the forest around her seemed to light up in the green glimmering display. She gave the crystals on the side a few taps, testing the different settings of the device.

"Whoa!" Tempest's grin grew ear to ear, quickly looking from tent, to tree, to distant bluff. Finally, she turned to regard her companion, looking for all the world like a green-eyed bug with its mouth hanging open. “Wow! This is something! Wicked cool…" Tempest continued to alter the settings, still staring at Mavis with an amused smirk. "Heh, you look kind of funny, all green-glowy and stuff.”

“Sure, sure.” Mavis,rolled her eyes. “Get it out of your system, Tempy. Just like all the rest of my recruits.”

Giving a gasp of surprise, Tempest was no longer smiling. “Oooh, Mav! You’re covered in cuts and scratches!”

“Aye. And if you’re done there faffin’ around with me equipment, you can help a mare and keep her from getting all gammy!"

“Right, right... Wait hang on!"

Tempest had been in the middle of taking off the VEOS-V when a sudden thought took her. Snapping them back in place, she spun around and tapped the magnification crystal, staring at the moon. She studied the magnified image, her eyes darting from crater to crater, from shadowy maria to the glowing plains. After a moment, the image became hazy as Tempest’s eyes filled with tears. It was a nice thought, but there was no sign of her mother up there—it was barren... lifeless.

My attack on Celestia... It was my one chance to make things right. To bring my mother back. I thought I was prepared! I thought I could win... I wasn't even close.

“You alright there, Temp? What are you—oh.” Mavis fell silent for a moment while Tempest kept staring up at the moon. After a pause, Tempest felt a hoof press gently across her shoulders. “Tempest? Look, I’m sorry that—”

“—It’s fine, Mav.” Tempest yanked the goggles free, sniffling before wiping at her muzzle with a hoof. “Totally fine. I’ll get your gear.”

Tempest began to hoof the VEOS back over before she thought better of it and slipped them back on, trotting over the tree where Mavis' gear was stored. Switching back to night vision, she looked over the encampment: a hammock stretched tightly between two limbs, and a clump of bags fasted to the girth of the trunk with a strap. Struggling for a moment, she puzzled out the knots before working her telekinesis just so, undoing the tie-downs and then lifting all of the gear in the air.

Mavis chewed on her lip as she watched, relaxing just a bit once her gear made contact with the ground. "Nicely done there, lass." The pegasus trotted away from the fire to where Tempest had set down her gear. Rummaging through the larger of the two saddlebags, she pulled out a flask before unstoppering it and gulping down a few swallows.

Watching with interest, Tempest’s curiosity was peaked. “Healing potion, or strong cider?”

“Neither. And I wouldn’t want to heal anything just yet anyway, just in case something is dislocated. Wouldn’t be pleasant to magically tighten up the ligaments if the bone isn’t where it’s supposed to be. This here is a pain killer.”

“So… cider then.”

“Oh, hah hah...” Mavis slid the bottle back into the bag. Rummaging around again, she pulled out some bandages and a jar of ointment. “How about a little less cheek, and a helping me with mine?" She pointed to the slashes across her rump.

Tempest gave her a weak smile. “Sorry.”

Tucking the bandages to her side with her injured leg, Mavis held up the jar of ointment with a wing before turning to Tempest. “Alright, what sorts of medical spells or scans do you know?”

Tempest frowned for a moment. “I didn’t take many electives in the medical branch of the Academy," Tempest said slowly. "I managed to pick up a few basic scanning and mending spells along the way, but... I sort of focused on spells of a different type. Well, those and amulets of course.”

Mavis narrowed her gaze for a moment before shrugging. “Remind me to ask you about that later.” She grunted as she straightened out the hammock on the ground before gingerly laying on her side trying to hide the fact that she was starting to shiver. Tempest pulled a blanket out of her tent spread it over top of Mavis' form, tucking it around the edges before using the hammock to pull Mavis closer to the fire. Despite her lack of medical training, she knew enough to recognize the signs of shock. Once there, Mavis turned her head, gritting her teeth to keep them from chattering. “So, scanning spells?”

“The best I have is a third-level scanning spell: it will let me see most of—”

“—Brilliant. Let ‘er rip.”

Nodding, Tempest closed her eyes, reviewing the mechanics of the spell. It had been awhile since she had used this one. Her horn started to glow again.

“Oh!” Mavis mused. “If I do have a fracture, Temp, do you think a mending spell would work? Especially if you amplify it with your amulet there?”

Tempest pursed her lips as her concentration was broken, and then sighed, scratching at her mane in frustration. She wasn’t exactly comfortable casting a spell that she hadn’t tried for years, and it made her nervous. “Look, uh… I don’t think we should really try that. I'm a little out of practice, and I'm not sure you want to sprout half a horn and a third wing.”

Mavis chuckled, laying back on the hammock and bunching up the blanket around her crest, her braids cascading out haphazardly. “No, no… that’s quite alright. You’re the horn-head. You know your onions.”

Tempest smiled at the Griffish vernacular. “Well then—shut up, or I’ll end up calling you Mavis More-wing.” Mavis opened her mouth to retort, but then thought better of it and just lied back down as Tempest’s horn began to glow. Tempest focused on the right foreleg first, frowning while she paused there for a moment. Scanning it again to be sure, Tempest then moved on to the main joint of the left wing.

While Mavis had been a special operative for Luna, it still shocked Tempest to see her injured. The last time was when she was only a filly, and she had no idea back then that Mavis was anything more than an exuberantly friendly neighbor. Now that she was seeing her like this, the idea frightened her. Tempest pulled the VEOS-V off with a sigh.

“So, your wing took quite a blow, and it looks like the main joint is sprained: lots of inflammation. You also managed to crack a few ribs. But your right elbow…”

Mavis looked at it. “Feels like it’s out. Is it out?”

Feeling ill, Tempest nodded. “Yeah. Your ulna bone has slipped right out of of the joint and is sitting behind the end of the humerus. Dislocated. What do you want to do?”

Mavis sat back up, pulling the blanket with her so it draped over like a hoodie. Her teeth weren't chattering as much. “Nothing much for it, but to fix it. Can’t very well hike the countryside with you on a dislocated elbow, now can I?”

“Well no, b-but, to reduce it? Isn’t that like, dangerous to do on your own?”

The pegasus quirked an eyebrow before pulling her hoodie back. “Dangerous? Lass, that Gnasher Lizard we just dealt with was dangerous. All we have to do here is perform a lil’ bit of backwoods osteopathic care!”

Mavis held her cocky grin for a moment before it slid off her face and she laid back down. “Besides, this darn thing has popped out before. Once I had to do it by myself while in the field. A bollockin’ good time, that was.”

Tempest tried to laugh at her joke, but only managed a dry cough. She was starting to feel queasy, as there were certain reasons why she didn’t delve further into medical studies. Specifically, the sight of trauma or blood quickly caused her stomach to churn. Moving closer, she forced the feeling down and extended a hoof. “What do you need me to do?”

“Heh. All you’re gonna do here, is hold my foreleg. Take your fetlock, and wrap it around mine like so… and then brace it against your body.”

Tempest’s eyes widened. “You want me to put you in a leg lock?!”

“Aye. Sounds about right. And whatever you do, whatever I say—even if Celestia herself were passing a smelly solar wind at ya—Don’t… Let… Go…”

Tempest could only look back, frozen in place. She wasn’t sure she could go through with this.

“You got that, Tempy? Ol’ Auntie Slushroom is countin’ on ya.”

Hearing a twinge of anxiety in Mavis’s voice shook Tempest out of her daze. She couldn’t remember any point in her life where Mavis sounded less than cocksure. Taking a moment to refocus, Tempest grabbed a firm hold of Mavis’s wrist. Aunt Slushy needed her, and she wouldn’t let her down. Even if she felt sick to her stomach, now was no time to be weak. She gulped noisily. “I understand Mavis. I won’t let go.”

“Good lass.” Mavis tested Tempest’s grip for a moment before giving an emphatic nod. “Good. Now here we go. One, two…” Before Mavis reached three, and before Tempest could think about backing out, the pegasus planted both her hind legs into Tempest’s barrel and pushed. The force yanked her forelimb straight, held as it was against Tempest’s body, and a audible clunk was heard.

“Gah!” Mavis hissed out in pain as she recoiled, cradling her limb to her body before breathing out a string of rather colorful curse words involving Celestia in general and her plot in particular. Luna's name was not mentioned, present company being considered.

Tempest hardly cared. Her stomach was lurching hard and she tasted bile. She turned and dove through a clump of tall grasses to reach the brook, unceremoniously heaving up whatever was left of her dinner. Once she had stopped and was using the water to rinse the foul taste out of her mouth, Tempest thought she could hear Mavis chuckling.

“So, if you’re done playing in the stream, I could use another favor." Tempest stumbled back to the campsite to find Mavis wrapping some poultices on some of her larger gashes, struggling to get the right angle to wrap one around her flank. "I can’t quite reach around well enough with a sprained wing. Could you help me to bandage this one?”

Nodding, Tempest got to work, swallowing uncomfortably as she wrapped the bandage as best she could. “Heh heh. yeah. Like wrapping a pony during our first aid studies in Filly Scouts. Good thing you made my mom sign me up, right?”

Mavis chuckled before she winced. “You were the most reluctant Filly Scout ever, Tempy. That being said, you also picked up new ideas the quickest. You always did pack quite the brain under that horn of yours. What did you think, that if you finished assignments before the other scouts they would let you to go home early?”

"Was worth a try," Tempest muttered. Finishing the bandage, she sat down to lean her head against Mavis’ shoulder. A peaceful quiet settled over the camp as Mavis and Tempest shared the same blanket joining their warmth together. Eventually, Tempest broke the silence, looking around furtively. “Do you think there are any more Gnashers out here? Geeze, Mav. When it strarted spurting flames, I thought it was a dragon!”

“Yes, it was a Gnasher Lizard. The flames you saw were from a flask of alchemist fire. I was trying to evade the brute, and thought giving him a case of heartburn would give me an opening. Heh. Turns out, you gave ‘im a bigger opening, what with that overpowered amulet of yours. Thanks for that, by the way.”

Tempest glanced down at her Amulet, lightly stroking the gem set in the front of the necklace with a pensive expression.

“To answer your question," Mavis continued. “We won't see anymore around here. Those creatures only pair up during the spring to make little gnashers, but other than that, they are very territorial. You didn't hear this guy..." Mavis picked up a rock and threw it at the downed beast in the brush. "Let's call 'im Earl. You didn't hear Earl over there because occasionally the bigger ones gain an ability to project an aura of silence around them. Kind of terrifying when you think about one sneaking up on you. And as for Earl? I’ve never seen bigger.”

Tempest gave a little shiver as she huddled closer to Mavis under the blanket. She knew Mavis was trying to comfort her, but her getting excited about the deadly nature of that carnivore didn’t help.

“Thanks, by the way,” Tempest said quietly. “Your fast actions kept my camping holiday, from coming to an abrupt end. Although, maybe that would just be better.”

Mavis was quiet for a moment before letting out a long sigh and draping her good wing around her niece. “Listen, Temp. I don't know everything about what you've been up to lately, but I am sorry all of this had to happen. Feathering Tartarus you're in quite the mess.”

Tempest didn’t answer, watching the fire pop and crackle for few minutes. Finally she stood up, shaking the blanket off and beginning to limber up her legs again before collecting a few loose items around the campsite.

“Listen, lass. I want to know what happened that night,” Mavis murmured. “But more than that, I want to know what you've been doing, hiding from everypony these last few years.”

Tempest readied a deflecting reply, but decided instead to stay silent. Mavis stood up to join her, cleaning up the site as well. “Listen. You you don’t have to tell me right now. Or at all, if you really don't want to. But more than anything you probably need a good friend right now. And a listening ear.” Mavis stretched her sprained wing out slightly, testing the joint a little. “But whatever you'd like to share, you don't need to worry about that right now. Right now you need your rest. Lot's to do tomorrow. Off you go, Lass.”

Tempest looked up, thankful for Mavis' comforting words. She wanted to talk about it, but needed to gather her thoughts. She was glad of the reprieve, and studied her tent before looking back at her friend. “Thanks Mav. I think that would be good. But what about your rest? You're injured—you need me to stand watch over you while you rest up?"

“Nay, lass. You don’t have the benefit of wings and a tree hammock. You have honored privilege of carrying some kind of curse with you, a curse that won’t let you stay two days in the same spot… You—” She began to smirk, “—are a Celestia-damned pony.”

“Oh, that’s brilliant, Mav.” Tempest rolled her eyes.

“Right? And as for me, I’ll be fine." She began stretching her wing out again. "I’m gonna help myself to some healing potion, followed by a little more pain reliever, and follow that with a few coffee chasers. By morning I’ll be able to wing my way back up to my spot in the trees. Then, after a few hours of sleep to refresh meself, I’ll catch up with you in the afternoon, aye?

Tempest nodded mutely, beginning to feel the effects of a post-adrenaline crash. It had been an eventful night, and now it was her turn to start shivering in the chilly night air. She wrapped Mavis in a deep hug, hoping the gesture would convey the great love and appreciation she had for this singular mare.

“I’ve got your back, Temp.” Mavis murmured as she patted Tempest's withers. “And thanks again for finishing off little Earl over there."

Tempest smiled at her words, and after exchanging a few well wishes, she entered her tent. Lying on her blanket, she drew comfort that she could still hear Mavis moving around.

“Aaaah,” Mavis sighed loudly. “Ugh. Why can’t they make healing potion taste like cider, or licorice eh? Oh maybe a warm chamomile? It is magical after all, right? Why not magically alter the taste?”

Tempest grinned as she replied through the tent wall. “Sounds like you should take it up with the brewer of said potion. Whatever was she thinking?”

“She’s thinking she’ll box your ears if you get too cheeky, you little upstart!” Tempest giggled in reply.

“G’night, Aunt Slushy. Wake me if there is any trouble, okay?”

“G’night, Temp. It’s good to see you again, lass.”

***

Mavis sat quietly, thinking while facing away from the fire, allowing her eyes to adjust to the low light. While it was unlikely a second Gnasher might come by, there were other predators out there, not to mention scavengers that would inevitably zero in on their location once the breeze carried the scent of the downed beast. Fortunately, potions science had an answer for that. Mavis slipped two vials out from the back of her bandolier and stood up with a shiver.

Fanning her uninjured wing out to get a more accurate sense of the wind’s speed and direction, Mavis focused as she concentrated. Satisfied with the info, she headed downwind retracting her wing as she walked. She pulled the stoppers out of each vial and began to scatter the contents in an arc across the wind's vector, trying her best to keep her sensitive nose away from the awful smell.

This should do it. Unless the wind surprises us and does a one-eighty.

The downwind perimeter having been set, Mavis returned to the fire. She began to employ standard night-guard procedures, such as rolling uncomfortable pebbles under the frogs of her hooves and humming a few energetic songs under her breath. As she bobbed back and forth to the music in her head, her mind wandered to the painful experience of her last conversation with Sweet Potato.

"To think, after all of this time everything was a lie! You moved into the house next door only a week after Tempest arrived! You helped me raise her! I thought of you like family and it was all a ruse? All of the time you spent in my home, the—the things we shared together!” Sweet Potato’s voice had been steadily climbing until it boiled over into a shaking rage, her earth pony muscles bunching in agitation. Tears streamed down her beige cheeks in an angry flow.

Mavis winced. This was exactly what she was afraid of, and now she was going to have to face the full force of this little earth pony’s wrath. The wrath of the most treasured friend she had ever had. She had never wanted to break her vow of secrecy as much as she did at this moment, but she couldn't betray the princess. Compared to hoof to hoof combat in the field, compared to the brutal physical training of the Lunar Special Ops—this was somehow worse.

Things had steadily become more strained, ever since Tempest's graduation from Sisters' Academy. Sweet Potato had become more and more distraught, finding her daughter to have returned such a changed pony. Instead becoming a confident and competent mare, Tempest was only cold and aloof—closed off and despondent, often spending many hours ensconced in her room. No friends ever came to call. No letters were sent or received.

Ever the watchful observer, Mavis waited. She was still under orders to protect Tempest, Luna's banishment notwithstanding. It was painful to watch the dynamic between Sweet and her precocious daughter become so strained. To watch the gentle and confident mother give way to fits of anxiety episodes of doubt and depression. Mavis had been hopeful that once her job was complete, and Tempest's identity went public, Sweet could perhaps be brought to the palace. Not only would Mavis be able to maintain their close relationship, but maybe Sweet could come into some type of privileged position, or even be granted a title and lands. Maybe then they could continue their wonderful relationship, and Sweet would come to know Princess Luna like family.

Instead, Luna was gone, and their prospects had become bleak. Tempest had become closed off to everypony, and the neighbors were murmuring some nonsense about her having gone psychotic. The young mare wasn't crazy, but she was intensely driven about something. Exactly what was anypony's guess—Tempest never opened up about any of it.

It went on like that for two and a half years, until one morning Tempest went from brooding to manic. She shocked her mother with rediscovered words of affection and love. It almost gave Sweet Potato emotional whiplash, but the mare couldn’t be happier.

That was when Rosemary Rune appeared. Rosemary was a unicorn researcher from the Canterlot Department of Magical Technologies. Apparently there had been a clandestine meeting and an exchange of a large sum of money, and this was when Tempest abruptly moved away. She promised to visit oft, and that her business was crucial to the core of Equestria, but over the next few years, she visited less and less until she disappeared altogether.

Nine years had passed since Tempest's graduation. Mavis had started using some of her paid time off to search for Tempest’s location, and find out if she was even alive. It was also during this time that Sweet discovered Mavis' true identity, after asking the right questions. She learned that Mavis' entire mission was to act as a body guard for the daughter of the princess, and when she cornered Mavis to ask her about it, she did not take the confirmation well.

***

Shaking her head, Mavis wrinkled her nose, pouring out the dregs of her fifth cup of coffee onto the fire. The eastern sky was beginning blush with the first hints of dawn. Mavis stood up again, stretching her legs and giving her wings a few test flaps before thinking better of it and snapping them back down to her sides to stay warm. The sprain was mending nicely but there was no need to push it yet.

Narrowing her eyes, she thought about the rest of her unfinished business with this beloved family. She would see Tempest to safety, and then she would seek Sweet Potato out, now that recent events had transpired. She owed it to Sweet to tell her the rest of the truth about what had happened, regardless of how the printed news would spin the story. Tempest had acted rashly, but she did so out of the dedicated feelings of her heart. She was trying to right a wrong, trying in her own misguided way to make the world a better place.

***

“Are you sure you’ll be okay, Aunt Slushy?”

“I should be fine,” Mavis replied, straining to finish her last wing-up. “While I may not be able to propel myself up to cloud level just yet, a simple tree-hammock will do me just fine. It'll be safe enough from scavengers and carrion birds as they close in on Earl over there.”

Tempest shuddered, looking at the grotesque reptile again in daylight conditions. “Well, if you are sure. See you in the afternoon?”

“Aye. Be safe, Temp.”

“You too.” They shared a quick embrace before parting.

The day passed quickly enough as Tempest continued her trek east, but she couldn’t help wondering why she felt so disheartened. She should have been feeling elated, swapping out an acetic Lance Corporal for a beloved Major Morel, but instead her emotions were feeling raw and fragile. Maybe it was due to the fact that being reunited with an emotional anchor reminded her about the stark realities of her situation. She had lost almost everything she had ever loved, and when the time came to leave Mavis behind, she would lose her too.

As the shadows began to lengthen from the sun's slow descent, Tempest began to scan the skies for a certain lavender pegasus. She didn't have to wait long, as her eyes eventually caught some movement high up in the distance. Tracking the speck, she smiled as Mavis banked before gliding down, flapping her wings once or twice to correct her path of approach. It was a welcome maneuver compared to what Summer Wind tended to do, always approaching in a silent glide to land behind her, startling her with his stealth.

Mavis leveled out her approach, her flight speed becoming a canter as her hooves met the ground. In a moment she had trotted up, trying to make it sound like she wasn’t out of breath in the slightest. “Well now! That wasn’t so bad after some limbering up. All right there, Tempy?”

“Just peachy,” Tempest gave a smile that didn't reach her eyes. “But I’m glad you are airborne again.”

The two ponies walked on for a few moments before Mavis raised an eyebrow. “So then… how are you really doing?”

Tempest gave a light snort before looking down. “It’s not your fault I am out here, Mav. But I can't help but blame myself that you’re injured.”

“Hey, hey now!” Mavis sternly replied. “We’ll have none of that. Thinking like that will just bring you down, and out here, thinking like that could actually put us both in danger.”

Tempest didn’t reply. There wasn't much more to say to that, so she continued her same steady pace. The silence began to feel awkward, so she brought up a question that had been nagging her. “Not that I'm complaining, but why did you send Summer Wind back to Canterlot?"

Mavis winced. "Well lass, about that." She looked ahead, the setting sun casting a shadow over her face before she turned to look back. "There is a lot of tension between some groups of ponies right now. Well, you know this, but after your little stunt, tension is putting it mildly."

"Wait, really?"

"Heh." Mavis huffed out a laugh. "Are you really that surprised? It's not every day a Sisters' School graduate makes an unannounced visit to the new castle and takes a highly effective shot at Celestia! All during your tenth class reunion, too!"

Tempest winced at the memory. She knew the maneuver was unbelievably audacious, but she had built her entire life around the attempt. She had focused her full energies and fortune on one goal, and had made a super-amulet that she believed would elevate her power to be on par with her aunt. But she wasn't unaware of the fallout from Luna's banishment as there were factions defending Luna's cause, even today. "So... what is happening back home?"

"You, my dear niece, have become a lightning rod for dissent and unrest. 'Tis probably why Celestia sent you afield so quickly. Fringe groups are calling for your release and asylum... Other fringe groups are calling for your head."

Tempest's heart clenched as she thought about that. Were there seriously entire groups of ponies wanting her dead? Was her name being batted about on the streets of Equestria? What did the common pony really think of her? Shaking her head, she stopped that thought dead in its tracks. Why should she care? She committed to this attempt long ago, no matter the consequences. Why should she care what others are thinking?

But even so, she did.

"So... you're hear to defend me?"

"I'm here to make sure you can get someplace safe. There is a plot on your life. Summer Wind didn't know of it, but your ship in Turtle Bay more than likely has four to five hit-ponies lying in wait. It would be easy for a pony to say, sneak into your room, flick out a knife, and then drop you over the taffrail."

Tempest swallowed, rubbing at her throat at the thought.

"My position in the guard affords me a lot of information, and inside contacts all over the place. when I caught wind of what was about to happen, I took it personally. Celestia ordered you exiled to Gryphus, and I'm here to make sure that order is followed out with you remaining alive."

Tempest's eyes trailed to the insignia marking Mavis' uniform and gear. It was the new insignia, marked only by Celestia's cutie mark and labeled in the newly minted term Unified Guard. Perhaps Mavis' loyalties had split between those loyal to Celestia as well as Luna? How else could she gain such good intel?

Mavis followed her eyes. “You are wondering why I have gear and supplies labeled with the Royal Guard’s insignia.” It wasn’t a question, and Mavis didn’t wait for an answer. Mavis stepped ahead of Tempest and sat down, letting her saddle bags flop down to the earth. “Yes, I am a retired Major in the now fully-integrated Royal Guard. My current assignment is teaching at the training facility, where I educate new recruits on the methods infiltration, espionage, and potions’ use in the field. But you are going to want some context before jumping to conclusions.”

Tempest nodded for her to continue, hoping that her face betrayed no emotions. It hurt to think that her beloved adoptive aunt was actually working for Princess Celestia, but why not? Mavis had a duty to her country.

“My duty is to Celestia and the stability of her regime, but it is for the good of our nation. My highest allegiance is to Equestria. Times have been tough lately, and there has been a need for strong leadership and stability. But I also must act to defend my own, and you are like a daughter to me. When my informed me about the plot... well, I flew right out after making other arrangements for you.”

Tempest raised an eyebrow. “Does Celestia know that you came?”

“Not yet.”

Shaking her head, Tempest gave a small smile. “What do you mean, other arrangements?”

“Your ship is supposed to depart from Turtle Bay two days hence. We are going to miss that boat. We are boarding a smaller, sleeker vessel: one preparing to launch from the southern end of the bay tomorrow.”

“The southern end of the bay?”

“Aye. There is a developing little fishing village called Pike’s Inlet. Along their shores we will connect with Gale Glider and his crew. Captain Glider’s vessel is faster than most anything else on the sea, and if he leaves when planned, our enemies won’t be able to overtake you. With luck, no fliers will even be able to find you. Also, Captain Glider is an Agent of Moonlight, but you didn’t hear that from me.”

Tempest’s eyes widened as she made a connection. “You're an agent too, aren't you?”

Mavis smiled. “Well, not anymore. If you didn't know, the Agents are made up of many of the surviving members of the former Lunar Guard. Most often after they found out they wouldn't get treated as "equally" as the guards from the solar unit. As for myself, I'm in retirement! I teach for fun... so I can yell my head off at the recruits. But Celestia trusts me. I went through some rigorous examinations and interviews to be vetted—even submitted to magical scans and the like before I was allowed my current level of clearance.”

Mavis stood up and started to put her saddle bags on before draping a wing around Tempest. “Before your mother was banished, she renewed my covenant to keep you safe. But then she added one more thing."

Tempest's eyes widened. "What did she say?"

"She asked me to keep watch over the kingdom. She asked me to keep the lunar spirit strong, and to keep ponies to the Lunar Way. I didn't know what she meant at the time. But now? I think I do.

“Did you organize the Agents of Moonlight?”

Mavis blinked before giving a half smile. “Eh. Not at liberty to say."

"Aw, c'mon!"

"Well, it was a joint effort. I will say I was there at the founding. And I served a critical role to their success in the early going.” Mavis retracted her wing, but Tempest turned and gave her a strong embrace. Mavis patted her back for a moment before clearing her throat.

“My allegiance is to Luna, and if she isn’t here, then my allegiance is to Equestria. I serve Celestia’s interests only so far as they are benevolent and achieve the greater good. But if she becomes what you and I both fear? Then the Agents of Moonlight are still there. We can provide hope, and we can thwart her power if need be.”

Tempest pulled back, wiping at an eye with a hoof. "I wish I had known! Maybe If we had coordinated together—”

“Nay, Temp. She needs to stay in power, and she needs to remain benevolent. If the Elements of Harmony remain inert, and we don't have Celestia's power at our helm, what would save Equestria from its next dark foe?"

“Well, maybe Celestia has to die for the Elements to come back alive!”

“Death is awfully final, Tempest. And if you are wrong?”

“Then Luna can come back, and she can defend Equestria!”

“...but what if you are wrong about that too?”

Tempest opened her mouth to retort, but couldn't come up with something good enough. Frustrated, she stomped her hoof on the ground.

“I’m sorry, Lass."

Tempest stalked off, grinding her teeth. Mavis' hoofsteps soon followed. “So Tempest, a change of subjects: would you mind explaining to me how you thought you were going to win?”

Tempest gave a loud snort as she continued ahead.

“It’s just a question,” Mavis shrugged. “Oh, and here's another one: why didn’t you even write to me over the past three years, you sod?” Without warning Mavis had sneaked up behind the younger unicorn and cuffed her in the back of the head with a wing.

Tempest glared at Mavis, rubbing her head for a moment before her face betrayed her with a small smile. “Well, I guess I could just tell you that it's a long story and stay silent, but that won’t work, will it?”

“What's better for a long hike than a long story?”

Tempest heaved a sigh. She couldn't argue with that logic.

* * *

The first stars were starting to appear as the sun's last rays darkened in the horizon behind them. Tempest had spent the better part of the past two hours talking as they hiked, and Mavis was amazed by her tale. Not very much had gone right for her adoptive niece over the past decade. Not since Princess Luna had been banished. It wasn't until her skirmish with Celestia only days ago that anypony even knew that Tempest was the daughter of the Lunar Princess.

"So you hid from everypony. Even from Sweet Potato and myself, all to create an amulet of vast power you hoped would defeat Celestia. All because you found a way to link it with all of the other amulets acting as a conduit for a massive collection system?"

"It's called networking," Tempest said. "It's gonna be big: I'll let you buy the first shares of stock."

The temperature was beginning to fall as the two pones began a slow descent into a valley blanketed with tall grasses that seemed to sway in waves from a steady crosswind. The light of the moon was starting to illuminate the meadow from the side.

"Networking. Right. So all of the amulets that the Canterlot Department of Magical Technologies was pumping out, after you signed that contract with Rosemary Rune---how did you gain access to all of them?"

"I made sure they would follow my instructions to the letter. Embedded in the instructions was a backdoor that would allow me to perform my link... It's complicated."

Mavis gave a low whistle. "It's also bloody brilliant."

"So then I waited. After eight years, I had connected to an incredibly large power supply. I wasn't even worried if my attack would drain the entire network briefly, as the CDMT was only making them for government and military use. It won't be until next year that the public can gain access to the technology."

Mavis pursed her lips in thought. "And that's if Celestia doesn't mothball the whole project. You shook up a lot of ponies with your highly effective attack. Even the top pony. Many are chattering about whether it represents a threat to national security."

"Mm." Tempest made no other reply only staring at the ground in thought. Mavis chuckled after a moment, recapturing Tempest's attention. "What?"

“You!" Mavis shook her head before looking up at the constellations. "And me! I mean, are we so cavalier as to just flippantly refer to your attempt at assassination as if we were talking about the weather?

Tempest looked up, staring at Mavis for a moment. “You mentioned a point earlier, Mav. About Celestia becoming what we fear. Princess Luna assigned you to ‘keep watch.’ She assigned me to take action. I was the only pony who could. Given my heritage, I was the only pony that should.”

“Aye mare." Mavis blew out a sigh. "And I'm still not sure you have the right of it from a conversation between you and your distraught mother twelve years ago. Tempest, I just want to protect Equestria and our ponies. The actions you took as a lone maverick, gunning for our current ruler? I can’t condone that. Again I ask you, what would we do with no Elements and no Celestia?”

Tempest's voice was flat. “I wouldn’t trust a ruler that would destroy the Elements of Harmony to satisfy her own ambitions, I’d feel safer without her. Tempest lifted up her head, looking around. You think this region will give us a decent camping spot, Mavis? There isn’t much cover for a few miles…”

Accepting that her niece was ready to change the subject, Mavis replied, trotting ahead to bump her shoulder. “Let’s go on for a bit. I haven’t told you part of my plan.”

“Ooh!” Tempest smiled. “A nefarious plan by the founder of the Agents of Moonlight?”

“So cheeky, I swear…” The older mare affectionately rubbed the top of Tempest’s mane with a wing before snapping her wingtip against an ear, causing Tempest to stumble in surprise. We need to go on. What if the parties that ordered your death have also arranged for a fast ship as well? What if they equip fliers with powerful magics? In order to leave as early as planned, we have to get that head start I talked about. Only then can Captain Glider have confidence that he can deliver you safely to port in Gryphus. We have to walk straight on into morning.”

Tempest put her head down and grumbled under her breath, causing Mavis to chuckle.

“I know you’re tired, Tempy. Your hooves are probably throbbing, your knees aching, but we need to keep going. We absolutely have to keep going.”

Pushing her bangs back out of her face, Tempest breathed out a sigh. “I understand, I just don’t know if I can. After ten days of this, and now I have to keep on until morning? I’m exhausted!”

“Tell you what," Mavis said. "We make it to the other side of this valley here and I will pop open a vial of my rejuvination potion. You heard of it?”

“Yeah, I know of R.P.” Tempest gave a toothy grin. “All the students back in school called it 'Rip.' We weren't supposed to have it. So, naturally everyone had their sources."

The corner of Mavis' mouth twitched upwards a little. “I have no idea who could have supplied it...”

True to her word, Mavis brought out two vials and passed one to Tempest. The concoction went down with a citrusy, spicy effervescence, and while it felt bitter in her stomach, Tempest felt a surge of heat and power like her muscles were pushing outwards against her skin. It was almost like a vibration, and Tempest couldn’t help but bounce in place a little.

Grinning, Mavis rubbed Tempest’s head with a hoof. “Better than coffee, eh? Save the bouncing, though. We can make good time if we put all this pep to good use. Let’s go.”

The hours flew past as both ponies slipped in and out of animated conversation. Tempest knew she would be exhausted in the morning, but she hoped she would be safe enough to sleep most of the next day aboard the boat. If what Mavis told her was true, then she would be able to do so in some comfort and security. Or maybe just security. Comfort was probably unlikely.

* * *

The expanse of the bay was beautiful as morning sun glimmered off of the water. They arrived near the southern end where a smaller peninsula half a kilometer long jutted out in a southeastern direction. Tempest had never traveled here, but she knew of the region’s geography from her studies. A much longer peninsula on the north side of the bay contained the town of Turtle Bay, named after the Bay itself. The town was too distant to make out clearly, overshadowed by a combination of early morning mists across the water and the sun’s clashing glare. Turtle Bay’s population was close to around fifteen hundred souls, a bustling port city known for its rapid growth and expanding commerce now that Gryphus was under a more stable central government.

As they made their final descent toward the coast and the now visible fishing settlement of Pike’s Inlet, Tempest noticed a dark gray ship moored at some rather simple wharfs. By the looks of it, this ship was a little larger than what this settlement usually dealt with, dwarfing the smaller pier and ponies working on it while they hauled crates aboard..

Feeling her knees nearly buckle from exhaustion, Tempest paused for a moment to take in the sight. Her mind was starting to feel a little fuzzy after the long hike, and her hooves were nearly numb with fatigue. She wanted to express her profound gratitude to Mavis but the whole ordeal had left her feeling speechless.

“Mavis. I don’t even know what to say. If I make it to my destination in once piece, I am going to owe you for saving my life twice over.”

“Think nothing of it, Tempest. I love you like a daughter. This is the least I could do.”

Reaching into her saddlebags with a wing, Mavis retrieved a roll of parchment. “In Gryphus, you will be staying at the estate of Ravorsch. He is an especially influential tiercel, with deep connections not only to the military but to several merchant guilds. In the past, he has been one of Princess Luna’s most trusted contacts, representing her interests on that side of the Celestial Sea. You should be safe there for as long as you need, at least until things have cooled off enough for you to acquire some land finally settle down.”

“Can I really trust him?”

“This parchment is a magically warded document, hoof-written by Luna almost two decades ago and given to me for safe keeping, if ever a day came where you needed to use it. The document can only be opened with your magical authorization—only by pressing the tip of your horn to the wax seal and activating it. “Inside is Luna’s written testimony that you are indeed her daughter. Guard this document well, for it is your ticket to safety once you reach Gryphus.”

“Mavis… I just don’t know what to say anymore.”

Mavis reached out to give Tempest another hug. “When you do get settled in, don’t think you have seen the last of me, either. I am not too far from officially retiring, and I plan on patching things up with your mum. Off of Equestrian soil and under Ravorsch’s watch, you will no longer be under my protection, and as such, I will finally be able to tell Sweet Potato the rest of the story.”

“Hopefully both Sweet and I can come to visit you soon. Heh, in the meantime, perhaps you can put your considerable magical knowledge to use and develop a couple of amulets that can carry a two-way conversation across the sea?”

Tempest increased the hug, until Mavis winced and murmured that she was still sore. “I… I will try to find a way to keep up correspondence with you Mavis. I’ll never give you the silent treatment again. Thank you for everything - I owe you so much.”

“Well. You’re not through all of this yet, Temp. Anyways, let’s go meet Captain Gale Glider and the crew of his ship.”

“...And what’s his ship’s name?”

“Cast of Fate.”

Chapter Two: Repatriation

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Timbers of the passenger ship Windsong creaked as she rode the swells of the Celestial Sea. Pulling her cloak tighter to deflect another watery spray, a lone unicorn mare stood at the bow, her eyes intent on the horizon. Now on the third day of the voyage, the mixed crew of the Windsong had stopped bothering her to ask if she needed anything. They knew that she preferred her solitude.

If only one of the other passengers could be as observant.

“You’re up early!” the smaller pony chirped.

Sighing, Tempest peered around the edge of her hood to gaze at the ardent pony that she had met at the start of the voyage. Meadow Lark was a shorter-than-average earth pony, with a pale blue coat and a dark teal mane styled in a bob. Compared to Tempest who tended to be introverted even on her birthday, Meadow's personality was more sprightly than a parasprite rampage in a coffee factory.

Tempest shook her head slightly. Either ponies of the modern age had a different concept of personal space than the past, or this frenetic pony had issues.

Knowing that the mare would just pepper her with more questions if she didn't make some sort of reply, Tempest gathered her thoughts. “Actually, I'm not early at all. Rather, I'm here too late.” Tempest winced, realizing that her enigmatic answer likely didn't satisfy the mare at all.

"Too late? But the galley hasn't even fired up their grill yet..."

"Too late," Tempest reaffirmed, pulling her hood back to expose her yellow-tipped mane. She closed her eyes as she felt the cold sea mist on her cheeks, shuddering as she drew in a deep breath of the brisk salty air.

"About a thousand years too late."

---

One-thousand and twelve years earlier…

The door to Princess Luna’s study was just around the corner. Tempest's stomach growled a bit but she didn't mind the fact that her meetings with the Lunar Princess had become a regular occurrence. She she also didn't mind if her school mates sometimes gave her looks of suspicion or even jealousy. It was worth it for her mother.

What she did mind, however, was one particular Lunar Guard that seemed to increasingly be found on duty at 8:00 PM in front of Luna's chamber door. Tempest held the slim hope that tonight perhaps he was...?

Nope. Just like the last three evenings, Sergeant Blue Shield was there. He brightened up at her approach, as if was some sort of surprise and he wasn't expecting her. She knew better.

The goof.

Lunar guards always guarded Luna's chamber in pairs, and tonight Blue Shield was paired with a lanky pegasus named Wind Shear. Thankfully, Officer Shear maintained a much better level of professionalism then his confederate. Tempest growled under her breath, just a little peeved at the absurdity of the situation.

“Hey, Temp!”

Did he have to bellow so loudly when I am merely ten meters out?

“How goes your special project of developing those amulet things? Have you given any more thought to my offer?”

Pressing her lips together, Tempest faced up to the door. Maybe if she ignored him he would go away? She noted with some chagrin that Blue was partially blocking the portal instead of doing his job properly and standing to the side of it. With how he was positioned, she would have to get into his personal space to rap a hoof on the door.

“C'mon! Just imagine it!" Tempest kept her face neutral as she watched him, his ears perked up like a colt's on Hearth's Warming Eve. He swept a hoof across him in a grand gesture. "Imagine: an enchanted amulet that turns a pony into a total player! A total stallion magnet! A mare that could have any stallion she chooses!"

Maybe if she gave him a flat enough look, he might step to the side and take a hint? Tempest took a step to the side, considering her best angle of approach, but Blue pushed right on ahead.

"You see it, don't you? Why with my ideas and your uh..." He paused, noticing her frown. "With your better ideas, we could both be as rich as any noble house! Great way to start a life, eh?" Blue waggled his ideas for a second. Oh Tartarus, no! "Tonight. Meet me after you finish supper. I’ll tell all you more about it.”

Not seeing an easy route to knock on the door, Tempest got a better idea. She activated her horn and pulled Officer Shield's helmet off, ignoring his startled look. With a smirk, she raised a brow while she levitated the helmet back, crashing it into Luna's door a few times.

After a tick, Luna's magic opened the door. Her teal eyes looked over the assembly, pausing at each pony until they finally came to rest on Blue Shield, narrowing slightly. "Officer Shield?"

Blue snapped to attention pulling his helmet out of Tempest's aura and pulling it back on his addled head. "Er, yes your highness?"

"Could you detail for me why you stand guard at my chamber door with armor that isn't properly in place?"

"...Your grace?"

"The details, sergeant. I'm listening."

"I... er, uh... I mean when she... uh." Bemused, Tempest looked away to try to hide the little smile that was trying to etch its way onto her face. "Um. No excuse, ma'am."

"I see. Officer Shield?" Luna's voice was normally suave and gentle, but Tempest could hear something extra. Officer Shield was starting to sweat. "Since I'm dissatisfied with the details you provided, you will detail all of the armor in the armory.Maybe instead of guarding your special talent will come to be known as cleaning shields until you are blue. Since I am merciful, your shift will be generously expanded until the morn. Understood?"

Blue's head had been slowly dropping until now it was below his withers. His ears were pinned back to his head. "Yes, your highness."

Tempest watched him go, but figured it could use some parting advice. "Hey, Blue?" The guard paused for a moment, glumly looking back at her. "I'll have to take a rain check on that, but if you're interested, you might want to give the swing shift maid a visit on the 2nd floor, south wing."

Officer Shield dropped his head again and continued shambling away. Tempest began to close the door, but she paused again. "Just sayin!" he was almost past the corner, so she raised her voice. "She's got cute wings!"

The guard out of sight, Tempest caught a glimpse of Wind Shear's bemused expression before she pushed the door shut.
Luna had already taken her seat, gazing back at Tempest from behind her worktable. Her magic slowly stirred a sliver spoon in her tea while she waited, her expression unreadable while her mane floated gently in the air behind her.

"Mother?"

That seemed to pull Luna out of whatever funk she was in, her stoic expression melting into a small smile. “Tempest, my faithful student!" The princess's horn flashed, performing all of the familiar locking and sound-proofing privacy spells that were often the norm for their time spent together. It allowed them both to speak up above a whisper, and set their anxieties at ease. With another flash, Luna teleported back in front of her desk, sitting back on her haunches and spreading her forelegs wide. My most wonderful child, give your mother a hug!”

Rushing forward, Tempest felt herself enveloped in the cocoon of the Alicorn’s graceful embrace, all forelegs and downy soft wings. She beamed as she nuzzled into Luna’s comfy chest, listening to the ebb and flow of her breathing.

“You summoned me... your highness?” Tempest gave a cheeky grin as she pulled away from the hug again.

Luna pursed her lips. “Yes… quite.” Luna suddenly lost her mischievous smirk , turning to look away for a moment. To Tempest, she seemed particularly anxious tonight, as if she had recently seen a ghost. Tempest followed her mother's gaze to the documents and scrolls scattered across her worktable. “Thank you for being so prompt, Tempest. I heard a little of that conversation through the door. Sergeant Blue Shield bothering you?”

“It's fine," Tempest sighed. "At least it is now, after you sent him off. But how are you holding up, Mom?”

Frowning slightly, Luna heaved a sigh, placing a hoof on one of the scrolls on her desk. “Tempest. I don’t want to burden you further with the political sophistries of this nation.”

"It's... okay Mom. Tell me what you can."

Luna stared for a moment longer at her desk before her expression changed. She pushed Tempest back a little with both hooves, holding her in place to meet her gaze. “You are so mature, my daughter." Tempest blushed at the praise. "Normally I would not share information of such a sensitive nature, but I sense that your growing maturity, you will continue to thrive. That, coupled with your singular level of magical skill, marks you as one destined to become a remarkable pony. You truly are the daughter of an alicorn, with rare gifts and talents only hinting of your true potential.”

Tempest’s looked down, not comfortable with having this much praise heaped on her. Luna let go and stood up, beginning to walk slowly to the other side of her desk.

“I think the time has come to share somewhat more with you about the political environment of today's Equestria. And while these situations do not influence you directly, insulated as you are here in Sisters’ School, eventually they will. The secret of your heritage will eventually be revealed, and due to your unique position, you may yet play a key role.”

Tempest stood just a little taller, chewing her bottom lip nervously. She knew things had had been developing in the political realm, and that whatever was at play, it that had been giving her mother fits. Up until now, Tempest had only been able to gather bits and pieces. She knew some of it had to do with the rising tensions between her mother and Princess Celestia. She also knew some general information about significant political maneuverings by some of the stronger houses of nobles. She turned her gaze back to Princess Luna again and really looked. She had a good facade, but behind it she saw... fear? Anger? Mania? For lack of a better word, Luna looked haunted. Whatever tidings she bore, they weren’t going to be good.

“What is it, Mom? What has happened?” Tempest didn't want to let her fear show, but by Luna's reaction, she knew she had given away too much.

"Oh, my dear one." Luna circled her desk again, drawing near before placing to place cold, armored hoof-guard around Tempest’s shoulders. Tempest shivered as she felt the weight settle, but she wasn’t sure if her reaction was due to the metal resting against her coat or the sense of a heavy weight settling into her chest. Tempest looked up to find her mother’s eyes focused on her, studying her with an almost calculating look. At the moment Luna seemed more a hundreds of years-old ruler than a loving mother. There was a ringing power behind every word as she spoke.

“My political position has deteriorated, so much so that my situation has become dire. My recent efforts to bring greater freedoms and opportunities to our ponies, my efforts to grant more rights of land ownership to the common pony; both of these have cost me severely in my influence among the noble houses. Now they combine against me, to the point where I grow fearful of my sovereignty and rights in this realm.”

Tempest glared at the floor. “How many noble houses?”

“Enough of them.” Luna walked back behind her desk again, this time taking a seat. She pushed a document forward. “Tonight, I received tidings that the House of Marik has dismissed all of his advisors with Lunar ties. The only advisors they give any credence to now are firmly in Celestia's camp. At this rate, my influence in the governing of Equestria will soon amount to little more that a squeaking mouse, and I'll be little more than a figurehead.”

Tempest watched as a teardrop splashed on the stone tile below. “And Celestia?”

For several heartbeats, Tempest waited for a reply. When she finally looked up, she was startled as she looked into her mother's eyes, this time hardened into a cold and vicious glare. “My sister stands at the heart of this political storm. My spies indicate that she is the chief conspirator. She is fomenting rebellion and subversion against me, and she is swaying ponies of power towards her. It is no longer a matter of if my reign will be thwarted, only a matter of when. I am observant enough to see the signs."

“Now that my circle of trust has grown so small, it is well-nigh impossible to be kept fully apprised of all of Celestia’s movements. Now, with but a few simple maneuvers, she is poised to become the sole ruler of Equestria."

Tempest tried to slow her breathing, but to no avail. She had suspected something like this for several months, but she seemed to be the only one. None of her friends or professors seemed to have a clue. Tempest felt distraught and helpless, completely alone, but what could she do? She was only a second-year student of Sisters’ Academy. What was she in comparison to the political world of Equestria and ponies of such clout and power?

“W-what can we do, Mother?” came Tempest’s piteous cry, tears now streaming down her cheeks.

Radiating a cool grace and power, Luna loomed up before her, never breaking eye contact before lifting a hoof to gently wipe away her daughter’s tears. “I am not willing to give up my throne so easily, my child. While I may no longer be able to influence the larger noble houses, I can still appeal to the common pony. And while they may not fully appreciate my night’s wonders, there is so much more that I can offer them… I can give them what they seek.”

“W-what do you mean?” Tempest’s eyes widened with alarm. “You would turn the commoners against the nobles?”

Princess Luna’s eyes narrowed for a minute, studying her daughter before turning around again to point an armored hoof at her desk. Unscrolled across the top was a map of Equestria, with neighboring nations marked in either red or green for enemies and allies respectively. “At present, we don’t wield sufficient influence to act, Tempest, but not all is lost. Celestia has the majority of the nobles, but I will soon influence the majority of the masses. The nobles hold more sway with our military… but I have more allies and contacts in other regions."

“I have sent emissaries to Minos and Gryphus. I have been speaking to my allies in these neighboring kingdoms to garner support and to reinforce my legitimacy. My aim is not war, but to solidify my rule and maintain the balance of power that Equestria hold dear. My position of strength will prevent outright war.”

Tempest looked over the map on display, studying the markers and labels pointing out points of interest in the nations mentioned. It all seemed so much bigger than her world at present, where all she needed to worry about was passing the potions class exam in two days. “And what can I do?”

Tempest felt her mother’s touch, the taller alicorn nuzzling along the side of her neck before whispering in her ear. “Clear your mind of such concerns for the present. Your mother is doing what she can to preserve her reign. In so doing, I will secure your status as well.”

Tempest swallowed. She wanted to understand, but it seemed Luna did not want to get into the specifics of what she was suggesting, so Tempest didn't want to pry.

“I am sorry I have not been more attentive to your needs as of late.” Luna looked searchingly into Tempest’s eyes. “Do not dwell upon it. Your help to me is best rendered by your success in your studies. Continue to excel. Also continue this exciting new development you are working on: find a way! Push forward until you triumph, and make the first successful amulet. Indeed, such a wondrous tool might also be key to help restore the balance of power.”

Feeling her hope re-kindling, Tempest wiped the tears that were forming in her eyes. Straining, she choked down the sobs that were trying to spring forth. “Yes, mother. I can do that.”

“Truly you are a wonderful daughter.” Luna murmured, as she stepped back from the smaller mare. Luna lit her horn, preparing to open the door as it began to glow to her corresponding aura, but she hesitated. “However… there might be one thing that you can do…”

“Anything, Mother.”

“If what I fear becomes a reality and Celestia does attempt a coup, I may need your presence near. I would be most grateful if you could stand ready to respond to my signal if I should call.”

Tempest’s mind raced. Princess Luna wanted her present? To do what? What could she, a lowly sixteen year-old unicorn, do against the military, and a being as mighty as Princess Celestia?

Luna met her gaze again, her eyes now glittering beneath the icy blue aura of her horn. Her gaze lanced into Tempest's soul, making her blood run chill all the way down to her hooves. “If you see my moon rush up to cover the hateful sun, that will be my signal. And you will come to my aid?” Luna’s eyes seemed to swallow her up, and Tempest found that she couldn’t look away if she tried. Again she felt acutely that sensation of a heavy weight in her heart, only now it seemed to grow and radiate out like icy tendrils. Icy or no, it filled her body with resolve and purpose.

Whatever Princess Luna would ask she would do. It was her duty. It was her right. Tempest stood straight and proud, squaring her shoulders and pounding a hoof into the stony floor. Princess Luna needed her, and she would not fail! “I swear it, my princess! If you call me, I shall come.”

“But if I should fall, my dear— ”

“ —Mother, no!”

“If I should fall… don't reveal your allegiance to Celestia. She would quickly overpower you, which is something that I could not bear. If I should fall, then your mission will be to bide your time. Become successful; become powerful, and develop your technology of amulets. One day you and your amulets may yet avenge me.

“I swear it, Mother. I swear it!”

***

“Are you okay?”

Tempest shook her head to clear it. She had checked out there for a second. “Apologies, Meadow Lark. Thy words were only---"

Tempest paused, raising a hoof to her mouth as if she were about to stuff those words back down her gullet. “Uh. That is to say I took no offense from your speech! Thank you, my dear pony, for your um... concern?”

Meadow Lark's grin was slowly growing wider. “See! I told you that when you get flustered, you start to slip into archaic speech! With a thee thee here and a thou thou there!” Her grin burst into a bunch of bubbly giggles. “Ya gonna deny it now?”

Deciding not to grace that with a response, Tempest just shot her a flat look before turning and looking out across the water towards the horizon. Meadow joined her at he rail, rearing up to rest her forehooves along the surface. “Meadow? What do you know about Princess Luna’s return to Equestria twelve years ago?”

“Well," Meadow ventured. "No more than anypony else, I suppose." Two seagulls flew below them likely looking for anything cast off from the galley. After a few more moments, she continued. "As the story goes, it was during the Summer Sun Celebration that Nightmare Moon attacked. It was then that she escaped her thousand year imprisonment on the moon. Celestia was nowhere to be found, but we all assume she had been somehow captured or subdued. Lot's of rumors there, but nothing confirmed."

Tempest's eyes narrowed as she continued to watch the gulls. "Rumors, huh?"

"Yeah. And then, later that night, Twilight Sparkle and her friends, used some ancient artifacts called the Elements of Harmony to cleanse… or enchant...” Meadow Lark paused to scratch at her mane, perplexed. “Well, whatever they did, they hit Nightmare Moon with the rainbow power! When they were done, all that was left in the Nightmare's wake was Princess Luna! She was in a weakened state, and she had no idea where she was or even what had transpired over all of those years... but now? Now the two sisters rule Equestria as one, just like a millennium ago!”

"...As one." Narrowing her eyes, Tempest swallowed the bitterness down before she turned and regarded Meadow. “You say that Luna was in a weakened state?”

Meadow flinched a little. “Uh yeah. As far as I know. From what I heard, Luna looked far smaller than she appears today. Her mane wasn't even all mesmerizing with all of its constellations, it was simply flat and blue.”

Tempest clamped down on that item, the gears in her mind working to process what it might mean. “And when Nightmare Moon attacked, Celestia was nowhere to be found?"

Meadow shrugged. "Just rumors!"

"And nopony actually saw this 'Nightmare' subdue Princess Celestia? Any witnesses that Celestia had battled with her and lost? Proof that they engaged in combat?”

Meadow backed up a step, maybe a little concerned by Tempest's sudden intensity. “Um, not really? Nopony really worries about that part, Tempest. Celesta reappeared, though! Once Twilight and her friends were victorious, She arrived and greeted her sister.”

“Of course,” Tempest replied, smiling to herself. She could see how easy it would have been for Celestia to weave this illusion and dupe the nation. Or maybe the ponies of modern Equestria were just that gullible? Seriously, how could anypony miss two alicorns struggling for their lives in mortal combat?

This imposter, this Nightmare Moon arrives, shows herself to the public at a grand celebration, and Celestia is conveniently missing? And then, after everyone has had visual proof of this bogeymare, these six young ponies activate the ancient Elements, which must have been reclaimed or reactivated again during her thousand year absence, and used them to hit Celestia disguised as Nightmare Moon. Then, after a simple light show and sleight of hoof, Luna is brought back from the moon and placed under some kind of magical mind control. Obviously, her weakened state was due to the thousand year banishment, leaving her susceptible to such a plot.

Tempest was trying not to glare, but she realized her voice by this point was probably giving her away. “And it was the Elements of Harmony? How did they come back to life again?"

"Back to life? Well, that part is a little more complicated. But this is stuff everypony knows! Where did you say you have been staying? You keep saying east of the Griffon lands… How far east?”

“It isn’t relevant." Tempest waved a hoof for Meadow to continue. "Pretend I know nothing about this.”

“Well, so there are these six ponies right? And they all lived in Ponyville. Well not all of them did, Twilight lived in Canterlot. You have heard of Twilight Sparkle before, right?”

Tempest mutely shook her head. Meadow grinned, before rubbing her front hooves together. “Okay, wow. Have a seat, Tempest. I’ve got a story for you!”

***

“And that is how Equestria was saved again!” Meadow struck a pose as she brought her story to its grand finish. Tempest looked around, bemused by the small crowd of passengers that had gathered to hear the vivacious mare speak over the past thirty minutes. The mixed crowd of ponies and griffons broke into applause, smiling and lightly tapping their hooves while Meadow took a grand bow from the bulwark before hopping down.

Tempest was amazed by the story. Was all of this tale accurate, or did the little mare embellish a few areas? None of the ponies listening challenged her on any of the details, and some even contributed to the story once she got going. Honestly, some of it strained credibility. How could six average mares living in some backwater town save the country not once, but a mess of other times? Well, Twilight certainly didn't sound average, since since she had somehow been magically transformed into an alicorn, but on further reflection, the other mares in the story didn't really sound all that normal either. The thing sounded like a foal’s fairy tale. Then again, the manner in which Tempest found her self living a thousand years after her birth also seemed to be out of a fairy tale, just a slightly more nightmarish one.

Tempest watched while various ponies, and a few griffons and a zebra offered their thanks and general pleasantries to Meadow as she smiled and tried to catch her breath. After most had moved back indoors possibly to stop by the galley to eat, Tempest approached. “You are quite the storyteller, Meadow.”

“Thanks!" Meadow beamed. "That’s the first time I've ever done something like that. It was really fun!”

“Indeed. It was quite the tale—t'would be interesting to meet these ponies you speak of. But I have one question further about the ruling sisters."

"Okay?"

"In all of this time since Princess Luna’s return, have you ever heard about a disagreement between the two sisters? has their rule been one of tension and debate, or has it been marked by peace and unity?”

“Well, there was that one time when Twilight's assistant had to switch Celestia and Luna's cutie marks."

Tempest's eyes bulged. "Truly?"

There was a magic spell for that? That mare must be truly powerful—hopefully she wasn't in charge of Celestia's security or something like that. It would be lethally dangerous to tangle with her. Or maybe this was another fabricated story. Seriously who could ever rearrange the magic inherent in cutie marks?

"Yup. But that was all straightened out in a day. Besides that, the diarchy has ruled us in peace and justice. But when it comest to pranks..." Meadow smirked and drew closer and leaning up to whisper in Tempest’s twitching ear. “They say that their prank wars have been the stuff of legends!"

Tempest leaned back, staring at the mare incredulously.

"Pranks?"

“I’m serious, Tempest! Why just last month they— ”

“ —Never mind." Tempest held up a hoof to stop the mare. "I am sure there are many great and wonderful stories that have been reported all over the news media. There seems to be much I need to catch up on." Tempest stroked her chin in thought. Meadow thus far had been a wonderful source of information, despite her odd manner. Perhaps she should convince the earth pony to stick around a little longer. "When we get into port, would thou be so kind as to show me to the town’s archives, and also possibly a well-stocked magic merchant or even a magic guild?”

Meadow's mouth drew to the side, bemused by Tempest's slip into archaic speech again. “Well, I could take you to a magic store, that would be easy. But archives? I don’t know what you... oh, you mean like a library?"

Tempest nodded, happy that Meadow was considering being her temporary guide.

"Sure! Manehattan has a wonderful library! Sooo, what are we gonna check out?” Meadow playfully bumped Tempest’s shoulder with her own. “An action? A comedy? A romance? You've just gotta let me show you around: Manehattan is my hometown, I can give you the grand tour!”

Tempest found herself leaning away again from the pushy little pony, lifting a hoof to carefully nudge Meadow from off of her shoulder and back to vertical again. “Indeed. However, there’s a lot of research that I need to do, Meadow.” Tempest tried not to frown as she made her point. “Research that should not be interrupted. Can we not part ways once we arrive at the doors?”

“Oh. Well, I guess...” Meadow mumbled, her voice dropping a register. “We can catch up later, then.” She lowered her head, finding something interesting to look at between her hooves.

“Later perhaps…” Tempest agreed, looking back towards the horizon. Her eyes picked out the distant skyline of Manehattan for the first time. Were those buildings?! What new magic was this, to create such tall behemoth-like structures? Were they safe? She looked back at Meadow, but noticed that the little earth pony seemed to be down about something.

“Take courage, Meadow. There’s something here that I must do. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it. And it is something that has been many years in the making.”

Meadow’s eyes widened slightly. “What… what is it?”

“I’ve come to right an ancient wrong.” The little mare only looked more confused.

Unable to clarify the point further at this time, Tempest awkwardly reached a foreleg around Meadow’s shoulders, making her startle a bit.

Tempest squeezed with a little pressure, because that is what ponies do in these kinds of situations, right? “Trust me.”

***

Tempest couldn’t stop looking up. The scale of the buildings in the port city of Manehattan was immense. Back when she attended school, among the largest buildings of ancient Equestria were the Castle of the Two Sisters, and the recently constructed Canterlot Castle. Despite those examples, other buildings were far smaller with the exception of some of the estates of the more powerful nobles. Even then, the architecture for those buildings was radically different. These pillars of steel and glass were obtrusive in the extreme, towering over anything she considered reasonable.

Besides, she couldn’t see the wisdom of ponies crowded so closely together that they needed to build upwards instead of outwards. Wouldn’t that create logistical nightmares for the delivery of goods, removal of wastes, and the provision of services?

A giggle drew her gaze from the monolithic structures. “Impressive, isn’t it?” Meadow Lark reared up to place her forehooves on the bulward of the ship again as the crew threw down the docklines and warps to the ponies waiting on the pier. Pointing at the skyline with a hoof, Meadow continued. “Manehattan is the largest of Equestria’s cities, but it’s not the only one with skyscraper architecture.”

