Golden Age of Apocalypse - Book III: Legacies

by BlueBastard

First published

Everything is finally ready for Sunset Shimmer to be crowned a ruling princess of Equestria, but not all is as it seems as the Covenant make their move and the history of Equestria itself is called into question as GAOA reaches its explosive end!

It's been a long journey, filled with adventure and obstacles, new allies and enemies. The worldview of Equestria and Equus itself has been radically shaken as the existence of humans - and Sunset Shimmer's presence among them - is made public.

However, Equestria has managed to weather the storm, comparatively mild when put up against the war with Tirek and the brutal Winter of Aftermath that followed. The crowning of another alicorn princess, the very daughter of Princess Celestia herself, will mark the true rallying point for Equestria's rebuilding.

But behind the scenes, trouble still lurks. Of Sombra's alleged successors; the Scions, only three are known - the fourth remains a mystery. Enemies within and without wait for their turn to strike. And a terrible secret buried at the heart of it all will throw the understanding of the very history of Equestria itself into question.

Chapter 1 - Ties That Bind

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GAOA Book III

Chapter 1—Ties that Bind

Seated at her desk in the reception area of the Mage Guild HQ, Lemon Hearts let out a sigh as she looked at all the paperwork she had to do today. The coronation for the new alicorn Princess Sunset Shimmer was right around the corner, and all of the local senior-ranked mages whose schedules she was responsible for had their schedules full, and Lemon still had more events to somehow cram in. Lemon had originally wanted to join the Guild Alchemical Branch, but too many incidents of getting her head stuck in equipment made the master alchemists hesitant to take her on as an apprentice. So Lemon sat at her desk in Guild Administration, with her dream so close yet so far out of reach.

Her supervisor came by as she was enjoying her morning coffee and informed her of something that only made her day more complicated.

“Just got word from the ponies organizing the coronation. It’s being pushed back a day,” Crispy Cream told her in his usual bored tone. Lemon always suspected he was in the wrong business. His heart clearly wasn’t into Guild administration.

“Pushed back? That’s a bit unusual, right?” Lemon asked.

“First time in history something like it’s happened,” Crispy said. “Then again, same could be said for this particular coronation itself.”

Lemon nodded. If she was being honest, she would have preferred to just get the whole thing over with as soon as possible so things would return to normal around here. Her commute was starting to get unbearable with all the crowds. At least having one more day should give her more room to fit all of the events she needed to into the schedules for her bosses. Unless….

Crispy dumped a large stack of papers in front of her and commented, “Mystic Essence and Shimmerswift will be doing some more prep on the extra day. Think you could create new schedules for them?”

Lemon Hearts gave him a smile she really wasn’t feeling and replied, “I’ll get right on it!”

Seemingly satisfied, Crispy Cream nodded and gave her a smile. It didn’t last long as he gave a side glance toward the entrance. “Hmm, looks like we have an unwanted visitor.”

Lemon followed her supervisor’s gaze toward the public entrance where a strange stallion entered, looking around cautiously. His mane was unbrushed and his coat looked like it hadn’t seen a bath in some time. His gaze then found Lemon Hearts at her desk, and he started to make his way toward her.

“I’ll go get security. See if you can convince him to leave without a fuss.” With that, Crispy left Lemon to fend for herself as the stallion approached and cleared his throat.

“‘Scuse me, Miss,” the stallion said. He was an earth pony with a maroon coat and a scraggly gray beard, and now that he was standing in front of her Lemon could see that he was built like a brick wall.

“Hi, can I help you?” Lemon asked politely. Despite his shabby appearance, Lemon didn’t think he looked like as much trouble as her supervisor did.

“Here t’see the Princess, if’n ya don’t mind,” the earth pony drawled, his voice harsh and gravelly.

Lemon tilted her head in confusion. “Um, this is the Mage Guild Headquarters, sir. If you have an appointment with one of the princesses you need to go to the Canterlot Royal Palace. It’s just down the street towards the mountain.”

The stallion let out an awkward chuckle and shook his head. “Sorry, guess I forgot she prob’ly doesn’t go by her royal title ‘round here. My mistake. I’m here to see the Archmagus.”

Now Lemon understood. “Oh, you have an appointment with Archmagus Raspberry Beryl?” Lemon doubted very much that he did. Most ponies who had an appointment of any kind would at least clean themselves up for it.

“No, but is there a way you could squeeze me in?” the stallion asked, grinning. “I’m sort of an old friend.”

“That right?” Lemon asked, unable to keep the skepticism from her tone. If I had a bit for every time I’ve heard that….

“Actually, I suppose ‘acquaintance’ would be more fitting. Still, I’d really like to speak with her. Is there a way we could make that happen?”

“I’m afraid Archmagus Beryl has a pretty full schedule right now. Coronations are always a busy time.” The stallion nodded, pretending he understood. Clearly he wasn’t from the city. Lemon then thought of something she could add that might actually convince him to leave. “Truth be told, the Archmagus is rarely even in the office. Most of the time she does her work out of Ponyville or the Canterlot Palace.”

“I see….”

“But if you’d like to leave us your name and an address you can be contacted at, we might be able to set up an appointment for you in about a month’s time.”

It was some time before the stallion replied in a resigned tone, “Alright, guess I should’ve expected the ol’ red tape two-step.” The earth pony sighed and reached into his saddlepack, pulling out a small unassuming stone. “Guess I gotta get her attention the messy way then.”

