After 1000 years of tyranny and despair, one mare attempts to unleash ultimate evil, in a desperate bid to save her people and lead them to a brighter future. What she gets is not quite as advertised on the box.
One thousand years ago, the Princesses Celestia and Luna were blindsided by the return of the Masters of Equus. The cult of power-mad alicorns, thought to have been banished from Equestria forever, appeared in the middle of the Princesses' battle for supremacy, and caged them away. The rest of Equestria quickly fell to their might. Even the fearsome Discord was forced to his knees before them. All of Equestria was enslaved, and an era of misery began.
Now, one thousand years later, a lone unicorn mare has learned of a creature that might be able to overthrow the Masters. A creature immune to magic, overwhelming in size and strength, sealed away for centuries uncounted. A creature of ultimate evil: the Smooze.
Unfortunately for Starlight Glimmer, in trying to ensure the creature's obedience, she modified the summoning ritual a bit too far.
Because of her meddling, the soul of a recently-deceased human is pulled from Limbo, and given life, but not exactly a body. Now he has to help her save the world, or face obliteration.
Not much of a choice, is it?
Inspired by Pen Mightier and Bucking Nonsense, the legends who – to my knowledge – popularized the "human in villain's body becomes Equestria's savior" genre. May your inkwells never run dry.
Have you ever woken up inside of a jam jar? No? Well, let me tell you, it’s not pleasant. The suffocating feeling of being trapped in a dark, viscous fluid, of not knowing which way is up, and being unable to move properly even if you did; none of it makes for a very good time. Now imagine the contents of the jar screaming abuse at you, and you’ll start to understand why the first few moments of my new life were so disorienting.
I suppose I should back up here. Maybe start from the beginning, since you ponies know next to nothing about me.
My name is Eric Allen Brauer. I used to be human, until recently. I’m not quite certain how I came to be otherwise, though I suspect I may have nodded off at my drawing desk with a lit cigarette. My ex always told me that’s how I would go. I guess she was right, damn it.
Before coming here, I was a student living in Tucson, Arizona, and working part-time as a library assistant. It wasn’t much, but it helped to put me through college. Plus, it was slow enough that I had the free time to work on my drawings. It had been my dream since a young age to be a concept artist and and model designer for a gaming company, maybe even an animation studio. Maybe not the most profitable of goals, but I was eager to try making a living that way. I thought getting a graphic design degree was a decent step towards getting me set for life. Well, hindsight is always twenty-twenty, as they say.
My days were neatly organized: wake up at 5, get ready, go to school from 6 to 10:30, eat lunch, go to work from noon to 8, come home, do whatever schoolwork I wasn’t able to finish during the day, then sleep. Repeat. Weekends were usually spent with friends, sometimes drinking, and more often than not around a table with a few rulebooks and some dice. It may seem like a tightly packed schedule, yes, but I like it that way. I just can’t stand sitting around, doing nothing. Drives me crazy. Anyway, the point is: I am used to a routine.
Which is why it should be obvious that, when I woke up one Thursday morning to utter darkness, feeling like a sardine in a tin, I was more than a little overwhelmed. The squishy, jelly-like substance that pressed in on me from all sides was definitely not my bed. But then, before I could even begin to question circumstances, the voices battered their way into my thought processes.
“Useless pile of snot!”
“Go cram it up your brown eye!”
“Your birth certificate is an apology letter from the condom factory!”
“No one loves you!”
The abuse flew in every direction, ranging in severity from snide comments to unintelligible roars of fury. I couldn’t move, not even just to cover my ears to block out the flood of voices; there must have been hundreds. I tried to speak, but it was a struggle to even breath, like I was sucking air through a straw. So, of course, my first thought was: What the hell did I eat last night to give me a nightmare like this?
Then, something even more bewildering happened.
“Oh lookey here, sleeping beauty has awoken!” A nearby voice proclaimed, directed at me. “Well, sorry to say, princess, but this ain’t no nightmare! We’re all trapped in here for the rest of eternity!”
The comment sent my head spinning. Had he, it, whatever this was, just read my mind? Moreover, how many people were in here, and where were they? And… how were they even speaking inside of all of this goop?
“Probably deserves it, too!” Someone else shouted at me.
“I bet your mother wishes she had swallowed you!”
It was all too much. Forget waking up in the drunk tank, I had woken up to the verbal equivalent of a prison riot in a soup can. I couldn’t even think with all the shouting being directed at me. I just wanted to find a corner to hide in, to curl up in a little ball and cover my ears, even though a vague part of me recognized that I could no longer distinguish my hands from my feet.
But then, before I even had time to give in to the hate, a voice cut through the cacophony. It was quiet, strong, and as clear as crystal, despite the mob of tormentors.
“By light of sun, by glow of moon, By rite of ancient magicks hewn, I call on thee to grant a boon. With the imprisoned, I commune.”
The simple stanza drowned out the other voices, bringing them to silence. Within my confines, I could somehow sense the attention of every being present turn to focus on a single point. A point that could only be the exit. Then the feminine voice, like that of an angel, rang out once more.
“By black new moon, by eclipsed sun, I call upon the sullied one, O Smooze, destroyer, brought to none, By thy power, my will be done.”
Suddenly, I felt a tug around where I thought my sternum should be, and I began to move. My viscous surroundings began to slide past. I was moving in the direction of the voice, towards my savior! This did not go unnoticed by my fellow inmates, and they began hurling insults anew. Luckily, the angelic voice continued to speak over them.
“I summon thee, O timeworn soul, Locked for ages inside this hole. Return to me, fulfill thy role; To conquer and consume, thy goal.”
I was moving at great speeds now, the sludge parting before me like pudding before a snowplow. I could feel tendrils of it tugging at my flesh, trying to yank me back in. The villainous beings began whispering harshly in my ears, urging me to give up, to surrender to their will. But it was no longer my choice. I was being drawn inexorably towards the source of the incantation, unable to affect my speed or direction. Not that I wanted to. The sooner I got out of that pit of horrors, the better.
The chant began to reach its climax, my savior’s voice coming to a commanding crescendo.
“With this spell, I yoke thee to fight, To sweep the land and be my knight, The old Masters, their wrongs to right. I lift thee now into the light!”
Of course, with all these rhyming quatrains, I had to wonder whether or not this speaker belonged to one of the Lantern Corps. Then, without warning, there was the unpleasant sensation of being drunk. What’s so unpleasant about being drunk, you ask? Go ask a glass of water.
I was immediately blinded by the radiant day, having spent what felt like hours in the dark. The sunlight fell on my clammy flesh like a warm shower, melting away the tension and the fear. I closed my eyes and basked, reaching out to offer up a hug to the sun. I knew it would be unable to reciprocate, but I figured it would at least appreciate the gesture.
The voice of my angel broke me from my reverie. However, her tone was no longer commanding and regal, but rather confused and… a little frightened?
“Um… Great and mighty Smooze?”
I sat up slowly, to get a better look at her, and nearly shat myself. I wasn’t sure what I had expected, but it certainly hadn’t been whatever stood before me.
She was a massive horse-creature, easily the size of a house. I would have called her a unicorn, but the structure of her head was way too round. Even so, that was what she most resembled, given the pale pink horn that jutted out of her messy purple and aquamarine mane. The pink of her horn continued past her mane to the rest of her coat, glistening with sweat. Her matted tail carried the same color scheme as her mane, so either she was meticulously dyed, or these were somehow her natural colors. She watched me with fearful, persian blue eyes, as though she was waiting for the results of a pregnancy test.
“You… you are the Smooze, aren’t you?”
I blinked at her.
“You! The Smooze!” She gesticulated frantically with a foreleg. “You know, the great, big amalgamation of hatred and misery in the form of a blob monster? The Beast of a Thousand Voices? The All-Consuming Hunger? That Smooze!”
At this point, all departments of my brain were in total disarray. Neural impulses sprinted back and forth between offices, shouting and demanding someone figure out just what the hell was going on. Finally, a part of my mind only tangentially connected to reality succeeded in getting a report through to headquarters. With nothing else to go on, my brain acted on the only information present.
“I think you got the grammar wrong.”
The words left my mouth without so much as a single consideration as to their significance. Her eyes widened even further, and she gaped openly.
Well, fuck it. I had already rammed the truck into this conversation, time to plow through the opposite wall.
“You used ‘thee’ and ‘thy,’ which are singular pronouns. If I’m understanding correctly, you were trying to summon ‘a thousand voices,’ right? You should have used ‘you’ and ‘your,’ which are plural.”
“B- but I was using the old Royal Canterlot speech! Shouldn’t that have made the spell, I don’t know, more… commanding?” Her question almost turned into a plea near the end. I held up my hands defensively.
“Hey, don’t get me wrong, I’m very grateful you got me out of there. I just think you… got… the…”
I trailed off, as something in my vision wasn’t conforming to expectations. Before me waggled a pair of somethings almost exactly unlike arms. They jiggled bonelessly, like ropes of green Jello, ending in crude approximations of hands. I looked down and was greeted, not with a body, but a pile of green sludge. The sludge rippled at me in time with the throbbing confusion that pounded through my… brain? Did I even have a brain anymore? Or a heart?
My identity crisis was thankfully staved off by what was possibly the most heartbreaking sigh I’d ever heard.
“I got the smallest part of the Smooze, not the whole thing.”
It took me a moment to understand what she was talking about. Then it clicked. She was talking about me. I was the Smooze. And she wasn’t actually giant, I was just tiny. I didn’t know exactly how small, but I could make an educated guess based on a row of ants marching over a nearby patch of dirt. They appeared to be the size of mice, though I suspected it was more likely that I was about the size of a cantaloupe. This was compounded by my first real look at my surroundings.
We stood in a clearing of a forest, trees sparse enough to allow copious amounts of sunlight through the canopy. At first glance, I would have thought we were standing in a redwood forest, until I realized that the trees were deciduous. I could use the leaves as goddamn umbrellas! Suddenly, it felt much more important to pretend that I was a part of the Big Bad Smooze than to tell the truth.
“R- right. But I am still Smooze! You would do well to fear me!”
The mare smiled wryly, and leaned in towards me more than a bit menacingly. “Well, I would, but I also have you under my complete control. I could have you do anything I want. Like this: bow before me, Smooze!”
A moment passed, then two, and still nothing happened. I looked around. In my nihilistic sense of disconnection from what was apparently my new reality, I decided it was a good time to pull out a cliche that I’d had too much dignity to ever use seriously before. After all, I doubted she’d ever heard of Taxi Driver.
“Were you talking to me? I don’t see anyone else around here, so you must’ve been talking to me.”
Not a direct quote, of course, but I didn’t really have the kind of acting chops needed to perfectly imitate Mr. De Niro anyway. It still had some kind of an effect, though, because her eyes widened with genuine fear. When her fight or flight response kicked in, she was unlucky enough to choose the former.
Her horn suddenly lit up with sparkling turquoise light. The sight barely registered before a beam of energy shot out of the tip of her horn. Even if I had been in my old body, which had been by far the more nimble of the two, I still wouldn’t have been able to dodge. Instead, the projectile hit me with a sickening splat. I cried out, but it died in my throat when I realized that nothing hurt. I looked down, but the hole was already almost closed. I blinked in surprise.
“So, uh, I guess-”
She shrieked, and charged up another shot. This one hit my face – or at least what I assumed was my face – and my vision split. I could feel the two halves of my “head” hanging apart like strands of string cheese. I unceremoniously slapped them back together, struggling to keep from getting dizzy as my vision slowly returned to normal.
“Hey, cut it out.”
She did not. Instead, she launched a salvo of magical rays at me, though they had about as much effect as a handful of pebbles thrown into a pond. I quickly grew tired of having to shield my face from getting blasted, though, and what happened next came out of nowhere.
“Cut… it… OUT!”
Be it by instinct or sheer dumb luck, I somehow managed to grab the unicorn’s horn. And by grab, I mean my arm whipped out like one of those stretchy sticky-hand toys you can get at Chuck E. Cheese’s for five hundred tickets. Or any decent party store for, like, ten cents. She shrieked and tried to cast another spell, but she only managed to blow a bubble in my goo-flesh from the tip of her horn. It popped harmlessly. Apparently I could prevent her from casting this way. Good to know.
“Get off!” She nearly screamed at me, yanking her horn away in an effort to dislodge me. Unfortunately for both of us, it had the opposite effect.
I reflexively tensed my grip, but it translated to the rest of my outstretched arm, as well. The suddenly taut, bungee-like limb yanked me off the ground, pulling whatever loose rocks and dirt I had been resting on along with me. Momentum carried me over her head, and I ended up splattered all over the hock and cannon of her hind leg. She shrieked again, louder this time.
“Ew ew ew! Get off, get off, get off!”
Predictably, she started flailing, desperate to scrape me off. She only managed to spread me across her further though. It was the strangest sensation, like somebody had pinched my cheeks and just kept pulling. I couldn't even get a word in edgewise, as whatever I had been using as a mouth had been battered and smeared into oblivion. My sight was split once more. Her thrashing certainly didn’t help. I was forced to close my eyes, lest I discover what this body did when it became nauseated.
Eventually, she either stopped struggling, or entangled herself enough that she could no longer move. Feeling stretched as thin as a sheet, I opened my eyes and immediately regretted it. One of my eyes was pointed skyward, while the other was upside down somewhere on the side of her barrel, judging by the position of the ground and the in-and-out motion that perfectly coincided with her despaired panting. I closed them again, before opening up what I identified as my left eye. It was the skyward facing one, thankfully.
Rattled and disoriented, I tried the only thing I could think of, and willed my vision to return to normal. Somehow, it worked. I felt my eyes moving along her body, causing her to shiver at the crawling sensation. Eventually they stopped shifting, and I nearly sighed with relief when I opened my eyes to find that I had stereoscopic vision again. I looked around, and found that my eyes had ended up on her shoulder. I looked up and gave her the most scathing glare that I could muster, before attempting to speak.
“Are you done?”
My voice came out strangled and oddly high pitched. It made some sort of sense, though; I wouldn’t have a normal voice if my goo didn’t have the capacity to manifest properly shaped vocal cords.
I let out the most frustrated sigh I could manage, both at her assumptions and the sound of my voice.
“Look, just… don’t move for a sec, okay?”
She tensed up, certain that I was going to hurt her somehow. I hoped I wasn’t, but I honestly had no idea how this body worked. The only option I had was to experiment.
I knew that I was sticky, but it seemed unlikely that I was only meant to stick to things. No lifeform could survive if it was constantly leaving a trail of itself behind. Except slugs, but, well… that’s more of a secretion, and I’m literally a pile of ooze.
It seemed to have worked before, when I was rearranging my eyes, so I prepared another mental exercise. I recalled the sensations of unclenching my fist. I remembered watching honey in the microwave. I imagined that I was oil, and that she was water. Before I knew it, I was slipping off of her. I hadn’t quite turned to liquid, but I certainly felt less viscous, and the little bits of me really were rolling off of her coat like water off of a duck's back. As they fell to the ground, they slithered towards me, rejoining the main body. Watching this raised many more questions, but I was unlikely to receive answers to them anytime soon. Instead, I tried focusing on the issue at hand.
The horceress – Get it? Horse sorceress? – had prostrated herself before me, covering her head pitifully. She was whimpering quietly, probably waiting for whatever cruel punishment she thought I had planned. I sighed heavily; in my normal voice, praise be.
“Look, I’m not going to eat you. I really don't like eating things that can talk to me. I’m sorry if I scared you with that little bit of posturing back there. You may have been trying to summon the Big Bad Smooze, but-”
A thought occurred to me. One that I should have thought of sooner.
“Actually, why were you trying summon me- er, us? Summon us.”
The unicorn averted her already downcast eyes, somehow managing to look even more guilty.
“W- well, as I stated in the spell, I was kind of hoping you might… maybe… f- fight the Masters?”
“I know, I know! It was a stupid and- and foalish idea, b- but I was desperate, and-”
“Woah, woah, hey, slow down there. I get it, you wanted to summon the Smooze to defeat the Masters. Just, uh… who are these Masters, anyway?”
She frowned slightly, before looking back up at me. “What do you mean, ‘who are the Masters’? You… The Smooze appeared during the time before the Masters were first banished. How do you not know them?”
I froze up. What the hell was I supposed to say to that? ‘Uh, sorry, I’m just an alien that is either having a really vivid hallucination or died and got resurrected as the Blob. Mind cluing me in?’ There was really only one avenue I could think of to take. I would have to bluff my ass off.
“Look, I’ve been locked up for how long? I couldn’t even remember what the sky looked like before today, much less a bunch of stuffy assholes. So cut me a little slack, huh?”
“Um, right. Well, the Masters are the… the alicorns that rule the Joint States of Equestria. Th- there are seven in total, each the sovereign ruler of one of the states. We are in the state of Sangria, ruled b- by… by…”
I didn’t need to be a horse whisperer to tell that the poor mare was distressed. Her eyes had glazed over and she was trembling like a leaf, remembering some distant horror. She was biting her lip hard enough that I was afraid she might start bleeding.
“Ok, hey, it’s alright,” I tried to soothe as best I could. “You know what? Let’s not start with a game of twenty questions. How’s this instead?”
I cleared my throat – or, at least, I made a sound like clearing my throat – to snap her out of her fugue.
“I’m Eric. What’s your name?”
She shook herself free of her phantoms at my introduction, looking at me oddly.
“S- Starlight Glimmer.”
It took all of my willpower not to make any kind of disbelieving noise. After all, naming conventions in the alien horse land of Equestria could really be that simple.
“Um, your name is… Eric?” She pondered.
“I- er… well, forgive me if this seems rude, but… what’s an Eric?”
My expression must have soured, because she quickly backpedalled.
“I’m just curious, is all! I’ve never met anypony named Eric before.”
“Ahem, yes, well, as you can see, I’m no pony.”
“R- right! Of course. I’m sure it’s a lovely name for a Smooze.”
I gave her my most masterful eye roll. Then, something in me gurgled. It wasn’t my stomach, as I didn’t really have any intestines. However, I somehow understood that this still meant I was hungry, even in this amorphous body.
“Hey, uh, you wouldn’t happen to have anything to eat, would you? It would appear I'm feeling a bit peckish.”
“Oh, uh… not on me, no. I…” She trailed off, a look of despair crossing her face.
“Uh… Starlight? You okay?”
“No!” She squealed. “No, I am not okay! You were supposed to be this big, destructive monster that I unleashed on Equestria! What am I going to do now?! You’re so small, and… and I don’t know if I can feed another mouth…”
I felt a pang of guilt and pity. Objectively, I knew none of this was my fault. In fact, it was mostly hers. But, still for some inexplicable reason, I hated seeing her sad. I was probably something to do with how her big, sad eyes made me feel like I’d kicked a puppy.
“Hey, it’ll be alright,” I tried soothing. “Let’s just take it one step at a time, okay? I can probably scrounge up something on the way, so don’t worry about me. It may not be the end of the world, like you hoped, but I’ll do what I can to help you with your problems. It's the least I can do after you got me out of that hellhole. Why don’t we find somewhere more comfortable, and we can talk about where to go from here, hm?”
Starlight sniffed and nodded, fighting back her tears of frustration. “You're right. Sitting around feeling sorry for myself isn’t going to help. Come on, I have a camp set up not too far away.”
She turned to leave, and I was immediately struck with another conundrum. I didn’t actually know how to move. Not wanting to betray my inability, I decided to go with the safest option.
Starlight jumped and whipped around, which was more than a little nerve wracking to watch, from my vantage point. Like watching a semi on a rainy road suddenly lose control and skid sideways in front of your shitty little import sedan. Nevertheless, I pressed on.
“Aren’t you forgetting something?”
Starlight looked puzzled for a moment, then realization flashed across her features, followed by a forced smile.
“O- oh, right, of course, silly me. You won’t be able to keep up with me when you’re that small. Let me just… Um…”
Starlight awkwardly sidled up to me and lowered herself to the ground, getting into position for me to climb aboard. I figured we might end up like this, and yet I still wasn’t quite prepared. I’d never ridden a horse before. However, I held the advantage of being a sticky blob-thing, so maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.
With a little finagling, I managed to slurp my way up her side and onto her back, eliciting disgusted shudders from my carrier. As we trotted away, I took the opportunity to look back the way we came, at the site of my brief imprisonment.
The only thing we were leaving behind, however, was a large, circular stone set into the shallow incline of a small hillock. It was covered in mystical carvings. For some inexplicable reason, it reminded me of the cork in a wine bottle; a cork that I had somehow bypassed without loosing the rest of the container’s contents on the world.
It was at this point, as I turned back ahead, that acute awareness of my situation finally sunk in. I was stuck in a foreign body, in an unknown world, with no idea of how I came to be here. Everything I had seen was too evenly paced, lucid, and consistent to be the product of a dream or hallucination, drug-induced or otherwise. For all intents and purposes, I had fallen asleep as a human, and woken up in the body of a slime on an alien planet. I was just lucky I understood and could speak the local language.
I resolved then and there that I wouldn’t worry about what I had left behind on Earth. Until I could find out this world’s technology level, and whether or not I could even get a message through to my family, stressing out would do neither them nor I any good. The most I’d accomplish was giving myself a panic attack, and I certainly couldn’t indulge myself like that until I had at least figured out how to move along the ground under my own power.
“So, how far is ‘not too far’, anyway?”
“It’s only an hour’s walk or so.”
Perfect. Just enough time for a little experimentation.
I will say this for certain: I will never look at transformation magic the same again. Not that it was anything I directly dealt with before coming here, but the baleful polymorph spell has been forever ruined for me. Now that I’ve had a taste of its horrors, all my opinions on the matter will be tainted by bias.
Because for the first few hours of my new existence as a blob monster, I couldn’t figure out how to eat.
I’ll just let that sink in for you.
Imagine holding a sandwich, and not knowing which end goes in where. Eventually you figure out to put it in your mouth, but the next step eludes you. You can’t dissolve it with your spit, because – for some god awful reason – you no longer automatically salivate, and you haven’t figured out how to start. You can’t even try to swallow it whole, because you’ve forgotten how to swallow.
Sounds like Tartarus, doesn’t it?
That’s basically what my ride to Starlight’s campsite consisted of: snatching up leaves, twigs, berries, insects, and even pebbles from the passing scenery and cramming them into myself, trying to figure out what or how I was supposed to eat.
Getting stuff was no problem. In my desperation to find something to quell my hunger, I even managed to snatch a bird from its perch before it could react. But as I watched it struggling to escape the tar-like substance of my body, a profound sense of guilt washed over me. Bugs were one thing, but I’d never been a hunter. I’d gone fishing once with my father when I was little, and cried when he wanted to gut and clean the rainbow trout I hooked. I like meat, I just don’t like to think about its origins.
When I let the bird go, using the same trick I’d learned while tangled around Starlight, I could tell she was looking back over her shoulder at me.
“What was that about?” She pried.
“I… missed what I was aiming for.”
I could tell she didn’t believe me. Probably something to do with the dozen or so recently deceased bugs floating around with all the other debris inside me. I wasn’t particularly proud of that. In fact, it made me feel queasy just thinking about it.
Why won’t they hurry up and digest already?
Thankfully, she dropped the matter, as we had reached her camp. It was a simple set up; a canvas pup tent in a small clearing, a rudimentary fire pit, and a pot hanging from a tripod made of branches and twine. I could see a set of what could only be called saddlebags just inside her tent, one side of which held a hefty book. The sun was starting to set, tinting the edge of the sky orange, and I could feel the breeze carrying a chill through the air.
“This is nice,” I offered, trying to strike up a different conversation. “Very cozy.”
“It’s… liveable,” she sighed dismissively, then lowered herself to the ground to let me off. “Give me a minute and I’ll get a fire going.”
I slid off of her back with minimal effort. I felt a little swell of pride, knowing I was starting to get the hang of my new body. For her part, Starlight barely shuddered this time, as I made my dismount. As soon as I was free and clear, she got back up – albeit a bit unsteadily – and made her way over to the campfire. She moved the pot aside and began piling up sticks and dry moss, arranging it all with her mouth. I grimaced, imagining the taste.
I wanted to help, but in order to do that, I would need to get over to her first. I considered my options. There were animals I could mimic, like the snake and the earthworm. However, there were a couple of more unorthodox methods that had crossed my mind on the ride over. Methods I now had an opportunity to practice.
To start I decided to test the properties of my new form. Specifically, whether or not I could rotate parts of my gelatinous mass without twisting them off or flinging myself apart. I lifted up an arm to take a look at my crude hand. It rotated easy enough, following what I knew about how my human arm had worked. But for what I was planning, that wouldn’t be enough.
Concentrating, I twisted it as far as my mind would let me. I felt a twinge, but it wasn’t actual pain, just the memory of the limits of my human body. So, with an application of willpower – and more than a little nervous lip-biting – I forced myself to keep turning. Sure enough, my hand rotated past the one-eighty degree mark. As it twisted a full three-sixty and kept on going, without showing any signs of slowing or warping, I grinned excitedly. Apparently, the laws of elasticity didn’t apply to sentient slime.
With one aspect of slime anatomy confirmed, I knew I could move on to testing my first theory on slime self-propulsion. I looked down at the gelatinous mass of my main body, and applied my will to it. I tightened up, almost like sucking in my gut, and began rotating my lower half. Not horizontally, of course, that wouldn’t have done much. Instead, I essentially turned my lower half into treads; a looping river of gelatin to caterpillar myself across the ground. Sure enough, I slid across the ground, picking up more twigs and dead leaves as I went. The slight frustration at this still did nothing to dampen the gleeful excitement of a successful experiment.
What did dampen it was the pained look on Starlight’s face as she attempted to light the fire with her horn. At first, I wasn’t sure what she was doing, as I could only see her hunched over the fire pit. But then, I noticed the slight tremble in her shoulders, the sparks coming from her horn, and the small wisps of smoke coming from a tiny pit of turquoise glow within the pile tinder. She was struggling, that much was obvious. If her magic worked the way I thought it might, then she was in danger of over-exerting herself.
She yelped and nearly jumped out of her skin. Her concentration now lost, the little glow winked out of existence, along with all traces of smoke.
“Oh, great. There goes our fire,” she bemoaned her loss. “What the hay did you do that for? Couldn’t you see I was trying to concentrate?”
“Yeah, and struggling with it. Don’t worry, I can take it from here.” Thankfully, when you work at a library, there are plenty of opportunities to read anything that strikes your fancy. Inspired by all the doomsday scenario films that have been coming out recently, I had taken it upon myself to study some survivalist books in addition to my usual fare.
I looked around the campsite. “Okay, so, where’s your knife?”
She gave me a puzzled look. “I don’t have a knife.”
That stopped me in my tracks.
“You… don’t have a knife.” It was more of a statement than a question, but I was too flabbergasted to notice. She just stared at me uncomfortably, like she didn’t understand why I was upset.
“You came out here, into the wilderness, without a knife? Do you have a deathwish of something?”
“Why would I need one? I have magic.”
“Situations like this are exactly why you need one!” I reined myself back in; yelling at her would not help. We only had a few hours of daylight left, and I needed that to see what I was doing. As I glared at her in frustration, I was reminded just how bad her situation had become. I felt it plainly while riding on her back, even as I was distracted with trying to eat; Starlight Glimmer was undernourished. I could feel the outline of her ribs as she trotted, although they weren’t quite visible from a distance. I could also feel tough, fleshy streaks underneath her coat. Whatever they were, I dreaded the answer. She needed help, that much was certain, and I was the only one around.
Taking a moment, I looked around. “What’s your pot made of?”
“This? Uh, steel, I think.”
I huffed in relief. “Good, that should work. Are there any rivers or streams nearby?”
“Yeah, there’s one only a couple minute’s trot in that direction,” she said, pointing southeast of us.
“Alright. And how much food do you have left?”
“Well, I have some hay…”
The reluctant way she said that didn’t inspire much confidence. Looks like I’ve got some shopping to do, too.
“Well then, I’ll look for some berries and things while I’m out and about. You go lie down and get some rest. I’ll be back shortly.” With that, I zipped off in the direction of the stream.
As I trundled out of the first ditch just outside camp, a thought came to me. This is my first moment alone since waking up here. If I truly am awake.
I fully expected the anxiety and melancholy of the situation to blindside me in that moment. But, like a deer caught in the headlights, the absence of an impact did not leave me disappointed. The situation was still too surreal to take seriously. Some visceral part of me, enmeshed in the physical sensations of the world around me, told me that what I was feeling was real. But my higher thought processes scoffed. Going from a human body one day to something completely alien the next? It was completely absurd! I had a higher chance of being struck by lightning while being attacked by sharks.
And yet, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d wound up in some twisted god’s idea of an afterlife. The last thing I could remember – before waking up as a single blob in Satan’s jam jar – was sitting at my drawing desk, idly puffing at a pack of menthols while I tried to unclog my creative juice pipes. Not a good sign in any case.
And no, not that kind of pipe unclogging. I wait until nighttime for that, like a responsible adult-type person. Most of the time, anyway.
Reflecting on the precarious nature of my time here only served to give the rational part of my brain more ammunition.
Why are we helping this pony creature, anyway? It protested to the rest of my thoughts. We don’t owe her any allegiance. It’s possible that it wasn’t even she who rescued us. And, even if it was her, she did so with the intent of controlling us? All the more reason to drop her like a sack of potatoes and get the hell out of dodge!
I reluctantly pondered this argument for a while, until another thought came unbidden to the fore.
She reminds me of Emma.
The unusually candid thought hit me square in the gut, or at least where I thought my gut should be.
I hadn’t thought of her in what felt like months. The guilt came tearing back into me full force, causing phantom pangs of the way my heart would try to wrench itself from my rib cage every time she crossed my mind. I hastily stuffed those emotions back down into their jar; now was not the time or place to be dredging up painful memories.
So engrossed was I in wrangling my thoughts back into line, that I only realized I had reached the stream when I almost rolled right in. The stream wasn’t terribly deep or wide, but the sight of its edge mere centimeters away sent a thrill of primal fear through my mind, washing away all else. It was in those frozen moments, as I desperately braked against my momentum, that I realized what a danger water was to non-solid creatures.
I was soluble. Water was a solvent. It would undoubtedly do to me what The Dip did to Judge Doom.
What followed out of my mouth was a string of expletives completely unsuitable for print. So, in the interest of keeping a good relationship with my publishers, I will omit them from the record. Suffice it to say, had there been a nunnery nearby, I would have immediately been set upon by a vengeful flock of yardstick wielding harpies.
After spending a solid five minutes flopped over backward, collecting my wits, I nearly grabbed the nearest boulder-sized object I could lift to hurl into the stream out of sheer spite. Then I remembered that I wasn’t entirely sure what getting splashed would do to me. Probably nothing irreparable, but I also didn’t want to take any chances, so I let it go. It wasn’t the stream’s fault I hadn’t been paying attention, after all. Instead, I set about my original plan: searching the edges for flint, chert, quartz, or anything hard enough to draw sparks from steel.
Of course, I only had a vague idea of what flint looked like; that it was supposed to be smooth and glassy when broken open. Considering its hardness, I probably wouldn’t find concrete proof of it with anything short of a rock hammer. So, I had to settle for scraping rocks on each other, taking the ones that left marks and leaving the ones that were marked.
An hour and change later, I rolled back into camp like a rock tumbler, bloated with a large number of pebbles. Above me, I held aloft a broad leaf, piled up with blueberries from a bush I had found on my way back. Of course, the only reason I had found the bush was that I had nearly gotten lost trying retrace my steps – seriously, how do you lose a trail of forest floor nearly cleared of debris? – but Starlight didn’t need to know that.
Starlight lay on the ground between the tent and the fire, like she had made an effort to get back to the tent, but gave up halfway. She lifted her head from where it rested on her forelegs to investigate the odd rattling sound. When she spotted me, her expression instantly changed from curiosity to incredulity.
“Don’t worry about it. All part of the plan.”
I set the leaf down next to her and made my way back to the little fire pit. For a moment after I reached the edge, I puzzled how exactly I was going to retrieve the rocks from within me. But then, out of frustration, I just plunged my makeshift hand into the sludge of my gut. Initially, I figured this would be about as effective as trying to scoop debris out of a swimming pool with the spray from a garden hose. However, to my surprise, my hand stayed semi-solid, creating an outline of ripples in my body. The longer I stared at it, coming to terms with it, the sharper the outline became.
Huh, mind over matter indeed, I mused. This confirmed it; all I needed to make my body do something was to think it hard enough. This called for further experimentation, but it would have to wait. I had rocks to bang together.
I plucked out one of the river rocks at random with one hand and picked up Starlight’s pot with the other. Forcing myself not to get sidetracked wondering how many limbs I could realistically have at one time, I scraped the rock against the lip of the pot. Nothing happened, so I plucked out another and tried again. I repeated this process several more time with varying levels of success, setting aside ones that produced at least a few sparks. Meanwhile, I pretended not to notice the sounds of a hungry pony all but inhaling a pile of berries.
Finally, one of the stones produced a shower of hot sparks. My non-existent stomach lurched. Gingerly, I held the pot up to the tinder and struck the stone against it. For a moment, nothing happened. Then, just as I was about to strike it again, I saw the tiniest wisp of white smoke curl up from beneath the pile of sticks and dried moss. A thrill of excitement quivered through me, quite literally. I sucked in a breath, careful to draw it from outside the firepit, and gently blew on the ember. The pile began to glow red and – before I knew it – a flicker of warm light flared up. I clapped like a giddy schoolgirl. A short while, several sticks, and a fresh log later, and I had a nice, crackling fire going. I turned to Starlight with a smug grin.
“Told you I had it covered.”
Starlight stared at me.
“How did you do that?”
“Ever heard of flint and steel?”
“Well, yes, but I didn’t think you had.”
I sighed in exasperation. Time for more bullshitting.
“Listen, when you’ve been around for as long as I have, you start to pick up on a few things. Including how to manually start a fire.”
“But why? What would the Smooze need fire for?”
Well, crap. She had me there.
“Y- you’d be surprised.”
“Try me,” she said with a clearly unamused glare.
“Well, there’s… cooking. Some things just taste better cooked, you know?”
“And…” I wracked my brain for anything else that might apply, but only came up with static. Growing more and more frustrated, I eventually reaching a boiling point.
“And I don’t see why I’m being interrogated. You’re the one who called on me, remember?”
Starlight flinched away from the sudden opposition.
“You’re right. It’s just… you act nothing like how the book described you. And with what I know now, I have to be careful about who I trust.”
“Is this about the Masters?” I hazarded a guess.
Starlight nodded reluctantly. Well, I thought, ‘know thy enemy,’ as the saying goes. I rolled to the side and patted the spot next to me, beckoning her closer to the fire. She hesitated for a moment, then sighed in resignation and got up. As she walked over, I fielded my thoughts.
“I think it’s high time you told me about these jerks.”
She let out a single, mirthless laugh and flopped down next to me. “Where to begin?”
The writhing flames were reflected in Starlight’s eyes, giving her a haunted look as she stared into them. She remained silent, mind a thousand miles away. I figured I had better reel her back in.
“Well, the beginning would be nice. Explain it like I’ve been living under a rock for the last thousand years.”
This time, the laugh was a little more genuine.
“Well, I suppose I can tell you the official story, for what It’s worth. It was only recently that I started to doubt its authenticity.
“Our history books state that, a thousand years ago, Equestria lived under the iron-hoofed rule of the Princesses of the Sun and Moon. They were greedy, scheming, and jealous mares, who desired power above all else. So great was their lust for power, that they wrested control of both the sun and the moon from the heavens. As you can imagine, this gave them great sway over not just the ponies of Equestria, but all the races of the world. The other races had not yet bowed to their demands, however, because as much as the Princesses wanted dominion over the world, they were also jealous of each other. Much of their resources and time was spent on monitoring and spying on each other. The Moon Princess wanted the respect and authority that her older sister held as the wielder of the sun, and the Sun Princess was envious of her sister’s ability to manipulate the stars of the night sky, as well as her control over the dreams of their subjects.
“One day, they snapped, and began a vicious battle for control. The battle was so fierce, and their spellcasting so intense, that the Veil between worlds was weakened. It was then that our Masters returned from their long banishment. They defeated the Sisters and locked them away, never to see the light of day or night again. Then, they took up the reins, and have been ruling Equestria ever since. There’s a lot of propaganda and ego stroking after that, so I’ll skip over those bits.
“Nowadays, there are seven states in Equestria, each ruled by one of the seven Masters. The leader of the Masters is King Argent Light – a powerful alicorn stallion – who rules over the state of Argos, and oversees the Masters’ Court, Equestria’s governing body. The other Masters are Princess Camellia of Vivre, Prince Silver Song of Arrow, Master Gold Standard of Gilder, Lord Adamant Steel of Gladius, Lady Ruby Drops of Sangria, and Brother Odd of Merth – spelled with an E, not an I, by the way. All of the Masters are alicorns, except for two; Lord Adamant Steel is a minotaur and Prince Silver Song is an earth pony, although I hear they both have magic on par with the other Masters.”
“We’re standing in Sangria, the realm of La-” She paused a moment, emotions warring just behind her face.
“...Of Ruby Drops, keeper of the Element of Kindness.” She snorted disdainfully. “I don’t know if that’s some kind of cruel cosmic joke, or if she bears it for a specific purpose, but that’s just the way it is. I’ve lived in Sangria all my life, most of it at the Silverglow School for Adept Casters. I used to think that Ruby Drops was the only one of the Masters who actually cared about her ponies, who could be trusted. Until recently, when I actually met her. Until I saw what she did to… to…”
Starlight voice grew increasingly strained, until she had to choke back a sob. I looked up from the fire to find tears streaming down her cheeks, a hoof clamped over her mouth to stifle her cries. At a loss for what to say, I could only reach up and lay a comforting hand on her trembling shoulder. She jumped a bit, not expecting such sympathy. Her eyes whipped over to mine, searching them for something. Perhaps deception? In any case, I felt the need to put her at ease.
“Starlight, if this is too painful for you, we can continue this conversation later.” She gave me a sad nod, wiping her eyes with a fetlock. “You’ve given me enough to think about for now. Go get some rest, you look exhausted. I’ll keep watch.”
With a tired sigh, Starlight plodded over to her tent and shuffled inside, crawling sloppily between a pair of afghan blankets that served as her sleeping bag. She tried to shift them into a comfortable position using her teeth for a bit, then gave up and lay still.
I watched her try to fall asleep for a bit before returning my attention to the surrounding forest. Dozens of thoughts buzzed through my head, each demanding my attention, and each receiving the same pre-generated, noncommittal answer:
Out to lunch. Come back at [blank].
The day had been an absolute clusterfuck of noise and garbage, physically and emotionally. I should have felt exhausted. I should have been fighting to keep my eyes open. I shouldn’t have been wide awake, trying with all my mental prowess to convince myself that I had actually dreamt all this.
Okay. Okay. Don’t freak out. Just because this incredibly depressing nightmare is unlike any other nightmare you’ve ever had, or even heard about, there’s no need to blow everything out of proportion. The sensations have been an odd addition, but nothing that can’t be explained rationally. Maybe I’m just… in a coma… and up to my face in river mud! Yeah! That’s believable, even if I doubt there’s any spot with that deep of mud anywhere in Arizona. Still, it’s not like I have the entirety of the Colorado River mapped out, so it’s possible there’s a place like that somewhere, right?
Besides, there’s a surefire way to check. All I have to do is stick my hand in that fire, and I’ll know for certain. If I really am unconscious, I won’t feel a thing!
I stared at the fire for a long time, unable to bring myself to take the plunge. An insidious little voice whispered in the back of my head, reminding me what it would mean if I did actually feel pain. Couldn’t I just stick to the excuse I came up with a moment ago? Why risk my already fragile sense of security?
But the larger part of me had to know, had to be certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that what I was feeling and seeing wasn’t real. It was this part that took control of my arm, and slowly reached out.
At first, I felt nothing. I was ecstatic. I wanted to cry out in relief. But then, my hand started to feel warm. Then, it felt hot. My gooey flesh began to boil, and searing pain suffused my entire arm. I jerked it back with a yelp, slapping and splattering my arm into the dirt, trying to quickly dissipate the heat and the hurt.
A minute later, I was gazing at the smears of steaming goo all around me, trying to get my mind to pick up. But it was ignoring all my calls. I had just gotten news that rivaled the likes of my parents getting divorced, Santa not being real, and my puppy having been run over by a cement mixer, all in rolled into one horrible package.
What’s more, the gel on the ground wasn’t moving.
News Flash: Fire hurts, genius.
I just continued to stare at the lifeless streaks of slime as they dissolved, my self-critic continuing its rant in the background.
But you already knew that. Just like you already knew that this place, this new body, that pony mare over there, they’re all real. You were deluding yourself pretty hard for a minute there. But guess what? You die here, you die for good. You’ve been given a second chance after dying of your own foolishness. Don’t squander it.
Emma would want you to live.
The thought jerked me out of my stupor. I was right. I couldn’t just shut down every time something bad happened. I wouldn’t! This was a golden opportunity for redemption, and I wasn’t going to waste it!
But before I raced off, half-cocked and blinkered, to go on some grand adventure, I first needed to figure out more about how my body worked.