“So ponies call them skyscrapers? Verily?”

“Sure! And they’re certainly a far cry from the aeries of Gryphus, you’ve probably seen. Our catbird neighbors across the sea prefer their structures in the air: you know, places like tree tops, or cliffs, or rocky peaks."

A griffon walked by at that point, making her way towards the gangplank. She was muttering something fool ponies and 'catbirds' under her breath.

"Oh, heh. And they usually don’t care much for crowds.”

The line began to move as soon as the gangplank banged against the pier with a metallic clang. The captain of the vessel winged her way off the ship, landing gracefully on the pier to await the passengers descending the ramp with their bags and supplies. Standing tall, she folded her wings and began to graciously wish each passenger well as they disembarked.

Tempest followed Meadow Lark down the incline of the ramp, watching as the gruff boatswain of the ship landed next to the Captain and gave his best impression of a smile. Rounding the corner towards the shore end of the pier, Tempest paused as Meadow hung back.

“Thank you for such a wonderful voyage, Captain Coriolis!” Meadow inexplicably threw her forehooves around the captain, knocking her hat askew. The Captain looked rather startled by the sudden contact, while the boatswain to the Captain’s left frowned as he eyed the earth pony.

“Well, you are quite welcome, Ms. Lark!” The deep green mare gave an uneasy smile as she patted Meadow on the back before pulling away. “And thank you for keeping spirits high on deck. Just one thing...” Captain Coriolis leaned in a little closer, her silver-white bangs hanging partway into her glittering eyes. “The next time we start getting into rough seas, let’s not go breaking into song up top while the crew is working on the riggings, eh?”

Meadow smiled sheepishly before giving a mock salute. “Aye aye, Cap’n!” Meadow turned, still smiling, and trotted up to Tempest who was looking at her dubiously. "What?”

Shrugging her shoulders, Tempest turned around to walk further up the pier. “Let us be off, then. But tell me: with a city of this scale, is it not inefficient to provide sanitation and to transport enough goods? Or even to conduct commerce?”

Meadow broke out into a giggle. “Tempest, you're so funny! Its your first time in one of the greatest tourist areas of Equestria, and you're concerned about the logistics of transportation and commerce?" Meadow went on snickering for a moment until she caught Tempest's look. "You're serious? Hm..." Meadow , stroking her chin in thought. "Actually, the opposite is true. You’d be surprised how efficient those things are when they're set up right. Better than conducting commerce with locations that are sparse and remote.”

Tempest frowned in thought. The little mare, for all of her frivolity, made a good point. Unless something interfered with their transportation system. “And how many ponies live here?”

“How many?” Meadow scrunched up her muzzle. “Goodness, I have no idea! Oh—make sure you have your papers ready.”

“Identification papers?” Tempest's heart dropped as she took a closer look at the queue of ponies waiting at the end of the pier, noticing for the first time that there were some small booths, flanked by fencing on either side. Here, uniformed ponies were stationed, one per booth, allowing travelers through once they had completed a brief interaction. The booth on the far left was managed by an earth pony. The other two were managed by pegusi. Tempest contemplated the likelihood of countermeasures versus teleportation as she watched Meadow trot towards the line to the booth in the middle, humming to herself.

Tempest’s eyes flicked from guard to guard, settling on the turquoise and cobalt blue pegasus on the far right. He looked younger than the other two, and his mane was slicked back in a flamboyant manner. Tempest figured he might be the easiest to handle if things got tense. Watching as her queue moved slowly ahead, Tempest noticed a device of some sort attached to his left ear, with a slender rod angling down from it ending in a bulbous tip near his muzzle.

The device must be some sort of communication-tech. The pony is also wearing a visor over his eyes. Visual augmentation perhaps?"

Meadow got to her booth first, so she was likely waiting on the other side. Not wanting to involve the artifact she was wearing around her neck, Tempest’s mind raced for some other solution. Unfortunately, the closer she got to the front of the line, the more nervous she became. She had been on her own for so long, busy environments like this were more stressful than she expected.

“Papers ma’am?”

“Yes! Papers!” Tempest blurted the last word, cringing at how loud it came out. Not knowing what the Tartarus she was doing, she lifted a hind leg to cause the side of her cloak to ride up, showing off a hint of her flank. She had been going for smooth and sultry, but wondered if this just came off as awkward and crude. “Papers? Maybe I could show you something else?"

The stallion frowned, snorting in distaste. “Just your ID papers, ma’am.” He cleared his throat uncomfortably. “Then you can move on down the line.”

Well, that worked just swimmingly. I guess it'll have to be the artifact, then.”

“Certainly. T'was only a jest, truly...” Tempest held his gaze with hers, unlatching her robe at he throat with magic. “Here are my papers.” With a flick of telekinetic power, she opened her cloak to screen any pony's view from behind.

Hanging from her neck was a roughly hewed spherical stone, marred by a slit down the giving it the appearance of a dragon's iris. Lifting the stone higher, it began to shimmer with filaments of purple light crackling over its surface. “Here is my identification…

Chapter Three: Of Librarians and Unicorn Horns

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Meadow Lark wiggled a forehoof back and forth on the ground while she waited for her new friend. It occurred to her that since Tempest had never set foot in Equestria, maybe she didn’t have the proper identification papers? What would border security ponies do if you didn’t have ID documents?

Before she could ponder the matter further, Tempest emerged, looking around for a moment before spotting Meadow waiting on the far side of the street. With a small flash of greenish light, Tempest appeared next to her and began to hurry down the street. Without slowing her gait, she called out over her shoulder. “Come Meadow, let’s be off. You wanted to stop for some tea, correct?”

Tea was the first thing on Meadow Lark’s spontaneous itinerary. She had been planning to visit a cute little tea shop where she could then help Tempest ease into modern Equestria, and plan what the two of them could do with the rest of the morning. But that thought suddenly got shoved aside when she saw what Tempest just did.

“You know how to teleport?” Meadow rushed forward in a flurry of hoofsteps. “That’s amazing! That’s a rare magical skill—I’ve only known one other pony with enough magic channeling ability to do it! What’s your teleportation range?”

Tempest kept her eyes forward as she continued walking. “Far enough, I imagine. It gets me from here to there.”

“Aww, don’t be so modest, Tempest! Really, it’s a great accomplishment!” Meadow studied Tempest’s fluted horn for a minute. Her horn had an impressive length, but everything about this mare was impressive, as she seemed to be taller than most mares. “I mean, it would just be so convenient sometimes! Sometimes I really wish I could teleport.”

Meadow paused as she heard some commotion from behind, somewhere close to the security checkpoints as they made their way down the street. Looking over her shoulder, she saw a few ponies rushing towards the pier area they had just left.

“Huh. I wonder what’s going on?” She looked over to Tempest, noticing that her horn was glowing lightly with a sheen of her pale green magic. “Think we should go back to investigate?”

“I am sure the guards are well trained for such things and have things in hoof. Let’s not make a nuisance of ourselves, Meadow. Where did you want to stop for tea?”

“Oh, just around the corner over there!” Meadow grinned, pleased that Tempest seemed to be opening up and was in better spirits. “What was that magic you were doing a moment ago?”

“Security. I don’t know this city very well.”

“Ah, no worries, Temp! We’re perfectly safe!”

Meadow shook her head. Tempest was probably just overly cautious after spending her life either in rough-and-tumble Gryphus or to the east of that nation, wherever that was. As far as she knew, lands to the east of there were known as unsettled, and considered very harsh, uninhabitable terrain. She knew Gryphus well from doing her continued research in ornithology for the avians of that continent, but she had no interest in heading further east. Her bodyguard, a hired griffon named Gorinyn, had only been far enough east to know that there was another sea. Beyond that, she didn’t know.

“Indeed.”

***

“…So then my cousin told her, ‘You didn’t actually lose, you won! Suri Polomare was hoping that if you thought you lost, she could accept first place!’ And that’s how Coco Pommel got her business booming. Thanks to the Element of Generosity!”

“Fascinating. And this Element of Generosity—this pony… the town she and the other Elements live in is called Ponyville?”

“That’s right! Of course, they no longer possess the elements in a physical form. The Elements were returned to the Tree of Harmony in order to defeat the Plunderseeds Discord had planted ages ago in his bid to overcome the Tree and capture the princesses!”

Tempest blinked before shaking her head ruefully. Meadow Lark had somehow skipped that story when she was giving her account of the escapades of the Elements of Harmony, the heroines of Equestria.

Discord was a creature she was keenly aware of from her youth. When she was a six year old filly she and Sweet Potato had to evacuate Hoofdale along with the rest of the ponies in order to get away from Equestria’s capital. Discord had overthrown the whole of pony society and had made his base of operations the Castle of the Two Sisters. With his ability to seemingly warp the very fabric of reality itself, residents of Ponyvale and neighboring cities were forced to flee to the far reaches of the country, hunkering down in smaller groups away from any population centers. It seemed that the more ponies tried to organize themselves, the more they would draw Discord’s ire. It was a harrowing time of fear and sorrow, and with the loss of the constraints of civilization, many unscrupulous and violent ponies took advantage of the weak and the defenseless.

To this day, Tempest couldn’t stand the thought of eating grass, since there were many nights Mavis and her adoptive mother were unable to find anything else while foraging for food. Through it all, however, Mavis was a rock, defending them from possible raiders and seeing to it that they did not suffer too much.

It wasn’t until Tempest was eight years old that the princesses were able to settle differences between them and harmonize sufficiently to wield the Elements. It was the third attempt, Discord having laughed them off the previous two times, and of course this was the origin of the expression “the third time’s the charm.”

Meadow was giving her a funny look again. On further introspection, Tempest decided she needed to hide her moments of brooding better. “Yes, Meadow?”

“Oh, nothing…” The light blue pony grinned. “So, you wanted to catch up on the latest news? Learn about our Equestrian ways? The Manehattan Library is about two Kilometers down that way on Gaskin Street. But before we do that, my cousin’s shop is just around the corner past the intersection of Chestnut and Gaskin.” She indicated a soft blue and green shop with arching windows a few doors down with a point of her hoof. “If we stop there, maybe we can get your wardrobe up to speed. You know, something a little more modern than your cloak!”

Bringing a hoof up to her mouth, Meadow froze in horror, her ears folding back in dismay. “Not that there’s anything wrong with your cloak, Tempest. Heh heh. It’s umm…”

Amused, Tempest tried to keep a straight face, her ears perked up at attention. “My cloak, you say? What’s the matter with it?”

“Nothing! It’s a fine cloak, and a very… classic look!”

Tempest regarded her cloak for a moment before looking back up and responding with a raised eyebrow. She wasn’t one to joke around very often, but this pony left herself wide open for it. “Classic as in timeless, or classic as in ancient?”

Meadow made a sound that sounded distinctly like a ‘meep.’

Chuckling, Tempest hoofed Meadow’s shoulder lightly. “It’s fine. This cloak is actually older than you know. But first things first. I really need to find a magic store. Would you lead me to one?”

Meadow seemed to let out a breath she was holding before she grinned and trotted ahead. “Sure! There’s a good one back that way called Krystal’s Crucible. C’mon!”

***

The shop was a mishmashed cacophony of color, with bizarre clashes of electric blue, pale teal and dark pink stars. The sign over the door was brightly lit in glimmering lights, displaying the name and what looked like a crude crucible emitting sparks and smoke. Comically, the lights on the sign followed a pattern where the crucible would light up, then the sparks, and finally the smoke giving the appearance of a magical brew reacting out of control.

Tempest felt a little mystified by the decor, but Meadow urged her onward, opening the front door. A bell hanging from the door latch jangled, drawing the attention of an older unicorn stallion sitting behind the counter near the back. The stallion was a brick red color, grizzled with a smattering of gray through his coat. His graying light aqua-colored mane was a short-cropped, and he had a matching beard covering his lower jaw and chin.

“Good morning, ladies!” The unicorn beamed. “How may I help you today?”

Tempest’s eyes scanned through the various aisles to her right and the many display cabinets on her left and in the back. She only grew more confused at what she saw but perhaps this pony could clarify a few things.

“Hail, kind sir! Are you the proprietor of this establishment?” Tempest paused as she heard a snicker behind her, turning to regard Meadow who was attempting to cover her smile with a hoof.

“See? See?”

Apparently she had slipped into more archaic speech patterns again. After giving Meadow a flat look, Tempest turned back to the older stallion. “My apologies. You are the shopkeeper, I presume?”

The unicorn chuckled, stroking his graying goatee. “I am the shopkeeper, Flint Foundry. My wife is Krystal Krucible, and together we manage this store. What can I do you for?” His gaze traveled from the taller unicorn to the smaller earth pony.

“I am Tempest. And this here is Ms. Meadow Lark.” Tempest indicated Meadow, who bobbed her head with a grin, and then she gazed around the shop again. On display was a variety of compact cylinders and boxes in the display cabinets, and there was a collection of books and what looked like potion ingredients on the shelves. Perhaps the amulets on sale were within the boxes or cylinders? “May I see some of your more powerful magical devices, Mr. Foundry? Coin is not an issue.”

The shopkeeper’s smile widened as he activated his horn to swing open the fold-over counter he was behind. The panel flipped over with a bang as he trotted out, worried less about the noise than helping these two mares and making a sale.

“Absolutely, my dear.” Flint pointed a hoof to the shelves first. If you look over here, you will find that our store is well stocked with practically any potion ingredient you can think of. And if we don’t have it, we can have it shipped to us within the week!”

Tempest scanned the shelves for a moment before shrugging her shoulders. There were not only potion ingredients, but cauldrons, mortars, and crucibles as well. “Okay. And what about your items in the cases?”

“Of course! Here we have all the top brands, and all of the typical sizes necessary for your magic power supplies!”

Tempest only gazed back, furrowing her brows. “Magic power supplies?” He must have been talking about these cylinders and boxes. “What sorts of magical effects are these items capable of?”

“Effects?” The stallion scratched at his beard with a hoof, tilting his head in confusion. “Well, there’s only one effect… You want to power your music player? Most of ‘em take two to four of this one: size “C3.” You want to power your auto-scooter? That will likely be four to eight of these on the bottom shelf, size “D6.” You want to use your household’s automated hoof scrubber? They normally run off of a D1.” He lifted the cylinder out of the case, the diameter being about a third of the width of his hoof.

Tempest was now well and thoroughly confused. What the hay was he talking about? She continued looking at the strange manager, only this time there was more distance between her upper and lower jaws.

Meadow finally leaned in and got Tempest’s attention. “Tempest, all of these things store potential energy. Heh, calling them magic is actually a misnomer; they are just magically charged.” She pointed a hoof at the devices in question. “Griffons call them batteries. This is how we power simple machines and appliances, especially the portable ones!”

So these little cylinders contained energy to power small machines and devices? Interesting.

“What about the ship we were on? Wasn’t the Windsong using coal for fuel?”

“Yes, well... “ Meadow paused to gather her thoughts. “The Windsong is from the Gryphus shipyards. They specialize in steam-powered devices. Equestrian shipyards now build ships equipped with larger versions of these power supplies, all capable of self-recharge under normal daylight conditions. You can still find many steam powered engines in Equestria, but those are slowly being phased out. The further you travel from the unicorn-dominated city of Canterlot, the more Steam-tech you will find.”

The smaller mare looked pensive for a moment. “As a matter of fact, that’s probably why things are getting more and more unstable over in Gryphus and Minos right now…their exports have been shrinking.”

“Anyway!” Meadow shook her head and held up the battery, giving it a tap. “The ponies of Equestria use these for portable power. The energy they contain is stored as chemical energy, and the reactions of that chemical drives the electricity out one end and through the device to return to the other end.”

“Batteries are typically charged by worker unicorns in factories, but recently Princess Twilight Sparkle has been leading our engineers to create better ways of moving electricity, such as hydroelectric dams!”

“Electricity.” Tempest replied, her tone flat. “I see. Well then, what about devices that can act as more than a simple reservoir for electrical energy? What about devices that are able to carry an ongoing and active magical effect, such as giving a pony wings?”

“The Wingspring spell?” Mr. Foundry cut in. “That is quite the doozy of a spell, my dear! There is a limit to how much magic you can cram into an inanimate object, as I am sure you learned in magical kindergarten. Now, if you want to use a minor cantrip, such as cloud buoyancy, then fine. That’s why Cloudsdale’s kitchen tables and cabinets don’t crash down on our craniums! The cloud buoyancy rune inscribed on a hidden panel allow our pegasus cousins to have nice things. But a rune to allow a pony to have wings? Something taking that much magic? That pony would have to strap on a plank as big as this store for a rune to be large enough to carry that much magic, and then the wings would do him no good!”

The stallion chortled at his own joke while Tempest scratched at her mane in confusion. That made no sense at all—not if her amulet technology was used in the modern day. What was missing here? Tempest was beginning to lose her patience. “Mr. Foundry, let me be perfectly clear: I want to know if you have devices… capable of exactly that, and yet be small enough to be worn on the body or slipped into a saddle bag.”

Mr. Foundry’s mirth simmered down until he started studying Tempest’s face. “Wait, you’re serious?”

Nodding her head, Tempest raised both brows in an expression which seemed to say: Do ya think?

Without another word, Mr. Foundry pursed his lips and then turned abruptly, trotting back to the sales counter. Tempest watched him go in growing confusion, before the older pony flipped the counter panel back open again and turned to regard her steadily. “If you two are here to waste my time with a stupid prank, then I shall have to ask you to go. Off with you, now.”

“I… what?”

Mr. Foundry rolled his eyes, walking behind the counter again. “Something that you could wear that makes you sprout wings? If that pointy horn on your head is for more than just show, then you are clearly aware of the rune-size rule. It’s the inherent limitation of all runes: they are only useful for minor magical effects, unless you have a whole flank-load of space!” His brick-red horn activated with a pale blue glow, bringing a catalogue up in front of his face. “I bid you a good day!”

Tempest’s brows furrowed while she started to piece together the clues. Nopony in this city seemed to be wearing anything that might suggest amulet technology—that had seemed odd. But to hear this ridiculous little proprietor demean her by claiming the technology that she herself had pioneered was fantasy? It was infuriating! And yet, her anger would be misdirected if she focused it on the proprietor.

Tempest sat on her haunches and swore, gritting her teeth in aggravation. “That infernal mare! To Tartarus with her—she covered it up!”

Startled by her outburst, Meadow trotted up in concern. “Are you alright, Tempest? What’s wrong?”

Steeling herself, Tempest shook her head. “It’s nothing, Meadow. Nothing that can’t be remedied, anyway.” Tempest sighed with a huff before standing up to face Mr. Foundry again. “I… I humbly apologize for the prank, sir. It was in poor taste. Excuse us, and you have a pleasant afternoon.”

The stallion behind his catalogue grunted in reply.

Tempest turned on her hoof to leave, but then she remembered the other reason for why she was there. “I am sorry, sir, but I did actually want to pick up an item for potions brewing, if you don’t mind?”

Mr. Foundry sighed before placing the catalogue on his counter. Studying Tempest’s demeanor for a moment, he raised an eyebrow before hopping off of his stool again and exiting the counter a second time. “I have an excellent variety of ingredients and supplies, you won’t find any stores better. What do you need, my dear?”

Tempest thought for a moment. If amulets had been covered up somehow, then the methodology for making them would of course be a complete mystery. Amulet creation was a very painstaking process, and it necessitated an intensely focused beam of resonant magic, with more power than most, if not any, unicorns alive could muster. However, a disembodied horn, encapsulated within a amplifying resonance chamber, worked just fine. Besides, the use of a disembodied horn would render horn burn-out a non-issue.

One of her friends who was usually in the medical wing of Sisters’ School because of his medical studies actually helped her come up with the idea. He offered it to her when he had learned that she had nearly burned out her own horn in a failed attempt at making an amulet. He was able to procure the item, and fortunately, the cadaver lab was never able to track down what happened to it. Also fortunately, Princess Luna supported her discovery while at the same time urging her to keep the method a secret.

“I was wondering, sir, if among your potion ingredients you might have a unicorn horn?”

The shopkeeper grew slightly pale, before his expression became grave.

“I beg your pardon? A what?”

Rolling her eyes, Tempest repeated herself. “A unicorn horn. Typical potion ingredients may include powdered unicorn horn. Would I be able to acquire one here?”

Mr. Foundry’s look of horror slowly morphed into one of anger. “A… a fully intact horn?” he sputtered. “W-what kind of store do you think I run? Why would I be in possession of such a thing?”

Uh oh.

Tempest’s mind raced as she observed Mr. Foundry’s reaction. In hindsight, maybe it would have been better to research in the library first. Possessing a horn in ancient Equestria, while odd, wasn’t actually unheard of for potion masters.

But now? Apparently, gauging by his reaction, it was either taboo or illegal to have a unicorn horn. In her attempts to expunge amulet technology, Celestia must have made the very possession of a horn verboten, thereby avoiding the chance that anypony else might be able to repeat what she did.

I need to come up with a cover story quick.

“Oh, excuse me! I know that normally, only horn shavings are available, you know, like from salons and such. But see, I am publishing a research article on the effects of different grits of horn shavings on potion vitality.” Tempest winced, not really sure if her cover story sounded credible at all.

Meadow leaned in between them at this point, giving the shopkeeper a forced smile. “She’s… not from around here, sir.”

Mr. Foundry’s expression did not improve.“Oh? Just where is it she is from?”

“I… I think we should just go now.” Meadow squeaked, as she began to push Tempest towards the door. Bodily moving the larger pony out the front door, Meadow called over her shoulder. “She… didn’t know, sir. She didn’t mean anything by it. New to Equestria and all...”

***

The Library was massive. Huge columns were interspersed in soaring archways, allowing ponies to pass either on hoof or on wing. It was like the towering shelves of books within were exposed to the elements, until Tempest examined it with a diagnostic spell. Apparently, the entry was maintained by a magical barrier of some type that sealed the weather out.

Statues of the Princesses, each standing about eight meters high, impressively framed the soaring entrance. Further to the sides, the building was walled by brick masonwork of earthy tones interspersed at intervals by stained glass windows.

Feeling an excitement she hadn’t felt in a long time, Tempest couldn’t help but speed up her gait a little. Meadow increased her pace to stay alongside of her, until Tempest stopped, turning to Meadow with a smile.

“Meadow, it has been 12 weeks since you were last in Equestria, correct? You said you were gathering data for your ornithology research?”

“That’s right! But I wanted to make sure you got settled! You sure you’ll be okay?”

“In a library? I’ll be more than okay.” Tempest smiled warmly. “Your help has been welcomed, but I am sure your cousin Ms. Pommel would be happy to see you. Why don’t you let me take it from here.”

“Well, okay then,” Meadow replied, beginning to turn the other way. “ But let’s get back together for dinner with Coco tonight! She’d love to meet you—and you could tell us more about your time east of the Griffon lands. No more deflecting, alright?”

“Fine, fine!” Tempest breathed out, rolling her eyes. She waved a hoof back at the departing pony, and then turned again to face the magnificent temple of learning and knowledge. “Let’s get started.”

***

Tempest scrutinized the lobby as her eyes panned back and forth. It had been an odd sensation, passing through the wall of magic that served as a doorway, but an entrance such as that certainly let in a lot of natural light. Reading couches were clustered at intervals around low tables, arranged strategically to allow through-traffic. Around the periphery, benches, desks, and organizing shelves were placed.

The building was not experiencing heavy use at the moment, if the sparse ponies around her were any indication. Tempest’s eyes soon fell across an older unicorn mare, who seemed busy behind a desk piled high with books and other materials. If her current activity of stamping books were any indication, she was the librarian. The unicorn’s grey and mint-green mane was pulled back into a bun, and her spectacles were managed by a delicate jade-beaded chain that wrapped behind her slender neck. Her eyes were a similar mint-green color as her mane highlights, and she looked rather furry at her fetlocks, above her elbows, and at her chest.

Tempest took a deep breath, and then approached. She had much to learn, but her ultimate goal would be to get Celestia far away from Princess Luna. Only then could she have a chance to stop the usurper’s reign and finally defeat whatever foul magics that were still holding her mother’s mind prisoner.

The unicorn mare looked up as Tempest strode towards her work desk, and gave a small smile as she set a stack of materials aside. “Can I help you, Miss?”

Tempest dipped her head briefly in a polite gesture. “You are the curator of these archives… er, the library?”

“I am an assistant librarian - my name is Moonlight Sigil.” The pony stood up from her stool, and Tempest’s eyes quickly flicked to the mark on her flank, a crescent yellow moon fringed with runes along the convex edge. Tempest smiled to see a cutie mark that would be so dear to her heart.

“Wonderful. I am Ms… Evermoon. Could you direct me to your section on cartography? And also, where could I find reference materials on the government?”

The librarian smiled and nodded her head. “Just follow me, Ms. Evermoon.”

“Also, do you have any private rooms for study?”

“Certainly!”

***

Tempest stretched for a moment, yawning and straightening out her limbs in order to restore some circulation after hours of disuse. She sighed, before sitting down again and moving another book off to the side. The study room Ms. Sigil had led her to was perfect. It was completely silent, with a long table for arranging her stacks of materials, and it was even convenient to the nearest bathroom.

One thing was obvious: the science of amulets and amulet production was completely absent. Unless you took anything in the fantasy and fiction sections seriously, all knowledge about amulets was completely gone, which rankled considerably.

The library had been most helpful in other regards, especially when Tempest had scouted around and found the restricted section. There were several magic wards in place, including an alert if the wards were defeated, but she had been clever enough to find that one and feed it some counter-magic before defeating the other wards. It wasn’t so much that the collection was great and mysterious, but it did have some blueprints and schematics of some governmental buildings, and surprisingly, a book on the construction of Canterlot Castle. There were likely many secrets about that castle that wouldn’t be found in this book, or any book, but it did give her a good place to start.

Now, she was reading what seemed to be a description of the daily schedules of the diarchy. Tempest’s hoof traced across the page quickly as she read.

...while Princess Luna holds Night Court as in olden times, her waking schedule holds a respectable overlap with her older sister since her return. Night Court typically spans from ten o’clock PM to four o’ clock AM, with an hour’s recess between twelve-thirty AM to one-thirty AM. During this time she can usually be found eating, and meeting with her closest advisors. After Night Court concludes, the younger Princess usually retires to her offices to review documents and take care of administrative aspects of her rule. For those who wonder about how she works her dream magic during this time frame, she intersperses the court cases that are scheduled with segments of time where she is able to police the dream realm...

As Tempest focused on the page, the door to the study suddenly opened, causing her to look up with a start. The kindly face of the same assistant librarian was peering back at her with a cheery expression.

“Um, hello, dear. I was just wondering if you were were doing all right, and needed any further assistance?”

Tempest watched helplessly as Moonlight Sigil’s eyes trailed to the books and materials that had been carelessly strewn about the table. She knew without looking that of the titles visible, including the Ponies Behind the Elements of Harmony and a Compendium on Modern Magical Combat, she would definitely notice the book from the restricted section.

Moonlight’s smile dissolved, her face growing coldly neutral as she looked back up to meet Tempest’s gaze with a blink. “...Excuse me.” She quietly ducked back out of the doorway and made her way back down the hall, appearing tense while at the same time trying to appear like she wasn’t.

With her heart suddenly thudding in her chest, Tempest swore under her breath. Not even a full day in Equestria and already she was going to be reported as suspicious. Making up her mind in an instant, Tempest reached out a hoof and cleared the books from the table. Quickly picking up a writing utensil, she inscribed two runes. The first was called videre, the sight rune, and was the foundation of the scrying spell. The second rune was Moonlight’s Cutie Mark.

Finishing her inscription on the table, Tempest quickly uncorked her waterskin and poured in on the surface, silently breathing a word of thanks that the surface was level. Finally, she enacted the spell, lighting up her horn, and breathing to focus as the glimmer of magic struck the water. Immediately, the small puddle began to glow, and the image of Ms. Sigil came into focus, apparently hurrying along the hallways of the library. Tempest held her breath as she watched the actions of the older pony.

She was obviously nervous, as Tempest observed her repeatedly glancing behind her, likely afraid that she would be followed. Finally, the librarian turned a corner and walked into a small room, striding up to a desk which had a plaque with her name on it. Ms. Sigil reached a hoof under the desk, and with a little concentration, Tempest angled the scrying spell to see what she was doing, gasping as she watched the hoof depress a little red button with a label next to it reading police.

“Just gets better and better.” She muttered, shutting off the scrying spell and throwing down her cloak to dry up the mess. Her time was going to be limited, so she would need to come up with something quickly. Focusing again, she teleported directly to Moonlight’s office, having seen a clear enough picture of it through the spell.

Feeling the familiar wrenching sensation in her stomach, she kicked the door shut as soon as she felt the carpet of Ms. Sigil’s office under her hooves. Lighting her horn again, she locked the portal and soundproofed the area, just like she had seen Luna do countless times those many years ago. The Librarian was looking at her with horror.

“I… wish you hadn’t done that.” Tempest murmured.

Straightening herself courageously, Moonlight Sigil spoke, trying to keep her voice even. “Ms. Evermoon, how did you defeat the enchantments protecting the restricted section? Those security measures were in place for a reason.”

Not wanting to frighten the pony further, Tempest sighed, sitting down on her haunches. “My motives are pure, Ms. Sigil. I am righting a wrong, not threatening innocent ponies.” Tempest huffed in disappointment. “Did you have to go and summon the police?”

Moonlight took a step back, her eyes widening. “How did you—? W-what was I supposed to do? I know all of the books of this building, and seeing you with those in particular, plus the one from the restricted section…”

Again cursing her own stupidity, Tempest lowered her head while maintaining the pony’s gaze. “Well, that won’t do, will it? I need to check out a couple of books. If you won’t provide me with a library card, you will need to provide me with a distraction.”

“What?”

“Don’t worry—you’ll receive no harm… no more than a headache when you awaken.” The pendant around Tempest’s neck began to glow with a violet light. “Let’s have a heart to heart, shall we?”

Quick as she could, Moonlight ducked down behind her desk. “No… No! Somepony help me!”

Tempest raised her voice to be heard. “Your office is sound-proofed, ma’am… And you won’t be hurt.” As the crackling glow intensified around her pendant, Tempest began to raise it up higher. Light cascaded up and down her foreleg, then up over her horn, combining and interwining with Tempest’s own pale green colored magic. Finally, Tempest’s left eye took on a purple hue as well, with filaments of violet colored magic energies arcing out to the side.

“No, you won’t be hurt any longer.” Tempest’s voice now took on a reverberating quality as she stepped closer. “I perceive that you have been hurting already…”

Gently, the magical filaments, an intertwining helix of green and violet light, trickled off the tip of Tempest’s horn and began to encircle the horn of the older pony. Moonlight Sigil slowly sat up, wiping her nose with a hoof, and began to stare blankly ahead.

Narrowing her eyes, Tempest examined various images as they were projected across her mind. After a moment, she seized on a few.

“I perceive that your best friend passed away two months ago… I am sorry... and your daughter is estranged from you… I feel your pain.” Tempest took another step forward, as the lighting of her magic began to color both of Moonlight Sigil’s eyes with an eerie glow. “You are lonely. You are suffering…”

Lucidity gradually came back into Moonlight’s eyes as she looked down at her hooves, wiping her tears away with a fetlock. “Yes. It has been… difficult.”

Tempest smiled, placing a hoof on the unicorn’s withers. “Come. Let us banish the loneliness together.”

Chapter Four: Sisters' School

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A thousand years since mother’s banishment… a thousand and twelve, to be precise. You had adequate time to carefully craft a plan to successfully free Luna from Celestia’s grasp. To liberate her from whatever dominating spell or magical influence that restrains her. How could you be so stupid?

Tempest ground her teeth together as she reflected on the events of that morning. Each mistake was examined and catalogued with her eye for exacting detail. She had become sloppy in her time away from her studies, away from her books. She had become lazy and soft.

Ironic, that I call myself lazy and soft after travelling to the opposite side of the world and back. What other pony could claim such a feat, and complete the journey in one piece. Ironic, considering what I had to deal with… what I had to deny myself of when I fell into that abyss.

Granted, the rapid procession of events since arriving in Equestria this morning had left her disoriented and confused. So much had changed about the nation she thought she knew. The buildings and structures had become massive; the cities, more populous. There were little to no tensions between the pony tribes that she could tell, and even the more hostile races like griffons and minotaurs seemed to be walking around without a care—unchallenged and unopposed! How could this level of peace and harmony have been achieved while that usurper sits on the throne? It just wasn’t right.

So much had changed, except for one glaring item that could not be ignored. Luna was still a prisoner after all this time. Sure, she had returned from completing her wrongful sentence on the moon, but now that she was back, she seemed to be a slave to Celestia’s will. It was the only explanation that began to make sense, which caused Tempest no small amount of fear. If she were to challenge Celestia, and Luna was nearby, she would surely fail. Luna would be forced to defend her sister, and Tempest wouldn’t dare raise a hoof to harm her own mother. She had to draw Luna far away to the other side of Equestria, and then?

Celestia needed to die.

Tempest shuddered for a moment as she reflected on that simple sentence. It came so easy now. What was once unthinkable was now the end most sought after. Circumstances had driven her to this point and this outcome was all that was left. She would kill the ruler of Equestria. Wouldn’t anypony else pursue the same ends, given the same situation?

Innocent ponies might be harmed.

Tempest squeezed her eyes shut, pushing that thought to the side. Harm of the innocents was something she would not tolerate. The common pony didn’t have any type of stake in the coming battle—no concept of any wrongdoing by their Ruler of the Day. And Celestia’s ponies would defend her without question, ignorant of the true history of their ruler, and how she wrongfully built up her own power by deposing her sister.

They didn’t know, but Tempest did. She knew first hand what had happened, and she had been a witness to what came after, thanks to the entity that she encountered after falling down that hole into the abyss.

At the end of the day, the ends will justify the means.

It was a painful thought. Such a stance on morality used to be an affront and she had actually debated on the subject during a philosophy class while at Sisters’ School. The irony of her acceptance of this phrase was not lost on her. Still, she would most likely fail if she did not conduct her affairs in just such a manner. Wasn’t Luna worth it?

However, that being the case, Tempest swore that she would do anything to minimize or avoid any collateral damage. It was the only way she could stomach it. She would have to be flawless in order to harm as few as possible. A surgical strike with absolute precision.

Like an eclipse.

After hurrying back to the study room she had been working in, Tempest cleaned up the water she had poured onto the table for an impromptu scrying surface. Drying the mess, she collected the books she had been reading and left them among the sorting shelves of the lobby. Glancing around the room to make sure no ponies were gazing her way, Tempest slipped the book from the restricted section into her saddle bags.

Without any more time to waste, Tempest exited the library, visually scanning the area before crossing the street. It wouldn’t be long before the police arrived. Seeing no sign of law enforcement ponies, Tempest slipped into an alleyway between two of the taller buildings across the street, and did some mental calculations to determine the height she would need for a vertical teleport. Satisfied with the results, she drew upon her magic and triggered the spell, landing with a soft clop on the roof of the building that was immediately to her right.

Tempest walked up to the ledge, carefully scanning around again to regain her orientation and to make certain there were no other ponies nearby. Her stomach fluttered a little as she looked down from her perch, at a height of about sixty meters above the paved street. While it was tempting to leave now and simply move on to the next aspect of her plans, she felt it would be more valuable to watch the behavior and the capabilities of the police officers that would respond. Beyond that, she wanted to see that Moonlight Sigil was okay.

She frowned, her mind wandering back to her various mistakes again. How could she overlook the necessity of creating identification papers in order to pass through the port? While it was true that Gryphus did not have the need for such regulations, being comprised of their many fractured clans and semi-organized states, Equestria was radically different. She should’ve prepared for this contingency before she made her voyage!

Then there was that Krystal’s Crucible magic store, with that useless stallion shop owner. What a mess of confusion and embarrassment, to ask such clumsy questions and arouse his suspicions! It would have saved her a lot of trouble had she researched the topic first. Then, she would have caught on to the fact that amulet-tech had been entirely covered up, and that the possession of unicorn horns was considered verboten.

Finally, her failure in the library was humiliating. Granted, magically sealing the door might have been seen as suspicious, but she could’ve at least hidden the materials she was reading. But she had been too busy patting herself on the back for magically defeating the wards protecting the restricted section Then, she made matters worse when she froze up after the Librarian opened the door to the room. She could still recall the look of terror in Moonlight Sigil’s eyes after she cornered her in her office.

This line of thinking was not helpful. Shaking her head for a moment to clear it, Tempest refocused on the arched entryway of the library. Everything was going to be fine. This little mishap had not caused anypony harm. Moonlight would only be unconscious for about fifteen minutes. Emergency responders would likely just chalk this event up to old age.

Moonlight Sigil was only disconnected from her most recent memories, anyway. Such a spell was considered forbidden at Sisters’ School, but as long as I apply such techniques judiciously for a moral cause, it will be fine. What is more disturbing is the power of this artifact hanging from my neck. The power it grants to see the memories and experiences of another, as if they were scenes played out on stage, could be so easily abused!

Whichever way this event would end up playing out, it was bound to upset Meadow Lark, so hopefully she was running late and all of this would simply blow over. Meadow was a pleasant pony, but that mare was altogether too distracting. That being the case, it was time to distance herself from such distractions and get something done on the work she was here for.

Folding her legs under her to rest her head on the edge of the parapet, Tempest heaved a nostalgic sigh. Even during her tumultuous time spent at Sisters’ School, the school library was one place she could count on to always find peace and security. She still remembered the joy of first setting hoof on campus.

***

One thousand and sixteen years earlier…

“You excited, Temp?”

“Oh yeah!” Tempest bounced on the tips of her hooves, not caring if other students of families were giving her some strange looks as she gave the lavender pegasus an ear to ear smile. “I’m nervous, but this is like the best day ever! Thanks again for help on the school’s application, Aunt Mavis!” Tempest reared up to give Mavis a crushing hug, reaching as far around her barrel as her shorter legs could go.

Mavis gave a soft chuckle in response, hugging the younger filly and patting her back while she looked over to top of her head at Sweet Potato’s amused expression. Sweet’s small lips drew into a smile, her eyes glimmering with additional moisture.

“Tempy, you had better give your mom another hug, now. Sweet’s gonna be missing you the most, what with being your Mom and all.” Mavis pointed a wing at the the beige mare, whose gently curving shoulders and hips stood a few inches shorter than Mavis’ muscular frame. Despite her smaller size, Sweet Potato didn’t show any fatigue while easily bearing the weight of Tempest’s baggage across her flanks. Such a thing was hardly noticeable for an earth pony.

Sweet Potato reached out a hoof to gather her filly in, pulling Tempest into her embrace. The moisture in her eyes began to emerge just a tad as a stray tear made its way down her cheek. “My Tempest.” She cooed. “I’m so proud of you. Ever since I found you on my doorstep those thirteen years ago, you have been my very precious, little horn-headed treasure.”

They held the embrace for another few moments before a few sharp metallic clicks and reports sounded out from the main doors of the Royal Equestrian Auditorium. “C’mon, dear. It looks like they are opening the doors. Let’s find ourselves some seats for the orientation.”

Tempest released the hug as she watched the massive double doors part, creaking open slowly towards the ponies waiting outside. There were several guards to either side, but one in particular struck her as peculiar. He had wings that were only sparsely covered with feathers, and the expanse of skin underneath seemed to resemble that of a bat more than a pegasus. She had heard of bat ponies of course, but ponies expressing the genetic parentage in a dual fashion such as this was very rare.

She tried not to stare, but he cut a very imposing figure with chiseled muscles under his deep blue armor, the sun glinting off of the deep charcoal gray of his coat as if it were polished. His mane was a darker charcoal hue, offset by a noticeable shade of yellow centered only near the roots of the hair. The rank insignia on the side of the armor suggested he was in a position of authority among the guard, but she didn’t know the significance of the bars on his shoulder and the stars on his collar. Tempest’s eyes widened as she realized he was gazing back at her with a warm smile, displaying some rather prominent canines.

“Good morning,” he rumbled, never once breaking eye contact. His voice was surprisingly gentle and deep, and his eyes were mesmerizing, the pupils slits of deep black suspended in pools of yellow-gold. Tempest felt her heart clench under the intensity of his gaze, but her mom had raised her to carry herself with confidence and dignity.

“Um, hi…” Tempest swallowed as she recoiled, ducking her head and darting between the taller forms of her mother and her aunt as she hid herself. So much for confidence and dignity.

As they passed between the doors, Tempest looked over to find Aunt Mavis studying her with an unreadable expression. She also thought she heard a light chuckle from the same guard. “W-Who was that?’

“That, my dear Tempy, was none other than the Captain of the Lunar guard. Seems he fancies you, eh?”

Tempest felt her cheeks flush with heat. If they weren’t tinged with a blush before, they surely would be now. “What? Don’t tease, Aunt Slushy!”

Mavis laughed in response while Sweet Potato turned her head back to observe the stallion again, pursing her lips. “He is a rather stunning figure, isn’t he?” Sweet murmured. “What do you think, Mavis?”

“Aye,” Mavis smiled. “That he is, love. But rumor has it that he’s already spoken for by the Princess of the Night herself. The two have been faithful for about seventeen years now!”

The ponies passed to the other side of the lobby, going through a smaller set of doors before pausing to allow their eyes to adjust to the darker interior of the auditorium. The room was massive, and staircases descended from their position to either side, skirting the back wall down to the main floor.

Tempest reared up to peer over the back railing. The architecture of the auditorium was impressive, almost to the point of being ostentatious. In all of her days at Hoofdale, she had never seen the like. Elevated box seating jutted proudly from the sides of the auditorium, supported by prominences from the wall that tapered back to be even with the load bearing walls along the sides. Each box was decorated with flowers and gold leaf trim. Rich hues of mahogany wood and deep wine colored upholstery gave the fold-down seating a luxurious look. Slate gray carpeting gave off a stately appearance while accenting the colors of the deep reds and golds which dominated the overall decor. Finally, massive banners interspersed along the walls and across the back of the stage proudly displayed Celestia’s and Luna’s heraldry colors.

Turning to make a comment to her mother, Tempest found that Sweet Potato had been struck dumb as well, her mouth forming into a little “o.”

“Well!” Mavis broke them both out of their stupor with a toothy grin. “It’s not every day one gets to visit the Royal Equestrian Auditoriuml, now is it?” C’mon, there’s plenty of room— let’s sit somewhere nice and close, aye?”

Tempest and her mom both responded oppositely but simultaneously as well.

“ —Cool, right behind you, Mav!”

“ —Um, I don’t think we really ought to…”

Ignoring Sweet Potato’s reticence, Mavis’s wings gave a single flap of excitement before she turned around and began to make her way toward the stairs on the right. “That’s the spirit! Let’s make ourselves comfortable. If the hanging banners are any indication, it looks like the Princesses themselves will be presiding. Maybe they will make some remarks…”

“Yeah! Let’s sit as close as we can!” Tempest chirped.

Sweet Potato quietly followed, still shaking her head in awe.

***

Tempest looked around as more ponies filled the seats behind them. They were near the right side on the ninth row, and she was feeling giddy with the prospect of seeing the princesses up close. Turning her head to take in all of the ponies around her, she noted that there were far more adults than ponies her age. This must be the kind of event where extended families and friends all came together to celebrate and support the new enrollees. She knew that her class size numbered only forty individuals, as it always does, but there were several hundreds of adult ponies in attendance. She also took notice that there were a couple of ponies along the sides of the room rapidly sketching on easels what looked like soon-to-be paintings of the room they were in, including all of the ponies in attendance. Maybe they were news ponies creating images for the Ponyvale Information Network. Tempest hoped her yellow coat would stand out in the image, and that she would be able to see the paper later.

Looking towards the stage again, there were two ornate thrones on either side, and a podium for speaking near the front. Already seated on the stage were many other ponies on either side; ponies that looked rather stuffy and pretentious. Tempest guessed that they must be school administrators and professors and the like.

Sweet Potato suddenly leaned in, speaking in a low voice. “Tempest, I just wanted to tell you again how proud I am of you.” The lights began to fade slowly as Tempest felt her heart quicken its pace. “While I am proud that my little filly has such talent as to be taken by Sisters’ Academy on her very first application—”

“ —C’mon, Mom! I’m fourteen…” Tempest complained, “I’m hardly a little filly— ”

“ —Oh, you will always be my little filly, sweetheart. Now shush, momma’s having a moment.” Tempest squeaked as Sweet pulled her sideways into another hug, this time made awkward as she was yanked halfway over the armrest. Tempest rolled her eyes as she heard Mavis chuckling behind her. Mom always did have a quirky side to her sense of humor.

“What I was saying is that while it is exciting to see you accepted into Sisters’ Academy, on your very first application no less, what we’re the most proud of is that you are such a noble, kind, and generous pony. Dedicated to your work… loyal to your loved ones. We are proud of who you are in here.” Sweet Potato placed a hoof gently over Tempest’s heart.

Feeling a burning warmth in her chest, Tempest averted her gaze for a moment, but when she looked away Mavis caught her eye. “It’s true, Tempy.” Mavis pushed on her, knocking her back into the waiting hooves of her mother. “We’re both proud of you. Sometimes I had my doubts, but sure enough—there’s a lot of brains under that pointy horn of yours.”

Mavis lightly tugged the tip of Tempest’s horn back and forth with a hoof, making her head waggle. “Besides. I don’t think you’ve realized how special you are just yet. But I’m willing to bet that there are those in this school that will help you see it.”

Wishing she could be somewhere else other than getting embarrassed by both her mom and her mom’s best friend, Tempest was relieved to see some movement off to the side of the stage to the far left. The lights faded the rest of the way down as a hush fell over the crowd. The princesses were making their way across, and before Tempest knew it, all of the ponies around her were standing as one and bowing down. No further sound could be heard other than the steady cadence of their hooves as they made their way across. Celestia walked up to the podium while Luna took her seat on the throne situated in front of the Lunar Heraldry.

Tempest felt her heart thudding harder in her chest. This was the first time she had seen the Princesses in the flesh, except for the brief glimpse she was able to gain when her mom took her on a sightseeing trip to Ponyvale several years ago. But that was from over two-hundred meters away. By comparison, this was like having Celestia stand in her front lawn!

Celestia flared her wings in a stunning display, as if she needed to gain everypony’s attention. The act was unnecessary, as she held every gaze.

The Princess smiled as she held up a hoof. “Welcome, my little ponies, families and friends of our newest pupils. Welcome, my new students! Princess Luna and I are both delighted to receive you as you prepare to set forth on your freshman school year. Here, in our humble. Little. School.”

Celestia smiled pleasantly as she allowed the audience to enjoy the mirth with a few chuckles. Sisters’ Academy was anything but a little school. The renowned school directed by the Diarchs of Equestria was the most prestigious, the most honored, and the most sought after of all educational institutions across Equestria. There were other institutions focused on earth pony and pegusi talents, but they were not as glamorous or well-known.

Celestia continued her remarks, describing her pleasure in looking forward to meeting all of her new pupils, and the great opportunities those ponies could look forward to. After another few generalities over how excited she was, and how happy everypony should be, she turned and gestured for her younger sister to come speak.

During Celestia’s speech, Tempest had been trying to focus on what she was saying. Tempest had been hanging on every word until she noticed that the eyes of the Lunar Princess seemed to be focused directly on her. Blinking for a second, Tempest turned to look behind her, to see if there might have been a pony of some great importance there. Seeing only more families and students, Tempest turned again, finding Princess Luna’s eyes still on her.

And the princess seemed to be smiling!

Surely this had to be her imagination. Why out of all the hundreds of ponies here would Luna single her out and look at her? She was just a lowly commoner hailing from the earth pony village of Hoofdale.

As if a spell were suddenly broken, Princess Luna blinked as she was introduced by her sister, Celestia. Breaking her gaze away from… whoever she was looking at, the Lunar Princess rose from her throne and strolled majestically to the podium. Tempest edged closer to the front of her seat as she watched.

As Celestia came to her throne positioned in front of the Celestial Heraldry, Luna began. “Welcome ponies, friends and families!” Neither sister needed any magical enhancement to amplify their voice, as they were able to magnify their voice by several magnitudes in what was known as the Royal Alicorn Voice. “I also welcome you to Sisters’ Academy. There will be much to discuss in your orientation process, but first—let me describe to you the process in which you will each be assigned to your respective houses. Each of you will take written, verbal, kinesthetic, and magical aptitude tests. These exams will analyze many different metrics, including your breadth of knowledge, your skill set, your gifts and talents, and your personality traits. The results of these tests will be considered in your assignment to the appropriate house: whether Princess Celestia will be your principal mentor, or whether your tutelage will take place under myself, Princess Luna.”

Princess Luna stopped for a moment, her eyes glittering as she looked across the ponies from one end of the room to the other. With a a hoof lifted overhead, Luna’s smile broadened. “It is time! Time to learn whether your specialties and subtleties will land you in the house of the more ostentatious Solars, or if instead, you will be among the elite ponies, whose rare talents will land themselves in the house of the more perspicacious Lunars!” Luna finished her point by giving a hoof pump on every other syllable of ‘perspicacious’ and ‘Lunars.’ Finishing her remarks, she turned and gave a rather cheeky grin towards her sister, who did little more than roll her eyes at her sister’s antics.

Tempest looked around with some initial confusion at the murmuring and whispering of the ponies around her. She had no idea what perspicacious meant, but she did recognize a teasing challenge when she saw one. Princess Luna seemed unexpectedly playful, which was somewhat surprising given her expectations about what she thought was going to be quite a dry and formal affair.

As she listened more carefully to the voices around her, Tempest caught that many of the adult ponies seemed scandalized that Princess Luna would behave in such an unseemly manner.

Behind her to the right, a sky-blue pegasus stallion was whispering to his son. “That kind of conduct—unbecoming of royalty— is exactly why ponies don’t like Luna. You’d better be permitted into the Solar house, and not under that… nightmare of a princess!”

A little ways further back, Tempest could make out what another student’s mother was saying: “Please, don’t get taken in by the Lunar House, Silver! It is the Solar House that has all of the connections with the nobility! All Princess Luna is good for is speaking up for those miserable mud-ponies.”

It was amazing to her that ponies looked at the diarchs of their nation as something less than equal. No, it was more than that! It seemed from some of the voices around her that some ponies were actually turning their noses up at Princess Luna. Granted, the majority of the whispers only conveyed some puzzlement, but the rest? Tempest couldn’t believe what she was hearing! She would be ecstatic to be assigned to either house—it was simply enough to just be here, honing her magical skills under the best mentors possible!

For a moment, Luna looked a little unsure of herself until Celestia stepped forward, raising a hoof to signal for quiet, the ponies of the audience immediately complying with her wishes as the room became silent again.

“What my perspicacious sister said, my dear little ponies, I fully endorse.” Celestia looked over to her sister before pulling her to her side with a wing, Luna’s troubled expression went away, masked again with a small smile. “Before we move into the next phase of orientation, the examination process, I have one further item to discuss.”

“We have such a wonderful diversity of applicants and families, some of whom have travelled a great distance to support their loved ones: some from as far away as the community of Trottingham, in the Griffish Isles! I encourage all of you to mingle with the others present. Express your kinship and camaraderie to each other, for among you ponies here are some of the finest of Equestria.”

“Refreshments have been placed by our staff all along the back wall of the auditorium. You may each converse and eat at your leisure while we call your children—our new students— back two by two. Before the formal examination process begins, Luna and I will interview each pupil personally. While we wish we could get to know each family member as well, just as personally as we will get to know our students, please be assured that we love and appreciate you all. Thank you.

Celestia and Luna walked off to the left side while all of the ponies present politely cheered by clopping their hooves. As they made their exit to the left, Tempest couldn’t help but follow the Lunar princess with her eyes.

Perhaps she would look over, just one more time? But no, that would be silly—besides, Princess Luna’s eyes were rather hidden now, what with her light blue hiding part of her face. Just as the Princess arrived near the curtain, Luna suddenly turned her head again and made direct eye contact. Tempest’s eyes grew wide, as she swore she could feel her heart stop. She did look at her—and was still looking!

“Well Tempy?” Mavis’ voice called out in a hearty tone giving her a start as the spell was broken again. “What say you and I get to the punch bowl and help ourselves to their brew, aye? I don’t think your name will be called for a while, seeing as the letter ‘T’ comes so late in the alphabet.”

Tempest quickly looked back again, but by this time the Lunar Princess had moved beyond the curtain boundary. Huffing with frustration, she looked back at Mavis’s smiling face before she relented and smiled as well. Looking over to her mom who was now standing and stretching her hind legs, Tempest suddenly had an ugly thought. “You think it will be okay, momma? I heard some of the adults talking under their breaths about mud-ponies. Will we be able to mingle?”

A shadow fell over Sweet Potato’s eyes before her gaze softened again. “Ah, Tempest. Ponies will be ponies. Come. Let’s mingle and go find some friendly faces… and let’s not worry about the rest.”

“Aye.” Mavis growled. “You won’t have to worry none, Sweetie. Neither of ya will. If any pony even so much as breathes out an unkind epithet, I’ll be sure to straighten them out.”

***

Tempest shifted her legs to reposition herself while surveying the library entrance from her vantage point on the parapet. She smiled as she recalled passing the various aptitude tests Luna had described. Having been raised in the mostly earth pony town of Hoofdale, she wasn’t sure about her talents in the magic arts until she noticed the exam proctor’s eyes growing bigger and bigger as he progressively increased the challenge during her trial. She went from an unknown to a sought after commodity in a matter of minutes, but it was Luna herself who put her hoof down and named Tempest as the newest inductee into her stewardship.

Movement from below recaptured Tempest’s attention as she noticed a few ponies emerging from the Library’s cavernous entrance below. There seemed to be several ponies heading out of the entrance as a group, but going their separate ways when they reached the street.

Wait a moment. Why are they running?

Tempest got up stiffly as she rose up to get a better view. Sure enough, the patrons leaving the library were not exiting in any normal fashion. Instead, these ponies were either pounding the pavement at a full gallop, or flying away at full speed, their manes and tails billowing behind them. Some took an occasional glance behind their shoulders as they fled, as if they were afraid of being followed.

What in Equestria is going on?

The flow of ponies trickled quickly, but soon several more emerged, only this group seemed to be surrounding and aiding a few injured souls in the middle, and they were helping them hobble towards the street in a hurried manner. One seemed to be bleeding from her head, and her eyes seemed to be glazed in shock. Tempest’s heart began to speed up as she felt her throat constricting.

Thinking quickly, Tempest enacted an auditory amplification spell known as Eavesdrop, although she didn’t use the eaves of the library as her focus. That would be too far removed from the door. Instead, she used the surface of the statue of Luna as a medium to pick up sound vibrations, and then connected the effect back to her horn via an active mana stream flow. Immediately, her ears picked up a few scattered cries and fearful shouts coming from within. The sounds struck her as frighteningly out of place, seeing as they were coming from inside an institution better known for peace and quiet study.

Try as she might, Tempest couldn’t look away, neither would she dare turn off the spell. She felt sick, thinking that whatever was going on in there was likely her fault, but she couldn’t leave. She had to see this to its conclusion. Suddenly a guttural snarl filled her ears, causing her to snap her head to the side to look behind her.

Nothing’s up here on the roof—that animalistic sound came from the Library as well.

Clenching her jaw as she debated whether or not she should risk a teleport back down to offer assistance, even at the risk of everything she was even here for, Tempest noted with a sinking sensation a certain cloud-blue mare emerge from around the corner down the street. Meadow Lark must have completed her errands and had returned to check up on her, perhaps planning to invite her to dine at her cousin’s house.

Tempest shook her head slowly as she watched the mare. Meadow was a gentle, innocent pony, naive to some of the darker things of this world, but now she was walking straight into danger. Tempest wondered how she could warn her away, or distract her, but she was drawing a blank, bereft of ideas. The situation was starting to tumble out of control, and she felt powerless to stop it.

And what was that sound? Maybe a wild animal? Not likely. Was it some unexpected effect from using the artifact? Why had this never happened before?

Tempest watched helplessly as Meadow’s ears perked up, the pony taking notice that something was amiss. She grimaced as she watched Meadow stop a fleeing unicorn mare and exchange a few words with her, before turning and running straight for the entrance.

Stop, Meadow! Don’t be foolish!

Before she could think of a way to stop her, Meadow ran straight into the entrance. What could she do? No further ponies were emerging from the library, but Tempest could tell by a couple of intermittent shouts that there were two or three still in there. Were they cornered by whatever was growling? Would Meadow come to harm? Maybe she could teleport directly back to Moonlight Sigil’s office, and from there neutralize the threat before Meadow got hurt.

Confirming to herself that this plan would likely work, Tempest readied another teleportation spell. The occasional snarls and hisses coming from the library interior made it harder to concentrate, but she wouldn’t mess this up. Not now. Just as she was about to complete the spell sequence, Tempest broke off without triggering the spell. A police vehicle came around the corner, speeding towards the library from a side street.

The vehicle had a single unicorn stallion inside, and it was flanked by four winged officers in the air and two more earth pony officers cantering along behind. The almost-black stallion driving the vehicle was notable for his oddly bright orange eyes, and his manestyle was cropped short, accented with heavy sideburns.

Tempest ducked back behind the edge of the parapet, wincing as she felt a few stray sharp pebbles jab into her as she rolled onto her back. Continuing to monitor her auditory spell and noting that the feral growls sounded like they were moving away, she exhaled, releasing a breath she didn’t realize she had been holding.

Now that the police were here, Tempest decided it would be a good idea to cast an invisibility spell, quickly doing so while maintaining the Eavesdrop spell active. Holding up a transparent hoof to confirm her spell was a success, she rolled back over again and climbed to her hooves to peer over the edge.

She watched as the uniformed officers ran or flew towards the building while the single unicorn in the vehicle slowly climbed out. This group of seven seemed like a rather large group to respond to something as minor as a security call from a library. Maybe some of the other ponies who had fled had contacted the police as well?

Two pegusi sped off in separate directions to circle the library in ascending helicals around the perimeter. The other two flew up to the entrance, taking positions to hover near the top of the arched entryway while the two earth ponies took up similar positions below. Both pegusi were armed with a tubular device as wide as a foreleg, while the earth ponies both held black clubs in their mouths. With a wordless signal, they ran inside.

The unicorn that had been driving the vehicle approached the library at a more leisurely pace, studying his surroundings and the front of the building as he walked. His horn began to glow as he apparently used some magic in his assessment of the area.

Tempest’s auditory spell was still active, so she was able to catch a few clipped words between the two earth ponies who were both mares, apparently. She closed her eyes in concentration as she listened for any sign of Meadow. The male unicorn’s voice suddenly drew her attention as he gave the remaining pegusi instructions.

“Wingline and Strafe, break off your aerial sweep and fly in high to provide additional cover. Cloudblue and Thunderspark believe they have the target cornered. I’ll follow and give backup. Go!”

Tempest opened her eyes, watching the two pegusi swing around and fly through the entrance, followed by the unicorn. After a few more seconds, the voice of the unicorn gave a terse command. “Take her.”

There were two or three mysterious pinging sounds before the sounds of a scuffle broke loose, the feral growling becoming far more vicious. After a few more thuds and the what sounded like library furniture toppling over, all grew quiet again, except for some muted sobbing. Before long, other voices were heard, likely belonging to some of the other officers that had run inside.

“Next time don’t wait so long to fire your tranquilizer, Strafe! Celestia’s beard, you’re an idiot—she almost bit me!”

“I’m the idiot? Maybe next time you could wait a second after you fire your net before you jump in like a hoofball player for the tackle! I couldn’t get a clean shot with your fat flank in the way, Wingline!”

“Fat flank? Who was it that polished off the donut box yesterday?”

“Can it, the both of you. Wrap up the… creature, and sweep the building for any more ponies needing help. Cloudblue, there is an emergency medical vehicle pulling up out front. Wait for my signal for the all clear before you let them approach. Go!”