It was only as Lemon realized that the stone was actually a small chunk of obsidian that the earth pony violently smashed it against the ground. Remembering what had befallen her boyfriend’s old barracks nearly a year ago when a similar piece of obsidian disguised as an ordinary gemstone had been sent to them, Lemon took immediate action. She dove under her desk right as the cracked obsidian burst forth a jagged black spire, beneath which the security ponies Crispy Cream had sent for tackled the stallion to the floor.

“No.”

Thorax facehoofed. “Ocellus, you nearly got in trouble with the queen last time, so—”

“What’s the worst she’s gonna do?” countered the young changeling defiantly, “Kill me? It isn’t like the whole hive isn’t dying of hunger already! No changeling has eaten properly in weeks! Some are straight up going feral from starvation!”

“I won’t say you’re wrong in that things are bad, but…” Thorax sighed, how exactly could he convince the young pupa that there might actually be hope at the end of this hell? She was right, after all: Beyond the field patrols who were able to glean food off of ponies on outposts defending Equestria, literally every single changeling under the rule of Chrysalis hadn’t had the opportunity to go out and feed. Supported by the crushing defeat of Queen Capillo, Chrysalis had maintained the need to keep all but the most critical of changelings at the ready should the false Queen Mandible mount an attack in the hopes Chrysalis’s own forces had been weakened.

Well, they certainly had—by self-inflicted attrition. Perpetually being battle ready at all times was keeping them from properly caring for themselves and already there were a few who were dropping dead out of starvation. There hadn’t been a sign of the purple carapaces of Mandible’s forces—though given how the changelings under Chrysalis’s banner had heard of Mandible’s misfortune near a town called Nightshade, the idea that Mandible had ever been able to mount a sudden attack seemed remote.

And in hindsight, that turned out to be a hivesend, because such an incursion would have been the proverbial silken strand that broke the pupa’s cocoon, because the hive mind was regularly embroiled with dissent. What was Chrysalis even doing? She had been making mysterious disappearances over the past year and it had been at least three weeks since she’d last told the hive mind that everything was going to be fine. It was like she was oblivious to the real lurking danger of a riot—surely a queen who was a thousand years old would know to avoid such a thing.

Then again, after the complete rout of changelings at the Battle of Canterlot several years ago, things really had gone into a downward spiral for changelingkind. That had been when the schism had happened and several queens used the fractured state of the hivemind to split off their own swarms of changelings. Such a thing had been common in the past, according to the hivemind, but since Chrysalis’ ascendancy, it had almost never happened—and yet it was happening with greater frequency now.

Furthermore, changelings born after the battle were exhibiting unusual behavior: independence. It was like the hivemind not only allowed the lesser queens to break away, but it had severed the connection before the new members of the hives were fully developed. Such behavior was punished by the hivemind and it effectively brainwashed those individuals back into behaving more normally like the rest. It hurt Thorax—he knew he himself had been born different, because he wasn’t as…aggressive as his brethren, and indeed his heart really hadn’t been with the whole “plunder and feast on innocents” aspect of the Battle of Canterlot. To see others potentially like him suffer for being themselves? It put his loyalties in question.

That was probably why he was in this situation right now. He’d been part of the advance strike force to take down Queen Capillo’s splinter hive…and among the eggs which had been stolen from the main hive was a pupa barely a month past her first molting. But it wasn’t just that her presence in the hive mind, forcefully reconnected with the presence of Chrysalis’s forces, was unusual—it simply wasn’t there. And Thorax had found himself instead acting to protect the nymph, whose name was Ocellus. She’d immediately bonded to him and in fact had played a huge role in getting a lot of the rebel changelings to surrender—the losses could have been a lot worse for both sides if she hadn’t straight up begged for the fighting to stop and, weirdly, the majority listened. That too was unusual—could Ocellus be a young queen? But a queen without a connection to the hive mind?

The only way Thorax would ever get answers was to protect her from Chrysalis. And now herself, evidently, because she’d had enough of the starving and had gone out on her own before Thorax had tracked her down.

“What do you want us to do, then?” asked Ocellus, worry in her big eyes. “Something has to be done!”

“We obey the queen and we do nothing against her will,” came a third voice, and sure enough Pharanx came into view. While Changelings didn’t necessarily fall within the same concepts of siblings as ponies, there were certain groups within the hive that were regarded and behaved as if they were. Pharanx and Thorax were one such pair of ‘brothers’ though the former was arguably more the model changeling while Thorax…wasn’t. “What are you two doing outside the hive?”

“Getting a bit of fresh air, that’s all,” said Thorax, preventing Ocellus from getting herself into yet more trouble. “Isn’t that right?”

“Uh, yeah!” she quipped, shivering. It was obvious she thought Pharanx was scary. Possibly scarier than Chrysalis herself.

“Well, you two should know better than to go this far from the safety of the hive. There’s no telling what’s out there just waiting to get us.”

“Or, perhaps,” a fourth voice came, “A way out of your pitiful predicament?” As Thorax and Ocellus turned to face the newcomer, another changeling—this time, clad in a rich royal purple and looking much more healthy than any changeling in Chrysalis’s camp—emerged from shadow. He raised a hoof when Pharanx lowered his horn as if to charge. “I do not come to fight, rather, I come to end the fighting.”

“How so?” Pharanx asked through gritted fangs. “And who the hell are you?”

“My name is Clypeus,” the changeling said, “and I represent an interest within Mandible’s camp to end this amicably.”