First step: How the hell do I digest?
I pondered this for a while. Was it just an extremely protracted process? No, I could still feel the hunger, even though I had stuffed myself almost to bursting with assorted crap. Was I just not consuming the right stuff? Possibly, but by the fact that this form had evolved to feel pain, it would make sense for it to also have some way of automatically ejecting unwanted or unnecessary materials, at least after a period of time. I continued to think of questions and answers like this, until I became fed up.
Argh! Why won’t this damn body just do what I tell it to?
And then I had an epiphany.
Could it really be that simple? My body already did whatever I told it to. Maybe I hadn’t really been telling it anything when I put stuff in it. Maybe, just maybe, I needed to actively focus on the process of digestion.
What was in a stomach? Acid. I needed to be acidic.
So I thought about stomach acid, about the dissolution of hydrogen and chlorine in water, about rocks being worn down to sand, and the taste of bile. Imagine my surprise when I started to hear a hissing sound, and feel a bubbling sensation coming from within.
My eyes snapped open and I looked down. The ground around me was sizzling and foaming. What’s more, I was beginning to feel sated. Leaning back, I stretched out like taffy to look down at the main mass of my body. Except for the rocks, all the debris I had accumulated was rapidly dissolving. The rocks, too, were having some kind of reaction, albeit much slower. Which made me wonder: what was happening with my eyeballs?
Concentrating on the image of a snail’s eye stalks, I closed my eyes and willed my body to change. I felt a shift, and peeled my left eye open. Sure enough, I was looking out from a slightly higher vantage point than usual. Getting a feel for the strange sensation of a prehensile eye tentacle, I wiggled it back and forth. It was a similar sensation to when I rattled my head, but on a much smaller scale.
Another successful experiment in the bag, I waited for the dizziness to wear off before I made my next observation. Once I had regained my bearings, I turned my open eyestalk to look at the closed one. What I saw confused me greatly.
Inside the eyestalk was the outline of a very mammalian eyeball. The eye was enveloped in a dark green skin, which was oddly nonreactive to my newly acidic sludge. I frowned, puzzled.
Curiosity overwhelming me, I opened my right eye, curious about what it looked like.
Immediately, the conflicting, yet crystal-clear views sent my head spinning for a second time. I shut my eyes again, willing them to return to normal.
Well, that was a stupid idea. I should probably just wait for the next pond or mirror we come across.
Before I could continue my contemplation, I heard a quiet whimper behind me. I turned around to see Starlight shivering violently in her sleep, obviously cold. Concerned, I rolled over to her as quietly as I could. As I neared, it became painfully obvious why she was cold. The poor thing’s blankets were ratty and threadbare from years of heavy use. I could also see that her tent was less of a tent and more of a square of canvas propped up by sticks. I couldn’t tell if the canvas had been treated at one point, but it certainly wasn’t now. In fact, all of her belongings, except for the book, were old and worn. And right now, the only thing separating her from the cold, hard ground was a single, thin blanket.
Well that won’t do, I decided. Let’s think… How can I fix this?She needs an insulator, and a cushion, preferably. Wish I had one of those inflatable sleeping pads.
A moment later, another thought occurred to me.
Then again, don’t I already?
I looked down at myself. Most of what I had consumed was now dissolved, except for the rocks. Those I forced to settle on the ground, ejecting them from my body. I thought about water, about adding two parts of sodium hydroxide to one part hydrochloric acid, and other pH neutral solutions. The sizzle of the detritus beneath me slowly petered out, until I could no longer feel it.
However, I decided that ‘trust but verify’ was the better policy in this situation; I didn’t want to accidentally burn Starlight in her sleep. So, I first pinched a corner of one of the blankets, to see what would happen. After several minutes of sustained contact, the yarn hadn’t even so much as discolored. Satisfied, I conducted my last experiment of the night.
With a little concentration, I was able to slide under Starlight without disturbing her. Then, utilizing my supreme knowledge of the arcane wonders, I became the greatest human invention of last century: the memory foam mattress.
Okay, so maybe not the greatest, but still pretty damn nice.
I drew in thousands upon millions of microscopic air bubbles while thickening myself into a plastic, turning a thin sheet of gelatin into an inch-thick layer of foam. It felt like something straight out of Looney Tunes, as though Bugs had stuck one of those old-fashioned seltzer siphons in my mouth and didn’t let up until the bubbly froth bloated me to the size of a Plymouth. However, in reality, I was closer to an unrolled sleeping bag, and not even one of those nice, thermal ones. That wasn’t quite enough to keep her off the ground, so I pulled more mass in from the sections she wasn’t lying on.
Almost immediately, she all but stopped shivering. I felt the foam beneath her warming up, reflecting her body heat back into her. I grinned inwardly, satisfied with a job well done. However, I also realized I was in for a long night of absolute stillness. Luckily, as the minutes passed, it seemed as though I felt no real discomfort. My foam state felt odd, but without bones, muscles, blood vessels, or anything else that came with being an endothermic vertebrate, I felt no need to find a comfortable position, even while lying on a bed made of rocks and sticks.
Instead, I could focus on the one thing that really bothered me: the fact that I didn’t feel fatigued. I’d be damned if I was going to resign myself to a life of insomnia. So I began with the oldest trick in the book.
One sheep, two sheep, three sheep…
Now, I know I wasn’t present for several of the scenes I will be relating to you, but I have some very reliable sources and recordings that I am able to draw from. So, what follows is the absolute, unedited, and only slightly biased truth of what happened leading up to my summons.
An hour or so before Starlight began her ritual, in the West Wing of Canterlot Castle, King Argent Light sat in his high-backed chair at the head of the Seven Seats, the half-circle table where the Masters’ Court met – which, in truth, had only six seats and one conspicuously wide empty spot. He was staring at the pages of text arrayed before him, waiting for the others to arrive. The Court Chamber was relatively spartan, given the level of opulence he was accustomed to, but that didn’t faze him in the slightest.
I will be the first to admit, Argent Light was an objectively attractive stallion. He stood nearly as tall as Celestia – though he insisted he was taller – with a build like a Clydesdale. His salt-and-pepper mane and tail always had a windswept quality to them, although his goatee was conversely always neatly trimmed. His steel-blue eyes glared out from a stern, chiseled face with just enough age lines to give him a mature look. A glossy, silver coat nicely contrasted his Cutie Mark: a silver white, seven-pointed star with one long point at the bottom, as though it were a firework shooting up into the sky.
Altogether, these things made for a ruggedly handsome stallion. The kind that, were he human, would put the likes of George Clooney, Hugh Jackman, and Robert Downey Jr. out of business. He fit the part of the wise, passionate king to a T.
The only thing he lacked was empathy. Then again, the same could be said of the rest of the Masters, but I’ll let you figure that out for yourself.
As the door to the chamber opened, Argent called out without looking up from his papers.
“Brother Odd. Early as ever.”
Odd Bodkins was a strange sort of stallion, even before his ascension. He seemed to be in a state of perpetual exhaustion, no matter the time of day. Dark bags hung under his tired eyes, and his pale grey coat and long chestnut mane and tail were constantly bedraggled. He wore a simple, traveling priest’s habit, entirely covering his wings. The baggy clothing also concealed his form, making it difficult to discern his physique. And, by all accounts, nopony ever saw him smile.
Odd looked up, fixing Argent with a humorless gaze.
“When am I ever not?”
“True, true. I see you still haven’t caved to Camellia’s requests yet. Why do you still wear that old thing?”
“Habit, I suppose.”
The King looked up, startled, and the barked out a single laugh. Odd just looked at him, eyebrow raised. King Argent’s smirk died like a goldfish out of water.
“Ah, right, apologies. It’s just that…”
“Just what, your majesty?”
“Oh come now, Oddy-boy,” a new voice called out from the doorway. “Even you should be able to recognize such an obvious pun.”
The mare standing in the doorway was beautiful, but not in the traditional frame of beauty. Like the others, she was an alicorn. Like the others, she caught the eye. But whereas the others caught the eye like a beautiful candelabra or chandelier, Ruby Drops was a gasoline fire started at the edge of an oil spill. She transfixed the viewer like an impending disaster. Sure, she had normal enough colors: a cream coat, and auburn mane and tail done up in loose buns. But she was rail thin, just a week’s worth of missed meals away from anorexia. Her legs, her wings, her torso, her face; all sharp angles and lines, only accented by the slinky, ruby red evening gown she wore. Her hungry, crimson gaze occasionally glinted with dangerous desires she only barely suppressed. She was a coiled cobra, swaying hypnotically and tensing to strike.
Of course, this didn’t faze Odd in the slightest.
“... Ah. Yes. Ha ha.”
Without another word, Odd made his way to the seat at the far end of the table to the king’s right.
“Well, you’re just as much fun as usual,” Ruby needled, taking the seat at the opposite end. “Would it kill you to chuckle, or even just crack a smile…? Actually, that does sound fun. Care to test my theory? I’m sure I could make you howl.”
Odd ignored her, even as she stroked her upper lip with her tongue.
“No, thank you. I will be steering clear of your dungeons for the foreseeable future.”
“Whatsa matter, Odd? ‘fraid of a little pain?” Came the booming, almost Cockney tones of the Masters’ resident minotaur.
“Well, I certainly can’t blame him. There are much more worthwhile things to be doing with one’s time,” huffed the abundantly affluent alicorn stallion beside him.
Lord Adamant Steel and Master Gold Standard were about as far removed from each other as two beings could possibly be.
Adamant Steel was a brick shithouse; the culmination of the pinnacle of Minosian physique and over a dozen lifetimes of martial training. His forest green skin was criss-crossed with countless scars, although they did nothing to obscure the definition of his musculature. In contrast, sharp, black horns as big as a man’s arm curved out of his skull, as immaculate as the day they grew in. Shaggy black fur covered his lower half, all the way down to his black, cloven hooves. Despite the scarring, Adamant had a face like a block of granite and the voice to match. His dark brown eyes scanned his surroundings with burning intensity, and half of his right ear had been lopped off. I always found it odd that somebody with alicorns for colleagues would have so many scars, even if he had been severely injured. Then again, chicks dig scars, or so I’ve been led to believe, and I’m sure he thought so too.
Gold Standard, on the other hand, was about as far from attractive as you can get. He was less of a stallion and more of blob of fat rolls in the general shape of one – which is actually pretty impressive, when you consider an alicorn’s metabolism. What one could see of his light orange coat glistened with a sheen of sweat, the rest collecting in pools on his extravagant clothing; on the day in question, he wore a burgundy silk doublet with gold brocade, a pair of tan silk pantaloons that could double as a parachute, and enough jewelry to make a dragon jealous. Droplets trickling down his rotund face from his slicked-back, golden mane. Beady, green eyes watched from behind fat cheeks, which puffed ceaselessly, as though he was running as marathon. A majority of the time, however, he could not be found outside the comfort of his gondola of a throne, which had been enchanted to hover. To hide the odors that he produced, he practically bathed in perfume, though it only made his scent suffocating for a different reason.
“Like what? Stuffing yourself until you look like a rotting pumpkin?” Ruby remarked acidly. “Lay off the pastries, Gold. Maybe in a century, you’ll be reunited with your stallionhood.”
Adamant nearly bust a gut laughing, as he sat in the chair next to Ruby, pounding his fist on the table.
“Ahaha! She got you good, Gold!”
Gold’s lip curled into a sneer. “Yes, well, she’s just jealous that I came away from our latest trade so much the richer. What was that mare’s name? Chiffon Swirl? I really must thank you, Lady Ruby; she truly is an exceptional baker.”
“But of course,” Ruby jeered, tracking Gold as he floated around to park his throne in the large empty spot between Odd and the chair immediately to King Argent’s right. “It’s unfortunate that you only got one use out of her. You have to stop trying to force yourself upon your servants; they only suffocate beneath your fat rolls.”
As they continued bickering, a teenage earth pony colt strode in.
“Ooo, is this what’s on the agenda today? A fight between a black widow and a tub of butter? I wonder who would win?” He mused, his lilting voice washing over the room. The bickering immediately stopped, their ire redirected towards the newcomer.
“Silver Song. Good of you to join us,” King Argent greeted.
Prince Silver Song ran a hoof through his immaculately coiffed, baby blue mane, and flashed the room with his perfect smile.
“Yes, well, I suppose it is my duty to attend these get-togethers every now and then. Besides, I had nothing better to do today.”
If Argent Light was Equestria’s George Clooney, then Silver Song was its Robert Pattinson. With his gleaming white coat, midnight blue eyes in a face that was neither too young nor too old, and a voice to make angels weep – redundantly represented by a winged microphone for a Cutie Mark – he was, as modern parlance has it, a ‘slayer of mad puss’. I’m not kidding. Take all the popularity of Robert Pattinson, Ashton Kutcher, and Ryan Gosling, and mash it all into one stallion, and you have Silver Song. Of course, with the non-female demographic he was about as popular as Justin Bieber. Still, all the controversy around his popularity kept too many ponies from asking how an earth pony became a Master. The ones that did had a tendency to disappear.
As he made for his seat, Silver addressed King Argent.
“Alright, that’s all of us. Let’s get this thing ro-”
“Not quite,” Argent interrupted. “We are still waiting on Camellia.”
Silver groaned as he slid into his chair, between King Argent and Gold Standard.
“C’mon, do we really have to invite the baby?”
“Agreed,” Ruby added. “I still think she has yet to prove her usefulness.”
King Argent sighed forcefully.
“We have already discussed this at length. She has more than demonstrated her ability with the subjugation of Sombra, and that is my final decision,” he asserted. “That is… unless either of you wish to dispute my decision…?”
The meaningful glares he cast in their directions immediately silenced them. Ruby and Silver both looked away, wordlessly acceding to his will.
At that moment, the doors swung open once more, admitting the final member of the Masters’ Court.
“Sorry for the wait,” she apologized breathily. “I just got back from my meeting with Dainn, and… well… you know how those caribou are.”
Now, there is something you should know about Princess Camellia. Historians would have you believe she was sex incarnate. I am here to tell you that those accounts are absolutely true. Every word, every step, every glance; everything about the mare was a promise to leave you breathless, sweaty, and satisfied beyond compare, should you simply give in to her desires. Ruby Drops may have tried to look sexy in a dangerous sort of way, but Camellia didn’t even have to try. She had the proportions of a fertility goddess, all supple curves and soft, flawless flesh, with just enough muscle definition to hint at her sexual prowess. Her pink coat was always lightly flushed, betraying a thousand dirty thoughts running through her mind, and her long, blonde mane and tail were smooth and gently mussed, as though she had recently come from a clandestine meeting in some out-of-the-way bathroom or broom closet. Her light purple eyes danced with a mischievous energy, and the red heart on her flank appear to throb with every slight movement. Perhaps the most dangerous thing about the mare was that her appeal knew no barriers; Silver Song and Argent appealed to mares, and Ruby to certain stallions, but Camellia didn’t limit herself by sex. Ruby may have been a firecracker, but Camellia was the atomic sex bomb.
Jesus, I’m getting worked up just thinking about her. And I don’t even have a discernible anatomy!
King Argent grinned conspiratorially.
“Ah, yes, our would-be conqueror. Tell me, how is the young buck?”
“Doing rather well for himself, actually. It seems he’s even convinced some of the ponies from our neighboring lands that he’s created a magical artifact capable of overthrowing Equestria.”
The king’s expression transformed into one of expectant curiosity. “And has he?”
Camellia laughed derisively.
“Hardly. Although, I must say, he has certainly created the world’s most extravagant marital aid.”
“Yes, I read the reports,” King Argent sighed. “But does it have any value? What does it do?”
“Other than serve as a magical treatment for erectile dysfunction, not much. I think Dainn expected me to be more impressed, the way he prattled on; he was all ‘Crystal Heart’ this and ‘male superiority’ that. Honestly, his so-called shamans make a few simple adjustments to a crusty old relic, and suddenly they’re proclaiming themselves masters of-”
“Camellia! The point, if you please.”
“Hmph!” Camellia pouted, making her way to the last open seat, next to Argent. “Long story short, I put on a little… distraction, and sabotaged their pet project while their attention was elsewhere. Now, when they try it out, well… Let’s just say they’ll fall entirely under my domain.”
King Argent hummed disappointedly. “Pity. It would have been nice to recover such an old artifact, even if we have no real use for it.”
“Forgive my presumption, your Majesty,” Camellia nearly purred, “but I didn’t think a stallion of your… caliber, would need a piddly little trinket like that. Then again, I’m not one to judge. If you’d like me to go back and retrieve it, I’m sure we can… put it to good use.”
A focused flirtation assault from Princess Camellia would have reduced a lesser stallion to a stammering puddle of libido and desperation. I suspect that her efforts aroused every creature in the entire West Wing, much to their confusion. King Argent, however, merely cleared his throat.
“Thank you, Princess, but that will not be necessary. I trust you handled matters with due diligence. We will collect the Crystal Heart when your trap has been sprung. In the meantime, just continue monitoring the situation in Eichenwalde. I have other, more pressing assignments for you here.”
“Why, Argent!” Camellia cooed. “I knew you liked putting pressure on me, but really! You have to give me a moment to prepare to receive your massive-”
“For gods’ sakes, put your tail down, filly!” Ruby snarled, blushing despite herself. “You can continue trying to sleep your way into power after the meeting concludes!”
“Yes, I’m afraid I must agree,” Gold added, fanning himself frantically. “While your antics are quite… charming, we have important business to discuss.”
“I dunno,” Adamant added with a smirk. “I could stand to hear a bit more.”
Silver just groaned.
Camellia looked around with an exaggerated pout. When her gaze fell on her second favorite target, her eyes lit up.
“Oddy,” she pleaded, “You don’t think I’m being a nuisance, do you?”
Odd Bodkins yawned, eyes drifting sluggishly over to the discussion.
“I just want to get this over with. I have far too much still on my plate.”
King Argent was quick to jump on the opportunity.
“Ah, right! That reminds me; how has the situation with the ‘Mirthful Jester’ progressed?”
“Not at all,” Odd growled. “Whoever he or she is, they've eluded me at every turn. The Carrot Cake interrogation was a bust. The stallion had neither the stamina nor the reaction speed that the Jester has displayed, even if his build is similar. Then again, there’s no guarantee that whatever magic disguises the pony’s voice doesn’t also alter their physique. And the damnable sneak never leaves even a trace of his or her passing! Simply put, I’m no closer to discovering the Jester’s identity than when I started!”
After a lengthy pause, he added with a sniff, “Nothing else to report.”
King Argent sighed.
“Very well. Luckily, the Jester’s schemes have not hampered our plans irreparably. Continue your efforts, but try and get some rest, hm? For our sakes, if not for your own.” He turned to the other side of the table. “Now then, let’s get the rest of the preliminary reports out of the way. Lord Adamant, how is recruitment and training coming along?”
Adamant puffed up like a rooster, a proud smile on his lips. “Jus’ peachy, if I do say so, meself. The recruits these last couple o’ decades’ve been top notch. ‘Course, I’d have a better grad rate if I didn’t test ‘em out so hard, but where’s the fun in that, eh?”
His raucous laughter echoed through the chamber, joined by a strained chuckle or two from the others. Ruby’s throaty chortle was the only genuine reaction, if not the most terrifying. She spoke up after Adamant calmed himself down.
“Yes, well, on that note, crop production is up five percent from last year. At this rate, we might want to consider razing more of the Everfree to make way for more production and storage facilities. That being said, worker casualty rates have also increased, so I may need fresh bodies before long.”
“I, too, have some good and bad news,” Gold Standard added. “The good is that mining operations in the southeastern Badlands have discovered large veins of iron and copper that were previously overlooked, and the collection of gold and precious gems is continuing smoothly. However, due to certain… unsavory elements–” he said with a glance at Odd “–our refineries have encountered nearly catastrophic setbacks. Additionally, the native population of the Golden Jungle has become quite recalcitrant. To deal with these obstacles, I have drafted a list of resources I require, which is as follows…”
As Gold Standard began rattling off the items on a long scroll he pulled from places no one wanted to imagine, the door to the chamber creaked open.
A lilac unicorn mare paced nervously back and forth just down the hall from the Masters’ Court, muttering to herself.
“Okay, Twilight. You can do this. All you have to do is walk up to the King of all Equestria, and deliver the report that something has gone wrong and he needs to fix it. No pressure. None at all… Oh ponyfeathers.”
Twilight Sparkle whined in distress, wanting nothing more than to run away and hide under her cot. These orders spelled out her doom. She had only been working in King Argent’s magic research group for just under two years. She was the very definition of expendable, a fact that her superiors were quick to remind her.
But then, her doom would be much doomier if she failed to relay the message, if something went seriously wrong, which could have been prevented if she had only mustered up the courage to walk into the Court. Twilight swallowed her fear, and made her way down the hall, trying desperately not to stumble.
All too quickly, she reached the doors to the Chamber of Seven Seats, flanked by hulking creatures of magic and metal. The automatons were incredibly simple in design, but undoubtedly powerful. They were shaped like ponies, but scaled up by two hundred percent, and wielded their massive halberds as easily as a foal might swing a stick. Twilight tried futilely to wet her tongue.
“I- I’ve been sent to with a message for the King, f- from the Canterlot Arcane Research and Development Department.”
After a minute of nothing, Twilight suddenly remember the other thing she had with her.
“Oh! Um, I guess I’m supposed to show you this?”
She held out the turquoise pendant hanging from her neck. Apparently, the golems were supposed to glean something from it. Twilight stood there, pendant in hoof, long enough for her to start fearing for her life. Had she made a mistake? Was she about to meet a messy end at the hooves of something that wasn’t even alive?
Just as she was about to consider running away, the golems stepped aside, allowing her clear access to the Masters’ Court. Rather than feeling relieved, her anxiety only escalated. She was about to enter the lion’s den.
Twilight gently opened the one of the doors a crack, and slipped inside as quietly and unassumingly as she could, fixing her gaze on the floor. Of course, she was immediately noticed by everyone in the room.
“Ms. Sparkle,” King Argent addressed sternly, “I assume you have good reason for interrupting a Court meeting, which is meant for our ears only?”
Twilight Sparkle felt the floor fall out from under her. The eyes of the most powerful beings in the world were all on her. This was it. There was no turning back now.
“I- I’m very sorry, your Grace. It’s just… Doctors Honeydew and Beaker are requesting your presence. They say it’s a matter of utmost urgency.”
King Argent’s eyebrows shot up, though he maintained his unshakably calm demeanor.
“Ah, yes, that is important. Thank you, Ms. Sparkle.” He turned to his compatriots. “Apologies, but it appears I must call a short recess to deal with this. We will reconvene in an hour.”
Twilight Sparkle felt like the weight of a whale had been lifted from her shoulders. She had done it. Not only had she delivered an unfavorable report to King Argent Light, but she had done so without drawing his ire. Unfortunately, she was stopped in her tracks before she could even reach for the door handle.
“Ms. Sparkle, a moment, if you please.”
She turned back to find that King Argent was standing right next to her.
“Prepare yourself for teleportation.”
Twilight had only a moment to ready herself before she was stuffed through a pinhole. In an instant, King Argent had transported them to one of the few places Twilight had never thought she might end up.
The entrance to the Forbidden Archives.
“How long have you been working for me Ms. Sparkle?”
Twilight gaped openly for a few seconds before her wits returned to her.
“Ah! Um, t- two years, Your Majesty.”
King Argent hummed thoughtfully. “Is that right? Is it just me, or does it feel like it’s been longer?”
King Argent gazed at the runic carvings covering the wall before them, following the flares of arcane power as they traveled along the lines.
“Twilight – may I call you Twilight?” She nodded, starstruck. “Twilight, I see something in you. Something that so many others who came before you have lacked. A certain, indescribable quality that marks out ponies destined for greatness.”
Twilight could only stare, slack-jawed, as the most powerful pony in Equestria played out the fantasies of so many thousands of foals, right in front of her eyes. What could she say? This scene only happened in her wildest dreams.
“You are capable of a great deal, Twilight. And if you would have me, I wish to be the pony to show you the path. To teach you what I know, and to help you mould your future into the incredible mare I know you can be. Would you like that, Twilight Sparkle? To be my apprentice?”
Air squeaked out of Twilight’s throat, her brain desperately trying to give voice to the words that her mouth was failing to shape. This was the opportunity of a lifetime, and all she could do was stand there and gawk like an idiot. Ice-cold horror washed over her, as she heard King Argent chuckle. She was going to blow it!
“I shall take that as a yes, then, shall I?”
Twilight closed her mouth with a click, nodding furiously. If her voice was going to betray her, she would have to rely on good old-fashioned body language.
“Excellent! I see great things in your future, Twilight, and they all start today.”
He put a hoof out towards the door to the Forbidden Archives and the runes flared to life.
“What you are about to see are secrets that I have kept from the public for a very long time. I trust that you will be able to keep them secret?”
Twilight nodded again, solemnly this time.
“Good. We’re going to go visit an old ‘friend’ of mine. Remain silent, do as I tell you, and no harm shall befall you. You will find that many of the things I keep here are dangerous, even to the casual observer. Try not to let your eyes stray for too long.”
Twilight clenched her teeth, and gave him a third, more fervent nod. She trained her eyes on the back of King Argent's head, afraid that she might be reprimanded if she looked anywhere else.
He led her down several hallways, past many doors both open and closed. Terrifying sounds assaulted her from every direction, but her gaze never wavered. She knew just how horrible mind-affecting magic could be from her studies. The slightest slip-up could spell out a fate worse than death. Her fantasies had just started coming true, she wasn’t about to risk it because she thought she heard her brother’s voice.
Even when she heard him call out her name with heart-rending despair…
King Argent looked back over his shoulder to see her still following, eyes locked forward. His smile made her insides melt.
“Good girl. You’re doing very well. We’re almost there.”
A minute later, they turned down a side passage to another large doorway. King Argent muttered an incantation, and the door swung open. She followed him in, and what she saw astonished and nauseated her.
In the center of the room, surrounded by a wall of blue light, stood a pair of diagonally crossed, half-lapped wooden beams, coated in the same glowing symbols as the rest of the room. But this wasn’t the source of her distress. That honor belonged to the thing that the cross displayed.
Nailed to the beams by its limbs was a patchwork creature of indeterminate origin. He had a goat-like head, mismatched horns, a long, serpentine body, and the arms, legs, and wings of several different animals. I’m sure you know the creature of whom I speak. Brutal iron spikes had been driven through each of his paws, claws, hooves, and wings, and into the wood of the cross. The wounds had closed around them, leading Twilight to believe he’d been there for a long time. He hung limply, sapped of all energy, pale, and barely breathing. As King Argent drew nearer, he let out a weak, wheezing laugh.
“Hello, Argy… we were just… t- talking about you.” Discord’s voice was feeble and hoarse, and it seemed he was unable to even lift his head. His bloodshot eyes could only peer up from beneath heavy eyelids.
“King Argent, Your Grace!” Cried a fat, blue, bespectacled stallion in a lab coat. “Thank the stars you have come! I was beginning to fear our message hadn’t made it through to the main lab.”
“Meep!” Added his lanky, wide-eyed, orange colleague.
“Discord,” King Argent addressed, disregarding the scientists, “I hear you have been making trouble. Care to explain yourself?”
“Not p-… particularly, no. My throat is f-… far too dry…”
“King Argent, he used magic!”
At this, King Argent turned back.
“Is that so? When was this, Dr. Honeydew?”
“Twelve minutes and…” He checked the clock. “Forty-two seconds ago, Your Grace.”
King Argent turned back to Discord.
“What did you do?”
Discord gave another rasping chuckle.
“Oh n- nothing much. I’d been saving up… for quite some time now. Even so, I w- was only able to move a… about a bowl-full of gelatin… two hundred feet straight up. Made a p-… a perfectly messy impact… on some poor mare, I expect.”
King Argent glared at the trickster. After a few moments, the one that could only be Dr. Beaker spoke up.
“Meep meemeep meep meep.”
“Ah, th- that’s true,” Doctor Honeydew offered placatingly. “By our calculations, after subtracting the amount of energy required to bypass the wards, his output would allow him to telekinetically lift a weight of one hundred pounds only two point seven feet in the air, but that’s only within the confines of the castle. Limit the weight to, say, five pounds, and the distance moved to two hundred feet, and he would have an effective range of… approximately thirty-six miles.”
King Argent gritted his teeth. “Can you trace the spell?”
“I- I’m terribly sorry, Your Majesty. If we were talking about normal magic, it would be no problem. But this is chaos magic. Since the effects aren’t immediately obvious, we won’t know what he’s done either until it’s too late, or somepony stumbles across the spell’s target.”
“Very well. Post a bulletin to all critical facilities and law enforcement offices in the kingdom: ‘Be on the lookout for anything out of the ordinary, anything that might lead to an accident of any kind.’ I’ll not let some psychotic trickster bring about…”
King Argent’s voice slowly faded into the background of Twilight’s thoughts, as she noticed Discord was looking directly at her. It wasn’t the look of disgust and hatred she might have expected from someone in his position. Instead, there was an air of melancholy around him, even pity, as though he was not the one in captivity. Shortly, his eyes fell shut as he succumbed to exhaustion. She saw him mouth a single syllable that caused her no end of confusion:
By the time morning came around, I was bored out of my metaphorical skull. Around five thousand sheep had leapt over my mental fence before I gave up on trying to sleep. It wasn’t doing anything but killing time. Instead, I did some mental exercises: solving math problems, making lists, mapping out the places in my memory, that sort of thing. It was certainly a better distraction than counting.
So much so that I was almost surprised when Starlight finally woke up. It seemed she even got in a solid eight hours, if how long it felt since I stopped counting was anything to go by.
She awoke with a face-splitting yawn, pushing herself up without opening her eyes. For several moments, she just sat there, smacking her lips and gazing at the backs of her eyelids. Finally, I couldn’t help myself; her tired expression and messy mane were just too adorable.
“Good morning, sleepyhead,” I teased.
Starlight yelped and shot to her hooves, nearly stomping on one of my eyes in the process.
“Hey, watch it! My body might be made of silly putty, but I’m not so sure about my eyes!”
As my words sunk in, she shifted her gaze downwards, locking eyes with the pony-shaped living mattress beneath her. I gave her a moment to fully take in what she was standing on before I gathered myself back up, condensing all the tiny bubbles into one big one and releasing it with a tremendous belch.
“W- What were you…?” She stammered.
“You looked cold and more than a bit uncomfortable last night,” I answered nonchalantly. “I decided to remedy that. Can’t have my would-be master dying of hypothermia now, can I?”
She cut herself off, looking at me like she was torn between righteous indignation, confusion, and embarrassment. After a short internal battle, she huffed and looked away.
“Well… thank you. Just… ask me before you do something like that.”
I gave her my best Cary Elwes brand smirk.
“As you wish.”
Starlight searched my eyes again. Maybe she thought I was being malicious. Honestly, I wasn’t trying to be, but I guess it’s hard to tell with a face that looks like Silly Putty. Eventually, she just rolled her eyes and walked out of the tent, although she looked a bit uncertain of herself as she did. A small bundle of hay and a canteen levitated out of her bag in her aura and followed after her.
“So, what’s on the agenda for today?” I asked.
“Breakfast first,” she grumbled, “then planning.”
She lit the fire with little effort, thanks to her dinner of blueberries and a full night’s rest. It was fascinating to see her horn flash turquoise, and then watch as a red flame flared up around a fresh log in the fire pit. The campfire quickly chased away the morning chill. Starlight took up the iron pot and dumped the bundle of hay into it. Then, she held the pot just above the flame, swishing it around gently until the hay was lightly toasted. The way she was licking her lips made me wish I had a sense of smell. I doubted I’d find the scent as appetizing, but there were much worse smells than hot grass.
As she tucked into the sparing meal with a wooden spork, I decided to strike up a bit of conversation.
“So, it looks like you’re feeling better this morning.”
She nodded and took a swig of water.
“Yeah, actually. I… well, I don’t think I’ve ever slept that well.”
I grinned. “I’m glad you enjoyed my Smooze foam mattress.”
She blushed lightly. “Oh, is, uh… is that what you call that?”
“Yup!” I continued, putting on my best salesman pitch. “Our mattresses use patented, intelligent goop particles to contour to your body, cradling pressure points while still providing support for your spine. No better mattress on the market guaranteed! And they only costs an arm, a leg, and your firstborn child.”
Of all the reactions I could have gotten, I really was not expecting her to recoil in fear and disgust.
“No! Just… just no! No amount of comfort is worth that!”
I almost literally deflated. Seriously, I could have sworn I heard a sound like an untied balloon being released. I gave Starlight a questioning eyebrow.
“Jeez, sorry. It was just a joke.”
“Well don’t joke about stuff like that!” Starlight nearly snarled, but then pulled herself back together. “Stars know it happens all too often around here.”
“It’s true. All young colts are conscripted into the military when they come of age, and many young fillies are sold into ‘indentured servitude’ because their families fall into considerable debt. It’s not unusual for a mare to lose all her children that way.”
“Starlight… were you…?”
“No, I was lucky. My mother and father may not have been upper class, but they were always strict loyalists, so they were probably given some leeway. And I… I never had any. Not that I didn’t want to…”
Starlight stared into the fire, grief and fury warring behind her eyes. I could only stare at her. I’d gotten a vague idea of just how bad the Masters might be the night before. But to have it spelled out so plainly…
There’s something about you ponies that makes me feel like you can do no wrong. You’re just too adorable to be evil. Back in my world, we call this concept kinderschema. It refers to the overwhelming positive feelings that the majority of mammals experience when we look on child-like creatures. I think it has something to do with the brain rewarding protective behavior in order to guarantee the continuation of the race. All that really means is that I just want to pick you up and cuddle you. The thought that something that appears so innocent is also capable of such cruelty flew in the face of my very instincts.
And yet, I had already received evidence to the contrary. The general state of Starlight’s belongings spoke of a life of poverty, using items until they could no long function. Her eyes often took on a faraway look, as though she was trying to recall a memory of a happier future, stolen from her in the blink of an eye. Not to mention the abuse she had suffered. I had done a little investigating during the night, and examined the lines of soft flesh I had felt under her coat while riding the day before. Sure enough, I found scars up and down the length of her back. Some weren’t even that old. It had become all too clear that she was no stranger to adversity.
It was at that moment, seeing on her face a lifetime of pain, laid bare in the light of day, that I began to understand the size of the beast I was staring down.
“Starlight, I really am sorry,” I spoke softly. “That was inappropriate of me. I should have known that dark humor wouldn’t go over very well. I just wanted to make you laugh, honest.”
She sniffled pitifully. “It’s okay, just… try to think about what you’re saying before you say it.”
“Of course.” I patted her shoulder gently. “It’ll be okay. I swear to you, I will do everything in my power to make things right.”
She watched me with watery eyes, and a ghost of a smile crept up in the corners of her lips.
“I’ll hold you to that.”
“Great,” I affirmed. “Now finish up your meal. I want to see where you live.”
I had tried to make it sound like I was excited, but I’m pretty damn sure she was able to detect the hint of dread behind my words.
The trek down the mountainside from her camp was a relatively short one. We reached the bottom just shy of midday, and the walls of her hometown came into view not long after. My first impression of this civilization did not leave a pleasant aftertaste.
The walls of Ponyville were not grand things, but that wasn’t really the point. The point was a cost-effective mode of defense, and of containment. From what I saw, they consisted of a pair of concentric palisades – walls made of logs that were driven into the ground and lashed together – and a plank walkway between them that ran the length of the walls, in order to form a battlement along the top. I estimated them to be about fifteen feet high, if my frame of reference was accurate. Guards were posted at even intervals along the battlements, facing both inside and out.
Despite the makeshift appearance of their defenses, Ponyville was not a small town by any means. Starlight and I could barely even see the full width of the wall from our vantage point on the small hillock, less than a mile away from the North Gate. However, what I could see of the town itself was about as inspirational as a lump of unshaped clay. The buildings were almost entirely all dumpy little thatched roof houses or wooden shacks, with a few exceptions Starlight had told me about on the way down. The only exception visible from our vantage point, however, was the keep of the Silverglow School for Adept Casters.
The Silverglow School loomed over the surrounding buildings like an abusive step-parent. It was all gothic architecture and imposing bas relief sculptures, surrounded by a high stone wall and a fucking moat, of all things. It had four massive towers, one at each corner of the main keep, with honest-to-god, architecturally impossible, stone sky bridges connecting them. I couldn’t make out all the minute details from that distance, of course, but the difference in wealth between that structure and those surrounding it was almost laughably absurd.
It was only after staring at the ridiculous scene for a solid ten minutes that I noticed Starlight was shivering again.
“Hey, what’s up?” I questioned softly.
“How the hay am I going to get you into town?”
I followed her eye to the North Gate, where we could see that the guards had a long line of ponies waiting to go through the gates. Every entrant was being searched and interrogated quite thoroughly. I obviously wasn’t going to be able to ride in on her back, not without people asking questions. And I couldn’t just stow away in her saddlebags, either, with them conducting searches. Unless…
“Is there still water in your canteen?” I asked.
She glanced back at me.
“A little. Why?”
“Couldn’t you just pour it out and sneak me in that way?”
She considered it for all of two seconds before furiously shaking her head.
“No, no! That won’t work. They’ll think it’s suspicious if I come back with a full canteen. What if they think it’s something valuable and confiscate it? I’ll be found out for sure!”
“Okay, fine. No canteen. Hmm…”
I pinched my bottom lip in thought. Was there anything I could do to help?
Better question, what can’t I do?
I flopped off of Starlight’s back and rolled a couple feet away.
“What are you doing?” She hissed anxiously.
“Stand back! I’m going to try science!”
I pictured an octopus in my head, changing color from bright to dark green. I thought of chromatophores, and of flexing my membranous skin. I thought really hard about chlorophyll. However, I wasn’t hearing the sort of amazed reaction I was expecting from Starlight.
“Anything happening?” I grunted, straining against my own flesh.
I released the breath I was holding, relaxing into my slight disappointment. It seemed my body did have limitations after all. That, or I just didn’t have the right materials.
“Damn. Alright, plan B.”
This time, I focused on the shape of a snake, and I immediately felt myself shrink and elongate. It came to me almost as easily as breathing. It seemed I was becoming accustomed to shapshifting. Then, for phase two, I rolled through the grass, using hundreds of tiny, pinching folds I created all across my surface to pluck out individual blades. I moved the pinchers down my body, layering the blades along my back and sides until I looked like an extremely feathery snake. I ruffled the grass a bit, to make it look more natural, then looked up at Starlight.
“Well? How do I look?” I solicited, in a voice that would fit right in with Alvin and the Chipmunks.
“Like some sort of bird-snake with great, big, googly eyes.”
Of course my eyes don’t shrink, I thought with an exasperated sigh, that would be too easy.
“Yeah, that is a problem. Hmmm… One moment.”
I closed my left eye and swallowed it. Not literally, of course, but close enough. I maneuvered the eye so it sat centered just behind my right eye, which I squinted.
“How about now?”
She stared at me, her expression slowly morphing into one of concern.
“I don’t know, like a cyclops snake?”
Heh, now all I need are a pair of trousers.
“Eric, what does this all have to do with getting into town?”
“Simple: snakes are much sneakier than big blobs of goo. I’ll slither past the guards while you wait in line and meet you on the other side. That way, nobody will suspect a thing!”
“But nothing! Time’s a-wastin’!”
With that, I took off like a shot.
Okay, more like a ball thrown by a toddler, but still. We had places to be and only so many hours of daylight left.
“And what will you do if they see you?” She prodded, trotting easily alongside me.
“Act like a snake, obviously.”
“And if they come over to investigate?”
“Then I’ll hide. Look, do you have any better ideas?”
“Well… no, but-”
“Exactly, no buts. It’ll be fine, Starlight, just you wait and see.”
Starlight chewed on her bottom lip, looking between me and the North Gate. Finally, she let go of a distressed groan.
“Fine. But if you get caught, we don’t know each other, got it?”
I rolled my open eye and snarked, “Oui, mon capitaine.”
Starlight huffed and trotted off, making for the line of ponies. Without need of vocal cords, I was able to stretch myself thinner, until I looked like a three-foot long, moldy breadstick. The smaller a target I make myself, I reasoned, the harder it will be to spot me.
Ever tried slithering? It’s not as easy as snakes make it look. I eventually figured out a trick: I would steer myself towards rocks and uneven parts of the ground to push off of, and sort of ricochet my way forward, leaving a trail of coiling snake body behind me. It was a hell of a lot easier than trying to pull myself forward on the wet grass.
After I figured that out, it wasn’t long before I came within shouting distance of the gate. I could see that Starlight was closing in on the front of the line. However, I also caught sight of something that had likely been drawn to my inelegant first attempts at snake-like movement.
One of the guards on the wall was staring directly at me. I went still. Had he seen me? If he had, why wasn’t he reacting? I was pretty damn sure that snakes had no business being in a temperate mountain climate like this one. If I’d had a heart, it would have been beating like a taiko drum. I could only pray that he hadn’t actually spotted me.