The pony called Cloudblue emerged, and began talking to the ponies inside a second vehicle that was pulling up behind the police vehicle. On its side were the words ‘Emergency Response’ in bright red capital letters. The ponies continued to converse while they pulled some kind of wheeled stretcher out of the back.

Tempest watched and waited. Meadow Lark had not emerged during all of this, so she must have still been inside. She began to tap her hoof nervously while watching more and more ponies gather around in curiosity. Eventually, Cloudblue hovered up and began to urge the gathered ponies to keep their distance.

“C’mon Meadow. Be okay… just, be okay.” After a moment, another police vehicle arrived, providing additional personnel and a better buffer zone to keep the onlookers at bay.

Finally, Tempest noticed a light color of blue emerge… There she is.

She breathed a sigh of relief, sitting back on her haunches. Meadow looked like she wasn’t—wait, she was limping. Tempest clopped her down in frustration. “Dammit, Meadow!”

A medical pony began to assist Meadow Lark on the front porch of the library, helping her sit at the top of the stairs while three more medical ponies ran inside. “You were very brave in there, Ms.?”

“My name is Meadow Lark.” She watched the earth pony in silence for a few moments as he wrapped some bandaging around her hoof until she began to squirm. “Really, I am fine, sir. Dr… Mallet?” She hesitated, reading his name tag. “Y-you need to help those other two ponies in there. One looks like she’s a lot worse off.”

It’s alright, Ms. Lark. My cohorts are assessing her right now, and from the sounds of it she’s going to be okay.” He tapped the communication device attached to his left ear. “Please sit still for a few more moments. We need to observe you for a little while to make sure you don’t go into shock.” The stallion smiled for a moment as he finished bandaging her hoof. “And I’m not a doctor—just an EMT.”

Meadow sat back again and gave a sad smile. “Still, thank you for taking care of me.”

At this, there was some commotion behind her as the two earth pony police officers emerged carrying a form covered in netting across their backs. Tempest studied the bundle for a few seconds before she suddenly felt a chill, like ice water down her back. The coloration this pony had was a give away as to her identity.

“Moonlight Sigil? How— ?”

The librarian was apparently unconscious, likely drugged if the officer’s earlier conversation was any indication following the scuffle inside. The earth ponies lugged their cargo past Meadow and the medical pony that was attending to her, but the unicorn with the bright orange eyes turned to the side to take a seat next to Meadow at the top of the stairs.

“The name is Officer Rebus Hunter. Are you going to be all right, Miss?” He held up a hoof for Meadow to tap her own against.

“I’m Meadow Lark, sir. I-I’ll be fine after a little bit.” Meadow shuddered as she turned to look back at the library over her shoulder. Um, did you see any sign of a yellow unicorn mare when you searched through the building?”

“I’m sorry, ma’am, we didn’t.” The stallion replied in a gentle tone before lifting an eyebrow. “Friend of yours?”

“...Yeah.”

The medical pony placed a blanket around Meadow’s shoulders as she began to shudder again, and Rebus placed a hoof on her shoulder. “What you did in there was very brave, Ms. Lark. You may have just saved two other ponies’ lives—or at least spared them further harm. You did well, when you kicked over that shelf to create a distraction. The younger colt told me about it, and about how you dragged his mom to safety.”

“It... it was nothing.” Meadow wiped a bit of moisture from her eyes, before she stared ahead with a rather vacant look.

Officer Hunter stood up after a bit. “Why don’t you come down to the station with me for a few minutes? I’d like to ask you a few questions. Maybe you could help us by testifying as an eye witness in this case.”

The medical stallion paused in his ministrations to Meadow to glare at the officer. Rebus gave an apologetic smile, not breaking his eye contact before continuing. “After this good fellow gives you the medical all-clear, of course.”

Meadow looked over her shoulder again with concern. “Well, I don’t know. I’d kind of like to relocate my friend, if it is all right...”

“By all means!” Rebus replied. “In fact, our officers can check around more quickly than a single pony. Why don’t you come in and while you visit with us about what happened you can give us your friend’s description. How does that sound?”

“Y-yeah. That sounds good.” Meadow got up with the help of the EMT and another police officer who came to help. Tempest watched them go, briefly thinking about moving the auditory focus she was using for her spell to the police vehicle. The range wouldn’t last long, but at least she would be able to make out a little more of what Meadow might say about her.

The other three EMT’s then exited with a female unicorn on a stretcher with a smaller colt walking along side of her. Tempest couldn’t see what was wrong, but the mare was holding the small colt’s hoof, murmuring something to him.

This was terrible. What had gone so wrong with her spell? She had used it only a hoof-full of times before while in Gryphus, and before that she had used it in the uncharted lands further east. Nothing of this sort had ever taken place! Why was this different, then?

Tempest looked down at the artifact swinging from its cord around her neck. The weight seemed especially heavy right now. “What is the meaning of this?” She spat, glaring into the dull surface of the stone’s eye-like carving. “Is there more to this than you told me?”

The Eye had no answer for her, only looking lifelessly back. Tempest trembled, but she wasn’t sure if it was anger or something else—disillusionment, maybe. Could she simply stop with her current plans just because of one bad result?

No. There is no way I am stopping for this. Besides, nopony seems to have been seriously hurt anyway. All that matters is Luna. Well, keeping the innocents safe also matters, but first comes Luna!

Tempest glanced over the parapet again. While all the other ponies had now left, Rebus Hunter remained, and he seemed to be concentrating with his eyes closed. His horn began to glow a brilliant orange, and soon concentric waves began to expand along the ground away from his position, like ripples in water after a stone’s throw. As the ripples continued to expand outward, they cascaded up the facade of the library and up the statues and pillars. .

Perplexed, Tempest watched with interest. She had never seen this particular magic spell, and wanted to know the effect. As the waves of light continued to radiate outward, they began to coalesce over Luna’s statue, or more specifically, the region that she had anchored her spell to in order to listen in. Her eyes widened as the magic leapt off of the statue and began to cascade directly up her mana stream towards her position.

Gasping for a moment, Tempest backed up, quickly cutting the power to her still active eavesdrop spell. Timidly, she crept forward again to look over the edge, only to find the stallion’s bright orange eyes gazing back, directly at her position. Somehow his spell had traced the mana-stream she was using, and now he had triangulated her position.

Tartarus, this day just got harder.

Chapter Five: Manehattan Mayhem

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She should have teleported away as soon as she knew Meadow was safe. Tempest quickly ducked back behind the parapet edge as she started to breathe faster. There was now a skilled unicorn on her trail that could magically track her position, at least if she was keeping a distant spell active through a mana stream. That was a magical ability she had never seen.

Tempest quickly looked to her hooves to ensure the invisibility spell was still active. It would not do to have law enforcement see her and associate her with the events at the library. Would he teleport up? Could he teleport this far? No sense in waiting to find out. Tempest channeled more magic through her horn as she teleported onto a building one block away. The action broke her invisibility charm, but that was expected. She immediately renewed the spell.

Getting her bearings and making sure the roof was deserted, she crept towards the edge to peer down at the roof of the building she had been standing on. From her position she watched as the unicorn on the ground completed his own teleport spell, landing not too far from where she had been standing before. Without any mana stream maintaining an active spell from a distance, he wouldn’t be able to track her, right? She hoped she was right.

Tempest smirked, as she watched his horn start to glow again. “You’ve got nothing to track this time mister,” she muttered under her breath. Almost as if he had heard her, the unicorn suddenly turned his head, as if he was looking exactly at where she was standing.

“No—!” Tempest murmured. “How could he—?“

The unicorn completed his second teleport spell, and was now standing only twelve meters away, looking around to survey his surroundings. With a rising sense of panic, Tempest reviewed her options. She didn’t want to cause this pony or anypony harm, but her hesitance in dealing with this threat decisively was now greatly increasing her chances of being seen or even caught. She had promised herself that the ends would justify the means, but when it really came down to it, how could she just reach out and harm another pony?

No. Not harm. Just incapacitate a little bit.

She supposed she could draw upon the Eye again, but after what happened to the librarian, she didn’t want to try that yet. Alternatively, she could try stunning him with a magical blast but escalating the situation like that would definitely dissolve the delicate invisibility charm, making her visible not only to him but to any other ponies that happen to be at a vantage point to watch an impromptu magic duel. There was always teleportation, but again, channeling that many Thaums of magic would dissolve her invisibility, leaving a chance for her to become completely visible before the spell was completed.

Paralyzed by indecision, Tempest kept quiet, almost holding her breath as she watched the unicorn pace back and forth, something like a caged tiger. She cursed herself for her hesitance.

“You are probably wondering how I did that,” the stallion smirked, his voice lazy and confident. He continued to look back and forth, scanning the area. “If you turn yourself in, I promise I’ll let you know.” He turned in place slowly before retracing his steps, coming closer again. “I might even teach you the spell—it takes some powerful, highly specialized focus... but you seem to be up to it.”

Tempest grimaced at his taunting, scanning the roof for any other option. The area was rather barren, except for a fenced in area housing some type of mechanical equipment, and two small structures with featureless doors, likely hiding stairway access points. The view past the edge of the building was an impressive scene, marked by a chaotic jumble of buildings of variable heights, shapes, and styles. Only a few were taller than the building she was on, but the whole display would have made for a spectacular view if she were here to take in the sights. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much of anything she could use for a distraction in the immediate vicinity. The roof surface was coated in a dark, pitch-like substance with some loose gravel and dust on top. Wrinkling her nose, she noted that even taking a single step could create a visible disturbance or an audible scuff.

As Tempest watched him, she racked her brain to think. He could obviously track teleportation windows, but this ability was likely only usable in the immediate moments after a teleport, before the residual magic energies would have had a chance to disperse. She was more interested in how he picked up on her mana stream. Tempest gently pulled her hood back over her head with her magic. It was silly, because she knew she was invisible, but the action still made her feel safer.

The unicorn was close enough that she could now read his name badge, confirming the name she thought she had heard through her Eavesdrop spell. This was Officer Rebus Hunter, head of the Crime Investigation Unit for Manehattan, Eastside Precinct. He turned his head slightly to speak into the device pinned to the lapel of his uniform.

“Rebus to dispatch. I am 10-23, in pursuit of potential lead involving the library incident. Location: roof of the Bank of Equestria building. Code 10-78, request backup, including air support to encircle and scout.”

Whatever she decided to do, Tempest realized that she was running out of time. The officer was pretty convinced she was still there on the roof, diminishing her hopes that if she just remained quiet he would lose interest and search elsewhere. Sure enough, Tempest noticed a few airborne specks changing directions and heading towards their location on the roof, likely pegusi officers.

“Um, hello? Sir or ma’am?” The stallion cleared his throat and began scanning around again. “If you’re still here, anyway. It’s my best lead, and I’m not leaving until I have exhausted it…” He continued in a louder voice. “You don’t need to draw this out—you know how it will conclude. If you are concealing yourself, it’s best you just drop the pretense and come peacefully. We can talk about this—no need for things to get too exciting.”

Maybe I could do a more risky maneuver. I just need to be out of his line of sight for a second and he won’t get a glimpse! Then I can teleport well out of his range.

Tempest couldn’t believe she was considering a freefall teleport. The professors at Sisters’ School had been emphatic that such a maneuver was a terrible idea. Even a full second while accelerating back to Planet Equus was enough time to impart some significant velocity, and the focus required to do so while falling is extremely difficult. She remembered the day Professor Ward actually challenged the class to try it—during a visit to the local lake. There were a few students cocky enough to try, and they all landed in the lake with considerably more velocity than planned. Half had successfully teleported, but only after free-falling for a few seconds. Tempest did not want to go out that way. Leaving a pony shaped splat on the ground certainly wouldn’t help Luna.

While Tempest stood there watching Rebus, his magic lifted a small transparent bag out from a compartment in his utility belt. The substance in the bag was pure white, but it seemed to be malleable as his magic lifted it above his head. Rebus looked up with a smirk.

“Ever heard of dusting for hoofprints?” Tempest’s eyes widened as she realized what Rebus was about to do.

With a flash of his horn, Rebus ripped the bag open and began shaking the powder out. His telekinesis moved the bag in a search pattern, crossing back and forth in overlapping rows, and closing in on her position. It was a clever maneuver: even if the powder ran out before he reached her position, her options for movement would be nil, as stepping across the fine powder was sure to leave hoofprints. Unfortunately, based on where he started, he was likely to reach where she was standing with powder to spare.

Trying not to panic, Tempest drew upon her own magic to push the air across their path, blowing the powder to the side. It wasn’t on the level of what a skilled pegasus could do, but it did manage to blow the powder to the side, causing Rebus to curse under his breath and pull the bag back towards him before he lost any more. Unfortunately, the use of her magic caused her invisibility status to flicker.

The stallion smiled, turning his head towards his transmitter. He began to speak into the device, but his eyes never left her exact position. Tartarus, he had seen her. “We have a 10-75. Converge on the roof.” Rebus looked up. “Okay, Ms. or Mr. unicorn? You can go ahead and drop the spell now. Just come with me—we don’t need to make this more complicated than it has to be.”

Tempest pressed her lips together. Now that she had been seen, she didn’t want to reveal anything else, like the extent of her magical skills. A long-range teleport would probably do that. Perhaps some misdirection? The Lunar Guard anciently specialized in deception, infiltration, and misdirection. Mavis once described to her a double teleport maneuver unicorns could do, causing their opponent to believe one was at one location while vacating to another. The key was to have credible bait, or even an illusion. All she needed to do was evade Rebus Hunter’s sight for a moment. If it worked, she would have the entire police force running entirely the other way.

* * *

“How long before the sedative wears off?”

Doctor Epsilon Saltz lifted an eyebrow before turning to look at the smaller mare, shrugging with his wings with a smile. “Well, the subject got hit by a law enforcement tranquilizer dart at around 1:32 PM. Given the known potency of their darts, and the patient’s weight, we should still have about twenty minutes. If you’ll just take her vitals, I’ll administer an antidote to the sedative afterwards, and then we can get started with her psyche assessment.”

Dr. Saltz was six months into his residency with Manehattan General Hospital, having completed his medical degree at Mount Eris University. It was going to be a while before he became board-certified and licensed as a psychiatrist, but that didn’t deter him from being rather full of himself. Most of the staff looked up to him at Manehattan General, but that was mostly due to his hippogriff stature.

They turned down the psychiatric wing of the hospital, and then he continued. “However, I’m not sure we are going to even going to need you after you finish with her vitals, but the head doctor on staff insisted.”

Merry Rhymes furrowed her brows, trying to keep her expression neutral. She had been working as a nurse for Manehattan General for almost twenty years, and she was one of only two individuals that had additional certifications in treating magical maladies. It was rare she got to use this particular skill set and she would rather not be kept out of the loop just because a young hotshot doctor had something to prove. “Whether you end up needing me or not, I can scan for magical phenomena that most ponies would miss.”

Dr. Saltz turned to face her. “Yes, yes, you have some background knowledge in caring for magical maladies.” Nurse Rhymes flicked an ear at his dismissive comment. “But such things tend to be extremely rare. This is probably just another mental breakdown of a pony under too much stress, only a little more violent than is commonly seen. Once things have simmered down, I am sure that poor Ms. Sigil will be more concerned about the restraints she is wearing and the ponies she hurt than what was she was stressed about.”

“Hmm.” Nurse Rhymes didn’t chance more than that to reply. She normally gave ponies the benefit of the doubt, but it sounded like in order to be a good shrink, Dr. Saltz would need to get his own head shrunk down a little bit—or at least his ego.

Dr. Saltz held up a claw, studying the backs of his talons before continuing. “I am sure she is a gentle and a soft-spoken mare that just ended up having a really bad day. Furthermore, she didn’t use any type of magical attack other than telekinetically throwing books around.” He put turned and began walking towards the patient room again. “Hardly life threatening, in my opinion.”

“If you say so.” Nurse Merry Rhymes’ tail flicked as she turned to follow him. She considered that if she used her own telekinesis and launched one of Dr. Saltz’s medical compendiums at his head, he might suddenly ascribe to a different medical opinion. In her own assessment, reviewing the facts of this particular case, she noticed a few things that struck her as off. In her twenty year career as a nurse for Manehattan General, she had seen many weird things, and a crazed librarian slinging library books at her patrons didn’t even reach the top ten. What bothered her more was how the police seemed a little on edge, and how they described her as something… feral.

Doctor Saltz looked over his shoulder and gave her a suave smile as he smoothed out his lab coat. “And if you are worried about the eye-witness reports of our patient growling and snapping at the patrons, well…” He made a scoffing noise. “Ponies can embellish a little when they are frightened by something.”

As the two rounded the corner, the taller hippogriff dodged to the right as he nearly collided with a pegasus mare in police uniform. He then slowed to a full stop as he looked past the mare at the door of the patient room. There were two more police officers stationed on either side of the door, almost as if they were trying to impersonate some of the Canterlot Castle Guard. Nurse Rhymes looked over at Doctor Saltz, who had stopped so suddenly that his stethoscope rapped against his azure chest on the backswing.

“Oh, they were totally embellishing,” Nurse Rhymes snarked. “Those officers must have heard it was free donut-day or something, right?” The police mare just behind her gave a snort of irritation while Dr. Saltz twitched his tail in annoyance. Nurse Rhymes turned back to the offended mare, giving her a placating smile. “Um, no offense, ma’am…”

Finally inside to look at the patient, Nurse Rhymes noted that the mare in question was exactly as the medical reports from the E.R. had described her: middle aged unicorn mare, unremarkable for any physical feature, no visible signs of injury or pathology. Moonlight Sigil could have been any other pony asleep in the bed, except for the restraints on her wrists and fetlocks. Dismayed, Nurse Rhymes also observed the steel-reinforced muzzle restraint fitted on the patient’s face. Surely such a thing was excessive?

Nurse Rhymes looked back at Dr. Saltz, raising an eyebrow when she noticed he was still hanging back by the door. “Shall we begin?” She studied him for a moment, noticing an actual look of concern. “Doctor?”

“Y-Yes.” Dr. Saltz shook his head before he walked forward, pulling a vial of medicine out from a pocket in his lab coat. “But—let’s make sure those restraints are extra secure before I administer the antidote, okay? In fact, I’m going to administer it as a low drip, instead of injecting it all at once. Wouldn’t want to discomfit the patient…”

Nurse Rhymes quirked an eyebrow. “...right.”

“Just… take her vitals and do your job, then let me do mine.”

“Right away, Doctor.”

Nurse Rhymes wrapped the blood pressure cuff around the patient’s left foreleg, listening to the slow rhythm of her deep breaths. Once the velcro closure was secure, she activated the air pump in the wall with her magic. As the little motor whirred, filling the blood pressure cuff with air, Merry noticed something was off. The patient’s foreleg had moved away from the edge of the hospital bed and the binding was under a large amount of strain. Looking up into the patient’s face, Merry saw that Moonlight Sigil was looking at her. Just a momentary glance filled her heart with ice, as the baleful look of hatred this mare was giving her made Merry shiver in her scrubs. She flinched back as the restrained mare lunged for her, instincts of self-preservation taking over as the restraints drew taut with a snap.

* * *

Two pegusi officers were closing in from the North. Tempest wasn’t sure, but among the normal pegasus traffic in the air, she thought she could make out two more several blocks away change directions and heading this way.

Tempest swallowed as she sensed the noose growing tighter. It was true that she had made a foolish attempt on Celestia back so long ago, but that had been out of a singular drive of anger and desperation. And stupidity. But back then, she was the hunter. Now she was the hunted, and she didn’t like it.

Perhaps she would need to grow accustomed to it? No! That was why she was trying to evade being seen, to not give the police any more info to use in tracking her down! She would need to lie low and work from the shadows until she could spring her own trap, but first she had to get away.

Preparing her magic to make a double teleport, she added the elements of an elaborate illusion spell in order lead the ponies away. She was only going to get one shot at this. She wasn’t sure how much of her invisibility cover flickered, but she wasn’t going to wait around any longer. Tempest activated her spell in a burst of light, easily breaking the invisibility charm from the mana output, and landed at the base of the building across the street. Tempest had chosen this exact location to allow Rebus to visually see her location, before running past the corner of it, breaking his line of sight.

Once she had crossed what she estimated to be his visual boundary, Tempest triggered her second teleport spell, landing on the roof of the tallest building on the next block. From that vantage point, she would be able to have a good field of vision to direct her spell appropriately, drawing all of the police after it as far down the avenue as possible.

An orange burst of light flashed as Rebus Hunter materialized where her image had just been but by then she had already animated it to move away from that position at a gallop. As soon as Rebus had oriented to where she was and spotted the running figure, he took off after it, yelling something inaudible into his communication device again.

Tempest smirked as she watched watched her plan work beautifully. All of the attention would be directed at stopping her doppelganger, and eventually they would be several blocks away, allowing her to disappear without a trace. She was careful to not look away from her image for too long. Tracking it carefully would make the illusion far more real, and of course reactive to whatever was happening around it. Kind of important in the middle of a chase.

Risking a second Eavesdrop spell, Tempest split her attention and called up the necessary enchantment again, this time centered on Rebus’s utility belt as the auditory pick-up focus. As soon as her spell connected, she was able to listen to his instructions mid-stream.

“I said funnel her down a side alley! And get those ponies off the street… I don’t care, either get them off, or get her off, I don’t want any kind of casualties! We are dealing with at least a beta-level unicorn here!” The unicorn paused, listening to something before muttering some colorful swears before continuing. “ —Then she’ll have to be delayed! Tell the mayor she can park her rosy flank and wait! I need a class 2 magical barrier and at least six fliers, preferably before we get to the next intersection if not before! Failing that, at least get me a net!”

Rebus’s horn flashed as he sent a couple of magic blasts towards the fleeing illusion. Tempest flinched as she directed the illusion to dodge to the left with her eyes, but then she blinked, thinking about where he had been aiming. Either the lead investigator was a really poor shot or he was missing on purpose.

In a moment, two pegasi glided up to Rebus’s position from behind, and slowed their flight to his current speed. This confirmed Tempest’s suspicion.

“Yep. They are trying to funnel me towards something.” Tempest whispered. “C’mon, then. Let’s see what they have for me.” Suddenly, Tempest’s brow furrowed before she blinked twice. “Is that what my flank looks like from behind—?”

Tempest started to study the area ahead, about two more blocks distance, until she noticed a few ponies milling about near the intersection. Ironic, that by trying to appear inconspicuous, they had made themselves altogether too obvious. Scanning the area a little more carefully, she noticed the nose of a white vehicle parked just out of sight and around the corner of the building there. She would bet her left hoof that was a police vehicle. Fortunately, on the other side of the street, there were a few fruit stands that seemed to be abandoned.

Smirking, Tempest ran her image at a diagonal, crossing the road and heading straight for the fruit stands at the corner. This was apparently not according to the police team’s liking, because the maneuver caused the pegusi trailing her to move up rapidly, shoulder-fired net guns at the ready.

Two more pegusi flew in from the left, obviously attempting to redirect her back towards the police vehicle and whatever else was waiting over there. Tempest gritted her teeth and hoped she could make her illusion dodge in a believable manner, because she really wanted to make it to those fruit stands.

Unexpectedly, the first pegasus simply cut across her path dropping a large payload of black liquid. He was a green colored stallion with an impressive wingspan, and dropped the substance in a rapid flash, his blue tail trailing out behind him. Tempest animated her image to jump across, hoping that the leap wasn’t too exaggerated but still able to clear it. Mid air, Tempest realized her mistake as she saw the second pegasus fire a net from her hovering position. The pink mare had a manic grin as the net deployed, and she tossed her frazzled cornflower mane as her net struck.

Tempest wasn’t sure which was the bigger trap, the oily substance or the mare with the gun. Either way, she had to act fast. As the net struck her image, Tempest rolled the image shoulder over tail in a desperate attempt to make it appear like the net had clipped her and caused her to fall.

“Feathering… Tartarus take them all!” Tempest gritted out. Her horn flashed as she added a light show to her image, causing the image to appear as if it had teleported out from under the net and back to running, almost upon the fruit stands. She made the image dive into an orange vendor’s fruit stand, and with another burst of magic, she pushed the stand back with a massive telekinetic shove. The stand tipped, causing oranges to roll everywhere and hopefully making it look like she got buried.

Tempest chuckled as she watched several uniformed officers dive into the rolling fruit after her. The scene would have been comical had she been reading about it in a story. Stopping the flow of her mana stream to the illusion and the Eavesdrop spell, Tempest noticed belatedly that Rebus had stopped running and his horn was glowing again.

“It was an illusion. I am on the roof of the Novaintellus Corporation building with the suspect. Repeat, 10-75 with the suspect. Request immediate backup.”

Tempest was stunned as she spun around, making full eye contact with Rebus Hunter for the first time. He seemed to be breathing heavily, almost completely exhausted. She wasn’t sure if that was due to recent magic expenditure on such a long teleport, or more from his galloping after her image. Perhaps both. But how had he seen through her illusion and found her so quickly?

“So!” He breathed out in between gasps for air. “That was a nifty trick with the illusion there, ma’am—you have some serious skills. You are obviously not self-taught. Where did you study?”

“H-how?”

“The illusion was flawless.” Rebus chuckled, as he wiped the sweat off of his brow with a hoof. “Very well done. Is that your special talent?”

Tempest pursed her lips, watching him bring up a ring out of a pocket in his utility belt. Most likely a magic dampening ring.

“Eh. No matter,” he said. “Your mistake was your teleport. I know teleports. I know what they look like, what they feel like… and an illusion can’t teleport. Illusions can only put up light shows. Once I realized that, I realized you had an active mana stream going again. You were quick to shut it off, but not before I saw where you were standing.”

The pegasus officers were nearly upon her. It was time to get out. There was nothing for it now. This pony may know teleports, but he wasn’t about to follow her at this distance.

“Well, it has been a pleasant afternoon. Sorry I can’t stay and chat with your welcoming party.” Tempest felt a massive pull on the magic around her as she drew deep into her reserves for a long-range teleport. Her horn flashed her trademark brilliant green, but then the light intensity rapidly exploded into blinding white before she blinked and was gone.

* * *

Kicking her legs back and forth on the seat she was waiting on, Meadow took in the rather spartan surroundings of the interview room she was in. The police officer that accompanied her to the precinct had stepped out for a few minutes, but promised she would be right back. Talking with Marigold was helpful in taking her mind off of the harrowing scene she had just witnessed at the Manehattan Library. Marigold was a soft-spoken earth pony with a saffron colored coat and a bronze mane styled into a no-nonsense bun. She had been gentle and understanding, but she did convince Meadow to testify as a witness with the promise that the information might also help turn up her missing friend.

Meadow shuddered as her mind drifted to the events she had just seen. To see such a sweet and grandmotherly mare acting like that: growling, salivating, screeching—and to see her bombard library patrons with books! She wasn’t sure why she was so willing to simply run into the scene. Somehow she just felt like she needed to help, but she never thought her martial arts training would ever be useful in that way. She was glad her earth pony strength came through for her when she kicked that bookshelf over. The distraction allowed her to pull the other two ponies to safety, but then all she could do was bar the door and hide along with them. The mother had looked so scared!

Swallowing quickly, Meadow hopped off of her seat to pace around the room. She didn’t want to think about it any more, so she distracted herself wondering what could have happened to Tempest. She observed the large window situated behind the table she had been sitting in front of, and guessed that it was for observation. She couldn’t see much else other than her reflection, but she had read enough police and mystery novels that she knew what the window was for. She wondered if she were actively being observed right now.

Having circled the room for a third time, the door suddenly opened, causing Meadow to jump back with an almost inaudible “eep!”

Nosing her way into the room, it was obvious that Marigold had been studiously going over something on a clipboard held in her left hoof, but she looked up with an apologetic smile. “Ah, sorry about that Ms. Meadow. I was just collecting all of the um, pertinent info on this case, and more info has been coming in.” The mare chuckled weakly, and Meadow noticed with some distress that Marigold’s mane had become rather unsettled since she had seen her only fifteen minutes ago. “Anyway, I didn’t mean to make you jump. Would you like to take a seat?”

Meadow nodded silently, climbing back onto the stool that seemed to have been built for a pony of a larger stature than her. As she watched Marigold, she found further evidence that the mare seemed stressed, if her flicking ears were any indication.

“So, I know you just witnessed some disturbing things back at the library, Ms. Meadow, but we do need to ask you a few questions.” Marigold got comfortable behind the desk, framed by the observation window behind her, and and dropped her voice almost to a whisper, setting her clipboard down. “Would that be okay, Ms. Meadow?”

“That would be fine.” Meadow Lark replied in a small voice. She wondered if her face displayed how distraught she was feeling.

“The mare that you saw in there, the one… growling, and throwing the books—” Marigold looked like she had bit on something sour before taking a breath and letting it out. “—That mare is the assistant librarian for the Manehattan Library. Her name is Moonlight Sigil. She... her police record is completely clean. Has never even broken a city ordinance. Never been fined. Not a violent or aggressive bone in her body.”

Meadow nodded her head silently. What could she say? Oh, wait, she hadn’t been asked any questions yet. “Tea?” Almost on cue, a pegasus stallion walked in with a tea pot and some place settings. He set them down, along with a tray of pastries, and without a word, he nodded to Marigold and left.

Blinking her eyes absently, Meadow automatically reached forward, pulling one of the teacups towards her and hoofing the teapot. “What would make a nice mare do… that?”

The saffron mare behind the desk sighed, pouring herself a cup of tea as well. “What indeed?” Marigold took a sip from her teacup while watching Meadow Lark intently. “How long have you known your new friend?”

“Tempest?” Meadow responded. “Well, I met her during the passenger ship voyage we were on from Griffonstone to Manehattan. She seemed to be so aloof and pensive—and she looked like she could use a friend—so I introduced myself. Friendship Day is next Friday, after all, and I promised myself I would make a new friend to celebrate.”

Marigold looked at her tea for a moment, pressing her lips together, before looking up at Meadow again with a sad smile. “That sounds wonderful. I’m glad you take Friendship Day to heart.” Meadow smiled in response. “And... what kinds of magical skills does this Tempest possess?”

Meadow’s smile broadened as her ears perked up. “Well, she is really good with teleportation.” Meadow suddenly sat up straighter. “Y’know, she could have just teleported out when that librarian became violent!” Feeling some relief, Meadow hoofed a pastry, before looking up to find Marigold looking at her oddly. Why was she looking at her that way? Meadow had been feeling some relief, but now she was starting to feel an odd anxiety that was building in the pit of her stomach.

Marigold continued to study her, expressionless. “Have you seen any other examples of this pony’s magic, Ms. Meadow?

“Um. I’ve seen her telekinesis, but, um… no?”

“And this pony never used any magic on you that you can recall, is that correct? Ms. Meadow?”

Feeling a dawning realization, Meadow leaned forward, placing both hooves on Marigold’s desk. “You… you think that Tempest had something to do with it?” Meadow’s voice ended on a squeak. “She couldn’t… she wouldn’t! There’s just no way!”

Meadow’s mind raced, as she reviewed earlier conversations and activities she did with Tempest. Sure, Tempest had said some pretty odd things, like when she was talking about amulets and asking about unicorn horns, but that was just because she had never been to Equestria before… right? She was starting to get a gnawing feeling in the pit of her stomach.

Meadow looked back up to make eye contact with Marigold, her voice full of concern. “You didn’t see Tempest after the library incident? Did you?”

Marigold ignored her question. Her voice sounded a bit more direct. “What were your plans for later, my dear? You were headed back to the library, perhaps to meet with your friend again? What were you going to do next?”

Meadow’s eyes began to fill with tears. “We were just going to meet up again, and join my cousin for dinner! We were just going to relax and… and have dinner.” She sniffled and rubbed a hoof across her muzzle.

Marigold got up from her seat and crossed over to Meadow to give her a soothing hug. “Oooh, of course, my dear, of course.” She stroked Meadow’s back with a hoof. “And perhaps you still can. Why don’t you go ahead and visit your cousin? I am sure your cousin would be glad to see you. And thank you, by the way, for you helping to answer some of our questions. Your assistance has been very helpful.”

Wiping her eyes, Meadow returned the hug. “You’re welcome. Just… I hope you can find my friend.” Not knowing what else to say, she broke the hug and wiped at her eyes, giving a heavy sniffle. Marigold walked her to the door, giving her a hoofkerchief when they arrived at the entrance.

“Just call us if there is any trouble, my dear. If you see anything suspicious… please call us.” She hoofed Meadow Lark a card. “We would like to help if we can.”

“Sure. Thank you… G’bye.” Meadow mumbled, before she turned and trotted back towards the street. That conversation had left her a little shaken, so visiting with her cousin Coco right now would be just what she needed. Now that she knew that Tempest was a top suspect in this crazy case—maybe because the magic store owner had reported something strange in regards to her as well—it filled her with anxiety. Surely her new friend wouldn’t be capable of anything malicious like that! She had to find her: and then they would talk, mare to mare.

Chapter Six: Burning the Dross

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Dull. Day Court had been a rather dull affair. Nothing new about that. Normally the hours of Day Court seemed to blend into one another, and Celestia just endured until she retired to the evening meal. Today was a little bit different, only in that the dullness of the Day Court offered a stark contrast to what had happened this morning.

Not that there had been a national crisis or anything. Those had become far less frequent over the past couple of years, thank harmony. But the morning took a turn for the strange when Princess Twilight’s tail somehow materialized exactly over Celestia’s pastries, ruining the treats as the ash and burnt hair floated down to make a new topping. Celestia figured her former protégé must have been standing a little too close to her dragon assistant while he sneezed or something. While that made for an entirely reasonable explanation, that didn’t stop Luna from laughing her fool head off, making puns and comments such as unloading rare spices from the dock at Twilight.

At the conclusion of the morning tea, Celestia thought that would’ve been the end of it. Instead, Luna stayed up past her bedtime to set up a series of creative and well-timed pranks.

Thankfully, as the day moved on, so did the various hijinks her sister was behind, as Luna retired to her quarters by eleven o’clock. in the aftermath however, Celestia sent a letter to Twilight inviting her to assist her in retaliatory pranks most foul. She hoped for an affirmative reply, but as yet, no reply had been made either way.

Sitting at the head of the new conference table of cherry wood, Celestia scowled as she adjusted her tail, trying to get more comfortable on the newly delivered chairs that were slowly becoming her new nemesis during briefings. Raven Inkwell, her assistant, had wanted to update the decor of the primary briefing room, but Celestia’s flank was having second thoughts of the sitting accommodations. It did give the room a more contemporary feel like Raven had wanted, of course, but contemporary did not equal comfort. Maybe she would give Raven her seat for the next week.

The door burst open as Celestia’s group of advisors trotted in with various documents, and Celestia greeted each in turn. They were followed by a castle servant pushing a cart topped with a food service tray beneath a bell-shaped stainless steel cloche. As the ponies took their places around the elongated conference table, the server lifted the cloche off of the tray with a flourish, revealing the hors d'oeuvres to be featured during the meeting. Surprisingly, the Castle Kitchens had decided to furnish the meeting with pastries of all things. As Celestia looked over the distinctive color of the frosting, she felt her left eye begin to twitch.

“An interesting choice for hors d’oeuvres at this hour, Princess Celestia…” Minty hedged, raising an eyebrow almost up to her bangs as she moved closer. Despite this, Minty’s magic picked out one of the frosted eclairs and held it up for closer inspection. “And what an interesting color scheme for the frosting...”

Misty Veil, a gray unicorn official over foreign affairs, came up beside the light green unicorn who served as the secretary of agriculture and peered over her shoulder, taking her measure of the proffered treat. “Oh, that does look interesting…” Misty blinked in recognition. “Wait, it’s like the coloration of the Princess of Friendship’s mane. And it has sprinkles on top… or sparkles, if you prefer…” She giggled before she lifted one up and took a bite, experimentally chewing it as she looked to the side before her face brightened in recognition. “Nice! The indigo frosting is blackberry, while the violet and pink trim has a distinct floral overtones…” She smacked her lips a few times. “It tastes like violets!”

Squeezing her eyes tightly shut, Celestia resisted the urge to do something rash and smoothed out her facial expression before looking over at Raven. Her majordomo had dropped her head, and was holding her glasses in one hoof while massaging the bridge of her nose with the other. Apparently, Luna had been holding one prank in reserve. Celestia desperately hoped that Twilight would join her for some retaliatory strikes.

* * *

“And that wraps up the info on the current unrest in Minos. Your agents are on hoof, keeping an eye and a wing on it, but for now, the Minotaurs are handling it adequately as an internal matter.” Misty Veil concluded and leaned back into her seat, setting her documents down.

A knock sounded at the door, drawing the attention of the seated ponies, including Minty Sorbet who was startled out of her reverie. Raven Inkwell stood up and opened the door, and returned with a fresh document in hoof after a brief conversation with the courier pony.

“Well, we were about to wrap up, but apparently there was a late tidbit of news from Manehattan that could be mentioned.” Raven returned to her seat, reading over the document quickly before clearing her throat. “Apparently, there was a disturbance in Manehattan early this afternoon.” Raven held up a hoof as her eyes continued to travel over the page. “Among other curious elements of this case, it seems that a middle aged unicorn librarian, with no police record of any kind, decided to bombard all of her library patrons with library books. Ballistically.”

Celestia’s brows furrowed. “What?”

“Well, it seems this librarian attacked all of the library patrons.” Raven’s ear twitched in discomfort. “She was apprehended by a small Police force and brought into the Manehattan General Hospital under sedation.”

Celestia leaned forward, starting to frown. “Were any of my little ponies harmed?”

With a sigh, Raven continued. “There were only a few minor injuries, mostly contusions and abrasions, it seems. Four ponies checked themselves into the hospital and were released after an hour or two, but one had to be be brought in by medical responders due to a concussion. However, there are several ponies seeking psychological counseling from the emotional trauma of the experience.” Raven frowned for a moment, before continuing under her breath. “Hmmph. Must have been hit by some pretty lowbrow literature.

Celestia cleared her throat delicately, causing Raven to duck her head for a minute. “And what of the librarian?” By this time the rest of the briefing advisors were all leaning forward a little, their ears directed towards Raven’s position.

“They attempted a psychiatric examination, but it didn’t go so well, due to the agitation of the patient. And magical scans only hint at some type of magical influence at play, but so far nopony knows what it is. The Librarian is back under sedation at this time, and they are bringing in some experts from the magical school in Baltimare.”

“How very strange,” Celestia murmured. There were of course numerous accounts of violence and theft among the more desperate of her ponies, and such things were normally handled without incident on the local level. Celestia normally only heard facts and figures about such things except for notable cases. This case, however, seemed odd by comparison, especially when the doctors and police were both at a loss for what had happened, and magic seemed to factor into it somehow.

Raven cleared her throat again. “Would you like to convey any messages or take any actions?”

Celestia blinked before responding to the mare decisively. “No. Keep the librarian safe and let the doctors work. Just keep me apprised of any changes to the situation. Also, notify Luna when she is available.”

“Will do, your majesty.” Raven inclined her head in acknowledgement before standing up from her seat. “If there is nothing further?” Raven looked over the assembled ponies. “Very well, then. Meeting adjourned.”

* * *

It had been a delightful afternoon with her cousin, but Meadow once again felt her attention drawn to the window, watching different ponies as they ambled past. Since it was the weekend, Coco Pommel’s shop was closed for the latter half of the day. This was part of the reason why Meadow had decided to delay her visit until later in the afternoon. She had not wanted to impose during Coco’s normal business hours.

“Meadow?” Coco gently probed “You’re sure everything went okay during your studies in Gryphus?”

Meadow shook her head before straightening up on her stool, turning back to look at her cousin again. “Hm? Whazzat?”

Coco shook her head, smiling faintly. “You’ve been overseas for three months, and that’s the third time in the past fifteen minutes that you zoned out on me. I had to call your name three times. Are all the ponies walking past my showroom window that interesting?”

“I wasn’t… well, um…” Meadow’s cheeks colored as she looked down, trying to clear her mind for a moment. There were plenty of half-formed thoughts, snippets of memory, and flashes of emotion from this morning, but it all seemed to roil and circle, never coalescing into a crystalized thought. She came into Coco’s shop feeling anxious and confused, and was hoping that chatting with her favorite cousin would get her mind off of the mess. Unfortunately, she only managed to make herself look tense and distractible, causing her favorite cousin to worry.

Coco got up from her cushion and walked up to Meadow, placing a hoof on her shoulder. “C’mon,” she prodded quietly. “Something is bothering you, and you’ve been keeping it all locked up since you came in here.”

Meadow’s cheeks colored just a little more, and she rolled her eyes to shrug it off.

Coco’s face turned into an amused smirk. “Is it a stallion?” She teased. “A Tiercel?”

Meadow’s eyes sprang wide. “What? No!”.

“Well, c’mon, then,” Coco nudged. “What’s on your mind?”

Meadow’s slouched her head forward, exhaling with a sudden burst of air. “Okay, fine.” She slipped off of her stool and began to pace back and forth in front of the winter fashion display. “I have a friend… somepony who I met during the voyage back from Gryphus.” Meadow dug her forehoof into the carpet a little. “And I think she may be in some sort of trouble.”

Coco’s ears turned back slightly while her brows furrowed. “What kind of trouble?”

Meadow went on to describe this strange mare she had met on the ship, and her later attempts to introduce her to Equestria in general and the city of Manehattan in particular. She had been drawn in by the mysterious nature of this unicorn, who had seemed so intriguing with her archaic speech patterns and her rather pensive and brooding disposition... She had also been drawn in because Tempest had seemed so intense and focused, and yet so sad. Meadow felt inspired to befriend her, and while making new friends was one of the ways Princess Twilight recommended to celebrate the new national holiday of Friendship Day, Meadow was motivated by more than that.

But then things got awkward when they visited a magic shop, where Tempest’s conversation with the store manager revealed just how foreign Tempest’s background must have been. It became obvious that she knew very little about Equestrian Culture. But then there was the library, where Tempest had seemed so happy when they had parted ways. It was only a few hours later when the incident happened and that librarian turned animalistic. Meadow wasn’t even sure why she had been bold enough to barrel straight into the library when all of the other ponies were fleeing in terror. She grimaced as she described the still too recent situation.

“Goodness, that must of been awful!” Coco gasped out, getting up from her cushion to trot over and give Meadow a hug. “I know you enjoy a little bit of adventure here and there— especially if you’re brave enough to spend months at a time in the backcountry of Gryphus— but what possessed you to run into a building that other ponies were running out of? You could’ve been seriously hurt!”

Meadow let out a nervous giggle from her cousin’s concern, enveloped as she was in Coco’s embrace while surrounded by her cream-colored fur, but the sound became tangled into a muffled half-sob. Trying to cover it up, she coughed lightly before clearing her throat. It was comforting to receive such a heartfelt gesture. “Well, you know me, Coco. Always the one to swim upstream.” She gave a wet sounding sniffle.

“Yes, ever the wild one under that unassuming and innocent smile.” Coco pulled back so she could look into Meadow’s eyes, her smile turning mischievous. “So… what was the creature like?”

“It… wasn’t a creature.” Meadow’s eyes took on a haunted appearance. “It was the librarian. But she was acting like some feral creature, and she was hurting ponies. I had to kick over a shelf to distract her in order to get a mother and her child out of harm’s way.”

. “Y-you kicked over a… a whole library shelf?” Coco stuttered. “How in Celestia’s name—?”

Meadow tried to smile as she did a graceful spin before striking a fighting pose. “You remember my days competing in the art of Capomarea?”

Coco gaped for a moment. “That’s right. You were a black belt!” She shook her head, smirking. “So what did you do, pull off a graceful spin/flip before you delivered a crushing blow to that unsuspecting shelf?”

Meadow stuck her tongue out in response to her cousin’s teasing. “Not really...” She resumed her fighting pose before practicing a few spinning kicks into the air, her back hoof making a swishing sound as it passed.

“It really wasn’t anything so dramatic.” Swoosh. “I saw one shelf unbalanced a little, and happened to be in a fortuitous place.” Swoosh. “I just helped it to the ground with a good impact.”

“Fortuitous,” Coco replied with amusement. “Helped it to the ground… Right.”

“As you say. It made for quite the noise, too, but that let me escape with that mare and her son and stay hidden until the police arrived.”

Coco returned to her cushion and fanned herself with a hoof. “So what are you going to do now?”

Meadow’s muzzle scrunched in resolution. “I have to find Tempest. She may be in trouble—or she may be behind it. I’d like to find out if I can.”

“But what if she’s dangerous?” Coco warned. “What if she turns you into a feral ornithologist, and you start hurling birds at ponies?”

“Pfft. Hurling birds at ponies, she says. She’s a good pony, Coco. I can feel that. She is just confused, and in trouble. I think I can help her. And it’s the right thing to try.”

Coco was unconvinced, raising an eyebrow as she glared at her foolhardy cousin. “I think the right thing is to let the authorities handle it. Don’t get caught in the middle of that!”

“It’s fine, Coco. It’s probably nothing. Like I said, she is a good pony, and is probably just scared and confused.” Meadow contended, watching her cousin fold her forelegs over her chest. “Anyway, first things first. I need to pick up some groceries and head back to my condo—there’s nothing in the cupboards, you know?”

“We could always go dine out at El Loco Taco. It’s been a while since I’ve had a good hay-burrito.”

Meadow looked to the side in thought. “That sounds good, but let’s make it tomorrow night. I’ve got a lot on my mind right now, and I need to get my kitchen in order.” Meadow thought a moment more before she brightened. “If it makes you feel better, I could give you a description, and maybe some of your more well-connected friends can keep an eye out for her?”

“I guess if she sticks around Manehattan,” Coco sighed, getting up from her cushion. “I can do that. I was going to visit my brother at his salon anyway. Let’s catch up later tonight, okay?”

Meadow nodded, smiling before she gave her cousin one last hug before they parted. Coco escorted her to the door. “That sounds like a plan. I’ll stop by tonight to see if your friends have seen anything. And thanks for letting me crash here for a few hours!”

Coco waved her off with a hoof. “Think nothing of it, you crazy mare. See you tonight.” Meadow returned the wave before turning to trot down the street, leaving Coco to wonder about the crazy situations her cousin seemed to always get into.

* * *

Narrow beams of light illuminated the stale air of the warehouse. The muted rumble of cranes and forklifts further down the pier caused the nearby window to rattle in its frame. The longshoreponies that worked on the docks seemed to do a lot more driving than the lifting they did back in her day, with the assistance of these bizarre and noisy machines. It only made sense, since there was such a larger population to supply. The only sounds from within the building were the occasional faint scrambling rat’s paws, and an even fainter dripping noise from somewhere in the shadows.

Finding her way into the abandoned warehouse had been a relatively simple matter, as it had been easy to stay hidden in the shadows and use the occasional bit of magic to avoid detection. What was most important was the fact that she had successfully avoided the police, and now had an opportunity to lay low and to plan her next move.

Tempest had spent a good portion of the past hour mentally berating herself for the commotion she had caused, but she was ready to try to push all of that to the side. It was time to review the selected memory she had stored within The Eye once again. Reliving the memory wasn’t something she enjoyed doing— in fact, she detested the experience, as it was made up of a mishmash of friendships long gone, and scenes of horror that struck the marrow from her bones. But harsh as the experience was, it was a necessity. It always helped her clear away the detritus and self-doubt so that she could focus on her singular cause.

Free Luna, above all else.

No matter the odds, find a way.

With The Eye on her side, Tempest felt that she now had a way. However, she would not be able to act if Luna interfered. Not if Princess Luna was under magical manipulation by Celestia.

Tempest initiated the now familiar ritual, one where she set up several magical wards for privacy and protection allowing her to review the memory uninterrupted. It would not do to be discovered unawares while in the throes of such a realistic flashback. And while the experience was harrowing and gave her very real pain, it was at the same time… cleansing. Like a burning fire, it cleared away all of the dross and doubt and kept her mind on her task.

Time to burn away my fears and begin again.

The wards now in place, Tempest crouched in a shadowy corner of the warehouse, trying to smooth out her breathing. She pulled the hateful Eye up and out of her cloak and gazed at the rough hewn surface. Some portions of the memory were rather pleasant, but nearer the end? Well; this time she would try to avoid coming out of it screaming.

Why was her accursed heart beating so fast? Why did her hoof tremble? Such were signs of weakness—feebleness that had to be stamped out. Gritting her teeth, Tempest brought the simulacrum of an eye before her, and activated her horn for the connection.

* * *

“If I should fall… do not reveal your Lunar allegiance to Celestia. She would quickly overpower you, which is something that I could not bear. If I should fall, then your mission will be to bide your time. Become successful; become powerful, and develop your technology of amulets. One day you and your amulets may yet avenge me.”

“…I swear it, mother. I swear it!”

Tempest hugged the Lunar Princess fiercely, nuzzling into her luxurious indigo fur. She felt the powerful alicorn grip her in a smothering hug, a hoof stroking through her charcoal and yellow mane. Tempest couldn’t quite stifle the sobs threatening to burst out, but she tried. After a moment, Luna released the embrace, looking deeply into her eyes. Tempest looked back, almost swallowed up in the ancient abyss within the teal pools she saw there.

“Tempest,” Luna intoned. “You are everything to me. You are part of my hope for a better tomorrow. No matter what happens, I want you to remember that.” Luna placed her hoof lightly upon Tempest’s chest, the glittering silver armored cold to the touch as it rested over her heart. “Remember, in here.”

“Yes, mother.” Tempest dragged a fetlock across her muzzle before looking up and giving her mother a watery smile. “Thank you. Is there anything else before I depart?”

Luna gently shook her head. “Nay, child. You may take your leave.” Luna’s magic flashed, releasing the bindings on the door and deactivating the privacy spell upon the room. The door swung open with a creak. “Go in peace, my faithful student.”

Luna’s voice had taken on her commanding mentor’s edge instead of the motherly tone she had been using before, and she turned back to the maps on the table. Sketching a quick bow, Tempest turned on her hoof, rounding the corner and ignoring the guard that was propositioning her earlier. She turned her head away so he wouldn’t be able to see traces of any dampness on her face, and ignored him when he called after her.

Tempest paced down the corridor, trying desperately to not display the hurricane of emotions she was feeling. It was a mixture of impotent rage and a cloying anxiety that curdled in her heart. It was humiliating to know so much about what upset her mother, and yet to be so powerless to do anything about it but to offer her comfort.

Tempest gazed out a window as she continued to make her way towards the school grounds, estimating the time by the position of the moon. Since the evening meal had already passed, Tempest’s friends were likely still gathered in the commons area of the school campus. In fact she knew they were, because they had wanted to continue the current role playing game that Bright Light was directing.

Saturday evenings were often a social gathering time, and her fellow students could often be found in the dormitory area and spread about the commons with their fellow classmates, either gossiping or reminiscing about recent adventures they had had. Tempest felt a twinge of guilt as she thought about joining her colleagues. How could she enjoy herself among her friends while her own mother was miserable in what seemed to be an impossible political firestorm, the source of which was her sister in an act of betrayal? Not knowing where else to go at the moment and knowing she had a commitment to keep, she continued on her way. Perhaps Alistor, her closest friend and confidant, could offer some counsel.

Rounding one more corner, Tempest’s vision was unexpectedly filled with an expanse of white, catching her unawares and causing her to recoil in surprise. A gentle voice called out to her in greeting.

“Hello, Tempest. How did your meeting go with Princess Luna?”

Tempest swallowed, struggling to regain her poise. It was becoming increasingly difficult over the past two months to not flinch when addressed by Princess Celestia. Luna had been making it increasingly clear that Celestia was the source of the problem, and becoming a direct threat to her rule. It was no surprise that Tempest found her distrust in the Solar Monarch rapidly accelerating into full blown hatred.

Don’t let her see your hatred. Don’t let her see your anger.

“Fine! Yes, the meeting was fine, Your Highness.” Tempest internally winced at how loud that reply sounded, but she pressed on and forced her face into smile.

Like I’m gonna fool Princess Celestia, a pony that has been dealing in political maneuvering and intrigue for more than 500 years.

Celestia’s eyebrows furrowed just a fraction before inclining her head slightly to the side. “Even though your attitude towards me has become disaffected of late, I still want to express my gratitude. I am grateful: truly grateful that you have been such a rock and a support to my sister these past few months. Celestia turned around in the too-narrow hallway to stand next to Tempest, now facing the same direction. Celestia began to lift a wing as if to drape it across Tempest’s back but she hesitated half-way, pulling it back to her side with a twitch.

Sighing, she looked down the corridor. “Walk with me?” It sounded more like a directive than an invitation.

The taller alicorn began to walk slowly down the hall, leaving Tempest rooted to the spot. She really didn’t want to follow, but it wasn’t like she had much of a choice. Standing here for much longer would just make her look petulant and foalish.

Before she could start, however, Celestia turned her head with a sad smile, her gaze probing in a way. “I would be most appreciative if you could accompany me to the castle gardens…”

Giving a stiff bow, Tempest gave her reply. “Of course, Your Highness.” She fell into step with her aunt as they took a left down an adjoining hall, heading back towards the castle and the gardens beyond.

After a minute of walking in relative silence, Celestia looked down to Tempest again. “Tempest, if I may speak plainly…” Celestia trailed off into silence again, looking ahead with a troubled expression.

Watching her aunt out of the corner of her eye, Tempest pursed her lips. She had never seen Celestia at a loss for words, but there was a first time for anything, she supposed.

“I am worried about my sister,” she murmured. “So very worried.” They rounded yet another corner, finally approaching a large archway framing a double door that was flanked by two muscular guards. Without a word, the guards took a half-step to the side and opened the doorway.

As they got outside, Celestia’s horn glowed with a shimmering golden light, causing a near-transparent privacy bubble to coalesce around them. “I am worried about my sister,” Celestia breathed. “So very worried. In the centuries we have spent together in Harmony, I have never seen her in this state.”

Celestia turned away from the central walkway and made her way towards a clearing marked with a few benches placed between several ornamental plum and olive trees. She sat down, indicating for Tempest to do the same on the bench across from her. Not knowing what to say, Tempest took her place and waited for Celestia to continue.

“Clearly, as sisters and co-rulers of Equestria for the past 512 years, we have had many differences of opinion and have even fought. But now? This situation is different somehow. Our relationship has become strained to the point that it feels broken. It’s like I hardly know her.” Tempest struggled to keep her face neutral while Celestia’s steady gaze bore down on her. Unable to maintain eye contact,Tempest looked away, feeling like she was being crushed under an avalanche of emotion..

“I bring this to you my dear student,” Celestia confided, inclining her head. “Of all of my ponies, Princess Luna seems to have grown the closest to you for reasons I cannot quite fathom.” She gave a wan smile. “Suffice to say, you enjoy a truly rare position.”

Celestia’s smile disappeared again. “I have already spoken to Storm Sabre, the Captain of the Lunar Guard, but he has been less than helpful. I am left to turn to you.”

Tempest felt her heart churn in an emotional storm. It had been almost two years since she learned that she was Princess Luna’s daughter, and she had seen these changes from an entirely different perspective. Pivotal in her unique perspective was the fact that the pony speaking to her at the moment was at the source of all of those problems!

“My dear sister seems to be pulling away from everything. She has always had her capricious side, but she has never lacked in her deep and abiding love for our ponies. She has always treated her position as her most sacred duty. But now?”

Princess Celestia brought one of her armored hooves up to her face, frowning as she studied her own distorted reflection on the burnished surface of her shoe. “You might know that she rarely holds her Night Court anymore. What you may not know is that hasn’t made a public appearance for more than seven weeks. The University of Cloudsdale just let me know that she canceled her keynote address for their Commencement ceremony next week. Yesterday she failed to appear as the guest of honor for the grand opening of the new Museum of Thestral History. My sister has become irretrievably distant, and she is disconnecting from everything—including me.”

The Princess looked up again, setting her hoof down before gazing at Tempest expectantly. She was apparently now waiting for a response. Celestia likely wanted a revelation, or at least an explanation of some kind. She would get nothing of the sort. All Tempest felt for the Solar Monarch right now was spite. And she could have all of it.

“Please, Tempest. I wouldn’t bring such matters to a student under any normal circumstances---but these are not normal circumstances. Indeed, I fear that this could grow beyond a familial problem and impact all of Equestria. This problem… it is more important than any other concern, foreign or domestic. And you are the key.”

Celestia stood up, slowly pacing towards Tempest as her voice intoned what she wanted, wavering slightly with barely concealed desire. “You are so very close to her. You have had more private meetings in the past few months with Princess Luna, I dare say, than anypony in a comparable length of time.” Princess Celestia lowered herself to the earth, kneeling before Tempest so that she could meet her gaze on the same level. Tempest leaned back as the pressure of Celestia’s intensity buffeted her, as if she were standing too close to a bonfire.

“Please,” Celestia entreated, her voice lowering to a whisper. “I love my sister; but I don’t understand the depth of what’s happened, and she won’t broach the subject with me. We’ve had our disagreements in the past, but I fear that this is something far deeper. Isn’t there anything I can do to bridge this gulf that has opened between us? Anything to repair the breach?”

It was too much. Tempest broke the spell by tearing her gaze away, realizing to her surprise that she desperately needed to breathe. Gasping for air, she hurriedly got to her hooves and took a few steps to the side in an effort to clear her head.

What was Princess Celestia playing at? Repair the breach?

Her aunt sounded sincere—but after so many meetings with Luna she knew better than to trust that. Celestia was the consummate politician, and being duplicitous was at the very core of her nature. Even now Tempest had nearly fallen into her thrall; but now that she had broken free her heart began to beat again, fill with boiling rage. To think that her aunt was now appealing to those who were Luna’s closest connections, perhaps to find some new angle of attack—some final method of driving the last nail into her coffin? Tempest felt the realization like a cold slap, as if she were seeing the truth for the very first time, and she turned to look up at her aunt, her eyes full of hate.

“Hah!” Tempest startled at the sound of her voice. It sounded sharp and yet hollow, and frigid as the winter sky. “Repair the breach? You, the very pony—the one who…” Tempest stopped herself short. What did Celestia know of Luna’s suspicions? Did she know about Luna’s sources and embedded agents? If Tempest revealed now that she knew of Celestia’s plot to supplant her sister, would it accelerate her plans? She had to speak carefully, and not reveal too much.

“I… my apologies, Princess Celestia. My emotions were getting the better of me. You didn’t deserve that.” Tempest heaved a huge breath before continuing, her mind racing as she tried to come up with a way to put Celestia off of the scent. “She has not brought these troubles to me, Princess. Not in the detail that you have given them. Yes, I have seen that she is under a lot of stress lately, but I am ignorant of the cause.”

For some reason, Princess Celestia had looked encouraged when Tempest began to rant. Now that she had stopped herself and pleaded ignorance to the situation, Celestia’s expression became crestfallen.

Tempest sniffed carelessly and continued. “After all, I am only a student. I am not privy to what goes on behind the scenes in the Diarchy.” Tempest couldn’t maintain eye contact as she said that, so she focused on a particularly twisted olive tree branch lying on the ground. Even so, she felt like she had just won a victory against overwhelming odds.

I should be feeling elated. I just successfully stood up to my aunt while protecting Luna’s interests. Why is it then that I feel so cold and empty inside?

Tempest looked back at Celestia, who was watching her with her ears folded back in silent sorrow. There was an oppressive tension in the air, but after a few seconds, the moment passed. Celestia, the Alicorn Prime, the first in the ruling of Equestria for generations of time, backed up a step. As she continued to gaze down at Tempest, her eyes began to moisten with tears before she took another step back and turned.

“...Excuse me.”

Tempest blinked in shock as Celestia quietly walked back towards the castle, head held low. Did she say too much? Did she reveal something that would cause Celestia to take action against her mother? And could Tempest do anything about it? What could a 2nd year student do to defend herself against an alicorn, let alone defend another, let alone interfere in the greater governance of the country?

Nothing.

She turned aside, walking further into the gardens, emotions roiling without comfort.