“Speak now,” Pharanx ordered.

“The whole spat between our queens is that they’re fighting over control over us, the lesser drones of the hive. We slaughter each other and for what gain? We’re supposed to be working together for the good of the hive!” Clypeus gestured with a hoof behind the other three changelings. “Look at the state of what should be the home of all changelings—decrepit, with our kin literally dying left and right! And Chrysalis has caused this in some hare brained scheme to cement her power and…whatever it is she’s doing right now. Seriously, what is she doing?”

“Uh, okay, Clypeus,” Thorax said. “Even if we knew, we wouldn’t tell you because you’re still technically an enemy.”

“And that’s my point,” said Clypeus, “back when Chrysalis was pretending to be that pretty pink pony princess, she told us all what the plan was so we could play our part when the time came! Now she’s off doing who knows what while we all die! But while you’re all, well, dying, Queen Mandible has ensured those who are loyal to the true queen stay nourished and healthy—and you’re going to stand for that?”

“That…is a good point,” said Ocellus, warily.

“Exactly!” the strange changeling said with glee. “See, even the grub gets it! Anyway, I suspect I’ve outstayed my welcome, so I shall take my leave. But do consider my offer—and you’re welcome to come find me back at Mandible’s current lair if you wish to take me up on it.”

“And that’s where?”

“As if you don’t already know where it is,” Clypeus scoffed. “We’re changelings! We instinctively know where our queens are, since they are the crux of the hivemind! And since there’s only one true queen and one has-been right now––”

“You mean one true queen and one pretender,” Pharanx hissed.

Clypeus shrugged, paying the bulky changeling no mind. Then a thought seemed to occur to him.“Maybe you’re right, but referring to the wrong one as pretender—after all, taking into account the truth of what I just said, why is it no changeling knows where Chrysalis is at all times? Highly suspicious given how she’s dropping in and out of the hivemind, almost as if she’s no longer fit to lead. We’re the same species, so I don’t need to explain what that means. Anyway, tootles!” And like that, Clypeus slunk back into the shadows and was gone.

“Asshole,” said Pharanx, “Does he seriously believe we’d consider that shit?”

“I dunno…” said Thorax. “I think the greater question is—are we more loyal to our queen or our hive?”

A loud ka-thunk was heard from the head end of the train, a shrill cry of the engine’s whistle sounding immediately after as the mighty machine abandoned the coaches at the platform while the engineer took the locomotive to be serviced away from the station. Given how Canterlot was so spic and span all the time, the realities of locomotive care being the complete opposite necessitated that the servicing facilities be located largely out of sight from passengers, lest they suddenly have a panic attack at the reality of how the railroad worked. But that was how pony kind, or really any kind of civilization worked—the nasty truths of what supported their lifestyle was hidden beneath facades of more calming appearances. Out of sight, out of mind.

And that was how one mare in particular was being forced to operate, as she disembarked from the parked coaches with nothing but a well travel worn saddlepack. Obviously, in the days following the news reports that now-disgraced billiards champion and suspected cultist assassin Corner Shot had blown up a train while being escorted by a full guard regiment and, after murdering a lone forest ranger pony in his sleep, was suspected of being at large and supremely dangerous, the now-disgraced billiards champion and actual cultist assassin Corner Shot could not walk around looking like herself. Especially given the importance of doing ground reconnaissance in the fleeting days before Sunset Shimmer’s coronation, Corner couldn’t afford to cause another scene (though to be fair, it wasn’t like she’d originally planned on escaping by blowing up a train—she wasn’t Platinum bucking Dunes with his obsession with pointless explosions). She also didn’t dare use her “Thunderbolt” disguise, since thanks to her rather bad streak of luck, an unidentified pegasus matching the physical description of Thunderbolt was now wanted in Harborsport for the murder of Tilled Fields.

Thus, today she wore a new hairclip—one in the shape of a smiling sun—and her appearance was now that of a golden orange mare with a two-tone mane of off-white and silver, her cutie mark matching the hair clip. “Brightshine” now looked like any other mare and her cover of being a weather factory pony taking time off to attend the coronation festivities was fairly water tight—it would simply take too long to verify on the part of the incompetent guards. In reality, she was to meet up with another Covenant pony already doing recon and provide assistance until the time came to move into position. She’d been given a brief overview of her job and while she didn’t like it in the sense it didn’t really make use of her dedicated skill sets—either of them—she was still not entirely sure of her path in life after killing Tilled Fields, the closest thing she’d had to a father figure.

I’m sure everything will be fine, she reassured herself, doing her best to look like a carefree mare and not helping plot the downfall of the government. Now, I just need to connect with my contact and get settled in. I just hope that-

“Whoa! You are large!” A loud gravelly male voice suddenly shouted down the street. “Jus’ lookit those bouncy bouncy rolls!”

“Well, I never!” suddenly exclaimed a well-to-do mare in reply, prompting some ponies—“Brightshine” included—to look to the source of commotion. The offended looking mare then slapped a stallion, and it had done nothing to wipe the shit-eating grin off the pony’s face.

“Easy there, missy! I meant it as a compliment,” the distressingly familiar disheveled stallion said. “Really, there’s lots of ponies out there who are into big, blubbery mares!”

The mare in question (who was admittedly a bit on the pudgy side) made no reply, and simply stormed off in a huff. The stallion with five o’clock shadow and a bad mustache yelled after her, “Ooooh your rolls really bounce when you move! Keep that up and you’ll find yerself a nice chubby chaser in no time!”