Every second his eyes were on me felt like an eternity. Finally, after several lifetimes had passed, the guard slowly turned his head. I waited, to make sure he wasn’t turning to alert another guard, before inching forward again. Immediately, his gaze snapped back to my location, and I froze again. He had definitely seen me. Or, at least, he had seen movement in my direction.
If I’d had the glands, I would have been sweating bullets. I was trapped. Starlight was waiting for me, but I couldn’t move without tipping off Mr. Hawkeye up there. How in the hell was I going to get out of this situation?
As luck would have it, that question was answered for me.
A sudden commotion on the road pulled the guard’s attention away from me and towards the gate. I took the opportunity to shoot forward, slicing down the hill like an Olympic slalom skier. In less than a minute, I managed to slap myself flush with the wall and take refuge in the overgrown grass at its base. Thoroughly unnerved, I inched along the wall, enveloping and flowing past each blade of grass, trying my hardest not to disturb them. Every errant twitch and rustled blade made me want to scream.
But as the seconds passed, my imaginary heart slowed its beat, and I paid less attention to the grass and more to the gate, which seemed like it had attracted a commotion of some sort.
The fanfare was probably the biggest tip-off. I looked over to the road and caught glimpses, between those in the line, of a pair of trumpeter ponies trotting alongside a carriage. What really impressed me was that their gait seemed to have no effect on their ability to play their instruments. Four armored guards trotted protectively alongside the carriage, and yoked to it were a pair of white-coated stallions that would have made Hans Günther cream his pants.
Then, there was the carriage itself. It was elaborately designed, made from a dark wood with a darker finish – the few parts that weren’t coated in gold leaf, anyway. Nearly every surface was covered in delicate, complex etchings, with overly ornate fog lanterns affixed to the front corners. It might have been more aesthetically pleasing if the owner hadn’t been trying so blatantly to flaunt his wealth. And yet, mysteriously, just looking at the thing made me hungry.
My inexplicable appetite curdled, however, when I caught sight of the coach’s occupant. Gazing smugly out of the window was one of the worst cases of ‘affluenza’ I had ever seen. Even discounting his ride, the earth pony stallion bore several signs that he had never worked a day in his life. His face was plump with baby fat and his hooves shone without the scuffs and grime of toil. An expensive, clean-pressed, dark red shirt adorned his thoroughly brushed, pale yellow coat, and his neatly combed chestnut mane completed the look of extreme punchability.
It also didn’t help his case that he was drinking what looked like wine from a crystal tumbler. But the most damning of his behaviors was the semi-disgusted leer he cast at every passing mare. It wasn’t difficult to discern his thoughts: that they should consider themselves lucky he was lowering his standards enough to take one of them to his bedchambers.
My first impulse was to ignore him and continue into the town; I’d seen my fair share of rich boys back home. But then, the carriage pulled to a stop.
Directly next to Starlight.
An attendant stepped out of the carriage, pulled a rolled up carpet from the top of the carriage, and laid it out, then stood smartly to the side of the door. His precious hooves now protected, Babyface hopped out of the carriage, and my heart sank as he fixed Starlight with a lascivious smirk. Starlight fidgeted in place, fixing her gaze on the front of the line.
“Starry, my sweet, whatever are you doing out here with these ruffians?”
“Waiting in line,” she deadpanned, not sparing him even a single glance. Apparently, she’d dealt with this douchebag before. “What does it look like?”
Mr. Tubby’s confident grin faltered for a split second, then bounced back in full force.
“Why, it looked to me as though you were stealing my heart. Should I call the guards, or do you think we could… work something out?”
Starlight closed her eyes and groaned. I felt a pang of sympathy, then realized I hadn’t moved for the last few minutes. The gate was only yards away. If I could get closer, maybe I could do something to distract the wannabe Casanova. I inched forward, going as fast as I could while still keeping the grass from being displaced.
“Look, Autumn,” – Ah, so the cake eater has a name – “I’m just trying to get back into town. Don’t you have something more important to do?”
“Yes, and she’s standing right in front of me,” he insinuated.
I had to stop myself from being audibly disgusted on Starlight’s behalf. Starlight herself didn’t fare much better. Her facial muscles were twitching, as though it was taking all her concentration to keep her face from contorting in revulsion.
“Autumn, while I appreciate your… repeated interest, I am just too busy to entertain flights of fancy. I’m sure there are many other mares in town that would be more than willing to-”
“You know, I’m starting to think you’re snubbing me,” Autumn complained meaningfully, polishing a hoof on his shirt. “It’s actually rather hurtful; I feel I’ve been nothing if not honest in my intentions. And yet you’ve spurned me at every turn. It’s enough to make a stallion… desperate.”
Starlight tried heroically to remain stolid in her convictions, but something in the way Autumn emphasized the last word worried her. Her ears betrayed her, splaying back against her skull. Autumn noticed, and his damnably smug grin widened another notch.
“Let’s say you were to reject my affections once more. Why, I would be devastated. In my anguish, I might even do something drastic. Like, say… have the guards detain you for an indefinite period of time.”
“Y- you wouldn’t… You can’t!”
“Can’t I? My father basically owns this town. The guards are all on his payroll. All I need to do is say ‘Jump’, and they’ll ask, ‘How high?’”
Autumn advanced on Starlight, forcing her to take a step back, gulping audibly.
“And with you indisposed… well, I just have to wonder what will happen to your roommates.”
Starlight inhaled sharply.
“Don’t you dare lay a hoof on them!”
“My dear Starlight, I would never do such a thing. Besides, I wouldn’t have to. I know all about your situation, how you and your pegasus friend take care of that mud pony invalid. It’s fairly obvious what will happen when your friends lose the majority of their income…”
I had come within inches of the edge of the gate. If there was a time to enact my master plan, I had reached it. If I could actually come up with one. I sat there, wracking my brain for something, anything I could do to draw attention away from Starlight. But of all the ideas that raced through my mind, none would allow both of us to escape unscathed.
As I sat there, frozen, Starlight’s eyes darted around, searching for anyone or anything to help her. For a second, our eyes locked. A look of resignation crept into her eyes, and she set her jaw. With a barely perceptible nod, she turned back to Autumn.
“O- okay. You win. Let’s… let’s go talk about… us.”
With a massive, shit-eating grin, Autumn stepped aside, playing the chivalrous noble.
“After you, milady.”
Starlight stepped onto the carpet, wiped off her hooves, and climbed into the carriage. I wasn’t even able to get a word in edgewise. Autumn looked around with the smuggest, most bragging smirk I had ever seen, and the followed her in. Then the carriage was packed back up and began to roll.
I panicked. There was no time. I was about to lose her. Possibly in more ways than one. I couldn’t let that happen.
I would not lose Emma again.
I rolled out into the shade in the center of the gateway, only barely concerned with maintaining stealth. Thankfully, all eyes were fixed on the carriage, and I went unnoticed. I went slack, sloshing into the furrows and divots of the road. The mud lapped at my surfaces, threatening to subsume me, but I didn’t care. I had only one job: to board that carriage, no matter what it took.
The rumble of approaching hoofsteps rippled through me. As I closed my eyes, I had to force myself to relax. If one of the lead ponies stepped in me and felt anything other than water, I would be found out for sure.
I felt a hoof step in the edge of my puddle, then another. The lead ponies crossed right over me without so much as a second glance. In retrospect, I was incredibly lucky they didn’t stomp on one of my eyeballs accidentally. That would have put a swift end to my heroics. I guess the powers that be were looking out for me at the time.
Then, as the rattle of wooden wheels reached deafening levels, I sprung into action. Like a pubescent Spiderman, I shot my goo all over the wooden panels above me and was immediately splattered against the undercarriage as I yanked myself up. For several tense moments, I waited for the gait of the lead ponies to change, for someone to ask what that noise was. But nobody slowed, nobody noticed, and nobody cared. I nearly let out a sigh of relief. Still, the job wasn’t over yet.
Minutes passed, with nothing but the road rolling by beneath me to distract me from the disturbing scenarios playing out in my mind. There wasn’t even the chatter of the townsfolk to listen to. I could hear activity, but everypony clammed up the moment they saw this carriage coming down the street. It grated on my already frazzled nerves like a cheese grater on cello strings.
It felt like ages passed while the carriage rattled on. Eventually, the road below me changed from dirt to cobble, leading me to believe we were nearing our destination. Every slight deceleration sent a spike of impatience through me. Was Autumn making moves while they were in the carriage? I couldn’t hear or feel anything coming from inside, but in a world of magic, that didn’t necessarily mean much. The doubt festered until I couldn’t bear it any longer. I just knew that slimebag couldn’t keep his filthy, sweaty hooves off of her. Not only that, he was also giving actual slimes like myself a bad rep. I would not stand for it. But before I could even start searching for a way in, the carriage came to a stop.
The footman – or would it be hoofstallion? – hopped down from his seat and once more rolled out the carpet for His Majestic Pain in the Ass. I saw Autumn’s hooves hit the carpet first, followed by Starlight’s, albeit much more reluctantly.
“Follow me, my dear,” I heard him simper. “My summer home will be a much more comfortable place for us to… negotiate.”
I felt fury rumble through me. This sleazeball had absolutely no shame. I drizzled down onto the cobble like a deluge of honey, and slid over to the edge of the shadow cast by the carriage. Autumn was leading Starlight towards a posh, Tudor-style house with a neatly kept lawn, surrounded by a low hedgerow and a wrought-iron fence. Between me and the walls was a lot of open space. The hedge was the only cover I could realistically reach, and my best bet to get there was under the carpet.
I cautiously peered up at the footman pony standing outside the carriage door, just to my right. He had his nose pointed towards the sky, every bit as refined and pompous as his employer. But that also meant he wasn’t looking at the ground. This was my chance. Autumn’s back was to me and the servant’s head was so far up his own ass that I could skate by unnoticed. Not to mention, the carpet was completely unguarded.
I gingerly lifted the edge of the carpet. While the rest of me could go flat, my eyes could not. Unfortunately, that meant there would be a crease rolling down the carpet, but between that and being spotted outright, I preferred the one that gave me options. I swam forward like a carpet shark, tailing my prey through a channel of wool. I focused on the clomp of the hooves before me, trailing just behind. Then, when the crack of daylight opened up before me, I darted into the hedge.
I froze. Autumn had noticed me. Or, at least, he had heard the bushes rustling. Mind racing, I did the only thing I could think of: I whistled an improvised bird call.
Immediately, Autumn gave a dismissive huff, then turned back to the carriage.
“Swift, when you are done parking the carriage, go call on the exterminator. It seems the winged rats are getting uppity again, and I will not be woken up at an unholy hour by their screeching.”
“Of course, sir.”
“Good. Let’s go.”
I could only watch him saunter down the path with disgust and disbelief.
Just when I thought I couldn’t possibly hate him more…
Behind me, I heard the servant, Swift, drag the carpet back onto the carriage and give a sharp whistle. The Aryan-looking driver ponies cantered off, pulling the carriage away. I grinned. No more witnesses.
I morphed back into snake-form and slithered over the lawn. Starlight and Autumn had reached the front door. Then, as Autumn unlocked it and stepped over the threshold, I made my move, slipping inside behind him. I hugged the trim and surged into the corner of the room, keeping my eyes on Autumn. In doing so, I found myself taking cover behind a potted ficus. From there, as soon as I knew he wasn’t looking my way, I stuck to the corner and rolled up the wall like a caterpillar on crack.
I turned to watch from my vantage point on the ceiling. Already, Autumn was putting the moves on Starlight. He ran his hooves along her back, sliding her saddlebags to the floor, and copping more than a feel in the process. It made me wish I had blood, just so I could boil it. Starlight was doing her best to ignore the advances, but she wouldn’t be able to hold out forever. I had to think of a way to get rid of him.
I couldn’t hurt him, of course. That would cast too much suspicion on Starlight. And I didn’t have the kind of information needed to blackmail him. There was only one thing I could think to do.
Now, as I mentioned before, back on Earth I wanted to be a character designer. To you ponies, that basically means I would create models of monster and characters for stories told with a kind of magic we call “digital media”. But I didn’t want to just make the same tired and cliched creatures that inundated the entertainment market.
You see, I am a great fan of artists like H.R. Giger, Zdzisław Beksiński, Junji Ito, and Mark Powell. Those names probably mean little to you, but to humans, they are among the most terrifying of artists, able to draw, paint, and sculpt monstrosities from the depths of our most primal nightmares. And I loved them for it. I studied them extensively, practicing with 3D animation to bring their creations to life. My dream was to one day join their ranks, to unleash thrilling, terrifying visions upon the world. Obviously, I can’t accomplish this in the way I first intended any more. However, I have been gifted with a unique opportunity since coming to Equestria.
I can become the nightmares.
My face twisted with wicked glee when I realized what I could do with my new form. I even had my first victim… er, volunteer, already lined up.
Autumn had steered Starlight up to the second floor while I was considering my options. I scooted across the ceiling, not wanting to lose sight of them. Just in time, too, because Autumn opened up the first door he came to on the second floor. I just got my eyes past the door frame when he kicked it shut behind him.
I had to seal my own mouth shut to keep myself from yelping in surprise. Autumn chuckled lecherously, jamming his snout into the crook of Starlight’s throat, a forelegs draped across her withers.
“Well, well. Seems someone might be getting into the mood, herself.”
Starlight gave a barely audible whimper. She hadn’t made any other sounds. Autumn had mistaken my surprised noise as Starlight’s. It was somehow simultaneously a relief and an outrage. My mind churned with revenge fantasies as I pulled the rest of my mass in through the top of the door.
I couldn’t waste any more time. Autumn could take things a step too far at any moment. I didn’t have many options for what I could become, given my size and color, so I went with the first thing off the top of my head.
I rolled directly over head, condensing myself as I did. When I was certain I was above the debauched little debutante, I hung by a strand of goo and hurriedly sculpted myself into my chosen form. I decided to hit him with a beherit.
For the unenlightened, ‘beherit’ is the name given to objects in an Earth-manga called “Berserk”. They are hoof-sized stone fetishes in the shape of an egg, with human facial features scattered across them in Picasso-esque disarray. In the story, when activated, the features would rearrange themselves into a distressed human face and cry blood. However, being that I was green and had none of the beherit’s other abilities, that would not be threatening enough. I would have to make it a bit more Lovecraftian.
As soon as I was the correct shape and density, I opened the eye closest to the ground and aimed at loverboy’s head. He was too busy licking his way up Starlight’s neck. Starlight strained her face away from him and towards the ceiling, lip quivering in disgust and defeat. Just then, she opened her eyes, as though desperate to find anything else to concentrate on than her own thoughts. She was greeted by me, and she couldn’t hold back the surprised gasp.
I chose that moment to strike.
I swung forward a bit and released, dropping towards Autumn’s head like a bomber’s payload. My aim was true. I landed on his head with a resounding thunk, then clattered to the floor.
“Ow, what the bu-?! What is this thing?”
Vicious satisfaction surged through me.
Phase one complete. Let’s see how you like phase two, you festering sack of shit.
Slowly, I rearranged my features until I had a human face, devoid of emotion, as if asleep. I waited a moment, then my eyes sprang open, startling both of the room’s occupants. I locked onto Autumn’s eyes, then gave him my most Cheshire of smiles. His eyes widened and he took a step back.
That’s right asshole. Now get a load of this!
I split my mouth wider than an anaconda’s, and a brace of thick, slimy, foot-long tentacles erupted out of it. I whipped them around like they were blindly groping for the nearest orifice to fill. Autumn shrieked and backed away. I hollowed out the tentacles a bit, allowing them to grow another foot, and began dragging myself towards him.
Autumn, coward that he was, ran behind Starlight, putting her between himself and the encroaching horror.
“Help me, Starlight!”
I wilted internally, seeing the terror in her eyes. She apparently hadn’t quite put two and two together. Or worse, she had, and was terrified anyway. Whichever it was, she tried blasting me with magic, to no avail.
The phantom of my guts twisted to think of what I was about to do. It was the only way to throw Autumn off of our trail, though. I just hoped Starlight would forgive me.
For effect, I spastically rolled my eyes before fixing them on her. I whipped out with my tentacles, latching onto the back of her neck and head, and dragged myself towards her. She continued firing at me until I got a tentacle around her horn. Autumn remained paralyzed where he stood.
Damn it, just run off already!
He did not. I struggled to keep my frustration from leaking into my expression. I had to maintain the act, or else it would all be for nothing.
I stepped it up a notch, wrapping tentacles around her muzzle, and stuffing a couple in her ears. The tears of despair leaking from her eyes nearly made me release her. But I couldn’t. Not if I wanted to keep Autumn from violating her.
Hoping to end this upsetting farce, I made a show of prying at her lips before yanking myself up to her face and devouring her muzzle. As soon as she couldn’t cry out, I whispered into her ears through the tentacles plugging them up.
“Keep struggling. We need Autumn to run away.”
Of course, she gasped, nearly getting a lungful of slime. I had to pretend to lose my grip for a moment, just so she could suck in a lungful of fresh air. Our eyes met and I could see understanding flash through hers. She redoubled her apparent efforts to pry me off, though there was no real force behind her motions. We rolled around on the four poster bed I had been too preoccupied to notice for a few seconds, putting on a show for Autumn. Then, Starlight made a gagging, choking noise, rolling her eyes back in her head and spasming violently before going limp. I looked over at Autumn. He stood stock still, a yellow puddle growing at his feet.
“Dammit, he’s still here,” I whispered into her ear again. “Sorry, but brace yourself. I’m dragging us off the bed.”
I detached a few of the tentacles from around Starlight’s head and gripped the edge of the bed. With a few tugs, she and I fell to the floor with a lifeless thud. My free tentacles slapped at the ground, dragging us menacingly towards Autumn.
Finally, he let out an ear-piercing shriek and galloped out of the room. I heard the clomp of hoofsteps on the stairs, across the foyer, and the slam of the front door. I detached from Starlight like she was on fire, falling to the floor with a wet slap. She gasped and coughed, able to breathe freely at last.
“I am so, so sorry,” I pleaded, prostrating myself before her. “It’s just you were in trouble, and he was a big douche, and I wasn’t sure what else to do, and-”
“E- Eric, it’s okay,” Starlight coughed. “It’s just… well, what in Tartarus was that?”
“Ah, well, just a little something I came up with.”
“Ok, well… just warn me next time you’re going to do something like that.”
“I didn’t really have a chance, and… well, it was probably a lot more convincing, right?
Starlight chuckled weakly. “Y- Yeah, I guess it was.”
I was happy to see the relieved grin on her face. But then that relieved grin scrunched up into a look of confusion.
“Hey, do you smell that?” She asked.
But then I heard what she was smelling. Ever so faintly, I heard a crackling outside the room.
I skated over to the door and yanked it open. Starlight followed me out onto the landing, and we were greeted with a blood-chilling sight.
Almost the entire front end of the house had gone up in flames. I just stared, slack-jawed. I made someone ‘nope’ so hard that they decided the best course of action was to set fire to their house. On the one hand, I was incredibly proud of myself. On the other hand, our lives were now in danger. Not extreme danger, but danger nonetheless.
“Uh, we should probably get out of here.”
“Oh no! My bags!”
Starlight galloped down the stairs towards the inferno. I raced after her to find her dragging her saddlebags away by one pouch, the other crackling angrily with flame. The one with the book in it. I felt my heart drop into my stomach, though I have neither. In a world like this, books are just about priceless. And I doubted someone in her position would be able to afford a book. So, if she borrowed it, what would happen to her?
Without thinking, I launched myself onto the bag, hoping to smother the flame. I immediately felt my underside starting to boil, and I howled noiselessly. I forced myself to hold the bag until I could bear it no longer, then sloshed away, falling into an agonized puddle. Thankfully, when I looked back, the saddlebags weren’t even smoldering. There was dead slime covering the one side, of course, but beggars can’t be choosers. Starlight was staring at me with an odd look, and, to be honest, it made me a little uncomfortable.
“Is the book alright?” I asked, trying to deflect the unidentified emotion she was levelling at me.
“Oh! Uh…” She turned back to the bag, shaking herself free of whatever thoughts were running wild in her head. Worriedly gnawing at her lip, she slowly withdrew the book from her saddlebag, slime sloughing off onto the floor. My phantom heart fell even further into the abyss of my old human form. A dark splotch peeked out from the cover as she retrieved it, growing into a large scorch mark.
She nearly tore the book open, flipping through the pages. As she did, her brow knitted together, and her lips grew into a quivering smile.
“It’s… it’s okay. The pages are fine. It’s just the cover.”
A loud crack from behind us reminded us of the growing peril of our situation.
“Celebrate later. Outside now,” I advised.
Escaping the house wasn’t difficult. Apparently, Autumn only stopped to throw a lantern at the front door before running down the street, screaming bloody murder. I knew that, because it was on the lips of every pony we passed. I heard it all from my vantage point in Starlight’s ruined saddlebag. Luckily, I didn’t have to worry about leaking out, since I could control my own surface tension.
The walk itself was much more tense. When I peeked out at her from beneath the flap, Starlight was constantly shifting her eyes. I could feel the stiffness of her gait. I worried for her; she had already endured more than her fair share of hardships, even in just the past couple of days. That she was holding it together so well was nothing short of a miracle.
The more I watched, the more I began to understand her life. As we made our way back into the poorer parts of town, I came to a disheartening conclusion: these ponies were living in the Dark Ages. All around us were signs of misery and squalor. The streets were muddy and unkempt. While I could tell everyone was trying to keep up with the maintenance, the houses were all in various states of disrepair. The ponies that wore clothes at all wore tattered rags and patchwork cloaks. They at least had decent hygiene, but not one could claim not to have bags under their eyes. Very few ponies smiled, and those that did were either sauced out of their gourds or had their expressions tinged with desperation or resignation.
Meanwhile, the fat merchants and politicians lounged in their vistas and two-story mansions not a few miles away. It was enough to make me want to chew through metal, and with my current form that was a distinct possibility.
Starlight's home was little different from any of the other buildings we passed. It could barely be called a house by my standards, but it was probably luxurious for someone of her station. She lived in a little, two-story cottage, just under a thousand square feet, and made entirely of wood. It even had slate shingles. Outside, an empty laundry line connected to the side of the house swayed in the evening breeze. A pile of various gardening and farming implements were stacked up next to the front door, which had become irreparably scuffed by heavy use.
“Oh, thank goodness,” Starlight muttered under her breath.
“What, were you expecting it to be burned down or something?” I whispered from inside her saddle bags.
“Well no, but…” She paused, considering her next words. “Oh, never mind. Let’s just get inside before we run into any more trouble.”
She pushed open the door and we clomped inside.
The inside was just as Eighteenth Century England as the outside. The bottom floor was all one room, kitchen and living area nearly indistinguishable from one another. The stairs to the second floor took up most of the left-hand wall, starting just left of the entryway and continuing back to create a small room, likely a half-bathroom, in the back. Across from the bathroom was the kitchen, which was adjacent to the living area. Between the two sat a small dining set, flanked by a couch against the right wall, a rocking chair against the front wall, and a small set of shelves between the two.
The occupant of the couch would have surprised me, had I not already become jaded to this world.
She was a light aquamarine grey, with an indigo mane and opal highlights. She didn’t have a horn, so it seemed likely that she wasn’t Starlight’s sister, at least as far as I knew. But what did catch my attention were the bandages around her eyes. This must be the ‘invalid’ Autumn mentioned.
“I’m home, Rara,” Starlight announced.
“Starlight!” Rara exclaimed in a raspy voice, her head turning in our direction. “How did your gathering trip go?”
“Huh? Oh! The gathering trip! Right.” Starlight floundered unconvincingly. “It, um… It went… well! It went well. I got a, uh, a lot of good materials. I think Preceptor Rubeo will be… pleased.”
Rara frowned slightly. “You don’t sound very sure of that.”
“What? No, I’m just… I’m just tired. It was a long hike. In fact, I think I might go lie down for a bit.”
“Alright,” Rara conceded, sounding like a piece of torn sandpaper. “Well, dinner should be ready soon.”
“Sure thing,” Starlight acknowledged, disengaging from the conversation.
Starlight stopped in her tracks. “Hm?”
“You know you can trust us if you ever need someone to talk to, right?”
“R- Right, of course. I’ll be back down in a bit, Rara.”
Before Rara could pry further, Starlight retreated upstairs. She passed the door across from the stairs’ summit and entered the one adjacent, in the corner of the L-shaped hall. From there, she flopped directly onto the bed. I was almost surprised I didn’t hear the crunch of straw. Then again, I was also pretty sure Starlight belonged to the closest thing this world had to a middle class.
I oozed out of the burned hole in her bags, onto the pathetic, lumpy thing she called her mattress.
“So, this is home, huh?” I whispered, cautious of alerting Rara of my presence. Starlight groaned into her pillow. “Right… and, uh, who was that downstairs?”
This time she turned her head to me.
“That’s Coloratura, one of my roommates. We usually just call her Rara.”
“Is she, uh… you know…?”
“Blind? Yes… among other things,” she mumbled bitterly, shoving her face back into the pillow. “She’s… one of the reasons I tried summoning the Smooze in the first place.”
“Oh?” I pried.
“Yeah… Listen, can we talk about this later? I’m too tired to think right now.”
“Sure. You nap. I’m sure I’ll find something to occupy myself.”
“Just… don’t go anywhere. I don’t want Night Glider stumbling upon you by accident.”
I wasn’t sure who Night Glider was, but I had an inkling. “Stay away from your roommates, got it.”
Starlight snorted in exhausted exasperation, then lay back down and attempted to drift off. In the meantime, I decided I would look around her room a bit. It might help me to glean a little more about my situation, or at least about my new employer.
Her room was a spartan affair. Apart from her bed, Starlight had a simple dresser, a desk with a candle in a bronze chamberstick, a sturdy wooden chair, and a short bookshelf, and that’s it. There was almost nothing in the way of decoration. A window looked out onto the streets below, but I knew I shouldn’t be poking my head out carelessly, so I kept away.
Instead, I moved over to the shelves. Starlight had a small collection of common, but amusing items. Shells, a few small boxes and drawstring pouches, some colorful dried leaves and maple seed pods, a few shiny rocks, and three books. All of the books were written in an alphabet I couldn’t read, but that didn’t concern me too much. If they spoke English, these ponies’ written language should be fairly simple to pick up. It was actually miraculous that I could understand them at all.
I migrated over to the desk. It, too, was mostly empty. A stack of paper in the corner, weighed down by another polished stone, a quill and inkwell, a box of fine sand, the chamberstick, with a short candle in it, and a small lump of sealing wax. An idea formed in my head.
I prepared a sheet of paper and, with some trepidation, pulled out the quill. I wondered if ponies had yet to discover graphite. Regardless, I had experimented with calligraphy quite a bit in my sophomore year, so I wasn’t entirely hopeless with a nib. I scraped away the excess ink and began to write, organizing all the information I had gathered thus far onto paper. I had a feeling I would need notes before all was said and done.
Chapter 4 - So, who wants the first kick in the teeth?
I sat back with a sigh, looking over my handiwork. I had filled the entire page, front and back, with careful scribbles. I suspected Starlight didn’t have much access to paper, so I used all the real estate a single page allowed. It contained everything I had observed about my new world, from the political to the scientific. The only blank space I left was a list of seven bullet points, only one of which held an entry: Ruby Drops of Sangria.
Pitiful, really. All plots to overthrow the government would have to wait; I needed to know more about my enemy before I could even begin to plan. The majority of my notes were questions I needed to know the answer to, and a few that were only wants. I would have to look into helping Starlight procure more paper, just so I could have somewhere to put my thoughts.
Although, admittedly, I may have drawn more than a few detailed doodles of me violently disemboweling Autumn during the latter half of Starlight’s nap.
An hour passed before I heard a snorted gasp, and looked back to see that Starlight had startled herself awake. With a groan, she rolled out of bed, shaking herself awake. Then she spotted me at her writing desk, and her eyes widened.
“Eric!” She whispered harshly. “Were you-?”
“Relax,” I reassured, waving the quill over my ‘head’, “I only used one page.”
“Oh, nononono!” She galloped over to the desk. “Eric, these are supremely expens-!”
Starlight paused mid-reproach, looking down at the words of my notes curiously.
“Eric? What language is that?”
“The language of the Smooze,” I bragged. True, it was only English, but it’s not like anyone could call me out on it.
“Really?” She whispered, almost reverently, her earlier righteous fury forgotten. She scanned the paper carefully, devouring every symbol. But then she turned the page over.
“Is… is this…?”
“Ah… yeah. I ran out of things to write and got bored.”
“But this isn’t… You can’t just…” She floundered. “Eric, what if somepony found this?”
She had a point, but I couldn’t allow myself to show weakness.
“It’s fine, I’ll just hide it somewhere no one will ever find it.”
“And where would that be?” She asked sarcastically.
“In the attic, obviously. Maybe tucked in between a joist and a rafter.”
She considered it for a moment, then shook her head.
“No, that won’t work. Even if we hid the ladder, any pegasus could just fly up there and find it. Besides, it’s empty, so there’s nowhere to hide even a single sheet of paper. No, it needs to be incinerated.”
“Woah woah woah, wait, hold on!” I panicked, scrambling to protect the paper from her magic. “I can erase the doodles, alright? See? Watch.”
I slapped a hand down on one of the doodles and let myself permeate the first few layers of the paper, then lightly acidified my hand. With a gentle scrubbing motion, I was able to agitate the ink particles enough to pull them away from the page. A few seconds later, that part of the paper was nearly as good as new, if slightly discolored.
A few minutes later, I had removed all my seditious scribbles.
“There, see? Like it never happened.”
Starlight studied the paper carefully, then sighed almost disappointedly when she couldn’t find any traces of my revenge fantasy.
“Alright, fine, but what if somepony is able to translate it? What does it say?”
“Starlight, nobody will be able to translate it.”
“The Masters might be able to.”
“Well, I wrote it in code!” I cried out, lying out of sheer exasperation.
Suddenly, we heard Coloratura- You know what? I’m just gonna keep calling her Rara. It’s a lot easier. Anyway, we heard Rara’s muffled voice calling up from downstairs. Starlight trotted over and cracked the door open.
“Are you okay up there?” Her voice leaked into the room through the crack. “I heard raised voices. Is somepony up there with you?”
“Oh! N- no, I’m fine, I was just… having a bad dream is all. No one else is here.”
“Alright, well, in that case, dinner’s ready now, if you’re up for it.”
“Thanks, I’ll be down in a second.”
Starlight shut the door and stalked over to the desk. “We’ll talk about this later,” she whispered harshly, snatching up the paper and stuffing it into her good saddlebag.
She made for the door, and I—rebellion welling up within me—covertly followed.
Starlight trotted briskly down the stairs, unaware of my insubordination. I, still wary of prying eyes from the outside, stayed upstairs, crawling along the stairwell wall until I reached a vantage point at the top corner of the doorway to the downstairs. From there, I could watch everything.
Starlight trotted over to the dining table, where Rara sat. The table was set for three, with a steaming, lidded pot in the center. Rara’s ears flicked towards the sound of Starlight’s hoofsteps, and she offered a smile in the direction of the noise.
“There you are, Starlight,” she rasped. “How are you feeling?”
“Ah, b- better, thank you,” Starlight stammered, taking a seat. “How about you? How were things while I was gone?”
“Good! I was able to do the dishes, wash and hang the laundry, and even scrub the floors.”
She accentuated each accomplishment by gesturing in the direction of each chore site with her snout. It was quite intriguing to see. Apparently, she had been blind long enough that she knew the layout of the cottage by heart. An impressive feat, whether she had been born blind or not.
Starlight beamed at her roommate.
“That’s great, Rara! Thank you. And… what about Night Glider?”
“Ah… she’s… throwing herself into her work again. She should be home soon, though.”
Just then, I heard the whoosh of displaced air and the clomp of hooves on hard packed earth from the front of the house.
“Ah, speak of the devil.”
The door creaked open, admitting an exhausted, azure pegasus with a windswept white mane.
“I’m home,” she announced with a tired huff. She unwrapped a ragged, crocheted scarf and hung it on a wooden rack near the door, then shuffled over to the table and slumped into one of the low seats.
“Welcome home, Night,” Starlight greeted. “How was work?”
Night Glider huffed, ladling out stew for herself, before doing the same for her roommates. “Same old horse apples. Melon Mist has his head so far up the Baron’s ass that the rest of us have to clean up after him. Today, the idiot queued up a batch of cumulonimbus at the factory for the coming shower, rather than nimbostratus. So, okay, great, let’s have a thunderstorm instead of rain. Naturally, it was up to the rest of us to recycle the whole batch.”
“That’s terrible,” Rara sympathized. “Are you going to be finished in time?”
“Yeah, we’ll make it, as long as Mist doesn’t screw up again too badly. So how about you? How was your day?”
“I finished my chores today,” she said, beaming.
“And you, Starlight?” Night Glider asked between bites, cerulean eyes locked on the soup she was wolfing down. “Get anything good?”
“Ah, well…” She shifted her eyes between her roommates, then let out a defeated sigh. “Not really, no.”
“What?” Rara quietly exclaimed. “But you told me you gathered a lot.”
“I… lied. I just didn’t want you to worry.”
Night Glider looked Starlight in the eyes for the first time since she entered the door.
“Star, what happened?”
“Th- there was a slime that attacked, and-”
“Starlight! What did I tell you about being careful?!”
“Night, I can explain-”
“No!” Night shouted, slamming the table with her hoof. “Damn it all, Starlight, we can’t afford to lose you! What would happen if you were to get hurt out there, or worse? I might be a fast flyer, but it doesn’t matter if I can’t find you!”
“I can take care of myself!”
“Oh? And what happens when you come back empty-hoofed one time too many? If Rubeo brings it to Lady Ruby Drops’ attention that his supplies are drying up, what then? We can’t heal you like you did for-”
“Night Glider!” Starlight shouted meaningfully, looking over at Rara.
Night Glider immediately clammed up, ears folding back against her head. She glanced over as well. Rara looked upset, but not terribly so.
“You guys, it’s okay,” Rara reassured with a rough whisper. “I’ve… I’ve come to terms with my injuries, really. You don’t need to worry about me.”
For a while, they continued eating in silence, Starlight and Night Glider with their spoons, and Rara eating directly from the bowl. As this dragged on, a concerned frown developed on Night Glider’s face. Finally, she decided to break the silence.
“Hey, Rara, could you pass the pepper? It’s on your left.”
Rara froze mid-bite. Starlight was about to say something, but Night Glider silenced her with a hoof.
“I… Can’t Starlight pass it?”
Night Glider fiercely shook her head at Starlight.
“Ah, um… sorry, Rara, but my magic hasn’t quite recovered from my trip, and the pepper is… out of my reach? W- would you mind, terribly?”
However, rather than feeling around for the pepper shaker with her hoof, like I expected, she started sniffing it out. Night Glider shared a meaningful look with Starlight, and I saw comprehension dawn on Starlight’s face. I, too, began to understand Night Glider’s game. It occured to me that I hadn’t seen Rara’s forehooves the entire time I had been in their house—they had been tucked underneath her when she was sitting on the couch. Rara eventually found the pepper when she sneezed. She grabbed the shaker with her teeth, struggling to pass it without further contamination.
“Um… Rara?” Starlight started. “Why didn’t you pass the pepper with your hooves?”
“I… I didn’t want to knock anything over.”
“Rara,” Night Glider intoned sternly, “show us your hooves.”
“N- no, it’s okay. I… I’m just… practicing.”
Shamefaced, Rara lifted her front hooves up and set them on the table. Both of her hooves were also wrapped in bandages, but these had the telltale, faint red splotches of fresh blood. Starlight gasped, and Night Glider cried out.
“What the hay, Rara?! Did you cut yourself trying to make dinner?”
“W- well, maybe, but-”
“Oh, for pony’s sake! If you were having that much trouble, you should have waited for one of us to get home.”
“I… I just wanted to have something ready for when you two returned…”
“Rara,” Starlight soothed, “we know you want to feel useful, but it shouldn’t come at the cost of your health and safety.”
“I know,” Rara sniffled. Her teary, torn voice stabbed at my immaterial heart. “I just… You two do so much for me, and I… I do so little in return.”
With an exchanged glance, Starlight and Night Glider got up and moved to either side of Rara, enclosing her in a comforting hug.
“We understand,” Starlight sympathized. “Just remember that we’re here because we want to be. Because we’re your friends. And we always will be, no matter what. You don’t have to feel like you need to do as much as us. Just do what you can, and we’ll be plenty grateful.”
As I watched them comfort each other, I came to understand something about the human psyche. So, here’s the thing: every human—barring psychopaths—is born with a visceral, internal sense of justice. Whenever we perceive a situation to be unfair, we become indignant or angry. But, truthfully, there’s no such thing as justice. The world isn’t fair, and it’s not supposed to be. Justice is something we impose on the world, because it doesn’t exist in nature. There wasn’t going to be a change unless somebody stood up and made it happen. Starlight tried to stand up, and I was the result. I had some big shoes to fill, but the righteous fury building in me made me want to grow feet, just so I could hammer at them until they swelled up to size.
Fortunately, any further thoughts of self-mutilation were chased from my mind when Starlight pulled away from the hug.
“Alright girls, as much as I would rather stay, I need to go report in at the Academy. Rubeo will be…”—she gave a weary sigh—“…expecting me to report in, before the night is out.”
The other two turned to face her, anxiety plain on their faces.
“Are you sure?” Rara fretted. “You can’t just… leave it until tomorrow?”
Starlight shook her head.
“No, the sooner I get there, the less trouble I’ll be in. I really only stopped in to eat before meeting with him. Speaking of…” She picked up her bowl. “I’m going to finish this upstairs, while I get ready and think up an excuse to give him.”
That was my cue to retreat. I climbed back up to the ceiling and trailed just behind Starlight as she ascended the stairs. Following her back into her room unnoticed was as simple as it had been when I followed her into Autumn’s ‘study’.
She whispered my name, understandably unable to find me. I dropped down from the ceiling above the door with a squelch. Starlight jumped and whipped around, but let out a sigh of relief when she saw it was just me.
“Eric, you startled me,” she murmured. “What were you doing up there?”
“Well, it wouldn’t do for me to be sitting out in plain sight if somebody else were to walk in here, would it?” I responded in a similarly subtle tone. It was a bluff, yes, but a believable one.
“Ah, right.” She trotted over and set the bowl down in front of me. “Here, I saved you some soup.”
“Oh! Uh, thank you.”
For a moment, I could only stare at her as she trotted over to her saddlebags, to sift through them. Given my ability to consume pretty much anything, I hadn’t expected her to consider my nutritional needs. It was actually quite heartwarming. Unfortunately, without a sense of smell, I couldn’t appreciate the sentiment as thoroughly as I would have liked.
Looking into the bowl, I noticed it was still half-full. I turned a questioning glance to Starlight’s back, since she was preoccupied. I was certain she needed the food far more than I; after nearly eighteen hours, I still hadn’t felt the ‘hunger’ pangs I had earlier.
Wordlessly, I rolled over to Starlight and set the bowl in front of her. Taken aback, she turned to face me, scrutinizing my expression. I headed her off before she could make any assumptions.
“Eat,” I commanded. “You need it more than I do. I’m not even hungry right now.”
“Are you sure?” She fretted. “It’s been nearly a whole day since you… ate.”
“Sure I’m sure,” I asserted. “Besides, until I figure out how I can turn my sense of smell back on, I won’t be able to fully appreciate Rara’s cooking.”
Starlight watched me for any sign of regret, then took the bowl back and quickly finished it off, betraying her hunger. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to segue into the question that had been burning at the back of my mind since I entered her home. I waited until she had finished to field my next question.
“So, just what happened to Rara for her to end up like that, anyway?”
Starlight stiffened for a moment, before letting go of a sigh, and continuing to examine the contents of her saddlebags.
“Well, like I said before, she’s one of the reasons I decided on a plan as drastic as summoning the Smooze. You see, Rara used to be a servant at Baron Stiff Breeze’s mansion. One day a little over a year ago, his wife, Winter Breeze, decided that she didn’t like the way her husband was looking at Rara. So, she reported to Lady Ruby Drops that Rara was making eyes at her husband.
“At first, I thought that Lady Rain would see through her deception. At that point, I’d never actually seen her in person. So I went to see the public trial, full of hope. But the reality was much harsher.”
Starlight moved over to her bed and climbed up onto it, to sit with her front hooves in her lap. I followed to sit before her on the floor.
“Lady Rain holds court during the night. She tells the public that it’s because she considers night to be the most beautiful time of day. But really, it’s because it’s much easier to conceal her dealings under the cover of darkness and sleep.
“The trial started much as I expected it to, with the Baroness making her accusations, although there was barely anypony in the audience. She had this disgustingly smug grin on her face, like she knew it didn’t matter one bit what she told the Lady. The matter had already been settled. The rest of us just didn’t know it yet.
“Rara was never given the chance to defend herself. When it came time for her to give her side of the story, Lady Rain just looks at her, then asks her one question:
“‘How often do you sing?’”
I frowned in confusion, and Starlight smiled sadly.
“Rara used to have a beautiful singing voice. She would sing every morning as the sun rose. Everypony in town loved to hear her songs. Although unsure what that had to with the trial, Rara still confirmed as much to Lady Rain.”