* * *

As cathartic as it was to blow off a little steam, the poor earthworms in the garden’s recently plowed soil probably didn’t appreciate the heat. It wasn’t very often that Tempest was allowed to let loose this much power through her horn all at once, and to concentrate it into something hot and destructive enough to damage property. She noted dimly that some of the dirt at the area of impact had turned to glass.

Kicking some of the packed dirt and newly glassed pebbles out of her hooves, Tempest walked back into the castle. Her horn felt overhot, throbbing and inflamed after releasing so much power. Unfortunately, nothing about her situation had changed. Now she just felt tired, and also very late for her meeting with her friends in the commons area back at the school.

After a short walk to the dormitory wing of the castle, she pushed open the heavy wooden door of the commons area, causing a few heads to turn. Scanning the area bustling with classmates and acquaintances, Tempest spotted her friends at their usual table, situated behind the centrally placed hearth.

Tempest smirked as she remembered how her friends had laid claim to this choice location. Alistor was the one to hatch the idea on the second week of school, working to coordinate the schedules of each of their friends so that somepony could always be present at the table, claiming to be saving the seats for the others of the group. By the end of the week, the rest of the school had just accepted that the table by all rights was theirs.

Alistor had rapidly become her best friend. He was a rather diminutive unicorn with a smoky-blue coat and a gray mane highlighted with light and dark streaks, matching the colors of his bizarre cutie mark. Alistor was gifted in a variety of magics, but had mastered none of them. One feature made him unique, however: he seemed to possess a strange magical talent in a field that hadn’t been developed yet.

“Tempest - right on time!” He glanced smugly to his left at Silver Shine, a taller mare in their class who glared back at him. “Some ponies think they can guess at your arrival better than yours truly.” In response to this, Silver Shine pushed a small stack of bits over to him, revealing her pale lavender coat as her arm extended across the table from her flowing black robes.

“Fine,” she glowered. “Your debt is paid.” She leaned back again, tossing her deep blue and fuschia mane. “I’m hardly impressed by your prediction this time, Al. I only placed a wager for something to do while we waited. Besides, you didn’t even look at your mystical fortune-telling book.” She lowered her voice to mutter her next words to Mysty Spirit who was seated to her left, ignoring Bright Light who sat between them. “Should have known that Tempest would be late with her meeting and miss dinner… again.” Her gaze flicked back up at Tempest, only faintly holding back her accusation.

Alistor stuck his tongue out while wrinkling his nose. “Should have known, eh? Well, I did.” Lighting his horn, Alistor brought up a plate of food from somewhere under the table. “Here ya go, Temp. Chef Marinara was working the kitchens tonight, and they made your favorite. I had to fend off Bright Light, though.”

“Oooh, cheese manicotti!” Tempest’s dark mood lightened a bit as she looked at the plate presenting one of her favorites. “Thanks Alistor! You’re the best!” She plopped down on the remaining space next to him and began to dig in.

“Right again, and when you’re right, you’re right...” Alistor sighed, before turning towards Silver Shine with a cross look. “And it’s my codex, not… whatever you said it was.”

Tempest turned an ear towards her friends’ conversation while she stuffed her face full of manicotti. She was really quite hungry, and Alistor had been kind enough to cast a warming spell on the meal before she sat down. Tempest could tell that Mysty Spirit was anxious to start the game, if her fidgeting hooves were any indication, and sure enough, she began to bounce lightly in her seat, her two-toned lavender and sienna curls bouncing cutely as she did so.

“Tempest, you promised!” Mysty whined. “You knew we were all set to launch our new quest in Ogres and Oubliettes. I told you it was going to be at seven o’clock!” Mysty stuck out her bottom lip in a cute little pout.

“I don’t recall any promise,” Bright Light mumbled in deep baritone. He fixed Tempest with a sidelong glance between his long white bangs, setting the O&O book down. “All you did was tell Tempest what time our game was scheduled. If I recall, all she did was give you one of her patented dodges. I think the wording she used this time was ‘okay, we’ll see.’ You didn’t pin her down to an actual commitment.” Mysty folded her arms before giving him a loud raspberry .

Rolling his eyes, Bright Light ducked back behind the rule book. After a moment his voice came out from behind. “And Tempest’s meetings with Princess Luna have been going especially late recently. Hardly a feat of clairvoyance, Alistor.”

“Never said it was, Brightly.” Alistor grinned as he beaned a twenty-sided dice off of the cover of the book, causing Bright to look up and glare at him over the edge. “Just patterns and probabilities.”

Mysty pushed her small figurine forward with a petite cornflower blue hoof. “Okay, I’ve got one. There is a very high probability that my necromancer cleric is getting tired of the pattern of always waiting around for Tempest’s paladin to show up!”

“We can still play, geeze!” Tempest mumbled out through a mouth full of manicotti. “Just let me finish this real quick.” She hoped they could understand her through all of that pasta as she struggled to swallow the mess. “I would have been here a while ago, if not for Celestia accosting me in the hall.” Tempest stopped chewing, looking up into the faces of her friends. She realized too late that saying that was going to get a reaction.

Sure enough, Bright Light was glaring at her, but he wasn’t one to give verbal reprimands. Silver Shine, on the other hand…

“…Accosted?” Silver Shine straightened up, her voice sharp. “Princess Celestia wouldn’t do that! Being tardy might get you guilt-tripped into locking your own sorry flank into detention when she gives you that look, but accosted?”

Tempest huffed. “Well, she didn’t accost me per se, but she did try to get some private information out of me regarding her sister!” Tempest’s friends began to look uncomfortable. She realized that she was bringing the mood crashing down, but right now she didn't care. Her evening had been positively harrowing, and she wasn’t feeling like holding back. “I mean, she was speaking to me as if I could solve whatever it is that is going on between them right now!”

Alistor’s ears perked up as his gaze turned more astute. “What is going on between them right now?”

Mysty fidgeted with her figurine while she tapped a rear hoof against her chair. Bright Light gave out a loud sigh as he starting putting the rule books away, sensing that a simple game among friends was not going to happen this evening.

“You think I know?” Tempest fumed. Alistor just looked back, expressionless. “Just… forget it!”

Silver got up from her chair so she could circle around the table, holding up a placating hoof. “Tempest, Princess Celestia loves her sister. You should know that she is probably just trying to reach out to anypony in a position to help. You are one of the closest ponies to Princess Luna, and maybe because of that, she sees you as one of the few ponies who can.” She gave a sour smile, before nudging Tempest in the ribs. “It’s not like the rest of us are in such an elevated position, you know?”

Tempest tried to keep her expression impassive. It didn’t help that Silver’s comforting message was strikingly similar what Celestia had been saying. She didn’t want to talk about this right now, but it was her own dumb fault for bringing it up.

Silver continued, her voice growing more emphatic. "If your sister were in trouble or depressed, wouldn’t you try to help her out any way you could?"

Tempest pulled away from Silver’s hoof, her gaze turning venomous. “Luna’s not depressed, Silver. She is… well, it’s just different than that! You just don’t know the half of what is really going on!”

“Because you never tell us!” Silver retorted, her face heating up. “You never open up about any of it. It’s always secrets and whispers, and… and... private meetings behind closed doors! If you won’t share whatever it is you are dealing with, problems that all the rest of us are starting to feel all throughout the school, then what good are we? What is it about Luna— “

“—Princess Luna—”

“ —Yes, Princess Luna.” Silver huffed, rolling her eyes. “Whatever is going on is going to end up hurting your friends. What are you are hiding? Or maybe you are just confiding in Alistor?”

Tempest took in a sharp breath, her eyes darting back to the smoky blue colt. She had warned Silver not to say or indicate anything that would illuminate Tempest’s confused feelings towards her best friend, and she could tell that Alistor was looking a little embarrassed as well.

Silver Shine, for her part, seemed out of breath, and after a moment Bright Light came up by her side, placing a heavy hoof around her shoulders. He leaned in to murmur something in her ears before fixing Tempest with his bright blue eyes.

“Tempest? Silver and I are going to head out for a bit. She’d like to talk for a bit, so If you will excuse us.” Bright guided her back towards the doorway.

Alistor was suddenly at Tempest’s side, leaning in to speak to her much the way that Bright had just spoken to Silver. “C’mon, Temp. You probably need a little time to work this all out as well. Why don’t we find somewhere to sit, and you can tell me whatever you are comfortable with?”

“What about me? Mysty called out. What am I supposed to do until you get back?” Alistor looked at her for a moment before pointing to his figurine. Well, you can keep my rogue pegasus character company, I guess. Hook him up with your necromancer cleric.”

Mysty gave him a sour look.

“Look. we are probably done for the evening, Myst. How about you clean up the game and I’ll buy you a muffin tomorrow?”

“Two, or it’s no deal!” Mysty gave him a mock-scowl, folding her arms.

“Two then,” Alistor chuckled. “C’mon, Tempest. Let’s go for a walk.”

* * *

“So, you gonna spill, or do I need to keep talking the whole evening?”

The castle library was dead silent at this hour of the night, as it was just half an hour before the last few patrons were escorted out so that the building could close. Alistor and Tempest had been meandering about the school grounds for about ninety minutes, but they eventually gravitated towards the library, almost without any conscious decision to do so.

The school library had many alcoves and private rooms for study, and soon after they arrived, Alistor had escorted Tempest into one of these, mostly making small talk and rehashing upcoming assignments and reviewing the issues of the day.

Tempest rocked back and forth on the desk she was sitting on, listening to the wood groan and complain while she tipped it from one side to the other. “I just don’t know what to do, Alistor. Princess Luna feels like her throne is being threatened.”

Alistor’s eyebrows shot up. “I didn’t know her anxiety went that deep.”

Tempest slowly slid off the desk to sit next to the smaller unicorn sitting on the floor below her, enjoying the warm contact between them. She had been keeping her distance all night, her emotions a jumble of anger, anxiety, and confusion, but Alistor had patiently stuck it out: listening to her, supporting her, walking with her—just being there for the sake of their friendship.

Tempest took another deep breath before letting it all out. How many times had she felt the need to do that today? “But that isn’t even the worst part…”

Alistor looked back at her, studying her face. “Well, that must be pretty bad then.” He waited while Tempest stared at her hooves for several moments. “Tell me what you can. I won’t force anything.”

“Luna…” Tempest sighed, dragging a hoof across the carpet with a scraping sound. “Luna is convinced that Celestia is the source of the threat.”

The air was heavy as Alistor paused, until he finally drew a long breath. “Um. Wow. Is there anything you think you can do?”

That was an interesting question. He always did have an odd way of asking them. Tempest stood up and began to pace around the room. “There really isn’t anything I can do. As far as I can see it, Princess Luna is being monitored, spied upon, scryed upon, and is the likely the subject of most ponies’ whispers and suspicion. Is it any wonder that she is distancing herself from the public eye? She can hardly trust anypony. I’m a second year student! What could I do?” She stopped to look back at her friend who unflinchingly held her gaze.

Alistor’s eyes became shrewd “…What are you planning to do?”

“What?” Tempest blinked in surprise. “I’m not planning anything. What in Equestria would give you the notion that I would try anything?!”

Alistor’s look of suspicion morphed into a lucid smile. “Methinks thou dost protest too much.”

Tempest pressed her lips into a flat line. “I hate it when you do that. Quit reading me, Al! You are trying to project my—”

“—I didn’t do anything, I don’t even have my Codex out.” He soothed. “Beside, none of my prescient school of magic is needed when you make yourself this easy to read…”

“Yeah, yeah… maybe easy for you.” Tempest thumped him on the shoulder with a hoof, stopping to gaze at him for a few moments before she realized that she had just made the situation awkward. Turning away from him again, she strode up to the front of the room. “Anyway… I’ve been thinking about your offer lately, Alistor.”

A clock chimed out in the corridor, signalling the closing hour for the library imminent. Alistor sat up a little straighter. “Really? You’ve spent the better part of the year explaining why you would never want me to do it. All your philosophy about anti-determinism and self-fulfilling prophecies and whatnot.”

Looking over her shoulder, Tempest smiled sheepishly. “Things change, Al… Ponies change. And I don’t know where else to turn for answers.” Now she had Alistor’s undivided attention. Not that she didn’t before, but now she could see the tension in his face, and the intensity in his eyes.

“Are you sure?”

Tempest blew out a breath she had been holding. “I am. I want you to look.”

Alistor blinked, his face growing pensive and anxious. “With the new information you have shared tonight—I am almost afraid of what I would see.” He slid his codex out of his saddle bag, a rather massive tome with many addendum notes and tabs sticking out all over.

“If you want to know, I will give this the best that my magic is able.” He opened the tome and heaved it on the table between them with a thump, stirring up some dust from the surface. “You know that this kind of magic takes a lot out of me, and it grows harder the more I develop my skills, not easier. But an offer is an offer. Are you absolutely sure?”

Tempest drew in a raspy breath as the feeling of a knot grew in her heart. She had always been resolute in not peeking into her future, or anypony else’s. It just felt wrong. Alistor had offered her a look at the beginning of 2nd year, claiming that his talent had become much more reliable, but she had rebuffed the offer. She didn’t want to fool around with deeper powers involving fate or destiny, and she said as much. Now, after her latest meeting with Princess Luna, it was just too much. She needed more information, some kind of cosmic wisdom. Hopefully, Alistor’s magic might be able to provide a little of what she needed.

“Do it.”

Alistor nodded his head once. “Alright. Just wait a minute while I cross-reference a few things and then re-align them with the new information you just shared with me. When I tune in my magic, I will be drawing all of the connections and associations possible, and all the probabilities that exist between you, Princess Luna, and Princess Celestia. Once I ignite my horn, please don’t interrupt.”

Tempest watched as he flipped back and forth in his book for several minutes, scanning different notes and tables inside. Then, after he had spent time doing that, he opened his book exactly in the middle and pressed his hooves down on either side. Standing up on his hind hooves, Alistor’s horn began to glow. After a few moments, layers of overglow surrounded his horn, and his eyes began to glow as well. There was a ringing hum in the air as the ambient light in the room seemed to diminish, before the pages of his codex began to lift and spread out, almost as if the book were suspended upside down, or subject to no gravity at all. Visually, this struck a paradox as Alistor’s hooves were still occupying the same space, until Tempest realized that the pages had become ethereal.

Eventually, Tempest experienced what felt like a dividing sensation in her body, almost as if she would be torn asunder, but it wasn’t a physical sensation. Her stomach began to twist as if she were under the effects of severe vertigo. She looked up again and found that there were ghostly images of Alistor and his book, repeated in a perfect line off to the left and the right of him. It was almost as if she were seeing the repeated image made by two mirrors facing each other, but instead of being in the way she was viewing the image from the side. It was rather disconcerting, as these images continued on as if through infinity, almost as if there were no walls, or any room or library of any sort.

Finally with a choked breath, Alistor intoned his prediction. “The knot grows ever tighter, drawn from forces and powers beyond us. And conflict, ancient as the cosmos, inevitably will occur and is almost at hand. The light of one will hide the other in darkness until one shall come to free her of such tyranny. This would be enough, except that the power beyond us still beckons, and will appeal to you—at a time where you would least expect it but also have the greatest need. You will step forward as you will be given hope to right an ancient wrong—and because your eye will be single to your cause, you will be blinded—only because you are already sure. You will then achieve your aim, only to find that it was not your own, yet your own freedom may yet be purchased with a cost.”

The shimmering turquoise light in Alistor’s eyes began to fade, and the almost blinding glow being emitted from his horn began to diminish. The apparition of multiple Alistors and multiple codexes faded, leaving him to gasp and fall forward over his book, a trickle of blood from his left nostril. Breathing rapidly, Alistor slid back from the table until he sat in a heap, blinking his eyes and wiping the small amount of blood from his muzzle. Left behind on the table was his Codex, opened to the very back, where a page displaying shimmering writing was gently glowing in a turquoise hue. After a few more seconds, the light finally extinguished, leaving an oversized, unassuming book.

Tempest’s mouth was hanging open. How could it not, after witnessing such an amazing display of magic. She had never seen the like, and it was both beautiful, and terrifying. She felt like her coat was standing on end, and her mind was swimming with questions and a desire to know more. “That was amazing, Alistor! I mean—I’ve never seen the like from any of our instructors—or from anypony!"

The smaller colt gave a tired smile as he leaned forward again, wobbling as if he had enjoyed far too many ciders. “Yeah?” He lisped blearily. “Well, conthider it my Happy Hearthsh Warming Eve prethent… heh. Ow. That really hurts.” He squeezed his eyes shut, rubbing his forehead with a hoof.

“Does it always hurt like that? You even started bleeding from your nose.”

“Well no.” Alistor blinked a few more times, as if he was trying to clear his head. “Actually, I’ve never tried to get an active reading on a princess due to their crazy lifespan. I… wasn’t sure what would happen.”

Tempest sat up, horrified. “WHAT? You idiot! You just did a reading between me and both princesses, and you didn’t know how it would affect you? I mean, you’re an exceptionally skilled unicorn, and an excellent student, but sometimes you are really, really stupid! You could have died!”

"Cool. You said I was exceptionally skilled."

Glaring, Tempest hoofed him in the shoulder.

“Heh. Don’t be so melodramatic.” Alistor turned in order to jump down from his seat, but he lost his balance and fell, landing on his shoulder.

“Ow.”

“Ugh! You could have at least told me the risk!” Tempest fumed, still glaring at his downed form. “C’mon, we’re going to the Infirmary.” Tempest magicked the book over to his saddle bags, slipping it inside. “Besides,” she gave him a warm smile, hoisting the saddle bag over her own flanks while assisting Alistor to his feet. “You are a few weeks early for Hearth’s Warming.”

“Everyone’th alwayth a critic.” Alistor slurred out.

Looking into his eyes to check if his pupils were of the same size, Tempest steadied her friend as they made their way out of the room. “Critic, huh?" She smiled. "How’s this for a critic: that prophecy was a little too vague. Couldn’t you have spelled it out better?” She nudged him as they walked.

“Oh pleath. Jus’ take thome paperth, copy it down, and shtudy it at your leisure.”

Tempest pursed her lips in thought before something clicked. “...you are lisping on purpose. Your speech was just fine a moment ago.”

Alistor flashed her a cocky smile. “Could be. But if I am all injured and pathetic, I have to lean on you and put my hoof around your withers.”

“Oh, you think so?”

“Sure. And this is only the beginning. Pretty soon you are going to be coming over all of the time to study!”

Tempest tsked as she smirked back a him. “Only in your wild and crazy dreams, Al.”

Alistor just laughed.

After a few moments, Tempest shook her head. “Pathetic my flank. You were scary in there, Alistor.”

“Admit it. You were impressed. You feel like this particular stallion is going places.”

"The only place this particular stallion is going right now is the Infirmary. C’mon."

Alistor stumbled for a moment. “I dunno Temp. You might have to magic me there.”

Tempest studied him for a moment before shrugging. “Yeah, alright.” Her horn activated and Alistor was bodily lifted off the ground, suspended over her head while she continued down the corridor.

“I was kidding, Tempest! Kidding!"

...

"Ow! The doorjamb isn’t high enough!”

* * *

One by one, windows imploded in quick succession, the glass bursting inward and raining jagged shards onto the stone floor below. Each explosive sound punished Tempest’s ears like a hammer blow. Tempest galloped towards the two vacant thrones ahead, the one on the right trimmed in bright yellows of the day, the one on the left covered in soothing silvers and blues of the peaceful night.

Tempest felt her adrenaline spike as the flying glass came closer and closer to hitting her. At the current rate, she wasn’t going to make it in time. Looking behind her, the throne room seemed to reach backward into infinity, lost in darkness, instead of the back wall she expected to see at about forty meters distance. She quickly turned her head forward again. This was no time to be looking away!

Tempest winced as she felt the spinning razor-sharp edge of the first piece strike, tracing a clean line across her flank. It burned a little, but she expected such a hit would hurt more. She stumbled as she tried to kick harder, struggling for an extra burst of speed. Closer and closer the chaotic storm of glass approached, one window bursting after the next, until finally the windows flanking her sides imploded as well. Flinching, she ducked her head and rolled under the storm of glass shards, covering her face with her forehooves and closing her eyes to brace for the impending lacerations.

Sliding until she came to a stop, Tempest was perplexed to find that everything had gone silent. Reopening her eyes cautiously, she was amazed to find that all of the glass shards were suspended in the air, as if time itself had slowed to a halt. The sight was terrifying, but in a way it was also mesmerizing, dancing lights sparkling off of the edges of each shard in the frozen swarm.

Looking beyond the swarm, Tempest’s eyes settled on the two royal sisters, locked in mortal combat. Powerful magic cascaded around their forms, arcane energies of such intensity that the tapestries had caught fire and the stone floors were beginning to warp and crumble beneath their hooves.

She was too late. She could see the solar energies as they began to overwhelm her mom. But as she watched in horror, something reflecting off of a larger shard of glass nearby caught her eye. Looking there, she saw her own reflection, except her eyes had changed. Instead of her normal green color, the reflection’s eyes glowed a vibrant purple, crackling with arcs of energy. The reflection gazed back at her with a self-assured smirk, before flicking her eyes towards the battling sisters and back again, as if suggesting something with an expectant expression. And as Tempest watched the reflection in her mirror image’s eyes, she suddenly saw what she had to do.

Calling on her well-honed telekinesis, Tempest reached out to envelop the glass shards closest to her. Her eyes widened in shock as she found that she could detect every single edge and angle of thousands of shards, the exact form of each jagged shape. Expanding her telekinesis further, Tempest found that she could envelop and manipulate every individual piece of glass. She was stunned, but this could work!

Turning with a cry, Tempest directed all of the glass shards at top speed towards Celestia, attempting to somehow find a way to penetrate an her Alicorn level shield. At first the blades bounced harmlessly off, but Luna, noticing Celestia’s attention away from her, was able to produce a narrow, cutting beam, opening a seam in the shield that Tempest could exploit. With a shout of excitement, tempest altered the angle and trajectory of each shard so they flattened out, slipping through the seam before tearing into the pristine white coat of Celestia.

Celesta gave a great cry as her flesh was lacerated, falling back as Tempest continued to pour on her advantage. Feeling sure of her victory, she ran at a gallop over to her mother’s side as Celestia’s shield suddenly imploded with a blast. Even before Tempest could arrive, Luna seized upon the opportunity and finished her older sister off.

Then, it was over. The tyrant was gone, her white body fading entirely from view, leaving instead only a pool of blood and some loose feathers floating down into the mire. Exultantly, Tempest leapt up and wrapped her hooves around Princess Luna, with her mother meeting her in a fierce embrace. Princess Luna laughed low in her throat as she crowed, “Well done my student, my indomitable child. Our night can now begin at last!”

Confused for a moment, Tempest looked up into her mother’s eyes, finding to her surprise a disturbing change. Instead of Luna’s lighter teal, the pony before her had irises of a deeper turquoise, with the sclera an alien bluish white. Cat-like pupils filled her vision as she tried to push away. Looking further down, Tempest noticed the creature wore silvery armor, partially covering a coat of fur that was black as a moonless night, and flashing fangs of a carnivore. The lighting of the throne room was suddenly extinguished, leaving nothing visible except for those eyes, and the creature’s laugh gained in strength, echoing around her.

* * *

Waking up with a gasp, Tempest threw her blankets back and hurled herself down from her bunk, landing hard on the floor. She was in a cold sweat, and her heart was racing. Shaking herself, she looked across the other bunks, noting with relief that she hadn’t awoken anypony. Her mind raced as she reviewed the dream she had just experienced before it faded entirely from her waking mind. This was strange. She hadn’t ever experienced a nightmare in her life, only learning later that the reason was because her mother, Princess Luna, was especially vigilant of such things for her. This dream, however, was so vivid, so visceral… Tempest’s eyes grew wider as she thought about it. The images from the dream were not fading. They were as fresh in her mind as if she had just experienced it. What did it mean?

Still breathing hard, Tempest looked out the window and gasped. There, just above the horizon, was a solar eclipse! Blinking dumbly, Tempest’s mind suddenly clicked with the fact that if the moon were to eclipse the sun, that was her mother’s signal that she should come to her aid. Her mother had been calling, and she had been asleep in her bed!

Remembering Princess Luna’s plea, Tempest took off at a run out of the dormitory wing. She briefly considered waking up her friends, or at least Alistor, but there was no time, and what would be the point? What could she even do? What could any of them do? The images of the dream seeped back into her mind, but she shook her head angrily. There was no possible way her telekinesis could control that many moving pieces of glass! Besides, they were just hanging there as if time had stopped.

Tempest flew out the door of the school and bounded across the terrace and gardens separating the school from the body of the castle. The eclipse gave the area an eerie feel of twilight, but there was a wrongfulness to it and it caused the air to feel colder than normal. Why had she been so focused on her rune magic and on amulets that she put off her studies in the area of teleportation?

Panting for breath, Tempest rounded the bushes along the walkway to access the castle’s main door. Surprisingly, the guards were not attending it. Tempest grimaced, knowing that this probably meant trouble. Ahead there was the sound of pounding on wood, and of shouting.

Looking over the situation, it was obvious that a contingent of solar guards was trying to gain access to the throne room, and they were attempting to pry the door with a large bar, while a seperate group was chopping at the wood with axes. Neither were making very much progress, so Tempest skidded to a stop, her mind racing.

She turned and ran for the castle’s massive north staircase, rounding the stairway in the turret downward in a dizzying series of helical spirals. Maybe if she passed beneath the throne room through the Hall of Armor, she could head up the south staircase through the turret and find the situation different there!

Her breaths were growing more desperate as she reached her destination, only to find more guards pounding on the massive wooden doors near the back end of the throne room. In what other way could she gain access? Tempest knew that there were powerful enchantments in place disallowing entry via teleport to any pony not named Princess Luna or Celestia. Besides that, she had never even pulled off a successful teleport! Not knowing what else to do, Tempest ran into the courtyard, looking around wildly until her eyes fell upon the windows that lined the east side of the throne room.

Taking a deep breath, Tempest shouted for Luna, not knowing if her voice would carry through the windows. Without any prelude or warning, all of the twelve windows lining the east wall of the throne room shattered, throwing glass everywhere both inside and away from the wall. Just like the nightmare still fresh in her memory, Tempest covered herself as best as she could while glass and debris cascaded down around her. Unlike her memory, she felt smaller bits and pieces hitting her, though none were traveling fast enough to deliver a cut. Shaking a few stray pieces of glass out of her mane and tail, Tempest stood back up and looked around. Briefly, she wondered how a few shards of glass wound up all the way over to sit atop the heads of some of the militaristic statues adorning the courtyard.

Searching desperately to find a way to climb up to the height of one of the windows, Tempest suddenly experienced a sensation like a free-fall, and all of the air evacuated from her lungs in what felt like an act of the deepest magic. It was as if gravity itself were entirely overruled while the planet held its breath, until the moment passed and the atmosphere was allowed to flow again. A howling voice coupled with a blast of cold wind blew outward from the throne room, and then nothing but utter silence.

Looking back towards the castle doorway, Tempest heard a crash, likely signifying that the guards likely had finally passed the door. Getting, back to her hooves once again, Tempest limped inside following the sounds of chaotic shouts in the air. Behind her, the sun’s began to shine again as the eclipse came to an end.

Despite her lethargy and fear, Tempest pushed into the throne room. The scene was rife with chaos and destruction: guards were running to an fro, trying to give aid and to recover the remains of what seemed to be other ponies, all encapsulated in a resilient crystal-like substance that had apparently become their tomb.

Numb with shock and cold horror, Tempest stumbled towards the thrones at the front of the room, avoiding the guards as they worked. Looking wildly about, Tempest searched fruitlessly for any sign of her mother, but she knew in her heart what had happened. Only one Alicorn remained.

A scream tore itself from Tempest’s throat as she ran forward, attempting to grasp at shards of glass laying around like in her dream. Unfortunately, she found that she was too spent, too fearful, and too horrified to utilize a simple levitation spell. She tripped over something that might have been a leg, but she could only focus on one thing at the moment as she sprawled across the destroyed throne room floor.

“You murderer! You… you heartless TYRANT!” Tempest shouted. She tried to stand up, but her knee wouldn’t support her as pain knifed through the joint. She must have injured it when she stumbled. The pain only redoubled her anger as she clutched at her knee with a hoof, pointing the other impotently at the cause of her rage. “What have you done? WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?”

Celestia looked like she was in shock, and it looked like she had been crying. After noticing Luna’s protégé on the floor of the throne room, she held up a hoof to the guards attending her and approached. Cuts lined her body, including an ugly vertical slash across her lips that was still oozing blood. “Tempest, my dear. What are you doing here? Come away, you need medical attention.”

“I don’t need medicine! I need Princess Luna back! You’ve killed her, killed her—you’ve taken her away!” Tempest shook as a spasm in her throat closed up her vocal cords, and she fell back, leg pain and other injuries finally beginning to register more fully on her consciousness.

Celestia’s horn lit brightly as she spoke in infuriatingly calm and soothing tones.“Shh… it will be okay, my student. Rest, it will be okay.” Tears continued to stream from Celestia’s eyes as she dipped her head, activating a sedation spell and pushing the magic towards Tempest’s mind, taking the pain away.

* * *

Tempest leapt to her hooves, breathing heavily as she regained her bearings. She bumped into a stack of rotten pallets, gashing her knee, but quickly righted herself and took a new stock of the situation. Only rats were seen as they went running from the pallets she had bumped. Other than that, she was still alone.

Sitting back on her haunches, Tempest reflected on the period immediately after the events of that memory. It was a dark time, full of numbness and despair, where she closed herself off from studies, from professors, and most especially, from her friends. The school counselors were of no help, especially since Celestia was foremost among them, and before long, Tempest had alienated her entire group of close-knit friends. Alistor still supported her from afar, but she didn’t let anypony else get close during that time.

What saw her through this time was a breakthrough that led to a theory of combining amulets for a multiplying effect. Theoretically, if it could be done, a massive network could be created in order to collect almost limitless amounts of magic to great effect. For the first time since Nightmare Night, she had gained hope, just enough of a glimmer that her entire ambition became freeing her mother from Celestia’s banishment spell. She not only succeeded in school, she excelled beyond anypony’s expectations.

Luna had given her a charge. She may have failed to support her mother in her time of need, but she still had the remainder of the charge to follow, and could use her developing amulet technology to make an attempt. And even though her first attempt failed, exiling her across the globe to an unexpected destiny, further opportunity had been granted her again. With the Eye she now possessed, she could channel something completely unknown to Equestria, something far more powerful than what she had previously. However, she would not go foolishly rushing off to a confrontation as she did before.

Not this time. This time she was going to carefully finish her preparations, and have everything in its place. Today had been frustrating, but nothing was really lost. She still had the element of surprise, something she would use to its fullest advantage. Celestia would have her due, and Luna would be released from whatever mental magics had still trapped her will.

Tempest narrowed her eyes as she looked out the window at the setting sun. Enough time had gone by, and she was starting to feel rather hungry. She would take care of her physical needs, find some lodging, and go to some kind of salon to alter her appearance somewhat. Then, she would do what was necessary. She would begin fabricating amulets in earnest. She would link them together to gain eyes all over Equestria once the amulets started to be bought and sold. She would need to find ponies for fabrication and distribution. Maybe here in the industrial district she would find that opportunity.

Tempest stood up and cracked her neck. It was time to begin again. She would infiltrate the country. She would draw Celestia out. She would keep Luna safe. It was only a little while longer, and things would be made right. She stroked her amulet and walked back out the door.

It's on again

Chapter Seven: Lost and Found

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“Ugh. It’s been some time since I’ve had a day as crazy as this one.”

Starlight Glimmer gave Twilight a sympathetic smile as her mentor continued to pick at the underside of her left hoof. She was glad that Twilight had invited her along to meet with Princess Celestia, even if it was for a rather whimsical reason.

The mechanical vibration of the high-speed train, having almost completely replaced the steam-engine tech common only ten years ago, reminded Starlight that the trip would be finished in half the time she was accustomed to. She could sense the car lean slightly into the turn as the tracks bent their way westward again, ever climbing, but riding soft as silk upon the rails.

If she wasn’t mistaken, the three-hour trip was nearly completed. Out the window, Starlight scanned the valleys and crevices of the rocky terrain once more. As many times as she had made this trip, the view never got old—it only changed with the seasons whether it be the golds and reds of autumn or the nascent greens of the early spring. Today? The colors were mostly barren as the winter months fast approached. Looking back to her mentor, Starlight took note that she was still working on the same hoof.

“Still picking pie out of your hooves?” Starlight teased.

Giving a sigh, Twilight clopped her hoof back down to the floor. “No… No, I’m sure my coat-clean spell took care of the remaining pie debris.” Twilight gave a rueful chuckle. “Pinkie strikes again, this time with her namesake: somehow she managed to pull about 78% of the town into the pie fight melee. Unbelievably, Mayor Mare has declared this a new Officially Sanctioned Event.”

Starlight’s eyes widened incredulously. “It’s times like this that make me wonder—sometimes Ponyville just escapes me.”

Twilight’s eyes narrowed after a moment. “Wait a minute, I think it’s the other way around. This time I think it was you who escaped Ponyville. Where were you, in all of that mess?”

“Oh, just going over some tests!” Starlight replied with a toothy grin. “That, and reviewing the syllabi our professors submitted in preparation for the winter semester.”

“The syllabi? I wanted to help with that!” Twilight whined. “You know I love reviewing all the planning and class assignments! But when Spike and I returned, you weren’t in your office, nor anywhere else in the school.”

“Well, I hadn’t spoken with Maud for a while, so I did all of that while relaxing with her at her place.”

“In the Grotto? Oh.” Twilight mumbled, processing that for a moment. “Well… you should have invited me. Besides, I would have loved to see Maud again, she is too much of a recluse.”

Starlight held up a hoof, tilting it from side to side. “Eh. She is about as reclusive as she wants to be, and is pretty pleased with the status quo. Besides,” Starlight grinned mischievously, before covering it with the same hoof. “I heard about your little mishap this morning. I figured you were probably going straight to Zecora’s.”

Twilight’s eyes popped wide. “How did you even know about that? Only the maid for the 3rd floor was told, and that was only because she started freaking out when she noticed unburned fibers of my tail among the ash on the floor of the room. I had to swear her to secrecy!”

“Oh, I ran into Spike while he was leaving the bathroom this morning, still brushing his teeth. He let me know!”

Twilight’s left eye twitched slightly. “Oh, did he now?”

“Oh, yes!” Starlight nodded. “Some of what he said was a little garbled by toothpaste, but he seemed pretty amused by the whole… thing...” Starlight leaned back in her seat as she noticed Twilight’s countenance starting to curdle.

Starlight held up a hoof to settle down the intensifying Princess. “Eh, not that he really—-“

“—Amused, eh?” Twilight growled. “And did he tell you that before, or after 8:17 this morning?”

“Heh heh… Swore him to secrecy too, huh?” Starlight squeaked.

Twilight’s only reply was a long stare, the temperature in the train cabin climbing a few degrees.

“Before! It was before! And besides, he wasn’t that amused by the whole ordeal. I mean, he did feel rather bad about it.”

Not yet he hasn’t.

After another moment of glaring at nothing, Twilight softened her features and leaned back again, taking a cleansing breath in through her nose before exhaling and flicking her hoof away as if pushing away all that negative energy and stress. “At least Zecora’s mane and tail regrowth potion seems to be working.”

Nodding her head, Starlight decided she needed to change the subject back to the pie fight. If this was how Twilight got with her tail, she would hate to see Rarity.

“So, the pie fight! Crazy thing, huh? I saw the fliers earlier about a pie tasting competition. How did it devolve into a pie fight?”

“It devolved exactly as Pinkie had planned it to.”

Twilight relaxed further as she looked at the ceiling with a crooked smile. “Pinkie had the whole thing set up from the start, the little schemer. Like I said, Pinkie somehow amassed 78% of the Ponyville adult population. Then, she piggybacked off of some tension between Granny Smith and Bon Bon over an incident between them during the Running of the Leaves Festival four weeks ago... And then finally, she rigged the ballot box so that the vote would come up as a tie. At that point, Sugarcube Corner was like a tinderbox, ready to go off at the slightest provocation. Lyra provided that provocation, defending Bon Bon from Granny.”

Starlight rubbed her chin. “Well, I can see how that developed, I guess. Why would Pinkie do that?”

“Smiles.” Starlight made no reply, so Twilight continued. “It was all part of some grand scheme to spread smiles all over Ponyville.”

“What she already does isn’t enough?”

“Well, I asked her about that, and she had valid reasoning.”

Starlight blinked skeptically. “Really?”

“Yup.” Twilight affirmed, before drawing in a deep breath. “The Harvest Festival last week is one of those emotional high points for everypony in Ponyville. Well, following that high point, there are about two to three weeks of stress and work for ponies to buckle down and prepare before winter hits.”

Starlight nodded her head, following Twilight so far. She had also noticed that in the weeks leading up to the first blast of winter, Ponies tended to get down in the mouth.

“So, Pinkie being Pinkie…” Twilight continued, “She’s noticed that trend. So she purchased the leavings of the Sweet Acres crop from Macintosh—the ones that are usually shipped off to be turned into applesauce and other products—and then taunted Applejack until she agreed to go against her in a bake-off.”

Starlight’s brows knitted as she processed what she just heard. “She… taunted AJ?”

There weren’t many ponies with the cajones to taunt AJ, and there were even fewer that could come close to her stubborn streak. Starlight wondered what in Tartarus Pinkie had said to entice her into doing such a thing.

“Well,” Twilight hedged. “That and she assured Applejack that it really was for a good cause. Heh. Applejack claims she didn’t really get annoyed with her until after it was all said and done. The way she told me, she said she could’ve had better uses for her morning than slaving away in the kitchen, worried about getting the recipes just right when the only critters that were goin’ to git a sample were the blasted earthworms.”

Starlight giggled. “You do a pretty good AJ impression.”

“You think so?” Twilight joined Starlight’s mirth. “I always thought I could do a better Rainbow Dash.”

The train whistle sounded, heralding the final approach as the gates to the city were now coming into view. At this elevation, the barren deciduous trees were beginning to thin out, replaced with the deeper greens of firs and junipers, their lengthening shadows darting past the windows in the setting sun. After another moment, the train began to decelerate.

“Do you think she’ll be disappointed?”

Starlight Glimmer’s attention was suddenly drawn back to Twilight, who’s voice had taken on a much more subdued tone.

“Celestia?” Twilight nodded her head. “C’mon, Twilight. She wanted you to aid her in getting back at her pranking younger sister, not save the Crystal Empire again! This is just an impromptu meeting…” Starlight rolled her eyes. “Over pranks, of all things.”

“And my tail!” Twilight defended. “I wanted to apologize for that fiasco as well! Even if the only damage that was done was to ruin a few pastries.”

“Donut Joe had never been so insulted in all his life.”

Twilight ignored her. “So do you think she’ll be disappointed?”

“Well, yes!” Starlight replied unapologetically. Twilight’s mouth fell open. “But that is perfectly okay. She can go ahead and be disappointed.”

“What?” Twilight sputtered an octave higher. “But that’s—”

“Twilight.” Starlight assured gently, patting Twilight’s hoof with her own. “Just because she asks you does not mean you have to say yes. You have more than enough on your plate to consider getting into... whatever this is between the ruling sisters. Celestia is a grown mare, and she won’t respect you any less for declining. This is something that has nothing to do with you!”

Starlight watched Twilight’s face carefully as she made to reply, but the alicorn stopped herself short, hesitating while she ruminated over the advice. The train continued steadily braking until it finally jerked to a halt, a recorded message announcing their arrival at Canterlot station #1, East Gate. Disturbing the momentary silence of the cabin, a series of knocks sounded at the door.

“Enter!” Twilight called out.

After a pause, the cabin door sprang open to reveal the head of Twilight’s security detail, a tall and muscular mare wearing an impressive set of matte gray armor. The dull color only set off the color of her brilliant fuschia mane all the more.

“Captain Berrytwist reporting in, Princess Sparkle. Security sweeps confirm threat level minimal, situation alpha. Proceed to destination?”

Inwardly giving a sigh, Twilight turned to face her oft too-intense captain with a grumble. “Ms. Berrytwist. You know you can just inform me that everypony is ready, right? We aren’t at war or anything—no desperate and dastardly diamond dogs… no maniacal and maddened minotaurs.”

Captain Berrytwist gave a little pout before straightening up and saluting. “Sorry Princess. I’ll try to keep my reports focused on only the pertinent info. But you did want to know that we performed a security sweep?”

“Um. Not so much.”

“Then you would appreciate we’ve confirmed there are no threats to your safety?”

Twilight tried not to grimace. “Not really. Um— “

“That we are ready to proceed?” Captain Berrytwist’s eyes had become rather intense as she was leaning further and further into the room.

“Yes!” Twilight blurted. “Just… that we are ready to go. It’s all I really need for now— “

“ —but— ”

“ —Thank you, Captain. Your work, as always, is most exemplary.”

Captain Berrytwist slowly ducked her head back out of the cabin again, the door closing quietly behind her. Twilight dropped her chin to her chest and let out a groan, shaking her head.

“She’s… kind of zealous, huh?” Starlight asked tentatively.

“You have no idea,” Twilight muttered, turning around to slip into her saddlebags. “I mean, it’s been six weeks since she started, and it can be a little much.” Twilight stretched her wings out to get the blood flowing again, the tips nearly grazing the sides of the train cabin. As the years had gone by her stature was starting to become more noticeable as slightly larger than her friends. “When Tempest—I mean, Fizzlepop Berrytwist—travelled all over Equestria to share her story and tell of the Storm King’s demise… her reception was lukewarm at best. She never did find a niche or a place for her rather singular skillset, and because of her legal history, she couldn’t apply for the guard.”

Starlight rolled her eyes. “Tell me about it. Between some of our more archaic legal codes and a good number of the nobility, why do you think my prospects for employment are so limited?”

Looking back to Twilight, Starlight discovered that the young princess looked hurt. She dropped her bags in an instant and came up to place a gentle hoof on the alicorn’s shoulder. “Not that I want a job change or anything! I love being the principal for the School of Friendship—I wouldn’t trade the position for anything in a million years!”

Twilight still looked anxious. “You’re sure? I don’t want you to feel— “

“ —It’s not that, Twilight! Leading my school is wonderful, I swear! It’s just that… what?”

Twilight was smirking. “You called it ‘your’ school. I like it.”

Starlight’s cheeks colored slightly. “Well, it has taken some time to get used to. But it can still feel a little bit confining, knowing that if things were to change for the worst, my choices of what else I could do would be limited. You know why it is we rarely get a noble’s brat to attend school there.”

Frowning, Twilight nodded her head, looking out the window to take in the golden spectacle that was Canterlot. Between the soaring spires and the gilded storefronts, she wondered about the levels of inequality that was displayed.

“Anyway,” Starlight went on. “Finding a home for Tempest Shadow was how Celestia finally talked you into having your own personal guard. You wouldn’t have budged, otherwise.”

“She does make an excellent Captain of my security team,” Twilight muttered ruefully. “Although I refuse to call it a Guard. Sounds too much like everything surrounding the ruling sisters, and I don’t want that. And for all of the headache, Captain Berrytwist just adores her new position.” Twilight covered a giggle with her hoof. “We just need a little more training so she doesn’t scare away all of the ponies who are seeking my help.” Twilight pursed her lips as she rubbed her mane, wondering if that was why her schedule lately had seemed to be slightly more open.

Starlight stretched her neck to the side with a pop before she smiled warmly. “Well. Let’s not keep your brave captain waiting, yeah?”

“...Yeah.”

* * *

“And as you can see, represented in the remaining sliver of the pie chart...” Twilight ignored Starlight’s snicker as she muttered “pie chart” under her breath. “Spending time to aid with your efforts to retaliate against Princess Luna simply can’t be squeezed into my schedule. It just isn’t feasible!”

Twilight finished her presentation for Princess Celestia with a toothy grin, watching her former mentor’s face for any signs that she had let her down, or perhaps hurt her feelings. To her confusion, the princess only looked amused, sipping at her evening tea before placing it down on her desk.

“Well Twilight, I thank you for that most thorough explanation.” Princess Celestia stood up from her cushion and came along side of the smaller alicorn before leaning down to nuzzle her for a moment. “As always my dear former student, I appreciate your preparation—but a simple no thank you would have sufficed.”

Twilight’s ears folded back, just in time to pick up a muttered “told ya” from her former student.

“That being said,” Celestia went on in a louder voice, “I still welcome your company. It has been a rather trying day, what with Luna finding a renewed interest in doing pranks. Perhaps, while you are here, you could help me brainstorm a few ideas to get her back.” Celestia giggled mischievously as her horn gave a bright flash, simultaneously locking both doors of the rooms before encapsulating the entire space with one of her privacy spells. “Luna… doesn’t have to know a thing.”

Starlight and Twilight exchanged glances before Twilight lifted a hoof. “Um, if you want to brainstorm on the subject of pranking, I think you have the wrong element of harmony here.”

“Actually,” Celestia replied smugly, “I was pretty sure that you wouldn’t join me, so I took the liberty of contacting Rainbow Dash earlier, and her train should get to the East Gate station in about fifteen minutes. If I can recall her exact words, I think it was “That’s just so totally awesome.”

Twilight lifted single eyebrow, watching her mentor as she pulled her hooves back away from her pristine white cheeks. “Um, Princess? Don’t ever do that again. Ever.”

Celestia pouted. “Still not a budding actress, hm? Ah well.” Celestia paused, before rubbing her hooves together in glee. “Never mind. Lulu doesn’t know it yet, but she has just awoken the sleeping giant. And she’s about to get eclipsed.”

Twilight’s other brow joined the first. In all of the years she had known her mentor, Princess Celestia still managed to surprise her from time to time.

“But first, I wanted to share a tidbit of news with you Twilight, and I am glad that you are here as well, Ms. Glimmer.” In an instant, Princess Celestia’s demeanor had changed, and her smirk had quickly morphed into something more intense. “Some kind of magical mishap or attack has occured in Manehattan. For obvious reasons, I wanted you two in on the loop of what is going on in case this turns out to be more than an isolated incident.”

Reeling from the rapid change in conversational topic, Twilight’s ears stood straight, and she gave Starlight a worried glance. “Did anypony get hurt? What happened?”

Celestia gave a sigh. “Over in Manehattan, a quiet, middle-aged librarian has… well, for lack of a better word, she has turned violent and feral. Without provocation or warning, she attacked the library’s patrons. Some of her attacks might have been hoof to hoof, but for the most part, according to eyewitness reports, she bombarded the patrons telekinetically with books.”

Twilight gaped for a moment while Starlight raised her hoof as if class were in session. “I’m sorry, she… threw books at the patrons? Whatever for?”

“Well, that’s the mystery.” Celestia explained, her horn lighting up again to project an image of the Manehattan Library. “The attack happened at 1:30 this afternoon, and fortunately there were only minor injuries reported. The police sedated and apprehended the suspect at around 1:45, but since then, nopony has been able to reason with her.”

The image changed to then portray Manehattan General Hospital, zooming in on the psychiatric wing. “She is being kept under sedation at this time, here. Every time our specialists attempt to revive her in order to do further assessment, she flies into a rage and becomes a danger to others as well as herself.”

Starlight spoke up. “Does she say anything while she is awake?”

“As far as we can tell she is non-verbal, acting more like a wild animal than an intelligent pony. Our best magical experts have applied every magical scan that they know of, but the most their examinations have shown is a faint aura of dark magic. Unfortunately, this dark magic is so basic and primal that they can learn nothing more specific about it.”

Starlight stroked her chin in thought while Twilight spoke up. “What’s next?”

Celestia pressed her lips together. “I will meet with Luna when she awakens later this evening, and we will prepare to accept the librarian into our care. We hope to discover what happened and to remove whatever it is that affected her. We will also send some of our best agents to investigate.

“You can count on us, Princess.” Twilight replied without hesitation.

“Actually… this won’t require the assistance of your group, Twilight, at least not at this stage. This is only an investigation, and until we better understand what is at hoof, I would rather leave it assigned to some of my more covert agents.

“Ah. Right!” Twilight blushed a little.

“However, I do appreciate your willingness to see to it.”

“Heh heh. No problem, Celestia.” Twilight wasn’t sure if she felt relieved or disappointed. Maybe just embarrassed? Yep. Definitely a little embarrassed. It was fine. Probably fine. The whole thing was probably much ado about nothing.

“Anyway.” Celestia waved her hoof dismissively as if she were shooing away an annoying insect, a grin returning to her face. “We can’t do anything at the moment. Why don’t you two tell me about this intriguing event that went down in Ponyville today while we wait for Ms. Dash. I received a rather interesting report form Agent Sweetiedrops.”

* * *

Tempest looked from her keycard to the slot by the doorknob again. It was startling that there was nothing magical about the device, and yet somehow, her door would open by a simple swipe of the plastic card she held in her hoof. Grinning, she swiped the card again, hearing the satisfying click of the latch unlocking automatically.

I know what the manager said. I don’t care. There has to be some magic at play. There must be!

Her inquisitive nature made it difficult to not take the darn thing apart to discover how it worked, but she had other business this evening. Sliding the keycard into her saddlebags, Tempest looked up and down the hallway before heading for the exit sign near the lobby. It wasn’t midnight, but it was late enough that most ponies had already checked in and retired for the evening.

With another look towards her saddlebags, Tempest made sure that her fixation charm was secure, keeping her saddlebags firmly pressed against her flanks to hide her cutie mark. It was her best idea in a strategy to hide in plain sight, and she thought of it after she paid for a mane dye and purchased a snappy new jacket. After the debacle at the library and the scene she made in the streets of Manehattan evading the police, she didn’t want to draw any more attention to herself, and she hoped these steps would be sufficient to protect her identity.

“Heading out for the evening, Miss?”

In front of the lobby doors, Tempest looked back at the reception desk to gaze at the young earth pony stallion managing the hotel for the night shift. The bright blue pony was warmly smiling at her, eager to assist and perhaps with a flirtatious air.

“I shouldn’t be gone more than a couple of hours. You’ll leave the lights on for me, won’t you Mr…?”

The stallion stood up a little straighter. “Dusty Inglenook, at your service. It would be my pleasure, m’lady.” He gave an overly formal bow. Tempest imagined if she had held out a hoof he would’ve likely kissed it. “Anything you require, tonight. I am at your service.”

“Yes… quite.” Tempest ducked her head, her face burning a little bit as she turned away. It had been a long time since a stallion had looked at her that way. “Your thoughts are welcome… er.” Tempest shook her head, her face heating up further. That came out wrong. “I mean, you are most kind. Thank you sir. Um, good night.”

“Good night, m’lady.” Inglenook grinned. “And… stay out of the darker alleys and side streets. A lady such as yourself can’t be too careful, what with some unsavory characters skulking around out there.”

The stallion’s smile was almost slimy, but it could have been her imagination.

Right. Wouldn’t want to come across any unsavory hotel managers either. I’ll keep that in mind.

“I should be fine, Mr. Inglenook. Fare thee well.” Tempest internally winced at her verbal slip as she brushed her newly tinted green bangs back from her face. Without another word, she closed up the fastener on her jacket and stepped out into the chilly night air.

The maps and guides in her motel room were helpful in getting more oriented, and now that she knew the layout of the city better, she headed to the south with a purpose. Still, she kept a watchful eye out for any ponies that might still be up and about. Unsavory characters didn’t concern her so much as the police, ironically enough. Especially if the police had a good description of what she looked like. For the fifth or sixth time that day, she wondered whether she should have gone even further in altering her appearance.

Fortunately, amulet fabrication didn’t require a lot of floor space or fancy machinery. What it did require, however, was two things. A custom jig for tracing runes in an exact manner, and a device that could channel and amplify mana. The jig she already had, having completed its construction only an hour earlier. The mana amplifier? That’s why she needed to head due south about four kilometers distant. It was her friend at Sisters’ School, Bright Light, that was key in her finally discovering the secret to amulet creation.

* * *

“I’m serious, Tempest. You need to go to medical. Your headaches are getting to where they are a daily occurrence! I’m worried about you.”

“And I’m telling you, Bright. They’re nothing to be concerned about. It’s just the stress of my project that’s getting to me. That’s it. But by the time I’m done you’re gonna see something truly special.”

“Not if your headaches worsen further. And now your nose is bleeding. C’mon. I’ll go with you.”

Hoofing a kerchief, Tempest pressed it to the end of her muzzle. Her voice sounded partially muffled through the material. “Bright, just because your speciality is healing magics doesn’t mean that everypony is suffering from some pathology. I'm perfectly—ack!” Tempest winced as another wave of pain turned sharp, centered right at the base of her horn. Embarrassed, she turned away, rubbing her forehead with one hoof while keeping the kerchief pressed up with the other.

“Ack? Perfectly ack? Define ack.” Bright Light leaned further over Tempest’s bunk, trying to meet her eyes. His gaze wandered up to look more closely at her horn. “Is that… a mana scorch-mark?”

Tempest’s eyes widened before she quickly moved a hoof up, hiding the bit of char that was near the tip. Bright’s much larger hooves rolled her back towards him and his horn lit up, doing a magical scan.

“Lay off! I didn’t sign any consent to treatment!” Tempest batted at Bright’s horn, trying to tap it so she could fizzle out his spell. “What’s the matter with you?”

“You lay off, Tempest! Friends don’t let friends channel mana drunk!” Bright easily defended against Tempest’s single-hoofed pawing.

“I’m not drunk, you big lug!”

“Hungover, then.”

“It’s not a hangover!”

“A tumor?”

“IT’S NOT A TUMOR!”

“Whatever it is, I’m not going to stop bothering you until we get to the bottom of it. I’m your friend, Tempest. Besides. Who else am I going to appeal to when Princess Luna’s practical exams get too hard in “defense against the dark arts?”

Tempest glared at her friend for a moment, but Bright Light didn’t relent a bit. His steely brown eyes continued to stare hers down with a level look.

“Fiiiiine.” Tempest rolled her eyes, before moving the kerchief to see if the bleeding had stopped. “Listen. I’ve been trying to embed runes into crystal, to imbue magical properties into it, such as lightning, or fire.” She grinned back at him, waggling her eyebrows despite her scintillating headache. “Or flight.”

“Impossible. The best enchanters of our day have never figured it out.” Bright continued gazing at her, before his eyes widened slightly. Tempest had a particular smirk on her face he knew only too well. “Wait. You’ve discovered something?”

“Preliminary results, Bright. But even so, the math is working out. I am getting more power retained in a crystal matrix than should be possible. But I need a more powerful beam to embed the rune.”

Bright scowled at her for a minute. “More power like what might be causing mana-scorching?”

Tempest sighed, rubbing her horn gingerly with a hoof. “It takes an intensely focused beam. And it takes everything I got to channel it. And you know my horn can pack quite a punch.”

Bright rolled his eyes. “Oh don’t go bragging again how you lifted all of the exam weights, and then the examiners as well during your school orientation.” He studied Tempest for a moment as the two watched each other in silence. “You aren’t going to stop this, are you?”

Tempest gave a wan smile. Bright knew her too well. “Would you? I can’t stop. Not when I am this close!”

Looking pensive for a moment, Bright knelt down and lowered his voice to a whisper. “What if it’s somepony else’s horn?”

“What?” Tempest scooted back to look at Bright again. Not just because of what he said, but because his breath in her ear tickled. “And scorch somepony else’s? I can’t do that to somepony! Besides, it would let them see the secret I’m working on.”

Bright grinned. “Oh, he won’t mind. He’s dead.” Tempest just looked back in confusion, her mouth hanging open.

“Wait right there. I’m going to sneak into the anatomy lab for something. You know absolutely nothing about this.”

* * *

Several monuments jutted from the cold earth, sentinels that stood watch over the deserted grounds of the Grand Lake Memorial Cemetery. The temperature continued to plummet as Tempest hunkered down further within the collar of her new jacket, seeking warmth. The pungent smell of the jacket’s new material mixed oddly with the wet and earthy smells of the hedgerow obscuring the stonework wall behind it. The wall encircled the entirety of the cemetery, enclosing an area roughly the size of four city blocks, dimly lit in the pale moonlight.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VmcociyH0d8

A large wrought iron gate hung from bulky gate pillars two meters to either side, the doors meeting in the middle to bar her entry. Since only a heavy steel latch held the doors in place, it was a simple matter to use her magic to lift the latch and slide the metal bar to the side with a clack.

Pushing the gate open, Tempest winced as the rusty hinges squealed in protest, piercing the silent air with their metallic cry. The surrounding area by comparison seemed to hold its breath seeming to grow more silent if such a thing were possible.

Tempest cleared her throat, glancing over her shoulder nervously. “Heh. The hinges were rusty.” She rolled her eyes. “Of course they were.”

Wincing again, this time at the sound of her overly loud voice, Tempest nuzzled into her jacket again and gave a sigh. She spoke in a quieter tone, if for no other reason than to fill the silence. “Whelp. Let’s go get a unicorn horn.”

Passing the gate, Tempest thought for a moment as she looked at it, cold and black as if the moonlight couldn’t find purchase on its surface.

Best to just leave the thing ajar. With everything else I gotta do tonight, I don’t want to hear that sound again.

Walking further in, she began to scan left and right for signs of a recent burial. Some of the statuary caught her eye, and she walked up closer to a larger monument, the burial site of a pegasus mare named Dawning Dove. Tempest looked over the weathered surface of the granite noting a few cracks and some lichens growing beneath the lettering.

The lettering.

Tempest shook her head in some mild disbelief. She read the date again, tracing the rough surface with her hoof. 476 CE. This mare passed on over four hundred years after Tempest had been exiled. And more time than that had passed on since this mare had been laid to rest. Tempest shuddered, as feelings of isolation and abandonment crept into her heart. Everypony she had known was gone, save for two alicorns. One she meant to save, the other to destroy. She looked down at The Eye dangling from a simple cord around her neck.

Tears began to come to her eyes. She had agreed to accept this foul entity’s help. She had refused his first offer, but then he had accepted her counteroffer without hesitation. It was that lack of hesitation that bothered her the most. Had she made a mistake?

That is a distinct possibility, if what happened to the Librarian is any indication. Can I trust this power that seemed to be freely given? Was it worth it? Should I have simply accepted a different fate and made my peace? Would I be happy, dwelling in whatever place this pegasus now resided?

Tempest shook her head again and frowned, backing away from the intimidating grave marker as she wiped away the moisture rapidly cooling as it trailed down her cheeks. Perhaps it was the environment that was getting her. She couldn’t afford to have doubts, not now—she was locked into her course, and her destiny had been set. She had been allowed to wield some of this creature’s power, an entity calling itself Maelstrom. But even so, he held no power over her, his promises of greater power be damned! She had rebuffed him! What she had now was enough. It had to be. How could she appreciate being reunited with her mother, if the power she wielded killed her or warped her into something unrecognizable?

No. I am wiser than that. I won’t fall to Maelstrom’s siren song.

Setting her jaw firm, Tempest looked around again. The moonlight was bright enough that she could make out moderate details of the area around her. She would continue until she found a recent burial plot. It wouldn’t be pleasant, but it was absolutely necessary.

Walking further ahead, Tempest continued to scan the grounds as she breathed mist into the icy night air. Rounding another copse of oak trees, she saw it: a site with freshly disturbed earth, a new layer of turf spread over the surface. Walking closer, she noted further that fresh flowers had been placed that couldn’t have been more more than a couple of days old.

Now. If only this plot is the resting place for a fellow of my tribe.

Tempest breathed out a relieved sigh, reading the name inscribed above the epitaph. With a one in three chance, fortune was on her side tonight. Placing her hoof on the surface of the rather generic grave stone, she closed her eyes in quiet contemplation, offering a silent thanks to the deceased.

Sir, I know you have probably lived a full life. Unfortunately, in your horn there remains a greater purpose yet to fulfill. Please forgive the intrusion, but I need to remove a part for a little while. I promise to return it. Eventually.