Had Corner been in any sort of good mood, it pretty much died at that moment because that was when she made eye contact with the stallion.

Buck. My. Life. She thought miserably as the stallion sauntered over like he owned Canterlot. She gave him a look between unenthused and tired, greeting him as deadpan as possible. “Hello, Barkeep.”

“Hey, if it isn’t my favorite mare in the whole damn world!” Barkeep said, a little too loudly. At this point, though, Corner didn’t even bother protesting—just like the first time she’d met this plothole, clearly it was Neon Lux making her life hell. This time, though, she already knew there was nothing to be done about it…and if there was one strangely positive aspect to being in the company of this pony, it was that despite his boisterous, rude behavior, somehow nopony seemed to actually suspect him of being in league with a cult that idolized Sombra. Maybe most ponies simply wanted to get away from him—Corner certainly felt that way. “How was the train trip, eh? They say it’s a safe way to travel but you never know when they might just, I dunno, explode on ya!”

Corner just gave him a flat look. “Well, this one didn’t have a major mechanical problem like the previous, so I’d say it’s pretty good. Now, what is it you want me to do this time? Take out somepony, frame theft of stolen goods, other minor shit?”

“Nah, I ain’t got anything fun for ya to do like takin’ out your stabby daddy,” said Barkeep, that infuriating rictus never leaving his muzzle. “Maybe later as we get closer to the big show, but for now I’m just to take ya to your home away from home to meet your new friends.”

Corner sighed—on the one hoof, she wasn’t due for any nasty surprises like last time. On the other, though, given the Covenant had the likes of Barkeep, there was no telling what other ponies she had yet to meet—a list of certain ponies she didn’t ever want to meet again flashed through her mind and she hoped she wouldn’t have to add to that list. One of the biggest benefits of being an assassin with a semi-cover of a pool playing professional athlete had been the necessity of her working alone. She was dearly missing that kind of autonomy. “Yeah, sounds great,” she said in her maintained disinterest. “Let’s just get out of here before somepony realizes even like this, I look way too out of your league.”

“Out of my league? Oh, please! You’re not remotely my type,” chortled Barkeep. “You aren’t drunk enough yet to know what really gets me goin…”

“And this conversation is over,” said Corner with finality and a bit of disgust. “Can we go now?”

“But of course, what kind of a gentlestallion am I, anyway, leaving you waiting here?”

I don’t think words exist to describe what kind of a “gentlestallion” you are, thought Corner.

In the small, sleepy town of Pastern Flats, all the town was celebrating both the faraway coronation and the cuteceñera of a local foal. All except one pony, who did not know the lucky young filly and what their revealed special talent was. She didn’t really care, either, as to learn that would mean having to socialize with the locals in a town that had always felt more like an open prison than anything else.

So while the population of the town was busy focusing on one thing, Skystreak stealthily made her way across town through the empty streets to busy herself with another. Out of her attention-drawing Wonderbolts uniform, nopony would have thought much of her anyway, at least until they became aware of what she was doing.

Fortunately, the pegasus was heading to a place where nopony would wander by accident—the cemetery was off in an alcove of trees behind a hill hiding it from anypony looking out from within the town. Aside from one or two slightly embellished gravestones—the markings of a noblepony whose so-called nobility meant little to a frontier community such as the Flats—only the state of deterioration and the engravings in the stones marked them different from one another. But Skystreak knew the path to take, having taken it for years, stopping in front of a particularly worn out stone. She scowled at the white stain down the left side, vandalism left by some dumb vulture or other bird.

Taking a deep breath, Skystreak allowed herself a moment of peace with her loved one before she began. “Hi, Dad. Sorry I haven’t visited in a while, but… I think you’d be proud of what I’ve accomplished. I passed the exam: I’m now a reserve Wonderbolt, and it’s only a matter of time until I’m officially on the team.” Skystreak sighed, fighting off the wave of sadness that always threatened to overtake her whenever she came here.

“I wish you were here to see me. To hear you say that… t-that you’re proud of me, and that you love me. I-I already know you are, and that you do, b-but… I really want to hear it from your own lips just one more time….” For the first time in years, Skystreak forfeited the fight against her own tears and let them wash over her. There had been times when Skystreak was mad at him for taking the easy way out: for leaving her alone in the world with nopony but her stupid mother to care for her.

But just like now, Skystreak had always cleared her head by remembering it wasn’t her father’s fault that things turned out this way. It was that bitch who had ruined his career, his marriage, and had taken everything from them both. Skystreak had tended that anger and hate over the years, much like the farmers did with their crops in this nowhere town, and now her cultivation was finally bearing fruit. Skystreak reached into her saddlepack and pulled out a sapphire orb. It was large, but not so much that it couldn’t fit in one hoof.

“It feels like poetic justice, doesn’t it? That your last gift to me will be her undoing.” Skystreak turned the orb over in her hooves, already intimately familiar with its weight. The sensation of the powerful magic within was equally familiar, dormant though it was. “I wish you had known what you really had in your possession; maybe you wouldn’t have lost all hope if you did. I know I haven’t. In fact, I’m more hopeful today than I’ve been in a very, very long time, and it’s all thanks to your last gift. Love you, Daddy.”