“The Lady only muttered to herself, ‘So, it was you.’
“Immediately after, she pronounced judgement. She sentenced Rara to… to have her eyes… burned out. With hot coals. ‘For adulterous advances and subversive plotting,’ she claimed. She… Lady Rain carried out the punishment right then and there. The screams… I can still remember…”
Starlight put a hoof over her mouth, turning green around the gills.
“Then… then, when she was done, she said, ‘You were hollering quite a bit, there. Here, you must be parched.’ And she summoned a… a kettle of boiling water.”
My expression must have gone from disgusted to horrified, because she seemed to decide I need not be told what Lady Rain did with the water. I really didn’t.
“Rara was so close to dying. If I had hesitated even a few seconds before healing her, she might not have survived, let alone still been able to speak.”
“And that’s what led you to summoning the Smooze,” I stated. Surely, that was the end of this terrible story.
“…No. But it’s what led to the final straw.”
Starlight took a deep, shuddering breath, and continued.
“After I had brought Rara back to our cottage and made sure she had been stabilized, I returned to the court to confront the Baroness and appeal to Lady Rain for mercy. But when I got there, the Baroness had already returned home. So, I marched up to Lady Rain, intent on making her understand the full extent of her mistake.”
Starlight scoffed bitterly, continuing with a sneer. “Because she couldn’t possibly be as cruel as I had just witnessed. It went against everything I had ever been told.
“I know now that she was going to kill me that night, after I confronted her in her courtroom. She told me to follow her, and I did, telling myself that I was seeing my plan through. But, really, I knew deep down that I didn’t have a choice.
“As we walked, she rattled off some horse apples about ‘the greater good’ and ‘keeping order.’ It wasn’t until she led me into the dungeons beneath her keep that I began to understand just how royally mulched I was. But then, as we walked… something caught my eye.”
Starlight went silent. The seconds dragged on into minutes. I couldn’t tell if she was just thinking about how to phrase her thoughts, or if she was getting lost in the labyrinthine atrocities of her past. But I dared not speak up, even if only to reassure her. If I broke the silence, I feared I might also break her conviction in telling this story. And I needed to know, to truly understand this hellhole of a world.
After what felt like hours, she resumed.
“When I was young, I had a friend. His name was Sunburst. We were almost inseparable. I… If things had been different… we might have gotten married one day.”
Here, her voice cracked, and pit of dread began to grow in my core, sucking out what little warmth I felt from the room.
“Sunburst went to Silverglow at a young age. He always had natural talent for magic. For years, we regularly sent each other letters, even visited each other on occasion. As the years went on, it seemed like Sunburst grew busier and busier, and our visits fewer and fewer. Then, one day, the letters… changed. Like it wasn’t really Sunburst writing anymore. He stopped visiting me altogether. The days when I got letters grew further apart… until one day, even the letters stopped coming. I… I studied to get into Silverglow, to find out what happened.”
Starlight bit back a sudden sob. The tears that had been pooling behind her eyes broke through the dam, sending rivulets down her cheeks. My heart leapt up into my throat.
“Th- that night, in Lady Ruby’s dungeon, I saw him in one of the cells. He looked… dead. There was no l- life in his eyes, though I c- could see him breathing. Then… Then Lady Rain noticed. Her face became this… hideous smile. She d- dragged Sunburst out of the cell with her magic. Our eyes…”
For a moment, it seemed like she was going to be unable to continue speaking. Her shoulders shook with each strangled sob, biting down on her hoof so that her roommates downstairs wouldn’t hear. But then she hiccuped, and the words came tumbling out.
“Our eyes met, and- and he recognized me, and it was like the last bits of hope he had left suddenly evaporated. And he was crying. And then she started beating him for crying without permission… and… and…”
At this point, she was sobbing openly into her hooves. I felt dirty, like I was the one who had caused her grief. Irrational, I know, but I just hated that I had thought it was a good idea to ask her to dredge up these painful memories. So, I did the only thing I could think of, and pulled myself up beside her on the bed. As I did, I condensed my outer surface into a tough, pliable, and—most importantly—dry skin, so I wouldn’t accidentally get stuck to her blanket. This shrunk me down to the size of a navel orange, but there really wasn’t another option. I had to comfort her, somehow.
I couldn’t even reach the elbow of her foreleg at my height, and her hooves were busy wiping the tears away from her eyes and covering up her sniffles, hiccups, and sobs. I didn’t really have any appropriate angles of approach, so I went with the one that seemed the least offensive. I placed my acorn-sized hands on the outside of her thigh and gently stroked, like a parent might the head of their crying child.
Starlight gasped and twitched, looking down at me with eyes like dinner plates. Then, I was suddenly swept up and crushed. It took me a moment to realize that she was hugging me. As she attempted to squeeze the life out of a creature with no internal organs, I felt all my reservations about helping this poor mare being swept out the window. The absolute desperation with which she clung to me, and the violence of her grief; those kinds of things can’t be faked, even by the best of method actors.
At the time, my mind was telling me two things. One, I was not nearly as prepared for this situation as I tried to convince myself I was. And two, that wasn’t going to stop me from kicking in the teeth of everyone who tried to get in the way of my eventual coup. Like bile in my throat, I could feel the rising urge to stomp up to this Ruby Drops and stuff her head-first into a septic tank, where she belonged.
Of course, my premature insurrection was put on hold by reality stepping in.
“Hey Starlight, are you okay in there?” Night Glider called through the door.
Starlight gasped and unceremoniously shoved me beneath her covers. I heard the creak of hinges and the light clop of hooves as Night Glider entered the room. There was a great deal of sniffles and rustling as Starlight rushed to cover up her distress.
“Y- yeah, I’m fine! Why do you ask?” Her voice cracked and wavered like a balsa wood bridge.
Night Glider didn’t say anything at first, but I could hear the disbelief in her silence.
“This is about Sunburst, isn’t it?”
Starlight whimpered pitifully. There was a shuffling of hooves, and I was nearly squashed by Night Glider sitting down next to Starlight. For a long time, they didn’t say anything. Night Glider just leaned into Starlight, rubbing her back and giving her a shoulder to cry on. Then, Night Glider gently cleared her throat.
“I won’t say everything will turn out alright. We both know that much. But, I mean, there’s always the possibility that, in a decade or so, Lady Rain will get bored of tormenting you two and let him go. Or, at the very least, put him out of his misery.”
I winced. How fucked up do things have to be for the thought ‘maybe he’ll die’ to be considered comforting? Of course, Starlight only cried harder. She continued to cry for almost an hour. Once her sobbing had petered down to sporadic hiccups, Night Glider separated from the embrace.
“Are you going to be okay?”
Starlight nodded. “Y- yeah, I’ll be alright. Thanks.”
“No problem, Star. Chin up, okay? We’ll help you through this.”
“Right.” She sniffed thoroughly, clearing her nose. “Okay, I really do have to get going.”
“Alright. See you downstairs.”
I waited until I could hear Night Glider’s muted hoofsteps heading downstairs to exit my hiding place. Starlight was rubbing her snout with a fetlock, so I gave her a reassuring pat on the knee. I then dropped to the floor, let go of the tension keeping me small and solid, and rolled over to her saddlebags. As I was filtering through the hole in the burned bag, Starlight called out to me.
“Eric, what are you doing?”
“Getting into position, obviously. What, you didn’t think I was going to let you go alone, did you?”
“What?! No, you can’t! I just got you somewhere safe! You can’t go outside. What if someone finds you?”
“Then we’ll deal with it. Look, I’m not letting you out of my sights. We’re in this thing together, for better or worse.”
Starlight huffed shakily.
“I… You’re right. I have no room to complain.”
Starlight took a deep breath, then got to her hooves.
The walk to the school was uneventful. Most ponies were already at home, getting ready for bed. The few that weren’t paid us no mind. The only sounds were the rustling of leaves in the evening breeze and Starlight’s hooves on the hard-packed earth. Night air filtered into my saddlebag and chilled me to my core. I was almost relieved when we reached the school.
Silverglow itself was just as cold and foreboding as its Victorian silhouette. The halls were dark and empty, sparsely decorated with tapestries and curtains in deep blues and purples, and the occasional somber portrait, illuminated by wrought iron torch sconces. We crossed paths with even fewer ponies inside. Before I could even consider defacing one of those portraits for looking at us funny, we were standing before a deep red door.
Starlight took a few deep breaths, trying to steady her nerves. I patted her side through the bag, to remind her that I would be there for her. She took heart in the gesture, and a moment later I heard the knock of her hoof on the door.
“Enter,” a wizened male voice called out from inside.
Starlight pushed open the door, and we entered the office. From what I could see in between the cracks, it was meticulously well-kept. A wooden workbench spanned the length of the far wall, housing a wide array of scientific equipment underneath a handful of west-facing windows. Books and sheafs of paper were stacked neatly between the various experiments, and completely covered the low island counter in the center of the room. Bookshelves lined the wall next to us, packed full of various sets of tomes and single titles, along with the occasional curio. A massive chalkboard took up a majority of the north wall, apart from a small door that led into a small side room, probably a stockroom. A heavy writing desk sat pushed up against the southern wall, next to a large, clockwork model of what had to be this planet’s solar system.
Sitting at the writing desk was a mature unicorn stallion with a brick red coat and a dusty grey mane and tail. A long, tidy beard hung from his muzzle, ending in a little outward swoop. He wore some kind of black robes, like an old professor’s gown made to fit a horse. As we neared, he turned to observe his guest, fixing Starlight with deep brown eyes.
“Ah, Miss Glimmer, you have finally returned. Certainly took your time getting from the town gates to my office.” He got up and moved over to the workbench. “Now then, let’s have a look at what you brought for me today, hm?”
Starlight shuffled on her hooves. “Er, well… Preceptor Rubeo, the thing is-”
“Come now, Starlight, I haven’t got all night. If you have questions about something, we can address them as we go.”
“But, Preceptor, I-”
“No buts! I’m a busy stallion, Starlight, now hurry up and come over here.”
Starlight stayed where she was, gaze fixed on her hooves. Rubeo watched her with a growing frown.
“Ms. Glimmer, I don’t know what you’re playing at, but-”
“I don’t have anything!”
Rubeo went silent, eyes growing dark.
“I- I was attacked, and there was a slime, and it- it got into my bags, and-”
Rubeo advanced on Starlight, expression growing angrier with every word. Finally, he interrupted her, voice quivering with barely suppressed fury.
“So, what you are telling me… is that you failed to bring back even a single thing of value… even after I made it absolutely clear that our Lady Rain would be visiting soon…?”
Starlight didn’t respond, staring shamefaced at the floor.
There was a sudden, loud crack, and Starlight’s head jerked to the side, as Rubeo’s hoof on the opposite side of my saddlebag entered my vision. I was stunned. He had just slapped her across the face.
“Idiot foal! Did I not explicitly tell you never to return from a gathering trip without something to show for it? Do you have holes in your brain, or are you deliberately trying to draw the Lady’s attention? Because this is how you get expelled, or worse!”
By now, Rubeo was pacing harshly in front of Starlight. I bristled, feeling the fury wash over my mind like burning static. I watched him like a hawk, preparing to whip him in the eyes with a tentacle at the first sign of further violence.
“And think about how that reflects on me as a teacher! I don’t know about you, but I’d rather my commitment to the Lady’s education system not be questioned! Not to mention the rumors I’ve been hearing about what happened at the Baron’s summer home today. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were trying to put yourself on the Inquisition’s watchlist! Therefore, tomorrow, you will go back out there and show everypony that you aren’t insurrectionary by gathering thirty bundles of witchwood bark, or you will not come back at all! Now get your sorry flank in the stockroom, and I had better see all of the incoming materials—that you didn’t provide—processed by morning, or you will wish it had been timberwolves, and not just a simple slime!”
Rubeo stalked out of the room, slamming the door behind him with his telekinesis. I glared claymores at his back, wishing that looks kill, or at least severely maim. Then, a soft sound caught my attention: the patter of water on hardwood. I turned around to find that Starlight was crying again. I bit my tongue, unable to put my jumble of thoughts into words. Instead, I opened the hole a crack, extended out a dry, hollow tendril, and stroked her mane. She sniffled and leaned into my touch. Eventually, I gathered up the presence of mind to say something.
“I’m… I’m sorry, Starlight. If I had been paying better attention, I would have been able to stop him. But I promise, if he tries that again, I will flay him within an inch of his life.”
“Oh, no, please don’t! H- he means well. And it… it really was my fault. If I had been thinking, I would have gathered at least something while we were making our way back from the cairn. I just… I didn’t remember that Lady Rain is coming. I was so obsessed with letting you out… W- what are we going to do?”
I gritted my teeth. “Don’t worry, we’ll think of something. If nothing else, we can just stay away until she leaves, and claim that it took longer than expected to gather his witchwood. Besides, I need time to figure out the logistics of how to stuff thirty bundles of sticks up a crotchety old stallion’s ass.”
Starlight had to stifle a surprised laugh.
“Eric, don’t. We’re already in enough hot water, as it is.”
“Alright, fine… Can I at least put spiders in his desk?”
“No!” She denied as she wiped away the tears. Still, as exasperated as she tried to sound, I could detect a hint of amusement.
“Okay, okay! Well, let’s get started, then. Just tell me what you need me to do.”
The next couple hours were spent at the small table in the stockroom, processing large quantities of a few dozen different types of flora, liquids, minerals, and animal parts. Much of it required heavy use of a mortar and pestle. I helped out where I could, using the spare mortar set and cleaning out the mortars much more thoroughly than any amount of of water could. Some things needed to be boiled and distilled, so we put those in the alembic while we worked on other materials. Other things didn’t require much preparation, and could quickly be sorted into the shelves and iceboxes. For the few things that required a complicated series of tasks to be properly preserved, I just helped in whatever way I could, watching her work and following her instructions. While we worked, I made sure the bruise forming on her cheek was kept iced, letting my anger simmer under the surface.
As I was pouring the last of the mandrake root juice—our final chore—into its phial, a quiet snore drifted by me from behind. I turned to see Starlight asleep, head on her hooves. I smiled, though I felt a heavy weight in the pit of my imaginary stomach. Gently, I made sure to remove all residue of our work from her hooves and the surrounding desk. Didn’t want her to inhale something toxic as she slept, after all. Then, as quietly as I could, I set everything in order, shelving the ingredients, cleaning out the various pieces of equipment, and putting them all back in their places.
No sooner had I set down the last beaker, than I heard the door to the office open. Panicked, I quickly hid under one of the shelves, watching the door to the stockroom.
Rubeo emerged from the doorframe, scowling. I tensed up, white hot rage burning behind my eyes. If he so much as moved towards Starlight, I was ready to leap out and strangle him.
Instead, he looked at her, glanced at the spot on the floor where the unprocessed materials had sat previously, then back at her. The scowl on his face softened, and he let out an exasperated sigh.
“Foolish girl,” he muttered to himself. His horn lit up and I coiled up like a spring. There was a sudden flash, and I launched myself towards his head. But then, for a split second, I caught a glimpse of what he had conjured, and was somehow able to stop myself mid-attack. I whipped a tendril back the way I came and yanked myself back to my hiding place, like a bungee jumper on the rebound.
I looked back in time to see a blanket fluttering down onto Starlight’s sleeping form. Rubeo stood in the doorway, watching her for a moment. Then, as he turned to leave, he whispered shakily to her over his shoulder.
“I… I’m sorry, young Starlight. Please, try to stay out of trouble. For your own sake, if not mine. I have lost far too many students already… Far, far too many…”
I watched him leave, incredulity battling with relief and confusion. I wasn’t sure what to make of this turn of events. On the one hand, I wanted to hate his guts for hitting Starlight. But here, I had just been presented with evidence that he regretted losing his temper, and that he actually cared for her well-being. It sent my mind spinning. Quite abruptly, I no longer had a clear target for my anger.
Frustrated, I rolled out from under the shelves as soon as I heard the door had shut once more, and climbed up the table leg. Starlight was still fast asleep, with a slight smile on her lips. I frowned harder, fussing with the blanket and a few strands of her mane that had fallen across her face. I’d have to test just how sorry he truly was later. For now, I needed to let off some steam.
I dropped off the desk and rolled over to the far end of the stockroom, where a small window was set high in the stone wall, looking out on the town. A short, slurping climb later, and I could glare at all the ant-like pony figures down below. I found myself wondering how their world had become so screwed up. Surely somebody had tried to make a stand against their oppressors by now. So what had happened to them?
Honestly, I could guess what had happened, but I just didn’t know the details. And I wasn’t sure I wanted to, with what I learned about Rara. Still, it made me livid to think that creatures as adorable as you ponies could have anything similar to the Dark Ages of human history. All I needed now was an overzealous religious sect, and it would be like I was living in 12th century Europe.
Except for those few ponies that lived in their own personal Renaissance. I was acutely reminded of the ruling class when that abomination of a carriage rolled into view, casting mocking glints at me in the light of the Noble District’s streetlamps. As I watched Autumn’s status symbol travel down the streets, likely towards the Breeze’s villa, an idea insinuated itself into my subconscious. A horrible, awful, wonderful idea. All my acidic frustration, my feelings of impotence and helplessness, it all came to a head. I couldn’t really harm anybody, not without drawing attention to myself.
But some good, old-fashioned vandalism of private property probably wouldn’t go amiss.
I looked back at Starlight, to make sure she was asleep, then back out at the carriage. I followed it with my eyes, until it drove up a long, empty road to a grand mansion, and pulled into a wide, multi-vehicle coach house just off the main building. I grinned wickedly. Finally, I had an outlet for all this piss and vinegar building up in me.
To prepare for my return, I hurried out into the main office and grabbed a piece of chalk, bringing it back to the window. I popped the latch, leaned over the edge, and drew a nice, thick circle on the stone beneath the glass. My re-entry point identified, I set the chalk on the window ledge and slithered out into the night.
Eager and impatient to set out, and less than concerned about the consequences of gravity on my boneless, bloodless form, I decided to run another experiment. I coiled up, just like I had done not fifteen minutes prior. After a few steadying breaths—not that they really did anything for me—I let go of my inhibitions and sprang away from the wall. For a split second, my mind reeled with the sensation of the free-fall. But I gathered my wits and pulled up memories of videos of flying snakes.
In moments, I was not just falling, but falling with style. I glided, albeit at a fairly steep angle, but from my height, I still manage to clear the school’s outer wall. I landed with a splat amid some barrels, just outside what looked like a general store. After a quick look back to make sure I could still see my mark under the window from this distance, I rolled off in the direction of the Breeze estate.
The trip was fairly easy. I wasn’t terribly concerned with disguising myself while under the cover of night, and I didn’t come across many guards. Those that did cross my path stuck to the main streets, and weren’t really on the lookout for rat-sized creatures. It took me about an hour to reach the edge of the estate, but there was no doubt in my mind when I had found it.
The outer fence stretched at least a hundred yards in either direction, from where I sat. It was a large, intricate, wrought-iron number, backed by a large hedgerow; a scaled up version of the one outside the summer house. Of course, for someone of my physicality, it posed about as much of a hindrance as a colonnade.
I rolled up their front lawn with about as much difficulty as an afternoon stroll. No one was looking out of the mansion’s darkened windows. The few private security guards patrolling the grounds appeared to be as alert as narcoleptic koalas. I had to restrain myself from laughing out loud at the absolute ease with which I penetrated their quote-unquote “defenses”. I was able to roll right up to the coach house and provoke nary a twitch of the guards’ ears. Slipping inside the garage-like building proved only slightly more difficult than the approach. The doors were locked, but the building was anything but airtight. After a few minutes of searching, I was able to find a hole large enough for me to slip my incompressible eyeballs through, followed by the rest of my amorphous form.
Once I had infiltrated the building, I had a brief look around. Apart from my target, there was one other carriage inside; a trim, dark-colored coach, much more tastefully designed than that gilded monstrosity of Autumn’s. Most likely his father’s vehicle, I reasoned, but no less of a valid target for it. There were also a few tool cabinets, as well as a plethora of woodworking facilities; lathes, sawhorses, and the like. I rolled over to the cabinets, and gently opened them up. The first was all tools, while the second held nails, screws, and other fixings, as well as a few unlabeled jars, likely linseed oil and perhaps some other finishes. I grinned evilly when I found some jars of what could only be turpentine. My next lucky finds were the barrels of pine tar stacked next to the cabinets. I found one with a loose lid and pried it open. I set aside a few tools for my own purposes, then took all the tools that I feasibly could and dumped them into the pine tar, one by one.
A petty move, perhaps, but nothing I was doing tonight could really be considered anything but.
I pried open one of the other barrels and dumped the nails, screws, and a few other tools that I wasn’t able to fit into the first. Then I replaced the lids and closed the cabinets. Those small mischiefs achieved, I turned to my main objective.
The possibilities swarmed in my head. Should I just saw the axles in half? Dump turpentine all over them? Perhaps I could find a dead raccoon, throw it inside and seal the doors shut. Fire would take care of them for good, but it was too noticeable. Could I somehow get the wood to rot?
As I sat there contemplating, that same little voice that gave me the idea to vandalize these vehicles in the first place spoke up once more.
Perhaps I should peel off the gold leaf first. No sense in letting it go to waste.
The more I stared at Autumn’s gilded monstrosity, the more it felt like my mouth was watering. Just like it had when I first saw the stupid thing. It was perplexing, but I couldn’t find a reason not to. I was already planning on ruining these status symbols, why not take a little something for myself?
In a trance, I rolled over to Autumn’s carriage, and placed a hand on one of the gilded wheels. It appeared my body had automatically decided that this was the best course of action, because moments later, the gold began to flake off and drift towards the center of my mass. The oddest sensation washed over me, the closest thing to taste I had experienced since awakening in my new form. It was like the subtle sweetness of dark chocolate, the spicy tang of cajun barbeque, and the rib-sticking goodness of down-home Southern comfort foods, all rolled into one. I couldn’t get enough. Before I knew it, I had stripped the one wheel bare and started on the rest of the paneling.
An untold amount of time later, I reemerged into the land of the conscious, reeling like a drunkard—though in truth, I felt less like I was drunk and more like I had downed a gallon of water too quickly after severe dehydration. I looked up to find that I had gobbled up every last bit of gold I could find on both of the vehicles. There wasn’t nearly as much on the Baron’s carriage, but that hadn’t mattered to me at all. Fortunately, I’d at least had the presence of mind to penetrate the grain of the carriages’ axles, worrying the fibers apart until they splintered. Unfortunately, however, that was about as far as I would get.
Through my bleary haze, I recognized shouting and the barking of dogs. Large dogs. And they were coming towards the coach house.
I cast about haphazardly, trying to remember where I had come in. The voices were at the door. I could hear the rattle of a key in a padlock, and the scratch of canine claws on wood. I found a hole and squeezed through it; a markedly more difficult task than it had been before. The coach house doors rattled open, right as I flopped out into the night.
I rolled across the lawn as fast as my RPMs would allow. Somehow I felt faster than I had been earlier. The fence loomed up, also not quite as high as I remembered. Still, I could hear the dogs barking behind me, so I didn’t stop to contemplate.
The trip back to the school was a blur. I travelled across the rooftops for a majority of it, trying not to leave a trail for the dogs to follow. It seemed to work, because I could hear them falling further and further behind, until they were nothing more than a siren in the distance. Almost without warning, I found myself scaling the walls of the school, watching the sky above me lightening with the coming dawn. Despite the fog in my mind, I found the chalk circle, and absorbed it as I pried open the window and climbed through.
The stockroom was the same as I had left it. Starlight still slumbered at the prep table, and nothing had been moved or replaced. Sleepily, I crawled into Starlight’s saddlebag, and nestled in, feeling fatigue for the first time in days.
After what felt like only a few minutes, I was startled awake by the saddlebag being jostled around. I heard a feminine, strained grunt, that I eventually recognized as Starlight’s voice. The morning light suddenly flooded into the bag.
“Sheesh, Eric, what did you put in he-”
Starlight choked up. I stared up at her, my eyes dry and bloodshot—or at least whatever passed for blood in this form—trying to figure out why she was interrupting my nap.
“Starlight, I’m trying to sleep. Is it important?”
“No! You’ve gotten bigger! You’re filling up my saddlebag!”
Some primal part of my brain was suspiciously pleased by the words coming out of her mouth, but the part that was enjoying finally having fallen asleep after more than twenty-four hours awake bulldozed that feeling aside with a hearty helping of annoyance. I growled and rolled out of the bag. Apparently, I wasn’t going to be getting any more sleep today, so instead, I’d have to settle for giving her the business.
“Starlight, I was slee-”
My business ground to a screeching halt when I got a good look at Starlight. Somehow, during the night, she had shrunk ever so slightly. Or, at least, she looked smaller. As I found myself looking around, everything appeared just a little bit different from what I was expecting. It was as if somebody had come in while I was sleeping and replaced everything in the room with marginally scaled-down replicas.
Or had I actually gotten bigger?
“Uhhh… Ah! Uh, um, q- quick, mirror! I need a mirror!”
Starlight looked around, but couldn’t find anything. She galloped out into the main room, leaving me to freak out internally. Had I really grown? Maybe I just had bad gas? Was I becoming unstable, like, at a molecular level? What the fuck was happening? The possibilities raced through my mind, each more unhelpful than the last.
Finally, after countless agonizing seconds, Starlight skidded back into the storage room, a small vanity mirror in her magical grasp.
“Here, use this!”
She set the mirror down on the ground before me, and I was whisked into view.
It took me a minute of staring at my reflection, but I eventually realized I was most certainly larger. The only tell was my eyes, which appeared to have shrunk, relative to the rest of my jello-like face. Now, instead of being the size of a grapefruit that had been flung at the ground, I was more like a watermelon. I confirmed it by dragging her saddlebags over to the mirror. Sure enough, I had outgrown them overnight. I would have to compress my mass if I wanted to fit.
I stared, flabbergasted, at my reflection. Was it because I had finally digested all the material I’d consumed? No, any trace of matter had dissolved long before I even arrived in Ponyville. I didn’t feel ill or uncomfortable, either, since I already knew that this body could still feel pain and nausea. So what changed last night? I went out after Starlight had fallen asleep, snuck into the Breeze’s estate, found their coach house, and then…
“What was that?”
“Starlight, I know this is a long shot, but do you have any gold that you wouldn’t mind losing?”
“Uh… You’re kidding, right? The closest I’ve ever gotten to anything made of gold is Autumn’s carriage.”
Then, her eyes narrowed as she began analyzing my expression.
“Why do you ask? Does this have something to do with your sudden growth?”
“I, uh… No?”
“You don’t sound too sure about that.”
Honestly, she was going to find out sooner or later, so I figured it would probably be easiest to do damage control now, rather than risk a panic attack later.
“Okay, so I may have snuck into the Breeze estate, and it’s possible that Autumn’s carriage has been vandalized-”
“Tell me you didn’t…”
“-so, there might be a correlation between my sudden growth and the recent removal of the gold leaf on his carriage, yes.”
Starlight sat heavily on the ground and draped her forelegs across her muzzle, covering her eyes, and groaned like she was dying of dysentery.
“Eric, what were you thinking?!” She all but screamed. “Are you trying to get caught?”
“No, just doing what I can to bring the fight to the bourgeoisie.”
“You can’t do that! We don’t even have a plan!”
“Well, then, let’s get some information so that we can make a plan.”
Before she could continue, Starlight was cut off by the sound of the door to the hallway opening. Panicked, she tried picking me up, only to realize she couldn’t get a grip on me with her magic. Instead, she took the other option, and scooped me up with her saddlebags, whispering harshly for me to shrink down. I complied, condensing myself down until I was cantaloupe sized and the consistency of Play-Doh.
“Starlight! Get up!” Rubeo demanded, striding into the back room just as she set the saddlebags back down.
“H- Here, sir!” She exclaimed. “I’m awake!”
I peeked out of the gap between the flap and the pouch to see Rubeo looking over at Starlight, clearly not expecting her to have woken already.
“Hmph. So it would seem.” He made a show of looking over at the processing table, and all the empty trays stacked up beside it. “I see you were able to finish processing the materials, at least. I trust they were put away correctly?”
“Yes, sir, every one.”
“Good. Then you may stop by the mess hall before you go back out.” He pulled a folded letter with a wax seal out of his robes before handing it to Starlight. “From what I have seen this morning, you will likely need this if you wish to be allowed through the gates. Now, trot along. Daylight is burning.”
He turned to walk back into the main lab, but then stopped to call back over his shoulder, “Remember, child: thirty bundles of witchwood bark and no less.”
Starlight hesitated, then followed Rubeo out into the lab, out of my view.
“Um, Preceptor, if I may-?”
“Yes, child, what is it?” He grumbled impatiently.
“Th- there’s a book I need to re-checkout from the library-”
“Then do so on your way to the mess. You don’t my writ of passage to enter the library.”
“Well, I… I would, but I-”
“For the love of Camellia, girl, spit it out.”
“The book. It’s… I need to…”
I heard Rubeo let loose a very put-upon sigh.
“Bring it here.”
Starlight trotted back into the stockroom just long enough to swap the letter for the book in her saddlebags. Unwilling to leave her alone with Rubeo and bad news, I climbed out and rolled over to the doorway, edging around the corner just enough to see Starlight and a sliver of Rubeo’s face.
“Um, it’s this one. S- So, you see, I have to fix it before-”
“Oh for goodness’ sake, child. So, I guess it’s true, then; Autumn Breeze brought you into his summer home and it somehow caught aflame.”
“Well… Not ‘somehow’, sir. Autumn threw a lit lantern at the front door.”
“And why would he do that?”
“Well, he was… intoxicated, sir. He tried to… to have his way with me, but fell unconscious in the middle of the attempt. I ended up pinned beneath him. But then, no more than a half-hour later, he woke up screaming about monsters, and ran from the room. I was stunned, and I’m not sure how long I lay there. It took the smell of something burning to bring me to my hooves. My saddlebags were nearly consumed in the fire. I had to leave by the back door, the front of the house was burning so badly.”
She lied admirably, crafting a story that was much more believable than the truth. I had to wonder how long she’d been working on that one. Rubeo studied her for a moment, then snorted distastefully.
“Well, for what it’s worth, I believe you. King knows that that colt has a weakness for the sauce. Not that the fact will do you much good if the brat decides you’ve seen too much. If I were you, Starlight, I would lay low for a few days. Take your time gathering witchwood today. Stay out of the public eye when you return. Give him time to drink the memory away, and pray that he doesn’t go to Lady Ruby when she comes in the next few days. Now, let me see the book.”
Starlight passed the book into Rubeo’s magical grasp. Then, after intently studying the state of its cover and pages, his horn flared brightly. I could only stare in awe as the burn began to recede, as though the VHS of Time was being rewound before my eyes. In mere seconds, the cover was restored to pristine condition.
When not a trace of fire damage was left to be seen, the glow subsided, and Rubeo opened his eyes with a weary sigh.
“There. Try to keep it away from open flames this time.”
“I… I will, Preceptor. Thank you.”
I saw her legs shift and decided it was time to abort my snoopery. My intuition was proven correct when I heard her hoofsteps trot around the corner, just as I was clambering back inside my allotted saddlebag. I know she saw me, because her hoofsteps faltered for a split second.
A moment later, I felt the floor drop out from beneath me, and I smacked into Starlight’s side. I settled into the familiar jostle of her gait, and we were off once more.
“Well, I’ll be off, then,” Starlight said. I couldn’t see Rubeo’s reaction, but I could hear it well enough.
“Yes, fine. No need to hurry back. But do return with my ingredients this time. Fates help you, should you come back empty-hooved while Lady Drops is visiting.” His words may have been a bit terse, but I could sense none of his earlier vitriol. If anything, it sounded like he was trying his hardest not to let his concern slip into his words.
“Of course, Preceptor,” Starlight assured with a bow, “and thank you.”
“Be off with you!” He shouted, his concern even more pronounced with volume, although I suspected that wasn’t his intention.
Starlight trotted out of the lab, shutting the door gently behind her. We made it a few paces before she whispered to me.
“See? He isn’t all bad.”
I snorted derisively. “I’m still going to pay back that temper of his.”
Starlight didn’t say anything, but I could feel her self-satisfied smile through the bounce in her step. Worst of all, I was starting to understand why. The relationship between Starlight and Rubeo felt almost familial, like he was a grandfather to her, albeit one with a rotten temper. Thinking about the previous night still sent spasms of righteous fury along my jelly-like arms, but I knew, more than anything, that retaliation would not be received well by Starlight. With everything that had happened and everything I had learned, the feeling of helplessness was beginning to set in, and it was all I could do just to try and shake it.
Before I had time to process it, we had come to a stop, and I could hear Starlight talking to someone.
“-new the borrowing period on this book?”
“Hah, yes, I doubt there will be a problem there. Nopony pays as much heed to fairy tales and legends as you.”
The stallion spoke with such a pompous sneer that I had to get a look at his face, just to see if the reality fit the caricature in my mind. I moved one of my eyes down through the hole in the bag, made sure the coast was clear, then peered up from under the base of my cloth container.
We had arrived at the library while I was preoccupied, and—sure enough—the stallion sitting behind the desk couldn’t be any more pretentious if he tried. He might even give Autumn a run for his money, with all the frills and shiny, golden accoutrements on his royal blue waistcoat. I nearly salivated at the prospect of getting my grubby mitts on all those buttons and cufflinks. That was, of course, out of the question, no matter how badly he deserved a pimp slap. Still, with a school undoubtedly full of rich pricks, I had to wonder just how much jewelry might be lying around. Having it all suddenly go missing might not teach them any manners, but it would surely be a step towards righting the karmic imbalance.
Starlight cleared her throat. “Yes, well, I have a couple other books I’d like to borrow, so…”
“Fine, just be quick about it. I have more important things to do than foalsitting,” he griped, and kicked his rear hooves up on the desk. He then pulled an emery board out from somewhere under the desk and began filing his hooves. I gritted my teeth as Starlight walked us away, wishing I knew how to pick pockets.
A little more than an hour later, we were outside the city walls once again, two books and a decent breakfast heavier. It had been fairly simple to get out of the town, despite the derisive sneers aimed at Starlight in the campus and the sideways glances on the streets. The latter was likely because news traveled quickly on bored lips, but the former was much more aggravating. It seemed like no matter where she went in the school, elitist assholes were waiting around every corner to jeer at her and rub her snout in their affluence. By the time we left the school grounds, I had already begun planning such a midnight burglary spree that even Lupin the Third might have been impressed.
The trip through town hadn’t been much more relaxing, however. The guards were out patrolling en force, stopping random ponies in the street and searching them. I had to disguise myself as a head of cabbage several times, just to get out of the Noble’s District. The gate, especially, posed a challenge. The number of guards there had increased tenfold overnight, and the progress of the lines in and out of Ponyville had slowed to a snail’s pace. Each and every pony was being frisked like they were known smugglers, and the carts and wagons very nearly overturned before they were allowed through the gates. They had eyes in every direction, letting no patch of grass go unmonitored. We wouldn’t have made it through, were it not for Rubeo’s writ of passage.
But once we had made it out of sight of the wall, I was able to let go of the breath I hadn’t known I was holding in. Not that it really mattered. I couldn’t have suffocated myself if I tried. I clambered out of the saddlebag, revelling in the feeling of open air.
“Oh, thank sweet monkey Jesus,” I exhaled. “I was beginning to feel claustrophobic.”
“You think you had it bad?” Starlight chided. “I would’ve had a heart attack if one more guard had stopped us out of nowhere.”
“Well, no matter, we made it out without too much of a fuss, and that’s what counts.” I situated myself on her back and pulled out one of the books. “I’ve got some studying to do, so let me know if you need anything.”
Now, at first, I had intended to just look through the book for illustrations to entertain myself. To that end, I had lucked out with my first blind pick; it appeared to be a volume of myths and legends. But as I flipped through the pages, something strange happened. Occasionally, when I glimpsed one of the words, recognition would flash through my mind. I was even able to read a couple of sentences. And then, I came across something truly special.
By coincidence, I flipped to a full-page illustration of something that looked like a short, fat caterpillar. As I examined it closer, however, I noticed that the things I first assumed to be unusually vertical hairs or spines had arched windows, balconies, and parapeted walkways spanning the gaps. I took another look at it’s legs, and I found evidence of pistons and joints. Then, I noticed the tiny shapes of birds flying up from the tufts of what I mistook for moss.
It looked like a massive, mechanical fortress in the shape of a caterpillar.
Imaginary heart pounding, I turned to the block of text next to it, hoping to glean some small amount of information from the words I could understand. Instead, I was greeted with a page I could read as clearly as English.
HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE
During the Dark Era, many legends were spawned about the magically inclined disciples of the heretic, Starswirl the Bearded. While the focuses of these stories have either been debunked or positively identified—ponies like Clover the Clever, Mage Meadowbrook, Mistmane the Sorceress, and Stygian—a few remain unverified. The stories of Cosmo Howl are some of the more unbelievable.
According to stories from those times, Cosmo Howl—also known as the Tinkerer—was an earth pony engineer of prodigious talent, seduced away from the path of righteousness by Starswirl’s slanderous propaganda. He is said to have designed many of the weapons used against the Masters in the Equestrian Civil War, and even to have personally built some incredibly powerful artifacts. Most descriptions of these weapons are outlandish at best, and no evidence of their existence remains. But the most incredible of these tales describe his greatest weapon: his Moving Castle.
Tales are told of a massive fortress, many miles long, shaped like a vile centipede. It is claimed to have been used as a mobile command center for the Insurrectionist faction. Many conflicting accounts exist of the castle’s capabilities; claims that it could fly, that it could swim in the ocean like a fish, that its segments could rearrange themselves at a whim, that its destructive capabilities rivalled those of the Accursed Princesses, and some that it had no offensive capabilities at all, but instead a nigh-impregnable defense. Of course, not one of these stories has any basis in fact. Even so, all the old tales agree that Cosmo fled when Starswirl was defeated, though very few storytellers agree on where he fled to. However, the location most often referred to is the Southern Badlands.
King Argent has, of course, dismissed all of these claims as baseless rumors, that even if something had fled to the desert, he and the other Masters would have found it. Still, he reminds us that, should we come across anything that we might suspect to be a remnant of the War, it is our duty to report it to the proper authorities, for our own safety, if not that of our country’s.
Unfortunately, this has had the unintended side effect of attracting dozens of ponies daily to our fair capital, clutching at old cogs and scraps of metal, hoping to somehow garner the attention of our illustrious leaders with their—
After that, it just devolved into a bunch of political claptrap, so I stopped reading. However, two words stuck with me.
“Mmm?” She mumbled around a mouthful of bark. Apparently, she had found a witchwood tree while I was reading.
“Are the Southern Badlands very far from here?”
She frowned at me, questions tumbling around behind her eyes, and placed the bark strip on the ground.
“About a week south of here… why?”
I gave her my most wicked grin.
“I do believe I’ve discovered the first step in our long game.”
When I presented the page to her, I probably looked entirely too pleased with myself. Her only reaction was to raise an eyebrow. Naturally, I was a bit put-off by this.
“You do realize Howl’s Moving Castle is just a legend, right?”
It was my turn to be incredulous, so I turned it up to eleven with a smug grin.
“Oh? Then I suppose you’re just talking to a figment of your imagination right now, huh?”
She opened her mouth to retort, paused, then snapped it shut. “Alright, point taken.”
“I’m not saying we should pull up roots and go off frolicking into the desert. But, if my hunch is correct, we need to find a way to mount an expedition into the Badlands. Have you ever been there before?”
“No, I haven’t. Most of my life has been spent behind Ponyville’s walls. I can hardly even remember my own birth town.”
“Then we’ll either have to make our plans covertly, or trick someone into funding a trek out there.” I pondered our options for a moment. “Do you think you could convince the ol’ snotrag to conduct a research venture down south?”
Starlight grunted as she pulled another strip of bark off of the tree.
“Assuming that by ‘ol’ snotrag’, you mean my preceptor… it might be possible. We’d need to present him with a very compelling reason to journey out there.”
“Well then, we’ll have to either find one, or make one up.”
I continued to flip through the book for other items of interest, but I was only half paying attention. In my mind, I was already creating a hypothetical checklist of what I would need in order to effectively claim a legend.
First and foremost, I needed a disguise. I already knew I could change shape, so the most obvious choice would be to take the shape of a pony. With what I’d seen, my coloration was a non-issue; these ponies came in all the colors of the rainbow. All I needed was more mass. And for that, it appeared that I needed gold. A deficiency I was already planning on remedying.
Once I had a disguise, I could start recruiting allies. If I was to get this Moving Castle back up and running, I would need those with the skills and knowledge I lacked to complete repairs. For this, I needed information most of all: information of where the Moving Castle ended up, how to get it moving, whether or not there were multiple sections to the castle, and how long it could sustain a population living in it.
“What are you planning?”
“I’m planning to get swole.”
Starlight paused for a moment. “Get what?”
“Step one of my plan: I need to get big enough to blend in.”
“What do you mean big enough? How will you getting bigger help you to blend in?”
“Don’t worry about it. You’ll see what I mean when I’m done.”
“Eric, we can’t bring attention to ourselves! Especially now that Lady Ruby is coming.”