Tempest brought a small saw out of her saddle bags, the metal teeth gleaming in the soft light.
Her eyes traced the blade from toe to heel as she contemplated the moment. How had it come to this? To skulk into a graveyard, to exhume a body, and to sever its horn? What was this, a macabre ghost story told by foals?

But like her saw, sharpened so that it might easily remove the desired appendage, she was ready. Prepared and refined to do what was necessary, to plunge into whatever filth or decay that was necessary in order to attain her victory. Such were the sacrifices that needed to be made to free Luna for good.

Lighting her horn, Tempest began her grisly work.

* * *

His mane was immaculate. The servants of House Pavo had done first-class work, as was their norm. Urbane, that’s what it was. His servants had assured that his suit would be spotless of any speck of lint or hair, and that his mane was coiffed with just the right flare. All thanks to Uncle Royston, the patriarch of the noble house of Pavo. He only hired the most attentive and the best. Not that Narcisse would tell any of his servants that. One must keep their servants lean and hungry, and eager to please.

Narcisse Pavo rounded the corner of the corridor, ignoring the beautiful tapestries that softened the harsh appearance of the no-nonsense stonework that marked Luna’s wing of the castle. He kept his eyes trained firmly ahead, focused on the task that was set before him. Narcisse was employed as a lead operative for Princess Luna’s Agents of Moonlight, and he was usually called upon when the Princess needed information gathering and undercover work. His methods, which ranged from unorthodox to downright ruthless, usually brought rapid success. He was not a pony to be trifled with.

Looking ahead, he took in the appearance of the two night guards standing watch on either side of the Nightfall room, Luna’s favorite briefing quarters. The guards didn’t seem to acknowledge him, but he knew that they must’ve been well-aware of his approach.

Predictably, the two bat ponies leaned their pole-arms across his his path as he arrived, causing him to grunt and roll his eyes as he came up short. “Seriously? Haven’t you two been briefed that I was coming? Princess Luna has need of my services, so don’t waste my time.” The guards, a mare and a stallion, narrowed their eyes at him in turn, the stallion baring his fangs. As if such a thing would intimidate him in any way. Narcisse tapped his hoof on the floor. “If you don’t stand aside in five seconds you two will be finding your plots guarding Magical Kindergarten. I am being generous!”

“You can wait like any other dignitary or officer until you have been announced.” The stallion growled out. “You are not above expected levels of decorum, or castle policy for that matter. You will wait like anypony else.”

As the guard, whatever his fool name was, turned to the door, Narcisse clicked his tongue. “And if I don’t?” He bristled. “The two of you couldn’t stop me from entering if you tried.”

At that point the door sprang open from the inside, sheathed in a familiar bluish glow. Princess Luna’s face then followed, narrowing her eyes as she glared past her guards towards the unicorn antagonizing them. “Must you bait my night guards, Narcisse? Thou certainly aren’t winning any friends or influencing ponies with your arrogant behavior.” The Lunar Diarch turned on her hoof and walked back to her desk, a dark mahogany number with silver metallic accents. “Enter and be seated… and civil.”

Narcisse passed between the two guards, feeling their glares upon him as he used his magic to close the door, not even dignifying the two with a look. “My most sincere apologies, Princess Luna.” He sat in the chair provided, straightening his suit and tie before looking up again, morphing his face to one of contrition. “I am sorry, my Lady Liege. I humbly ask your indulgence for my eccentricities.”

Princess Luna gazed emotionlessly at Narcisse for a moment, her eyes tracking upwards to his ridiculously coiffed red mane, before she smirked. “...No you aren’t. You’re not sorry in the least. And you don’t fool me for a second, you puffed up, pontificating peacock.”

Narcisse tensed for a moment, not liking the Princess’s tone, or her wordplay.

“I keep you in my employ, because quite simply, you are the most effective agent I have that operates during my sister’s day. You seem able to infiltrate any unsavory element, and can gather information more effectively than my night agents… At least you can while the sun is still up.”

Studying the polished surface of his alabaster hoof, Narcisse shrugged unconcernedly. In a mood to be indulgent, he let her aspersion slide. “I thank you, my liege, for your faith in me. I remain your humble servant.”

The Princess snorted, but her expression was one of bemusement.

“What is your assignment for me?”

“You will take your private airship and head with all speed to the city Manehattan. There were a few strange events yesterday, culminating in a quiet librarian being corrupted into some kind of feral, violent creature, resembling a pony, and yet twisted somehow. Thus far our magic healers have been unable to recover her right mind.”

Narcisse knitted his brows for a moment, trying to think of any device or spell that would have such an effect, and yet be undiscoverable or to render a pony unrecoverable. “Any other victims to this mysterious attack?”

“Nay.” Luna stood up from behind her desk, a file folder with some documents held in her magic beside her. “You assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to investigate each of these strange events. See if you can establish whether the attack and other strange events are related to one another. If another event happens, like the one with the librarian, I want you to exert your skills of investigation and scrutiny to find the link, and if possible, the pony or creature responsible. Track them down, detain them, and apprehend them if at all possible. Do not kill them. Your pay will be as before.”

Narcisse accepted the folder into his own magic, bringing it to him so that he could quickly peruse the contents. “Any other special instructions for me, your highness?”

“Only to be careful, Narcisse.” Princess Luna gave a tired sigh. “I care for you, as I do all my ponies. If you require more resources, do not hesitate to contact me through my agency in Manehattan. The rest of the information is in there.” Luna indicated the folder with a hoof.

“I will leave as soon as The Exelsior is fueled and equipped. If I may take my leave?”

“You are dismissed.”

* * *

This day sure didn’t turn out the way she was hoping. Meadow turned the corner, walking back towards her condo located near the hospitality sector of Manehattan. After visiting a few stores and restocking her cupboards, Meadow had returned to visit with her cousin Coco again. Coco had invited a couple of friends over, and they had enjoyed a lively evening of their favorite card game of Chardoneigh. It was a welcome distraction, but now that she was heading home, her feelings of foreboding and suspicion were returning.

She didn’t want to feel that way about Tempest. Tartarus, the only reason she approached Tempest in the first place was to try to keep the new tradition for Equestria’s newest holiday celebrating Princess Twilight: to make a new friend. But it rapidly became more than that.

The unicorn had looked pensive and lonely, and it seemed as if the entire ship was ignoring her presence. After introducing herself, and then later when Tempest began to open up, Meadow found herself becoming more and more enthralled by the mare. By the time the voyage was done, Meadow’s desire for friendshipping the mare was completely genuine. It had become more than a simple gesture to fulfill a new tradition for Friendship Day.

Now, however—as she reviewed all of the day’s events in her mind—she couldn’t quite shake the feeling that there was something off about the mare, and not just because of her old and weathered cloak or her funny mode of speech as if she were Princess Luna barely back from the moon.

As Meadow was about to turn the latch to her front door, she looked across the street and noticed a tall unicorn mare walking the other way. Because of her position behind some landscaping, Meadow was able to study the mare as she passed without fear of being seen. What caught her eye was a distinctive yellow to the mare’s coat, combined with the mare’s taller stature and bangs. The mare would look a lot like Tempest, if not for the greenish tint of her bangs, and the shorter cropped style she had in the back.

Meadow turned back around and opened her door, but after a second she froze, her pupils constricting to pinpricks.

Her mane!

Meadow’s cousin was one of the better known mane stylists in Manehattan. Depeche Vogue wasn’t as close to her as Coco was, but she knew his work when she saw it. Tinting a pony’s bangs and cropping the mane short at the crest was a style he was well-known for, and if Tempest were to meet with him in order to alter her look… well, if she met Depeche, she might walk out of his salon looking like that.

Pushing the door shut behind her, Meadow turned around to follow. If this was Tempest, she would need to explain a few things, including her new look. Blowing her bangs out of her eyes, Meadow made her way across the street.

Chapter Eight: Acquiescence

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That had to be Tempest. Meadow was almost sure of it.

Meadow’s eyes followed the unicorn mare as she walked past on the other side of the street. Her yellow coat seemed to turn a weird orange color beneath the pressurized sodium street lamps, but that didn’t change Meadow’s opinion. Shadows danced as the mare’s hooves clopped against the sidewalk, her gait hesitating every so often as she paused to cast a furtive glance behind her.

Pausing at the intersection for a moment, her breath blowing out puffs of mist in the crisp night air, the mare continued on her course. Meadow’s mind raced as she turned back around to re-latch her door, mumbling to herself a few choice words. She really didn’t like confrontations, but in this—she felt like she was due some answers. At least if she could learn more about what her new friend was up to, she might make a more informed decision about whether anything significant was going on.

Should she be concerned, or was she just jumping at shadows? Did these doubts make sense, or were they more a reaction to what happened at the library? She had half a mind to go to the police, but she felt she owed it to her friend to give her the benefit of the doubt.

Crossing the street at an angle to intercept her friend, Meadow trotted as silently as she could. She racked her brain to think up of some harmless questions that might lead somewhere, but unfortunately, her mind went increasingly blank the closer she got.

Meadow’s ears twitched as she realized she would need to think of something quick. It was only another moment before Tempest would notice the clopping of her hooves. Why couldn’t they have this conversation over breakfast later? That would be less confrontational, right?

...And why was there mud over the backs of Tempest’s ankles and fetlocks?

“Ahem!” Meadow attempted to clear her throat loudly, but it really came out more as a spoken word than a sound effect, so she ended up just feeling silly. Tempest seemed to freeze in place, but she did not turn around. “Um, Tempest? Could I talk to you for a minute?”

Tempest’s ears folded back as she lowered her head a few inches before turning around to face her. “Meadow?” Her voice sounded flat and lifeless. “What are you doing out here?”

“I…” Meadow looked around, trying to gather her wits. The timbre of Tempest’s voice did not fill her with confidence. Tempest’s saddlebags caught her eye. “Well, I was just finishing up some shopping! You know, I had to restock my kitchen after being away for three months. Nothing in the cupboards at all except for some ramen! Heh.” Meadow hated how her voice ended on a squeak.

Tempest raised a suspicious eyebrow. “Your merchants and markets conduct their transactions as late as one in the morning?”

“Well, not exactly! After shopping I went over to Coco’s house and then I uh…” Meadow hesitated, her mouth opening and closing a few times, but no further words made their way out.

“Go home, Meadow.” Tempest sighed as she turned her head to look down the street. “It’s late, and I’m weary. If you want to be social, you can find me later at the Friendship Inn.” She lifted a hoof to point two blocks down the road. “There, on 2nd street.”

Meadow’s throat tightened up for a few seconds, and her eyes started to sting. Tempest’s dismissal smarted a bit, but it was the boost her willpower needed to confront her friend. The irony of Tempest staying at the Friendship Inn while dismissing her in such a way was not lost on her. Meadow squared her shoulders and took a deep breath, lowering her head just a fraction.

“No, Tempest. And I’m sorry if you’re tired—but my day hasn’t exactly been peachy, either.”

Tempest’s eyebrows furrowed. ‘...Peachy?’

“Peachy!” Meadow affirmed. “We are having this conversation, right now. I feel like there is something weird going on, and I want some answers. And if nothing funny is going on, then you are probably going to need a friend that can help keep you out of trouble, since you’re so good at finding it.”

Tempest let out a long breath, turning her head to glare at the darkened storefronts across the street. She opened her mouth to reply, but then mutely shook her head, dropping her gaze to look at her hooves instead.

“C’mon, Tempest.” Meadow coaxed, her voice quieter. “You know I’m just going to find you again with more questions. Wouldn’t you rather it be me asking questions than the police?”

Tempest looked up sharply, her eyes slightly narrowed.

Meadow felt a little more sure that she was on the right path here, and that little suggestion had certainly gotten her friend’s attention. But at the same time, she wondered what it meant. Why was Tempest so anxious about the police?

Pursing her lips, Tempest looked contemplative before answering. “I’ll answer your questions, Meadow. My hope is that I can put you at ease. I am concerned about something at the very heart of this nation, but we can’t speak of this out in the open. Would you be so kind as to join me in my Hotel room?”

* * *

Easing the control yoke forward, the sleek airship gently nosed downward to begin its descent. In a matter of minutes, they would be within the eighty kilometer boundary and within range of the Distant Communications Array for Manehattan. It wasn’t often that Narcisse had access to the flagship of the Pavo Clan, and he was going to squeeze every bit of enjoyment out of the experience as possible.

“Ahem.”

That is, if the Captain didn’t make too big of a scene. Narcisse doubted that would happen— technically, he outranked him.

Narcisse glanced carelessly back at the white-maned Captain, Silver Strutt. Silver’s mustache twitched in annoyance. He was likely more angry than he let on. That only caused Narcisse to smirk.

“One moment, Captain Strutt.” Narcisse held up a hoof to forestall him before bringing it down to flick a yellow switch on the chair’s left console. A subtle new hum joined the ambient noise within the bridge, indicating the working servos that lowered a polished titanium screen down over the angled pane of the windshield.

The purple-maned navigator sat up from his post, glaring at Narcisse quizzically. Narcisse ignored him, appreciating the hardened defensive shield as it lowered into place. The Excelsior had strong magical defenses of course, but for additional protection, especially for cases in which magic would not be enough, the specialized craft had been outfitted with strong metal barriers that could protect the more delicate parts of the ship. Narcisse found the forward defensive shield especially useful—not that he thought their mission would require any defenses. He just liked to use the panel’s reflective surface to ensure his mane was still coiffed properly.

Even more than the switches to activate the forward guns, this was his favorite.

Smoothing out one or two hairs that were out of place, Narcisse deactivated the shields with another flick of his hoof, satisfied. He really didn’t have any regrets, but it would be nice to pilot the Excelsior a little more often. It was one of life’s true joys to command such an impressive machine. Off slight to the right, the horizon began to blush with the first hints of dawn. It looked like Princess Celestia’s sun would be up within the hour.

From his right, there was a sound of somepony clearing his throat more forcefully. “Ahem! Um. Commodore?” Captain Strutt pulled at his bushy mustache impatiently. “The beacon?”

Narcisse gave a thinly veiled eyeroll as he watched the horizon. He was well aware of flight regulations regarding ground control contact for recognition when breaching the 80 kilometer boundary. He didn’t need to be reminded like a foal. But no harm would come from piloting the Excelsior just a bit longer in silence.

No harm to him anyway.

“Allow me to just enjoy a few more minutes of peace, my dear Captain. Let’s not spoil the moment.”

“But—”

“—Nahp!” Narcisse shushed, motioning with a downward swipe of his hoof. “The ground ponies can afford to sweat a little bit about our mysterious blip on their MADAR screens. With a more interesting start to their lackluster day they won’t even need coffee.”

“Ground ponies?” Came a muttering growl from the engineer to his left. Narcisse paid her no mind. He didn’t even know her name.

Captain Strutt stomped a forehoof lightly on the metal deck and huffed. “Sir, I really think that—”

Ignoring him, Narcisse reached his left hoof forward and flicked a green switch on the console to his right. “—Galley!”

A speaker built into the back of the captain’s chair came to life with a sharp pop as a feminine voice responded tentatively. “Yes... sir?”

“Ah, Blackberry.” Narcisse grinned.

The speaker crackled for a moment in hesitation. “Umm?”

“Bring up some coffee, my dear. Oh, and bring up my mission files as well, the ones with Princess Luna’s insignia? They’re on my desk.”

“Yes. Um, right away sir.”

“Oh, and Blackberry?”

“Sir?”

Narcisse’s grin turned a touch lecherous. “Whether you use your own hot flanks to deliver them to the bridge is optional, but you know what I would prefer. That is all.”

An offended huff sounded from the other end of the line before it went dead, leaving Narcisse chuckling as he flicked the intercom switch back off. Feeling the intensity of the glare from the Captain, he hovered his right hoof over the comm-beacon switch and looked over his right shoulder.

“I’m sorry, Captain. You were saying—?”

Silver Strutt’s eyes narrowed as he glared at Narcisse’s hoof over the controls. After another moment he went on, sounding exasperated. “I was saying, sir, that the uniform codes and communication regulations for air traffic mandates that—”

With an audible click, Narcisse’s hoof held down the button, pinging ground control and opening the Excelsior’s communications channel. Reflexively Captain Strutt shut his mouth again, knowing the mic was now live. The response was immediate.

“...Tower, MADAR contact to unknown airship. Identify and state intention? Repeat, this is Manehattan Celestial Tower, MADAR contact, unknown airship identify and state your intention.” Narcisse couldn’t help but notice that the air traffic controller’s voice sounded a little strained.

Leaning forward, Narcisse cleared his throat and spoke into the mic. “Affirmative. Lunar Class airship Pavo-1A01. Seventy-eight klicks west by southwest, inbound for landing with full crew complement of myself plus twenty two.”

The ATC’s voice replied, sounding moderately relieved. “Pavo-1A01, ident confirmed. You are cleared to dock, mooring tower seven. Descend to 1500 Meters until outer beacon. Adjust your heading eight degrees north.” Narcisse could hear Silver grinding his teeth behind him.

He struggled to hide a smile. “Copy that, Celestial Tower.”

The controller’s voice responded with a sigh. “And next time, please comply with the eighty kilometer boundary, Pavo-1.”

Narcisse’s voice became syrupy sweet. “Of course, Celestial Tower. I’ll let my trainee know. It shan’t happen again.”

* * *

Meadow paced back and forth in Tempest’s hotel suite while the taller pony sat motionless, watching her. Now that Tempest had agreed to answer a few questions, Meadow was becoming more and more agitated by the minute.

Tempest’s version of events seemed to be so convoluted, so twisted… and yet there seemed to be nothing she could say to convince the mare that perhaps she had it wrong. Especially when Tempest defended with the fact that she actually lived in that time period, so she of all ponies should know.

But that was impossible! The only creatures capable of a lifespan like that were alicorns and dragons, and Tempest was neither! Not unless she was hiding a pair of wings under her cloak or was using some type of crazy illusion spell.

“Tempest, what you are suggesting is equivalent to treason… It’s assassination! You are talking about the premeditated murder of the most benevolent being known to Ponykind!”

“I don’t want to kill anypony, Meadow. I only want to free my mother. But if it takes the death of Celestia to do it, then so be it.”

“...so be it, she says!” Meadow gave a chortle, far more high-pitched than she expected, before she pounded down on the side of the bed with a hoof. “So be it? Tempest, you aren’t just crazy, you have delusions within your delusions!”

Meadow went back to her pacing. “In the thousand-year rule of Princess Celestia, the whole time since she banished her sister, there are several examples where she alone stood against the darker elements of this world, defending her ponies with only what force was necessary. And then, after such times of turmoil and destruction, did she take more power and act as an aggressor? No! She returned local control to the mayors and magistrates, and she allowed foreign nations to rebuild! She has only afforded us peace and freedom! Does that sound like a tyrant to you?”

“I am sure that is what your textbooks have taught.”

Meadow’s glare became a little harder. “It sure makes more sense than what you are spouting!”

Tempest forestalled her with an upraised hoof. “It doesn’t matter. Even if her rule was as peaceful and benevolent as you say, it was all built off of the most loathsome of betrayals. I was there. Celestia is content with her power for now… But I know what she is really capable of.”

Meadow was floored. How could she reason with such a mare that to her core believed such radically different ideas? A mare whose view was so twisted from how things really were? Even further, did Tempest really think she could pull such a thing off? A coup against Celestia?

“Okay, okay…” Meadow Lark shook her head, suddenly sitting down and holding her hooves to the sides of her head. “Let’s… put that aside for a moment, as crazy as it sounds to even say put that aside.” Meadow took a few calming breaths. “You have given me no proof for any of this. None of it! There is no way for you to prove you are that old. No way to prove you are Princess Luna’s daughter. I mean, your color scheme is nowhere near her pallette!”

“That’s an old mare’s tale…”

“I DON’T CARE!”

“Meadow.” Tempest stood up, heaving a sigh. “Please calm down. You’ll wake others in the hotel.”

Biting the side of her cheek, Meadow winced and looked down. “Sorry.”

“You see now why I was hesitating to tell you any of this. You are a product of the modern-day educational system, and as such—”

“—I am not brainwashed into some fantasy world, Tempest!” Meadow almost growled. “I am not the deluded one here!”

“What would it take to convince you that my cause is just?”

“There is nothing that you can do or say that would convince me that Celestia is evil and needs to die! If I had even a shred of confidence that you could actually be a threat, I would be going to the police right now. I should still go to the Police!”

Meadow stood up and began to pace again. Her hind legs were nearly vibrating in agitation, and she needed to move. After a few moments, she sat down again and lifted a hoof to her heart. “And how many innocent ponies are going to be affected? How many will be harmed in the crossfire? Before you give up this foolish notion?”

Tempest’s whole body tensed as she suddenly stood as if stung by a wasp. “Nopony!” After a few angry breaths, she seemed to calm again before blowing out a sharp sigh. “If I do this right, nopony has to get hurt, and my mother will be saved.”

“Well,” Meadow prodded, “As I was saying, there is nothing that—”

“—Amulets!” Tempest blurted.

“What?”

“You… all of modern day Equestria has no idea about them. To all of you, amulets are a fairy tale!”

“Um. I don’t follow. What do amulets have to do with anything?” Tempest seemed to be growing more excited and manic by the second, and it was making Meadow nervous.

Tempest grinned. “I invented them. Over a thousand years ago. If I show you, will you believe in my veracity?”

Meadow was conflicted. She wasn’t about to fall for some parlor trick. Yet, if Tempest truly was a thousand years old, and had invented a wonder such as that? Meadow shook her head briefly. No! Even if she was over a thousand years old, that did not make her cause just. It would take a lot more than some mystical amulet to convince her there was any truth or reason behind what Tempest was after. “I don’t know, Tempest. Whether amulets are real or not has no bearing on the leadership and benevolence of Celestia!”

Tempest’s look became a little smug. “You might think that. But then consider: why is all knowledge of my greatest work expunged from all records, from all memory? Why is such a beneficial thing to ponykind buried in the darkest depths of lost history?” Tempest activated her horn and brought her saddlebags over from the door where she left them. With a flick of her horn, she brought out what looked like a simple topaz gem. Following that, she opened a cabinet next to the hotel bed and pulled out a file folder, opening it to reveal numerous sheets of vellum with a meticulously crafted rune in each. Tempest gave her a warm smile. “Pick one. What is an ability or action you always wished you could do?”

Meadow looked from the runes to Tempest’s animated face. What was this mare on about? It didn’t seem dangerous. Indeed, this was the most animated she had seen this mare since she had known her. Perhaps she should humor her, and hear her out on this?

“Alright then,” Meadow let out tautly. “You are suggesting that you can whip out an amulet, right here, on the spot, to give me some…”

“Yes!” Tempest breathed earnestly. “Such a potential to bless all of ponykind! And I never got to see it. Tell me: what is it you want?”

Meadow couldn’t help but to give a small smile. “Well…” She murmured in a small voice, almost embarrassed to talk about it. “I’m an earth pony—with a career in ornithology. I’ve always wanted to fly.”

Tempest’s eyes glimmered as she set the sheets of vellum down on the bed and leafed through it. “One amulet of flight coming up.”

* * *

The process really was remarkable. Each sheet of vellum that Tempest had was inscribed with a single rune. Yet the inscription wasn’t in ink, rather it was a negative, or a cut out so that if the sheet were held up to a bright light the image of the rune would shine through onto a surface behind it.

After Meadow had mentioned flight, Tempest quickly found the rune she was looking for and took a few minutes to affix the sheet into a jig designed for holding it in place while the waiting crystal was placed underneath.

After excusing herself to the bathroom with her saddlebags, Tempest emerged with a slender, cylindrical device that she explained was a powerful mana amplifier and emitter. She described the process as thaumic amplification by stimulated emission of mana, and that it was the secret to embedding runes into crystal.

After an excited mutter of “Here we go!” Tempest activated the cylindrical emitter. In less than a minute, she had traced the contours of the rune onto the largest face of the crystal, and before long she was grinning and holding the innocent looking gem out for Meadow to take.

Meadow held the crystal between her outstretched hooves. She had been reluctant to take it, but Tempest had looked so excited, she felt she needed to accept the offering. “Okay, Temp?” Meadow inquired doubtfully. “Now what?”

Tempest gazed from the amulet to Meadow with a smirk. “Now you don’t take it off at the wrong time,” she mused. “That would be most unfortunate if you weren’t around a helpful pegasus… or a body of water. Since I don’t have a chain for it, simply press it to your chest, and lean forward, thinking about… well, think about leaving the ground, really.”

Meadow quirked an eyebrow. “Leaving the ground, huh?” She tried to keep a straight face, but it felt like her heart was vibrating in excitement. Surely Tempest was jesting. To fly as an earth pony? Without having to reimburse a unicorn for a high level spell?

“Okay then.” Meadow pressed the amulet close as she took a shaky breath. “Okay. Everypony watch the birdy...”

Meadow closed her eyes and concentrated, her mind going towards her avian studies she just completed in Gryphus and her most recent subject, the Red-breasted Fantail. It was an intelligent and remarkable bird, with its fluttering flight and striking tail feathers. It had a penchant for problem solving and had evaded much more powerful predators for eons of time.. Suddenly, Meadow felt something pressing her bangs down against her forehead.

“Meadow, I think you should open your eyes.”

Tempest sounded rather bemused, and interestingly, her voice was coming from below. Meadow opened her eyes and noticed the ceiling immediately in front of her. “Sweet Celestia, I’m flying! Oh, my sweet stars!”

After some excited squealing and laughter, Tempest eventually got Meadow to settle down again, warning about disturbing the peace at two in the morning. Finally, Meadow was sitting again, the newly crafted amulet resting at the foot of the bed.

Being able to float up in the air wasn’t quite the same thing as Fantail or pegasus flight, but it was certainly exhilarating. However, there remained the greater issue of Celestia’s benevolence. Meadow drew her forehoof in circles on the worn and stained carpet while she pondered what to say next.

“You don’t seem fully convinced.”

Meadow looked up, giving Tempest a wan smile. “Well, yeah. I mean, it’s one thing to see a new application of magic… and it’s certainly exciting—revolutionary, even!”

“But—?”

“Two things,” Meadow mused. “Producing an amulet doesn’t mean you invented it one thousand years ago. And as for Celestia…” Meadow waved her hoof in the air vaguely, hunting for the right way to put it. “To make out our ruler, the Princess… to make her out to be a demon? Even if she did cover up amulets in the past, she surely had a good reason!”

Tempest looked frustrated, before finally looking down at her chest, her horn activating. The slider of her jacket’s zipper traveled down, revealing her furry yellow coat before a medallion of some sort came into view. The medallion was decidedly un-crystal like, shaped more like a disc of chiseled granite than anything else, marred by a slit down its middle. It looked like the iris of a dragon’s eye. Tempest nudged it with a hoof, looking hesitant, or possibly even afraid.

“If I show you something… a captured memory from my own mind—a memory that will explain the reason for why I am still alive, would that convince you? And if you are convinced, would you be willing to look at another memory, so that you can see the night—” Tempest’s voice cracked as her vibrant green eyes began to glisten. “The night that Luna was banished…”

Tempest squeezed her eyes shut, turning away in pain. Her voice had become raspy and low. “Would that mean something to you?”

Meadow was taken aback. Tempest was afraid! She was handling the circular disk with trepidation. Was Tempest afraid of what she would think of her, or was she afraid of the medallion? Meadow wasn’t sure she wanted to know the answer to that. “I don’t know, Tempest. The amulet you made was really remarkable, but as for the rest… I’m not sure I should even be listening to any of this anymore.”

“Please.” Tempest whispered. “Please. This is more important than anything.” Tempest’s gaze was haunted. “It is such a burden to bear, for so long. This is my first chance to share it with anypony! Just look at the first memory. Then, I’ll let you decide if you want to see the second.”

Meadow studied her face for a moment. Tempest’s demeanor wasn’t the behavior of a pony that wanted to harm her. She seemed desperate and afraid. Curse it all, Meadow always had a soft spot in her heart for somepony like that. She blew out a sigh. “Fine. I’ll observe the first memory. It won’t hurt me, will it? It won’t harm me in any way?”

“Meadow, I would never harm you. Even if you took all of this to the police, I would simply go the other way. But this burden would be wonderful to share… between friends.”

Waiting a second more, Meadow nodded her head. “Okay, Temp. What do I have to do?”

“Just make yourself comfortable. In a moment I will make a bridge between our minds, and you will see.”

* * *

Meadow waited as she prepared her mind for some sort of invasive sensation. She considered Tempest a friend—misguided, but still a pony trying to do the right thing. That being the case, outside of skilled psychiatric care the idea of intentionally exposing one’s mind to powerful magic seemed like a rather foolish thing to do.

But now that she considered it, this wasn’t the craziest thing she had ever done. As her cousin liked to remind her, she seemed to have a penchant for always jumping into trouble with all four hooves. Tempest’s horn glowed her usual light green, but then a flicking arc of glimmering violet snaked up from the medallion, intertwining with the aura of Tempest’s horn. To her it looked like miniature lightning bolts. Squeezing her eyes shut, Meadow, expected something akin to a stab, or a flutter, or to feel something—alien to infringe on what she considered her innermost sanctum.

What she felt instead was dirt in her mouth.

“Ptooey!” Meadow felt her mouth moving, but it was Tempest’s deeper alto voice that was coughing and gagging before a yellow-furred forelimb came up to wipe sand and grit out of her watering eyes.

Attempting to say something, Meadow found she was at a loss to do anything of her own free will other than simply be present and experience this memory. She was no more than a silent observer, unable to enact any will of her own except to simply watch… and hopefully enjoy the show.

The effect was terrifying. She couldn’t back out of this even if she wanted to.

Other sensations made themselves known. She felt a pervasive fatigue throughout her body, and numerous smaller sources of pain and stinging coming from both her torso and her extremities. Emotionally, she felt completely wrung out.

After spitting a few more times, Tempest coughed as she climbed back up to her hooves. Smaller rocks and debris continued to roll and noisily skid down from above, a few bouncing off of her flank making her yelp and lurch forward a bit.

Two things were immediately apparent: the air was heavy with dust as the taste of earth coated her tongue and throat, and further, where she had been standing in broad daylight only a few heartbeats ago, she was now surrounded by complete darkness.

Quickly lighting her horn to gain some orientation, Tempest noted that the air was almost opaque with dust as she began to cough again. Splitting her focus between keeping her horn lit and conjuring a breeze, all while trying not to hack out a lung, Tempest pulled what she hoped was cleaner air from deeper within the confines of wherever she was.

It took a few moments, but the air finally began to clear. Tempest gratefully gulped a few fresh breaths, occasionally hacking and spitting onto the ground. Now that she could relax some, she intensified her horn’s glimmer and began to look around. Back up the way she came, there was no sign of where she had fallen through. Apparently, the ground had given way where she had been standing, dropping her through an opening into a well-concealed hole or cave. The event must have shifted some of the rock and earth, blocking her exit. She hoped it was only a small amount, and not tons of weight exceeding her capacity for magic telekinesis.

Looking away from the buried exit, Tempest continued to scan the rest of the cavern. The walls around her appeared to be rough, seemingly formed from the hollow of massive boulders having fallen together and forming a chamber of sorts. There were no limestone formations or stalactites to speak of. However, at the far end of the chamber Tempest noticed a dark area that strangely resisted her light.

Narrowing her eyes, Tempest took another tentative step forward, waiting while she allowed her eyes to better adjust. On closer inspection, the dark void seemed to occupy a yawning opening in the far wall, where the cave extended inside for some unknowable distance. She brightened her horn in order to see further in, but to no avail.

Perhaps if she stepped closer?

After a few more steps, it became apparent that the nothing could pierce through to the interior at all. The effect was chilling, and after a second, Tempest began to retrace the way she came. Putting a hoof up to her chest, she grimaced as she recalled how she lost her Alicorn Amulet back when her campsite had been ransacked months ago. She wished she still had it now.

Trying to steady her breathing, Tempest finally broke eye contact with the shadow and ran for the exit. Chancing a glance over her shoulder, in case anything threatening was looming, Tempest’s hooves dug in as she scrambled up the slope. Her efforts churned up a new batch of dust, but at this point, she didn’t care. Dust was a small price to pay compared to some monstrosity dragging her down to gnaw and crush her bones

With a sharp crack, Tempest’s horn struck something solid, a lancing pain shooting through her forehead. Gasping in pain, Tempest brought both forehooves up while she fell to the side, cradling the area of impact while glaring up to see what she had crashed into. Strangely, she had only made it halfway up the slope. The rest of the way seemed to be clear.

Narrowing her eyes in confusion and some lingering pain, Tempest sat up, scanning for what she had hit. She brightened her horn, but all she managed to see was more evidence that the way out had become choked with debris.

Climbing to her hooves, Tempest stepped forward again but was immediately stopped by something as she felt a wall come into contact with her aching horn. She winced, remembering the fresh impact she had just taken.

Finally, she reached a hoof out, sliding it across some kind of invisible barrier that neatly bisected the chute, keeping her a good thirty hooves from where the opening used to be. A new fear began to grip her heart as she soundlessly dragged a hoof across its surface. The only type of barrier that could prevent physical passage and yet not make any sound when you dragged a hoof across it was magical in nature. Someone or something didn’t want her leaving just yet.

“Maybe it has a remote mechanism and I set off a magical trap?” Tempest whispered. Coughing again, and struggling to beat down her growing sense of panic, Tempest tried to move air through the area again. It felt like she couldn’t breathe properly, and that it had more to do with fear this time than a little bit of dust. Was this what claustrophobia truly felt like?

“C’mon! Rational—Let’s be rational…” Deciding that talking to herself was far preferable to the pervasive silence of this grotto—or maybe tomb—Tempest slid down to the base of the chute and looked around again. “There should be enough air in here for a while, maybe even a few days… What should I do?”

Suddenly remembering she had been wearing her saddlebags when she fell, Tempest spun around, noticing they were half buried in some of the debris on the chamber floor, along with the javelin that she had made. Relieved, she smacked her forehead with a hoof, only to roll her eyes when she discovered said hoof was caked dirt from the cave. “Rational. Like smacking dirt into my forehead with my own hoof—nice one. Now I must beat down the temptation to facehoof again… Anyway, let’s check the gear in my saddlebags.”

* * *

Her saddlebags had become disconnected from plummeting into the earth below, and one of the bags’ latches had busted. But now that she had arranged her belongings into two neat little rows, she felt marginally better. Because imposing some kind of order on her possessions would help… somehow.

Thankfully, her water canteen was undamaged, whether it be from the fall or from trauma upon striking her javelin. Also of note: she was also undamaged, and had not pierced herself upon her javelin, which was a very good thing. Two small bags of food rations remained, as well as a kit of tools and her lengths of twine and rope. Oh yes, and her trusty toothbrush. She had traded for it out of desperation when she came across a trading caravan that had a mixture of griffins and ponies.

Taking a few measured sips of water, Tempest replaced the cap and set to working on her escape. If there was no way out the way she came in, then she would have no choice but to start exploring. She didn’t relish that idea, given how unnerved she felt looking at the cave of shadow.

After repacking and securing her bags, Tempest decided upon a different approach. Gazing up at the invisible barrier above her in the chute, she lit her horn and fired a cutting beam of energy. Her eyes widened in surprise as the beam passed harmlessly through. Freedom! Gasping, Tempest scrambled back up the slope, only to ram her horn into the invisible barrier again. She soon slid back down, rubbing her head ruefully with an unamused chuckle.

“That’s two I owe you, stupid barrier.”

* * *

Trying to stay calm, Tempest brought her javelin back to her side of the barrier.

Everything had passed through. Telekinetically throwing rocks at it was rather anticlimactic. Then she progressed to a coil of rope with no incident. Finally, Tempest lifted a saddle bag, magicking it all the way to the far end of the chute. It was like there was nothing there.

Further experimentation revealed that all inanimate objects were permitted entry. She was not. It seemed to be a magical barrier against the living. The implications were not comforting.

“Heh.” Tempest chuckled weakly. “Well, at least if I stay down here long enough that will no longer be a problem.”

* * *

It was no use.

After straining her magic and exhausting most of her reserves, she realized that she was incapable of undoing the magical barrier. With no other exit, and no other option available, Tempest turned to face the waiting shadow.

“Uh, hi!” Tempest gave a weak smile, waving a hoof at the shadow. Her moment of levity didn’t do much to lighten the mood however, and after a moment her smile slid off of her face. She blew her bangs clear of her eyes and gave a huff. “Not much for conversation, eh?”

Securing her bags as well as she could, Tempest held her javelin out in front of her and began to creep toward the maw of the cave. She hoped that her concerns about the eerie darkness were much ado about nothing, but if the magical barrier was any indication, they were valid. She just hoped that it didn’t have sharp claws and teeth.

Of course, the magical barrier might be in effect here as well, in which case she would have to accept death via either thirst or asphyxiation. Unless something else came for her instead.

Drawing to within several lengths of the opening, the temperature started to drop. Perhaps it was due to the fact that it obscured what was a natural cave, possessing running water? Gritting her teeth, Tempest brought her javelin up and prodded at the region she expected the barrier to be.

Nothing.

Tempest sighed with relief that at least there was no barrier. Then she kicked herself, suddenly remembering that her earlier testing showed that the other barrier only worked against the living. With each step more difficult than the previous, Tempest finally reached, for lack of a better term, the event horizon. Raising a shaking hoof, she reached forward, only to jump back as her hoof passed right through.

Nothing?

Sitting on her haunches, Tempest took a deep breath and gathered herself. “Well… Here goes nothing, as I set off to walk… hopefully into nothing.”

Nothing permitted her entrance. And it smiled.

* * *

Cracking open an eye, Tempest withdrew from the memory and took a peek at Meadow.

Meadow, unaware of anything but the memory, remained immersed as her eyes mimicked REM sleep. Tempest grimaced, knowing what was ahead. Poor Meadow’s hooves were trembling, and her face was tense with fear. Unsure if the spell could retain the same fidelity if she let her attention wander too far, Tempest reviewed the parameters of her spell.

Thus far, everything seemed to be working fine. There were no signs of anything amiss like what happened with Moonlight. Frowning, Tempest looked back at the smaller mare. She hated that she had to do this, but she needed her… or somepony on her side!

With a sigh, Tempest closed her eyes again rejoined Meadow in the memory.

* * *

Passing into the darkness, Tempest’s eyes widened as she noticed a pale silvery light illuminating to far end of the tunnel about forty lengths distant. Beyond opened into what seemed to be another chamber. Hesitating as she held her breath, her ears almost tingling from the effort of trying to make out any sound, Tempest waited.

Finally exhaling, she took stock of the situation. Firstly, the silvery light was oddly flat, lacking any depth or change of value. While dim, it should have been enough to vary in intensity or at least throw a shadow, but from what she could tell, no shadows were visible. Squinting at the phenomenon, she realized that the chamber could’ve been closer or further away, as it was nearly impossible to tell without the proper lighting cues to aid in her depth perception. The second thing she noticed was that it was utterly silent. All she could hear was her breathing, and the beating of her heart, sounding unnaturally loud.

Keeping her javelin forward, Tempest began to creep down the narrow passage. The cavern opened up into a room ahead as the light continued to increase. Extinguishing her horn’s light, Tempest studied the room. Strangely, she couldn’t assign a color to what she was seeing. There seemed to be no light source, only a faint glimmer that came from everywhere and nowhere, showing everything in grayscale, with crystal detail and definition somehow beyond what she would perceive.

Somehow, while she looked she discovered more and more detail about every edge and surface, The longer she kept her eyes focused at one location, the more she could perceive. It went beyond disconcerting to downright disorienting. Focusing instead on the back wall of the cavern she noted a striking image, a carving of a coiling dragon, standing out in bas relief. The dragon was mostly depicted in profile, except for the head that was slightly turned inward towards the room. It appeared as though it were peeling itself off the wall. As Tempest gazed at the image, she grew increasingly dizzy. She squeezed her eyes shut and stumbled forward.


“Stop.”

A voice suddenly broke the silence, shocking in its suddenness and filling the area immediately in front of her. Tempest stumbled backwards in surprise, landing on her back.

“Stay back from my essence, and set not your hoof upon the surface of my abode.

Not quite processing what was going on, Tempest rolled over awkwardly before getting back to her hooves again. Looking around frantically, she found that she had almost stepped in a small lake of some kind of silvery substance, a liquid that was smooth as glass and also vaguely luminescent, perhaps the source of the weird light. In her study of the dragon carving on the wall she had somehow managed to not notice the semitransparent liquid just in front of her resting on the shallow depression along the chamber floor.

Looking around the barren chamber again, Tempest couldn’t determine where the voice had come from. A pool couldn’t talk, and the carving had not moved. Tempest took two tentative steps ahead, now enthralled by the mysterious substance on the floor.

“By all means, if you doubt my warning, you are welcome to test the veracity of my claim. Unfortunately, that would cut our conversation rather short, and is not something that you would desire at this time.”

Tempest froze, watching the pool in amazement. The surface had not changed, but the voice called it his essence. She assigned a gender to the bodiless voice due to its deep rumbling bass. She had always considered the voice of Storm Sabre, her father, to have a deep and robust register. This voice was far darker and deeper. She decided to address the pool.

“Who—or what are you?”

“Nothing that you would understand or think of as anything significant. I could be considered entirely unimportant at the moment. But at the end of all things, I will be one of the great ones.”

Tempest raised an eyebrow. “I’m not sure I understand. Are you some kind of magical being?” Suddenly, Tempest shuddered with a new thought. “Are you a ghost?” After her question, she wasn’t sure, but she thought she could sense some amusement coming from the substance.

“For what concerns you directly, in your own lifespan and realm of influence, it suffices to say that I am an ancient entity.”

Cocking her head to the side, Tempest studied the pool and reviewed her options. She had come in here hoping for a way out of the grotto she had fallen into. She would have tried digging out the way she came if not for the magic barrier. Perhaps she could persuade this entity into letting her go?

“Now. Speak from your deepest desires, young one. What is it that you want?”

“What do I want?” Tempest was perplexed, but she also felt a small wave of relief. This entity had just brought up the question, perhaps it was interested in helping her? What she wanted was to get out of this cave before the air went stale. However, in the back of her mind there was a niggling thought. It appeared she was at the mercy of a creature far older and more powerful than she. And after falling into its trap would it be willing to simply let her go if she asked?

“I… I’m sorry, I don’t understand your question.”

“What is there to understand? You are interesting to me, young one. I was studying your mind as you passed through the dense undergrowth above us. As you drew near, I became intrigued, and rendered my barrier passable.”

Tempest’s eyes widened in a dawning realization that the barrier was indeed magical and controlled by this creature.

“I ask you again: What do you want?”

Surely it couldn’t be this simple? She hoped she could make a request without offending it, as she was unclear about its motivations or intentions. She felt a glimmer of hope.

“Noble entity, there is one thing that I want. To live. I fear that without refreshment or air, I will be dead shortly. Your barrier, as amazing as it is, prevents me from having access to fresh air and nourishment. Would you open it for me?”

“Easily granted.”

Tempest wasn’t sure, but she thought she could sense a breeze of more fragrant air coming from behind, and felt the beginnings of a smile form on her face.

“But surely there is something more than that. Something else you desire, that you keep so close to your heart. You are far from those who you call your own. So far from those who love you.

Tempest’s eyes shot wide open as faint images began to play across the surface of the pool. With each passing second, another image replaced the last, depictions of Luna and her father. Pictures of her surrogate mother, Sweet Potato, and Mavis. An image of Alistor. Finally, the pool displayed Luna again, before the image faded.

“You have lost one that was close to you, banished over an immense divide. Now you are here, suffering through your own exile, gaining skills of survival as you travel, and carving out an existence on the other side of this planet. All because you were striving for the liberty of your mother, wrongfully accused and disposed.”

“You…” Tempest’s breathing came in short gasps, her heart frantically leaping as she fell heavily onto her haunches. “H-how do you know this?” It was exquisitely painful, seeing images of friends and family she thought she would never see again. Luna looked so loving and dear! Alistor looked so cunning and lucid!

It hurt. Seeing these ponies opened old wounds, and it felt like a very visceral pain. Her mind had become so preoccupied with survival and foraging that their memories had dimmed somewhat… Was Alistor always so handsome? She had simply kept her head down, surviving and honing her magical craft. And there was a reason she avoided looking up at the moon.

“I know this, and so much more. While I do not depart from this cove, young one, I do listen.”

Tempest’s eyes widened as the pool formed additional images.

“I observe.”

Images of her scrambling out of bed as she realized she had missed Luna’s call for help.

“I watch and learn.”

Images of her racing through the castle to the other side of the throne room. Images of her impotently standing in the courtyard while her mother fell in battle, screaming her name as Celestia did her foul deed.

“And you will find that I can help you.”

Could it be true? Could this entity help her? Why would it even care? One concept that Mavis had drilled into her head is that you can’t get something for nothing, and if something sounds too good to be true, it is. And this smelled like some sort of trap. Yet if this entity were as powerful as it was suggesting, Tempest was already in over her head. She figured it could bring up the barrier again before she got even two paces down the passageway, if it had even lowered the barrier to begin with.

She sensed amusement coming from it again.

“You say that you can help me. If it’s not too much to ask: what’s in it for you?

This time the surface of the pool rippled slightly.

“Why does there need to be anything in it for me? Perhaps I am bored. Perhaps you amuse me. Perhaps I would find it… stimulating.”

Tempest shuddered. The way this entity said ‘stimulating’ left her feeling anxious and cold, and her mind worked feverishly on a solution to the logic.

“I don’t think so. Forgive me if I presume, but an ancient and powerful entity such as yourself? With an ability to look through the thoughts and senses of others? Your consciousness is probably incapable of boredom.” As she finished her thought, the pool rippled again.

“You have a keen mind, young one. You perceive much, but yet you understand so little. Further, you have only the faintest sense of what I am. Little do you realize that I am fully capable of helping you achieve your abandoned dream. Free the rightful Princess. Defeat her backstabbing sister.”

Instead of images appearing on the surface of the pool, Tempest saw images flitting across her mind. Images of strapping on enchanted armor. Images of wielding ancient artifacts of great power. Images of wrath and fire, bringing the alicorn of the day low into the dust.

She hadn’t even entertained the possibility, but now? In a moment everything changed. Her muscles tensed with energy. Her horn throbbed with power. She commanded the very elements! The strength filled her soul with passion, and poured fuel on her guttering fire creating an inferno.

Yes. All of this was possible, and more. To feel the raw power, to unleash such energies, unparalleled by any other! She would sweep her enemies from before her. Any that would oppose her would be utterly abolished. She would reach out and pluck the very moon from her orbit so that she could pry Luna from her curse! Celestia’s geas would crumble before her might, and through her a new order would be achieved!

Wait! ...wait.

Tempest stopped her mental rant, breathing heavily as if she had just been galloping for a few minutes. What kind of thoughts were these? She had wanted to free her mother, not build an empire and a new world order. She wanted to bring her family together again, not build upon the carcasses of Celestia and all else those who opposed her!

Tempest looked down at the puddle, faintly glimmering again smooth as glass. She felt a sense of vertigo as something pushed, brushing up against her awareness. She clopped her hooves to the sides of her head, and then she repeated the action, harder, gritting her teeth so hard she feared they would crack.

“Get. Out. Of. My head!” Tempest gritted out, each hoof impact more painful than the last. She fought and clawed for her very identity, fighting a desperate war and refusing to give anything of her most private self to such a cold and foreign invader.

She was Tempest. Daughter to Princess Luna. Friend to all those who would seek what is good and right. Cold and calculating murderer? A commander on the field of slaughter? No. Her head felt like a hot knife was being inserted between her eyes. She fell onto her side in agony. Gathering the last of her will, she screamed.

“Get out of my head! You will not control me, I’d rather die right here!” For all of the noise and commotion she was making, the cavern swallowed it like it was nothing. There was no echo, her pitiful sounds only disappearing into endless silence.

“But you have been suffering… Come. I can give you what you seek. I can give you Luna.”

Tempest curled up tighter into a fetal ball. She couldn’t do anything else as her entire faculties fought against this unseen invader. Clenching her teeth she gritted out her response. “Not like that you are. No thank you, Mr. Creepy Cave Puddle! I think I know how this story ends!”

“…I can show her to you.”

“What? No, y-you’re lying!”

“I do not lie.”

“You can’t!”

“I can, and I shall. I know you want to see her.”

Before Tempest could reply, a vision exploded in her head. The image spread out from beneath her hooves in all directions, filling the blackness around her suddenly with an image of the barren and gray plains of the moon, while the verdant greens and blues of her own planet, Equus, hovered above in the distant sky. Tempest’s eyes widened in disbelief and awe, until a sound drew her attention to the side. Whirling around to look, she saw Luna, hovering as an incorporeal mist, gazing back at the planet above, her wondrous mane swaying gently in the ebbs and currents of the mana that flowed through it. She was crying.

Tempest’s heart shattered as she took in the tragic sight. It was horrific. Her mom, doomed to float there, gazing back at the planet, in the cold and utter solitude? Tempest’s fear and sorrow suddenly flew into white-hot rage.

“NO!” Her hooves pawed at the earth as she thrashed about. “It’s a lie! She can’t be like that for ages to come! She can’t! Stop it!” Tempest slammed a hoof to the ground, spraining her wrist in the process, but she didn’t care. She curled into a ball again, gasping for breath and sobbing.

“You have spirit and dedication, young one. Your devotion to Luna is endearing—and your desires to defend her are commendable. Perhaps you can achieve your ends without my direct influence, but you are assured to succeed if you accept my power.”

“Never. I’ll never succumb, I’d die first.” Tempest gasped out.

In desperation, she got back onto her hooves and stumbled back out of the chamber, only to meet head first with another barrier only a few steps beyond her position. With a clatter, her teeth clicked together from the impact as she rebounded from the surface, a flash of light flickering behind her eyelids. Coming to her senses again, she found herself sprawled on the floor, a new ache in her head to join the last. Grunting, she sat up and rubbed her forehead.

“There is no need for such melodrama. You needn’t worry about ceasing to exist.”

Tempest could sense its amusement again.

“I will not push your sovereign ability to choose. If you won’t accept my power in full, perhaps I can give you a memento. A piece of me that you can use. Through it you can wield some of my power, but also. I will not be able to reach through it and wield you. I won’t even be able to speak directly to your mind, freeing you to make your own choices. Would that be of interest?”

Tempest huffed as she stood up again. Her head was still aching from the impact, but the pain helped her coalesce her thoughts a little better. Somehow, she was beginning to feel a little more bold in this surreal situation, maybe because she really didn’t have anything else to lose.

“Huh. Not really, Mr. Creepy Cave Puddle Thing!” She muttered, giving a weak chuckle. “Not unless you can simply bring Luna back right now!”

“Luna is beyond my reach at this time. But there is a much more accessible solution.”

Tempest crept forward a few paces. “Accessible?” Tempest ruminated on that. She felt like her heart had been wrung out, but she really had nothing to lose, and nowhere else to go. She figured she might as well hear this thing out. “What do you mean?”

“Simple. This world has turned its back on you. For all thoughts and purposes, you are essentially dead. And if you were to truly die, here and now, nopony would be the wiser.”

Tempest shuddered as she contemplated that. Again, she felt completely isolated and alone.

“I can help you step forward.”

Tempest sighed with resignation. “You know, if I’m going to be cooped up in here with you for the rest of my existence, you could at least be a little less vague. What are you trying to say?”

“My abode here is safely out of your timestream.”

Tempest’s brow furrowed. “My timestream?”

“My view of the passage of time is far different than your own. I can alter your exit point. On my choosing, you can either depart from my realm back to when you first came in, or you can depart a thousand years later. By then, Luna will have defeated the ward Celestia placed on her and she will be able to return. Therefore, you can exit my cavern and simply go to her. You can be reunited, and finally stand with her against Celestia, this time armed with my help.”

This time the puddle was wavering, looking blurry for a moment until Tempest realized it was her own eyes that were glistening with moisture, not movement within the puddle itself.

Could she just go to Luna? Could she just walk out the door, travel back to Equestria, and be reunited with her? The thought made her feel giddy—almost dangerously so as she began to forget what she was dealing with. With an effort she managed to calm her emotions somewhat.

“How will I be armed with your help? And how will I know that you won’t just attack me or influence me?”

The dragon carving on the wall began to glow, a shimmering light rippling across its form before focusing around the dragon’s head. Encircling the one visible eye, there was a sharp crack as a piece of stone broke free, floating across the chamber before coming to rest in front of Tempest’s forehooves. It was a disc with a slit-like pupil across it.

“You’re giving me your eye?” Tempest’s eyebrow disappeared beneath her bangs. “Okay. Well, that isn’t creepy at all.”

“The carving is just stone, nothing more. That eye is not me.”

A sizzling, violet arc of intense light crept out of the surface of the pool, causing Tempest to wince in pain from its brightness. It made contact with the stone disc on the floor, arcing across the surface with a crackle until narrowing and penetrating eye’s pupil, disappearing from view and leaving the cavern eerily silent after the display.

Tempest stared at the stone, fearful to touch it, before glancing up at the carving on the far wall again. A cold feeling gripped her heart as she noticed that the head and upper neck of the bas relief had somehow turned away from the surface of the wall, so that it looked like the carving was beginning to peel itself away in an effort to drop down to the floor of the cavern. Her eyes fell upon the stone dragon’s visage that now seemed to be facing her directly, balefully looking down at her with its remaining eye. She shuddered as she considered what this could mean.

“Be at ease. It is only stone.”

Tempest tore her gaze away from the image, which now only seemed like an inanimate carving again. Despite the entity’s assurance, she felt a gnawing terror. She longed to be far away from this place.

“The Eye before you is your key to defeating Celestia. It will have sufficient power to overcome her. However, I must teach you the magic necessary to draw upon its power.”

Tempest swallowed, again looking from the carving back down to the eye on the cavern floor. It looked entirely harmless. In fact, she would judge the craftsmareship to be shoddy at best. Deep down inside, however, she knew she was gazing at something immensely powerful and dangerous. Something she likely had no business touching, let alone toting it with her to employ in some nefarious scheme.

“I… don’t know if I want to use it. What would be the cost?” Tempest’s voice sounded jittery and small. And perhaps just a little bit whiny. “Can’t you just let me out instead?”

Of course. You are free to go. But you may find that when you exit from here, over a thousand years will have passed. You’ll want to continue foraging for whatever sustenance you require, but you’ll be the same. Powerless to stop the machinations of Celestia. Unequal to the task of rescuing Luna who will then be under Celestia’s direct control as a weakened vessel---a puppet ruler. You will then return to seek me out, and be willing to accept my tutelage

Tempest fell back onto her haunches with a squeak. “What would you teach me?” She whispered.

I will teach you some of my magic: and even though your acumen will not be able to touch Celestia’s level of power, you will have an ace in the hole—me. If you draw upon my Eye, you can meet her blow for blow. And if you prepare, you can finally defeat her with my aid.

“But… but why? What possible motivation do you have? And what assurance do you have that I would keep your Eye with me? I could just drop it before reaching Equestria.”

You are free to make that choice. You are always free to choose. I can let you leave my cavern a few seconds after you entered, for all of the good that would do you. Or, you can exit in the timeframe I suggest, equipped to deal with Celestia. Once you possess the skills, the right tools, and the opportunity… you will be anxious to proceed. It will be the obvious choice, so that you can return, and be reunited with Princess Luna.

Tempest’s mind raced. Could it really be that simple? Could she truly see her mother again? The thought filled her with an ember of hope, a spark of giddy elation—it would be the greatest comeback of all time!

“Before we begin, I do have two questions. What do I call you? And… you never answered my first question: what are you, some sort of prehistoric titan or entity?”

“I am something you do not have the thoughts to conceive, let alone the words to describe.”

The entity paused, as if it were pondering something. There seemed to be more coming, so Tempest was content to wait.

“Think of me as the avatar to every eventuality. A representation of the ultimate destiny. I am the Omega. I represent the finale of all creation.”

“A-and… what finale is that?” Tempest whispered.

Ultimate order.

“…”

“And whether you use me or deny me, whether you support me or forget me, ultimately it is of no consequence. There is nothing that you can do that will alter what I am, and what is the ultimate destination of this reality.”

“And what do I call you?”

“If you insist on me giving me a name—you may call me Maelstrom.”

“...Alright. Show me how to work this thing.”

* * *

Meadow opened her eyes. Her whole body was shivering, and she was gulping in shaky breaths. She spun around, looking every which way, until she finally leapt into the bed and rolled up in the blanket. “That was horrible, Tempest! An absolute nightmare! What kind of foul demon was that, and what was it doing out of Tartarus?”

“Are you okay?” Tempest examined her friend carefully, still trembling under the sheets. She ran a magical scan, trying to see if Meadow had experienced any ill effects from the memory. “How are you feeling?”

Meadow stopped moving for a second and glared at Tempest, her eyes wide. “How am I feeling? Geeze, Tempest! I’m going to be having nightmares for months!” Meadow shook her head, her short-cropped mane flouncing from side to side. “I mean, you were so alone, for months! And then to fall into that hole, and come across that monstrosity? I… I can’t even…”

Tempest could only return a sad smile.

Meadow lifted her head up from the sheets. “So then what happened? Do you still have that Eye with you?”

The smile slid off Tempest’s face before her magic activated to pull down her zipper, revealing the Eye, dangling from a flaxen cord. Meadow’s eyes widened considerably as her breathing quickened again.

“Oh Celestia save us,” she whispered in an awe-struck tone. Tempest found her mouth pressing into a flat line at hearing Meadow’s exclamation.

“Okay.” Meadow sat up, taking a deep breath before holding a hoof out in front of her. “Okay… So, you can make amulets, and you are alive because some creepy sort of creature moved you forwards in time to pursue this insanity. You still haven’t proven to me that Celestia is bad, and that Luna needs to be saved. I still don’t see how any of that could be true. Your experiences might be just a teensy bit biased, Tempest. I mean, it’s understandable if Princess Luna is indeed your mother, right?”

“She is.”

“Well, I’ll just take your word for it, then. But this could all still be a grave misunderstanding!”

Tempest frowned, zipping her jacket back up. “I didn’t misunderstand,” she contended with extra emphasis on the consonants. “I saw things pretty clearly. For many years I watched and waited.” She stood up stiffly and began to pace back and forth. “And now I have waited long enough. I need to carry this through!”

Meadow tucked her chin down into her chest and sadly shook her head. “No, I get it. When we were connected, I couldn’t really see your earlier memories, but I could feel your pain. And I could sense your absolute belief that your cause was right… but I just—”

“—One more memory. There is one more thing I can show you. Out of all of my time and discussions with Luna, this night was the most important: the night Princess Luna was banished. And my life changed forever. If after that you still disagree… well, then we will go our separate ways. You can go to the police, and I will simply disappear. Deal?’

Meadow gazed back, her muzzle scrunched in concentration as she apparently weighed the offer. “Okay, Temp. One more memory. I’ll head back to my apartment to sleep after that, but that’s about as much time as I can give you. Tomorrow I’ll probably go to the police.”

“Only if you don’t change your mind.” Tempest gave a nod. “Okay, get ready. This one starts out nice enough, but it gets kind of rough at end.”

“You mean like the last one?” Meadow jabbed, before chuckled nervously. “I mean… sorry, that was insensitive.” She watched as Tempest lowered the slide of her zipper again, bringing the Eye into view. Meadow gave a long sigh. “Okay, Tempest. One more and then we’re done.”

Nodding again, Tempest checked the privacy wards and the auditory buffer spell she had cast, before turning back to Meadow. “Okay. You ready?”

Her magic started again.

* * *

“Okay.”

Meadow Lark had come out of the memory playback, and was gazing back at Tempest with an unreadable expression. Instead of lurching, or crying out as Tempest had sometimes done in the past when viewing this memory, Meadow simply sat up slowly and opened her eyes. Strangely, her face was impassive.