Skystreak rested a hoof on the gravestone and rested there for a while. “There’s still lots to do, but don’t worry, I’ve made a lot of progress. I’m in contact with a group of ponies that could help. I’ll admit, their views are a little… extreme, but I’m sure there’s a spellcaster among them who can unlock the Orb’s true power. I promise you. Daddy, I will not fail in my mission.

“Sunset Shimmer will suffer for your memory.”

“So, what is it you wanted to take me to do again?” asked Whiskey, uncertain of what was going on. About two hours prior, she’d been informed by Softwing that the two of them would be staying together in the human world. The initial reaction Whiskey had was surprise, since part of her thought she would be staying with Sunset and her family—but maybe that was in part due to how she’d lived prior to her first encounter with humans. She’d just been a retainer to Fujitsu, more an accessory than an individual.

Being entrusted to live with Sunset’s chosen seneschal was a sign of confidence in her, and it had been less than a week since she’d gone from being the shame of Inari to one of the most elite warriors in Equestria and one of the guardians of Princess-to-be Sunset Shimmer’s safety. But after Softwing had asked for Whiskey to accompany her for the day, the kitsune was not sure what to expect. Especially since the two of them were walking around Canterlot in their human guises instead of their true, natural forms of griffin and kitsune.

And wearing these clothes—what Softwing had called a t-shirt and jeans—was taking some getting used to. It wasn’t her traditional yukata, nor was it any of her SIREN uniforms. If anything, it looked very much like the clothing Princess Sunset’s entourage wore, and while she thought they looked nice, she wasn’t sure if she was allowed to wear it. Furthermore, she was told to go without any weapons, and even though she still had access to her magic if need be, being without a sword or a gun felt...disquieting.

“Oh, just…girl things,” said Softwing, with more than a hint of giddiness in her tone. “I know I’ve been grinding away at the massive backlog of stuff that’s come up simply by Sunset’s upcoming coronation—the coronation ball is tonight, and I’m looking forward to attending. And I know you’ve been the absolute model of military attentiveness in the short time you’ve been an Equestrian subject.”

“Yes, but I don’t think you brought me out and away from the other SIRENs just so I could be your bodyguard.”

“Remember what I said about our future living arrangements?” said Softwing, turning to face Whiskey, verdigris eyes looking into emerald. It really did strike Whiskey at that moment the irony—she was almost 300 years old, outstripping the average lifespan of most species on Equus save for the alicorns, yet the young adult griffin here as a human was far older looking than the actual older kitsune. “We’re basically going to be family, you being my little sister, at least on paper. So, I thought it would be in our best interest to spend time together before we arrive on Earth.”

“Is that really necessary?” asked Whiskey. “Back with my clan, before I was assigned to be Prince Fujitsu’s personal detail, the other kits and cubs my age or thereabouts were all treated equally. The clan leader and my father, Taisetsuna, has likely sired far more offspring than just me, but the only importance to any kitsune was being part of the clan. All that trainees were to each other were pretty much rivals. And, unfortunately, I think I was a bit better than my peers.”

“A bit better?” asked Softwing, confused. “Wouldn’t that be a good thing?”

Strangely, Whiskey laughed a little as she replied. “I mean, given where it’s gotten me? It was, but…it’s why I was the most inexperienced of Prince Fujitsu’s retainers. I am, after all, only a two-tail, and traditionally an Inari clan would allow a royal to take a bugeisha when they reach maturity which in those circles equates to a three-tail. But,” she added with a sigh, “I was told that because I showed promise, that they would bend the rules a little. Given what Prince Blueblood has told me about Inari law, though, I could have been the greatest two-tail kitsune ever and it still wouldn’t have been acceptable for what my clan or Fujitsu ultimately did, right down to me being cast out for a minor misunderstanding.”

“You were basically thrown out and weren’t expected to survive, weren’t you?” Softwing noted, her tone catching Whiskey off guard as it implied a sense of familiarity. “That’s not too dissimilar to how it works with griffins—and I wasn’t even subject to any of that but that in turn puts me in a similar boat to you.”

“But weren’t you raised by ponies? I recall overhearing you say that you consider yourself a pony at heart.”

Softwing thought about her words briefly. “I don’t know my mother,” she pointed out. “Shortly after my father found out I had magic, he separated me from her – I don’t even remember what she looks like. As for my father, since I was only an asset to him and never his child, he sent me here to live in the pony realms since ponies have a better grasp of general magic than griffins do. But even then, I was never anything more than a tool to him. Even being valedictorian of my graduating class—a griffin being deemed better than a whole herd of pony peers—meant nothing to him. Apparently my sex appeal was more valuable a bargaining chip than my brains.”

“And so began all your trouble with that other griffin with the greasy paws?”

“Yeah,” laughed Softwing, “It’s why I’m grateful for the opportunity her highness Sunset has given me. As much as I love what Goldvein and Silverleaf did for me, what they truly wanted was for me to have a happy life and I’ll never have it here on Equus. But as a human? I can finally escape the grasp of the culture that still thinks I need to serve it, while serving both a culture that values me and getting to find out who and what I am as a person. And I think you’ll like the fact you have the same opportunity as well.”

Raspberry Beryl tried to keep her temper cool as she walked down the halls of the Canterlot City Guard barracks. All things considered, the attack on Mage Guild HQ had done very little—if any—damage. The receptionist only sustained minor injuries, and even the building itself was relatively undamaged. In fact, the little incident had broken up the monotony of another long day of coronation preparation.