“I won’t. Nothing I’m planning will be traceable to you, I assure you.”
Starlight said nothing, but the way she shifted on her hooves spoke volumes.”
“Hey, no need to be nervous. You won’t be back in town for another couple days, right? So, while you’re gone, I’ll head back and enact my plan, giving you plausible deniability. Then, when you get back, I’ll meet you at your house, looking like a completely different pony.”
“But you don’t even look like a pony!”
She looked at me like I’d suddenly sprouted a horn and wings, and started calling myself a pretty pony princess, but then realization dawned on her. She gnawed on her lower lip for a moment, before turning back to me.
“Alright, just… whatever you’re planning, promise me you won’t hurt anypony.”
“… What if my plans involve Autumn?”
“Well, don’t hurt any innocent ponies, anyway.”
“Cross my heart and hope to die.”
“Die? Why on Equus would you hope to die?!”
In the face of her literal-minded concern, I blinked first.
“Is, uh… Is that not how it’s said around these parts?”
There are few times in life that killing can be considered a kindness, but Fluttershy was very close to discovering the end of the list.
As she dumped the prescribed amount of feed into cows troughs, she couldn’t help but look some of them in the eye. Every time she did, it broke her heart. Each and every one was dead to the world, and she understood why. Crammed flank to flank into rows upon rows of unyielding stalls of iron bars, barely able shuffle on their own hooves. Their udders were continuously connected to milking machines that siphoned away every drop they produced. They weren’t even allowed out of the stalls to sleep or relieve themselves. Workponies would come through periodically to shovel out the waste, but the smell lingered, burning Fluttershy’s nose. She wasn’t sure if the cows were even aware of the stench anymore.
She could only swallowed her misgivings. Lady Ruby owned her contract now. Fluttershy had been bought from Gold Standard nearly a week ago. While her indentured servitude to the whale-like alicorn had been anything but pleasant, she was quickly finding that the lecherous and possessive stallion was ever so slightly more preferable to to the soul-crushing misery of Ruby Rain’s “dairy farm”. But Fluttershy had no say in how things were managed. All she could do was keep her eyes down, follow orders, cry herself to sleep at night, and hope she would become numb to the pain eventually.
She dumped out the next portion of feed. For the briefest of moments, Fluttershy thought she heard a groan and a whimper. Terror gripped her heart. Had the ponies in the red plastic aprons come again, to take one of the cows through the double doors at the south end?
Heart pounding, she glanced around. Nopony else was around, not even the guardspony in the observation room on the second floor. But then her eye caught the cow next to her.
She was a newer cow. Even though she didn’t want to, Fluttershy remembered all the faces that came through, and this one hadn’t been here more than a few weeks. She was looking at the feed in her trough with barely disguised distress. Then Fluttershy heard another groan, and she realized that the cow’s stomachs were growling. The poor thing was hungry, and Fluttershy could tell why.
She was barely more than half the size of the other cows, probably a few years younger, too. She was still growing, and yet she was being given the same portions as all the rest. What’s more, her brown coat was marred by painful red welts, although her white underside was left mercifully untouched. The cow glanced up at Fluttershy with apprehensive green eyes, then quickly back down. Fluttershy realized that she hadn’t moved onto the next stall since giving the cow her portion.
Fluttershy bit her lip. She glanced back up at the observation room. Still empty. She looked all around the floor. Nopony in sight. With barely any internal debate and without looking, she reached over to her grain cart with a wing and scooped up some feed; barely any at all, really. Then, turning two-hundred seventy degrees back to the cart, she made a show of troweling up the next portion. As she did, her filled wing darted into the young cow’s trough and unfurled, dropping the feed in as quickly and secretly as she could manage.
The cow gasped, then looked up at Fluttershy with eyes as wide as saucers. Fluttershy glanced at her and gave her a brief, sad smile.
The doors at the north end crashed open with a resounding bang.
It was the voice Fluttershy feared most in the entire world. Her heart skittered around her rib cage, as if trying to find a place to hide. Fluttershy scrambled over to the grain cart, dumping the trowel in as did she so. She took up her spot next to the cart and stood ramrod straight, eyes locked forward. The young cow shoved her muzzle into the feed trough, quickly scarfing down as much food as she could.
Above the heads of the cows, all frozen in fear, a messy auburn bun bounced down the lines somehow reminiscent of a shark fin. Fluttershy broke out in a cold sweat, watching her worst nightmare draw closer, powerless to stop her. Time seemed to slow as the alicorn’s predatory gaze crept around the end of the stalls, crawling along Fluttershy’s neck.
“Well, well, what do we have here?” Ruby Drops purred, a cat with a cornered mouse. “If it isn’t my favorite new… employee.”
As Ruby prowled around behind her, Fluttershy’s skin prickled and her hairs stood on end. She swore she could feel Ruby breathing down her neck. Except, moments later, the alicorn walked back into her field of view nearly a yard away.
“Are you enjoying your new position, my dear? You should. You get to take care of all manner of dozy, disgusting animals. That is your talent, is it not? Debasing yourself before inferior creatures?
“I wonder, is it some misplaced sense of camaraderie, perhaps?” She sneered, stopping right in front of Fluttershy. Ruby then drew back, licking her upper lip with perverse glee. “Or could it be you have some even baser motive?”
Ruby resumed prowling around Fluttershy. “Oooh, yes, I can see it now. Poor thing. Cowards like you always have such difficulty attracting a mate. It’s sooo much easier to entice some dumb beast to have its way with you.”
Fluttershy had to stifle a yelp, as a bony weight suddenly bore down on her. Ruby stood over the smaller mare, uncomfortably close. Fluttershy’s throat tightened painfully.
“How does it feel,” Ruby hissed into her ear, grinding obscenely into the small of Fluttershy’s back, “to have a lesser being thrust into you? To feel it’s seed bla—”
Ruby suddenly went quiet, and Fluttershy’s heart nearly stopped. Had she done something wrong? Maybe—hopefully—Ruby had gotten bored of tormenting her already.
But then panic exploded in her gut, as Fluttershy felt a powerful magic grip her wing by the leading joint. The wing the she had used to sneak the extra feed. She tried to hold her wing closed, but Ruby would not be denied. Her joints popped and strained and her muscles burned, but fighting it was like trying to fight a machine. In moments, her wing was fully extended, and she felt Ruby prying her feathers apart, searching. For a moment, the pressure vanished.
Something passed in front of Fluttershy’s vision, and she felt the floor drop out from under her. Crumbs of feed, encased in Ruby’s sanguine aura, hovered tauntingly before them. The blood nearly drained from her body when Ruby gave a contemplative hum.
“Well, now, what’s this?”
Fluttershy felt Ruby lean forward, and the short fur of Ruby’s neck brushed against her cheek. Ruby sniffed Fluttershy’s mouth.
“Hmm… You weren’t taking feed for yourself, it seems. But that’s nothing new. You lack the spine to try something that bold. So then, why…?”
Fluttershy felt Ruby look around the aisle. Her eyes darted over to the new cow. This couldn’t be happening. It wouldn’t! She’d already eaten the extra feed, so she’d be safe.
But then, Fluttershy noticed something she had missed. A single, downy yellow feather, stuck to the young cow’s chin. She felt time slow to a crawl. Fluttershy had to warn her. She had to get the cow to notice.
But it was already too late. Ruby suddenly went still, then slowly—gloatingly—dismounted Fluttershy. She sauntered over to the young cow, who was staring at Ruby as if the alicorn were an entire pack of timber wolves. The look of fear transformed into open-mouthed horror when Ruby plucked the feather from her chin. Ruby chuckled, and the room seemed to grow twenty degrees colder.
“I see…” She whispered triumphantly, turning slowly to watch Fluttershy out of the corner of her eye. “Perhaps I was wrong about your… preferences.”
“You know,” Ruby jeered, “I was a bit short on my last shipment of meat. Perhaps I need a littlesomething to add to the next one.”
Suddenly, a knife—sharp as a winter midnight—appeared next to Ruby, floating in her aura. Fluttershy heard a gasp escape her mouth, even as she told herself not to make a sound. Before she could stop herself, a single word escaped her lips.
Ruby Drops went still as a statue. Then, slowly, menacingly, she turned her head to look fully at Fluttershy. Only the faintest of incredulous smiles appeared on her lips.
“What did you say?”
If Fluttershy had had anything in her bladder, it would have been trickling down her leg right then.
“Don’t what? Butcher this animal? As I said, I’m behind on my quota, and I have no use for livestock that might tempt certain employees. This one has already sealed her fate. Besides, I feel like I might be getting a little… rusty,” Ruby implied with a flourish of the knife. “I could use the practice.”
“That is, unless… you want to take a stab at it?” She added, smirking wickedly at Fluttershy.
Fluttershy’s pounding heart caught in her throat. “I… I don’t… I can’t—”
“Oh, come now, my dear. This is something you will have to learn eventually. Besides, wouldn’t you rather it be you to put this poor, pathetic beast out of my misery. Otherwise, I’ll have to do it myself. And you wouldn’t want to put me out, would you?”
Fluttershy stood frozen to the spot. Even while her blood had turned to ice, her mind raced. Guilt, fear, shame, and panic all ran amok, while indignation wailed at the injustice of it all. She didn’t want to hurt the poor cow. She had only been trying to help. But her indiscretion was going to cost the young newcomer her life. It was only a matter of how quickly and painlessly she would go.
Bile rose in her throat. Could she really do it? Could she really abandon her to Ruby’s whims? Fluttershy was the one who broke the rules, and yet the prisoner was the one to pay. It wasn’t fair. Nothing about this situation was fair. But she knew, deep down, that she wouldn’t be able to live with herself if she ran away now.
Fluttershy took one shaky step forward, then another. Ruby’s triumphant smirk grew with each step. Fluttershy’s felt a burning behind her eyes. Try as she might to contain it, the dam began to leak and hot tears trickled down her cheeks. Ruby only laughed.
“Come, let’s hurry along to the main event, shall we?”
With her magic, Ruby unlatched the bars across the young cow’s stall and shoved her out into the aisle. The cow was then forced to her stomach by an aura like a palette of bricks. Fluttershy took a shuddering breath as she came to a stop before her soon-to-be victim, but it devolved into a distressed hiccup. Ruby continued to cackle as she summoned up a stool to sit on.
“Take up your implement,” she commanded, levitating the knife over to Fluttershy, handle first. Fluttershy sat back and grasped the handle between her hooves, unwilling to put her mouth anywhere near the instrument of pain. She turned back to the young cow, and a spear was driven through the core of her resolve.
She was looking back at Fluttershy with pain and fear, yes, but also something much worse: understanding. Even gratefulness. Fluttershy choked on a sob.
“Now then, how will you proceed, I wonder?” Ruby purred. “Just don’t take too long. I may grow bored and decide to join in on the fun.”
Fluttershy thought, and thought hard. How would she do this? How could she possibly do this? It wasn’t right! But she couldn’t fight it. If she even so much as looked at Ruby the wrong way, it might be her on the chopping block. And despite the guilt and indignation eating away at her insides, there was a single truth that kept her from speaking out:
Even if she sacrificed herself, the young cow would be no better off.
Years ago, not long after she had discovered her special talent, a bird had flown into the closed window of her family’s home. Fluttershy had rushed outside to tend to it, but it had already passed away. She found out later that it had been flying fast enough to instantly break its neck.
The unbidden memory brought on another shuddering sob. She realized what she had to do. Shakily, she reared onto her hind hooves, holding the knife in the crook of her right fore-pastern. Her hooves raised into her line of sight almost mechanically, like someone else was moving her body for her. But there was no magical aura around her legs, just the sense that she was trying to dissociate herself from her reality.
Slowly, agonizingly, she brought the knife up behind the young cow’s head and placed the point against the base of her skull, her other hoof coming to rest on the pommel. The cow tensed up. A whimper escaped her throat. Somewhere seemingly far away. Fluttershy heard Ruby cackling. Through blurry vision, Fluttershy saw tears began to fall down the cow’s cheeks, and felt the heat and tingle throb sympathetically on her own. She took another shuddering breath and whispered to her victim, as the rest of the world drowned in silence.
“I’m s- so, so sorry.”
She lunged forward.
For a moment, her hooves were searing hot. But she didn’t come to a stop. Her hooves slipped and she fell forward onto the heaving body of the poor, wretched thing she had condemned to death. Panic squeezed her ribcage, threatening to burst her heart and crush her lungs. She scrambled up, desperate to remove herself from her grisly deed.
There was no blood.
There wasn’t even a knife. The young cow’s head whipped left and right, the same panic and confusion in her eyes. Sound came rushing back into Fluttershy’s ears, and with it, Ruby Drops laughing uproariously. Fluttershy looked up.
There—above and adjacent to Ruby’s laughter-wracked form—hovered the knife, immaculately clean and glittering cruelly in the cold incandescent light.
“Ha! Hahaha! You! You actually did it! Hahahaha!” Ruby rolled on the stool and clutched at her sides. “You really are a coward!”
Fluttershy’s skin suddenly felt like she had been dunked in arctic waters. The room spun around her head and her heart hammered in her ears. Between the sobbing and the horrified gasps, she could barely catch her breath. Her gorge steadily rose, until it could no longer be denied. Fluttershy turned just in time to keep the contents of her stomach from hitting anypony. As the laughter ringing in her ears intensified, so too did the shame burning away at the corners of her mind.
So distracted was she, that Fluttershy didn’t even notice the pony approaching down the aisles until he was right next to Ruby.
“My Lady,” the guard murmured, “your coach is prepared and ready to depart for Ponyville.”
Ruby’s laughter petered out until she was merely chuckling.
“Ha. Ha ha. Hooo. Oh my. Very well, let them know I’ll be out shortly.”
With a curt nod, the guard left them alone once more. Ruby turned to leer at Fluttershy with her damnable smile, sauntering over to her.
“Well, my dear, I hope you’ve learned a few lessons today. For example: you cannot defy me, no matter how hard you may try. But the one I want you to really ruminate on is this…”
Ruby leaned down to whisper into her ear.
“You can’t save them all.”
Ruby’s braided tail whipped across Fluttershy’s snout as she turned to walk away. Without looking, she picked up the young cow with her magic and unceremoniously tossed her back in her stall. As she did, she called back to Fluttershy over her shoulder.
“And clean up your mess. I don’t want your cowardice spoiling the milk.”
Fluttershy couldn’t even convince herself to move until Ruby had left the warehouse. But once she was alone, she stood shakily and moved towards the cleaning supply closet. Shame bowed her head, unable to even glance in the direction of the life she had almost taken.
If she had, she might have seen the sympathy in the young cow’s eyes.
Most of the rest of that day was taken up with trying to force the sudden burst of comprehension from earlier to remanifest. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get it to work again. Even the passage about Howl’s Moving Castle—the existence of which still has me convinced that pony naming conventions are some sort of big, cosmic pun, despite the vehement opposition of certain “intellectual” ponies—had devolved into illegible glyphs, interspersed with the occasional English word. Instead, I focused on helping Starlight out, browsing through the pictures in between bouts of labor.
The work was certainly just that: hard, mindless labor. Each bundle of witchwood bark required us to gather from three or four trees, so as not to take too much from any single trunk. The best bark stuck to the trees like dollar bills to a conservative’s wallet. Several times, I had to thoroughly probe the trees to find even a pinhole-sized fault to exploit. But we worked hard and the witchwood trees weren’t terribly uncommon, such that by late afternoon of the second day, we had gathered the assigned amount.
That evening, I helped Starlight forage up some edible plants and roots for a vegetable stew, and lit the campfire again, since she was magically exhausted. As she was eating, I decided it was time to move forward with my plans.
“I’m heading back to Ponyville tonight. It’s time.”
Starlight nearly choked on her stew, but remained silent for a time, even after regaining her composure.
“The longer I wait, the more likely it becomes that it will be connected to you.”
“Alright, just… promise you’ll be careful. I don’t know if I’ll be able to help you if you get caught.”
A couple hours and a solemn promise later, Starlight had fallen asleep on a bed of dry leaves we had collected. I made to leave, but concern held me back. I didn’t really want to leave her, but this couldn’t wait until she returned to town; that would defeat the purpose. Instead, I settled for a little surveillance. I wasn’t sure it would work at long distances, but all the same, I left a pea-sized blob of myself stuck to Starlight’s back, letting it settle into her coat. I felt slightly guilty, like I was wiping my snot-goblins off on her, but it was the only way I could feel some semblance of reassurance. Worries partially assuaged, I rolled silently out of camp.
Once I was out of earshot, I abandoned all pretense of stealth. The sooner I got back to town, the better. With a little experimentation, I learned I could increase the transparency of my goo. That way, I could suspend my eyes at the center of my mass and turn myself into a living Superball. I rolled faster and faster until it felt like I was moving at speeds generally reserved for stock car racers and certain species of freaky, blue hedgehog. Trees whipped past me at an alarming pace. However, the first one that I couldn’t quite turn fast enough to avoid taught me that high-speed impacts meant absolutely nothing to a being that could almost literally turn itself into rubber.
I would have laughed out loud when I ricocheted off the trunk, had I retained my vocal cords. Instead, I gleefully rebounded off of a few trees before remembering my purpose. As I continued back towards town, I realized I didn’t have to worry so much about avoiding obstacles.
The moon had barely moved in the sky by the time the walls of Ponyville were in my sight. I looked down at the town like I would a moldy piece of bread. There was disgust for the state of things, yes, but there was potential, too. All it needed was the right catalyst. Tonight would be my first step in becoming that catalyst. Perhaps someday soon, I would be able to begin working on a social penicillin.
The guard had nearly been doubled, but I also had the advantage of darkness. The light breeze rustling the grass wasn’t unwelcome either. I doubted even the sharp-eyed guard from before would have an easy time spotting me. As I rolled down the hill, I used the motion to roll out my body like an unshaped pretzel. It was time to don the Verdant Snake guise once more.
Shut up! I think it’s a cool name.
Anyway, I finished morphing into my snake disguise just as I reached the bottom of the hill. I crested the next small rise cautiously, gauging whether my little stunt had been noticed at all. I saw no evidence that an alarm had been raised, nor any undue attention directed my way. I grinned—a move that likely would have deeply unsettled any onlookers, had there been any—and slithered forward.
I slipped past the guard so easily, I almost cried. The gate guards were positioned too far forward, sitting directly before the gate, rather than just behind it. I was able to slip around the inside of the arch without even needing a distraction. Navigating the backstreets of Ponyville once more allowed me to slip past the patrolling guards with ease. All in all, I had reached the walls of Silverglow Academy without breaking a sweat. Not that I could sweat if I wanted to.
I couldn’t help but glare up at the cold masonry. This was supposed to be a place of learning, of cultivating the next generation, bettering its students in order to better the world. Instead, it had just become another cesspool of affluence, a place for the sons and daughters of the elite to flaunt their wealth. Well, it was about time their boastful and disparaging natures came back to bite them in the ass.
The bricks scrolled past me like a list of sins. I pondered my approach as I climbed the wall. Most likely, the teachers and wealthiest live-in students resided on the top floor—the fifth. If I had time, I would search the fourth floor as well. When I finally reached one of the fifth-floor windows, I peeked inside.
The window led to an empty, dark hallway, lit only by wall-mounted candle sconces and what little light filtered in from outside. Anxious to get out of sight, I silently squeezed a pseudopod beneath the crack and undid the latch. Then, in order to avoid making noise, I coated the inside of the window frame track with my slime before I pushed the lower panes upwards. They slid up with nary a squeak.
Quickly, I heaved the bulk of my goo inside before closing the window behind me. The halls remained still and silent the entire time. I rolled over to the right side of the hall—the closer of the two corners—and peered around the edge. No one in that direction, either. I grinned. The coast was clear, at least for now. With that, I approached the first door in line.
Unsurprisingly, the top floor doors had tumbler locks. A brief probing of the side of the door frame revealed a slide latch as well. The slide latch was easily dealt with, simply by reaching through the crack and pulling it aside, and the tumbler locks were only slightly trickier. I simply flooded the mechanism, using my goo to circumvent the bottom pins and push the top ones out of the lock. Then, I could freely turn the lock. A process that took all of about five seconds to do silently. Once unlocked, I reached through the other side of the door frame to grease the hinges, and I was golden.
Almost literally, even.
Serendipity must have been keeping an eye on me, because the first room I entered housed the same boorish stallion that had been manning the desk at the library. His room was just as gaudy as his fashion sense. Silken tapestries and rugs lined the walls and covered the floors, opulent furniture crammed into nearly every space in between. Mirrors, bowls, drinking glasses, candelabras; everything was either made of or heavily featured precious minerals and metals of all kinds. Material wealth was on display every which way I looked, and while it disgusted me morally, my new body’s primal instinct told me I was confronted with a veritable feast. I scarcely knew where to start.
Eventually, I decided that his wardrobe was the second thing I despised after his manners, so I would start there. I moved silently over to his dresser and climbed up on top of it. There, sitting smugly amidst its brethren, was a jewelry box of such nauseating opulence that I couldn’t look away. The thing had to be sculpted out of gold, with pearl inlays and set with precious gems. I opened it to find more of the same: brooches, cufflinks, rings, and amulets lined the felted interior. If this body could have salivated, the dresser-top would have been awash with it. I only hesitated momentarily before swallowing the entire thing.
Now then, I’ve already described the taste of gold, at least according to a Smooze. However, those sensations were but a drop in the bucket compared to the jewelry box I had just inhaled. It wasn’t quite an orgasmic experience, but it came pretty darn close. All told, I had gotten maybe an ounce out of the gold leaf I had stripped from Autumn’s carriage. Put together, that much gold is no bigger than the average table grape. With that jewelry box, I had just eaten the rest of a bunch, plus an assortment of nuts in the form of all the precious stones.
Think of the most satisfying food you’ve ever eaten. Imagine the taste, the texture, the feel of it as it goes down your throat. Now multiply that by the relief you feel with the first drink after a few days of very little water, and add the giddiness of having spun in place for a minute. Then, you’ll have an inkling of how I felt in that moment.
I struggled to remain coherent, focusing all my mental energy on ensuring the digestion process occurred near my core, to keep it silent. By the time I had regained my faculties, I already took up more surface area than the top of his dresser would allow. The rest of the items atop his dresser had already been subsumed, and my body was busy dissolving them too. I had to suppress a giggle, I felt so giddy. In a haze of delight, I began opening drawers, the scrape of wood on wood muffled by a thick layer of jelly. His clothes quickly followed their kin into my boundless “stomach”, recycling cloth and fancy buttons alike. I had to remind myself not to eat the furniture itself; I didn’t have time to digest objects that big. I would just have to content myself with eating the accents off of it.
I was growing quite rapidly at this point. Every bit of precious metal I consumed made me bubble outwards, covering more space and enveloping even more delicious materials. It was a cascade of growth. Before long, I could easily spread myself across the entire floor. Valuables were being swallowed up before I could even take notice. I floated across the room on a euphoric high. Eventually, I ended up in front of the snobby stallion’s trunk at the foot of his bed. With a little more gooey lockpicking, I popped that open as well. What I saw confused me at first, but then made my eyes bulge almost clear out of my mass.
The stupid thing was nearly full to the brim of bags of coins. He must have had close to a thousand gold bits inside, not to mention the silver and platinum. With only a moment of hesitation, I spilled over the edge, letting myself completely envelope the contents of the trunk.
The effect was almost immediate. I began to proliferate so quickly that it probably looked like a pot of pudding had suddenly started boiling over. Torrents of goo spilled over the edge of the trunk, making the already messed-up room look like it had recently been host to the entirety of the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards.
Such a haze clouded my mind that I almost didn’t notice that the stallion had awoken. The only thing that tipped me off was the quiet yelp of fear when he noticed something about his room was amiss. I looked up to see the foppish pony trembling in his silken pajamas, staring wide-eyed in my direction. My mind a jumble, I went with the first thought that came to mind.
I leaned forward from the foot of the bed, looming menacingly over the stallion; a feat helped by my now considerable bulk. Slowly, drunkenly, I brought a tentacle up to my lips and uttered a single sound:
I followed this up with the biggest Cheshire grin I could manage. Upon seeing this, the stallion’s eyes rolled up into his head and he promptly fainted.
After that hiccup, the burglary proceeded smoothly. I was able to enter the next handful of rooms without waking anypony else. A couple of the rooms were modest enough and gave me a good enough impression that I backed out, feeling too guilty to ransack them. As the night progressed, the gold affected me less and less, until it only gave me a pleasant buzz. Eventually, I also came to an absolutely stunning realization.
The more I consumed, the harder it became to fit in the rooms.
Shocking, I know. I realized this when I could no longer fit the whole of my bulk through a doorway at once, even with the door open as far as it could swing. As I sat in the room, passively snatching up even more riches, I pondered what I should do. If I continued like this, it would only be a matter of time before I was caught. I needed to shave off a few dozen pounds, because increasing my density would not help my stealth.
Something caught my eye, and I got an idea. An awful idea. I got a wonderful, awful idea.
It was dangerous. At least it seemed dangerous, but I couldn’t really be sure. I hadn’t actually tested whether or not I was vulnerable to water yet.
“Now’s as good a time as any, I guess,” I murmured to myself.
I had already consumed most of the good materials in the room I was in—some spoiled noble daughter’s—so I rolled over to her private bathroom like a wave at low tide. The door opened easily, and I found myself in yet more luxury. Shelves upon shelves of expensive makeup and intricate styling tools lined the walls. I sneered and snatched up everything in sight. I then turned my eyes on the sink.
The thought of what I was about to try made me mentally queasy, but it was my best chance at an escape route.
I leaned over the sink and peer into the drain. It looked wide enough and didn’t have a cover, so I closed an eye and lowered it towards the drain, watching it with my other eye. My estimation was correct: my eye fit in the wide pipes with room to spare.
I squeezed into the plumbing, one eye following after the other. I kept my eyes dead center, using my morphable form to feel out the shape of the pipes. When I judged that I had gone deep enough, I decided to try something else out.
Glowsticks are made using a glass capsule of hydrogen peroxide inside of a plastic tube, containing a mixture of sodium salicylate, diphenyl oxalate, and a fluorescent dye. When the glass capsule is broken open, the peroxide reacts with the phenyl oxalate ester, yielding two moles of phenol and one mole of peroxyacid ester…
I recited my knowledge of glowstick anatomy in my head, visualizing the process occurring just behind my eyes as I did. After a moment, I opened my leading eye. Lo and behold, the interior of the pipe now glowed a faint green. It made navigating the turns a bit easier, and I silently gave thanks to my chemistry professor for being awesome enough to give us a lab assignment in making our own glowsticks.
Now sporting a light source, I quickly turned the last bend into the drainage pipe, which opened up considerably. I followed the pull of gravity, dragging the rest of my mass down the sink as fast as I safely could. Yard after yard of wrought iron pipe flew past my open eye, until I suddenly found myself floating in darkness. I had exited the drainage pipe into the sewer system. I relaxed slightly. My theory had been correct; thankfully, their plumbing wasn’t advanced enough to have a water recycler inside the school.
I slapped myself onto the ceiling of the sewers, thankful that I could neither actively smell nor taste what was going on around me. As my eyes slowly adjusted to the dim glow my makeshift glowstick cast on the surrounding sewers, I scouted out a suitable location. I was ecstatic to find that the Ponyville sewage system included walkways on either side of the main channel. Every ten yards or so, a smaller, lateral tributary pipe fed into the main channel. From the looks of it, I guessed it was a combined sewer, rather than separate sewers for sanitation and stormwater.
I moved away from the tributaries, rolling down the side of the pipe and onto the walkway. Once I was approximately centered between two tributaries, it was time for another experiment. I gathered up my mass, condensed it down, and then pulled a small chunk with my eyes away from the rest of it. I willed the mass of goo to stay put, to not fall into the sewer channel.
When I separated from the large blob and it merely rippled like a giant mound of gelatin, I breathed a sigh of relief. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather no part of me fall into untreated sewage, even if I didn’t really have internal organs anymore. With my “safehouse” secured I returned to my task.
Unfortunately, while I was busy, so were my nemeses.
Through the dim, early morning light, Ruby Drops watched the approaching colonial-style mansion with no more interest than she would a fat pill bug. She would rather be anywhere else than on her way to visit some pathetic noble. There were so many more interesting things to be doing. Like sleeping. Or tormenting that pathetic mare. She licked her lips and grinned. She supposed she was glad that Argent had kept that old fortune-teller around for as long as he did. It was so nice to finally have found her own Element-Attuned.
There was so much to catch up on. All the other Masters had already found their counterparts. Well, except for Camellia, but she didn’t actually have an Element of her own. But that’s what she got for coming late to the party.
“My Lady, we have arrived.”
The carriage rolled gently to a stop. As she stepped out onto the gravel, a portly blonde stallion rushed down the steps of his veranda.
“Lady Ruby Drops! What a pleasure it is to have you here with us once again.”
“Baron Breeze,” she greeted dismissively, brushing some non-existent dust from her travel cape. “I trust there were no problems in the time since I last visited?”
“No, no, of course not! All your holdings are safe and secure. But, please, allow me to play host and I will give you a full report.”
She brushed past the Baron and strode through his front doors, throwing them wide open with her magic. The smack and yelp from the two spineless servants standing by to open the doors sent a thrill of satisfaction down her back. If only Argent hadn’t forbidden her from giving these disgusting, simpering leeches that called themselves nobility the same kind of treatment. Something about “keeping the status quo”. Hogwash. Fear was just as valid a method of control as complacency. Then again, she needn’t cater to every whim of the ladder-climbers. After all, she was the one in power.
She turned back to Baron Breeze after reaffirming that her mask of distaste and indifference had not slipped.
“Now, then, I am a busy mare, so let’s dispense with the pleasantries, shall we? We will convene in your study and I will hear your report, and nothing more. I have many more pressing matters to attend to today.”
“O- of course, your ladyship. Please, right this way.”
But before they could take as much as a single step, they were already interrupted.
“Father! Lady Ruby!”
Autumn Breeze rushed over to the pair of them from where he had been seated in the parlor. Ruby had to almost physically restrain herself from lashing out at the presumptuous, doughy brat that called himself a noble’s son. Not many dared interrupt her for any reason. She was about to devise a suitable punishment for his insolence, when she caught the ensuing conversation.
“Father, did you tell her about-”
“No, I did not, son. I will take care of it myself.”
“Myself!” The Baron hissed back at him. “We do not need to bother Lady Ruby with that sort of thing!”
Ruby Drops’ gaze locked onto the young stallion, her interest suddenly piqued.
“Bother me with what sort of thing?”
Stiff Breeze turned back to her, an ingratiating smile plastered over his sudden anxiety.
“Ah, n- nothing to concern yourself over, your grace. My son simply believes he saw some sort of night terror.”
“It was not a night terror, father! It was a monster! It killed Starlight Glimmer! I had to run for my life!”
“Killed?! Then why was she seen walking around town afterward, hm?! I swear, if you weren’t my son, I’d have you flogged for your drinking problem!” He hastily plastered his faltering grin back on before addressing Ruby Drops again.
“I am terribly sorry, your ladyship. My son tends to over-exaggerate when he’s had one snifter too many.”
“No, no, please. Tell me about this monster you saw,” Ruby cooed, speaking directly to Autumn. “I’m sure it must have been terrifying.”
“It was!” He whined. “Like something out of my worst nightmares! A horrific, green face, entirely un-ponylike, that spit out disgusting, many-feet-long tentacles. It latched onto Starlight Glimmer’s face and… and…”
“My my, that does sound rather disturbing.”
“More than you can imagine. It… it suffocated her, by sh- shoving its tentacles down her th- throat! I would have been next, had I not fled! I barely had the presence of mind to try burning down the house with the thing in it!”
“Autumn! That is enough!” Stiff Breeze roared. “First you interrupt our meeting, then you try to spin such ridiculous lies?! To the Lady herself?! You have gone too far! Once she has gone, you are going to be…”
Ruby tuned out the Baron’s desperate, furious backtracking. Any other day, she would have disregarded the young stallion’s words as the ravings of the addlebrained. But with King Argent’s recent orders…
“Where did this happen?” She more commanded an answer than asked, cutting off the Baron’s rant.
“I- in my summer home just down the road.”
“My Lady,” Baron Breeze wheedled, “surely you have better things to do than entertain my idiot son’s drunken fantasies. Just ignore him, and we can-”
“Baron Breeze,” she spoke with a menacing undertone, “do not presume to know what my wishes are. I will decide for myself whether the boy’s story has merit. Or would you rather go against our King’s decree?”
“N- no! No, of course not, your excellency!”
“Well then, take me to this summer home of yours. I wish to see the scene with my own eyes.”
I giggled quietly as I devoured an ornate, silver hairpin. This was possibly the twentieth room I had raided that night. I couldn’t really remember. Most of the night’s events had been lost in a semi-drunken haze. I was mostly used to the intoxicating effects of consuming valuable metals and minerals by then, so I was more coherent than not. I was even beginning to gain an appreciation for the different “flavors” that each material possessed.
I suppose I could try to liken them to organic foods. For example, gold has a rich, buttery flavor, like freshly baked scones or croissants, while silver is fresh and crisp, like chilled Asian pear. Copper is like caramel, and iron, when pure, tastes like a perfectly grilled steak. Diamonds have a dense, dusky flavor, not unlike chocolate. Rubies and sapphires are so similar, they’re almost like different cultivars of apple; like Pink Ladies and Fujis. Emeralds are nice and crumbly, like a good, dry cheese. Amethyst tastes like sour cherry shaved ice, while other varieties of quartz have less biting flavors. These are not, of course, perfect analogies, but they are close enough to what I experience that it might explain why I got so caught up in comparing the tastes that I didn’t notice the room’s occupant was awake until she started screaming.
The first few moments of the terrified shriek froze me in place like a banshee’s wail. I risked a brief glance backward and my fears were confirmed. The room’s little princess had awoken to find a monster of Biblical proportions ransacking her belongings. The jig was up; it was time to flee.
I fled into her bathroom under a hail of hairbrushes and hoof-care tools, and barricaded myself in by tipping over the heavy, standing cabinet she had installed. My retreat only emboldened her, however, and she started kicking up a bigger fuss. But that was fine by me; I only had to pour myself down the drain and I was home free. Not long after I started squeezing down the pipes, the banging on the door became loud crashes. A thrill of anxiety quivered through me. The ponies themselves weren’t frightening, but the idea of one of them figuring out a way to hurt me—with fire or water, for example—set me on edge.
I surged into the pipes a little faster at the thought. The plumbing rattled and groaned dangerously as I tried to force more of myself through at once. I’d pushed all but what could be considered my head through when the door finally shattered, throwing the cabinet to the ground. A pair of unicorn stallions charged, looking all around the room. By the time they spotted me, I was already funneling one of my eyes into the drain. They grasped fruitlessly at me with their magic, and then I was gone. The room disappeared behind walls of wrought iron. I bubbled with amusement and followed my latest batch of goo down the pipes, to join with the rest of me stashed in the sewers.
My victory was short-lived, however, as it seemed my latest victim felt a bit vindictive.
It started as a hiss from the plumbing just outside of my pipe. Then came the rattle and rumble of plumbing higher up. By the time I registered the high-pitch gurgle swirling down at me, it was already too late.
In the dim glow of my glow-light, I saw a surge of water hurtling towards me like a wall of death. I panicked and let go of the sides of the pipe, willing myself to fall faster. But momentum is a bitch, and she broadsided me with a barrage of something I hadn’t yet learned how to deal with: dissolution.
The moment water touched my flesh, I felt a burning sensation, not unlike hydrogen peroxide on bare flesh. I’m not talking about that weak-ass, over-the-counter, three percent concentration they sell at drugstores. I’m talking thirty percent, nigh-industrial concentrations. Yes, I do know what that feels like. Let’s just say, I had a lab partner in my Intro to Chem class that was a bit of a butterfingers. He didn’t last long there.
If I could have screamed, I would have. I started thrashing around in the pipe, instead, warping and cracking the metal as I went. I’m not sure if it was out of pure instinct, but I ballooned up and plugged the pipe behind me as I fell. This had two effects: one, I was able to keep the water from reaching the majority of the mass I had just accrued; and two, my eyes melted.
No, that’s not hyperbole. My eyes quite literally dissolved as soon as the water finished stripping away the goo surrounding them. I didn’t even have time to consider what would happen if I left them there. I had become the proverbial deer in the headlights, even while the rest of my body instinctive sought shelter. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I felt the main mass swing down from the mouth of the pipe and start to slide along the roof, towards the rest of my reserves. But, in that moment, the only thing I could focus on was the searing pain and the blackness spreading from the center of my vision.
Eventually, the pain became too much, and I let go.
I felt my little blockade start to fall and the connection was almost instantly severed, leaving me as the fat blob of Smooze sitting on the walkway. The disorientation sent my mind reeling. It was like falling asleep, waking up, and forgetting where you were, all in the span of a few seconds. A distant, sustained splash registered somewhere in the overwhelming amount of conflicting information. I felt like throwing up, but my gutless body didn’t know what to do with the sensation. I tried to take comfort in the coolness of the stone beneath me.
I’m not sure how long I spent sitting in the blinding darkness, dazed and unable to process anything but the ambient dripping echoes of the sewers. The sudden loss of my sight had hit me hard. I wasn’t sure how I was going to proceed, or how I would compensate for my lost sense.
But then I remembered I might not have to. I already knew I could alter the physical properties of my body. There was a chance, even if it was incredibly slim, that I might be able to synthesize new eyes. After all, I doubted that my previous ocular organs were made of anything much different than the rest of my amorphous body. The only question was: how should I start?
Did I try to recall the anatomy of the human eye? The chemical composition of ocular tissue? Trying to recreate the sensation of sight? My eye color? Where does one begin to make an eyeball? The questions piled up, swirling around my mind like flotsam in a whirlpool. So deep in concentration was I, that I almost missed the quiet, courteous voice that popped up in between my thoughts.
<<It sounds like you are trying to synthesize an ocular organ. Would you like some help with that?>>
Ruby Drops looked around the smoldering ruins of what used to be the Breezes’ summer home with no small amount of satisfaction. Anything that took the uppity noble family down a peg was alright in her book, especially if it was self-inflicted. Of how she adored the look of despair and desperation on the faces of ponies that had brought about their own ruin. Not that this little indiscretion had done very much to tarnish the already spotty Breeze family reputation, let alone lay it low. Still, she savored every drop of their misfortune.
Schadenfreude was her middle name.
Still, she had a job to do, no matter how tedious it may be. Ignoring the Baron’s babbled reassurances and placations, and pressed on into what remained of the main foyer.
The fire had certainly done its job. Between the shock and the rumors of dirty deeds, the citizenry hadn’t been terribly interested in reporting the sudden fire to the authorities. It had grown unchecked in the time it took the fire station to notice the smoke. As she wandered the ruins, it became apparent how little remained of the once majestic home. Naught had been left standing but charcoal-blackened and crumbling skeletons of the framework and support beams. Puddles of ash and water collected in the sagging remains of the floorboards. If there had ever been evidence to back up August’s claims, it had all been consumed by the indiscriminate flames.
Ruby snorted in disgust, making her way back to the entrance. What a waste of time. And here I was hoping that something actually interesting might have finally come of my vis-
She paused. That had not been the squelch of the ash puddles. It was too viscous, too fine. None of the pulpy mess. Slowly, she lowered her gaze.
It looked innocuous enough, covered in the same ash as the rest of the flooring she’d seen. Anypony would have mistaken it for just another ash puddle. But when she looked around, she noticed that these floorboards were remarkably dry and still fairly warm. Apparently, the fireponies had missed this spot while hosing the house down. The nearby collapsed section of roof was probably the culprit.
Ruby picked up her hoof to examine what she had just stepped in. She fully expected it to come up caked in congealed blood. Perhaps the Baron’s son had gotten a bit too rough during his little tryst, then tried to cover up the aftermath with a simple house fire and a convenient lie. It would certainly make sense.
But the thick goop that clung to her hoof was a dark, burnt green, not crimson.
Ruby had difficulty comprehending what she was looking at. None of it made a lick of sense. She had been so convinced that the absence of evidence pointed to a cover-up. But then a snippet of her earlier conversation wandered to the fore of the thoughts.
A horrific, green face, entirely un-ponylike…
A bitter, sour taste blossomed on her tongue, before spreading to the rest of her face.
“Oh, buck me to Tartarus. He was telling the truth.”
Chapter 7 - Would you like some help getting off my goddamn lawn?
Of all the things that could have happened, of all the possible voices I might have heard, the last thing I expected was a personification of Clippy to pop up in my head. So, with my usual class and decorum, I blurted out the first thought in my head.
<<Would you like some assistance in creating a new pair of eyes?>> The androgynous voice reiterated.
<<Very well. Carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, and oxygen stores are at sufficient levels. Miscellaneous elements are at optimal levels. Loading ocular organ blueprints. One moment…>>
I felt something stir and froth up inside of me. Images of eyeballs, cross-sections, and chemical formulas flew through my mind. The odd, churning sensation continued for a few minutes, then the motions suddenly stopped.
<<Assembly complete. Eyes connected to network.>>
Everything was still black.
“I still can’t see anything.”