Still wary, Tempest sat down across from her. “What do you mean, okay?”

“Let’s go save your Mom.”

Meadow sounded so matter-of-fact, it was startling. Tempest couldn’t believe her ears.

“Really?” Tempest’s reply was abrupt. “I was sure you wouldn’t go for it. I thought you would be horrified by what you saw me do in during my dream—”

“What?” Meadow gave a sideways smile. “Join your mother in attacking Celestia, only with thousands of shards of glass?”

“Of course.”

“Think for a moment.” Meadow folded her forehooves. “Did it really happen?”

“Well, no, but still! I thought you would’ve at least been be disturbed!”

“Disturbed about you defending your family?” Meadow stood up, never breaking eye contact with the taller mare, and climbed down from the bed. She laid a hoof on Tempest’s shoulder. “What disturbs me, is that I have been misled for so long. And now that I have seen this memory, to see that actual event, and what led up to it…” She shook her head, her ears folding back. “It’s awful. And if Princess Luna is in trouble, then we have to help her.”

Tempest couldn’t believe her ears, but her expression morphed into an elated grin, her eyes filling with unshed tears. “Really?”

Meadow heaved a deep breath, and gave a shallow nod of her head.

“Most wondrous! Thou art most welcome!” Tempest embraced Meadow in a crushing hug, her years of solitude and desperate hope suddenly warming in the company of somepony who could finally understand. This was far better than she could have hoped.

Tempest felt Meadow’s arms wrap around her barrel, stroking her back affectionately before she started tapping on her withers. “Um, not so tight!” came a crushed reply. Startled, Tempest let her go.

Meadow grinned. “Heh, I may be an earth pony but you hug like an Ursa!”

Tempest blushed before chuckling nervously. “Sorry.”

“So?” Meadow lilted. “What is the next step of your plan?”

“Amulets.” Tempest smiled. “Loads and loads of them. We need to get into manufacturing. Any ideas?”

Meadow’s eyes narrowed in thought, before she blinked with an idea. “I think I know just the pair of ponies. After we get some sleep, we need to purchase a pair of train tickets to Fillydelphia.”

* * *

Twilight winced, but it needed to be said. Security was fine, but this was just getting silly.

“It’s not that I don’t enjoy your company, Captain Berrytwist. Because I do.”

Fizzlepop’s stoic visage gave a twitch as she regarded Twilight out of the corner of her eye. After a second, the moment passed and the mare was back at it, continuously scanning the busy market and shopping district of Ponyville. It could’ve been her imagination, but Twilight thought she could see her Chief Security Officer’s mouth twitch at the corner a little.

Twilight continued. “It’s just that I don’t think your fully armored… um, imposing presence is necessary for my once-a-week morning teatime with Rarity.”

On further reflection, that came out a little less assertive than she wanted, but it was too late to add anything else. It was certainly true that Captain Berrytwist’s presence was rather awe-inspiring. And intimidating. She was an extremely powerful mare. After another half block in silence, Fizzlepop turned her head to gaze at Twilight evenly.

“If you weren’t already aware, my Princess, I am always nearby during your tea date with Rarity. Exactly 8:30 AM every Monday. You just don’t notice me because we are doing hidden surveillance. If you’d... open up your eyes, you might see that I and at least two other officers are within a stone’s throw at all times when you are in public.”

Twilight huffed, rolling her eyes at the self-assured smirk adorning her Captain’s features. She wondered for the three-hundred and third time whether finally acquiescing to having a personal guard was really worth the trouble. Further, Captain Berrytwist’s mannerisms made her feel ill-at-ease. She wasn’t exactly obsequious, but… what was the word? Fizzlepop seemed a little too subservient, and that bothered her.

Admittedly, she was excellent at what she did. It was no surprise that she out thought and out-planned both the Lunar and Celestial contingents of the Royal Guard during the last war games event only three weeks ago. Celestia and Luna were both rather displeased, and quite a few egos were bruised among the rank and file.

Twilight broke out of her train of thought to reply. “I’ve spotted you before!” She watched as Fizzlepop’s left eyebrow raised in amusement. “I did! Back when we did that event over by the… thing!”

Did… did her Captain just snicker? Twilight shook her head – that couldn’t be right. She snorted in annoyance. “You’re not that sneaky.”

“You think so?” Fizzlepop nodded to two random ponies standing near Jasmine’s Tea Shop. Both gave very subtle salutes and separated to walk the perimeter of the café. Just how many ponies were in her security team now?

Captain Berrytwist put a hoof on the door, looking down at the smaller alicorn. “Or perhaps you only see me when I allow it? Perhaps I become visible to remind potential threats that your defenders are only a breath away.” With that, Captain Berrytwist winked before pushing the café door open.

Twilight pursed her lips as she followed behind Berrytwist’s muscular flanks. “Maybe you guys are just taking lessons from Pinkie Pie? That mare can hide in anything.”

Fizzlepop paused for a moment, letting Twilight past as she stroked her chin with a hoof. “That’s actually not a bad idea.”

Twilight rolled her eyes with a grunt before stopping at the hostess’ station.

“The reason your security is more visible is due to that magical attack on a librarian yesterday morning. It might be nothing, but until more information develops, your personal defense team has moved to a readiness condition of level four.”

“Level... ugh. It was just a random librarian!”

Captain Berrytwist simply gave her a blank look.

“…Fine. You are also invited to our little tea party.”

“Yes, my Princess.”

Twilight made eye contact with Jasmine, the proprietor, who motioned her in, pointing out Rarity’s usual location in the weather-enchanted back patio. Jasmine gave an enthusiastic wave back, no doubt doubly pleased that they had made this a tradition of sorts every Monday, and made her way around the counter to greet them.

“Hi Princess! Welcome back to our shop!” Jasmine smiled before her grin melted somewhat, noticing Twilight’s mysterious Captain. “And, uh… welcome to you too, Captain!”

Fizzlepop merely nodded.

“Okay!” Jasmine’s smile strained before she gave an uncomfortable chuckle. “Well, c’mon Princess, Rarity awaits.”

* * *

Rarity glanced back over at Captain Berrytwist as her little anecdote drew to a close. The security chief had positioned herself on the other side of the patio affording her a better view of the area around the shop.

The pony was an unexpected plus-one for morning tea, but to be fair, Twilight likely wasn’t expecting her to have an additional guest as well. Given that said guest was Fluttershy, currently on leave from her animal sanctuary before heading out of town, the little assemblage had been enjoyable indeed.

Fluttershy gasped in response to Rarity’s narrative, bringing her teacup up to hide her smile. “Oh, that must have been dreadful, Rarity! There must have had an awful lot of pie in your mane.” Fluttershy’s cheeks flushed with excitement. “Was it too hard to get it out?”

Rarity gave an exasperated huff before shaking her head with a knowing smile. “It was nothing the twins at the spa couldn’t take care of, dear—and while that was not how I had planned to spend my afternoon, there was something rather… carthartic about getting into an all-out pie brawl with none other than Rainbow Dash as my wingmare.” Whimsically, Rarity struck a pose, not too far removed from something Rainbow would pull.

“Oh.” Fluttershy leaned forward before pulling her curtain of mane back behind an ear. “I guess that does sound rather exciting…”

“Exciting?” Twilight scoffed, raising an eyebrow. Twilight’s dry tone pulled Rarity out of her reverie, causing the fashionista to slip out of her pose and take her seat again. “It was a chaotic melee! Now with Spike, I could understand if the guy wanted to run amok and play in a food fight, and probably Rainbow too. But Rarity?” Twilight shook her head, remembering her shock when the Rarity jumped in, shouting threats and epithets at the top of her lungs, Rainbow hot on her heels. “No offense, Fluttershy, but as far as chaotic events, Discord couldn’t have done any better!”

Fluttershy dabbed at the corner of her mouth daintily. “None taken, Twilight. He was actually visiting me during the whole thing”

“Oh?” Rarity pressed, her ears perking up with interest.

“Well, yes. He was sort of making a nuisance of himself with my charge nurse at the time. He’s probably rather put out that he missed it.” Fluttershy giggled.

Twilight rolled her eyes. “Yeah, I’ll bet.”

Rarity leaned further over the table, turning to look at Fluttershy more directly. “Is he still trying to win you back, Shy?” Instead of answering, Fluttershy kept her eyes on her cup before lifting it back up to take a measured sip.

Rarity and Twilight exchanged glances before the alicorn lifted a hoof.

“Wait.” Twilight prodded. “You aren’t thinking of getting back together with him, are you? Two months ago, you told us that—”

“—I know what I said, Twilight.” Everything became quiet. “We are still separated. Nothing will change that unless he addresses a very important issue. And if he manages to do that... well, then we’ll see.” With that, the mood around the table became more somber.

“I know, dear.” Rarity consoled, patting Fluttershy’s hoof. “And I’ll be keeping a careful watch on that one as well. If you need anything from me, anything at all, you just let me know.”

“I’m fine, really.” Fluttershy gave a demure smile, but her eyes fairly sparkled. “More than fine—I’m actually looking forward to my next rally in Baltimare. My tour manager will drop off the train tickets tonight. If it weren’t for him, I’m not sure I’d be able to keep my nerve. But I have a good message, and ponies need to hear it.”

Rarity nodded, pleased that her friend had found enough confidence to go on a speaking tour of all things. If it were ten years ago, the chances of that happening would be the same as Rarity marrying a diamond dog. Fluttershy’s choice of tour manager was also interesting, and they made quite the strange pairing, but there was no denying her almost overnight success. Who knew so many ponies would respond to a quietly reserved self-help speaker delivering her message on The Gentle No™?

“What about you, Twilight?” Fluttershy looked up, deftly changing the subject away from her. “When do you leave for your speaking tour?”

Twilight looked down at her tail before responding. “That would be tomorrow. The Friendship Tour must go on…” Twilight chirped sardonically. “At least my tail will be done growing back by the time I get to Fillydelphia.”

Fluttershy and Rarity’s eyes both widened in surprise before responding in unison. “What happened to your tail?”

Twilight winced. “It’s… a long story.”

Rarity turned and flagged down Jasmine with a hoof. “Jasmine, dear? Bring us another tray, could you please? We are going to keep the princess here just a little longer.”

* * *

It was late morning. The train car gave a jolt as it came to a full stop, momentarily disrupting the many ponies, zebra, and others that had stood to gather their belongings.

Central Station, Fillydelphia.” The PA system crackled to life. “The time is 11:03. Please enjoy your morning, and have a Celestial Day!”

Tempest looked up at Meadow, her powder blue coat illuminated brilliantly in the intense beams of sunlight coming from the large windows. Meadow had waited until the train had come to rest before standing up, and now had her forehooves in the overhead rack retrieving her bags.

“So.” Tempest stretched her back with a few pops before slipping off the bench seat. “How far is it to the nearest manufacturing facility?”

Meadow gave her a blank look, before pulling her bags down with a plop, narrowly missing Tempest’s head. “Slow down there, marefriend! You don’t just walk into a factory and start making stuff, Temp. We need to make a sales presentation first.” Her smile scooted to the side into a smirk before continuing. “Besides. In your mad rush to purchase tickets and get on the first train, we skipped breakfast. We’re not going anywhere until we eat. I’m starved.”

“But I don’t see why can’t—”

“—Nope! Breakfast first. I know of a darling cafe around the corner,” Meadow proclaimed, eyes dancing. “Anyway. If we are going to make a sales presentation, we need to prepare a game plan first.”

Meadow leaned forward, dropping her voice to a lower level. “Besides. Discussing all the potential applications of amulet technology really has me excited—I can’t wait to sell them myself! I think you’ll see the usefulness of the two ponies I have in mind. I’m sure they’ll go for it!”

Magicking her saddle bags back on, Tempest watched the back of Meadow’s bouncy head as they stepped off of the train. She smiled, breathing in the cold morning air. Hopefully Fillydelphia would work for a base of operations. She had been hesitant to inform Meadow Lark about everything, but now that she had, the mare was surprising her with her exuberance.

“Indeed. Let’s discuss it over breakfast.”

Meadow returned her smile and pointed with a hoof. “This way!”

Chapter Nine: Faulty Reconnaissance

View Online

Cirrus read through the case file once more before his eyes trailed back over to the subject in transit. His work as an operative for Celestia’s Covert Ops was usually a little more anonymous than this, and having to deal with civilians on a face to face basis made him nervous.

Since when does Celestia assign one of her top surveillance specialists to be a personal escort and guard for this unlikely crew? A sedated librarian, a unicorn nurse, and a hotshot hippogriff psychologist— he would rather ditch this crew, pull down his shades, and lean back for a nap. Either that or duck out the cargo hatch and go flying.

Alone.

He snapped the case file closed, the brass auto-closure magically winding shut again. There was nothing new to gain from re-reading information that he had already memorized, and he knew it. It was just frustrating to be locked into one of Princess Celestia’s airships, having to play nursemaid in such a slow, cumbersome vessel.

“Um. Mr. Cirrus, sir?” Nurse Rhymes was looking over at him again.

“Cirrus is fine.”

“Yes. Um...” Nurse Rhymes looked at her hooves hesitantly, making Cirrus bite the inside of his cheek. He had probably offended her with his brusque reply. Why could he never just relax and be casual around mares?

“I was just wondering—”

“ —she was wondering, my dear sir, why we haven’t already arrived at Canterlot?” Dr. Saltz’ voice interrupted tautly as he turned another page in the large volume he was holding, his gaze hardly lifting from the page. “The itinerary explicitly stated that it would be an eight-hour flight.”.

Cirrus looked from Dr. Saltz to Nurse Rhymes again. The two had hardly said a word to each other. Maybe he could ask the cute mare out once they had arrived? Show her around Canterlot once their business was done…

...yeah, maybe in my dreams. Why is it that I am so proficient in covert espionage, but when it comes to ponies of the fairer gender, I can only appreciate them from afar?

“Apologies.” Cirrus cleared his throat. “The Captain had to alter our flight path when a feral weather system came in from the northern front of the Foal Mountains. We’ll make the mooring tower in about thirty minutes.”

Nurse Rhymes nodded with an acknowledging smile before looking over the patient, quickly going over the data displayed on a monitor next to the hospital bed and writing a few notes on a clipboard. Once done, she examined the bindings on the librarian’s wrists and ankles, making sure they were secure for the third time on this trip.

“That’s good.” Nurse Rhymes’ voice faltered for a moment. “We all appreciate it, to be sure. I only hope the healers at Canterlot Hospital will be more successful than Manehattan’s specialists have been.”

“Oh, you misunderstand.” Cirrus couldn’t help but smile a little. “We won’t be going to the hospital.”

Rhymes and Saltz turned their heads towards him, the latter raising an eyebrow. “Oh?” Dr. Saltz set his book down and crossed his arms, his voice becoming testy. “Then where is it you are taking us, Mr. Cirrus? I was looking forward to presenting my findings to a team of some of the best and the brightest of Equestria!”

Cirrus’ smile morphed into a smirk. “Oh, you are getting the best and the brightest—none other than the most legendary healer in the whole country. ”

Dr. Saltz other eyebrow elevated to join the first. “And who, pray tell, is that?”

“We are going straight to Princess Celestia.”

* * *

“Ugh! Where is he?”

Twilight completed her one hundred twenty-seventh lap pacing around the Cutie Map. Starlight Glimmer looked up from the stacks of accreditation paperwork she had to fill before the beginning of each new semester, rolling her eyes before she looked back down at her workload. Twilight hadn’t even noticed that she had been sitting in her throne the whole time, for Celestia’s sake.

“Twilight, unless you are training early for The Running of the Leaves, I don’t think your snit is going to make Spike arrive any sooner.” Starlight giggled as Twilight drew herself up short, shaking her head briefly to clear it. “Wasn’t there something you wanted my help with before you departed for Fillydelphia this afternoon?” She waved her hoof vaguely in the air. “Y’know, something to do with all of the lab equipment you moved up here last night?”

“Oh. Right.”

Starlight surveyed the mess of various arcane and mundane electrical instruments before her eyes finally rested on a calorimeter with a scorch mark on its surface. “And aren’t you supposed to put burning hot things inside of a calorimeter, and not a calorimeter inside something burning?”

“Oh, hah hah.” Twilight looked back at the lab equipment with a sigh. Starlight wondered if the scorch mark had something to do with her now re-growing tail. She knew it had been practically burnt off, but neither Twilight or Spike were divulging how exactly that had happened. Some ancient secrets were best left forgotten.

“I guess you’re right.” Twilight walked over and began to organize some of her notes on the lab table. “I did want you to take a break from your semester prep to give me some input on this magical experiment. I’m just used to Spike being a little more punctual about his assignments and it’s throwing me off.”

“Adolescence.” Starlight waved a hoof dismissively before cocking her head in thought. “And in Spike’s case, it’s not just adolescence: it’s dragon adolescence. What ya gonna do?” She hopped down from Twilight’s chair and made her way over to join her at the table. She smirked as she noticed she had drawn a glare.

Starlight picked up a notebook. Turning a few pages, she couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow at what was written across the top: Amulet Experiment #6.

Seriously?

“I appreciate that he’s going through adolescence, Starlight.” Twilight scratched her head, throwing her mane into chaos. “ But the fact that his growth spurt shot him there in a little over two months has been completely outside of whatever we thought we knew about dragons! I’m just having a little bit of a hard time adjusting. And whenever I bring up the abnormality of it all, he manages to dodge, delay, or change the subject.”

“I know, Twilight, I know. You brought this up last week. And the week before… What I can’t figure out is why there is so much food on hand in the kitchen if your dragon assistant has been going through a growth spurt. But enough about that… I want to know more about this.” Starlight magicked the notebook in front of Twilight’s face, tapping on the title of the page with a hoof. “What in Equestria?”

Instead of reading what was directly in front of her face, Twilight merely pushed it away with a hoof. “Wait, food? What do you mean?”

It was Starlight’s turn to roll her eyes. “You put me in charge of castle expenses and supplies four years ago, Twi. I was just going over the books yesterday, and I can tell you, our food expenses haven’t changed. At all. So how are we handling the explosive growth spurt of a certain green-and-purple dragon?”

Twilight’s eyes darted from left to right a few times as she processed the question, until her expression lit up with a dawning smile. “That’s it!”

“What’s ‘it’?” Starlight drew her head back, angling her horn to the side as if it were an antenna trying to hone in on Twilight’s brainwave.

Twilight clopped a hoof to the tile floor. “There must be a connection!”

“I don’t follow.”

“Spike’s been working for the Apples as a farmhand for additional income, and he has been arriving home a little bit later over the past few months, claiming he has had additional work!”

“...And?”

“And the sun has been going down earlier and earlier as the year reaches the Lunar Peak Cycle! It doesn’t make any sense!”

Starlight sat down and folded her forehooves, tossing the notebook back on the lab table. “So… what then? Spike has been sneaking off after working Sweet Apple Acres to… what? Date Applejack on the side? Take dragon growth hormone?”

“Pfft.” Twilight waved a hoof dismissively. “As if! ...wait, dragon growth hormone? Is that a thing?”

All Starlight could do at that point was purse her lips and give a blank shrug.

Twilight picked up the calorimeter, glaring as if she was trying to burn a hole through it. “It’s time to do a little investigation.” Starlight could’ve sworn she saw the thermometer on the end of it climb up a degree. “So I’m going to follow him. Tonight.”

Starlight’s blank expression quickly fell into a flat look. “Tonight? The only thing you’re going to be following is the train car directly to the front of yours. You’re going to be half-way to Fillydelphia by then.”

“And that’s exactly what I want Spike to think!” Twilight grinned ear to ear, activating her horn with a local communications spell. “Captain Berrytwist?”

Starlight could pick out the quiet reply, carried by the spell’s auditory function over Twilight’s right ear. Twilight’s security head was likely maintaining her station near the front gates. “Yes, Princess?”

“Please report to the map room. I have a special assignment for you.”

* * *

The sound of Narcisse’s polished hooves rang out, echoing off of the stark edifices on either side of the narrow street. The buildings seemed to encroach on him the further he went, leaning in as if trying to blot out the sun and sky. Dust and debris blew in from alleys to his south, the wind carrying with it overtones of rotting garbage and unwashed bodies.

Just the way he liked it.

Not that he needed to be surrounded by such environs to feel better about himself or look down on those of lower birth. That wasn’t it at all. Narcisse actually enjoyed combing through the back alleyways, skirting across treacherous fire escapes, and delving through the filth of the underbelly of the city.

He relished being on assignment from Princess Luna, and being authorized to get his hooves dirty. Why?

It was the best kind of beauty.

Every scar that he he earned, every blemish or smudge that marred his pristine features; each mark separated him from the typical nobles and elite of Canterlot. Each blotch honored his dedication to the Lunar Princess. It was only she that could command him; it was only to her that he remained her dutiful servant. If only one day she could perceive that he wanted more...

Lighting his horn, Narcisse held up the scribbled address he had copied into a notepad back at the precinct. After reviewing the information on file from the police, including a small entry about this particular pegasus who had possibly crossed paths with the contact, he decided that he was less than satisfied with the answers they had received and determined that he would meet the pony in the flesh.

Lieutenant Oversky Downdraft - Pegasus
The Quartzite Corner Apartments
42 Cannon Lane #412

The accommodations weren’t much to look at, but he had seen worse. Everything about the structures and their color just screamed middle class, seeming to demonstrate that the architect’s main goal had been to pack as many ponies into one building as possible, without making it look like you were packing as many ponies as possible.

Before long, he stood in front of door #412. Narcisse frowned. One would think a border security agent working at the Manehattan port-of-entry would earn sufficiently to live in better lodgings. No matter. He lifted a hoof to knock.

* * *

“With all due respect Princess, this problem has none of the urgency you are assigning it.”

Captain Berrytwist stood at resolute attention with her head held high, but her eyes tracked Twilight as the alicorn paced back and forth in front of her. Meanwhile, Starlight Glimmer, having gone back to lounging on Twilight’s throne, rolled her eyes as she watched. “You may feel it to be important,” Captain Berrytwist continued, “but I am not willing to risk your safety by positioning myself over 600 miles away so you can do some reconnaissance on your dragon assistant.”

“And I’m telling you that this illusion spell is so well crafted it would fool my own mother!” Twilight clopped a hoof down on the tile floor to emphasize her point. “Tartarus, even Princess Celestia would have a hard time telling the difference!”

Captain Berrytwist raised an eyebrow. “And Princess Luna?”

“Well, of course not—but we’re not trying to deceive Luna! Anyway, I’ll be under disguise the whole time while you are in transit, and then I’ll plot a combo teleport-jump between different airships, hopping from location to location until I reach Fillydelphia! Nopony will be the wiser!”

“...Except for the crews of said airships.”

“I’ll be invisible!”

Captain Berrytwist shook her head before looking up to glare a hole in the ceiling.. “The way you throw magic around… It just feels like cheating. And it makes it very hard to do my job properly.” She met Twilight’s gaze again, narrowing her eyes dangerously. “ If this is your order, I shall obey it, but you have heard my reservations.”

After watching the back and forth over the past several minutes, Starlight decided to lift a hoof and interject. “You know I could be just as capable in observing him, Twi? Then you wouldn’t put out your Security chief so much.” After a pause, her look became mischievous. “Or is this you acting out after feeling a little too smothered by your Captain?”

“It’s not—!” Twilight retorted angrily, turning around before catching Starlight’s bemused expression. “Okay, maybe there is a little of that, but—”

At this, Captain Berrytwist snorted.

“—but this is something that needs to be me. If anything illicit is going on, I need to be the one to confront him about it.”

Starlight gawked. “Illicit? Who said anything about Spike doing something illicit?”

“Well, not illicit per se…” Twilight put a hoof to her face. “It’s just—I just have a feeling about this. I need to be the one that confronts him about it.” Twilight turned to Fizzlepop and gave her an apologetic look. “I can still make it in time for the summit. Besides, this can give you an opportunity to do a security analysis. You know, how do other ponies behave if you do a set up and you’re posing as me? And even if nothing happens, you can secure the premises of our hotel and the convention center well before I arrive. How does that sound?”

“It sounds entirely unnecessary, but as I said, if you order it—”

“—Twilight, I’m back!”

The door to the map room banged shut as Spike strode in, all three mares turning to face him. Spike paused for a moment, mid-stride, as he glanced from pony to pony and then exchanged blank gazes with them.

“Um. If you’re all busy, I can just…” He thumbed a direction over his shoulder. “I’ll just leave the tickets in your study.”

Twilight shook her head briefly before hurrying after him catching him by the door. “No, no... I’ll take them, Spike. Thank you. But what took you so long? It’s never taken you an hour and fifteen minutes to pick up tickets at the Ponyville Station.”

“Well, you remember that favor Golden Harvest asked me about last week?”

The two’s voices diminished as they exited back out of the map room, leaving Starlight and Fizzlepop alone, looking at each other.

“Whelp!” Starlight gave a half smile. “At least I don’t have your job! All I have to do is babysit students of Twilight’s School of Friendship, not the savant herself.”

Fizzlepop’s gaze narrowed. “About that. What are you doing this evening, and how are your stealth spells?”

* * *

“He already spoke with the police.” The surly yellow unicorn folded his forehooves as he leaned back against the door frame. A cigarette dangled uselessly from his lower lip before he pulled it back with his grubby lips, lighting it with his horn. His face was sallow and his stomach was distended, likely malnourished and overly sedentary. “I really don’t think he feels like talking about it with you or anypony else, so kindly shove off.”

The unicorn brought a hoof up to shut the door, but Narcisse’s magic came up quickly, freezing it in place. He leaned into the stallions face, giving a humorless smile. The stallion stank.

With a flick of his horn, the cigarette extinguished itself, and Narcisse pressed even closer, lowering his voice into a whisper-infused growl. “Sometimes, the police don’t ask all of the right questions.”

He held up his obligatory governmental badge, so he could do this by the book. “Agent of Moonlight, on assignment from Princess Luna.” He pointed past the stallion into the shadowy apartment behind him. “If you would be so kind?”

Narcisse watched the stallion’s eyes narrow, but he could already tell he had won this war of wills. Just to make sure though: “Surely your allegiance to the Princess would cause you to open up your home to one of her Agents. If it doesn’t detract too much from your extremely busy and important schedule?”

The pony frowned, stubbornly not moving a muscle for a few moments. Finally, he turned back into his apartment, grumbling under his voice. “Agent thinks he’s something special. Fine, come on back. Have a seat anywhere.”

Narcisse stepped inside, running a quick scan with his horn to see if anything was amiss. Nothing. Just normal, standard-issue house dust.

How boring.

“Downy?” The burly pony called ahead of him as he exited the short hallway into the living area at the end. “Canterlot Bigshot wants to see you. Guy thinks he’s tough or somethin’.”

Narcisse followed him into the room, panning his eyes across it until they came to rest on a blue pegasus reclining in the corner. The pony’s ears were covered by headphones and his eyes were obscured behind sunglasses. It seemed the lights and speakers were on, but nopony was home. Narcisse frowned as he waited, his twitchy hoof tapping on the floor before his eyes gravitated towards a dial on the pegasus’s music player.

With a flick of his horn, the dial twisted all the way to eleven.

Downdraft catapulted from his seat, his wings extending so violently that a few feathers scattered across the room. In less than a second, his earphones had smacked against the end table next to him, and his shades had hit the far wall.

“What the crap, man?!”

Downdraft and Yellowpony were both glowering at him—Downdraft hyperventilating—but that just allowed him to feel more comfortable. “Ah good. You’ve finished listening to your enriching media… I’m looking into anything having to do with this mysterious mare yesterday that caused a ruckus down at the library. The account I read suggests you allowed her through your security gate.”

“Man, I had nothing to do with that attack at the Library. Tell him, Eddy!”

Narcisse narrowed his eyes and stepped closer to Downdraft. “This isn’t about the attack at the Library, this is about your security at the gate. What do you recall about her papers?”

“Everything was in order, so I let her through! She was just another tourist returning to Equestria after playing with the catbirds!” Downdraft pounded his hoof on the floor, his glare hardening. “I had no reason to detain her, so I let her go—what do you want from me?”

At this, Narcisse smiled. He activated his horn and brought out a potion vial giving off a dull yellow glow. “What do I want from you? Oh, I don’t know. How about… the truth?”

Yellowpony looked angry, which was to be expected. Downdraft, though. He was trying for a poker face, but he couldn’t hide his eyes.

“I don’t need any kooky magic fouling up my system, horn-head.” Downdraft raised his front hooves as if trying to block Narcisse’s approach. “And I’ve already told everything to the police, and my own higher-ups with border security! I know my rights as an Equestrian Citizen, so you just back the hell up!”

Narcisse fought hard to keep from smirking, and held up a hoof. “I’m sure you are well versed in your rights, as well as your brother here… What was his name? Upwind?” At this, the two were glaring again. “And when we are done, you will not recall ever having any of your rights infringed upon. Are we in accord?”

Downdraft frowned. There was something wrong with how this stuffy unicorn had worded that. “Wait a minute. I’m not according with anything!”

With a smile, Narcisse’s horn flashed a brilliant magenta. Before Downdraft could recognize what had happened, Eddy had fallen back onto the sofa completely insensate. “What… what did you do to him, man?”

“Just a sleep spell.” Narcisse purred, before his grin grew wider. “Now, shall we drink to his health?”

* * *

“The Cleaning Solution Creating a Brand-New Revolution…” Tempest’s eyes narrowed as she studied the flamboyant sign with the electric blue lettering.

“Better than magic… it’s Kaboom?” She looked over to Meadow for clarification. “Sounds dangerous…”

Meadow giggled. “Don’t be silly, Tempest! The Flim Flam brothers do everything they can to separate a pony from his or her bits. That being the case, they wouldn’t want their product to blow up in pony’s faces.” Meadow hesitated while she stroked her chin. “At least not until they have safely absconded with that pony’s bits. They’re kind of shady like that!”

Tempest raised an eyebrow. “So they are a couple of shysters?”

Tempest’s eyes combed over the building’s facade. For the most part it looked like an older warehouse, blending in with the other neglected buildings in this quarter. Fillydelphia was a beautiful city, known for its many museums and exhibits. Obviously, this warehouse was nowhere near Fillydelphia’s artful museums and exhibits.

The front reception office had certainly been dressed up with a fresh coat of paint and some polish, but under more careful scrutiny, the rest of the building grew progressively more dilapidated the further away from the front entrance one’s eyes wandered.

Looking back to the steel-bar reinforced front doors again, Tempest took note of the pair of earth ponies hanging around the entrance. Both stallion’s manes were cropped rather short, and they both looked like they spent all of their free time in a weight gym and popping pony growth hormones.

Tempest couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow at Meadow. “And we are trusting them with making amulets why?”

Meadow only grinned. “They love bits! Trust me, it’s their love of bits that will allow our plan to work. If they’re assured of so much money, they certainly won’t be willing to share our proprietary secret!”

Meadow quickened her pace a little, moving ahead to approach the two stallions at the door. As she pranced up to the waiting stallions, they closed up ranks to face the smaller mare. “Hello, sirs?” Meadow chirped in a voice that seemed higher pitched than usual. “My associate and I have a business proposal for your employers. Could we borrow a moment of their time?”

“Whaddaya want, little mare?”

Without skipping a beat, Meadow Lark gestured to Tempest, her voice lowering into a coo. “Oh, it’s not about what I want at all, Mr. Stalwart stallion. It’s about what she can give them. This mare has a new discovery… a revolutionary breakthrough known to nopony in Equestria!” Tempest stepped back, eyes widening at Meadow. Sure, Meadow was bubbly and energetic, but never at any time did she strike Tempest as the salespony type. Right now, there was a certain…lilt…to her voice. She must have done this in an earlier life or something.

Studly Dee frowned while Studly Dum cocked his head to the side. “Mr. Flim and Mr. Flam are extremely busy, Miss.They hear sales pitches all the time about the next ‘revolutionary’ thing,” Dee replied, pawing at an itch on his brawny shoulder.

“Yeah.” Dum’s heavily accented voice cut in. “If you twos don’t haves an appointment, you’ll need to talk to our… our spokesmare that—”

Dee cut back in for the assist. “—You’ll need to speak with Flim and Flam’s public liaison and arrange it with her. They don’t do walk-in appointments. Off with you now.” He punctuated his sentence with a flick of his hoof.

Meadow stomped her hoof into the pavement with a sharp clack, both stallions flinching back a half-step. Tempest thought she saw chipped pieces of concrete scatter from the impact, before noticing that Meadow had reared up, jabbing a hoof into Dee’s chest.

“What makes you think she doesn’t have an appointment?” Meadow hissed, her eyes narrowing into cold, dangerous slits.

Tempest reached out to hook an elbow around one of Meadow’s forelegs. “Umm, excuse us for a moment, sirs. We’ll be… right back.”

Tempest pulled the smaller mare away, Meadow grumbling a few things under her breath as they drew away from the two bemused earth ponies. “Yeah! Back after these messages!” Meadow called out over her shoulder once the stallions were out of whisper range.

“Geeze, Tempest!” Meadow whispered to Tempest. “What did you pull me away for? We were about to get somewhere with those two muscle heads!” Tempest covered her mouth with her hoof and stifled a chuckle. Meadow’s angry little pout was just so precious.

“Fact is, Meadow, that we didn’t actually make an appointment.”

“I know that!”

“If there is a way to do this without raising suspicion, let’s do it. I don’t want to screw this up!”

“Feh.” Meadow spat, glaring at the stallions. “I doubt they even have a public liaison. That’s probably just a line to get ponies to go away. Those two chislers probably don’t want any interference when they already have a good thing going. I know the type!”

Tempest folded her arms as she sat back. “Well, then what do you suggest?”

Meadow’s eyes became shrewd. “You show them your I.D.”

Tempest blinked in surprise as she watched Meadow saunter back to the two stallions. Was Meadow implying what she thought she was implying? Why would she go there, especially after she had more or less experienced a meeting with the entity behind it? Tempest shook her head and trotted to catch up.

“As I was saying, gentlemen…” Meadow’s head turned as she continued, including Tempest in the conversation as she was walking up. “This mare here is well known to both Mr. Flim, and Mr. Flam. She is a researcher that has been collaborating with them since day one when they took over this establishment!”

Tempest tried to keep a straight face as she looked from Meadow to the two stallions. They didn’t seemed too convinced, but they were looking at her expectantly. Was she really going to do this?

“C’mon, Temp.” Meadow urged, angling her head toward them. “Just show ‘em so we can proceed with your appointment.

Tempest hesitated for a moment. Meadow seemed to be acting as if she already knew what the capabilities of the Eye were, even when Tempest had purposely kept those capabilities vague. Or maybe Meadow just knew that Tempest had more magic at her disposal that she let on? Either way, she needed to act. All three ponies were waiting for her.

“Oh, you mean that I.D. Heh. Hang on, I’ve got it here.” Swallowing her nervousness, Tempest pulled the Eye out of her jacket and activated it’s tertiary effect, that of dazing another pony. Releasing the magical energies, Tempest watched as the two stallions’ expressions became vacant. Meadow had dropped her head and was shielding her eyes, but Tempest could make out a small smile on her face.

The act completed, Tempest gave a sigh. “They’ll be dazed for about three minutes, and will have minimal memories of the past little while. Let’s go.”

“Well, there you go!” Meadow chirped. “It helps when you have a magical MacGuffin to cheat, right?”

Tempest laughed uncertainly. “I just hope this works.”

Meadow Lark grinned. “It’ll work. Just stick to the plan.” She ambled forward and pulled open the door.

* * *

Twilight’s eyes narrowed as she watched her assistant enter into the establishment. In the past forty-five minutes, she’d seen Spike procure one of the Ponyville tour balloons and pay for a cloud walking spell with some of his hard-earned bits. He seemed a little anxious during the transaction, glancing over his shoulder from time to time, but as soon as he got off the ground he seemed to relax.

Berrytwist had not been pleased when Twilight told her that she was going to go ahead with her plan. Knowing her, she probably had the same glare on her face even now, half-way to Fillydelphia. Twilight sort of felt bad: her security chief was only trying to do her job.

“I’ll have to make it up to her…” Twilight muttered, bringing her binoculars up again. “But it’s not like I’m in any more danger than I was before she came on my staff three months ago.”

Trailing Spike to Cloudsdale had been a little bit tricky, as she had needed to obscure her own movements and sounds with stealth and invisibility spells. Spike’s dragon senses had grown more acute, and she didn’t want to take a chance of him picking up on her wing-beats if there was no visible ponies in the area.

Peering through the restaurant’s windows from her position, Twilight finally spotted him again as he sat down in a booth by a window. Twilight re-read the restaurant’s boisterous sign.

“Gabby’s Crab Shack. Hearty Meals for the Discriminating Flyer… Seriously? He came all this way to grab a snack? We have food at home.” Suddenly, Twilight’s eyes widened. “Wait, crab?”

While she knew some species ate meat as part of a healthy diet, such as griffons, Spike had never had cause to try it. He had always been with her and the girls, and as far as she was aware, Rainbow Dash had tried fish once, but she didn’t like it. It wasn’t that Ponyville prohibited carnivores from visiting the town; it was just rather difficult to purchase food of that sort in a still mostly earth pony town.

“So, he came all the way up here to eat fish?” Twilight’s eyes narrowed as she studied the other patrons—at least the ones she could see through the windows. “Huh. Most of the patrons are griffons, with a dragon here and there. Must be popular alternative cuisine.”

A griffon server arrived and started smiling and speaking with Spike. Thinking quickly, Twilight dredged up an Eavesdrop spell. She didn’t much care for taking an action that would spy on a friend… well… spying even more on a friend she was already spying on, but this was for science! Well, maybe not for science, but this was for a forensic investigation!

Completing the remaining segments of the magical construct, Twilight prepared to execute the spell matrix, but then hesitated. After another moment her horn dimmed, her expression morphing into a frown.

“...Yep. I’m a horrible pony. What would Applejack say if she could see me right now: spying on my number one assistant.” Twilight shook her head sadly as she watched the server, a rather cute griffon, leave with his order. Was she really doing this?

Although… what about his recent behavior? What about his abuse of their relationship of trust? If anything, this confirmed that Spike was sneaking around… He was up to something, as she had never even heard a whisper about him making trips to Cloudsdale at this time in the evening. Besides, that cute server was acting like she knew him quite well. In fact, her behavior had been decidedly flirtatious! Twilight’s resolve hardened as she brought the binoculars up again.

Twilight huffed and rested her head on her hoof. She started taking a sample of the average flight speed of the typical, everyday Cloudsdale pegasus. It was a simple matter to project a grid in the air and to time each pony during a segment of straight ahead flight for three seconds. Did she require data for an upcoming research paper? Not really. She was just bored. And maybe a teensy bit envious of Rainbow Dash’s incredible feats of speed and agility. Not that she would admit that to anypony.

Twilight had just recorded her forty-sixth pony when she noticed that Spike’s entree had arrived, the sever already heading towards another customer. Rolling her eyes when she realized she couldn’t even see the table surface beneath the window sill, she took to the air. Nothing that a little change in altitude couldn’t fix.

Chocolate cake? No, that wasn’t right, it wasn’t tall enough… It was some shade of brown though, and it seemed as if Spike was having to work a serrated knife in order to cut through it. Wait. Are those red juices coming out of it?

Her eye twitching, Twilight cast an immediate teleport spell, landing with a flash on the bench seat opposite of Spike. Exonerated, agitated, and just a little bit horrified, Twilight wasted no time as she stood up on her hind hooves, planting her left forehoof on the table while she pointed imperiously at Spike’s entree with the other.

“THAT’S NOT MAHI MAHI!”

Utterly startled from his calorie-infused regalement of bliss, Spike flinched back as an accidental gout of flame burst from his nostrils, unfortunately setting the draperies aflame.

As the flames began to spread, Twilight’s eyes glanced from the conflagration to the angry glares of the restaurant’s other patrons and the servers running towards their booth.. She slowly sank back down into her seat, an abashed chuckle escaping as she cast a quick extinguishment spell, a cold blue light glimmering over the flames before they suddenly snuffed out. Spike could only blink in shock.

“Uh. Heh-heh. At least my tail didn’t light on fire this time, right Spike?”

* * *

“I still can’t believe you were spying on me,” Spike grumbled.

He flicked a little bit of fire retardant off of an ear fin as he walked, residuals from when the restaurant manager came out with a fire extinguisher, screeching about his drapes. Needless to say, the meal was ruined, and Spike and Twilight no longer felt welcome to loiter any longer. Twilight was mortified, quickly throwing down Princess credit to cover expenses for the meal, the damages, any psychological counseling that might be needed, and a massive tip.

“I mean, the fact that you trailed me all the way up here, casting whatever secrecy spells you needed to accomplish that, only underlines the fact that I needed to sneak up here anyway to do it!”

“Not so fast!” Twilight defended. “You’ve been acting strangely for the past two months, all coinciding with this insane growth spurt you’ve been having! And every time I’ve asked you about it you have dodged! What am I supposed to do but get suspicious if you’re acting suspiciously?”

Spike bared his teeth a little as he walked a little faster. “Can’t a mature dragon go out and accomplish something without interference, or being subjected to scrutiny or outright suspicion? I’m not hurting anypony, and I’m certainly allowed to spend my free time pursuing my own interests… because it’s, you know, free time?”

Twilight flapped her wings to circle ahead of her assistant, waving her forehooves to placate him. She was temporarily relieved that she had become comfortable enough flying that she could hover backwards and match her speed with Spike as he stormed ahead.

“No—you can use your free time as you see fit!”

Twilight winced as Spike changed directions and veered off to the right. She couldn’t help but notice that several pegasi in the near vicinity had lost interest in whatever it was they were doing and were now trying to inconspicuously hover. However, hovering is hardly inconspicuous, especially when certain pegusi were feigning interest elsewhere while exactly matching their speed and heading. Especially when their ears were angled in their direction!

She supposed she shouldn’t be too surprised if a certain famous dragon and princess team starting having a loud argument out in public. “C’mon, Spike! You have to admit you’ve been acting strangely…”

Spike pointed at her. “According to who? You’re the only one prying and asking nosy questions! None of the rest of our friends have flicked an ear!”

Twilight gasped. She pried and asked because she cared! She had been responsible enough to ensure Spike followed his schedule and his educational regimen to the second! She had been wise enough to ensure that he grew up as a responsible adult of the Ponyville community!

Did she ever let him give into dragon greed again?

No!

Did she let him overindulge in ice cream when he became down like a certain other unicorn who shall remain nameless?

No! Well… not usually.

Did she allow him to laze about the castle and develop slothful habits?

No!

She had raised him as if he were family—because to her, he was. She wasn’t sure if the relationship was more like a mother/son bond or a sister/brother bond, but whatever the relationship was, it was special! She wasn’t the best cook, of course, but she always ensured the castle had plenty of foot, and the Golden Oaks Library, before that. Spike took care of the cooking, and they had both stayed well fed. He even got enough gems for his cravings!

But wait...

What if he had other cravings? What if all of this time she had been unintentionally starving him of critical nutrients, nutrients that could only be found in meat, and it had stunted his growth? What if that was why he had been so small compared to other dragons his age? Had she been hurting him all along?

Why had hadn’t he said anything? That was what hurt the most.

Twilight folded her wings, dropping to the packed-cloud surface of the street. “Wait,” Twilight squeaked. She raised a hoof as Spike walked past, feeling her eyes start to moisten. “Is this all about eating meat? Was I accidentally keeping you from a complete diet this whole time? Why didn’t you tell me?”

Spike stopped, covering his eyes with a claw. “It’s not…” He turned and gave a sigh, putting his hands on his hips. “I haven’t been starving, Twi.”

Twilight stood up, feeling her emotions wind up like spring. “Yes you have! You have been starving!” Twilight started to pace back and forth, and while she tried to hold back her tears, a few escaped anyway. “It’s been so bad that you felt like you had to sneak off Cloudsdale, for Celestia’s sake! And look at you! Now that you are eating correctly, no thanks to me, you are growing into a healthy drake!”

“Twi…”

“I just… I’m sorry! I’m sorry if after all this time, your physiology was needing something more… some protein…”

“Twilight!”

Not hearing him, Twilight went on with her rant. “I mean, there is probably some vitamin M, or whatever, some nutrient specifically needed for dragons. And I was too obtuse to even know it! Why didn’t I even ASK EMBER?!”

“TWILIGHT!”

Sitting down with a clump, Twilight put her head in her hooves and began to cry in earnest. She felt awful that she had driven Spike to this state. It hurt even more that he hadn’t told her!

Spike’s warm and scaly arm slid across her withers as he drew her into a hug. “It’s not that, Twi.” Spike murmured into her twitching ear as she continued to spasm against him. “That’s not the reason.” Spike continued to stroke his claws up and down her back as he waited for her to settle down, her mucus smearing across his chest scales.

Spike waited as Twilight fought to settle herself down, her shoulder muscles bunching up a few more times before she let out a shaky sigh. This really wasn’t a big deal, but he knew how Twilight could get sometimes. “Seriously. I’ve been okay. You haven’t left me hungry, and have taken good care of me over the years… Mom.”

That last word caused Twilight to blurt out a rather gooey laugh as more mucus wound up on his chest. Heedless of the mess, Twilight nuzzled into his muscular frame a little more. “Sorry, I… Well, you know, nopony in recent memory has ever raised a dragon before.” Twilight sat back and gazed at the mess she left. “Oops. Heh, hang on a second.” Her horn flashed a she performed the Quickleen spell, eliminating whatever organic messes were left behind on Spike’s chest and her own fur.

Once that was taken care of their eyes met as they sat in a semi-awkward silence. The corner of Spike’s mouth drew up slightly, giving the barest peak of a fang as his gaze turned pensive. “It was only another week, and then I was going to tell you outright. As soon as you arrived back from Fillydelphia.” Spike’s eyes widened in dawning realization. “Wait, why are you not in Fillydelphia?”

“No changing the subject,” Twilight hiccuped. “Just think of it as me back from Fillydelphia and tell me what is going on.” Twilight smiled hopefully. “Please?”

Spike stood up and scanned the area around them. It was a quiet Cloudsdale thoroughfare, and the temperature was rapidly falling now that the sun had been down for a few hours. In many strategic places around them hidden by building corners, rooftops and perched on lamp posts, he met the eyes of several embarrassed pegusi. As he looked evenly at each one, each pony in turn took back to the air to resume whatever it was they were out doing except for one that merely folded her hooves stubbornly before motioning with one for him to continue.

Spike just gave her a dirty look. “Why don’t we step into my balloon, Twi. Less eavesdroppers that way.” He indicated the parked balloon two furlongs away at a well-lit docking station.

Twilight nodded happily and trotted ahead of him towards his mode of transport. Several minutes later they had arrived, gone through the necessary permissions, and cast off. Just to be sure, Twilight cast a spell for a soundproof bubble around the gondola of the balloon. Once the spell was cast, Twilight sat back down and gave Spike a scrutinizing look. “This has something do do with Rarity, doesn’t it?”

Spike kept a straight face for exactly two seconds before he chuckled, putting both arms up in a surrendering fashion. “Guilty as charged…” He sat back and then grinned, flexing his draconic pectorals which Twilight had to admit were rather impressive. “Think she’ll go for it?”

“I… what?! Go for it? Hang on just a Celestia-forsaken minute!” Spike closed his toothy grin and ducked his head a little, but the corners of his mouth were still twitching up a bit. “Let’s go to the beginning and see how all of this started!”

Spike sat back, his face starting to grow smug. “I was in correspondence with Dragon Lord Ember, and she cued me in on something: I wasn’t the youngest dragon out there during all of those dragon “games” Garble initiated me with.

“Ugh. You mean during that dragon migration we watched ten years ago? How were you not the youngest? I mean, you were the smallest one there, and you were only twelve.”

“Exactly! Ember told me that the magic of dragon development is that our bodies are rather malleable to an extent. If a dragon wants to grow a supersized tail, he or she can do so. If a dragon wants to grow extra spikes over his back, he can. If he wants to grow to the size of a castle, it may take a while, but he can do it! That’s why you see so much variation… and once done, you can’t reverse it.”

Twilight frantically searched the gondola for a quill and something to write on. It was just her luck that somewhere between the restaurant and the balloon, she had lost it.

“What are you doing, Twi?”

Twilight winced at her assistant’s flat tone. “I’m… ugh, I’m looking for something to write with, Spike, this is good information! I need to take notes…”

“Relax, Twi.” Spike snickered. “I have taken copious notes of the whole process. I’ll show you when we get back.”

“Really?” Twilight squeed. “That’s wonderful! It just means so much to me if you could...” Twilight looked up at her bemused assistant, who had a claw over his face. “I’m sperging out again, aren’t I?”

“Just a bit. May I continue?”

Twilight sat straight and still, a modicum of the perfect student. She gave Spike a little wink.

“Anyway.” Spike continued. “There are certain exercises and practices one must go through for more horns, or more scales, or etcetera. It just has to be done during a younger period in the dragon life cycle. What I didn’t know until recently was that I was already doing the necessary work to emphasise brain development!”

“Well of course you did!” Twilight nodded approvingly. “I mean, would you really expect anything less?”

“But for the process to work, especially in the physical growth department, a dragon must consume huge amounts of protein. In my case, I needed rich meats coupled with a powerful exercise regimen. Sweet Apple Acres was the second part to that plan. As you can see, my plan worked.” Spike flexed his pectorals again.

“It certainly did! But is this something that will work to woo Rarity? I mean, this is a drastic change, Spike. She’s known you since you were little more than a baby dragon.”

“I was ten.” Spike shrugged. “Why should that matter?”

“Well, the age gap is kind of significant!” Twilight softened her voice a little. “In all honesty, I thought you had given up on that crush.”

“Give up on Rarity?” Spike folded his arms in defiance. “Absolutely not! Not until she actually tells me that she isn’t interested! I just fast-forwarded my growth a bit to put us on more equal footing, and who knows? Now, the age gap isn’t that important, is it?”

Twilight stroked her chin in thought. “I suppose not… I’m just not sure such a thing would really happen. We’ve known Rarity for twelve years now, and… well, let’s just say I think I’ve seen where her tastes actually lie.” Spike pursed his lips as he stared out into the distance from where they sat.
.
“Not that I won’t support you in your efforts!” Twilight hedged before continuing in a smaller voice. “Just… be prepared if she still turns you down. I’d rather not see you hurt.”

Spike gave a humorless chuckle and another shrug, still staring at the darkened horizon. “It’s hurt for twelve years, Twilight. It’s possible I’ve even spent more time with her than you. I’ll find a way to bring it up. When the time is right, she will know my feelings on the matter. Then, either way, we’ll go from there.”

“Oh, Spike…” Twilight murmured. She gave him a nuzzle as she squeezed in closer to him. “And either way, I’ll be right there with you to give you support. You’re so grown up now!”

“Spike chuckled as he turned back to Twilight, his eyes glimmering a little. “Yeah. Thanks, Mom.”

“You two are just sooo cute!” Starlight’s voice chirped up suddenly as she popped up from the storage bin inside the gondola. Spike and Twilight lurched back with a shout, both of them pressing back against the side walls. “I think my heart just about melted two or three times tonight!” Starlight continued to grin at the two of them, bouncing on her hooves before climbing up into her seat. “And all for Rarity… Good for you, Spike!”

After a moment of silence, Starlight noticed that her friends weren’t smiling back at her.

“Was it something I said?”

Chapter Ten: Amulets

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It wasn’t what they were expecting.

Tempest blinked as she looked around the corridor. Save for a narrow path that looked like it had been cleared of debris, the area looked like nopony had used it in months. Sunbeams poured from cracked windows, dust dancing in the glowing shafts. Cobwebs garnished the edges of a few chairs and debris, stray webbing blowing gently in a breeze. Several ceiling tiles hung loosely, and a fluorescent light fixture hung down, partially torn from its housing. Off to the right, a few bags of refuse slumped against the wall, likely adding to the rank and musty smell.

Meadow frowned as she looked back at Tempest, raising an eyebrow while she waited for the unicorn to join her. She lifted a hoof and pushed the hanging light fixture to the side before letting it swing to and fro. Ahead of her was a closed door, which seemed more groomed than its neighbors. Some light, plus a few murmurs, seeped in from the bottom of the door.

“Weird,” Meadow exclaimed under her breath.

Tempest came up alongside her, lifting a hoof to stop the sway of the fixture Meadow had just disturbed. She spoke in a hushed tone as well. “Indeed. Are you sure these are the ponies we want launching a revolutionary technology?”

Meadow rubbed her chin and gazed down a darkened corridor to the left. “Perhaps. From what I know of these two, they would sell their soul for the chance. Are you sure you don’t want ponies knowing who invented the technology?”

Tempest closed her eyes and hummed. “That would be best. All will come out soon enough. We just need a wagonload of these on the streets.”

Meadow grinned. “And high places! Don’t forget that…”

“Mmm.” Tempest cocked her head, looking at the entrance with a bright red sign that read PRIVATE. “One would think these two worked entirely alone, but perhaps that is for the best. What was the deal with the big sign and the goons outside?”

“Maybe they are making Effervescence?” Meadow guessed.

Tempest furrowed her brows. “Which is what?”

Meadow’s eyes darted to the side for a moment. “It’s an illegal drug that… never mind.” Meadow shook her head.

“Whatever,” Tempest said. “Perhaps they have employees that use a different entrance?”

“Uh, I doubt it, Temp.” Meadow replied. “It’s just… weird.”

They stopped their hushed talking and listened at the door for a moment. While there may have been two distinct voices, neither one was clear enough to make sense of what they were saying. Whatever they were doing, they hadn’t noticed the whispered conversation just outside their office door.

With a shrug, Meadow turned her head back to Tempest and gestured with a hoof. “I guess we knock?”

Tempest smirked before rolling her eyes. “Well, I don’t see a doorbell...” She clopped a hoof on the door a few times. causing the voices on the other side to fall silent. Meadow and Tempest looked at each other in bemusement, the latter furrowing her eyebrows at the former.

“Hup! Busy! Very busy my good sirs!”

Both mares stepped back.

“That’s right my boys!” A second voice chimed in, as if the stallion’s lips were grazing the door’s surface. “Besides, I distinctly recall telling you two not to intrude upon our working hours… even if it were an emergency— ”

Especially if there were an emergency—!”

“No emergency of any sort unless you actually see fire—”

“That’s right my lads! You have to see the fire! Smoke isn’t good enough, no sir—you have to see the fire… visibly!”

Tempest pursed her lips, and she glanced down at Meadow. “Do they always finish each other’s sentences?”

Meadow shrugged, her eyes wide. “Sentences?” she snorted. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they finished each other’s sandwiches!” She reared up, displaying her pale blue belly while placing an ear against the door. She lowered her voice to a whisper. “What do we do?”

Tempest frowned in consideration. Many magics could be used to get past the door. She could even set up a motion trap, given enough time. She could always teleport in, but she would need to scry the area first to avoid crashing into something. Powering the door down wouldn’t be a problem, but doing so would not set a good precedent for a healthy business relationship—like any of the solutions in her head. What was it with these two, anyway? This didn’t appear like a reputable business at all. Maybe they should just call off this venture and follow another lead…

Making a decision, she whispered back to Meadow, still listening at the door. “Why don’t you circle around, Meadow? Check for a back entrance and convince them to stay if they try to bolt. I’ll talk to them here. If nothing else, I’m not so bad at magically picking locks.”

Meadow grinned, clucking her tongue as she turned to stalk down the corridor before turning a corner. “Picking locks, Tempest? The daughter of a princess?” She snickered as she disappeared around the corner, before suddenly sticking her head back out and waggling her eyebrows.

Tempest huffed. Meadow was finding new ways to surprise her every other hour.

She then faced back at the door and addressed the closed aperture. “Um, hello, Gentlemen?”

Nopony replied. She wasn’t sure, but she thought she could make out some hushed whispering.

Clearing her throat, she raised her voice. “If I could speak to you for a moment, I would love to tell you about an interesting proposition...”

Nopony replied. Tempest crept closer to the door and put her ear on its surface.
A slam rattled her eardrum. Tempest jumped back. Scurrying hooves, rushed whispers, and more slamming sounds—cabinet doors, most probably—erupted from the other room. Among the now harsh whispers she could make out were some phrases about Canterlot and the Royal Guard. It sounded like they were most definitely not interested…

“Okay…” Tempest sighed, narrowing her eyes at the door latch. “Let’s see how modern lock engineering stands up to 5th century tinkering.” Shaping her magic into a green telekinetic spindle, she fed the energy into the lock while closing her eyes. She expanded the nubs of her magical force outward from the central spike and pressed them into the tumblers. The moving parts were spaced much closer together than expected, and grime wedged between the driver pins and the key pins made them extremely stiff to maneuver.

Tempest increased the force she was applying, then bit her lip and pushed harder. If she added much more force than this it would likely only break the lock. She grit her teeth in annoyance. “Stupid… feathering… driver pins!”

She heard the sound of a second door swing open from inside.

“Hello, boyos!” chirped Meadow.

Scrapes and scuffles leaked through the door before a couple of muted thumps and crashes rattled the wood in front of Tempest’s face.

“Damn it Meadow, what did they do?!” Tempest spat. She augmented the magical energy through the spindle, melting the pins into slag before ripping the wasted metal out and stripping the lock clean. With a stab of telekinetic force, Tempest wrenched the door out of the way and leapt into the room, her horn blazing with power. “Meadow! Meadow! Are you all right?”

As the smoke from her little botched “procedure” cleared, Tempest looked around. The owners of the two male voices were crouching behind a large oak desk—so much for that particular threat. One was dabbing at his muzzle with a kerchief while the other one was wincing and rubbing at the base of his horn.

Tempest turned to Meadow. “Are you okay? What happened?”

Meadow frowned as she waved both hooves in the air. “Don’t look at me! I’ve never seen a clumsier pair of unicorns! Right boys?”

Both unicorns sat up a little taller and glared at the earth pony. Tempest studied the two for a moment. They were middle-aged and had strikingly similar colorations between their cream-yellow coats and manes of white and poppy red. Both wore pin-striped suits of blue and white—suits that looked like they hadn’t seen a dry cleaner for years. One had grown a stylish moustache, so at least it was easy to tell them apart.

“Come, you two.” Tempest smiled to each in turn, trying to extend an open hoof of invitation. “There’s no need to flee or to fear: we are not from law enforcement.”

The moustached one raised a hoof. “The Royal Guard, then?”

“Of course not!” Meadow replied, her voice as peppy as ever. She stepped a little closer, gesturing to herself with a hoof. “Do we look like Royal Guards?”

“Maybe not,” replied the other unicorn, his ears folding back. “But you sure hit like one.”

Tempest’s eyebrows shot up. “Hit? You… what?”

“We know agents of the crown when we see them!” The non-mustached pony declared. “And let me assure you, there’s a perfectly good reason why we haven’t paid our taxes over the past six years— “

Perfectly legitimate reason that we’ve already told the judge—”

“Reasons that have been pardoned by Princess Celestia herself—”

“Quiet!” Tempest yelled. “We are not guards, or agents, or anything else representing Canterlot... or any other authority for that matter!”

The two unicorns exchanged a look before standing up, dusting off their clothes and taking a seat at their desk. The one with the moustache spoke up with a broad smile. “I told you it would happen, oh brother of mine! These two ponies have heard of our exploits and our marvelous successes. They know about our stellar reputation—”

“—our talents as salesmen extraordinaire?”

“The very best salesmen nonpareil!” The two finished together, almost as if it had been rehearsed. Were they… were they actually posing?

Tempest rolled her eyes and used some precise telekinesis to close their jaws from yapping again. Meadow Lark came up from behind her and floated across the office with her arms folded, grinning at the two suddenly nonplussed ponies. After a beat, Meadow spread her arms wide with a smirk. “How would you two gentlemen like to become filthy rich?”