What truly irked Raspberry that moment was seeing another cheap imitation of her hoofiwork once again used as a weapon against Equestria. Suffice to say, Razz had acted quickly to dismantle and remove the miniature obsidian tower in the front lobby of the Guild HQ. But the incident had left Razz with more than a few questions.

“The stallion responsible surrendered to the Guild’s security immediately without a fight,” the sergeant had explained when Razz had arrived at the barracks. “We have him in the interrogation room now, but he’s being thoroughly uncooperative with our questioning.”

“Let me guess: he’s asking to see a lawyer?”

“He’s asking to see you. Claims he knows you.”

Razz wasn’t sure what to make of that, only that it probably wasn’t good. Unfortunately, there was only one way she was going to get any answers. “Well, I see no reason to deny his request. Take me to him, Learner.”

Now Razz found herself standing outside the door to the interrogation room. After assuring her that he and his compatriots would be watching from the other side of the one-way mirror, the security mage entered the room down the hall. Putting on her game face, Razz entered the room.

Seated at the table in the otherwise empty room was a rather large, muscular maroon earth pony stallion with a shaggy gray beard. His forelegs were cuffed to the table, and right away his appearance struck a cord of familiarity in Razz.

“Howdy, Miss Beryl,” he said cordially. “Been a while, hasn’t it?”

His rough voice sparked a memory in Raspberry, and all at once she remembered a tense standoff on a forest path on her way into a familiar small town.

“It’s Wallbreaker, isn’t it? Of the Lonesome Dove militia?” Razz asked, already knowing the answer. “You were one of the ponies who attacked Twilight and I as we were headed into town, back during the incident with my residual curse.”

“It was more you than Twilight we were attackin’, but yeah.” Wallbreaker gave her a friendly smile. “I’m surprised you remember.”

Razz gave him a hint of a predatory smile back. “Well, considering I saved you and the whole town, assaulting a Guild secretary with a knockoff of my black crystal is certainly an interesting way to return the favor. Wanna tell me how you got that?”

“If I answer your question, will you answer mine?”

“Depends on the question.”

Wallbreaker shrugged. Apparently that was good enough for him. “‘Bout a month ago, some truly strange pony came through town and started helpin’ out at the local waterin’ hole. Never got his name. Feller knew how to pour a good drink, but was a few bushels short of a barrel if’n you catch my meaning. Went on and on about the importance of faith. Said he was recruitin’ acolytes for a covenant of some sort. Lotta what he said sounded like hogwash, but I gotta admit the core of his ideas resonated with me.”

The Covenant of Shadows. Razz thought those crazy Sombra worshippers might have been involved as soon as she’d seen the black crystal spire.

“I have to admit: when we first met, I never would have pegged you as a cultist,” Razz quipped, hoping to find out the extent of Wallbreaker’s involvement with them.

“Gotta admit myself that when we first met, I never would’ve thought I’d be talking to you like this either. Now, you mind if I ask you my question?” Razz indicated she wouldn’t mind, and Wallbreaker leaned forward, the chain of his cuffs jingling a little as he shifted to get more comfortable. “I wanna get the measure of you, Razz. May I call you Razz?” An indifferent shrug was her answer, and Wallbreaker continued. “What do you think about the idea that it’s your destiny to bring about great change to all of ponykind?”

“What? Because of my unfortunate relation to an old mad king?” Razz asked with an annoyed flick of her tail. “I’ll be honest, it’s for that reason that I don’t think I even believe in destiny. All I want is to live my life on my own terms and protect the people that matter to me.”

That answer seemed to disappoint Wallbreaker, and he deflated a little before looking back at her. “You came back to Lonesome Dove and saved us when you were within your every right to leave us to our fate. I think that means you have a good heart. So why are you content to serve a supposedly all-powerful ruler that clearly doesn’t care about the working class pony?”

That threw Razz for a loop. “Celestia? She loves all ponies!”

“Not as much as she loves her daughter, it would seem.” Wallbreaker sighed, and there was a certain… hollowness to his entire being that Razz didn’t remember seeing in him before. “Would you like to know how things have been for Lonesome Dove after the war?

“Things had been bad enough for us already, as you probably know. That curse of yours had been draining life from the land for years. Between that and having to give most of what we had to the war effort, by the time it was over we were already starving. Things might’ve turned out okay after that—there was enough time left in the summer for one more harvest… that is, if t’weren’t for the early winter.

“You know what a proud farming community Lonesome Dove is. So imagine how it felt knowing our survival meant accepting equinetarian aid from other towns. Even so, they could only send us so much—our neighbors were on the verge of starvation themselves.” Wallbreaker gave a bitter laugh as he hissed, “We lost more in the war’s aftermath than we did in the actual fighting.”

Wallbreaker was quiet for a bit after that. It took him a minute to muster the strength to say what he said next. “Wife got sick. Didn’t have enough money to pay fer medicine and feed our foals at the same time.” The big stallion’s voice started to break into a tremor, and Razz’s heart sank when she saw his eyes grow glossy. “S-she was always so strong, she… she loved our foals so damn much. I thought if anyone could ride out that disease it’d be her, but then… then it got worse, and….”

He tried to wipe the tears from his eyes, but the cuffs on his forelegs wouldn’t allow it. “I was so… angry. Why should the entire kingdom have to suffer alongside its ruler?! T’aint right!

Razz could figure out the rest from there. “So when that strange pony appeared in town offering a chance to set things right, you jumped at it.”