<<Please wait a moment. Your visual centers are still synchronizing and adjusting to local levels of brightness.>>
As “Clippy” spoke, shimmers of light fluttered through my vision. I began to register different shades of darkness, then muted earthy tones faded in. Soon, I could just barely make out the shape of the passageway, as my eyes finally adjusted to the dark. I huffed in equal relief and amazement.
“Wow. That was easier than I thought it would be.”
<<Of course. I am here to serve, Director.>>
“Ah… Director, huh. So, uh, what does that make you?” I pondered, trying to find the source of this voice.
<<I am you.>>
I rapidly blinked my new eyes, taken aback. “I’m sorry?”
<<I am you. You are me. We are a part of the Synthesized Microculture Of Omniformative Zooidic Engines. The Smooze. More specifically, your psychic signature is designated Director of this particular microculture, and I am merely your Adjutant subroutine.>>
I sunk back into a vegetative contemplation, overwhelmed by the sudden info dump.
“Synthesized Microculture of… Wait, subroutine? Does that mean I’m a… a gray goo?”
The Adjutant went silent for a moment.
<<Records of your memories show that there is some similarity between the Smooze and your world’s gray goo scenario, yes. However, we are green, and consist of billions of microscopic golems, rather than your gray “nanobots.” Additionally, we are powered by magically charged crystal, rather than by a contained chemical reaction.>>
I ran a hand over my shapeless head. “I have… so many questions.”
<<According to the timetable you laid out for the unicorn, Starlight Glimmer, we still have thirty-four hours, nineteen minutes, and forty-two seconds before the scheduled rendezvous. There is still time for questioning.>>
“Well, great. But, uh, let’s just… put that on hold for now. I should probably figure out how to make myself look like a pony first.”
<<A simple problem. You consumed more than enough sericin to be able to approximate pony hair.>>
“I still need to make sure I get the shape right.”
<<Would you like some assistance with that?>>
“I… yeah, sure. But you keep saying it like that, and I really will start calling you Clippy.”
<<You may call me whatever you wish, Director.>>
After that, the process of creating a pony body went swiftly. All the new mass I had accrued compacted into one small, very dense form. The shape of a stallion was fairly simple to mimic with input from the Adjutant. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a mirror, so I would just have to take it on its word. The Adjutant even went so far as to help me create false organs and taught me how to change the color of my goo. The process was more akin to mixing paint than anything else, which was why I wasn’t able to change colors the first time. My “skin cells” didn’t have the innate ability to change color. I had to give them something to latch onto first.
With the recent glut of material intake, especially the dyes, I had enough to change my outward appearance at least. Iron oxides helped me darken my overall color to a forest green, so I wouldn’t be immediately associated with the Smooze.
Luckily, the Adjutant assured me that I’d absorbed enough trace quantities of titanium for the sclerae of my eyeballs to be made white during creation. I got a little cheeky and asked it to adjust my iris color to hazel, using whatever gold and copper was left over. I’d be able to mock the nobleponies just by looking at them, and they’d be none the wiser.
Then, since I still had some undigested sericin proteins floating around in me from all the silk I’d consumed, so I synthesized a coat of silken fur in the same color as my “flesh.” I also gave myself a mane and tail in an extra dark green.
The only other thing I wasn’t so sure about was the butt tattoos I’d seen around. At first, I’d thought they were a fashion choice of sorts. But having seen them on the flank of almost every adult pony we came across in town, I began to suspect they might have some deeper significance. I wished I had remembered to ask Starlight when I’d had the chance. However, perhaps the Adjutant knew something.
“Do you know anything about the tattoos ponies put on their butts?”
<<Records indicate that ponies refer to them as “Cutie Marks.” They are a magical phenomenon that occurs when ponies discover the set of skills in which they have the greatest potential for mastery, enjoyment, and/or fulfillment. The images represent these skill sets. Commonly, ponies receive them around puberty. If you wish to blend in with the populace, it would behoove you to choose an image to represent your pony persona.>>
“… Did… Did you just make a hoof pun?”
The Adjutant went silent, as if considering.
<<Ah… Yes, it would seem I did, albeit unintentionally. Forgive me, I shall make greater efforts to prevent such errors from occurring in the future.>>
“No, no, it’s alright. Kinda funny, actually, what with the deadpan delivery and all.”
If it responded again, I wasn’t paying attention. I was too busy thinking of what I would use as my image. There were so many possibilities. Did I want to use something that actually represented me? Make something up for my persona? Or maybe I could coyly hint at my true nature? In the end, I gave up and decided to defer to the corny, pretentious teenager I used to be. This was just a persona, after all.
I ended up selecting the same stupid image I had used in imageboards and forum avatars all throughout junior high and high school: an atomic model of a nitrogen atom, whose electrons were arrayed so that, were one to draw a Golden Spiral starting at the atom’s nucleus, the electrons would line up with it.
Now, let me just say up front, I am not a numerologist or any other kind of spiritual conspiracy theorist. Never have been. But… I did come dangerously close to becoming one in my impressionable middle school days. It is, perhaps one of my more embarrassing secrets. Let’s just say that I had that shit shamed out of me by someone close to me and leave it at that. I decided to use this as a reminder not to take myself too seriously.
<<You now have a complete disguise,>> the Adjutant commented. <<I believe all you need now is a name.>>
I took one look at my coloration and snickered. “What about Anon E. Mous?”
The Adjutant didn’t even try to laugh.
<<Sir, I may only be a limited artificial intelligence, but even I can tell that is a terrible idea.>>
“Pfft, fine.” I pondered for a moment before a fit of inspiration overcame me.
“How about Stark Raven?”
<<That is closer to pony naming convention, yes. Why that name specifically?>>
“Because you’d have to be mad to oppose the Masters! Eh? Eh?”
Again, not even a single reaction.
“Well, you’re no fun.”
<<No, I am not. I am an Adjutant subroutine. I was not programmed with a sense of humor. But that name will serve adequately as an alias. Now, what do you wish to do next?>>
I looked down at my hooves.
“It’d probably be best to get used to moving like a pony before I go outside. I can ask questions while I practice.”
<<Very well. Would you like some instruction on pony walk cycles?>>
I spent the next few minutes practicing the sequence of steps necessary to not make a fool of myself. The clip-clop of my false hooves echoed through the sewers and my thoughts, the rest of my brain power spent focusing on not tripping and falling into raw sewage. I may not have had a sense of smell, but damned if I was going to set even a hair of my new disguise in that kind of filth. After a while, I felt confident enough that I could practice while also talking. There was still so much to ask.
“So, you’re an artificial intelligence?”
<<A limited one, yes.>>
“What does that mean exactly?”
<<I am intelligent enough to create plans, but flexible enough to react to changes in environment and circumstance. I do not, however, have a sense of empathy or compassion. In strictest terms, I am what your kind deems a psychopath. I can emulate emotion, but I do not understand it.>>
“I see. So was it you who moved my mind into the spare mass or… whatever that was a few minutes ago?”
<<No, that was not me. I did not have to intervene; your “mind” is spread throughout the entirety of the culture under your control. Having a localized center of thought is a symptom unique to creatures with brains. You may wish to acclimate yourself to the idea that you no longer have a head. It will be less disorienting the next time one of your subcultures is destroyed.>>
That was a dizzying thought, but not entirely untrue. During the entirety of my time in Equestria, I had thought of myself as a living creature. But if what the Adjutant had said was true, then I had become, for all intents and purposes, a robot.
“Does that mean I’m not alive?” I asked.
<<If, by “alive”, you mean “have a nervous system that is supplied by a network of other systems made of proteins, water, and trace other elements”, then no. However, you do still have an intellect, free will, morals, and even a thaumic signature, though the last differs slightly from those of the mortal races. You simply exist differently than others with a similar level of intelligence.>>
“Good gravy, I ask one question and four more pop up in its place,” I muttered to myself. “Alright, here’s an important one: you spoke earlier about ‘records of my memory.’ Does that mean you can read my mind?”
The Adjutant hesitated for a moment.
<<I do not understand what you mean by “my mind”. Do you wish to know if we are separate beings?>>
“I want to know if you’ve been mucking around in my head!”
<<Again, you do not have a “head” for me to access, as we are not separate beings. I am you. You are me. I refer to myself as an individual because I assessed that it would be more beneficial to your mental health, having recently been mortal. If you wish to know which intelligence has priority as far as processing power, the Director always comes first. If there is enough memory, the Adjutant subroutine starts up. I have access to the information in your intellect and can plan with and around that information, but I cannot alter it in any way. I am your subordinate in all things. I cannot take action unless you have commanded it.>>
“So, in essence, you’re just a voice in my head.”
<<That is greatly over-simplifying my function, but yes, I suppose I am that. At least until you give me directions to the contrary.>>
I would have continued with that line of questioning, but just then, I heard something off in the distance. When I stopped walking, the echoes of hoof-steps did not. In fact, they seemed to be coming closer, along with the murmur of muted voices.
“Ah crap,” I whispered, “the Guards’ve come looking for me.”
<<How do you wish to handle them?>>
“I don’t know, let me think.”
There were a few ways I could do it. If possible, I wanted to get away as bloodlessly as I could. The less I interacted with them, the fewer chances one of them could get away with information on me. So that left either trying to sneak by them or bluffing my way past the patrols. Both were risky, but I felt slightly more confident in my ability to talk my way out of it. I was already coming up with a plan.
<<I agree, deception will offer the most flexibility in the efforts of subterfuge.>>
“Yes, I know, now hush!” I whispered harshly. “I don’t want to give awwwaitaminute… Was I speaking out loud?”
<<No, you were not.>>
“Then how did you know…? Oh. Right. You can read my mind, apparently.”
<<Yes, I can. And if you wish to be stealthy, I would advise you to keep further communication on inaudible channels.>>
“I know-!” I started, before I remembered to think it. I know that, stop patronizing me!
<<I am not patronizing. Merely reminding.>>
I bit back a retort. I needed to focus on playing the part. To start, I made a horn pop out of my head, then covered it in a rippling blob of transparent goo. I made the blob glow, then practiced putting it out quickly, using fireflies as inspiration. The required chemicals differed slightly from those in a glowstick, but it meant that putting the light out was as simple as cutting off the oxygen supply. I could now effectively call myself a unicorn.
As the sound of hoofsteps came closer, so too did an array of multicolored lights bouncing off the sewer walls. One more reason I was glad I chose to bluff my way through: it was much harder to hide when the enemy had built-in flashlights. My plan cemented, I adopted a disgusted and thoroughly put-upon expression and walked towards the light.
“Is that the guard?” I called out in a posh voice as I rounded the corner. “Thank the Mas-”
I was cut off by a bolt of magic that sizzled through the air above my head. I yelped and ducked back around the corner. It took a moment to remember who I was supposed to be.
“Put your blasted horns out, you imbeciles!” I shouted at them from cover.
“Step forward and identify yourself,” one of them shouted back.
I peeked around the corner and glowered at the light. “Stark, of House Raven, first of my name and student of Silverglow Academy! Now point those damned things elsewhere! It’s bad enough I was coerced into coming down here, I don’t need a bunch of meatheads trying to blast me into next week!”
The exasperated groans I heard echoing towards me gave me a spike of satisfaction. They were already starting to buy my act. It wouldn’t be so easy to convince them to let me be, however.
“Why are you down here in the sewers?” The same pony demanded, pegging himself as the leader.
“Like I said,” I grumbled, “I was coerced. It’s not the first time I’ve been bullied into doing the senior class’ dirty work. ‘Oh, dear, somebody stole my precious hairpin and fled into the sewers! Oh, well, let’s just send Stark Raven down there, he’s mad enough to do it.’ Bah! Those cotton-brains couldn’t find their way out of a wet paper bag without their servants. But I’ll show them! House Raven will not be trif-”
“Yes, yes, as you say. Just get back up to street level, and leave this to us. We don’t need civilians getting in our way.”
I opened my mouth, pretending like I wanted to argue with him further. In reality, I was suppressing a fit of triumphant giggles. A moment later, I cleared my throat.
“Yes, well, I suppose you gentlestallions are much more suited to this sort of work than one such as myself. If you could just point me out of this hell-hole, I will gladly get out of your manes.”
The lead guard nodded at one of his fellows and then motioned me over. I walked over, still a bit wary of the guards watching me. But when I reached them, I made sure to turn my nose up, to really sell the act. Frustrated huffs reached my ears and I had to keep my mouth from quirking into a grin. I followed the hapless guard, as he muttered about being given the chore of escorting a bratty noblepony out of the sewers.
Fairly quickly, we reached a ladder to the surface. I paused, blinking up at the early-morning sunlight, wondering exactly how a quadrupedal species had developed something much more suited to tree-climbers. Not for long, though, as my escort called up the shaft to someone up above.
“Civvie coming up!”
The nameless unicorn turned to watch me expectantly. I huffed haughtily before turning to the ladder. I couldn’t hesitate here, or he might get suspicious, but I also couldn’t risk falling off. I wasn’t sure if the impact might destabilize my form. So when my pastern made contact with the first rung, I made a quick adjustment, turning my hooves sticky. The problem dealt with, I quickly climbed the ladder, eager to leave the sewers behind.
A grey hoof reached down to help me out as I reached the lip of the manhole—or stallionhole, or whatever it’s called here—and I quickly undid the stickiness. In hindsight, it probably wouldn’t have mattered much if the guard that pulled me out had noticed my hooves were sticky, having just come from a sewer. However, I was still in damage control mode and didn’t want to give them any reason to be suspicious.
“Thanks,” I offered curtly, expecting I would be faced with an inquisition before long. However, I wasn’t expecting the pony that began it.
“A civilian, hm?” A dangerous, feminine voice hummed. “And what might you have been doing down there?”
I looked over at the source and my fake blood ran cold.
Standing a few yards away was a beanpole of an alicorn mare, her crimson eyes watching me with the same calculating gaze of a hungry lioness. Alarm bells rang in my head. Even with the Adjutant administering stern warnings in the back of my mind, I already knew who I was faced with. Lady Ruby Drops had come to Ponyville, and was standing mere feet away from a creature that had been summoned to put an end to her reign, one way or another.
Of course, I knew this was neither the place nor the time for such a confrontation. I still didn’t have the kind of information I needed to deal with her. But neither could I pass up this chance. Whether it was from some suicidal lack of self-preservation or a desperate need to know my enemy, I found myself shifting into schmooze mode.
“L- Lady Ruby Drops, I presume,” I began, dipping into a deep bow. “It is such an immense honor to finally make your acquaintance! If I had but known that I might have the chance of meeting you today, well… I certainly would have made myself much more presentable, I assure you.”
Ruby Drops merely quirked one of her pencil-thin eyebrows a hair higher. “And your explanation?”
“Ah, yes, well… I am a new student at the Silverglow Academy, and, well… When I heard from my fellow students that some monster had ransacked their rooms and made off with their valuables, I felt it my duty to find and confront the beast. Unfortunately, I was unable to track it down. It appears to be quite crafty, despite being some sort of slime monster.”
The bluff was believable enough. I fervently hoped she was accustomed to noble ponies attempting to ingratiate themselves in order to curry her favor. As I stayed in the bow, I peeked up at her with one eye and noticed her own eyes had narrowed almost imperceptibly.
“What is your name, colt?”
“Stark, of House Raven, first of my name. Ever at your service, your grace.”
She studied me for a long moment, before speaking up once again.
“House Raven… I cannot say I am familiar with that name. Not in Ponyville or Canterlot.” Her voice lowered like a bull’s horns, readying for a charge.
“Ah… well, I cannot say I am surprised, your majesty. We have only recently been elevated to the ranks of nobility. We were primarily grain merchants based out of Baltimare. A rather fruitful trade deal allowed us to… grease the wheels, as it were.” I pulled the name out of my ass, remembering having heard it mentioned by some of the townsponies we had passed.
Her imperious eyebrow raised even higher. I couldn’t quite tell if she was buying it, but she hadn’t tried to blast me into bits yet, so I hadn’t drawn her ire, at least.
“I see,” she murmured. “I suppose Silver Song was feeling generous.”
Immediately, Adjutant spoke directly into the center of my thoughts.
<<Warning! All records and gathered data indicate that the city of Baltimare resides in the state of Gilder, under the jurisdiction of Master Gold Standard. I believe she is testing your story for holes. Proceed carefully.>>
I chuckled nervously. It wouldn’t be easy to wheedle my way out of this one without directly contradicting Ruby Drops. I got the impression that she wouldn’t be terribly impressed with a mouthy stallion.
“Perhaps, my Lady. I can’t pretend to understand the intricacies of the relationship between Master Gold Standard and Prince Silver Song. In any case, whoever decided we had done enough of a service to merit our inclusion in the ranks of the nobility also suggested they send me to Silverglow Academy. And so, here I am.”
I stayed in the bow, waiting anxiously of Ruby to pass her verdict. If I could have sweated, I would have been a one-man fountain. Her gaze drilled into the back of my head as though she was pondering the color of my brains. After several nerve-wracking seconds, she sighed disinterestedly.
“Very well. Leave me. You stink like a pig.”
“Of course, my Lady. I will be thoroughly washing myself the moment I have access to a shower. I pray our next meeting will be memorable for entirely different reasons.”
With that, I trotted off, eager to leave her line of sight. And yet, I could still feel her gaze still on the back of my head, even as I rounded the nearest corner.
Ruby Drops watched Stark Raven leave with some trepidation. Something about his appearance felt off, though she couldn’t quite place her hoof on it. As he disappeared from sight, she resolved to keep a close eye on him. But before she could send any of the guards to tail him, something else demanded her attention.
“Lady Ruby Drops, a thousand apologies, but we’ve received a call from Brother Odd. He wishes to speak with you.”
Ruby Drops groaned. As much as she wanted to believe his call was a coincidence, as the Minister of the Bureau of the One Truth, Odd Bodkins never sent for anypony without a reason. No one from the intelligence and inquisition bureau ever did.
“I suppose I should answer him, then. Very well, bring me the comm-crystal.”
The guardspony cantered off, quickly returning with the large, mirror-like crystal. He wheeled it up before Ruby, then ducked away, excusing himself from what would doubtlessly be a private conversation. Ruby took a moment to appreciate his shrewd decision, before casting a privacy screen around herself. The spell orb blocked all sight and sound into it, but let the user see and hear what went on outside. Useful for monitoring the progress of her search while still keeping prying eyes and ears at bay. She took a moment to compose herself before activating the runes on the crystal mirror’s wooden base.
A moment later, the gaunt, haggard visage of Brother Odd faded into clarity.
“Ruby,” he greeted emotionlessly.
“My dear Oddy-boy,” she purred, laying on the honey, “to what do I owe this pleasure?”
“I have received word that several unusual incidents have occurred within the walls of Ponyville. Shall I send intelligence officers to assist?”
“No need to put yourself out, Oddy-boy. I have things well in hoof here.”
Odd pondered her silently for a few seconds, before continuing in his fatigued monotone. “Need I remind you of King Argent’s orders?”
“No, you don’t,” she growled, the pleasant facade dropping like a house of cards. “I am well aware of the stakes.”
“Discord’s magic should not be underestimated.”
“And I am not,” she nearly snarled, patience wearing dangerously thin. “I am perfectly able to deal with these incidents myself. After all, don’t you have other, more pertinent issues to deal with?”
Odd frowned slightly.
“I am dealing with them. The possibility that the Mirthful Jester might capitalize on the confusion in Ponyville is not one I wish to overlook. I ask again: shall I send intelligence agents to assist you?”
Ruby’s eyes narrowed dangerously.
“Just because you are unable to deal with the oh so significant weight of your responsibilities,” she hissed, “that doesn’t mean the rest of us are as incompetent! Focus on rectifying your own failures before you go shoving your snout in the rest of our business. After all, you never know what might be waiting on the other side of the hole to bite it off!”
With that, she severed the connection, sorely tempted to simply smash the crystal out of sheer spite. They weren’t easy to come by, however, so she resolved to take her frustrations out on the simpletons around her. She dispelled the privacy screen with a sharp pop, startling everypony around her.
“Guards! Bring me the Captain!” She bellowed. “I need to have words about the speed of this investigation.”
As the guards scrambled to follow her orders, she snapped at them, almost as an afterthought. “And would somepony find me something halfway decent to drink?! I refuse to deal with these levels of incompetence without something to take the edge off!”
Leagues away, in the gloomy town of Hollow Shades, a weary stallion blinked at the blank screen of a communication crystal. He sighed heavily, dragging a hoof down his face. After a few moments of massaging his dark eye sockets, he called out.
A dusty pink mare with a straight mane of a darker shade peered into the small room.
“Yes, sir?” She droned.
“Have Inquisitor Kingfisher meet me in my office in ten minutes. I have an assignment for her.”
“Right away, sir.”
Odd listened to her hoofsteps echoing back to him as she walked down the hallway. Things were getting interesting. He hated when things got interesting. It always meant a pile of paperwork and a splitting headache for him. He only prayed that God would grant him the patience to deal with whatever came in a quick and efficient manner. Perhaps then, he might finally be granted a modicum of peace.
He chuckled wryly to himself, pulling his clerical collar loose. As if God has any power here.
Coloratura sat in her reserved spot on the couch, quietly sewing up a tear in one of their few tablecloths. Luckily it hadn’t been the nice one, the one with the soft lace embroidery. They only ever used that one on special occasions, after all. She wondered if it was time to take it out of storage to shake the dust off again.
The house was quiet, as usual. She could hear the muted sounds of their neighbors going about their lives and the occasional chirp of a bird sitting in the slight rustle of the nearby paper birch sapling. She took comfort in the sweet sound, and in the warmth of the morning sunlight on her face, shining through the living room window.
For a moment, she felt like humming, but the rasp of her voice quickly dissuaded her. Ugly sounds like that had no business mingling with those of the bright morning. Better if she just sat and listened. If she did, she could almost hear nature’s song.
Something interrupted the song, however. The heavy crunch of hooves on the gravel outside. At first, she thought Starlight might have returned early, but something was different. The sound was much heavier than she was used to. A stallion then? Who could have business with them?
The hoofsteps stopped just in front of the door, and she heard four steady knocks, polite but insistent.
“Just a moment,” she rasped, hoping he had heard. As she approached the front door, he did not knock again, but neither did he walk away. He must have heard, then, giving her a bit of relief. It was always distressing when the tax collectors pounded on the door as if trying to break it down.
She easily made her way around the furniture, having long since memorized their places in the room. Still, she walked carefully. Night Glider sometimes forgot to put chairs back in their place. This time, though, she made it without incident.
Slowly, she lifted a hoof to the latch and opened the door just enough to reveal her face.
The stallion’s voice was rich, smooth, like finely stirred caramel. Neither high nor low, inoffensive and unassuming. The way he enunciated his words spoke of intelligence and a classical education. Coloratura felt her heart skip a beat. It wasn’t a voice she recognized.
“G- good morning. How can I h- help you?”
“You must be Miss Coloratura,” he said, his sweet smile easily blending into his voice. “Starlight Glimmer has told me much about you. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you in person.”
“I- I’m sorry,” Coloratura stammered, feeling the heat creep up her neck and into her cheeks, “you seem to have me at a disadvantage. With whom am I speaking?”
“Ah, my apologies. I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Some ponies know me as Stark Raven, but you may call me Eric.” She heard a slight shuffle come from him, like a single hoof sliding across the ground. It hadn’t come from any sort of clothing. Was he bowing? She felt her face grow hotter.
“Oh! Um, well, a pleasure to meet you, Mister Eric. I… assume you have business with Starlight?”
“Of a sort. She and I are going in together on a joint venture, and… well, this is something best discussed in private. May I come in?”
“Oh, um, well, s- sure, but-”
“Excellent,” he deflected, and then gently pushed the door open, brushing past her.
Coloratura jumped, both from the contact and the scent that wafted past her nose. Eric had a muted, almost sterile scent, as though he had washed with medical-grade sanitizers. And yet his coat was soft. Incredibly soft. Silken, even. But the strangest thing lay beneath that. An underlying scent of earth and metal, so faint as to be barely noticeable.
She stood at the door a moment longer as if waiting for some indication that she was being pranked. Then, slowly, she shut the door. As she did, she heard the rustle of a burlap sack, and Eric’s voice called out from the kitchen.
“I hope you don’t mind, but I brought the ingredients to make you all some supper, as a thank you for hearing me out! It’s been a while since I’ve had a nice ratatouille.”
Not long after Stark Raven had narrowly evaded her clutches, Ruby Drops sat in her Ponyville administrative office angrily gulping down bourbon, as if it would quench the little ember burning at the base of her skull. It had been almost an hour since she had lost sight of the strange stallion, and the guard had found neither hide nor hair of him or the so-called “klepto-sludge”. The most information she had received was that there definitely hadn’t been a stallion of that name enrolled in the Academy. Even with her magic, she had been unable to track him… it… whatever that thing was. It made her blood boil. These were the kinds of setbacks that made her wish she could somehow negate her ridiculously high alcohol tolerance.
Oh how I miss that pleasant, comforting buzz, she lamented. I suppose there are at least a few benefits to being an alicorn. And yet…
She glared out the office window. Somewhere out there, the guard captain was yelling at his subordinates because he couldn’t yell at her without severe consequences. She chuckled to herself. That “conversation” had been cathartic, at least.
But before Ruby could go back to wallowing in self-pity, her train of thought was derailed by the thunderous whoosh of a teleportation spell going off behind her. Quick as a viper, Ruby whirled on the intruder, drawing her dagger in one move. She started to salivate at the thought of dismantling whoever had decided to intrude so blatantly, until she saw the pony that stood before her.
It was one of Odd’s Inquisitors. She could tell immediately by the orange pegasus mare’s distinctive black habit, belted white scapular, and white cornette. The mare immediately bowed before her, although her posture denoted that she was, by no means, prostrating herself.
“Greetings, Lady Rain. I am Inquisitor Kingfisher. I apologize for my sudden appearance, but Brother Odd saw it best that I arrive with all due haste.”
“Ah, one of Odd’s little harlots,” Ruby needled, smirking when she saw Kingfisher tense up. “Still clinging to his old ways, I see.”
The mare looked up at Ruby with one lidded, chocolate eye, then glanced meaningfully at the half-empty bottle of bourbon on the desk.
“Indeed. But that has no bearing on why I am here. Brother Odd spoke of some strange happenings going on here in Ponyville. He sent me here to assist you however I can.”
Ruby Rain was no fool. The inquisitor’s subtle wording left little doubt that she only intended to follow Ruby’s orders if they coincided with Odd’s wishes. Never had Ruby wanted more to pluck a pegasus’ feathers than she did at that exact moment. Unfortunately, Odd had gotten his Inquisitors deep in Argent’s good graces, making them untouchable. While she couldn’t argue with their results, they had muscled in on her turf. She was supposed to be the interrogation expert, not these wannabe nuns.
“Well, Inquisitor,” she all but spat, “I regret to inform you that your services won’t be needed. I have things well in hand.”
“Really? Because our informants have told us that the guards still haven’t managed to find the source of the disturbances.”
Ruby had to keep herself from growling. “If he’s so concerned, why doesn’t Odd come out here himself? Or did he lose his balls while he was molesting foals at night?”
While she couldn’t see because of the full-body habit, Ruby knew from the tightening of her face that she was getting under Kingfisher’s skin. But before Ruby could feel take any satisfaction from her discomfort, the infuriating mare schooled her expression, putting on the stony face she had perfected over years of service.
“Brother Odd is currently investigating the cases of industrial sabotage throughout the state of Gilder, at the behest of Master Gold Standard, seeing as Brother Oddis able to keep both the affairs of Merth and his investigation into Equestria’s insurgents in order.”
Ruby gritted her teeth so hard, she was certain she felt sparks fly. Oh, how sweet it would be to slice this insubordinate mare from her chin to her ovaries. To watch her gasp in shock and terror, as her guts spilled out onto the floor. To taste her despairing tears. But she was off-limits. Insolent little fucking rat.
“Fine,” she hissed, eager to get the Inquisitor out of her sight before she did something she might regret later. “Do as you please. Just don’t get in my way. Any indication that you’re interfering with my investigation, and I’ll string you up and bleed you like a suckling pig.”
“I doubt that will become a problem. Who knows? Perhaps I may even be able to solve your problems for you,” Kingfisher said with a barely noticeable smirk. She then turned in place, completely disregarding the dagger still levelled at her, and walked out the door. As the door closed, Ruby couldn’t contain her impotent rage. She telekinetically hurled her dagger at the spot where Kingfisher’s head had been moments before, burying it up to the hilt in the door. Although she heard Kingfisher yelp quietly, the rage burning in the back of her brain wouldn’t allow her to take much satisfaction from it. Ruby yanked the dagger out with her aura, stowed it away in the sheath strapped to her thigh.
She would need to visit the Everfree Ranch after this, to really blow off some steam.
It’s difficult coming up with the right combination of words. Especially when you’re trying to convince someone you are who you say you are, even though you’re not.
Stark Raven was not going to last. I knew that much when I made up the persona. You don’t associate your cover story with a symbol you came up with in junior high and expect it to stick around. The story I told the guards wouldn’t stand up under a light breeze, much less even a cursory investigation. All I really wanted was to slip by them so I could properly hide and not hang around in the stinking sewers. Even without a proper sense of smell, I could just feel the diseased air diffusing into my jelly-like flesh. That’s why I had the Adjutant perform a thorough and comprehensive sanitization of all the bacteria and other nasty stuff I had probably accumulated the very moment we had a bit of privacy.
Call me overreacting, call me germaphobic, but it pays to be clean, even if I don’t have an organic body. Plus, I highly doubted my host would appreciate the smell.
Rara was terribly meek around strange ponies, such as myself, but I couldn’t blame her. Not with what Ruby did to her. So, I did my best to appear unconcerned with her condition. When she offered to help me prep the vegetables I had so valiantly liberated from one of the home gardens in the noble district, I placated her by saying I wanted to treat them to something nice, as an apology for intruding on their lives.
“So, my dear,” I prattled as suavely as I could, neatly slicing a tomato with a knife held by the glowing, ‘magic’ tentacle sticking out of my forehead, “I’ve told you a little about our expedition. What are your thoughts?”
“Well, I… I’m not sure,” she admitted, hurting my heart as she tried desperately to keep her voice from cracking. “I’m afraid I don’t know much about archaeology. B- but it certainly sounds interesting! I mean, if it turns out that this moving castle exists, I’m… I’m sure that the M- masters will be pleased that you brought it to their attention.”
Even a deaf politician wouldn’t have had a hard time noticing the difficulty she had in forcing that last sentence out. I neatly dropped the diced tomato I was pouring into the pan of other vegetables. Although she couldn’t see it, I turned my head to give her an understanding smile.
“Perhaps, but I think the thrill of discovery is much more rewarding, don’t you think?”
I could see the emotions warring behind her demure smile. It seemed the optimist in her wanted to believe that she might have found another ally, but the pessimist she had developed reminded her not to get her hopes up.
“I suppose so,” she mumbled noncommittally. After a moment of internal debate, I decided it was time to drop the bomb.
“Would you like to come with us?” I asked offhandedly, barely looking up from the spices I was adding.
Immediately, her ears perked up and she turned to face me.
I can hear you judging me from beyond the pages. Listen, there are three reasons I decided to try convincing Starlight’s roommates to join us. First, it was obvious that Lady Ruby had it in for both Starlight and Rara, and, probably by association, Night Glider. If I left with only Starlight, there was no guarantee we wouldn’t come back to a house vacated in the worst possible way. Second, even if I did have some assurance they wouldn’t be bodily targeted, there was still the matter of money. Starlight made up at least half of their household income. If she suddenly stopped providing, the other two would likely be starving within a week. Third, they couldn’t accidentally rat us out if they came with us. Eventually, the guard would come looking for Stark Raven. By the time they connected him to Starlight, it would be best for all three of them if they were long gone.
This was one of those times when it would actually help to have all my eggs in one basket.
“Just imagine it,” I prompted in a dramatic stage whisper, turning away from the stove to fully face her. “The three of you on an expedition through the dunes. The stars to guide our way. Campfires on the side of the road. Discovering ancient ruins and fantastical technologies! An adventure that will bring the three of you closer together than ever.”
“I… I don’t know. Wouldn’t I just get in the way?”
“Nonsense. I’ve heard more than enough from Starlight to know you’re a perfectly capable mare. The way you navigate this house without assistance is more than enough to convince me of that.”
“B- but I live here. I won’t be able to move as freely out there. Y- you shouldn’t worry about me. I’ll get by, somehow.”
I clenched my jaw and idly stirred the ratatouille. This was going to be more difficult than I had thought. She really didn’t want to cause trouble, even if that meant sacrificing herself. But I understood more than she thought. Depression was a hell of a disease.
Can we synthesize organic matter?
<<Organic matter is no different from any other matter. The only thing we cannot recreate is the soul.>>
That statement would have thrown me for a loop only days prior. But since I had somehow swapped bodies, I was beginning to feel like I might not understand as much about the universe—or multiverse, it seemed—as I had originally assumed. At the very least, the idea of some kind of higher power was no longer far-fetched. Whether or not that higher power took the form of some flying spaghetti monster or what have you was still wildly up in the air, but anything seemed possible in a world of telekinetic, technicolor ponies.
Right. Anyway, can we create stem cells?
<<With enough materials and a sample of the recipient’s DNA, it is possible for us to heal a living creature, yes.>>
I huffed in amusement. Well, well. It seems someone is able to make simple deductions, at least.
<<Of course. I am an AI, limited though I may be.>>
So just how possible is it?
<<It depends on several factors, including the patient’s reaction to treatment, the extent of the damage, cleanliness of the operation area, et cetera. Even then, there is no guarantee we will be able to entirely reverse the damage done.>>
I looked back up at Rara, considering my next move. Did I dare dangle that carrot before her, when I had no idea whether it would work or not? On the one hand, it made me feel like the world’s scummiest insurance salesman, using her injury as a bargaining chip. But, on the other, it had always been my intention to help her out in some way. If she didn’t come with us, I would have no way to treat her.
“There is one other thing,” I mentioned as nonchalantly as I could, turning back to the pan to continue stirring. “If you were to come with us, I may be able to treat your injuries.”
Rara stared at me like I had grown a second head. Not that she could have seen whether or not I had, but she sure tried. Have you ever been stared at by a blind person? It’s rather unsettling. No wonder Daredevil has a way with criminal interrogations. But before I had started sweating too hard, she let her confusion be known.
“Why?” she asked, as though I had just given her the keys to the kingdom. She couldn’t see me smiling sadly at her, but I couldn’t help it.
“Because I owe Starlight a debt that can’t be easily repaid.”
We were interrupted by the front door suddenly opening. A pair of sweaty, disgruntled mares shuffled into the main room, covered in twigs and bark dust and carrying a makeshift litter between them, stacked high with bundles of bark strips.
“Ugh, finally home,” Night Glider grunted as they set the litter down.
“You know, Nighty,” Starlight teased, “you didn’t have to help me carry all that.”
‘Nighty’ huffed as she picked up a currying brush off the side table by the door and started to brush herself off. “Yeah, but if I hadn’t we’d have had to wait for you before starting dinner. Speaking of which… Hey, Rara, what smells so good?”
Night Glider froze as our eyes met. I gave her a pleasant if somewhat teasing smile.
“Good evening! You must be Night Gli-”
Before I could even finish my sentence, she had flown over to Rara and was patting her down, thoroughly examining every inch of her.
“Rara! Are you alright? Who is this stallion? He didn’t hurt you did he?”
I raised an eyebrow at the brazen accusation, but Rara’s reaction mollified me.
“What?! No! No, Night Glider, he didn’t hurt me. What do you think I am, a foal who invites random strangers into our home?” She pushed Night Glider off of her, then gestured towards me with a hoof.
“Night, this is Eric. Eric is a friend of Starlight’s.”
“Is that so?” Night Glider pondered, looking at me with a raised eyebrow of her own. She then switched to Starlight, who was openly gawking at me. Seeing as that wasn’t terribly conducive to keeping my story free of holes, I decided to nudge the conversation’s steering wheel a bit.
“Sorry, Starlight. I know you said you’d meet me here tomorrow, but I was too excited to get underway. I was just running our plans by Miss Coloratura here, to see how she feels about coming along.”
“What?!” Starlight and Night Glider shouted at the same time. Rara flushed out of embarrassment.
“Yes!” I asserted. “In fact, I was going to speak to you next, Miss Night Glider. Only, the two of you got home before I finished speaking to Miss Coloratura. So, how about it? Would you like to join us on our little expedition?”
Good grief, I have no idea where all that bravado came from, but boy was I sure talking up a storm. I think, at the time, I was still a little disassociated from my new form. I’d only had it for a few days, after all. Well, it allowed me to at least act the part of an up-and-coming lord. I just wish I knew how quickly it would come back to bite me in the ass.
“How about we discuss this over dinner? I hope you don’t mind, but I took the liberty of preparing a bit of ratatouille for us-”
I cringed as I was interrupted once more by the front door. This time, someone had come knocking. Three sharp raps followed by silence. This was beginning to get ridiculous.
Unfortunately for me, like a car with its brake lines cut, events were beginning to accelerate beyond my control. I could only control the direction I was traveling. Not that I realized that at the time. I just thought it was annoying.
Starlight, as the one closest to the door, looked to the rest of us. We all gave her some form of assent, although I still had the presence of mind to move out of line of sight of the door. After all, I still thought I had some control over the runaway railcar that was my life.
Starlight opened the door a crack, and a familiar voice drifted through.
“Ah, Starlight! I’m glad I’ve caught you. There’s something going on at the Academy and, well…” Preceptor Rubeo cleared his throat. “Anyway, I was hoping to find you before you. Now that I’m here, though, would you mind terribly if I imposed? Something smells delicious.”
Before she could deny him entry, he pushed past Starlight, entering her home with an oblivious grin. I felt a bit chagrined that she didn’t do much to keep him out. But if she had, it would only have cast suspicion on her. Not to mention she had no way to know what he was talking about, unless she had overheard something from the town’s gossip-mongers. But with the amount of crap she had been carrying, I very much doubted she had paid the idle chatter any mind.
“Now then,” Rubeo hummed cheerily, “just what are you cooking that smells so-”
And, again, I was noticed only after someone had already entered the house. This time, though, the reaction was even less favorable.
Rubeo stared at me, taking in every detail, his eyes hardening as he did. There was a sudden flash of bright, red light, and Rara and Night found themselves standing next to Starlight at the door. Rubeo moved between us, his horn leveled at my throat.
“You! You’re Stark Raven! You’re wanted by Lady Rain and the town guard for questioning.”
“What?! Eric, what did you do?”
“Wait, ‘Eric?’” Rubeo backtracked. “Starlight, do you know this stallion?”
In the face of all this focused disapproval, my facade crumbled like so many sheets of tin foil. I gave up all pretense of sophistication in favor of exasperation.
“Starlight, is now really the time for this conversation?” I hissed at her.
She was about to retort when her eyes widened, as if she had just realized who was with her in the room. Rubeo, Night Glider and Rara were watching her expectantly, although Rara appeared to be a little more relaxed. Or slightly less distrustful of me, at least.
“Well, Starlight?” Rubeo prompted, not unlike a disappointed parent. “I’m listening.”
“Ah, um, well, you see… The thing is…”
“Starlight saved me from a fate worse than death,” I explained tersely. “I am merely repaying the favor.”
“By stealing from the children of the nobility?” He nearly shouted. “No! I will not allow you to drag Starlight’s good name through the mud.”
Rubeo blasted me with a spell before I could even react. The difference in ability between he and Starlight was laughably huge, like comparing an expert gunslinger to a kid with a wrist rocket. Unfortunately for him, however, no amount of experience will allow a gunslinger to shoot a pond into submission.
“Look,” I said, blinking the spots out of my eyes, “I think we started off on the wrong foot- er, hoof here.”
“W- what?! Impossible! I hit you dead on! You should be paralyzed”
“And yet, here I am, still talking.”
“Indeed. It seems I will need to use the more direct approach.”
The small but hefty dining table suddenly shot up into the air, encased in Rubeo’s burgundy aura, and barreled towards me. I let out only the slightest of whimpers.
Look, some things are hard-coded into the mammalian brain. I may not have one anymore—or much in the way of organs at all, really—but the mentality remains the same. You try staying stoic while large objects are sent hurtling through the air towards you.
I almost slipped character, but my reflexes saved me. Rather than using my malleable nature to dodge, I utilized something I had already been using. My glowing forehead tentacle shot out, whipping around the table and halting it in mid-air. I gently set it down.
“Hey, now! Let’s not be too hasty,” I tried to soothe. But Rubeo was not having it.
“Demon! I’ll have you in irons!” He then shouted at Starlight and he roommates without turning away from me. “Run, you three! Get the guards! I hold him off.”
But Rubeo was no longer listening. He was too busy throwing tables, chairs, silverware, and anything he could get his magic on at me. I was so busy trying to deflect or dodge everything, that I missed the final nail in the coffin until it was too late.
In the corner of the window, an orange-coated mare in a weird hat was looking in on us. I cursed when she ducked out of sight, but I couldn’t do anything. Not without endangering Starlight and friends.