* * *

The throne room was always impressive. Or maybe the term impressive fell far short of the magnificence that was the center of Canterlot Castle’s seat of power. The polished marble floors gave off a warm glow as the daylight poured in through the soaring windows to either side. Princess Celestia’s Day Court was inundated with light, banishing any shadow to the far corners of the hall to cringe and cower behind the gold-shod hooves of the Honor Guard.

At least that was the way Cirrus liked to think about it. Princess Celestia was best princess. And she never appeared with more radiance than while administrating in the throne room at mid-day.

Two griffons were standing on the lower dais in front of Celestia’s throne, and it looked like Celestia was adjourning the meeting. Collegiate robes covered the griffon on the left, though a few of his black, green-tipped feathers peeked out of his garb. In his talons were a large tome and several scrolls. His partner wore a stoic face, but the subtle frown lines—hidden under her silver and maroon feathers—betrayed her displeasure. As the two made their way past Cirrus towards the exit, Cirrus gave each a polite nod. The black one returned his nod in kind. The female let out what sounded like a low growl.

Ignoring the slight, Cirrus brought his eyes forward to his ruler, Celestia smiling warmly at his approach. “Ah, Cirrus—my eye in the sky. Thank you for coming.”

Lowering himself down to one knee, Cirrus dropped his head low and flared out his broad wings. “Always, your majesty. My assignment is complete.”

Celestia stood up from her throne and descended the carpeted stairs to join him on the marble floor. Just once he would enjoy seeing her glide down instead. That mental image wormed his way to his face in the form of a smile, which he tried to conceal with his hoof as the Princess walked past. “Indeed. And you have my thanks, Agent Cirrus, even if the mission was somewhat strange. At ease.”

Cirrus smiled as he brought his head up to meet her gaze. “Thank you, your majesty. It wasn’t a difficult assignment, but I agree it was a little different. Nurse Merry Rhymes has now boarded an airship back to Manehattan, but her travelling partner, Dr. Epsilon Saltz, has declined the Royal voucher for his free return-flight.”

“Oh?” Celestia raised an eyebrow, coming alongside of Cirrus. “Then what might the good doctor be doing then?”

“Dr. Saltz is meeting with some of the bigwigs over at the Canterlot Regional Medical Center.” Cirrus’ wings twitched a little as he recalled the doctor’s gruff manner. “It seems that the hippogriff was dissatisfied with the answers I could provide about the afflicted librarian, so he is consulting with his cohorts. Either that or he is looking for an excuse to snoop around.”

The smile on Celestia’s face faltered. Her eyes lost their focus as if gazing at something distant. “No matter.” She sighed. “He can depart when he likes.” She turned around and began circling to the side of the throne where a ramp led up to her briefing room. Cirrus kept pace at her side. Princess Celestia wasn’t normally this pensive, and he wondered if things didn’t go well when she visited the sedated librarian.

“Cirrus? I have… a different assignment for you.”

“Your Highness?” Cirrus raised an eyebrow. “Regarding the unrest in Gryphus? What has changed?”

“Nothing has changed, Captain—I just don’t require your particular skills in Gryphus at this time. Or perhaps it would be better to say that there is a matter more pressing where I could assign you.”

Cirrus pursed his lips as one of Celestia’s guards opened the massive door leading to her briefing room. It was emblazoned, like many other things in the throne room, with her symbol. Celestia acknowledged the guard before leading the way inside.

“I am needing your eyes in the sky for a different task.” Sensing the ponies’ movement, magical lighting switched on as Celestia made her way down to the head of the table.There were about twenty chairs on either side. Cirrus followed her part of the way along the elongated table, internally debating whether he should sit nearer to the middle, or closer to her highness. Or maybe he should take a seat at the opposite end? Closer was better, but he didn’t want to look like he was presuming anything.

He settled for three seats away. Celestia just watched him in silence with a raised eyebrow, her mane flowing regally. There was a subtle smirk on her face.

Crap. I need to consult with the manual about where a lone agent is supposed to sit when invited into the briefing room. I must look like an idiot.

Straightening up in his chair, Cirrus cleared his throat. “I understand, Princess. How may I serve?”

Celestia settled into her seat, her smile becoming a little warmer. “I need you to return to Manehattan for your next assignment. There are two primary objectives.”

Cirrus gave a smart nod. “Yes, your grace. What are your orders?”

Celestia’s horn glowed for a moment. A chime sounded from outside a door behind the head of the table. After a brief pause, a dark brown pony in uniform walked in, a file folder tucked under one wing. She was a striking figure, with a two-tone auburn mane and bright green eyes. She deposited the file folder on the table in front of Cirrus before turning and coming to stand at Celestia’s side. Cirrus had to snap his head down, his eyes front and center, as it seemed this pony did not have a bad angle from which to view her. The muscles of her legs were particularly um… toned.

Stop it, brain! Just stop—she far outranks you and you are completely useless around the mares besides!

“Thank you, Colonel Mocha.” Celestia turned to address her military advisor, but she still spared an amused glance back at Cirrus.

Did she notice me checking out my superior? I’m so gonna get Klugetown duty for this!

“Your efforts to pull this material together quickly are appreciated.” Celestia’s tone never changed from her warm and enthusiastic demeanor. “Captain, please open your folder and follow along. Your two objectives are as follows. First, I need your skills in surveillance over Manehattan and elsewhere if necessary. You are to pursue the suspect depicted on page one.”

Cirrus’ eyes fell upon an artist’s rendition of a yellow mare, with a charcoal mane highlighted by yellow tips. The area depicting the cutie mark was left blank.

“This pony was last seen in the company of the mare pictured on the second page, a smaller earth pony by the name of Meadow Lark. They are both wanted for further questioning regarding yesterday’s incident at the Manehattan Library.”

“Understood.” Cirrus responded, beginning to leaf ahead in the binder.

“Not… quite.” Cirrus looked up quizzically, finding the solar ruler gazing steadily at him. “There is more to this to be sure. Colonel?” Celestia turned to the mare in uniform, who cleared her throat.

“Yes, Princess…” Colonel Mocha focused her sharp green eyes like a lance. “Agent Cirrus, what you don’t know yet is that Princess Luna has already assigned one of her top agents to this case.” A weight materialized on Cirrus’s mind, but he hoped this conversation wasn’t going where he thought it was.

“Colonel?”

“Princess Luna has assigned her unicorn specialist, Agent Narcisse Pavo to the case.” Colonel Mocha smirked. “I can tell by your expression that you know him well?”

“We aren’t friends if that’s what you’re implying.” Cirrus fought to recompose himself, belatedly realizing that he had been scowling. Then his brain rewound what he had just said. “Um—Ma’am!”

“Indeed.” Cocoa intoned. “We need you to trail him and smooth over any feelings or feathers that might have been infringed. He is not known to handle matters delicately. Can we trust you with this assignment, agent?”

Cirrus tried to hide a frown. Why should he, a Solar Agent, have to clean up after a semi-rogue Lunar Agent? However, both mares were gazing at him expectantly. What could he say?

“You have my word, Colonel… Princess. I will do what I can.”

“Thank you Cirrus.” Celestia smiled. “But of course, the first priority is the two mares. Either bring them in, or provide us with as much intel as you can gather.”

“I’ll depart within the hour.”

“Thank you. You are dismissed.”

* * *

Flim and Flam were in awe. Their mouths were hanging open, almost drooling. Meadow had certainly caught their attention when she flew across their office with her new amulet. Then attention gave way to excited approval when she permitted Flim to try it out. It took several minutes, some false starts, and a few new contusions, but it wasn’t long before Flim was floating several hooves above his chair, laughing while his brother cheered him on

“Good show, brother! Good show!”

Meadow had a rapt audience, both sets of ears perked as she detailed what a large revolution such technology could bring. With each new idea and application, whether it be flight, vision enhancement, or instantaneous communication, Tempest watched as Flim and Flam’s eyes grew, shaking their heads in astonishment.

Flam finally stood up in resolution, tapping his hoof on his desk to gain everypony’s attention. “You two have certainly made a compelling case. If this indeed is what you purport it to be, we are about to be very rich indeed! But there must be a catch.”

“That’s right, oh brother of mine!” Flim leaped to his side. “You two have something that is entirely unheard of, something that will change life as we know it across this fair nation.” He leaned forward and rapped his hoof on the desk to join his brother’s. “If these remarkable amulets work as you say, then why us?”

“Just so!” Flam exclaimed. “What’s to stop you two from making them yourselves? Or better yet, what’s to stop you from selling them to the biggest and most trusted manufacturer known! I dare say these amulets will simply explode in Gryphus or Minos: nations that are just starved for more magic! You would be an overnight sensation, rising rapidly to become some of the richest and most influential ponies anywhere! Why use the Flim Flam brothers at all?”

Flim pushed his brother in the head. “You make too fine a point, brother! What are you thinking, pushing them out our door?”

“It’s a fair question! You were making the same point!”

“But you go too far! They were wanting us? Why in all of Luna’s starry mane would you put other ideas in their head?”

Now the two brothers were nose to nose yelling at each other. Tempest grimaced.

“It’s not about the money!”

With the voice magnification spell she used, Tempest’s voice cut across the argument in one fell swoop, leaving both unicorns looking back at her in shock. After a blinking for a moment, they relaxed from their confrontation, only to turn back toward Tempest in disbelief.

“What do you mean ‘it’s not about the money?’” The consternation caused Film’s voice to briefly go falsetto. “How can you—I mean, this will be the biggest thing since… well, since big things started to become a big thing!”

“Hear, hear!” Flam clopped his hoof down on his desk a few times before getting up to stand on it, striking a dynamic pose. “You have the chance to change the world, dear ponies. You have this breakthrough—these... amulets, technology the likes of which we have never seen!”

Flim joined him on the desk, striking a pose of his own. It was quite the show; for a second Tempest thought she was about to be dropped into an onstage musical, curtains, spotlights, and all.

“That’s right brother of mine!” Flim cried. “Why—amulets will reach into every home, into every life! Ponies will be accomplishing dreams they never dared to strive for. Foals will have blessings earlier generations could not even conceive! Lives will change forever!” Flim was now pointing at the ceiling, his hoof almost scraping the surface before he swung it around and pointed it accusingly at the two mares. “And you have the gall to sit there and claim you don’t care about the money?!”

Meadow dropped from her position floating near the ceiling and landed with a clop. She had taken the amulet back and was using it to simply float about, the novelty not having worn off. “Are you two even hearing yourselves. In one breath you speak about all of the good we can do and then you wind up only focusing on the money!”

The two unicorns looked at each other before dropping their hooves to their sides, still reared up balancing on the hind legs. As one, they responded with a flat look. “And—?”

“And we want none of it.” Tempest asserted. “We want to remain in anonymity. You two can claim whatever you want. Just don’t link the technology back to us.”

Both stallions’ jaws dropped. They slid off the desk and onto the floor. “But why?” Flam sounded like his soul had been wounded. “You two could be the richest ponies in Equestria if you play your cards right. Don’t you even want a cut?”

Tempest opened her mouth to speak but Meadow cut in. “Of course we want a cut. We require finances for our own ends, of course.” Both unicorns seemed to relax slightly, which left Tempest feeling tense, but amused as Meadow continued, “But we only ask you send us 10%.”

Both unicorns opened their mouths, but Meadow cut them off with a wave of her hoof. “You two will send our share to a bank account of mine in Gryphus. You will also send your P&L statements so we can track your progress. We are generous mares as that 90% should convince you. But if you cross us…”

Could two ponies look scared and pleased out of their wits at the same time? Meadow did sound rather scary there, though. Tempest continued from Meadow’s implied threat.

“If you cross us, we have a way of bringing the whole network down. Which would spell utter doom for you two, the “proprietors” of the technology. Any questions?”

Flam raised a hoof. “And… why aren’t you going to a big company? Somepony like Amarezon or General Arcanic?”

Flim punched him in the arm. “Shut up, you ninny! What are you trying to do?”

“Too high profile,” came Meadow’s smooth reply. “Going to that level, we would have to deal with all sorts of oversight, regulation, and testing… No, we want this to come out overnight. It has to come up from the grassroots level.”

“And it will.” Tempest smiled. “Hocked by the very best salesmen nonpareil! The two ponies that could sell boxes of sand to a Saddle Arabian.”

Flim and Flam began to grin like the idiots they were. “True, true!” Flim cried. “What do we do?”

“Show us your ways!” Flam added.

Meadow began to pace back and forth in front of the twins. “We know that you two are motivated by the bits… but you must do it in the way and in the order we dictate. Is that understood?”

Both stallions nodded their heads, their smiles widening.

“We need you to make amulets and sell them: but not just to anyone. We want you to especially target law enforcement and military personnel. And there will only be three types of amulets at the start.”

“We are your ponies—just say the word!” Flim responded, before pointing at the amulet around Meadow’s neck. “What kind of amulets are we going to make? Are we giving ponies the gift of flight?”

Tempest stood up joined Meadow. “As Meadow said, we will do this in phases. Safety of course is our top priority. Flight amulets could prove disastrous in the wrong hooves, so they won’t be part of the first batch.”

Flam began to sputter. “But Miss! Just think of the effect! What faster way could there be to promote it? What better way to have the impact we want—I mean impact you need!”

Tempest motioned with her hooves for silence. “All in due time. The first run will focus on one type of amulet per pony tribe. This will roll out of control if you deviate from that course.”

Both unicorns looked as if they were choking on something very sour, but they both schooled their features and relaxed, if only partially. “G… Go on.” Flim grunted out.

“We will show you how to make amulets of speed for pegasi, amulets of strength for earth ponies, and focus amulets for unicorns so that they might better multi-spell when an occasion calls for it.”

At this, Flim and Flam were standing up again, frowning. “But… that’s not near enough!” Flim blurted. “I mean...those are all so subtle! Those won’t sell like flight!”

“That’s right!” Flam agreed. “The impact of those will be negligible. Think about it! X-ray vision for our doctors! Force armor for our police! Protection from extreme heat for our fireponies!” Flim nodded feverishly in agreement. “You honestly want to limit our amulets to… that?”

“Exactly that.” Tempest insisted. “We want to minimize the uproar. We want to help the guards and the police in ways that are subtle—we don’t want to shake things up that violently.”

Meadow spoke up again. “And we don’t want criminals equipped with overpowered amulets and harming our law enforcement.”

The twins were not convinced. “But there has to be something! We need to offer something that will send their collective imaginations soaring!”

“All in due time.” Tempest repeated patiently. “Are you on board or not?”

Flim and Flam’s eyes were wide, and their chests were pounding. They looked like they wanted to go on, but they hesitated. After exchanging a look between them, they both turned and gave a single nod. “We are your ponies.”

“Good!” Meadow chirped. She walked up between the two of them and wrapped a hoof around each of their necks. “So, who wants to learn how to make amulets?

* * *

Luna’s eyes narrowed as she watched Special Agent Cirrus trot down the ramp again, having carried another bundle of equipment aboard the Daybreak, Celestia’s fastest ship. Her hoof pressed against a file folder emblazoned with the title Manehattan Mission - Agent Cirrus in big block letters. Her other hoof propped up her chin while she leaned out over the railing of the castle’s fifth floor veranda. The irony that she was spying on her sister’s spy was not lost on her.

Luna wasn’t normally up at this hour of the day, but she had several important meetings of an international flavor to attend to—not that going without sleep was much of an inconvenience for her. But now that she had learned of Cirrus’ mission, she was glad that was awake early.

Her normal routine was to receive a briefing on the events of the day in one hoof while an attendant put a steaming cup of java in the other. Luna called it her Briefing and Brew session. But what caught her eye today smacked a little of Solar interference, so she dropped everything and made a beeline straight to the solar branch Royal Guard offices. After a few questions, she had the file in hoof and was up to speed in short order. That led her to the fifth floor veranda to watch the Daybreak depart.

Having completed his tasks, Cirrus trotted back up the Daybreak’s ramp, followed by a flight attendant. Slowly, the incline of the ramp leveled out as it elevated into position. Luna turned and began to pace back towards the double doors her ears swiveling back as she picked up the drive of the ship spooling up. It was time to have some words with Celestia.

Sister… usually your heart is in the right place. Without doubt you lead with the skill and experience of thousands of years. Why then are you still taken with episodes of stupidly myopic administration?

Luna shook her head. She loved her sister, but once in a while they enjoyed some spectacular differences of opinion. Such could be expected, of course, by two wise beings who shared rule, sisters no less. But it was aggravating when Celestia fell into old patterns. Patterns that were frustrating. Patterns that rankled. Patterns that slapped Luna’s pet peeve in the muzzle and made her sit up and take notice. Too often, Celestia tried to rule for the both of them.

Entering the castle’s corridor from the veranda, Luna addressed two attendants waiting just inside the door—both officers of her Night Guard.

“Lieutenants Striker and Wedge.”

Both the pegasus and earth pony saluted. If either were concerned about the gathering storm in Luna’s voice, they gave no indication.

“Striker, you will attend me as I go to Celestia’s office. Not the main one off the throne room, but her private study atop the Solar Wing.” She turned the earth pony, her glittering turquoise eyes pinning him in place. “Wedge?”

“Yes, your majesty?” The earth pony’s voice wavered, but not his legs.

“Inform Celestia that I seek an immediate audience with her. I will be waiting in her study. Dismissed.”

Without another word, Luna spun on her heel and headed to her destination, the pegasus falling into step behind her while the heavier hoof falls of the earth pony left with some haste in the opposite direction. Luna shook her head again. Narcisse would complete his assignments successfully. He would get results quickly, and do so with distinction. She was well aware that he rubbed ponies the wrong way, but that didn’t make him a bad pony, neither did it make him a bad agent. He was decisive and sure. Most agents were susceptible to hesitation and equivocation. Narcisse produced results.

Celestia would do well to not interfere with a decision of the Lunar crown, nor with an Agent of Moonlight.

* * *

The ornate double doors swung open, brushing across the plush patterned carpet with barely a whisper. Their hinges didn’t make any sound at all. Luna filed that little tidbit away for later—one should always have an eye for future pranking opportunities. The rich wood accents and cream colored walls seemed to brighten a tad as Celestia came into view. .

Celestia gave the room a quick scan before her eyes fell upon Luna, seated patiently next to her desk. With a smile, Celestia inclined her head in greeting, but before she could speak she noticed the folder held in Luna’s hoof. Luna remained impassive as she watched her sister chew on that before proceeding forward again, her smile falling just a smidge.

Celestia walked past her sister, circling around behind her desk before taking a seat. “Good afternoon, Lulu. Sleep well?”

Luna said nothing as Celestia’s magic flared, shunting the documents on her desk to the side, before they sorted and stacked themselves in short order. That done, several scattered quills stood up and flew in formation to land neatly in a cup-like holder. It was the alicorn version of fidgeting, and Luna was unimpressed.

“My sleep was unremarkable.” Luna didn’t even try to hide the flat tone in her voice.

Proceeding as if Luna’s reply was expected, Celestia folded her hooves on the desk at met Luna’s eyes. Her face was a picture of innocence.

“I see you have brought Lieutenant Striker with you today. How is his new little bundle of joy? Any early aeronautics?”

“The lid on the crib is secure.” Luna’s tone and apathetic eyes belied her response. “Just a high-speed projectile of love.”

Celestia closed her eyes with a pleased grin. “That sounds darling, Lulu. So to what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?”

The folder smacked on Celestia’s cleared desk.

“Enough frivolities, Tia. I just watched Agent Cirrus, your peeping pegasus, board your fastest ship. That was after reading the details of his assignment.”

Celestia didn’t rise to the bait. Her magic simply lifted the folder and placed it neatly atop the stacked pile of documents. “And?”

“And as usual, you take one too many liberties interfering in my affairs!” Luna replied hotly.

“Your affairs?” Celestia raised an eyebrow, her smile flattening into a line. “These are Equestrian affairs, Lulu.” Celestia rested a hoof on the stack of documents for emphasis. “Unexplained magical attacks on our citizens? Such things will not be tolerated and will not be left unexplained or uninvestigated. I would like our combined forces to look into this report. Such would only be reasonable.”

Luna glanced behind her at the office door still ajar, and flicked her horn to the side, nudging it closed with a click. In an instant, a soundproofing spell was placed on the interior of the study.

“You do not need to dictate the importance of teamwork to me, Tia.” Luna’s voice had dropped to a growl. The temperature of the study plummeted. “I am well aware this is an Equestrian affair, and as you no doubt are aware, I am employed every day in the protection of our subjects. Do not dictate what is reasonable to me.”

Celestia stood up, returning Luna’s tone with diffidence. “Cut the theatrics, Luna. What is it about Cirrus mission that has you sucking the heat out of my study? There’s a layer of ice now forming over my Earl Grey tea.”

“You have assigned your agent to trail my own. Explain.”

“I have sent Cirrus to bring in two mares for questioning.” Celestia’s horn glowed for a few seconds until steam started coming from her teacup again. “He has also been ordered to gather intel on them. What is so bad about his visiting the same ponies Narcisse has seen? Wouldn’t that give us a more complete picture?”

Luna’s gaze turned flat. “Verily? Sister, you might think that you have a clever tongue, but what works to placate the nobles will not deceive me. I read the file, and it only confirmed what I already suspected.” Luna’s magic snatched the folder from Celestia’s desk and rattled it in front of her face. “You no doubt called him for a briefing? Perhaps only a couple of hours ago, in which you made sure he explicitly understood what was implied in the assignment?”

Celestia frowned slightly. “And what if I did?”

“Trust, Tia!” Luna barked, before getting up to pace back and forth. “After all of these years, I still lack your trust! Oh, you say you want to enjoy the fruits of a balanced co-rulership, but even now I see that I am secondary! It is still the same story, no matter how you try to re-frame it!”

Celestia let out a long sigh before rubbing her face with a hoof. “Luna, as usual you are making too much out of a very little thing. This is not about you or your leadership. Narcisse is—”

“He is my agent, Tia! Of the fact that Narcisse is a flawed pony, I am well aware!”

“He is not suited for this task—”

“He is exactly suited for this task!” Luna cut in again, tossing her mane to the side and glaring at her sister. “I selected him for his particular skill set, flaws and all!”

“ Luna—”

“When I received my nighttime briefing, before you were even aware of the situation, I reviewed the case and made a decision. I stand by that choice. While you find distaste in Narcisse’s particular style, I find utility.”

Celestia blinked. She opened her mouth to retort, but was left speechless.

“I sent Narcisse, because I knew he would get the results that I require. To protect Equestria.” Luna swooped out of her chair, her wings twitching before she opened them and took to a hover, filling the room with her presence and her voice. “You would do well to remember that what I do, I do for the good of our little ponies. I do not make decisions rashly!”

With that, Luna’s magic flashed, teleporting to the other side of the double doors. Her guard wasn’t expecting such an entrance, if the surprised yelp were any indication.

Celestia blew out a sigh and started to rub her temple with her hoof.

* * *

The floor hummed beneath her hooves as Twilight crept towards the bridge of the airship. It was the strangest itinerary ever planned. Thus far she had made six long distance teleports, each jump advancing her progress eastward across Equestria, one such jump hitting a distance of one hundred and sixty kilometers. Teleport jumps this wide all at once required a truly massive discharge of magic, thus necessitating some downtime to cool off her horn.

It would be great to simply teleport straight from Ponyville to Fillydelphia into her throne room, but even alicorns had their limits.

Having to recover from each jump wasn’t a problem, though. Not really. Sure, she had to conduct an ongoing invisibility spell, and once she even had to resort to a distraction spell when a crew member got too close, but for the other five jumps she simply made her way carefully onto the bridge so she could get a view of the navigator’s display terminal. Once there, she could figure out the actual position and heading of the nearest airships, sneak into a lavatory, perform a scrying spell, and fwoom! Onto the next stop. She was halfway to her destination by now.

Her plan was foolproof.

Was all of this really necessary? Probably not. She could have teleported across Equestria at ground level without such meticulous planning as to do pinpoint jumps from ship to ship… but where was the fun in that? She was doing this to show it could be done. That was all.

And it would make for a rather fun tale to share with Starlight Glimmer. But that was all!

The door to the bridge opened, allowing a smartly dressed flight attendant, a bat pony mare, to exit pushing a serving tray with her front hooves. Apparently it was lunchtime onboard, and the in-flight meal consisted of apple, walnut, and gorgonzola salad with a sweetened balsamic reduction. Twilight swallowed as her mouth began to water like crazy. In all of her preparation, she had not thought to pack a lunch. Scarcely breathing, she watched the attendant as she sauntered past, her cute derriere swaying back and forth as she reached the doorway to the passenger area.

Scrunching her muzzle, Twilight’s mind raced as she tried to come up with a ruse to make off with a salad. Or maybe two…

Hmm. Perhaps if I create a noise near the door to the bridge she’ll come back this way and—WHY IS THAT MARE PAUSING AND TURNING HER HEAD BACK THIS WAY?

Heart thumping in her chest, Twilight tried to make herself look smaller, even though she was already invisible. The mare hesitated, looking perplexed as she sniffed the air a few times. How sharp were bat pony noses? The mare took a longer sniff, turning part-way around. Twilight dropped her head quickly to take a whiff of her own coat behind her foreleg. Had she been working up a sweat? Wait, was the shampoo she used this morning mango scented?

Crap! Oh crap oh crap oh crap!

Twilight lit her horn and created an air-blocking force wall. Just in case, Twilight readied a sleep spell. The last thing she needed was to be discovered stowing away aboard a commercial airship. Her, the Princess of Friendship, on the eve of Friendship Day!

She would never ever live that down.

Finally the mare gave up, shrugging and continuing on her way into the passenger area of the ship. Twilight let out a sigh of relief before she eased back into the walkway, continuing forward until she arrived at the door to the bridge. Now all she had to do was sneak in, scan the navigation display, and find a quiet spot to scry the ship and depart. Twilight put a listening spell up on the door of the bridge.

“...This is NT Sparrow CZ1C. Confirming magical distortion on board beginning at 2:15 PM. Magical distortion is ongoing but at a much lower level. The series seems to follow the pattern suggested by other ships reporting in. An initial magic burst intrusion followed by low level interference. Copy Condor DZ89A…”

“Condor Copies, Sparrow. Your data agrees with our earlier readings: initial burst occurring at 1:58, followed by low level interference, and then a terminal burst at 2:15 PM, coinciding with your initial. The pattern is a repeat from the four previous airships we have spoken to. Point of origin appears to have been Ponyville. Canterlot has been notified, and specialists from the Foal Mountain Outpost are on an intercept course. Additional ships to your East have been notified and we will continue to track…”

Twilight switched off her listening spell, her eyes widening.

Oh no. No no no no no… Don’t tell me there are instrument upgrades in our Equestrian Fleet that I was unaware of? They’ve been tracking me the WHOLE TIME?

Her mind raced. How does one avoid getting tracked by government specialists? What could specialists do? Would there be unicorns with them with magic tracking spells?

Crap. Crap crap crap crap crap! If ponies are on an intercept course, and they have been tracking my average time at each ship in-between jumps, then I need to get off of this thing in the next three minutes! But to where should I jump?

The door to the bridge flew open, and two more ponies, this time bridge crew members in uniform trotted into the cabin space from the bridge. The two unicorns waved their glowing horns about like dowsing rods.

To make matters worse, Twilight’s horn began to tickle—the kind that heralded a letter from Spike. The timing couldn’t be any worse. With her heart galloping, Twilight shrank back up and scanned outside a window. They were high above the canopy of trees, but she could make out a clearing below. Racing to complete the spell, Twilight activated her magic…

…too little too late.

Spike’s letter materialized in a flash of fire and smoke right in the middle of the cabin. Scrambling to add the letter to her teleport spell, Twilight felt the familiar lurch of connecting two points in spacetime simultaneously. Fortunately, she remembered to teleport 10 meters off the ground so that she could bleed off the velocity imbued into her state of motion while on the airship.

Feeling the snap of wind as she flared her wings to slow down, Twilight finally came to a gentle landing, panting and shaking her head in disbelief. Without delay, she cantered over to the nearest tree cover, all the while snorting and cursing her idiocy.

“I suppose if I ever try to do that again, I’ll also research the latest specs on airship instruments and sensors. I wonder if Celestia has ever tried something as stupid as that.” Twilight wasn’t exactly sure where she was, but she knew the Foal Mountains were only a few miles to the north. A plan would have to wait, though. Spike’s letter was top priority.

Dear Twilight,

I have just received invitations for you and the other Elements of Harmony to gather and report to Canterlot Castle at your earliest convenience. Celestia is trying to cleanse a Manehattan librarian from some kind of curse, but she has been unsuccessful and wants to try the Elements of Harmony. The librarian is being kept under magical suspension until you and your friends arrive. Princess Celestia knows that there may be some schedule conflicts, so her instructions are that when you are done with your visit in Fillydelphia, you could please come back home without delay. As soon as the Elements are gathered, a royal chariot will be sent to expedite the journey.

As for myself. I’m keeping out of trouble. Hope you are enjoying your trip to Fillydelphia. Say hi to Fizzlepop for me, and let her know Starlight is darn sneaky.

Sincerely, Spike

“Sneaky, huh?” Twilight eyed the airship—a dot in the sky now—and suppressed a grin. With a sigh, she stretched her wings out, preparing to take to the sky and get her bearings in order to complete her teleport jumps, this time along the ground. Captain Berrytwist wouldn’t be pleased to hear about this side venture, so she didn’t need to know!

Another tickle; another incoming letter. Folding her wings back closed, she waited until it appeared, this one sealed with Celestia’s insignia and marked by her distincitve and flowing hornuscript.

Please forward to Princess Twilight Sparkle ASAP

Twilight wondered what this letter would be about. She hoped that nothing had changed with regards to the librarian, and that the afflicted pony would be safe and sedate until everypony could gather. Twilight broke the seal and opened the letter.

Dear Twilight,

I hope you are well, and that your speaking tour on our eastern coast is a rousing success. While I know you expected to arrive in Fillydelphia last night with your entourage, I have a sneaking suspicion you are elsewhere.

I am hearing some interesting reports from the Equestrian Aviation Administration, so I wanted to put a question to you: What made you want to go airship hopping across our fair nation, spooking several flight crews and administrative officials along the way?

* * *

“So… when do we make our move?”

Tempest furrowed her eyebrows at Meadow. “Have some patience!” She shook her head before leaning forward, peering over the edge of the roof again. “You wouldn’t make a very good spy, would you?”

Meadow sat back with a huff. “Well… it’s just that there’s nothing to do up here! And I gotta just keep quiet all the time!”

“Shh!”

Meadow rolled her eyes. She scuffed her hoof back and forth, watching as the sun continued to set, shadows stretching across the roof of the Red Manticore Hotel. The air was steadily growing colder, but the nearby exhaust vent kept them toasty.

From their vantage point, they could see a good portion of the Fillydelphia Convention Center, and most of the entrances. The jagged and soaring roof of the Center at least gave them something interesting to look at—a far cry from the boring buzz cuts of the other buildings’ roofs. After a few moments in silence, with nothing to distract her except for the meandering buzz of a few flies in the air, Meadow nudged Tempest’s shoulder with a hoof. “So do you think they’ll comply with our wishes?”

“Who?” Tempest replied, not moving from her vantage point and not even facing Meadow. She decided she might as well lower her voice to a whisper, matching Meadow’s tone, but she continued to watch the entrances for activity.

“The twins! Flim and Flam—they didn’t really sound happy about working under such restrictions…”

Tempest twitched an ear. “Well, they don’t have much of a choice. From what I can tell, those two have no knowledge of magic runes at all. They will make what we let them make.”

“And the emitter?”

Blinking, Tempest turned to regard Meadow, forgetting the Convention Center for a moment. “What about the emitter?”

Meadow gave a knowing smirk. “There’s a unicorn horn mounted in it, isn’t there?”

Tempest’s hooves scrambled for purchase as she spun around, pushing forward and pressing Meadow backwards against the edge of the parapet, a hoof firmly trapping her against the brick of the wall. “What? How? What makes you think that—”

“Hee hee!” Somehow, that laugh that Meadow gave was more disturbing than anything she could have said. Tempest released her, falling back onto her haunches. “Aw, c’mon Temp. It wasn’t that hard to figure out. Are you really so surprised?”

Tempest gave a rueful chuckle. “Heh… heh heh. I guess not. I guess not for anypony paying attention.” She pushed at Meadow’s shoulder. “Let’s just not let that little tidbit out.”

“And if the twins open the casing?” Meadow prodded. “What if they want to branch out? What if they accidentally break it?”

Tempest frowned as she got back up to look over the edge again. “We just tell them that if they crack open the emitter, all production stops. All bits stop... All things considered, we should pay them a follow-up visit.”

“Soon…” Meadow agreed. “Especially if they forget your little detail of adding the eye insignia to the backs of each.”

“Mmm.” Tempest continued to frown as she watched the center. Meadow was making a lot of sense. She had also been helpful in noticing a particular flyer about an upcoming event. Celestia’s former faithful student, the Princess of Friendship herself, would be speaking in the Convention Center Tomorrow. It was too good of an opportunity to pass up.

Not to abduct the princess—not yet, anyway. It was too soon for that. But it would allow her to gain first hand knowledge about Twilight Sparkle and the kind of security that surrounded her. If given the opportunity, perhaps she could test Twilight’s defenses, maybe even see them in action.

Either way, getting to Princess Sparkle might turn out to be her best way of either manipulating Princess Celestia, or drawing her out in the open.

Movement.

Eleven uniformed ponies were approaching a back entrance, following an older stallion that seemed to be holding a set of keys. Each pony’s head moved to and fro as if they were searching the area for threats, taking in every detail. There didn’t seem to be any chatter among them.

The mare at their lead, walking next to the older pony with the keys, seemed to command a daunting presence all her own. Tempest couldn’t tell if the mare was wearing a uniform or armor, but underneath it the mare had a deep grape coat and a spiky fuschia mane. Tempest wasn’t sure, but it looked as if the mare had a broken-off horn.

After the group had entered, Tempest stood up, looking over to Meadow. “You think Twilight Sparkle is with them?”

Meadow grinned. “Looked like a security detail to me. C’mon! We won’t know for certain unless we go down for a closer look.”

“Let’s do this. Just… stay on the ground. I don’t want anypony knowing you can fly yet.”

Chapter Eleven: The Fillydelphia Convention Center

View Online

Zerrin Slash looked around at the assembled team, his heated griffon blood churning at the thought of his first military exercise with such an elite group. After two weeks of training simulations, this would be his first live assignment and he was anxious to prove his mettle.

Granted, they were only there to perform a routine security sweep before Twilight Sparkle’s big visit tomorrow, but at least it was live. In the entirety of his two weeks as the newest member of Princess Twilight’s security team, he had only seen her up close twice. Commander Fizzlepop, Twilight’s overly protective head of security, was always assigning him to the furthest away assignments. Now that Twilight was featured as the keynote speaker for Friendship Day festivities, and Commander Fizzlepop needed her entire force, Zerrin would be able to stay a lot closer. He just wished at some point they could get some bloody action.

Fizzlepop finished talking about whatever with the building’s two head custodians, a multi-colored changeling, and a strange creature that was probably a kirin, though Zerrin had never met one in person before.

While the two made their way towards the main stairway at the edge of the main hall, Fizzlepop turned to address them.

“Okay, miscreants. Ear up.” Fizzlepop unrolled the roster and held it in front of her with magic. “Zen’zie and Russet have agreed to stay in their office on the ground floor while we perform the sweep. As we reviewed in our meeting at 1500 hours, the Convention Center features two wings branching off of this, the main hall.” She pointed behind them with a hoof. “The North Wing is behind you, and for those who lack even an iota of a sense of direction, behind me is the South. I’m looking at you, Crimson Spark.”

“What? Why me?” The poppy-red unicorn glared around, even as the other team members started snickering. A few muttered quips bubbled up about Crimson’s death-ray head cannon, but not having a clue as to which way to point it.

”All right, pipe down.” Fizzlepop broke in, her tone flat. “If we can cut the chatter we can get to work.” Her eyes traveled over the group, pausing on her defensive specialist. The diminutive unicorn had been patting Zerrin on his shoulder, whispering in his ear. “Zora, you can flirt with our newest griff later.” Zora snatched her hoof away and stared straight ahead, eyes wide.

“Aside from the main staircase here there are stairwells at the end of each wing behind the labeled access doors. Also, there are two additional underground levels. Teams of two will perform their sweeps outward toward the stairwells. Once there, Wade and Stormclaw will monitor the stairs while the remaining ten sweepers will spread through the lower levels, starting at the periphery and working back towards my position here. Once the sweep is complete, we will set up our guard points as previously covered. Any questions?”

A grizzled minotaur raised his well-muscled arm from the back. “If we run into any nerds, do we get offered hazard pay?”

Fizzlepop gave him a blank look before rolling her eyes. “If there are no serious questions, I’ll give you your assignments. First assignment is that Wade Tinkerman there will do pushups on the floor until I’ve finished with my instructions.”

Several team members chuckled as they made way for the minotaur to lower himself to the ground to get started. Wade didn’t even look bothered to do it. The sound of his exertions were the backdrop for Fizzlepop’s droning voice as she continued.

“For North Wing, Zerrin and Blackbeak will be on 3rd floor. Bulwark will be with Nebula on the 2nd, and Stormclaw will pair up with Onyx for the 1st.” The dragon of the group looked down, eyes meeting with the lone changeling. They each nodded their acknowledgement.

“As for the South Wing, Mazumah will team up with Gravnet on the 3rd floor, while Wade will pair up with Zora on the 2nd. Finally, Crimson Spark and Cadrey will take care of this level. If there is nothing else, gear up and deploy. Go.”

* * *

Lieutenant Hillgren Bulwark angled an ear towards the collar of his barding, where his transmitter crackled to life.

“Units in the North Wing, this is Actual. What’s your sitrep, Bravo-Zulu one-one-niner?”

Hillgren’s eyes swept from side to side as he listened to the paired-up griffons give their report. From the corner of his vision, his search cohort, a pegasus named Nebula, burst out of a door. His wings were twitching and his lips were curled in disgust.

“The next closet I find buried in dust is yours!” Nebula hissed, dusting the cobwebs out of his electric blue mane. “You don’t have any wings to preen!”

Rolling his eyes, Bulwark pointed to the next door. “Got it. I’ll take the dusty ones. You can get the rest infested with spiders, doctor.”

“That’s not—”

The gravelly voice of Beta Team’s leader—the lone dragon of their group—broke in over the transmitter, the Alpha leader having finished his report. Stormclaw’s voice usually rumbled in the bass register, but he always sounded near-unintelligible when speaking through their transmitters. Bulwark wasn’t sure, but he believed it was due to the dragon race’s natural magic resistance and the fact that their transmitters were powered by magic crystal arrays.

“North Wing first floor is clear so far, Commander. Anti-teleportation arrays are in place, and we’ve marked four access points—pegusi fire escapes. The floor is seventy-five percent complete. Any update to our orders?”

“Just finish your assignment and place the remaining sensors,” came the reply. Commander Berrytwist was unflappable as always, perhaps more so now that they were on an active mission. “...Oh, and don’t blow anything up.”

Bulwark chortled to himself. He swore he could also hear teams chuckling from elsewhere in the building—whether they were transmitting or not.

“Yes… sir.”

Twilight’s Security Team was only six weeks old, but old Stormclaw had been dealing with explosives for years. As far as Bulwark knew, he had never suffered a setback until last week during a training exercise. Whether the mishap was because Stormclaw had a crush on Fizzlepop or not was up for debate between the team members, but at least Ponyville didn’t mind the unexpected pyrotechnics. The local residents considered it “mild” compared to what they termed “the early years.”

Regardless, Captain Fizzlepop wasn’t willing to let that one go just yet. With a creak, Bulwark pushed another door open, scanning the room before walking inside. This one seemed to be a meeting room with a conference table and a drop screen at the other end.

The transceiver crackled again.” Actual to Bravo-Zulu, acknowledged. November-Hotel two-oh-four? Give your sitrep.”

Reaching up with his right hoof, Lieutenant Bulwark hit send on his transceiver. “Third floor is 80% clear, Commander. All but the final array are in place. There are two Pegusi entrances to either side, but all are secured with a deadbolt and have magical rune protection. Magical sensors have also been placed every twenty meters. Over.”

“Acknowledged, November-Hotel. Actual to Oscar-Sierra six-one-two. Give your sitrep.”

Bulwark continued to listen while Wade’s burly voice spoke up. As he made his way back into the corridor, he caught a glimpse of Nebula as the pegasus pushed his way into a public restroom before his eyes flicked down to the end of the hall. He wasn’t alone. There was a third pony standing by the stairway access door. Her back was turned, and she seemed to be heaving, either mildly convulsing or gasping for breath. The lights at the terminus of the hallway flickered a bit, casting the area in subdued hues of semi-shadow.

“Hey there, Ms. Custodian—um, Russet, right?” Bulwark spoke up, making sure Nebula would be able to hear him now that there was something strange in the neighborhood. He might’ve been tempted to call those other guys if it wasn’t for the fact that the “bogey” was the kirin mare he had seen only half an hour ago.

Nebula poked his head back out of the restroom, one eyebrow raised. “You say something?”

Bulwark flicked his tail, gesturing down the hallway with his muzzle. “We have a security breach and you pick now to use the little filly’s room?”

“It was the next door!” Nebula stomped his hoof. “What, you want me to get a hall pass before I check the next one?”

“Easy there, Nebulizer.” Bulwark chuckled. “Just needling you is all.”

The medical pony rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I’ll give you a needle.”

Ignoring Nebula’s remark, Bulwark returned his focus to the kirin. “Ms. Russet? You and your supervisor were instructed to remain in your office while we conducted our sweeps. May we escort you back downstairs?”

The kirin continued to heave, her bushy mane twitching every so often. Frowning, Bulwark stopped his approach to within five meters. What was it he learned back in his days with the force?

If there's something weird
And it don't look good
Who you gonna call?

When dealing with a custodian mare half one’s size, Bulwark didn’t feel the need to call anypony, really. In a case like this, ‘weird’ was probably just better met with a billy club.

Sliding the baton free, Bulwark flicked his eyes back to Nebula who was bringing his transceiver up. “Okay, Ms. Russet. I need you to turn around slowly… Hooves where I can see them.”

Static sounded from behind him as Nebula murmured something in response to a query from Fizzlepop. Circling to the side, Bulwark kept his eyes trained on the mare, trying to gauge her mental state by getting a view of her face. “Russet Gleam? It’s gonna be okay. Let’s help you back downstairs, alright?”

The kirin just twitched.

“Should I, uh… call for backup, Lieutenant?” Nebula’s voice broke in from behind.

“Don’t trouble yourself.” Bulwark smiled. “I’m at least twice her size and she’s unarmed—”

A flash of bluish white light blinded Bulwark for second before a body impacted him from the side. Widening his stance, Bulwark gasped as the kirin’s body roiled with a scorching heat, setting his fur ablaze. Bulwark was screaming before his mind even registered the pain as his flesh began to char.

“Get her off, dammit! Get her off!” Bulwark hollered. “And backup is necessary!”

Nebula opened his wings and shot forward. “Code 10-10!” he yelled into his transceiver. “This is November-Hotel! Bulwark’s been assaulted!” In two wing beats Nebula had flicked out his knife and closed the distance to strike. Before he could, Bulwark dropped out from under him, rolled, away, and pinned the kirin beneath. Nebula’s eyes widened. He banked hard in the cramped hallway, kicking off of a wall as his transceiver crackled to life again. “Bulwark, what the Tartarus are you—?”

Continuing his roll, Bulwark’s intentions were soon clear as he landed on his back, Russet on top. His rear hooves coiled under the flaming custodian’s bare torso. One kick sent his attacker crashing into a nearby wall. Free of his assailant, Bulwark rolled again to finish smothering the flames.

“Fire extinguisher!” He gasped, standing up as patches of his coat continued to flicker. “We need to contain her, not kill!” Regaining his bearings, Bulwark drew his sword—hopefully its business end wouldn’t be needed. The kirin—nirik, rather—pulled herself to her hooves, shaking her head and snarling. Flames flared all over her coat, the heat rolling off in waves that caused Bulwark’s skin to prickle. The bulletin board behind her spontaneously combusted.

Bulwark’s brain raced through his options. He wasn’t registering pain at the moment, but he knew that blessing was temporary if the smell of charred flesh was any indication. Thank Celestia for small favors like adrenaline. Maybe he could take the nirik out with a knockout blow? It might-

Cold, white foam blindsided him from the right.

“Not me, you idiot!” He coughed and fought through his watery eyes. “Her!” He pointed to the nirik. She stalked closer, framed as she was in flames with the wall now fully ablaze behind her. There was some crimson liquid dripping from one of her fangs. Bulwark’s eyebrows rose. Had she bitten him?

Nebula gave a quick nod. “Sorry sir!”

In another second, the nirik received a heavy dose of flame retardant. Further blasts blasted the wall behind her. Bulwark mashed his transmitter button, even as he sidestepped his attacker, deflecting her attack with an armored hoof.

“Captain! Zora would be really helpful right now to take the tango safely. She’s running amuck, lighting things on fire, that kind of thing.” Bulwark watched as Nebula crossed in front of him, hitting the custodian again with his spray. “Orders?”

“I’ve dispatched Stormclaw and Onyx to your position. Their team is much closer. Besides, if those bursts were indeed fire extinguisher emissions and not radio static or your legendary flatulence, you could probably use his fire resistance.”

Bulwark shook his head. How his commander could make rapid decisions, identify obscure sounds, and insult him all in the same sentence, he had no idea. At least Fizzlepop sounded unperturbed—as usual.

Finding an opening, the blazing nirik leapt forward. Causing Nebula to give ground with a few more short bursts.

“Lieutenant? I don’t think we’re cooling her off any. She won’t take a chill pill!”

Bulwark nodded in agreement, widening his stance a bit. “That about sums it up. Draw her back to me, I’ll have to inflict a little more force.”

A gravelly roar slammed the brakes on his train of thought. The sound reverberated off the walls and pummeled his eardrums. It came from the main atrium—and it sounded nothing like Stormclaw when he got pissed off…

…Were there more attackers?

“Nebula! Do it now! I think we have bigger problems over at actual!”

The brown pegasus nodded and doubled back, slowing to allow the nirik to give pursuit. Bulwark shifted his weight, allowing Nebula to pass before spinning to deliver a buck, blasting the flaming creature into the opposite wall.

* * *

“What is it?”

The thunderous roar sounded again. The source of the noise shambled out of the South Wing, rumbling out onto the main floor. Two barbed tentacles writhed from either side of the central mass, ending in broadened spatulate-like tips covered in barbs and spikes. The body ambled forward, oddly supported by only three tree-like legs, evenly spaced under it’s misshapen body. A third tentacle, tipped with numerous eyes, projected straight off the top of the bizarre creature’s body, gyrating in the air. The aberration’s mouth was easily large enough to swallow a pony whole and was lined with massive teeth, some as long as half a pony’s leg.

And here was this…thing rampaging in a locked down public building. Blinking in disbelief, Fizzlepop shook fuchsia mane. This wasn’t quite how she envisioned tonight going when she planned it as a simple exercise.

The floor shook under Fizzlepop’s hooves. She missed once or twice before finally pressing down her transmitter link. “All available units! Proceed back to the atrium and get a visual on the hostile. Tell me what I’m bloody seeing isn’t a fever dream!”

Gravnet Swoopes, her second in command, flew back from the first floor of the South Wing, Mazuma Gaines in hot pursuit if the cadence of the unicorn’s hooves was any indication. Gravnet climbed rapidly, surveying the beast as she flew. The two griffons on the third floor of the opposite side dove into the atrium from above, their wings fully spread. Blackbeak mimicked Swoopes’ strategy, but Zerrin dove straight down, grinning as he drew an enchanted blade from the scabbard on his back.

Fizzlepop’s transmitter came alive again as her mechanics expert spoke up.

“Actual, this is Whiskey-Zulu on 2nd floor South side,” the minotaur’s harsh voice pierced through. “Zora is down. I repeat, Zora is down and she’s hurt badly. I am trying to stop the bleeding, but she’s going to need Nebula pretty quick.”

Fizzlepop swore under her breath. “Nebula, give me your sitrep when able. Wade? Do what you can until Nebula arrives.” Fizzlepop studied the monster as it lumbered forward, pursing her lips before pressed her link again. “I need more eyes on the creature. Does anyone have any intel on this thing?”

The radio remained silent as Zerrin continued to engage the creature. He laughed as he dodged and slashed, every swipe giving a slice or a nick on the nearest tentacle. And yet, his feathers and barding remained pristine. It seemed less like combat and more like dance…maybe the two were indistinguishable at this point.

“Zerrin—you want any backup?” Fizzlepop didn’t bother to radio that one since his proximity easily allowed him to hear her. She allowed her voice to sound a little bored. Zerrin was the FNG, yes—and a Griffon to boot—but not even those could account for his more…fiery aspects.

“Hah. Why would I need backup against a mindless brute like this? I’ve hunted far worse back in Gryphus! UGH!”

Pristine no longer.

Zerrin recoiled as the creature stuck it’s other tentacle deep within its own throat before flinging a dripping and slimy something at its attacker. Gravnet Swoopes came down to engage the creature from the other side. In response to this new threat, the central tentacle flexed near the tip, strangely angling the eyes to allow it to look in opposite directions at the same time.

“Commander, it’s an otyugh,” Wade’s voice butted in. “Zora is unconscious, but before she slipped under she told me that she had seen one of these things before while working as a contractor up in Minos. Some of the southern cities up there employ creatures like this in their sewers to deal with the waste. That being said, don’t kill—”

“Is that why it smells so bad?” Zerrin screeched, cutting across the transmission as he wiped the slime from his fur with a claw. “Gods above, it’s like a skunk took a bath in a latrine, and then puked out his—”

“Not helping, Zerrin!” Fizzlepop snapped. “Go ahead, Wade.” Zerrin did a half-turn and pointed the middle digit of his right foreclaw straight up in the air, his beak twisted in a sneer. Fizzlepop raised an eyebrow at the gesture, whatever it meant, with an annoyed glare before her eyes widened and a crack appeared in her unflappable facade.

Zerrin drifted too close. She opened her mouth to shout a warning, but it was too late. The otyugh’s tentacle had flashed forward, entwining itself around the griffon’s hind leg. Zerrin gave a rather unmasculine squawk as he was yanked towards the beast, a few feathers left floating in his wake.

Wincing, Fizzlepop watched as Zerrin was pulled towards the beast’s maw, a gaping opening lined with rows of irregularly shaped teeth, waiting to engulf its prisoner. She pulled a throwing blade from her barding, but she didn’t want to accidentally hit the new meat. Zerrin drew a dagger from his forearm sheath, plunging it directly into the tentacle repeatedly as he started to thrash. “Slice the darn thing off!” Zerrin howled. “Get it the hell off me! And what is that smell?!”

Swoopes reacted quickly, her blade held out to make a long slash against the monstrous appendage. Wade’s voice came over the transmitter again as Fizzlepop angled her ears to listen.

“Don’t kill it!” Wade repeated. “The creature is the head custodian! The changeling!”

Motioning for Swoopes to break off, Fizzlepop started to charge a spell instead. Swoopes had apparently already heard the message, and was altering her vector to go for the beast’s eye stalk, her wings flaring out in a wash of blue-gray, and white. Out of the corner of her eye, Fizzlepop saw more team members arriving onto the showroom floor: her earth pony weapons expert, Cadrey Striker, and her unicorn offensive specialist, Crimson Spark. Things were going to turn real deadly, really fast if she didn’t stun the beast.

Wade continued. “We saw her standing there, just breathing heavily before she transformed and attacked! No warning, nothing to indicate intent... Got Zora pretty good, but I was able to deter it with an electric discharge!”

With another foul roar, the beast had closed in. Fizzlepop had been slowly giving ground as she coordinated the information, but now, she was backed into a wall. It was time to either contain the threat or neutralize it. “Acknowledged. All teams, go for energy weapons. Shoot to stun. Don’t kill the changeling unless you have no other choice!” Fizzlepop focused her spell. It was time to see if the recent modifications Twilight had made to the prosthetic built into her armor were worth their salt.

* * *

One hour earlier...

“Door.”

“Barrier.”

Tempest continued to name each rune as she pointed them out to Meadow, the rune-sequence obviously tied to a lock-and-alarm mechanism. After casing each of the Fillydelphia Convention Center’s entrances, they came across an access ramp dropping down to an underground tunnel for utility vehicles. The security door was protected by a series of magic runes.

“After those, the next rune says requirement, and then this one says rune-key. Do you follow?”

Meadow stroked her chin thoughtfully. “You do know that I completed my graduate studies in ornithology? And that I don’t have a horn?”

Tempest rolled her eyes. “You don’t need to be a unicorn to write runes: just a steady hoof. Anyway, the runes above most likely set the conditions for the system, while the runes below probably set the conditions for the trigger, for either deactivating the lock or sending an alarm signal.” Tempest then pointed below a featureless panel where two series of runes were scrawled beneath. “Then this one here says True=open.” Her hoof scraped downwards before gently tapping on the rune beneath. “And that one says False=send.

Meadow studied the heavy metallic door for a moment, before looking back up the ramp they came down, vehicles and carriages speeding past in the darkening twilight. The wind had picked up and it was starting to rain. After descending the ramp, they had found the door recessed about five meters in, a small overhang giving some protection against the elements. “So how do we open it? Is there a keyhole somewhere?”

Tempest frowned for a minute, wordlessly stroking her chin in confusion. Finally, she pointed to a square, featureless panel, about eight centimeters square, positioned exactly above the runes responsible for the trigger. “My guess is that’s it.”

“What, that blank metal panel?”

Tempest nodded.

Meadow’s brows furrowed. “Shouldn’t there be a keyhole or something? How does one use a panel like that?”

Smiling, Tempest cocked her head. “Not a common door design, eh?”

Meadow shrugged. “Nope. I might have seen one in a bank. Once...?”

“So it’s a keyed entry without needing a keyhole. There is probably a hidden rune behind that panel, and the key is likely a featureless block hiding a rune with the exact match. Put anything else up against it, and the ponies with uniforms show up.”

“You sure?”

“What do you think? It’s my first break-in since a thousand years ago. And I’ve never seen runes used this way. But it seems to make the most sense.”

“But—” Meadow began hesitantly, “—why couldn’t a pony simply go inside the main entrance, find their way down there, and just copy the rune? Or better yet, why couldn’t a pony just scry it?”

Shaking her head, Tempest continued. “I bet the rune isn’t visible from either side of the door. It’s probably sealed within the surface. As for the key, it’s probably featureless as well. Really quite an ingenious system.”

Meadow grinned. “And you’re the genius that knows runes. Can you get past it?”

“I don’t really see how…” Tempest mused. “As I said, it’s a rather ingenious system. I mean, I could try blasting it, but we’re trying to be stealthy here.” Tempest frowned at the door, shaking her head. “This is probably a dead end.”

“You could always… ask Maelstrom.” Meadow ventured.

Tempest snapped her head to the side. “Have you been bucked in the brain? There’s no way I’m asking him for help! You were there… you heard what he said—felt what he did to me!”

Meadow looked away, sheepish. “Was just a question,” she muttered. “Though you’re probably right. He’s creepier than a cockatrice doing the Haka…

Tempest could only stare at her blankly.

“Wait!” Meadow’s eyes widened. “What if you change the code with your mana-laser thing?”

“With my emitter? I don’t know, Meadow, the sequence is pretty air-tight. It’s not like I can just insert a rune, or alter one without…” Tempest squinted in thought before she drew her head back as if shocked.

“Oh, I’m an idiot!” She grinned. “And so are they!”

Meadow bounced on the tips of her hooves. “What? Who?”

“I can’t add a rune or alter the meaning, but I can reverse the polarity!” Tempest pulled her saddlebags off, setting them down before rummaging around in one. After a moment, she had pulled out her emitter and a two pairs of darkened goggles.

“Polarity? What do you mean?”

Hoofing a set of goggles to the mare, Tempest reared up, placing her hooves on either side of the lowest runes. Grinning, she slipped her goggles on, light flashing off of the reflective surfaces. “The rune-smith that scrawled failed to take one simple thing into consideration. And we are damned lucky.” She started to bring up her emitter before she hesitated suddenly. “Wait. This is going to draw too much attention.” Tempest’s horn lit up for a few seconds before a hazy field began to form, blanketing the access to the outside. “Illusory magic doesn’t get enough credit. Now, slip on those goggles if you want to watch.”

After Meadow wrestled with the goggles, Tempest began the process of focusing her magic at one end of the emitter. She kept feeding her bright-green mana into the surface until the entire cylinder began to glow. Finally, a beam of blinding white light emerged from the other side as Tempest carefully drew a single line, making a diagonal slash across the two separate runes that symbolized an equals sign. With two simple marks the conditions now read:

True≠open
False≠send

With dawning comprehension, Meadow clopped her hooves together in glee. “That’s brilliant! Now we won’t have to worry about tripping the alarm—no matter what we guess!”

Meadow and Tempest both removed their goggles, grinning at each other for a few more seconds before Tempest suddenly smacked her forehead with a hoof, growling in frustration.

Meadow frowned. “What?”

“Take a guess. Will either option open the door?”

“Oh.”

“Yeah.” Tempest glared at the door for a few more seconds before turning around and opening her saddlebags again. “Well, there’s more than one way to fleece a sheep.”

Meadow looked perplexed while Tempest nosed around, her face half-buried in the bag. “But why would you want to hoodwink a sheep?”

“...what?” Tempest stopped rummaging long enough to shoot Meadow a questioning glance. Receiving no further clarification, she rolled her eyes and returned to her search.

“Ah!” She pulled out a small vial. “Here we are.” She waggled the small stoppered bottle with her magic. “Concentrated arcanic acid. Quite a nice tool not normally found in your home chemistry set.”

“So, you’re going to blow it up? What happened to stealth?”

“Acid doesn’t make metal blow up… unless this door is made of an alkali metal.” Tempest muttered. “I’m going to eat away the metal so I can actually see the rune.”

She carefully unstopped the bottle before smearing the paste over the panel. “The door’s not made of Celestium, but it’ll do. Iron is reactive enough for this. Hopefully I am right, and there is actually a rune hidden there.”

Meadow watched as Tempest continued to spread the cream-colored substance. Nothing happened was happening. “Um, Ms. Sabre?” She raised her hoof. “Do we have to know this for the test?”

Rolling her eyes again, Tempest smirked. “Just watch…” Her horn glimmered for a moment, the mana trailing off the tip before seeping into the substance smeared on the panel. Tempest covered her nose and backed away as the material started to bubble and change color.

“Dance, little protons.” Tempest whispered behind her hoof. “Dance!”

The skin of the metal panel continued to react, and after a few moments some open spaces eroded away, leaving islands of metal elsewhere. Eventually, a defined shape began to become apparent.

“A circle?” Meadow was incredulous. “The stupid rune was a circle? But what does that mean?”

“It doesn’t mean anything.” Tempest gazed back up the ramp. “We just need a matching circle. Be right back.” There was a flash and a clap, the report of air snapping closed to fill the void left by her body. Meadow stood there, blinking for a moment before Tempest reappeared in the same location.

“What did you—”

Tempest held up her prize in a greenish magical field. “Tin can!” she grinned.

* * *

The door shut with a muffled thump, the sound reverberating through the access tunnel. Tempest was taken aback by its scope—sturdy concrete walls supporting a utilitarian ceiling at least twenty meters above. A gentle buzz emitted from the artificial lighting fixtures hanging from the ceiling supports, their cold light casting harsh shadows at intervals behind containers, dumpsters and a smattering of wood-framed sets Tempest could only guess the purpose of—perhaps frames to display signs and presentations up on showroom floor?

Meadow licked her lips. “Well. This is cheery.”