With a mucusy sniff, Wallbreaker said, “I’unno. Changing the status quo sounded nice n’ all, but I think the real reason I signed up with the Covenant was… I wanted to lash out. ‘S why I came here lookin’ fer you too, I reckon. Wanted to show you what these damned alicorns did to me! What they’re doin’ to all Equestria! ‘T wasn’t jus’ me who signed up with the Covenant, y’know. There were others, like Cornfield, Sassy Silk and Checkup.”

Razz blinked her eyes at that last name. “Checkup? But she’s the town doctor!”

“Not anymore; now she’s part of the Covenant. Heck, I reckon there are broken, disenfranchised ponies all over the country who signed on for the same reason as me.”

Razz was thoughtful for a long time. She had walked into this room expecting yet another one-sided argument with a half-witted zealot. Instead, Wallbreaker had given her something to really think about. She’d been on Earth for the entirety of the Winter. She’d heard it was bad, but seeing physical proof of so much suffering made her wonder: What if Celestia loses Sunset for good? Would Equestria even survive? Do we all just live at the whim of Celestia’s melancholy?

Still, Razz knew where she stood on the matter. “You’re right about many things, but the Covenant of Shadows isn’t the force for change you think it is. King Sombra was a monster inside and out. I have a book in my quarters that’s a testament to that fact. The alicorns may be far from perfect, but they’re a hell of a lot better than the alternative.”

Wallbreaker was quiet, and Razz realized that perhaps it was his turn to question what he believed in. “I hope you’re right,” he said with a resigned tone. “With the new princess’s coronation, Equestria is approaching a crossroads. Hundreds of the disenfranchised are gathering under the banner of the Covenant, and very soon they will make their voices heard. Will Equestria continue to be ruled by fickle immortals? Or will mortal ponies forge their own destiny? We did it before, after all.”

“Yes, and as I recall, during the Warring States Era, pony slaughtered pony without even so much as a thought.”

“I was talking about the Classical Era of history. Queen Platinum and her descendants,” Wallbreaker stated.

“Yes, and even under the ancien regime there were still problems. And eventually it all ended when Discord came into the picture.” Razz then looked him in the eyes and added, “And do you know who saved us from all that? The alicorns, when they returned to power.”

“They should have never left power.”

“Perhaps, but perhaps also the nobles underneath Queen Faust shouldn’t have tried to orchestrate their little power grabs and instead guided Celestia and Luna to their destinies instead of letting them take centuries to find it.”

“Mebbe yer right, I’unno.” With a final shrug, Wallbreaker intoned, “Time will tell, I s’ppose. But what I want to know is, which side will you be on when it comes?”

“I know what side I’m on,” Razz said. Now if only she felt as confident as she sounded.

As evening encroached upon the city, dark forces gathered in the shadows.

Unfortunately, much to Corner Shot’s dismay, she ended up bunking with the one pony more annoying than Barkeep, if such a thing was possible.

“My, it’s such an honor to share quarters with one as important as a Scion,” cooed Chrysoberyl, closing the door behind Corner as she entered the room.

“Yeah, feeling’s mutual.” It had been hell trying to get through Canterlot without being recognized. Well, more hell than usual. Before, she’d had to navigate hordes of fans there to see the reigning pool champion. Now she was a wanted criminal, and for what? She had to admit, the suite Chrysoberyl had secured for them was pretty luxurious as befitting the unicorn’s station. It was the company in question that Corner couldn’t stand.

“Say, if it’s not too much to ask, what exactly is it you can do with your great powers?”

Corner looked at Chrys flatly. “I get really fucking pissed off but only if I get an arrow shoved up my ass apparently.”

Chrysoberyl looked bewildered at that...unexpected remark. “But, uh, according to the prophecy, you’re supposed to represent His skill.”

“Yeah, like I don’t do that enough with being a crack pool shot or, y’know,” droned Corner, flaring her wings out in the blink of an eye, a feather knife in each wingtip, “this whole song and dance.”

“Ah, so your power is more...passive, then?” asked the unicorn slyly.

“Okay, look, are you going to be this creepy all damn night? I don’t think I need to remind you what the plan is tomorrow, since you were one of the big proponents of it.”

“Yes, yes, I’m well aware of the plan. Though notably, I’ve not been informed as to what you will be doing during it. I presumed it was due to your unlocked abilities but, er, getting shot in the rear painfully doesn’t sound like much.”

“Yeah, this whole Scion thing is freakin’ overrated if you ask me,” groaned the pool shark, who unpacked her measly bag and pulled out her toiletries kit. “Sure, Razz is basically throwing crystals around like it’s going out of style and Lockbox apparently has powers inspired by the cover of that A Tack on Saddle novel series that’s so popular these days, what with the chains and crap. But they’re also unicorns. I got the short end of the stick with wings...and then those practically got taken away from me.”

“But you’re the Covenant’s top assassin!”

“Yeah, I also can’t fucking fly higher than a half-mile off the ground. The racks are heavy and can’t channel our innate pegasi magic. Seriously, I’m a fucking pegasus who can’t do the one goddamn thing pegasi are supposed to do right.”

“Well, you’re still kin of Sombra, and that to me is better than being an airhead.”

Corner rolled her eyes. “You’re also insane, Chrys.”

“The difference between genius and insanity is the viewpoint, y’know.”

“You keep telling yourself that,” replied Corner, before looking out the window at the castle. She’d been having second thoughts about...a lot of her decisions over the years, and something in her gut didn’t like what the coronation would bring.