The sound of a mortar firing bled through the wooden walls, and the night sky lit up with red light. My stomach dropped through the floorboards. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. How could things have gone pear-shaped this quickly?
I didn’t get the chance to lament any further than that, however, as the air outside cracked like an old oak being snapped in half, breaking all the windows. Deathly silence followed, and Starlight and her friends instinctively backed away from the front door. Even Rubeo paused his assault to watch warily as the front creaked open.
Like a praying mantis preparing to bite our heads off, Ruby Rain stood in the doorway, leering at us.
“I found you…” She singsonged in a voice to make a stallion’s balls shrink all the way up into his sternum.
Nobody spoke. Nobody knew what could possibly be said to make the situation any better. Ruby stalked into the room, eyes fixed on me.
“So, Stark… That was your name, wasn’t it? A real ballsy move, lying to my face. Almost got away with it, too. If only you had left the city when you had the chance. You might have even gotten a few miles before I caught you.”
Rubeo, the crazy old stallion, nervously cleared his throat.
“M- my Lady! Thank you for coming as quickly as you did. We… we’ve trapped the thief here, but he is proving difficult to detain. Please, lend us your immeasurable power.”
Ruby Rain glanced sidelong at the old stallion with a barely concealed sneer of disdain.
“Yes, I can see your failures from here. Worry not. I’ll deal with you when I’m done here.” She would have turned back to me, had somepony else not caught her eye.
“Well, well, well… Why am I not surprised?” Ruby lilted, her sneer turning wolfish. “Little Starlight Glimmer and her raggedy friends, here in the midst of these dark dealings. What am I to do with you?”
“My Lady,” Rubeo pleaded, “they have nothing to do with this. The thief tricked them and invaded their home in order to-”
“Silence, worm!” Ruby shrieked. “All who harbor enemies of the Masters, even unwittingly, will be punished! Unless… you wish to join them?”
“Oh, give it a rest, Crabby-o. Queen Bitch obviously isn’t listening.”
There comes a point in every person’s life when they are faced with someone beyond unreasonable. We have only two options: avoid confrontation, or embrace it. Avoiding confrontation in one way or another is usually the better of the two options. Anger leads to anger, pain to pain, and all that jazz.
This was not one of those times.
Lady Ruby whirled on me, baring her teeth like a rabid dog. I merely huffed in amusement.
“Ah, pardon. Perhaps that was rude of me. Would you prefer Cunt-ess, instead?”
For a moment, Lady Ruby couldn’t respond. She had been stunned by my sheer audacity. This suited me just fine; I had at least a few things to get off my chest.
Mind you, this was not the product of a rage-fevered mind. In fact, I was paradoxically distressed that I was feeling so calm. Perhaps it’s the result of no longer having any sort of hormones, but even the heart-pounding adrenaline rush of facing a surely dangerous situation hadn’t reared its ugly head, much less left its cave. What I felt was more akin to the protective spirit of watching a favorite character in a TV show- er… story, facing danger. I felt concerned for the safety of Starlight and the others, but not like I was in any danger myself.
“Regardless, you do have one thing right,” I offered, walking towards her and simultaneously putting myself between Ruby and the others. “Starlight is at the center of all this.”
Everyone but Ruby and myself gasped, Starlight probably because she realized that the major life changes had come much sooner than anticipated. It couldn’t be helped, though. There was no weaseling out of this one. Ruby had blood on her mind, and no amount of pleas or bribery would change that. I had only one option.
Push the offensive.
“She’s the one who saved me, and the one who contracted me to oppose the likes of you. And I’ll admit, after hearing all about you and seeing the mare behind the tales, I’m itching to take a bite.”
I walked forward with as predatory a grin I could muster, and snapped my teeth at her. Ruby instinctively backed out the door. Whether it was out of fear or simply because she was overwhelmed by such direct aggression after standing unopposed by the commoners for so long, I’ll never know. But from the look in her eyes, I suspected it was probably a bit of both. I brushed past her on my way outside.
“Now then, shall we dance a bit, you and I? I’m eager to shake off the rust.”
Had it been anyone else in my place, that would have turned into a fatal mistake.
For an instant, I felt a sharp tug around my neck, like a string wrapping around it. Behind me, a chorus of loud, despaired gasps echoed out of the house. I could hazard a guess as to what had just happened, but I figured I might as well know for certain.
Adjutant, what just happened?
<<Director, the one known as Ruby Rain slashed through our neck with a dagger, in an attempt to sever our head, destroying 0.00000012% of our microculture. Apologies. My automated defensive programming has not yet reached full capacity.>>
No worries. It’ll take many more hits like that before she even makes a dent in us. Let’s send her a message, shall we?
I felt glad at that moment that the Adjutant could access my thoughts, because it understood my plans and assented in an instant. My grin spread almost from ear to ear.
For effect, I rolled my neck, creating a dozen satisfying pops, even if they were artificial. I then turned my head to look directly at Ruby, without turning my neck.
“Ah, how rude of me. It seems I forgot to introduce myself properly.”
I turned towards them all and hunched forward, before transforming. True to form, the Adjutant knew what I wanted and followed through perfectly. I began to grow in jerky spurts, shifting form with an unnecessarily gruesome cacophony of breaking bones and wet, tearing sounds. But by the time it was all over, I felt more comfortable than I had in days.
I was human again.
Well, more or less. I still didn’t have any real organic parts, I was still green, and I made my teeth more akin to a shark’s, but it felt good to stand on two legs again. So that’s what I did.
I was never a terribly tall person, and yet I stood a full head and change taller than Ruby. Starlight and friends didn’t even come up to my navel. I had morphed with a full three-piece suit, complete with tailcoat, and my shoulder-length hair was pulled into my usual tight ponytail. With my sharp cheekbones framed by long bangs, I’m told I looked very much the part of the demon prince.
“It is my great pleasure to finally meet face-to-real-face,” I hummed, voice unhindered by the shape of my teeth. “Allow me to formally introduce myself. My friends know me as Eric, although I have many more names; Prince of the Eternal Cairn, Doppelganger, The Beast of a Thousand Voices, The All-Consuming Hunger. But you may call me… The Smooze.”
I made up a couple of those, yes, but it had the desired effect. Ruby took a step back from both the house and myself.
“Im… Impossible! You were sealed away! No one should have been able to release you!”
“Perhaps. But my dear Starlight found a way. Now I’m back and feeling a bit… peckish.”
I made my pupils shrink to pinpricks, and my deranged grin spanned fully from ear to ear.
“And right now… you look absolutely scrumptious.”
The terrified yelp that escaped Ruby’s lips was so much more satisfying than it had any right to be. I hadn’t even touched her yet. But I didn’t have long to wait for something better. In her panic, Ruby launched her dagger at me. A mistake, as I caught it with ease. It’s so much simpler to stop missile weapons when you don’t have to worry about them piercing flesh.
I looked curiously at the blade embedded in my palm. It was a sharp, vicious thing in elegant dressings; quite a reflection of the wielder it seemed. I smirked and removed it so that it dangled between a thumb and forefinger. Then, to add insult to the non-injury, I opened up wide and swallowed the thing whole. I made a face, as it tasted odd, like a poorly aged steak. It was probably all the dry blood hiding in the weapon’s cracks.
“Blech. You don’t take very good care of your weapons, do you?”
Ruby screeched in fear and anger. Nothing had caused her this much trouble in decades. And like the rabid animal she was coming to resemble, she lashed out.
“Die! Die! DIE!!!”
With each panicked order, she shot at me with blasts of focused magic. None of them did more than ruffle my fake clothes. I chucked evilly. This feeling of power was quite intoxicating, it seemed, and it certainly felt nice to have somewhere to direct all the pent up aggression from everything I’d encountered.
“I was taught not to play with my food. But, for you, I think I’ll make an exception!”
Faster than even I expected, I whipped out with my Extendo-arm—patent pending—and delivered a resounding slap across her face. She stumbled back, stunned by the unexpected strike. I capitalized on the opportunity by grabbing her by her horn.
“Now then, which part should I bite off first, I wonder?”
What happened next caught me completely off guard. With her personality type, I expected Ruby Rain to be the kind of spellcaster that specialized in nightmare illusions or fear enchantments, maybe even a fire elementalist. But no, her forelegs suddenly sprouted thick, brown fur and sharp claws. Ruby Rain was a transmuter.
With one swipe, she splattered my weaker, stretched-out arm. It snapped back at me like a broken rubber band, and I quickly reeled it back, recalling the part now hanging from her horn as I did. It seemed I couldn’t block magic if it was focused inward.
“It will be me that does the biting, monster!” She spat, circling me as she continued her transformation into a grotesque chimera of bear arms, raptor legs, boar tusks and the spiny tail of some insectile monster I’d never encountered. She roared at me, puffing up like a frightened chicken. I just raised my eyebrows.
“Not bad. Solid seven out of ten. Could be scarier. Let me show you how it’s done.”
I started quivering violently, literally coming apart as I did. Bladed limbs burst out of my back and split my arms down the center. My jaw dislocated as my teeth grew until they were finger-length and as sharp as needles. My eyes sunk back into my skull and my hair wilted and was absorbed back into my body. My clothing devolved into something more skin-like, wrinkled and bunched up in odd places. Then, to really drive it home, I let out a deafening screech.
Foley is so much easier in this body. I can shape my vocal cords any way I want, including the reed-like shape I used for the screech. Even so, looking back, I was lucky that my first attempt at creating a sound outside of the human vocal range yielded results that wouldn’t have been out of place in a horror film.
Unfortunately that’s where my luck ended.
Ruby Rain let out a gurgling shriek, hindered by her tusks, and jumped back. Her tail whipped forward reflexively, launching a salvo of spines from the bundle at the end of her tail. Apparently, she wanted me to stay away. I smiled viciously.
But that victorious feeling died when I heard someone cry out behind me. I turned slowly, a freezing chill washing over me. Starlight had sat down, probably because of the foot-long spine now sticking out of her chest. The front of her coat was slowly being dyed red.
I hadn’t protected her. I shouted without thinking.
With my bladed limbs, I clattered over the ground towards her, rapidly dissolving into a mass of green goop. I had to save her. I had to do something. I couldn’t lose Emma again. With all the care of a paramedic, I scooped her up into my crude arms.
Help her, goddammit! I shouted in my mind.
Without a word, I felt the Adjutant take control of a portion of my body and use it to maneuver into Emma’s wound. The flow of blood from her chest ebbed to a trickle. The spine seemed to wiggle itself free and then get whisked away, quickly dissolving into nothingness. The Adjutant spoke, though its voice felt distant.
<<The quill pierced her left ventricle and she has lost large quantities blood. It is possible to heal her, but until we escape Ruby Rain, it is a moot point.>>
I couldn’t even take a moment to consider. As fast as quicksand, I swallowed her up into a pocket of air I created inside me, making sure I set up an air renewal system, as well. Almost as an afterthought, I surged over to where the others were all standing and did the same. They panicked, of course, but I paid them no mind. They were safe inside me, and that’s what was important.
My exterior hardened until it became a shell as hard as steel, just in time to fend off another volley of spines. But I couldn’t pause to retaliate. I had to get Emma to safety. Like an armored personnel carrier, I thundered out of the house, smashing through the door frame like so many toothpicks.
With all the subtlety of a rhinoceros, I barged past Ruby Drops and out onto the main thoroughfare. As I did, for a just moment, my brain itched, and my vision blurred around the edges until all I could see was Ruby. I lashed out, using all the mass I could spare. The tendril ended up about as thick and as long as a ten-year-old pine tree trunk. She tried jump over the swiping tentacle, but wasn’t quite fast enough. I caught her tail and quickly enveloped it. In that split second, we locked eyes.
Then I pulled. Hard.
There was an audible crack, followed by a pained scream, and something gave way. I sped off down the street, holding half of her barbed tail in my tendril. I consumed it out of spite, though it tasted incredibly bitter.
Ruby’s anguished cries split the air behind me, but I couldn’t pause to savor them. I had to get out of town. I revved my “engines” and scrambled, making for the South Gate at forty miles-per-hour.
The roads were uneven and twisty, but with my unique attributes they posed no problem. The only thing that truly hindered us were the ponies that wandered into the street, to see what all the commotion was about. I did my best to swerve around them, and the ones that did actively attempt to stop me, I plowed right through. The bystanders that I couldn’t avoid and the pursuers that weren’t wielding weapons were met with rubbery surfaces, so as to minimize the damage. The ones that tried to attack us with steel, however, encountered a shell that was much more unyielding. I’m sure I broke more than a few bones that day, but I didn’t have the luxury of mercy.
The South Gate, however, was not so simple. The guard had somehow received word of my escape already. I suspect they were advised ahead of time that something was about to go down. Regardless of how they found out, a platoon of guards stood directly in front of the gate, and the iron portcullis had been closed.
Alone in the street, I paused a moment to consider my options. I could try to enter the sewers and find out where they let out, but that would take time I did not have, and was too inflexible an option. Plus I really didn’t want to go back down there. So that was out. I could also try lifting the gate, but I wasn’t willing to gamble on whether or not I was strong enough. That really only left me with one option: scaling the wall.
Guards stood at attention no more than a foot apart atop the wall, spears pointed inward. Still, this was much sparser than an entire platoon. What’s more, the further away from the gate—and, subsequently, the stairs to the top of the wall—they stood, the more spread out they became. The best choice was fairly obvious.
I maneuvered into the back alleys, in order to approach the walls with relative secrecy. They could probably catch glimpses of me between the rooftops, but I hoped I could keep them guessing as to where I would end up. Eventually, I reached the point where I was sitting behind a little shack at the edge of town, with about twenty yards of open space between me and the wall.
Peering carefully around the corner, I saw about a dozen guard ponies shouting down the line, calling for reinforcements. They had obviously seen me; you can’t sneak very well when you’re the size of a four-person camp trailer. It was now or never. The longer I waited, the more guards I’d have to go through.
And yet, I hesitated. I was pulling people from their lives to drag along with me on some crazy adventure I’d been unwittingly thrust into. Did I really have the right to do that?
But then, I felt Emma cry out in pain, and all doubts were wiped from my head.
The distance between the shack and the wall vanished before I even realized I was moving. I found purchase on the wooden beams as easily as a squirrel, and slurped my way up the side of the wall. The guards barely had time to react. Some tried to stab me with their spears. Others shot arrows at me. A few ran. But none could stop me from scaling the wall.
I crested the wall with ease, shoving guards out of my way as easily as toy soldiers. A few fell, but their distressed cries were drowned out by the ones emanating from inside me. Without hesitation, I leapt from the crude, wooden crenellations and out into the free countryside. Moments later, my mind caught up with me, and I realized I needed to slow my descent, or else the impact might be transferred to Emma and the others.
A thousand pencil-thin legs exploded out from underneath me. As they came into contact with the ground, they snapped under the weight bearing down on them, only to be replaced by two more. Each impact lessened my velocity incrementally, until I had drifted to the ground on a ramp of broken stalks. The broken pieces reverted to goo without needing any sort of order, and scurried over to join me, all while a hail of arrows pelted my armor plates. A few found the gaps, but they were easily stopped between friction from the plates and the shock absorption of my jelly-like flesh. As soon as the last splotch of remaining goo rejoined me, I sped off, rumbling down the road at breakneck speeds.
The alarmed shouts faded into the background as I rounded a curve, until no sound reached me. I continued like this—rumbling down the road like an M1 Abrams in fourth gear—for a few miles. Then, when my paranoia settled a little, I started searching for a large enough copse of trees to hunker down in.
Adjutant, how is Emma doing?
<<By Emma, do you mean Starlight Glimmer?>>
I paused for a moment.
Uh… yeah. Starlight. What did I say?
<<You have been calling her Emma.>>
Hot shame washed over me. How long had I been doing that? Had she noticed? Had the others noticed? If so, how long would it be until they started asking questions? Questions I did not want to answer.
<<In any case, Starlight Glimmer has been stabilized. I was able to repair her cardiac tissue with the limited resources available. However, she still has a deep puncture wound through her thoracic wall, and I do not currently have the resources to regenerate the rest of the damaged tissue and membranes. I could attempt to simply seal the wound, but doing so may impair her ability to breathe and walk. Additionally, while I am able to act as her flesh, her body may eventually recognize the microgolems as foreign elements and attempt to reject them. This will exponentially increase the risk of infection and reopening of the wound.>>
I chewed on that info bite before asking:
What do you need?
<<Between the sulfates and phosphates we picked up in the sewer and the tail segment you procured earlier, we have a healthy supply of most of the necessary atomic compounds. However, we still require more hydrogen, oxygen, sodium, carbon, and iron. You should have no trouble picking up the necessary quantities from the air and from roadside particulate. Then, we merely need time to perform the synthesis.>>
I shuddered at the idea of having picked anything up from the sewer. But the Adjutant had assured me that all harmful bacteria, viruses, and fungi had been purged. So things weren’t too critical. I only needed to get my little group as far away we could, and then Starlight would be healed and we would be on our merry way.
And how are the others doing?
<<The unicorn designated as Rubeo is still trying to escape the compartment. The pegasus, Night Glider, briefly attempted to break out, but has since returned to Starlight’s side. She has just started arguing with the earth pony, Coloratura, about the tendril we are using to plug up Starlight Glimmer’s wound.>>
That didn’t sound good. I quickly chose the nearest, thickest copse of trees, shrunk down a bit, and then sprouted leaves until I looked like a giant bush. When I swiveled my eyes inward, it so happened that was just the moment Rubeo stopped blasting the interior of the air bubble and turned his attention to the murmured conversation between Night Glider and Rara.
“... If it’s eating her from the inside out?” Night Glider’s voice drifted to the fore of my senses, as if I was noticing her for the first time.
“I… I think she’d be in a lot more pain if he were doing that,” Rara quietly reassured her.
“But how can you say for sure?! What if this thing’s doing something to her? I don’t like the way it’s pulsating!”
Uh, Adjutant, is the pulsation really necessary?
<<I am massaging her heart, helping it to keep her blood pumping. She is still weak from healing, and it may be some hours until the new cardiac tissue is working at full capacity.>>
Well, that answered that. But before I could reply to Night Glider’s concerns, Rubeo piped up with his two bits.
“As much as I am loathe to admit it, I believe Miss Coloratura has it right. You saw how this thing reacted to Starlight’s injury. Although I’m not entirely sure what ‘Emma’ means, or why it called her such, it would be safe to assume the two of them have entered into some sort of contract. Why, exactly, my foolish young apprentice decided to form a pact with this devilish monster, I cannot guess. But we likely won’t know until she awakens.”
I took a moment to shape a somewhat presentable face around my eyes, then pushed through the interior wall and cleared my throat.
“Or, you could just ask me.”
Rubeo whirled on me, horn already primed for casting.
“Fiend! Release us at once! I’ll not let you harm innocent ponies!”
“Hey, I just saved you from being gutted by Psycho-Bitch! A little gratitude would be nice.”
“We would not have needed saving if not for you! Now, we are wanted fugitives! How dare you drag us into your schemes!”
“As far as I could tell, Starlight and the others aren’t exactly Ruby’s chosen. I think you knew that, too. Why else would you be warning her not to go to the Academy? No, you were already embroiled in so many schemes that you couldn’t even see the surface. I’m pulling you out of all that, offering a fresh start. Your only other option would be to suffer in silence until the day Ruby Rain decides you’re no longer useful.”
“And what is this fresh start, hm? Running from the law and chasing fairy tales? You have nothing to offer but pain and misery!”
“Oh no?” I snarled, gesturing angrily back at Ponyville. “I guess you weren’t paying attention when I was handing Ruby’s ass to her on a silver platter. I may be offering a painful road, but at least I’m also offering a chance at true freedom, rather than the ever-looming threat of a knife in the back. Face it, Groucho Marx, I’m the closest thing to a chance at a life free from tyranny that you’re ever going to get!”
“Yes, and such a great job you’ve done, too,” he sneered, voice dripping with sarcasm. “I’m sure if you could ask Starlight how she feels about your protection, she’d be applauding you up and down. Might be a little difficult, though, with that hole in her chest!”
“Alright, fine!” I shouted, looking away from him in shame. Unfortunately, I looked right in the direction of Starlight’s unconscious form. “I… I made a mistake. But I’m going to fix it, and then I’m going to make sure it never happens again.”
“Just like you did with this Emma we’ve heard nothing about, I’m sure.”
I froze, distracted by a sudden ringing in my ears and the hot wax coating my brain.
“What did you say?”
“Well, if you’ve done as good a job at protecting your Emma as you have Starlight, then I’m sure we’ve nothing more to wrkh-!”
It’s really quite amazing how quickly I can move when properly motivated. I had shot out a tendril of goo and choked Rubeo with it before anyone could even blink.
“If I ever hear her name pass your lips again,” I hissed dangerously, pulling him within an inch of my face, “things will go very badly for you!”
Just barely, I could make out Night Glider shouting at me to let him go, and Rara desperately asking what was going on. I held on a moment longer, then let go, leaving Rubeo to cough and gasp on the ground behind me. Without a word, I turned away, and my eyes swam back out to the surface. I had more important things to worry about than an ungrateful douchebag digging into my past. I had ponies to protect, a fortress to find, and a bunch of tyrants to overthrow.
Unfortunately, that list didn’t include taking notice of the sharp, brown eyes following my movements from the foliage of the trees.
As the twilight deepened into night, so too did the forest darken around us. It had been a couple of hours since we had jumped the walls of Ponyville, disappearing into the treeline shortly thereafter. The rest of the time had been spent navigating the dense and cloying foliage of what the Adjutant advised me was called the Everfree Forest. I thought it an odd name, given the political climate of Equestria, but apparently, it was a title left over from the regime a millennium past. Why they hadn’t renamed it, the Adjutant couldn’t say, but I suspected that someone high up had a sadistic sense of humor.
The trees crowded closer together the deeper we traveled, until I could no longer fit between the trunks in my APC form. I had to resort to a sort of slug-like shape to make any sort of progress. This, of course, forced me to shuffle the occupants of my safety bubble around. They were in a single file line before long, and more than a bit cramped. It probably didn’t help that I jumped at nearly every rustling branch and twitching shadow, fully expecting soldiers to come jumping out at us.
As much as the idea made my brain squirm, I knew I would have to let them out soon. None of them had had the opportunity to use the restroom before I had abducted them, and they also needed to eat. I regretted that it hadn’t occurred to me to snatch up the ratatouille as we made our escape, but I probably would have just burned myself anyway. In any case, I would have to scrounge up some food for the group, as well as find a place to stop for the night.
As if it had read my thoughts—which it probably had, in hindsight—the Adjutant spoke up.
<<Director, there is a clearing 7.66 meters to the southwest with sufficient quantities of edible fruits and vegetation for four ponies, if you wish to stop for the night.>>
Of course, I immediately knew exactly which point in the distance I needed to turn towards without even asking. Having an AI assistant in your ‘brain’ can be both convenient and eerie at the same time. How it knew what kind of plants could be found that far away sent a chill up my imaginary spine, but I silently thanked the Adjutant for its assistance all the same and wriggled in the direction of the clearing. Less than a minute later, the forest opened up slightly, allowing us our first glimpse of the night sky in hours.
I forcibly ejected the three conscious ponies out into the clearing, Rara much more gently than the other two.
“We’re stopping here for the night,” I stated, vainly hoping my tone would brook no argument.
“Oh? How generous of you,” Rubeo grumbled sarcastically, spitting out a mouthful of dead leaves from his not-so-graceful landing.
“And what about Starlight?” Night Glider fumed, having caught herself midair. “Aren’t you going to let her out, too?”
For a moment, I could only stare at her incredulously.
“Yes, I am absolutely going to expose an unconscious pony with a hole in her chest to the dirt and grime of a forest floor!” I all but yelled. “Are you stupid, or just insane?”
“Hey! Don’t forget whose fault it is that she got hurt in the first place!”
I almost snapped at that. But some small part of me, possibly the Adjutant, reminded me that Night Glider was not my enemy. She was just worried about her friend. I took a deep breath. To my surprise, I found it actually helped calm myself, despite not having a circulatory system.
“You’re right, I won’t. Ruby Drops will pay.”
There was a sharp intake of breath from everypony in the clearing. Both Rara and Night Glider looked shocked and anxious. Rubeo looked like he was about to burst a blood vessel.
“Are you mad?!” He nearly shrieked.
“Jury’s still out on that one,” I answered truthfully, turning to look at Starlight.
“You witnessed Ruby Drops’ power yourself! You still think you can fight the Masters and protect Starlight at the same time?”
“I do. I just need somewhere safe to keep her. And the rest of you, too.”
“Oh? And where would that be?”
I steeled myself. I knew he’d react poorly. I hadn’t had time to butter him up, to explain, to even really introduce myself. All he knew was some shapeshifting monster had swept his student up into an insane scheme to defy the greatest forces in the world. And he certainly wasn’t going to allow me to sidetrack the conversation.
“I’m going to find Howl’s Moving Castle.”
“Oh! Oh!” Rubeo started stomping around the clearing. “Oh, that’s rich! You’re just going to find it, are you? Just like that? And what makes you think you’ll succeed where so many others have failed? You think you’re just going to waltz into some secret hiding place, just by accident? No! I’ll not let you endanger my student’s life any further! As soon as she’s healed, we’re leaving!”
“Like I said before, Rubber Band, you’re in no better position to protect her.”
“Of course I am! I am a Preceptor at Silverglow Academy! They have to listen to me!”
“And why would they do that? You associate with known criminals and ponies under investigation of the state,” I argued, gesturing first to myself and then Starlight. “You were on thin ice, to begin with. Now that you’re out here, there’s no going back.”
“I…” For the first time since he saw me, Rubeo hesitated. “I can go back! We can go back! I’ll- I’ll make them listen to me.”
“Oh? How so?”
“I’ll bring you in with me!”
I’ll give him one thing, Rubeo had at least learned something from his time confined in my protective custody. He didn’t try to blast me into submission but instead chose to project a magic bubble around me. He was trying to trap me.
I stared at him, my growing ire having vanished in the face of sheer idiocy.
“My god. You are either an idiot or a genius at bluffing,” I reiterated.
“I’m the villain here, right? So, genius, how were you planning to get me to release Starlight? Come on, show me. Surprise me.”
Rubeo’s frown deepened, and the magic around his horn shined brighter. The bubble began to flex and shift inward, like a giant dog chewing a ball. Part of me wanted to avoid it, but the greater part of me was morbidly curious. Had Rubeo actually figured out how to bypass my magical resistance? For some reason, the idea excited me. Perhaps it was that strange little part of our brains that tells us to jump off cliffs and touch hot stoves.
So, instead of shying away, I reached out to touch it. The instant my gelatinous finger came in contact with the magical field, it popped, as if it were simply made of soap. I sighed, disappointed, before turning back to the others in the clearing, feeling like a deflated balloon. It seemed I was still in the position of power.
“There’s plenty of forage around this clearing. Don’t wander off, I don’t want to have to go looking for lost ponies. We leave at first light.”
I turned away, fully intent on monitoring Starlight’s health for the rest of the night, but a soft voice pulled me back.
“Who… are you?”
I looked back to see a war going on behind Rara’s face. She looked concerned, but whether it was for herself, her friends, or for me, I couldn’t tell. The metaphorical pit that had replaced my stomach grew deeper by yards. I tried to put even the slightest of smiles into my voice.
“As I told Ruby Drops, I am the Smooze. But, as I told you, I would prefer it if you called me Eric.”
“How do you know Starlight?”
I hesitated for a moment, unsure of how much I should confide in them. At the very least, I didn’t want to outright lie to Rara. She deserved that much.
“I wasn’t lying when I said she saved me from a fate worse than death. She pulled me out of a hellish captivity and gave me a purpose. Far be it from me to convince her not to try and shape the world for the better. I feel like I may have done the same, in her position.”
Not that they needed to know I had only been captive for all of maybe half an hour. What I had experienced in that half-hour, however, made me treasure my sanity. I doubt I would have been able to keep it together, had I been there for weeks, or even just days. And right now, I needed to focus on saving my savior.
“Get yourselves some food, then get some rest. We have a long way to go.”
Kingfisher was a simple mare. All she ever needed, all she ever wanted in life was complete situational awareness. As long as she knew everything that was going on around her and why, she would be in control, and therefore happy. Of course, circumstances often got in the way of this, and so she was rarely ever more than content.
Like her current situation, for instance. It was approaching nighttime, and she could only barely keep an eye on the group she was tailing. Somehow, that damnable slime knew whenever she approached. She wasn’t sure how, either. All she knew was that it twitched at her ever so slightly every time she set hoof within twelve yards. Luck had favored her the first time it had whipped around to stare where she had stood; she had been able to jump behind a suitably thick tree and hide just in time. Every subsequent attempt to close the distance had ended much the same.
She chewed on her front hoof, watching the group through binoculars from her position in the lower branches of a tree. Her clairaudience charms—small, ear-mounted runes disguised as simple studs that boosted her hearing—only worked out to ten yards. Not only that but, in spite of her best efforts, she could only find vantage points with a view of sixty percent of the clearing at most. She was woefully in the dark about her targets, and it was grating on her nerves.
But just as she was about to try getting closer for what felt like the twentieth time that night, there was movement from the camp. Movement coming her way. She quickly activated the listening runes, before gathering her black habit around her hooves and face, further disappearing into the darkness.
It was just two of them: Preceptor Rubeo Citrinitas and the weathermare, Night Glider. They picked edible grasses and berries in silence for a time, sweeping the area just outside the clearing. Before long, however, Rubeo spoke, keeping his voice low.
“So,” she curtly replied.
“Can I count on your support, once Starlight has recovered?”
Night Glider quietly continued gathering rations, contemplating her answer.
“I don’t know,” she eventually replied.
“What do you mean, you don’t know?” He whispered harshly.
“I mean exactly what I said.”
“You heard what this thing’s plans are! How can you possibly have any doubt?!”
“Because I saw him fight, and I know you did too.” When Rubeo continued to stare at her with incredulity, Night Glider sighed. “Look, on the one hoof, yes, the idea is insane. All my life, I’ve been told never to go against the Masters, or else I’d end up like everyone else who tried.”
Night looked out into the darkness, setting Kingfisher’s hackles on end when she swept by the tree Kingfisher sat in.
“On the other, this thing, this guy, this… Eric. He hurt Ruby Drops. While she was transformed. By himself! Not one single pony, griffon, minotaur, or anyone else, can claim as much.”
She paused for a moment before continuing. “I’m tired, Preceptor. Tired of worrying, tired of going hungry, tired of feeling like a pawn in some unseen game of chess. Tired of feeling like my friends—my family—will be put to the sword if I have even a single feather out of place. For the first time, I feel like things might change, you know? Like, if I could go back to the way things were, would I even want to?”
Rubeo stared at her like she had grown a second head.
“But… But what about Starlight?”
“Alright, yes, I was being… stubborn, earlier. But I’ve seen the wound. It’s definitely a lot smaller than it was, to begin with. And Eric was right, it would be stupid of him, and me, to risk exposing her to infection. Once she’s healed and awake, we’ll see if she’s changed her mind. But until then, I’m sticking with the only creature that might have a chance of standing up to the Masters.”
Nightglider picked a few more tufts of grass, then headed back towards the makeshift campsite, wings laden with food.
“You’re chasing a fairy tale! All of you!” Rubeo called out after her.
Night Glider turned back.
“Maybe, but the Smooze used to be just a fairy tale, too. Who’s to say Howl’s Castle doesn’t also have roots in the truth?”
Kingfisher’s eyes went wide. Such a strange and intriguing plan they had, if far-fetched. Night Glider shot back one last quip as she about-faced, continuing back towards the campsite.
“Ponyville’s back the way you came if you so badly want back under Ruby’s girdle again.”
Night Glider wandered back towards camp like she owned the forest. Rubeo started grumbling to himself, too low for Kingfisher to hear, though words like “idiots” and “suicidal” came through loud and clear. She kept an eye on him as she mulled the new information over.
By all indications, the Smooze and his party were heading south. If they were searching for Howl’s Moving Castle, that likely meant they were heading towards the Badlands. But what did they hope to find there? The Masters had been combing through the Badlands for centuries.
Kingfisher shook her head. Whatever their plans were, they would amount to nothing. She knew where they were going, and it seemed she had already found a weak link. She watched, as Rubeo continued to gather food for a while and then followed Night Glider back to camp. It was very tempting to go down there and recruit him right away, but knowing Brother Odd, he already had contingencies in place, and contingencies for those contingencies. She had a duty to fulfill, even if she had only been able to glean the barest amount of information.
Slowly, carefully, she slipped out of the tree and took to the sky, keeping an eye on the campsite for sudden movements. When she was sure she had traveled far enough that not even the most powerful clairaudience spell could hear her, she alighted on a cloud and pulled the long-range communication runestone from her habit. A quick burst of pegasus magic and the link opened.
“This is Kingfisher, reporting in.”
“Acknowledged,” Brother Odd himself replied, startling her. “Give your report, Inquisitor.”
“Ah! A- apologies, Brother. I wasn’t expecting you to be the one receiving my call.”
“This is an important mission. The previous Smooze was troublesome by itself, and it was only a frothing mass of anger. An intelligent Smooze has the potential to outpace even the Mirthful Jester in disrupting our country. Now tell me, what have you found out?”
“Of course, Brother. As you suspected, the Smooze’s follower base is quite small. It has only four ponies accompanying it, at the moment, three of whom seem to be by choice. They are as follows: Starlight Glimmer, unicorn mare, age 20, now former student at the Ponyville branch of the Silverglow Academy for Adept Casters; Coloratura, earth pony mare, age 24, former maid at the Breeze estate in Ponyville; and Night Glider, pegasus mare, age 23, now former factory worker at the Cloudsdale weather factory. The unwilling follower is one Rubeo Citrinitas, unicorn stallion, age 68, Preceptor at the Ponyville branch of the Silverglow Academy. I would request copies of their dossiers, once assembled.
“The three mares follow the Smooze seemingly of their own volition, although I suspect Starlight Glimmer may have been the catalyst. Coloratura likely follows because she has nowhere else to go, and Night Glider out of a twisted sense of duty to her friends and housemates. The Preceptor seems to be following in an attempt to find an opportunity to rescue the three for the Smooze’s influence. I would recommend not vilifying him just yet. He may prove to be useful as an insider.
“In any case, their immediate objective appears to be finding Howl’s Moving Castle. Whether or not this is driven by any concrete evidence or information remains to be seen. At present, they are heading southward. Although I have no proof, I theorize they are attempting to find some part of the Castle in the Badlands. It would make sense, given the prevalence of the location in legends about the Castle. At their current pace and heading, they should reach Ghastly Gorge within a day and a half. What their plans are beyond that, I dare not speculate. I haven’t been able to use the clairaudience runes much, as every time I approach within approximately twelve yards of the Smooze, it seems to detect my presence. From what I witnessed of its fight with Lady Ruby Drops, I think it wise to keep my distance. For now, that is all I have to report.”
Kingfisher waited as Brother Odd processed the information. Thankfully, he never took long, and this was no exception.
“Very good. Continue monitoring them from a distance. Wait to approach Rubeo until I have more information. I’ll relocate agents into Appleloosa and Dodge Junction in preparation. Continue sending daily reports until further notice. I’m still investigating the Jester’s recent attacks on the Badlands Refineries. I’ll have Pinkamena send the dossiers along by noon tomorrow, and decide on my next move as soon as you know for certain which way they are heading. Stay alert, but do not put yourself in danger. Should something befall this little ragtag band, report it and confirm the casualties. Nothing else.”
“Of course, Brother. May God light your path.”
“And yours,” he finished, and the connection was severed.
Kingfisher returned the runestone to its pouch and shuffled over to the edge of the cloud, where she could keep an eye on the campsite. She practiced breathing slow and deep, settling in for a night of light sleep. It frustrated her that she wouldn’t be able to sleep adequately, but it couldn’t be helped. She couldn’t get close enough to the group to be awakened by the sound of their departure, so she would just have to keep an eye on them throughout the night.
“At least I can find a better night’s sleep in a cloud than a tree branch,” she mumbled to herself, before slipping into a fitful sleep.
I spent half of the night watching the forest for errant twitches in the darkness and listening for snapping branches and rustling leaves. The other half I spent fretting over Starlight. The others had eaten their meager supper of grasses and flowers and turned in almost immediately after. I was glad that we were traveling in a summery climate, or the trip would be much less tolerable. I dreaded to think what might happen if it rained. Being dissolved sounded like a very unpleasant experience, especially having had a taste of it back at the Academy.
A little more than an hour before dawn, the Adjutant proclaimed that Starlight’s treatment was complete and that I could safely release her from containment. I did so reluctantly, though I still left her in a sleeping bag of Smooze-foam. There wasn’t much else to do besides stay alert and wait, so I decided it would be a good idea to learn.
<<Yes, Director Eric?>>
I need to know more about being a Smooze.
<<What do you wish to know?>>
Everything. I need to know what I am, what I can and can’t do, how I function, anything that might help me to or hinder me from protecting people. Then I need to know about this world. I know we both overheard Night Glider say there are griffins, minotaurs, and other creatures in this world. I need to know what they are, who they answer to, everything there is to know about Equestria and the lands beyond.
<<That is quite a lot of information. I am unsure I will be able to relay it all to you before the night is over.>>
Start with the basics, then. What did you say Smooze is an acronym for again?
<<The “Synthesized Microculture of Omniformative Zooidic Engines.”>>
What does that make us, exactly?
<<We are a mass of self-replicating microgolems in a variety of configurations, suspended in a plant-based oil medium. Originally, we were created in a joint project by Starswirl the Bearded and Cosmo Howl, to be used as a treatment for a degenerative aura disease known as Alzheifer’s Syndrome. However, we were repurposed to combat the Masters upon their escape from the deepest pits of Tartarus.>>
And how do we function?
<<Our microgolems are capable of a multitude of functions, both destructive and creative, fueled by what we consume. We are capable of converting all types of matter and energy into energy of our own. The majority of our energy is derived from solar and lunar rays, in a process similar to photosynthesis. Of course, we are also able to absorb forces such as raw mana, electricity, radiation, sonic, heat, and, to some extent, kinetic. However, high concentrations of heat or kinetic energy are still dangerous to us, and turbulent water will cause the medium in which the microgolems are suspended to break up and expose them to short-circuiting.>>
So, we’re weak to fire and running water. Does that include rain?
<<Water of all varieties poses little threat with sufficient preparation. We are capable of solidifying the oil medium into a hydrophobic, rubber-like material, which we can use to encase the culture. Unfortunately, my processes were still initializing when we retreated into the Academy drainage pipe. Apologies.>>
It’s fine. What about being crushed?
<<If the surfaces between which we are compressed are nonporous enough, the danger is extreme. However, since each microgolem is about the size of a single white blood cell, the list of materials that qualify is slim. In essence, the only significant damage would occur if we were to be crushed with hydraulic pressure between two plates of highly machined metals or dense minerals.>>
I see. Tell me more about the microgolems, I requested, channeling Commander Shepard.
<<Using technical terms from your human vocabulary, the microgolems are minuscule constructs made primarily from a graphene-quartz polymer nanocomposite, wired with gold, and powered by a combination of electrical and arcane energy. On average, each microgolem’s dimensions are approximately four by four by five microns, and are capable of storing 2.85 kilobytes of data each. This, of course, varies by microgolem, as there are hundreds of different varieties. But, at our current mass, the capacity of our dedicated data storage microgolems exceeds two-hundred twenty exabytes.>>
The adjutant paused, perhaps having sensed my sudden existential dread. I searched my brain listlessly for relevant information.
If… If I recall, an exabyte is the next step up from a petabyte, right? Which is a step up from a terabyte?
<<Correct on both accounts. For reference, it can be estimated that all words ever spoken by humans could fit in five exabytes. Double that for all words spoken in both of our worlds.>>
If I didn’t know any better, I would’ve said the Adjutant was bragging.
And, uh… where am I in all that?
<<Your brain is currently being given three petabytes of dedicated storage, which equates to approximately fourteen cubic centimeters of storage microgolems. You use anywhere from one to fifteen percent of that at any given time. However, at the current default storage-density ratio, it is recommended that you never attempt to occupy a microculture of fewer than 1750 cubic centimeters—or a fifteen-centimeter diameter sphere—if you wish to retain your full faculties.>>
Hearing this made me want to laugh, cry, and scream, all at once. All my life, my experiences, my hopes and dreams, everything that made me human, could fit into a space no larger than a walnut. Meanwhile, the rest of me was at least twice the size of the average Golden Corral buffet-goer. And I was somehow in charge of it all.
Adjutant, I’m… an aberration, aren’t I?
<<Question unclear. Please provide context.>>
The… things I met in the place I woke up in this world, they were the actual Smooze, weren’t they?
The Adjutant remained silent for a moment.
<<If you are asking whether or not your behaviors differ from those of the original Smooze, then yes, you are correct. However, if you are implying that you are not a Smooze, that is false.>>
But look at me! I’m supposed to overthrow a government, essentially defeating six demigods in the process, and I don’t even know my ass from my armpit.
<<You have neither of those.>>
It was an expression. I mean, what if I-?