“Shh!” Tempest motioned for Meadow to creep along the left wall with her. Cover was sparse, and she didn’t know if the building even had staff on duty right now, or if the security team they had watched enter the building were anywhere nearby. Tempest waited until Meadow had sidled up next to her, their backs both pressed against the wall as they peered down the tunnel for any signs of movement. “I’ll make us invisible if I have to, but I don’t want to play that card unless absolutely necessary. Especially if the team has magic sensing abilities. You said the custodial offices would be in the lower levels?”

“I said it was likely.” Meadow corrected. “I have no idea if they are. I’ve never been to Fillydelphia.”

Tempest frowned back at her, until her eyes focused on the far wall about twenty meters further in. She pointed with a hoof. “There!”

Set in the concrete wall was a window with some lettering across the base, barely readable at this distance but unmistakable in meaning.

Custodian Offices

The office light was on.

Meadow smirked. “Told ya! Let’s go fill out a job application.”

Tempest cocked an eyebrow. “While the building is closed and currently being swept by a security team before tomorrow’s event?”

They crept up to the offices, peering through the window before finally checking the office door. The office area was sparsely furnished: just a desk, some humble chairs along the wall of the entry, and an aged swiveling chair that more resembled a torture device than a place to sit. Faded motivational posters decorated the wall behind the desk, and several clipped comics were attached with tape, yellowing with age. Documents and requisition orders were stacked haphazardly on the desk, and further examination revealed the owner of said desk had decidedly reckless and chaotic organizational abilities. A name plate was visible, partially buried under a nearby stack.

Assistant Supervisor Russet Gleam.

“Pony cleans the building but she can’t find the bottom of her desk.” Meadow murmured under her breath. She hovered into the air and dropped in behind the desk, her amulet glowing for a moment. “That never gets old.”

“Meadow, what are you doing?”

“Looking for job applications, duh. We need an alibi, right?”

“Oh for the love of—” Tempest walked further into the office where a short corridor led to a large supply closet and a second office. Along the side of the corridor was a coat rack with several additional custodian’s vests. With a flick of her horn, her magic enveloped a smaller one and launched it at Meadow. “Put this on. You’re hired.”

The office door swung open.Two ponies walked in mid-conversation. An abrupt silence filled the air. Both pairs of ponies blinked at each other, each waiting for the other to say something. Meadow’s hoof was still stretched out, about to take the uniform still hovering in Tempest’s green magic.

After getting over her initial shock, Tempest cocked her head, perplexed by what race these ponies could be. The first to walk in was vaguely pony shaped, but was covered in a chitinous carapace instead of a fur coat. Atop its head were a pair of notched horns, and its colors were rather vibrant. To top it all off, the creature had a pair of fangs, its mouth hanging open in a surprised ‘Oh.’ The closest thing that Tempest could compare it to was a changeling, but she had only seen those in books.

The second pony resembled a unicorn in some ways, but the mane was all wrong, and the horn was bifurcated at the end. Further, bizarre reptilian scales ran along the bridge of her nose and down her spine. In all of Tempest’s travels, this was something new.

The colorful one challenged them sharply. “What is the meaning of this? What are you doing in here, the building’s supposed to be closed!”

“Hi!” Meadow chirped. She turned around, holding the custodial vest to her chest. “We really, really wanted to show you how interested we were in getting hired as custodians... so we came in here!”

How did you come in here?”

Tempest put a hoof to her face. Activating her horn, she pulled the two ponies inside with her magic, shutting the door behind them. With two more flashes of light, she tilted the blinds closed and activated a silencing spell, sound-proofing the room.

Both ponies struggled, trying in vain to free themselves. Tempest felt each of them push back against her magic, but their power was leagues away from her own. The changeling finally crossed her arms, glaring at Tempest in a huff.

“You may call me Zen’zie. What may I call you?”

“Just relax, Miss. We don’t want to hurt anypony.”

“Of course.” The changeling continued glaring. “You know, if you set us down and just leave quietly, that’s really your best option.”

“Shut up.”

“Just… just go away, and never come back. Deal?”

The kirin’s chimed in with a little more flare. “Yeah! You two chuckleheads give us any problems and you’ll be in for a very bad day!” She directed a cloven hoof toward the door, her mane starting to shimmer with heat. “Of all days to break in here, you do it when Princess Twilight’s Vanguard is doing a security sweep? You two are screwed!”

Tempest’s mind raced as she tried to think of what her next step should be. Studying the guards responsible for guarding Princess Sparkle seemed like a good idea at the time, but in hindsight, maybe it would have been better to fabricate a ruckus that she could watch at a safe distance. Or scry them all, for that matter.

Tiring of the lion-pony’s increasingly annoying taunts, Tempest formulated another spell and added it to her already active spell matrix, creating a secondary sound-proof bubble around the rainbow changeling and her vulgar companion. She turned to Meadow.

“Well, now what?”

Meadow looked back at her, pensive as she watched the two custodians, one hanging there glaring while the other continued to yell. “I dunno, Temp. We weren’t supposed to be seen by anypony. I really didn’t want to see others get mixed up in this…”

An airborne stapler whizzed by Tempest’s head, narrowly missing her horn. She flinched, but quickly recovered her spell focus and shot a glare back at the changeling who was now baring her fangs. Increasing her magic, Tempest added a weak anti-magic barrier to her sound bubble.

“We have to find a way to proceed. We’ll… just observe Princess Twilight’s guards from a safe distance, check on those idiotic unicorn twins, and then we’ll lay low for awhile. But I agree—I don’t want anyone hurt. I just can’t abandon our overall mission just because of a hiccup or two.”

Meadow looked down for a moment, appearing stricken. “Speaking of hiccups…”

“Yes?”

“I… told the Manehattan Police a few things about you…”

Tempest couldn’t keep the flat tone out of her voice. “You what?”

“I told them a few things…” Meadow started rubbing a hoof against her foreleg. “Before I found out more about how legitimate this all was… Before I learned about Maelstrom.” She walked away from the floating custodians, glancing back at them over her shoulder. “Are those two okay?”

“They’re fine.”

“And they can’t hear us now?”

Tempest gave her a nod. “That’s right. The spell is soundproofed both ways. And now they can’t launch staplers at us.”

“Okay. Well, I told them about your teleportation ability, and your overall magical prowess. I told them I met you on the deck of the Windsong heading back from Gryphus…” Meadow’s tone began to turn sullen. “And I defended you from their suspicions that you were behind the librarian incident.”

Tempest grimaced. “I’m grateful, Meadow. But…”

Meadow continued to stare at her, holding her breath before releasing it. “It was you, wasn’t it?”.

“Indeed. That was I.”

“I thought that maybe…” Meadow’s voice hardened a bit. “What happened?”

Tempest sighed. She had held this back because she had become reliant on Meadow’s company. Traveling in solitude for so long, facing hardship after hardship as she had—from one side of the globe to the other—and then to be carrying such a heavy burden? Meadow, while irritating at times, had greatly reduced the burden. And Tempest didn’t want her to leave.

“It wasn’t supposed to happen. I used a particular spell from the Eye, Meadow. The intent of the spell was to cover up recent memory—about fifteen minutes worth. Following that, a pony would recover normally, only having felt like they had been daydreaming, or had dozed off for a minute. They just wouldn’t have a recollection of those fifteen minutes.

“But something else happened?”

Tempest nodded her reply. “Yes. I don’t know what. Back when I was in the eastern wilds, outside the far border of Gryphus, I had used that particular spell to get out of a couple of scrapes. In neither instance did the recipient react that way. Moonlight Sigil’s case was… well, I still don’t know what happened.”

Meadow rubbed at her chin in thought, staring at the green tinted magic field surrounding the two custodians. Now both had stopped their activities and were only glaring back. “Well, maybe for our guests, the kirin and the changeling, we need to do a little “moonlighting.”

Tempest’s mouth fell open. “You can’t be serious. Didn’t you just say you didn’t want other ponies mixed up in this? What if it happens again?”

“Well, let’s consider our options, shall we?” Meadow held up a hoof as if she was going to start counting off on fingers like a minotaur would. “First option: we tie them up and leave them here. Risks? Either they escape, are discovered, or we get detained and then nopony finds them and they starve to death!” She held up her other hoof. “Second option: we let them go and they run straight to Twilight’s Vanguard. Sucks to be us.” She then grabbed a rear hoof and held it up. “Third option: we leave and get as far away from here as we can, hoping those guards don’t catch up.” Finally she lifted her other back hoof, wiggling it in front of her as she hovered in the air with a small smile. “Last option: we try your spell. If it goes wrong again, at least we’ll be able to watch the security team during a distraction. Maybe this time you can catch what is going wrong with your magic. Either way, I doubt the effect is permanent—Ms. Sigil is probably safe at home right now, wondering what all the commotion was about. How long does it take before they would awaken?”

“Fifteen minutes.” Tempest glared at Meadow’s wiggling hoof. “And what if the effect is permanent? What if all I did was turn a librarian into a monster?”

“Psh!” Meadow sliced a hoof through the air before deactivating her amulet, clopping back down on all fours. “Like that would happen. Even if doctors don’t help, which they probably can, I’m willing to bet that Twilight and her friends could straighten her out with the Elements of Harmony… or the power of their friendship… or whatever it is they are wielding right now. Anyway!” Meadow shook her head. “What choice do we really have right now?”

Tempest pursed her lips. There was something a little off, here. One moment Meadow was horrified about affecting other ponies, and now she was urging her to release a spell that seemed to have unpredictable side effects, effects that could apparently change a pony into something violent and disturbing in the extreme.

What had changed? A few days ago, Meadow would have never dreamed of suggesting something like that, even if she was put in mortal danger. She had been so adamant on her principles back in the hotel room.

The hotel room. That was where things began to change. Sure, she got the rest of the story and began to seen things as Tempest knew they were, but what if it was something else. Could Maelstrom reach into another pony’s mind by exposing them to the memory? Tempest suddenly felt ice run down her back. She studied Meadow and stared, trying for all she was worth to see into her soul. What was going on behind those bright, golden irises? She supposed it was still possible Meadow was acting based on new information, but Tempest wasn’t going to take anything for granted. Not at this point.

Tempest broke her eye contact, concentrating on her two choices as they stood. Best case scenario? The two custodians would take a fifteen minute nap on the clock. Worse case scenario? Two crazed attackers would be loosed, this time a bizarrely colored changeling and what Meadow had called a kirin.

Tempest heaved a sigh. “I guess you’re right. Not like we have much choice right now.” She felt the sudden weight of a foreleg across her withers.

“C’mon Temp. It’ll be okay. You knew other ponies could possibly get involved, right?” Meadow leaned a little further forward, whispering as she lowered her head into Tempest’s line of sight. She must have been floating again. “But if you’re committed to releasing your mom, is there any other way?”

Tempest’s chest clenched for a second. She felt a different sort of weight than that of Meadow’s foreleg. If felt like a moist lump of clay settling inside her heart. Meadow was becoming a good friend, and Tempest wanted to believe that the mare was just trying to help. The alternative was too much to consider at the moment, but she vowed to study the matter closely. Just not right now. Tempest finally looked up, her gaze hardening. “No.”

She walked up to the barrier, lowering the two ponies as she approached. The eye around her neck began to glow in a violet light. “My friends. Allow me to beg your forgiveness for breaking in like this. We will be taking our leave. I know you two are feeling angry, and maybe a little bit afraid?” The violet glow had now reached Tempest’s eyes, its tendrils now reaching out toward the two

“I know what it’s like to not be accepted, Zen’zie. For others to be constantly suspicious of you?” The changeling had gone rigid, knees locked and eyes wide, a light violet miasma beginning to seep into her eyes. Tempest then turned to the kirin. “I’m sorry your clan exiled you, Russet. That you’re so far from the wild that you love. Let’s recall happier times…”

* * *

“Blackbeak!” Fizzlepop yelled into her transmitter. “I need a distraction!”

The griffon was already circling above, taking increasingly riskier maneuvers as he tried to find a way to free Zerrin. He pulled up to reply, hitting his transmitter and breathing heavily. “I got it. One bona fide distraction, coming up!” Closing his wings, he plummeted like a stone, dropping down behind the beast before flaring out his wings to land. Once down, he unslung his net launcher and took aim before firing it into the back of the creature’s central tentacle where all the eyes were.

Fizzlepop grinned. “You’re promoted!”

Fizzlepop released a shot of energy, guessing that she should only use enough to stun something changeling size, and not this monstrosity. She could always use more later. Zerrin had been desperately kicking off against the creature’s mouth, trying not to take damage. Fortunately he only had to deal with his own tentacle, now that the other was trying to pry the netting off of the eye stalk while dealing with Swoopes and Blackbeak. Zerrin would most likely not get involved in the energy blast.

Probably.

* * *.

Rafters were not a normal place for a pony to be.

Thank goodness she wasn’t actually on a rafter—only on a catwalk nestled next to one. Tempest’s invisibility spell ended up being their best choice, and besides, this time she hadn’t left a mana-trail for some intrepid detective to follow. Meadow was floating somewhere nearby, if her disembodied giggling was any indication.

The security team seemed to have its share of hotheads, but they also seemed extremely well organized. The talents and abilities on display were quite diverse. The species on display were also surprisingly diverse. If it came down to a head to head clash against them, Tempest was pretty sure her skill set wouldn’t be near enough. And while it was nice to fantasize about not needing to depend on the Eye to multiply her power, it was clear to her that doing so might be unavoidable.

“I know who the commander is.”

Meadow’s unexpected voice in her ear caused Tempest to startle. Her hip bumped the railing of the catwalk, making the frame vibrate for a moment. “Geeze, Meadow!’ Tempest hissed. “Get my attention before you sneak up and whisper in my ear! And why should it matter who the commander is?”

“It matters because that pony there is Fizzlepop Berrytwist. Fizzlepop was actually known formerly as Tempest Shadow, believe it or not. She was the twisted and brutal commander for the Storm King’s armies and almost single-hoofedly took down three of Equestria’s four princesses.”

Tempest’s ears perked to attention. Two griffons just emerged from an upper floor wing, and the monster was shambling across the showroom towards the leader’s position. That pony took down three princesses? Not possible.

“You’re joking. Are you serious?” Tempest looked at the grotesque beast in morbid fascination. How had the changeling turned into that?

“It’s all in Princess Twilight’s latest biography!” Meadow whispered. “Quoted in her own words, right there in the book.” Tempest felt her head turned by an invisible hoof back towards the grape colored mare with the fuchsia mane, barking out orders as she monitored the monster’s approach. “That pony down there used a device that turned Celestia into a statue made of obsidian. Did the same to Princess Luna and Cadence. Crazy, right?

“You’re going to tell me more about this—just not right now!”

Why, of all times, was Meadow bringing up this up now? She wondered if maybe there were other magical Macguffins just laying around Equestria, items of great power that could possibly help her in her quest? Items that would perhaps make her less dependent on Maelstrom?

Tempest’s mind churned as she watched the commotion below. A courageous griffon took on the beast with a sword, and seemed to be doing quite well for himself until he became distracted… or cocky. Now he was being dragged in and the other combatants were reacting. A smaller griffon suddenly dropped in behind the brute, firing a net launcher gun that seemed similar to what the police had chased her with the other day. The commander’s horn and prosthetic covering was beginning to grow brighter.

More ponies were running towards the fray when Fizzlepop fired off her spell. It was an energetic cascade of fiery blue light that lanced ahead, crackling up the monster’s legs and sending it into convulsions. The thing flailed about, whipping the griffon in its tentacles back and forth before going insensate and dropping to the ground. As the thing crashed to the floor, the griffon was released from its grasp, also insensate. With a flash of green flames, the monster’s form reverted back into the colorful changeling from before, steam rising up from it’s charred carapace.

“Contain it!” Fizzlepop barked. “Slip an anti-maj on it’s—her horn! Before she comes to!”

Mazuma was already acting, bringing the ring over with her magic and quickly placing it on the downed changeling’s angular horn. A blue earth pony and a light-red unicorn arrived on the scene, attending Fizzlepop as she turned to give them orders.

“Crimson Spark, teleport—wait, the anti-teleport arrays are up now—gallop up to the 2nd floor, South Wing. Lend what support you can to Bulwark, and then get Nebula over to the 3rd floor of the North wing. Zora is down and she might have lost a lot of blood. Move!”

The unicorn turned on his hoof and ran, leaving Fizzlepop to now address the earth pony. Cadrey, you cover our perimeter. Oh, and take our our one-griffon strike force when he comes to. Be sure to remind him of our operational procedures while you’re at it.” Cadrey went over and began to look over the downed griffon.

“Swoopes?” The Pegasus stepped up and saluted. “Scout the perimeter and provide air cover. Mazuma Gaines, you see to the health of Zen’zie as needed until Nebula is available. Go.”

Tempest admired the quick thinking and assertive nature of the team’s commander, but she also was starting to come to grips with the consequences of what just happened. She tried to swallow back the guilt that she was responsible for two ponies getting injured,a kirin and a changeling. She was well aware of the risk, but that didn’t make it any easier to swallow.

It was also time to go. She didn’t have time to sit in self-pity, and she had seen what she came for.

“Meadow?”

“Way ahead of you, Temp.” Meadow’s voice was between her and the ladder at the end of the catwalk. “Would be nice if we could just teleport out, right?”

Tempest nodded, becoming increasingly aware of every little sound her hooves were making as she made her way back to the ladder access. Meadow was right. Not being able to teleport was a big problem. “Meadow?” Tempest whispered. “Float ahead and find us a fire escape. I don’t like levitating myself around since it makes me sick to my stomach, but it’s our only way out.”

Fizzlepop’s voice came up from below. “Blackbeak? Scout upstairs and check the catwalks and accessory corridors. Something keeps rattling up there, and I want to make sure it isn’t something other than rats. Once we’re clear we’ll start the magical scans.” The buzz of Fizzlepop’s transmitter crackled to life again. “Whisky-Zulu come in, this is Actual.”

“Go ahead, Actual.”

“Wade, once Nebula is there, I need you to go contact the local authorities about holding a crazed changeling captive.”

“Acknowledged.”

“November-Hotel two-oh-four...?”

“...Go ahead, Actual.”

It was at this point that Tempest realized it would have been a wonderful idea to make a second flight amulet. And a communications amulet. And a sound bubble amulet. She racked her brains on how she could do something like this… without collateral damage. She tamped down the feelings of despair as she looked over the injured changeling’s body.

No time for that right now. We have to get out of this, first.

Chapter Twelve: Tangle

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Ponyville, 4:44 PM

“Twilight snores.”

The earth pony guard stationed to the right of the throne room doors nodded his head in recognition of the password before switching his polearm to the other hoof and pushing the throne room doors open. Spike still wasn’t sure about Captain Berrytwist’s system, especially since the password changed at unpredictable intervals, but the Security Commander did have a point: not every guard was a unicorn that could detect magical disguises or changeling spies.

Allowing Starlight to go first, Spike brought up the rear before turning and closing the massive doors behind him, a resounding boom rattling the scales on his back. Starlight gave her mane a toss, then eyed him expectantly.

“So, Twilight is halfway across the continent and you wanted to meet with me in the throne room alone?” She smiled and licked her lips . “I never knew you felt that way… such an assertive dragon!”

Spike rolled his eyes and huffed, knowing he was likely diving right into Starlight’s bait. “Yeah, right.” He pointed past her at two large tables on the far side of the room. “We’re here for that.”

Spike made his way over to Twilight’s ‘organized chaos’ and brushed his hand along the way across the surface of The Map. The difference between its pristine, crystalline surface and the piles of books, instruments, lab samples, and protective eyewear on the tables past it struck an odd dichotomy.

Starlight’s voice piped up from behind him.“What, the latest research-binge du jour?” Starlight clicked her tongue. “This is just what happens when Twi doesn’t fill her schedule up enough.”

Spike turned around, snapping one of the protective goggles onto his scaly head. “Not this time. This might not simply be another one of Twilight’s flights of fancy. A lot about her theory makes sense this time.”

Starlight blinked before she swung her head to the side in a smirk. “Aw, c’mon, Spike. We were just in here yesterday chatting and I scanned the title of one of her notes. Amulet Experiment Number Six?”

Spike shrugged.

Shaking her head, Starlight finally joined him. “Last time Twilight tore her throne room up like this was when she swore she had finally figured out how to crystalize magic into a solid form. We all know how that turned out.”

“That was one time!” Spike waved a claw dismissively. “Besides, we already re-built that wing of the castle. And it’s not like you’re one to talk, what with your creating temporal collateral damage.”

“Ouch, Spike! Now that was low.”

“Sorry, sorry.”

“Hm.” Starlight’s glare softened after a few moments before she pursed her lips. Turning, she strolled over to Twilight’s throne before hopping up, plopping herself down and wiggling her flank to get more comfortable. “Okay, Mr. The Dragon. Enlighten me.” She folded her forelegs. “Tell me why Sci-Twi thinks amulets are possible.”

Rolling his eyes again, Spike turned to the table and lifted Twilight’s master notebook, waggling it in the air. After a blank few seconds of Starlight giving him a quizzical look, she rolled her eyes before levitating the book over.

Passing the book to her forehooves, Starlight leaned back, kicking her back hooves onto the table with a clop. “The Alicorn Amulet and the Staff of Sacanas?”

“Yeah. What do those two items have in common?”

Starlight sat up again. “Ooo! A didactic discussion—only this time the principal of the School of Friendship is on the receiving end!”

Spike only returned that with a flat stare. “Okay, okay, I’ll behave. Um, well…” Starlight read for another minute. “Both seemed to be channeling power through a crystal, or at least incorporating a crystal was central to their design. But that’s no different than—”

“You’re about to compare those two items with the Crystal Empire’s world-famous artifact, right?” Spike had now taken a seat opposite her at the stone plinth, making himself comfortable in Rarity’s throne before giving Starlight a toothy grin.

“Of course!” Starlight agreed. “The Crystal Heart was the reason Twilight tried to crystalize magic in the first place. She was trying to recreate the right conditions to do such a thing—I mean, you do realize the architect of this castle was a tree? This whole castle’s an artifact!”

“But there’s something else that links those two magical items.” Spike pointed out. “And to Twilight, it seemed a little suspicious.”

“Oh? What’s the conspiracy? What is this mysterious link?”

Spike tossed something else across the plinth. The old newspaper flew neatly through the air before plopping down in front of Starlight. Her brows furrowed at the headline circled in red.

Staff of Sacanas Declared Too Dangerous for Scientific Study!

Canterlot University Professors Denounce Celestia’s Decision as Heavy-hoofed and Too Restrictive for Academic Liberty!

“Huh.” Starlight leaned forward as her horn lit up, a strange glow forming in her irises before she began speed-reading the article faster than most ponies could ever manage. “Yes. I remember now. That was a few years ago, but I was also curious about this mysterious staff the Storm King had been wielding.”

“And you remember the Alicorn Amulet?” Spike waited for Starlight’s eyes to flick up at him from the page before continuing. “It hasn’t been studied either. A couple of weeks ago, Twilight asked Celestia about both of these items. She never could get a straight answer. Twilight thinks they’ve both been destroyed.” Starlight narrowed her gaze for a moment before looking back down at the article with a glare.

“And while it is possible that the components of those items could have formed from similar natural processes like what formed the incredible Crystal Heart... and this magical map…” Spike drummed his claws across the table’s surface, even though he knew most ponies didn’t like the sharp clicking sounds his claw tips made when he did that. “Twilight doubts it.”

Spike watched as Starlight’s eyes flicked back and forth before her expression brightened up. Her horn flashed, reappearing with a pop over by the laboratory equipment. She plucked a thin sheet off the largest instrument that Twilight had been using that night, something that for all the world looked like a weapon the Maneiac would wield. Twi called the device her Arcane Resonance Coil.

“Alright, Spike You’ve convinced me. Catch me up on how far Twilight has gotten.”

Spike’s grin turned smug. “What about all that school accreditation paperwork you were whining about? You know, the documents you said were so urgent?”

Starlight’s smile matched his, turning impish. “What accreditation paperwork? If you aren’t going to sweep a mare off her feet, Spike, she has to entertain herself! C’mon!”

Spike replied with a groan.

* * *

Canterlot General Hospital, 6:29 PM

Special Ward for Neurological Trauma and Magical Maladies

The charge nurse stood straight and tall, despite the tension headache that had been building from the day’s events. The workload had already been frenetic, and that was before Moonlight Sigil had been delivered by airship to their renowned facilities.

“With all due respect, your highness, our doctors have done everything that could be done. Then Princess Celestia herself spent over an hour, attempting all of the healing magics known to ponykind. Nopony has been able to alter this magical effect or curse or whatever it is that is afflicting poor Ms. Sigil.”

Luna only stared, her turquoise irises bearing down on the charge nurse, the silence growing heavier by the minute. Her ears twitched as she picked up a spike in the charge nurse’s heart rate and perspiration.

“And you consider my sister’s skills inclusive enough to term them everything?” Her voice remained even. By the Moon, Ms. Care, if you don’t back down, you will be finding yourself chased by the Tantabus in your dreams tonight.

Hairline cracks formed on the charge nurse’s strong facade. A lock of silvering mane fell across her face before she brushed it back with a hoof. Luna’s eyes travelled over the nurse’s body until they rested on her name tag—Gentle Care: Day Shift Charge Nurse. As Ms. Care started to squirm, Luna wondered if she was pushing her too hard. Her earlier argument with Celestia most certainly was not helping the situation.

“I— …” Ms. Care gave an audible gulp. “My most humble apologies, your grace. I didn’t mean to belittle your station! Or your considerable abilities. I was only remarking that—”

“You were remarking that Celestia’s ability to heal the flesh is unparalleled. In that we are in accord. And you are correct in saying that my abilities are indeed considerable.” Luna leaned forward, her eyes narrowing even further. “But let me make you aware that the Princess of the Night is unparalleled when it comes to the theater of the psyche. My specialty is in the restoration of the mind.”

Luna watched as the mare processed that, before slowly reverting to her previous bearing. It wouldn’t be proper to blow this out of proportion. The charge nurse’s face was now quite pale.

“I.. I wasn’t aware, your majesty, I…” Gentle Care swallowed again, before sketching a quick bow before her princess, her nose almost grazing the polished floor. “Oh, by the sun… forgive me, your Grace. I hope I may have your pardon?”

Luna gazed down at the mare, her nose still almost grazing the floor.

Then her face broke into a smirk tinged with an icy cold edge. “I might forgive you by the moon… but never by the sun.” With that, the mare suddenly looked up, her face alarmed by making possibly another faux pas.

Without replying further, Luna pushed her way past and into the dimly lit corridor. Reaching out with her magical senses, she took note of an invisible magical barrier that seemed to encapsulate the entire hospital room ahead. As she drew nearer, she picked out a redundant barrier just inside of the first. Apparently, the doctors supervising Moonlight’s treatment weren’t willing to take any chances.

Once she rounded the corner, Luna gazed at the disheveled pony, once a prim and proper librarian. Hardened cords fastened to wraps restrained her at her wrists and ankles, with secondary straps wrapped around her legs further up, nearer her barrel. While Ms. Sigil seemed under heavy sedation, there was ample evidence of a physical struggle earlier due to patches of her coat rubbed off near the cuffs and some abrasions as well. The patient was also outfitted with a horn buffer. That last one was either yet another failsafe, or a clue that Ms. Sigil wasn’t so incapable of engaging with others as the medical file had described.

Aside from the abrasions and bruises, the librarian seemed to be malnourished, if the visibility of her ribs were any indication. Luna shook her head. All the psychiatric section of the medical chart had to say on the matter was that the patient was agitated, belligerent, and non-verbal. That information was woefully inadequate.

After casting a few defensive wards around herself and tugging on the restraints to check their strength, Luna sealed the door behind her with her telekinesis. Thaumaturgy of this sort is not to be interrupted when it is engaged. Gathering her power around her, Luna closed her eyes and prepared. She reached out with her magic and touched the mare’s mind.

* * *

East Precinct Police Headquarters, Manehattan, 8:34 PM

Cirrus smiled as the Daybreak angled itself to dock with the mooring tower. Princess Celestia’s ship was certainly living up to its billing as the fastest ship in Equestria.Yeah, he could’ve made the trip faster under his own power, but that would’ve left him fatigued and ill-prepared. This way, he had time to review the case file backwards and forwards. He had no comment on the fact that the trip might have also afforded him ample opportunities to appreciate the rather attractive stewardesses on board.

Looking around at the various crew ponies bustling through the mooring procedures, Cirrus carefully packed all of his gear. After making sure everything was stored correctly, he checked the experimental weapon he was assigned to test out for the CCO. Many agents had practiced firing the thing in the lab, which caused enough noise for it to be lovingly dubbed “the boom-stick,” but so far, nopony had found cause to use it while deployed. There was a running bet about which agent would be the first. Knowing its capabilities, and the insane velocities a projectile could be propelled out of its muzzle, Cirrus certainly hoped he would never need it. He would rather not see the results.

As the craft slowly swung around, Cirrus’ wings twitched. He was a pegasus: did he really need to stand by while mooring procedures completed?

He stood and smiled.“Ms. Sea Mist?”

An aquamarine mare turned her head, her ears cocking forward as she straightened her jacket. “Yes, Agent Cirrus?”

“Give the captain and the crew my regards for a wonderful trip. I’ll wing myself down.”

“Oh uh… of course!”

Giving the mare a nod, Cirrus trotted to the closed hatch and pulled the release. The portal popped open with a clunk before the door swung out and down from the hinges. Cirrus defenestrated himself, stairs be damned, and allowed the cool night air to stream across his feathers.

Below, three ponies stood at the top of the stairs leading to the main door of the police department. They all regarded him impassively as he slowed his descent, beating his wings before landing on his hooves. The middle pony was a beige earth pony mare of higher rank. She wore her blonde mane in a neat little bun, but the lengthy day had pulled some of it free, the loose strands blowing across her face by the breeze Cirrus had stirred up. She was flanked by two younger pegasi, both stallions, probably well into overtime if their scowls were anything to judge by.

Once his hooves made contact with the concrete below, the mare spoke up. “Agent Cirrus of the CCO?”

Cirrus bobbed his head. “Operative 009, Celestial Covert Ops at your service. You are Captain Marigold, I presume?”

“Captain Zenobia Marigold.” The mare’s cold reply was matched by the steel in her gaze. “These are officers Wingline and Strafe. Come. Let’s hope your methods are a little less brutish than your earlier counterpart.” With that, she turned and pushed her way back inside of the building.

Cirrus pursed his lips. Damage control and PR management for Princess Luna’s most distinguished representative was not in his job description, but if Celestia needed it done, he would see to it.

It took his brain three seconds tops to realize that he was still standing outside of the building like a dupe, and he rushed to join the ponies now inside. Thankfully, the reddish pegasus had been hanging back, waiting for him by the front counter. Marigold and the lavender-hued pegasus were nowhere to be seen.

Cirrus trotted inside, stretching out his wings one final time before folding them to his sides. He glanced at the stallion’s name tag as he approached.

“So, Officer Strafe. Shall we continue?”

“Just waiting on you,” he grinned. “Back this way.”

Cirrus fell into step behind the stallion, walking past several rooms until they arrived and an office labeled for Police Captain Z. Marigold.

Marigold was waiting for them, already seated behind her desk. Wingline was also there, standing off to the side trying to look official with a stretched out neck and his wings squeezed tightly to his sides. An empty chair waited opposite the desk, so Cirrus trotted over to take a seat while murmuring his thanks.

Captain Marigold pushed a file folder across the desk toward him before leaning back, steepling her hooves together. “This is the case file. There are three ponies of interest here.”

Cirrus opened the file in front of him, his eyes scanning over data sheets regarding the librarian victim and the two suspects. The first was a pale blue earth pony of smaller stature with a muted dark-blue green mane.. The information on her was pretty thorough, and there were additional notes added to the file taken from an interview the other day. The last picture in the file was an artist’s rendition of a yellow unicorn mare. “Tempest,” Cirrus muttered the name scrawled under the drawing’ While the information was sparse—and the name was a little unoriginal—it did note that the unicorn’s magic proficiency was likely at a level of either alpha or possibly even alpha plus. He smirked. She’d wipe the floor with Narcisse any day.

Cirrus looked up.“It seems I’m going to be hunting for a rather powerful yellow unicorn?”

“Ding ding ding, give this world-class detective a prize,” Marigold replied dryly. “As for these two—” she pointed to Wingline and Strafe with a hoof “—they will answer any of your questions about the victim, since they were the ones to apprehend and tranquilize her.”

Cirrus glanced at the two stallions, both of which had puffed their chests out. He hid a smirk. “Thank you, Marigold. Your input and the work of your entire team here has been most appreciated.”

Marigold’s stony facade finally cracked as a small smile crept onto her face. “Well. It’s nice to be appreciated. I’ll let my ponies here know that you said that.” The smile that had been growing on her face suddenly vanished again, and her voice adopted a frustrated guttural tone. “But if we ever need to deal with that Narcissist moon-boy again, it’ll be too soon.”

Marigold stood and began to walk around her desk towards the door, but stopped by Cirrus’ chair. “Oh, and when you’re done here, there’s something you might want to check on. Our chief investigator, Rebus Hunter, is following a lead that has taken him to the Grand Lake Memorial Cemetery. You may wish to join him there before the night is through.” With that, Marigold continued forward, exiting the room.

Cirrus chewed on that as Strafe came further into the room to stand by Wingline. After a moment, Wingline leaned forward and nudged Cirrus’ shoulder. “Cemetery, eh? Tough luck there, soldier! You sure ol’ Rebus isn’t just leading you to a dead end?”

Strafe popped Wingline in the back of the head with a wing before he could laugh at his own joke. “Don’t mind my brother. He’s just up past his bedtime.” Wingline’s head slowly turned to glare at him. “But at least he knows how to risk his neck by tackling yet-to-be tranquilized librarian zombies.”

Heh. If he didn’t tell me I would have suspected some familial relation between those two. Well, let’s see what they have to say about what went down at the library.

* * *

Canterlot General Hospital, 8:36 PM

Special Ward for Neurological Trauma and Magical Maladies

Pushing her magic through the ether and feeling it take hold, Luna expanded the matrix of her connection. The Cognitive Expanse unfolded before her, the same as she had experienced in similar procedures she had done in the past. The familiar weightlessness and sensory deprivation took hold, but Luna’s magic kept her firmly grounded to her own identity and psyche.

There was a reason why ponies did not engage in this kind of magic. It was this juncture, the act of actually entering the mind of another, that posed the largest threat to the magic wielder. Luna had unfortunately seen the results of other ponies trying it—sometimes never to wake up at all.

The Cognitive Expanse was vastly larger than a creature’s conscious thought. It was an area that operated with far different rules than wakefulness and contained the well from which inspiration, dreams, and the subconscious could spring. It operated all functions of life, functions that most only consider as “involuntary.” It was an area of knowledge that Luna believed that she would never fully grasp.

As Luna began to look around she felt her perceptions roll backwards into herself. At first there was an open maze of chaos, but in seconds it closed, narrowing her perceptions until they became trapped into a single point. Puzzled, Luna pushed against the constriction. Everywhere she pushed, a barrier of nothing seemed to push back all the greater. She struggled for a time, not knowing if seconds were passing by or hours, trying to expand outward but failing as she struggled to find some kind of point of reference.

After wrestling with the darkness for some unknowable time, Luna began to sense a creeping dread. Her hackles rose. She could almost sense something brush lightly across where her ears would be—and she wished she could twitch them, spin around her head, and look. In fascinated horror, Luna observed as the… something started to reach for her, sending a cascade of writhing tendrils forward and starting to tickle at the back of her mind.

There was a presence. Something much more vast than what she could ever anticipate. Something that should be impossible.

Gritting her teeth, or she would have if she could actually feel anything, Luna focused all of her magic. All her safeguards triggered, flooding out her being.

Get out.

NOW!

Wrenching herself away from the abyss and pulling herself back within the sanctity of her own mind, Luna brought forth in her mind’s eye a simulacrum of her moonblade. With it, she mentally slashed and hacked at the tendrils still trying to hold fast, still trying to slither their way into her innermost sanctum. She screamed as she fought, alicorn instincts accelerating so that the mental blade was nothing more than a scintillating whirlwind of death.

She was out.

Gasping for breath, Luna pulled herself up and struggled to regain her hooves. After a brief bit of nausea, Luna looked around, finding that she had been lying on her side in a puddle of sweat.

A panicked rapping on the hospital room door intruded on the silence of the room, voices calling through the door.

“Princess Luna! Princess Luna! Is everything alright in there?”

Standing and regaining her bearings, Luna scowled. She must’ve cried out or something, and she really didn’t want to appear weak in front of the hospital staff. “One moment!” Luna looked from the librarian, still sedate and peaceful, her heart monitor beeping at a steady rate. Her eyes travelled to the floor where there was still moisture from her perspiration. Clicking her tongue, her horn flashed, evaporating it. Glancing at herself in the mirror and straightening her crown, Luna finally turned the latch of the door with her magic.

Nurse Gentle Care came streaming in with two other staff members, their heads darting this way and that as they assessed the situation.

“Be at peace, my ponies!” Luna soothed. “Whatever is the matter?”

Nurse Care gestured for her assistants to attend the patient while she looked Luna over, her eyes roaming for anything that could be amiss. It was obvious she was trying to slow down her breathing as well. “It’s just that we heard a great cry, your majesty. Your shout rattled the doors!”

“Ah.” Luna reached for an acceptable explanation. “So sorry to cause a scene. I was deep into my magical searching with Ms. Sigil here, and was frustrated I could go no further. At times I am unaware of the volume I might use when I am applying this particular use of magic.” That was an acceptable story, was it not? Nothing I said was patently false.

“But maybe if you let me check you over? Just to make sure?”

“I am fine, Nurse Care.” Luna needed to go. She was still processing what had happened, and her feelings were still raw in the matter. “I must be off. Pressing business to see Celestia about.”

Nurse Care pulled a lock of mane back out of her face. “I—very good, your majesty.”

Luna strode out of the room and down the hall.

Her emotions were in turmoil. Her anger seethed. Her anxieties clawed. But most of all, helplessness gnawed at her, almost as if she were bound by steel cables in the base of a cistern, waiting for hungry vermin to be poured over her, ready to devour her flesh.

No! Her thoughts wanted to fly apart, but she marshalled them back together.

Pressing business. That much is true.

Luna shook her head as she turned a corner, trying not to canter ahead and across the skybridge into Canterlot Castle proper. There was something… familiar about the entity, or at least about the power she had felt. The familiarity chilled her to her core.

The previous petty squabble with her sister was stuffed to the back of her mind. She didn’t care what function or ceremony was happening in tonight’s schedule, it could wait. What day was it again? She was so agitated she couldn’t even remember if tonight held a simple dinner or a grand gala.

I could swear it was the Nightmare’s influence I was feeling. Or if not, then it was something equal in power, and just as insidious. It was the same, and yet different, somehow. If I cannot remove it, and Celestia is unable to fix it, then we must bring the Elements of Harmony together once more.

Fillydelphia Industrial District - 9:20 PM

The arcane emitter deactivated as Flim leaned back, wiping his brow with a forehoof. “And that makes two-hundred and fifty-two. Ugh. Mass production is just so… tedious!”

“Clearly.” Flam muttered, holding the newly crafted amulet aloft and scanning over the surface with his eyes. “Especially when they aren’t being crafted by the masses.”

“Well, what are we waiting for, brother?”

Flam looked up from the gently glowing rune on the amulet as the light slowly dwindled. “Waiting? What are you talking about?”

“The masses! We need to get a team, a contingent! A stable of ponies that can get this work done! Recruit the masses for mass production!”

Flam stuck out a hoof as he lifted his brother’s chin up, cutting him off. “Yes, but right now all we have are a few, ehrm… assistants. And all they’ve been good for is outside security. Patience, brother. This is a delicate process, and it will require training.”

Flim nodded, tapping his hoof into the ground. “And secrecy! We can’t have other companies doing corporate espionage and stealing our ideas!”

“True, true.” Flam cooed. “So have patience. Our future wealth will make this drudgery more than worth it.” He paused, scrutinizing one corner of the etched magic rune across the surface of the crystal. “Ah, you didn’t complete this line to the appropriate depth. Just… here…” He indicated the spot with a point of his hoof.

“Again?” Flim sighed. “I must be getting weary.” He slipped the goggles back down over his eyes. “Alright. After this one it’s time to switch again. You can do the next batch.”

Flim lifted up the emitter and reactivated it, working in silence for another minute before grinning. “Do you think those two mares will be surprised we already acquired our own horn for the emitter?” His grin widened as he heard Flam chuckling. “They probably think we will have to come begging to them after failing to acquire one.”

Flam got up and started walking over to the doors to the warehouse. “Perhaps not. They seemed to understand how motivated we were.” Flam paused as he turned his ear to the side, picking up the sound of Flim’s growling stomach from here. “Hide the emitter for a minute. I’m going to take care of your stomach.”

Waiting while his brother slipped the small device into a bag, he turned and inserted a key into the padlock connecting the chains. After some rattling as his magic pulled chains free, he pushed the door open an inch. A pair of blue-green eyes peered back at him. “Dorado? Why are you covering the door? Where are Finley and Finch?”

Dorado’s raspy voice came back in reply, his accent thick. “They weren’t feeling too good after this afternoon. Both were talking about headaches and bright lights, y’know?”

“Not really…” Flam sniffed. “Well, now it’s dark out, so bright lights won’t matter. I have two assignments for you. First, I need you to go out and get us a couple of pizzas. The more mushrooms the better. And second, I need you to get Finley and Finch back here. I need to speak with them, and I need to see if they are capable of learning a technical skill for a substantial raise. We’ll work out our payment as per the usual.”

“What about me, boss? Could I learn this technical skill thing and earn more money?”

Flam held up a hoof, booping his nose. “First, the pizza. Then we’ll talk.”

Dorado snorted, his moustache twitching. “You got it, boss.” The pony turned and cantered off towards the street while Flam pushed the door shut. He startled a little when he found that Flim was right next to him, scratching at his mane nervously.

“Do you think there’ll be a problem if those mares discover we’re making the other amulets?”

Flam rolled his eyes. “What, with the idea of correcting for bad eyesight? It’s completely harmless! Not needing glasses won’t harm anypony except for optometrists. Why would those mares get mad that we’ve cured Equestria of astigmatism? Why would they get mad for making a mint?!”

“Heh.” Flim grinned. “You’re right. Let’s get back to work on getting ourselves set for life, shall we?”

* * *

Grand Lake Memorial Cemetery, Manehattan - 10:31 PM

It only took a quick review of a city map, and Cirrus was on his way. It had been easy to tell he had the right cemetery, once he spotted all of the lights and activity over by one of the grave sites. One unicorn was standing apart from several other ponies as the crew pushed and lifted piles of dirt back into the excavation. Cirrus adjusted himself, veering towards the lone unicorn, and dropped down for landing.

“You the Celestial Agent?”

Cirrus shook out his wings before folding them. “Agent Cirrus, Celestial Covert Ops.” Cirrus bobbed his head. “How can I be of service?

“Impressive wingspan. You fly high altitude surveillance missions?”

Cirrus blinked before grinning and glancing away. “That obvious, huh?”

“Eh.” Rebus waved a hoof before cracking his neck. “Sadly Mr. Cirrus, the illustrious Agent Narcisse has already moved on to greener pastures. And we still had an investigation underway.”

“Indeed.” Cirrus studied the chief investigator. He didn’t look too broken up about it.

“But then we got a lead that gave us some new information. Suspect may have been looking for a unicorn horn. Too bad about Narcisse not getting that little detail. Sucks for him.”

“Ditto.” Cirrus chuckled. “Sucks for him. But, uh… a whole horn? And from a cemetery?” Cirrus paused for a response, but Rebus only stared back at him, slowly lifting an eyebrow. Some of the diggers were watching their conversation surreptitiously, but nopony else offered any clarification. “Isn’t that kind of…?”

“...Yes. It is.” Rebus’ horn flashed, vaporizing a mosquito that was trying to take a snack on his flank. “And if you’re done with your editorial, I wanted to cover the facts of the case. There are no eyewitnesses to what occurred here yesterday night, only conflicting reports over whether the dirt of one of the recent graves had been disturbed or not. Our personnel were ready to dismiss the reports as either some paranoia or an overly obsessive mortician, but I came out here acting on a hunch. You might be interested in what I found.”

Cirrus fought a shiver, lowering his voice to just above a whisper. “...and the evidence?”

Another officer trotted up, a hulking earth pony, and they had a hushed conversation before the officer passed a hot cup of something over to Rebus’ waiting hoof. The chief investigator smiled his gratitude. “Thanks, Lieutenant Forge.” He looked back over to Cirrus. “You want some coffee?”

“Ah, not really, thanks,” Cirrus said. “I get too jittery with the stuff.”

Rebus shrugged. “Suit yourself. If the mare in question is actually the same that pulled off the event at the Library, then she was desperate enough to unearth a recently entombed corpse to saw off a horn.”

He slowly sipped his coffee as if what he just said was the most reasonable statement anypony had ever uttered. “But at least she had enough sense to carefully lay the body back to rest again. The soil was disturbed just enough for the caretaker to take notice. It was his special talent after all.” Rebus sipped his coffee again.

Cirrus thought about asking what kind of special talent that was, but then shook his head deciding he would rather not know. “Well, let’s find her then. That’s what I’m good at. Have you sent a team back to Meadow’s residence?”

“They’ve already been dispatched. Hopefully we can warm up the lead a little more.” Rebus sighed, then gestured with his cup. “We probably won’t be turning in for a while. Sure you don’t want any coffee?”

“...Sure.”

Manehattan Train Station, 1:32 AM

Narcisse’s horn gave off a gentle glow as he continued to rummage through the filing cabinet. No trains departed Manehattan from midnight to five in the morning, so it had been an easy matter to subdue the nightwatch pony that had been patrolling around the office. He would awaken later, but his eventual headache would probably be the least of his problems compared to the hot water he’d be in for not maintaining proper security.

Narcisse shrugged as he opened the next drawer. That wasn’t his problem.

The yellow mare behind the library attack matched up with the description he had obtained from the border agent, Downdraft. Using a truth potion on him had been the right call; he’d linked the mare to the scene. His sudden development of heliophobia was weird, though not something that Narcisse had time to worry about.

Police ponies could be rather obtuse, so he had enjoyed demonstrating their incompetence as he sifted through their various reports from the scene. They had underestimated Downdraft as a potential witness, and of course were limited from using more effective means of collecting information. He, however, was not constrained by such moral dilemmas. It was why Princess Luna had called on him.

Narcisse nudged the drawer shut with a knee before opening the one beneath. After looking around to confirm the office was still deserted, and visually confirming the night pony was still unresponsive, he returned to the task at hoof.

It had also been a bit of luck earlier when he came across a store manager that received a visit from a mare visiting his shop and asking about unicorn horns. While it may have been a misunderstanding that the mare was actually asking for a whole horn, everything else about the mare seemed to match up, so he checked out every beauty salon in the area. She probably needed to brew some nefarious potion, or maybe a large amount, so she probably needed a sizable amount of that potion ingredient. He struck paydirt when he visited a beauty salon managed by one Depeche Vogue, a stallion that had impeccable taste. Thankfully, Depeche could still describe the changes he made to the mare’s mane.

By strange coincidence, or perhaps not so strange, Meadow Lark was a relative of Depeche in that their sires were siblings. Ah, there she is! Narcisse grinned widely as he read over the receipt.

Class: Ticket type: Adult: Child:
Standard Econo ONE NIL

Start Date: Number: Passenger:

15~Nov~1514 881841 MEADOW LARK

From: Valid Until: Price:
MANEHATTAN 15~Nov~1514 $38.00
To: Route Validity
FILLYDELPHIA Yellow On Date Shown


Now he just needed to check the time and the passenger manifest for Ms. Meadow Lark and a ‘Ms. Calypso Moonchild’. He dismissed that moniker out of hoof since in the file Meadow had named her friend as “Tempest.” Unless Calypso was her real name. Unless both were fabrications. It was curious that the two seemed to be working together when the police report claimed Meadow had nothing to do with either attack.

No matter. The two would likely rest once they got into a new town, and that would be the time they would make a mistake. Narcisse glanced over the schedule for train departures. 6:00 AM was the earliest time listed—much too late for him. Good thing he had his own mode of transportation.

Returning everything to its place, Narcisse slipped back out of the building and headed back to his airship.

* * *

2:33 AM Fillydelphia Mareiott - VIP Suite

“It was still reckless, your highness.”

Twilight resisted the urge to roll her eyes as she swallowed another bite of her Prench pastry. The Mareiott really did have an excellent kitchen.

Even at 2:33 AM in the morning.

Even when her Chief of Security thought it was necessary to wake her out of her desperately needed slumber to inform her of ‘problems’ at the Convention Center.

Even when said Chief was likely only using that as a ruse to tear her a new one for piggy-back riding across Equestria, jumping from airship to airship… Truly, it was an idea that Twilight considered uniquely genius. Granted, the jumper would need a singular skill for long-distance teleportations, and have a talent for logistics and calculating vectors, but what with fuel prices and the costs of travel? ...Okay, maybe it is a ridiculous notion. Who else would be crazy enough to attempt it? Sure, she made time faster than a team of Wonderbolts, but the impracticality of the adventure rendered the idea as nothing more than an experiment.

She had arrived rather late in the evening, well aware of the reservations that had been scheduled for her stay. Her security team hadn’t contacted her all this time; they weren’t even in their suites. . Maybe they were just being a little extra-OCD about their screening of the facility. Maybe in some ways she was rubbing off on them? No matter: let them have their fun. She could still remember rolling her eyes.

Not knowing why her security team was absent, the hotel staff had assured Twilight that all was well, and that no disturbances had been reported. It was only about two hours later that she had been jolted out of her slumber by her security head. At least Fizzlepop knew that Twilightwould have a better tolerance for being woken up if the first things she saw were pastries and the best coffee in town from Cuppa Joe’s.

“I appreciate your concern, Captain Berrytwist, but really, there was never any risk!”

“No risk, she says.” Fizzlepop’s tone was even, but it had a bit of an edge. She brought out a file folder, levitating it past the pastry cart before dropping it on the bed. “Okay then. You can tell me about your risk-free journey in a few minutes. But first I need to brief you on what occurred yesterday in the venue that will host your event. Crews are working overtime as we speak to repair all of the damages.”

“Damages?” Twilight blinked before lifting the folder with her magic. Inside were two reports, one from her Security Captain, and the other from the Fillydelphia Law Enforcement. Her eyes widened at the reports: a double assault, a berserk Nirik, and a crazed changeling morphed into some kind of sewer monster. Her security team had sustained three casualties: two ponies and their newest griffon.

“Oh Celestia!” Twilight’s eyes teared up a little as she covered her mouth with a hoof. “And Bulwark? And is… Zora going to be okay?”

Fizzlepop’s lips pressed into a thin line before responding. “She would have likely lost the limb had we gotten her to the hospital much later. The doctors expect the limb to be salvageable and believe that with the right care, she should get most if not all of her strength and sensation back.”

“Oh. Thank Celestia. I’m so glad that—”

“The infection of her wound, however, is another matter. The situation for that is still touch and go, since the bite introduced enough bacteria in her system to give her septic shock.”

Twilight groaned. “If only I were here! Then maybe I could’ve—”

Fizzlepop began to pace, her armored shoes pressing silently into the plush carpet as she ignored the tray of pastries. “With all due respect, your highness, that line of thinking isn’t going to help matters. You would have been with me in the main hall, but you would’ve had the same restrictions as we. We held back from using lethal force because we realized the two perpetrators were the custodians, and could possibly even be unaware of their actions… Unfortunately, the changeling and kirin are also not without injury.”

“What a mess.” Twilight continued to read the medical reports until something caught her eye. “Wait, what happened to Zerrin?” Twilight blinked in confusion. “I understand the burns that Hilgren Bulwark received but the griffon? How did he get hurt?”

“Friendly fire. I knocked him out with a magical stun discharge and he took a concussion from the fall.”

“He… you… what?”

Fizzlepop rolled her eyes and stopped pacing to stare at the princess. “It’s near the bottom of the second report. He flew in without coordination or backup, got snared by a tentacle, and was nearly the main entree until we subdued the sewer monster. He’ll be fine.”

Twilight scanned down through the rest of the report, the details only agreeing with Fizzlepop’s summation. “Let’s go.” Twilight downed the rest of her coffee in one go.

“Your grace?”

“Ugh. Please stop killing me with the honorifics, Fizzlepop. We agreed that you would only use my title in the greeting phase of our meetings.” Twilight drew in a deep breath. “I want to visit Zora.”

“Firstly, this isn’t an informal setting. Ponies have been injured.” Twilight shrank a little at that. “And second, it’s still too early for visitors at the hospital, Princess. I have assigned shifts to my team members to make sure someone will be available for when Zora awakes.”

“Well, first thing in the morning, then.” Twilight asserted. And I want to visit the Kirin and the changeling as well. Before the event at noon if we can.”

Fizzlepop stared at her for a few seconds in thought before responding. “I’m sure something can be arranged. Just know that the police had to place them in specialized holding cells before medical aid could be given.”

A hiss from Fizzlepop’s transmitter broke into the conversation. “Commander, this is Wade.”
Fizzlepop bent her neck to speak into her transmitter, hitting a button with a hoof. “Go ahead, Wade.”

“There’s been an incident down at the police station and they are requesting backup. Mazuma is notifying the team so we can assemble in the lobby in three minutes. Orders?”

Fizzlepop looked back over her shoulder at Twilight, the eye contact conveying a large number of unspoken messages. She didn’t break eye contact as she continued. “Carry on. Rouse all the team members not currently carrying out their assignments at the Convention Center. The Princess and I will be right down.” The transmitter clicked off, leaving a tense silence for a few seconds while Fizzlepop continued to watch Twilight. Finally the security chief appeared to relent a little. “We’ll stop by Zora once we have given some aid.” She pointed to the door. “Shall we?”

* * *

A Few Minutes Earlier - Fillydelphia Police Station

Officer Comet Gleam rubbed at her forehead before she turned another page in her novel. Her horn was throbbing with a dull ache as she maintained her containment spell around the changeling captive. The bars of the prison cell were narrow enough to keep any normal prisoner secure, but this little changeling was not at all normal.

Comet shook her head for the eleventeenth time that evening. Seeing Zen’zie sedated like this, it was hard to believe that the little changeling could’ve caused so much trouble for the security team of the illustrious Twilight Sparkle.

Supposedly, Zen’zie’s ability for morphing into things more than twenty times her mass was almost unheard of, except for what might be observed from a changeling hive queen. At least, that is what the profile on typical changelings stated. But what was more, she had a capacity to not only morph into something monstrous, but to also coordinate three tentacles and three legs, a rather alien concept that should tax any normal shapeshifter beyond their limit.

The sound of a door clanging shut brought Comet out of her musings. A nurse by the name of Sunspring Sentinel emerged from the kirin’s room, carrying a bundle of discarded paper used to wrap bandages.

Watching him from the corner of her eye, Comet hid a small smile. Sunspring had been assigned to provide medical care for the prisoners, and there was still two hours to go before the ends of their shifts. It was just her luck she was stuck down here for half a shift with a stallion that was so easy on the eyes.

Closing the novel she had been reading with a snap, Comet turned to the nurse. Did she have a thing for stallions in uniform? Only uniforms that had nothing to do with law enforcement. She had been down that path before, and—ugh. No more mixing business with pleasure.

“How is our sleeping kirin, Mr. Sunspring?” Comet queried in a playful tone, even if her head was ringing a bit. “Body temperature back to normal?”

Inclining his head, Sunspring continued washing his hooves and wingtips in the nearby sink. “She’ll live.” Finishing at the sink, Sunspring frowned while he finished drying his hooves. “It's weird, though. I’ve never had a kirin patient before; they’re pretty rare… just always wondered at their physiology; how they could handle that magical switch from their normal state to something that can set everything on fire. It’s rather amazing.”

Comet set her book down. “Oh? So, what—unicorn physiology isn’t interesting? I mean, I doubt a kirin has the magical aptitude for something like this.” She gestured at the magical bubble surrounding the changeling’s cell, glowing the same color as the field immediately around her horn. She watched him as his cheeks colored just a little.

Score one for Comet!

“No! I mean, um. I find unicorn physiology interesting too…” The stallion fumbled for a second, his face glowing brighter until he began to chuckle nervously. Looking for something to do, Sunspring picked up his supply bag and returned some unused wrappings back inside.

Comet’s eyes traveled over his very defined wings, before wandering over other aspects of his person. Heh. Kirins aren’t the only things in here that can be flaming hot.

“So, you want to go out for some coffee when my shift is done, nurse Sentinel?” Comet grinned as she watched the pegasus’ wings twitch just a little. “We could continue our... physiology discussion then. Say, six o’clock?”

“I uh—sure!” The stallion stammered. “How about Chrissi’s Croissants?”

Comet’s smile broadened. “It’s a date.”

A mare’s screech pierced the peaceful quiet of the room before a bluish-white flash erupted, cutting off their conversation. Both ponies turned their heads to the first holding cell. Flames licked up the Kirin’s body as Sunspring’s bandages dissolved into ash.

Sunspring galloped for the prison cell door, only to skid to a halt and run back to his medical bag, dumping the contents out. “Syringes!”

Comet rolled her eyes before jumping to her hooves. “What! You didn’t administer enough sedative? Don’t you do like a bodyweight calculation for that or something?” She clicked her tongue a few times.

“I did! It—It should’ve been enough!”

Comet trotted over to the agitated nurse and patted his shoulder. “Relax, stud! There’s nothing flammable in there, and the nirik won’t burn herself. The situation is completely under control!”

“Control! Right.”

“Besides, a syringe on your hooves isn’t the best option here. Don’t want the doctor to catch fire, now do we? “

Sunspring shook his head.

“Alright then. Let me contact my sergeant upstairs and we’ll get a tranquilizer gun down here, okay?” Comet pulled at the transceiver mounted on her collar, fumbling for the button on the side.

“Right! Right…” The pegasus tried to slow his breathing, giving her a nervous smile. “We’ll just use a… Hey, shouldn’t your horn still be glowing?”

Comet’s eyes widened. A stench flooded the room, followed by a growl rumbling the air in her lungs and vibrating her hooves. She whipped her head around, batting her mane out of her face. Was the changeling still behind bars of… Oh no.

“Oh. My. Celestia. What?” Sunspring breathed as his ears flattened back.

The abomination let out an ear-shattering roar as it began to charge, spiked tentacles slashing forward to grab anything remotely edible. The thing lumbered forward on three knobbly legs. It didn’t have far to reach the two ponies; close quarters was not their friend at the moment. The wall behind Comet was lined with bars enclosing cages, with several more like them along the wall to her left. Meanwhile, on the other side of the creature no more than twenty five meters away, the lone exit door back upstairs waited. Shaking, Comet and Sunspring backed up, the longest breath they had held in their lives releasing itself in a unified scream.

The next thing she knew, Comet’s back ignited into a sharp, blindingly hot pain.
It was only then she remembered the Nirik behind the bars.

Comet dropped to the floor and rolled—anything to get away from the pain of a sort she had never conceived of. The former changeling yanked Comet into the air with one of its tentacles, her blood rushing to her head as she was forced into a front-row, upside-down seat of of her own doom, a massive toothy maw dripping with yellowish-brown saliva.

Comet dimly realized that the tentacle must have pierced the flesh of her leg with something stabbing and sharp, but the sensation didn’t compare to the raging pain across the flesh of her back. She wasn’t sure she had been able to quench the flames; it sure felt like she was still on fire.

The door on the far side of the room flew open. For a desperate split second, Comet made eye contact with the pony that emerged.

It was all the time she needed to convey her message, the wishes of a dying mare. She hoped that Officer Spark could understand and carry her message of love for her mother, forgiveness for her father, and best wishes for her friends.

She closed her eyes, hoping against hope that Sunspring might somehow pull through okay.