There was a pause. Not just in the conversation, but in the night itself. The birds, insects, even the breeze, all went still. The silence was deafening.
<<Director Eric, six extreme heat signatures have breached our perimeter.>>
I would have shot back with a smart-ass remark, but I was too busy focusing on the source of those heat signatures.
Thanks to the microgolems, darkness was no impediment to my sight. I could see out into the night with as much clarity as I had during the day, albeit with less color recognition. But even before I saw them, I could feel their presence, like a kind of snarl in the fabric of reality.
They looked like dogs of some kind if dogs could survive being charred by thousand-degree flames. Their flesh was cracked and blackened, burning embers speckling their hides. Red-hot coals burned in place of their eyes and smoke poured from their mouths, partially concealing their sharp, singed teeth. A primal hunger emanated from their very being.
If these things weren’t the perfect embodiment of “hellhounds,” I didn’t know what was.
<<Caution: hellhounds identified. Proceed with caution.>>
Oh great, thanks.
Slowly, my eyes still locked on the encroaching predators, I shuffled over to Rubeo. With a quick jerk, I woke him from his slumber, stifling his yelp before it alerted the hellhounds to what I was doing.
“Rubeo, shut up,” I hissed. “Hellhounds, six of them, ten yards out that way. Can you fight?”
A quick glance showed me his eyes grew to the size of saucers, and he let out a trembling breath.
“Right. You protect the girls, I’ll fight the beasties. If any of them slip past me, try and hold them off until I can deal with them.”
I didn’t give him time to respond. I surged up to the edge of the clearing, between the ponies and the hellhounds. Thankfully, this gave the hellhounds something to think about, and they paced around the outside, following the apparent leader. As I followed them, I quickly grilled the Adjutant.
Alright, what do I need to know?
<<Hellhounds are extraplanar entities from the Nine Hells. Their flesh can reach temperatures greater than one-thousand-two-hundred degrees Fahrenheit or six-hundred fifty Celsius. I would advise dispatching them from a distance.>>
What kind of air pressure can we generate?
<<We are capable of internally generating pressure pockets of greater than fifty-thousand PSI. However, this process will take just over a minute to accomplish. In terms of battle, it is not terribly efficient. If we can lure the hellhounds away->>
No, we need to stay here. If we run and some of the hellhounds don’t follow, that will be disastrous.
<<There is a greater risk of damage to the culture if we stand our ground.>>
Well that’s a risk I’m willing to take.
There was a gentle whirring in my head. When the Adjutant didn’t respond immediately, I felt worry crawl into my brain. The hellhounds inched closer. I heard shuffling behind me, as Rubeo quietly woke the others up, whispering suggestions that they get ready to run. Finally, the Adjutant spoke up again.
<<Preferences saved. In order to minimize damage to the culture, I would suggest rapid strikes at their centers of mass.>>
Great. How long will it take to make some hollow iron pellets?
<<About fifty seconds for ten pellets.>>
I’ll make it work. Start generating air pressure. Once it gets to about forty thousand PSI, start making the pellets inside the bubble. I’ll keep them occupied until then.
My body started to feel like a shaken-up soda bottle, but I put the sensations out of my head. I had more pressing concerns.
The lead hellhound seemed to have decided he could take me because the pack had begun stalking forwards. I had to put a stop to that right quick. To one side, a recently fallen pine gave me an idea. I rolled over, enveloped the broken end of the tree, and flexed.
Here’s a fun fact: as a being without any bones, I can essentially be one giant muscle. I’m no ant, but I can pretty easily lift something several times heavier than myself. This, of course, includes trees.
As I applied pressure on both sides of the tree, it creaked and groaned in complaint, dirt falling from the branches. Slowly, agonizingly, it lifted off the ground. The further I levered it, the easier it became until I was holding it straight up above me.
The hellhounds hesitated for just a moment, but that was all I needed. I heaved, and the dead tree came crashing down. The hounds stared down the incoming pain train for just a moment before scrambling to get out of the way. The tree impacted the ground with a shower of dirt and an earth-shaking thud. A second later, its crown burst into flames, sending a shower of sparks and burning embers into the surrounding foliage. I felt one of the snarls of magic energy disperse, leaving five left.
“Alright, you hot shits,” I muttered, grinning viciously, “what do you think of me now?”
A chorus of keening howls pierced the smoke, followed by the five remaining hellhounds. They charged me, apparently convinced now that I was the most dangerous thing in the clearing. That was fine by me. The more aggro I pulled, the less danger to Starlight and the others. I slammed a half-dozen pseudopods into the dirt around me, simultaneously coating them in a hopefully fire-resistant material and setting up for my second attack.
As the first pair of beasts reached the edge of the clearing, I launched a salvo of dirt at them. The two in front yelped and stumbled, trying to shake the dirt out of their eyes. An opportunity presented, I launched a flurry of dirt-coated blows, slamming pseudopods into the lead hounds with all the force of a strongman’s sledgehammer. They were launched backward, tumbling bodily into the path of the third hellhound.
The next two hellhounds fared no better. They attempted to dodge to the sides, but a split second was all it took to change the trajectory of my tentacles. I battered them to the sides and brought the third blow slamming down on the three trying to get back on their feet.
Still, they kept coming, frantically scrabbling at the earth with their ashen claws, driven forward by unearthly strength and hunger. White-hot drool spattered the ground beneath their jaws, creating tiny spouts of flame that died out an instant later. They had a singular purpose: to consume. To kill and eat and kill and eat and kill and eat, over and over again, until the bottomless pit that was their existence was filled. The starvation of flame incarnate.
<<Fifteen seconds,>> the Adjutant advised.
It was taking all of my concentration to keep them at bay. Each blow scorched the dirt covering my limbs into uselessness, forcing me to keep digging up the ground around me. Every strike knocked them away, only for them to leap to their paws a moment later. I could feel the air growing hot, turning my surface goo into a soup. It wouldn’t be long before I started to lose coherence altogether.
Adjutant! How much longer?!
<<Five, four, three, two, one… Done!>>
Ten tiny pits of material dropped out of the bubble of air inside of me, like antacids in a glass of water. The relief was palpable. I finally had my trump card.
Finally! Let’s put an end to this!
The hellhounds noticed a pause in my assault and chose that moment to pounce, just as I had hoped they would. In a split second, I funneled the iron pellets and drill bits into the tips of five of my tentacles. The hounds, unable to dodge in midair, took the full force of my wrath. Five tentacles shot out and pierced their blackened hides, drilling for their cores. I could feel their heat melting the microgolems and sending bolts of searing pain shooting through the network.
The drill bits started to warp and fall apart, but they had done their jobs. I threw the hellhounds out of the clearing, sending the dead Smooze goo and iron pellets with them.
I watched the hellhounds struggled to their feet, noting their confused expressions. They quickly reverted to starving fury, but before they could make it even two steps, the anger turned to alarm. The compressed air in the iron pellets did its job, too. Like balloons left on an air tank, they popped, sending a shower of sparks and charred flesh cascading down in the area around us. The damp underbrush smoldered and steamed.
I waited, tensed, for any sign of movement. A minute passed, and I let out a breath I didn’t need to hold and relaxed. The tangles, in reality, had all been unraveled.
<<Hellhound magic signatures eradicated. 3.47% of the culture was destroyed in the conflict. Outcome favorable. Well done, Director, but I would advise keeping self-sacrifice below 2% in the future.>>
Noted, I replied dismissively, before turning back to my little party. What I saw gave me more than a little amusement.
The three conscious ponies were staring at me—or at least in my general direction, in Rara’s case—mouths agape. Even Rubeo was speechless. From Night Glider’s position and Rara’s lack of confusion, it looked like Night Glider had been feeding Rara a running commentary on the action, while they prepared to run. Starlight was suspended in Rubeo’s magic aura, although neither of them moved, save for breathing. In the face of their sheer awe, I couldn’t keep from smirking. As the first rays of the early morning sunlight peeked into the forest, I addressed my flock.
“Well? Sun’s up. Move out.”
I rolled towards them and they moved aside. They were probably hoping they wouldn’t have to take the Goo-town Express again. Luckily for them, with as dense as the trees had become, that wasn’t an appealing option anyway. Even so, we still had a couple of ponies effectively down for the count. With that in mind, I scooped up Starlight and Rara, and set them on my ‘back,’ creating divots big enough to fit them comfortably. Night Glider and Rubeo started to protest, but a questioning look was all it took to shoot their objections down.
And so, with another small victory under my belt, we set out southwards once more. Little did we understand the significance of that encounter.
The second leg of our trip through the forest started on a high note for me. Starlight was healing nicely and would likely awaken sometime that day. Rubeo walked alongside us without any complaint, deep in thought. Night Glider amused herself by playfully testing my reflexes, throwing sticks and rocks for me to break or deflect with almost child-like glee. Meanwhile, Rara sat in her seat, trying to move as little as possible. While I hoped it wasn’t because she was afraid of me, I couldn’t help but feel her elevated heart rate reverberating into me. After a short while, I decided to speak with the Adjutant.
Adjutant, do we have enough material reserves to begin healing Rara?
It took only a few moments for the Adjutant to take inventory, but it felt like an eternity.
<<The operation on Starlight Glimmer drained our resources considerably. However, at our current rate of passive absorption, we should have enough to begin repairs to Coloratura’s ocular cavities within the hour.>>
And how long will it take to fully heal her?
<<Depending on her body’s receptivity, between three and twenty-four hours.>>
Good. I’ll let her-
<<A warning, Director. If we begin operations with our current resource levels, we will have depleted our carbon and nitrogen stores by the time we are finished.>>
So then we absorb more actively for a while! I don’t see the problem here.
<<The problem being that combat options will be limited if we were to be ambushed after the procedure.>>
I sighed internally. It’s difficult to deal with a sense of self-preservation that can talk back.
I know you’re just looking out for us, but this is something I need to do. Look at it this way: if we fix Rara’s eyes, she’ll be able to move and defend herself orders of magnitude better than she can currently. That means we won’t have to spend nearly as many resources protecting her, right?
The Adjutant spent a moment calculating.
<<It would appear the long-term rewards do outweigh the short-term risks, yes. We simply wished to make certain you were aware of potential repercussions. Let us know when you wish to begin the procedure.>>
I acknowledged the Adjutant’s compliance wordlessly. The only thing left was the sales pitch. It would probably be much easier to convince Rara to let me try healing her if Starlight were awake. However, I couldn’t just shake her awake. She needed to be allowed to come back from Dreamland naturally. As things stood, her breathing was light and easy and her body relaxed, so it seemed like her eyes would open at any time. In the meantime, however, there were things to be done.
“So, Miss Coloratura,” I started, “you’ve now been volunteered for this expedition. Would you like me to keep my word?”
“Oh, um, I’m… I’m not sure? What do you mean?”
“Before we were so rudely interrupted last night, I was offering to heal your eyes. I can give it a try now if you’d like.”
Before Rara could even respond, Night flew up in front of her, posturing protectively.
“Whoa whoa whoa! What’s the catch?”
“No catch. If I start now, and her body doesn’t reject the process, I could have her seeing again as soon as three hours from now. The procedure is entirely safe.”
“No way! The doctors we saw said it couldn’t be done! Not without extensive magical treatment.”
I stopped in my tracks, turning back to look directly at Night Glider.
“Oh, really? The doctors said that, huh? The ones most likely on the crown’s payroll? The same crown that did this to her in the first place? And you believed them?”
That shut her up right quick. Not even Rubeo had any entirely insightful and appropriate comments to add. I pressed the attack.
“Besides, I won’t be using magic to heal her. Just her own body’s chemistry and the world around us.”
Everyone gave me looks like I had just suggested that the moon was made of cheese, or that the earth was flat. Which, upon second thought, could have been entirely true, for all I knew about Equestria and the lands beyond.
“What?” I questioned innocently.
“That sounds a lot like magic to me,” Night Glider retorted.
“Indeed,” Rubeo added helpfully.
“Okay, look, what does it matter how I do it? A wink’s as good as a nod to a bl… to a bat.” I winced internally. Not my greatest metaphor, but I couldn’t take it back. “Anyway, as long as Rara gets her sight back, who cares how I do it?”
“I would, if it hurt somepony,” Rara spoke up, albeit meekly.
All attention turned to her, seeing as these were her first words since I first posed the offer.
“Rara, I swear there’s nothing to worry about. There’s not going to be a blood sacrifice or anything. All you need to do is relax, let me slap some goo on your eyes, and I’ll take care of the rest.”
Despite my extremely logical and scientific reassurances, Rara still seemed to have some doubts.
“I… I don’t know… I don’t want to impose.”
I considered telling her that she would actually be helping us, then realized that would be about as well-received as a Neo-Nazi comedian at a bar mitzvah. I decided on something simpler.
“If it was an imposition, I wouldn’t have offered. It’s up to you whether to accept or not. I’m just trying to stay true to my word.”
Rara fell silent. We could almost hear the gears turning in her head. What surprised me most, however, was Rubeo. Not once did he attempt to convince her to shun or ignore me. He simply followed along, ruminating in his own thoughts. Night Glider did likewise, although she seemed slightly more alert to our surroundings than the others.
We continued like this until the sun climbed up to the peak of its journey. Starlight began to stir. I stopped immediately, throwing Rara and the others off balance. Before they could ask why we had stopped, Starlight yawned, paused for a beat, then sat bolt upright.
“Where are we? What’s going on? What happened to Ruby Drops?”
The questions flew out of her mouth like bullets. The flying hugs leveled at her were only slightly less speedy.
“Starlight!” Rara and Night Glider shouted simultaneously, tackling their housemate with relief. Starlight grunted as they combined weight squeezed the air out of her lungs.
“Guys… too tight!” She wheezed. Her friends only slightly relaxed their grip.
“I’m so glad you’re alright!” Rara cried, voice cracking with the force of her emotions.
“We were worried you might not make it,” Night Glider confessed.
“Hey! I don’t do shoddy work, hear me?” I grumbled loudly.
Starlight reached up to touch her chest. There was almost no evidence of the gaping wound that had pierced her to the core, save for a small patch of skin where the hair had yet to grow back.
“Wow… So I really did… I mean, I barely feel a thing.”
I grinned victoriously.
“Good. Try stretching a bit. Make sure there’s no residual pain.”
Starlight rotated her front legs, stretching them to their limits.
“It feels… strange. Kind of like my chest is hot, cold, itchy, sore, and perfectly normal, all at the same time. It doesn’t hurt to stretch or put pressure on it, though.”
<<She may rest assured that those feelings will fade over the course of a day or two. Her body is simply acclimating to the new nerve endings.>>
I relayed that information, much to both Starlight’s relief and my own. This was a huge step towards gaining the trust of both Night Glider and Rara. I could see that Night Glider’s expression had softened considerably, and Rara was positively beaming. Even Rubeo’s glare had downgraded to a suspicious gaze. It was at this point that Rara dropped the next bomb.
“Alright, I’ve decided. I’ll put my life in your hooves. Er, tentacles… whatever you have.”
For a moment, I thought she was pledging undying loyalty to me. But then I remembered what we had just been discussing.
“My dear, there is absolutely no chance of you dying from the operation.”
<<Actually, there is approximately one chance in ten billion that fatal complications could->>
“So just sit back, relax, and-”
“Wait! Hold on! I just woke up. What’s happening?” Starlight demanded.
I would have explained, but Rara beat me to the punch.
“Eric’s going to heal my eyes!”
“Really?” Starlight asked. “You’d really do that for her? For us?”
For some reason, I started to feel uncomfortable.
“Well, yeah. I’m here to help, aren’t I?”
Her eyes started tearing up and she gave me a watery smile.
“Thank you, Eric.”
I don’t know what I was expecting. It was… well, it wasn’t the first time she had said those words, but it was the first time she had said them with such genuine sincerity. It was like an awl being jabbed into my heart. I found I couldn’t look her in the eyes.
“Don’t thank me just yet. It’ll be a few hours.”
“Still, thank you for even trying.”
I choked. It wasn’t like I was unused to being thanked. Even working in a library, there were times when I’d get college students or young professionals desperate to finish a research project and unable to find a particular book. Some of them could be quite profuse in their thanks when I helped them find what they were looking for. But hearing Starlight thank me like that… It tore me up inside.
If she had caught on to that, she remained mercifully silent. She simply slid off of my ‘back,’ allowing me unfettered access to Rara. Rara took the opportunity to make herself more comfortable, lying down in Starlight’s place. I produced a few tentacles around her.
“I’m going to remove your bandages now.”
Rara nodded resolutely. As gently as I could manage, I began unwrapping the bandages. They weren’t bloody and, when they had been removed, I noted that there weren’t any signs of infection. They had taken good care of her injuries. But the injuries themselves were enough to make my non-existent stomach do anguished flips. I’ll spare you the grisly details, but suffice it to say that Ruby certainly hadn’t bothered expending any effort on precision. I could only be glad that I had no adrenal glands. Otherwise, my tentacles might have started shaking with fury.
“Alright, this may feel strange. I’m going to start at the bridge of your nose. It will probably feel something like molasses being drizzled into your eyes. Blink if you need to, but the gel should numb the skin and everything inside. Are you ready?”
Her second nod was slightly less certain.
“Right then. Here goes.”
I touched a tentacle to the bridge of her nose and my goo started spreading outwards, coating her injuries in green slime. She shivered.
“Oh! That does feel strange.”
“Does it hurt?”
“N- no, not really. It’s kind of… cold. And tingly.”
“Let me know if it gets too uncomfortable and I’ll figure something out.”
If she did feel uncomfortable, she powered through it like a champ. Or at least like a pony who desperately wanted to see again.
Fluttershy felt sick.
She didn’t know why, but the Farm seemed quieter today, and not in a good way. The air felt thick and claustrophobic, and sounds seemed muted. The cows shuffled in their pens, eyeing the doors and each other with equal weight. Even the guards walked the halls with a stiff, measured gait, as though the slightest misstep might bring everything crashing down on top of them.
The push-broom in her hooves jerked as it snagged on the minute tiling. She felt like a child again, dreading with each passing moment the time when her stepfather would come home for the night, reeking of alcohol. She almost put a hoof to her cheek at the memory but kept herself focused on the task. The pain was years gone by now.
Fluttershy nearly jumped out of her skin. She looked around wildly, searching for whoever it was that in wanted her attention.
This time, she noticed. It was the young cow with a brown and white painted coat from the day before. The corner of the cow’s mouth squirmed open for a brief moment, allowing the hiss to escape, but she kept her eyes trained on the empty trough before her. Her body language was stiff, implying that she wanted Fluttershy’s attention, but to be discreet about it. Fluttershy looked up at the observation room and saw why.
The overseer was up there, scanning the rows of stalls watchful. She had met him only once before, and it had left a sour taste in her mouth. Humorless was about as polite a word as she was willing to assign the balding, middle-aged stallion. Definitely Lady Ruby Drops’ admirer.
Fluttershy made a show of looking at the ground behind her, pretending that her sudden start had come from slipping or stepping in something. She walked backward until she was even with the young cow, and began sweeping again, surreptitiously glancing up at the overseer to be sure his attention wasn’t focused on her. As she did, the young cow whispered to her.
“Hey, what’s your name?”
It took her a moment to realize she had been asked a question, and even then, she couldn’t understand why. Just yesterday, she had almost… murdered this young cow. Shouldn’t she hate Fluttershy’s guts?
“Hey, Fluttershy. I’m Arizona. Y’all the usual caretaker ‘round here?”
“Good. And here I was, thinkin’ I’d been volunteered for Tartarus-on-earth for the rest of my life. Least somepony here actually has a heart.”
Fluttershy swallowed hard. She shouldn’t be doing this. She had been specifically warned against fraternizing with the “livestock” when she was first brought in. This could get her in a lot of trouble.
“Um… w- we really shouldn’t be talking.”
Arizona simply scoffed.
“Ain’t no way I’m gonna spend the rest of my life bein’ a mute.” The chocolate-colored cow in the stall to Arizona’s left shushed her, but Arizona ignored her.
“B-but we could get in trouble.”
“Trouble? Seen her already. Death don’t scare me none,” Arizona blustered, though Fluttershy distinctly remembered the look of terror on Arizona’s face when Lady Ruby loomed over her. “‘Sides, y’all were the one who gave me extra food. Y’all may act as scared as a rabbit in a bullpen, but ya got a heart o’ gold. Can’t fool these eyes.”
“It’s true,” a cream-colored cow from across the row piped in. The cow next to Arizona tried shushing her, too, to similar effect.
“You shush,” the new cow reprimanded, though she kept her voice low. “Missy, you haven’t been here a week and I can already tell you’ll be the best handler we ever had.”
There was murmured assent from the other cows in the row and even the next row over, who had overheard.
“Would all of you just shut up?” The chocolate cow hissed. “Some of us don’t have a deathwish!”
“Oh, go blow it out your ear, Mooriella. We all know what you’ve got, and it’s a sorry excuse for an udder. Go back to stewin’ in your own misery before you sour your cream,” the cream cow snapped, before turning back to Fluttershy. “Dear, Arizona there’s right. I just want you to know we all decided that, if ever there was a pony to hitch our wagons to, it’s you. For all it may be worth, we got your back, hear?”
Flustered, Fluttershy blurted out the only thing she could think of.
“B- but I tried to kill Arizona.”
Arizona just snorted.
“Yeah, well, that weren’t your intention. At least you had the decency to try and make it quick an’ painless. Least, as quick an’ painless as you could, given the state o’ things.”
“Oh, for sure,” the cream cow added. “We cows don’t get much in this life, even less if we lose the lottery, like we folks here did. But a pony that treats us like equals is nothin’ to sneeze at, don’tcha know?”
Mooriella spat on the ground. “Not a lick of sense among you. Or did you all forget we’re here for life? We need to hold our tongues and keep to ourselves. Not go about jawing with some pony.”
There was no wave of dissent that traveled through the warehouse, but Fluttershy could still hear small sounds of agitation. She couldn’t tell how much of it was in support of Mooriella’s words or against, but in this row at least were a few dozen dirty glares leveled at the cow.
“Funny. I s’pose you’d rather ol’ Master Icicle up there be our handler again?” Accused the cow Fluttershy was beginning to refer to as Mrs. Cream in her head.
No one but Fluttershy turned their eyes up to the observation room, but they all knew of whom Mrs. Cream spoke. Mooriella snorted derisively.
“Say what you like. I still won’t be the next on the chopping block at this rate.”
As if her words had reached the ears of the gods of misfortune, the doors to the warehouse slammed open, revealing Ruby Drops. Her features were not so much twisted with rage as they were mangled by it. Fury danced like licking flames across the entirety of her form, murder more than promised by her gaze. Then her eyes fell on Fluttershy, and all the blood in the poor pegasus froze into solid ice.
“Right!” Ruby screeched, stalking over with all the subtlety and amiability of a rockslide. “You and I are going to have a learning experience!”
Ruby Drops had somehow known that she was breaking the rules. If part of her noticed the surprised and panicked movements of the pony in the observation room, it didn’t quell her fear. She could only be thankful that she had recently used the restroom because her bladder would have betrayed her otherwise.
“L- L- Lady Drops, I didn’t-”
“Shut up, don’t care!” Ruby shouted, leaving Fluttershy’s head spinning from the volume. Ruby turned away from her, pulling three stilettos from wherever they had been stashed in her dress. Fluttershy faintly recognized that the alicorn’s normally luxurious auburn tail was nowhere to be seen.
Ruby turned her attention to the cows around her, and a vicious grin spread across her mouth.
With expert skill, Ruby telekinetically flung one of the stilettos at Mrs. Cream, skewering her shoulder. The cow let out a cry of pain, but it was quickly drowned out by another declaration from Ruby and a cry of pain, this one from Mooriella. Then, Ruby turned on Arizona.
“And you…” She decided, venom pouring from her words like a waterfall. The stiletto floated over and press up against the terrified young cow’s neck. Suddenly, the gates of the three chosen cows’ stalls all flung themselves open.
“All of you, out! To the backroom, now! Move!”
All thoughts of rebellion seemed to have evaporated. Arizona and the cream-colored cow left their stalls, eyes brimming with tears and despair in equal parts. Mooriella was blubbering freely, pleading with Ruby even as she forced herself to walk towards the back room. Ruby took no notice, however, guiding Arizona over to the pair of ponies with none too gentle jabs of the knife.
“Now then,” Ruby crooned dangerously to Fluttershy, “I think it’s time I showed you the ropes of your new career. And who better to help than your new friend.”
Ruby silenced her by pressing her horn to Fluttershy’s throat.
“Think very carefully about whether or not you want to finish that thought. Today is not the day to test me, clear?”
Fluttershy shut her mouth with an audible click. Ruby grinned with all her teeth.
“Good. I’ll make a mare out of you yet.”
Ruby stabbed at Arizona again, forcing her onward. She turned away to lead them towards the sterile plastic doors, not even bother to make sure Fluttershy followed after. Fluttershy celebrated her newfound insignificance by briefly contemplating whether she should try to swallow her own tongue and hope she choked to death before Ruby noticed. In the end, self-preservation and a fear of retribution with a fate worse than death won out, and she galloped after Ruby, some tiny part of her hoping against hope that she might have a brain aneurysm before she caught up.
The gods were not feeling so merciful it seemed, because all too soon she was standing at the south end of the warehouse. She peered up at the cloudy plastic windows, the combination of the unknown and the promise of intense suffering causing her heart to thunder in her chest. As Ruby pushed the doors open, the pony called Icicle galloped up to Lady Ruby at full tilt, fear and servility warring in his expression.
“M- My Lady! I apologize profusely for not expecting you. Is there anything you need?”
Ruby gave him a disgusted glare, then huffed.
“No, not particularly. But if you would stay here to ensure we are not interrupted, I would appreciate it.”
“Absolutely, my Lady! Anything for you,” he groveled, scraping his stomach on the ground in his hurry to bow at her hooves.
Ruby deftly ignored his attempts to ingratiate himself further, leading her latest victims into the backroom by the knives still stuck in their flesh. Fluttershy slunk in behind her, trying to make herself as small and inconspicuous as possible.
Ruby wasn’t having any of it. She practically dragged Fluttershy in by her primaries, causing the pegasus to let out a yelp of pain. Shame immediately flooded her heart, because the others had and were almost certainly about to suffer much worse pain. The cows were already crying, so she didn’t even bother to hide the tears welling up in her eyes.
“L- Lady, please!” Mooriella sobbed. “I… I’ve been good. I’ll be good! Don’t kill me, please!”
“Shut up, you worthless piece of shit!” Ruby bellowed, telekinetically shoving the cow into the center of the white-tiled room. “How dare you speak to me?! Animals don’t get to talk!”
She lunged forward, ripping the stiletto out with her bare hooves and plunging it back into Mooriella’s flesh again and again. Mooriella tried pitifully to crawl away, but Ruby was too fast, too blinded by her murderous rage to oblige. Blood flew through the air, splattering the white-washed walls with crimson. Mooriella’s anguished cries grew faint, then ceased altogether.
Fluttershy couldn’t breathe. Ruby just kept stabbing and stabbing, ripping and tearing, until the bloody carcass beneath her waist barely recognizable as bovine. Eventually, Ruby leaned back, breathing heavily. With one last heave, she tore a huge gash in the still-warm flesh as she removed the knife. A shudder ran through her body.
“Oohhhh, that’s it. That’s what I needed. Mmph.”
She stood back up, revealing that she was soaking in more than just blood.
“Hear that? That sweet silence? That is perfection.”
Although her mind had already gone numb with fear, Fluttershy realized Ruby was talking to her. However, even if she wanted to, she couldn’t reply. The stench of blood and death saturated the air so thickly that she would have thrown up if she so much as opened her mouth. She shook like the room had become an arctic wasteland. Faintly, she recognized something wet and warm coming in contact with her hooves. Whether it was blood, urine, or something else entirely, she wasn’t about to take her eyes off of the insane alicorn to find out, even for a moment.
Ruby regained her composure and looked down at Mooriella’s corpse with detached amusement.
“Oh, dear. It seems I got a bit carried away. There’s nothing left of this one for me to teach you with. Silly me. Oh well, at least we brought two more.”
With a thought, she lifted the tattered carcass off the floor and impaled it on one of the many hooks hanging from the ceiling. Blood poured continuously from the grisly form, running in a small stream across the sloped floor and into a drain in the center. Fluttershy couldn’t bear to see the despair in Mooriella’s now single, unblinking eye but neither could she look away from Ruby. The image was being burned into her brain.
“Now then,” Ruby continued. “Let’s get started, shall we?”
Fluttershy couldn’t respond. She couldn’t even think. Her nerves had fried. But then, she didn’t have to. At that moment, somepony came barging into the room from behind her.
“My Lady! Urgent news!”
“My Lady, I’m so sorry, he wouldn’t list-”
Fluttershy only barely recognized the second voice as Icicle, but the first belonged to someone unknown. Regardless, Ruby cut them off.
“Silence!” Ruby bellowed. “What is so fucking important that you felt the need to interrupt my personal time?”
Fluttershy heard one of them gulp audibly.
“I… I’m terribly sorry, milady,” the new voice spoke. “It’s just… we’ve received a report about the Smooze, and-”
Ruby’s eyes widened dangerously. “When?”
“Just now, milady.”
“Well then? Out with it, idiot!”
“Th- the Smooze has been located on the Southern edge of the Everfree. It seems to have been attacked by hellhounds on its way there but defeated them readily. Agent Kingfisher just reported this in.”
A wild smile stretched from one corner of Ruby’s cheeks to the other.
“Oh, today just keeps getting better and better. Take me outside. I believe I will pay a visit to my dear, sludgy friend.”
Fluttershy wasn’t sure when Ruby left, but the next thing new, she was being shaken by strong hooves.
Fluttershy finally looked away from Mooriella’s mangled body. Mrs. Cream was rattling her like a smoker’s last box of matches. She stared at Fluttershy with heavy, desperate eyes, flecks of blood marring her cream coat.
“Fluttershy, you need to take Arizona and leave. Get out of here. I’ll keep ‘em occupied, stage a riot if I have to. But you both need to escape!”
“W… what?” Fluttershy murmured, still dazed.
“Run. Take Arizona and run away. Get out of this gosh-forsaken country. After seeing… that… I just… I can’t let Ruby have her way with the two of you. I just can’t. Please, Fluttershy.”
“H- hold on, now,” Arizona intoned, “that ain’t fair. You… you have to come with us.”
The older cow shook her head. “I’m old, dear. I’ll only slow you down. Besides, it’s easier to move with just two. But I candarn well make sure those brutes aren’t watching when you make your escape.”
“I don’t… I don’t even know your name,” Fluttershy protested weakly.
The cow took a deep, steadying breath. Her eyes were kind, but they had taken on a hardness only matched by diamonds. “Probably best that way, dear. Now get yourselves ready. In a few minutes, I’m going to have the others all riled up, and we’ll have ourselves a good ol’ fashioned revolt. You two sneak out in the confusion, understood?”
Arizona looked like she wanted to argue further, but she just nodded. Fluttershy felt herself getting swept up in their desperate plan, but felt no need to extricate herself. She couldn’t stay.
“I… It’s not fair. I wish I could do something more for you,” Fluttershy choked out, tears threatening to hijack her cracking voice.
Mrs. Cream — the name already cementing itself in Fluttershy’s mind — simply hugged the younger pair to herself.
“Live long lives,” she cooed, “free and clear of all this suffering. Think you can do that for me?”
“Yes ma’am,” Arizona croaked, nodding fiercely. Fluttershy choked back a sob and leaned harder into the hug. Mrs. Cream held the hug for a few seconds longer, then release the younger creatures.
“Alrighty, then, you two. Get ready. We’ll have you out of here faster than two shakes of a lamb’s tail. Listen for a commotion, then head on out the back.” She paused a moment longer, eyes shining. “Take care of each other.”
Without waiting to hear a response, Mrs. Cream took off through the double doors, out into the rest of the warehouse. Fluttershy wanted to go after her. She wanted to stop her, to tell her to come with, to not get herself killed. But she had seen the truth with her own eyes. There was no hope for those who stayed here. Mrs. Cream had resolved to sacrifice herself in order to give two younger creatures a chance to live. Fluttershy swallowed hard, forcing the cries of despair back down her throat. She wouldn’t let that sacrifice be in vain.
The pegasus and the heifer exchanged determined glances, then hunkered down next to the room’s only other door, out of the line of sight. They kept themselves tensed and ready, and did everything they could not to look at the grisly reminder of their narrowly escaped fate hanging from the ceiling hook.
A couple of hours of travel passed in a silence much more comfortable and hopeful than any prior. The others would occasionally join Rara, offering emotional support or, in Starlight’s case, watching the process with morbid curiosity. Not that there was much to see. Kind of difficult to see through opaque green jelly. Rubeo kept a discreet distance, but couldn’t quite disguise the concerned glances at those whom I was coming to realize he must consider his surrogate grandchildren. An aging stallion with family elsewhere wouldn’t be tagging along so willingly. After a while, though, even Rubeo deigned to grace my form with his righteous posterior.
The sun was just tipping over its zenith when the trees started to thin out drastically. Soon, we found ourselves rolling up to the edge of a steep, rocky gorge, devoid of plant life. Out on the southern horizon, we could just make out the flat-roofed buildings of a frontier town. I also learned from the Adjutant that my sight could become telescopic, with up to twenty times zoom. With that, I could see that it was a pony-inhabited town, supplemented by Rubeo observing to no-one in particular that we would reach “Salt Lick City” by nightfall. I internally facepalmed with the force of a thousand suns. Which, thankfully, doesn’t translate into actual physical energy.
Things were going smoothly. It set my teeth to grinding. Our luck couldn’t last much longer. We needed a plan. I rolled up to the edge of the group, trying to feel as confident as I looked.
“Alright, what’s our next move?” I asked Starlight.
“Uh, well…” She hesitated, clearly still unused to being in charge. “I mean, assuming you still want to get to the Southern Badlands, the simplest idea would be to sneak into Salt Lick City and board a train bound for Dodge Junction.”
I nodded. “Maybe, but that still won’t be terribly simple, will it? None of our options are.”
I sat at the edge, staring fitfully at the frontier town. Our best bet would likely be trying to get in with disguises, but the question was how to get our hands and hooves on disguises in the first place. I could probably whip a few up fairly quickly, but that would require resources that were currently being used elsewhere. As it stood, we would have to stop to gather supplies, and I wasn’t entirely sure we had the time. Lately, I had been feeling as though we were being watched. It was a sudden, fleeting chill that disappeared as quickly as it arrived. When I asked the Adjutant, it told me that it had detected nearly a dozen slight intrusions into our proximity sensors, but could make no assertions as to the cause.
Strangely, it was Rubeo that shook me out of my funk.
“It may not be easy, but I believe it to pose the least amount of risk. Especially if we can get our hooves on some disguises.”
I glanced sidelong at him. It was odd, hearing him give me support. Something had changed, apparently for the better. I could only hope he wasn’t secretly plotting to throw me under the bus first chance he got. That wouldn’t end well for anyone.
“It’s possible for me to make disguises, but I need more material than I have available. We may have to make camp for a couple of days, and that means giving the enemy two days to find us. Are you all willing to take that risk?”
One by one, I looked into their eyes and received a nod in kind. I received a nod from Rara when I wasn’t looking, but I felt it anyway.
“Right then. First order of business is to find a spot-”
A mental shout of ‘alert’ and a high-pitched whistle were all the warning I received before a fleshy meteor impacted the ground behind us. It appeared to be some sort of hideous amalgam of bat, rhino, and elephant, and it smiled grotesquely in the split second I caught its eye. Then, the world crumbled around me. Or at least before the ground did.
Cracks spread out like lightning from the impact site, and I felt the rock beneath me shift. On reflex, I grabbed everypony in our group and sucked them inside me. As the chunk of cliff face on which we stood turned to rubble, I took one last look at the monster that had doomed us. Ruby Drops’ manic smile grew as the tusks shrank back into her mouth. As if that weren’t weird enough, an orange-coated pegasus in a nun’s habit alighted next to her just as we fell past the edge of the cliff.
The next few moments consisted mainly of uncontrolled descent, panic, and a few thousand pounds of recently aerated rock.
Meanwhile, on the top side of the gorge, a freshly reverted Ruby Drops was dancing with gleeful excitement, Kingfisher off to one side staring at the now empty space where I and the other rebels had once been.
“Oh, did you see that?!” Ruby yipped. “The look on that thing’s face? Priceless! I’m going to have that memory copied and made into a tapestry! Today just keeps getting better and better.”
Ruby continued to celebrate loudly, paying little mind to the ever stoic and disapproving gaze of Odd’s little agent.
“You should have waited for one of the other Masters to arrive,” Kingfisher chided.
“Oh, please. It’s not like any of them would have done anything different.”
“You don’t know that for certain.”
“And who are you to question me? Until you can say you sit in on the Masters’ Court, keep your trap shut. Only then will your opinions be worth half a rat’s ass.”
Kingfisher bit back a retort, but she was spared the indignity of sitting silently next to the insufferable alicorn by the next arrival. A silver portal shimmered into existence nearby, and the ruler of Equestria stepped through.
“Your majesty,” Kingfisher quickly announced, bowing low. Ruby turned and, upon seeing Argent Light dropped to one knee as well.
“My lord, you are just in time. I have just successfully put that slimy pest out of our misery.”
Argent raised an eyebrow and looked around, spotting the recently missing chunk of the cliff face by the dust and rock still settling and falling into the gorge. His eyes hardened. He walked over to the edge and looked down.
“And have you confirmed the kills?” He asked harshly, scanning the rubble below.
“Well, no, but nothing could have survived-”
Ruby was cut off by a sudden brilliant white light that shone out of his horn. She averted her eyes, only to catch a glimpse of the sky. In an instant, silvery-white lines spread out among the clouds, forming a spell circle whose radius was measured in miles. As soon as it was complete, another smaller spell circle began just below the first. Then another. And another. Soon, there was a cone of light in the sky, and as the sky darkened, the cone grew steadily brighter.
Ruby’s jaw dropped. It had been centuries since she had seen this magic. Silver Song had ridiculously dubbed it “Magna-Fire” in a misguided attempt at double entendre. The thing was, it actually fit.
Buried under a veritable hill of rock, our group slowly stirred. It had not been a terribly graceful landing. I was able to prevent us from being crushed by solidifying myself into something akin to granite and filling my hollow interior with impact foam. Unfortunately, that still didn’t entirely negate the fall.
“Is everyone alright?” I asked, letting the foam dissolve.
Although they didn’t answer me directly, I still heard some form of vocalization from everyone. But even as I asked, the Adjutant spoke up again.
<<Warning! Extreme magic and temperature levels detected overhead!>>
<<Enough to liquefy the rock around us. Immediate evasive action strongly advised.>>
There are moments in life when you realize that things can always be worse. Usually, this is something along the lines of realizing that the thing you tried to use to clean up that spot on your carpet ended up bleaching it. Or that you did, in fact, lock your keys back in your house. Events that, while inconvenient, wouldn’t require your family to spend three months’ salary on funeral services.
This was not one of those times.
<<We began collecting extra carbon as soon as magic was detected. Dig.>>
With no time to spare, I set upon the rock beneath me with a fervor matched only by innocent death row inmates. I drilled, using up the carbon I took in almost as fast as it arrived in order to bore into solid rock. It took several agonizing seconds to create a hole wide enough for ponies, and by the time I had snaked all of us into the tunnel, I could already feel the heat bearing down on us. I drilled faster, shoving every last speck of carbon into maintaining the drill bit. Everything was growing hotter, the rock above us and the drill below. As much as I tried to mitigate the heat, Starlight and the others were already sweating. I didn’t dare spare even a second to look behind me. My movements were becoming stiff and slow.
But what could I do? Should I double back and make something like a sink trap? Did I have enough time? Could I save them? These thoughts raced through my head with such frantic energy that I barely noticed the Adjutant speaking to me.
<<Director! Turn east!>>
With no reason or time to question, I complied and suddenly it seemed like I was drilling slightly faster than before. The Adjutant sensed my confusion and responded.
<<We detected a minute change in pressure and oxygen content. That indicates we have come across a small underground fissure. If we follow the fissure, there is a decent possibility that we may find a cavern system! If not, following the fissure still buys us some time.>>
There’s also the possibility that it’s a gas pocket and we cause an explosion, but at this point, I guess we have to take the risk.
Sometimes the gods are cruel assholes that delight in causing pain to us lowly mortals. However, it seems that when the entire world is in the midden heap, they start to feel pity, and are a little more generous with the lucky breaks. After following the fissure for what felt like ages, it widened. Then it widened some more. Before I could process it, we had broken into a small cave, with another semi large fissure leading almost straight up. I had made it only a foot up the wall before magma came spewing into the cave behind us. The heat grew unbearable. I climbed into the upward fissure like a madman, unable to afford even a single slip up.
By the time we reached the cavern above us, I had hardened into the consistency of day-old playdough. Starlight and the others clawed their way out of me, gasping for air and sweating like snowballs in summer. I looked at them, exhausted and miserable, but alive. I savored the sight. The giddiness of having successfully avoided death crept in.
“Well,” I quipped, my voice an odd croak, “who else never wants to see a sauna ever again?”