Corner’s thoughts were interrupted as the door to the bedroom burst open and Barkeep strode in, looking unusually miffed.

“Really Barkeep? You couldn’t have knocked first?” Chrysoberyl asked, giving the stallion a distasteful glare.

“Sorry if I’m interrupting the hate fuckin’ you two were no doubt enjoying, but something just came up that requires our immediate attention,” Barkeep said.

He skittered over to Corner’s bed and quickly passed her a dossier. Corner opened it while giving him an unamused look, then proceeded to review its contents. A picture of a reedy, disheveled stallion was clipped next to what appeared to be a hastily put together file with his name: Simple Science.

“And just what did this poor sonovvabitch do to earn a visit from me?” Corner asked.

“He was holdin’ onto a little surprise I had prepared for the coronation. A very literal butterfly effect to cause maximum confusion before our attack. Unfortunately, it all amounts to shit now. Our boy Science here seriously dropped the ball. Let our secret weapon shoot its load prematurely if ya get what I mean.”

“You’d better not be jerking me around again like you did with Tilled Fields, Barkeep.”

Chrysoberyl airily cleared her throat and said, “Need I remind you how imperative it is for our lovely Scion here to keep a low profile until the coronation? The last thing we need is for the Covenant as a whole to ‘shoot its load prematurely’ as you oh so eloquently put it.”

Turning to Chrysoberyl with a flourishing, mocking bow, Barkeep said, “My lady doth moan and bitch too much.” He then dropped the haughty parody just as quickly and continued normally (by his standards), “I have it on good authority from my ponies inside the castle that a major event just transpired as a result of my secret weapon directly affecting the big star of the event we’re all here to see!

“Come the morning the guards who have our boy Science in custody are going to want to know who gave him an Allucinor Wing, and seeing as I doubt he has the same faith in our Lord that we do, he’s gonna sing like a canary. That will lead them to me, and by extension all of us. Then our game’ll be over before we even get a chance to play!”

Chrysoberyl sniffed distastefully. “You should have known this would have turned out badly and just stuck to Father Lux’s original plan.”

“For once we agree on something,” Corner said.

Barkeep put a hoof to his chest in mock hurt (Corner wondered if he was even capable of feeling a genuine emotion that wasn’t overtly sarcastic). “Well excuuuuse me, milady, for tryin’ to take a little Sombra-damned initiative! Not my fault I had reasonable expectations of the good doctor’s competence.”

“Right, and if this guy is already in Guard custody like you said, trying to take him out now might point ponies to us just as quickly as if he talked.”

Barkeep wiggled a dirty hoof close to Corner’s face as he replied, “Not if we do this the right way.”

Barkeep then went over his plan to acquire a specific untraceable poison that would ensure Simple Science’s death would look like an accident. All Corner had to do was find a way to infiltrate the barracks they were holding him in the dead of night and slip it to him. Chrysoberyl quickly got to work enchanting Corner’s hairclip with a new disguise to that end.

All the while Corner wondered to herself whether this was just the way her life was going to be from now on: Always the hunted one. Never catching a moment’s rest in the struggle to keep her head above water. She found her thoughts going back to Tilled Fields as it had many times since their final meeting. She wondered how different her life would have been if she’d accepted his offer to leave the Covenant with him. To lead a simple life in some far away land with the stallion who she’d thought of as her own father. It hurt to think about how nice that would have been.

Too late for that now, though. I burned that bridge pretty damn thoroughly. That’s all it seems I’m good for. Corner forced her thoughts back to the present, where she needed to add yet another innocent pony to the long list of bodies that paved the road of her life.

What could go wrong? Internally wondered Corner. Well, that’s easy—EVERYTHING.

Chapter 2 - Discordant Notes

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GAOA Book III

Chapter 2: Discordant Notes

The first thing that made Raspberry Beryl think this was not going to be anything even remotely approaching a normal day was the summons for her to come to Princess Twilight’s office first thing in the morning. Not only was she not aware that her friend had one here in the palace – though she shouldn’t have been surprised, in hindsight – but the fact that she’d been summoned, which was not normally how Twilight usually operated, meant that it was official business...and it was way too early in the morning for official business.

Nonetheless, as the Archmagus of Equestria, Razz was obliged to go, and so she had the page wait for a few while she quickly got ready. Afterwards, it was a quick trip to a part of the palace that Razz rarely went to, and then into one set of offices on the fourth floor of said wing. The page, following protocol, made the pronouncements as was normal, then ushered Razz in before departing.

Seated at a desk in an otherwise opulent room, Princess Twilight Sparkle was surrounded by paperwork and looked, as typical in that situation, in her element. So much so, in fact, that she’d pretty much ignored all the flowery statements by the page and even until Razz bobbed with a florid curtsey and said in a stentorian voice, “The Archmagus of Equestria is here at the pleasure of the Princess of Friendship as bid, Your Highness. May you instruct me wisely in the words you are about to utter.”

Twilight looked up and rolled her eyes. “Not funny, Razz,” she said drolly.

Razz giggled. “I thought it was. So what’s so important that you had to issue an official summons?”

The alicorn blinked. “Uh, I didn’t….” She groaned and facehoofed. “I’m sorry, Razz, it wasn’t meant to be an official summons of any kind; you know I really hate that. But I am glad you’re here, as I’m going to need to rely on you as much as the rest of the Court of Friendship.” She pointed at a table with coffee carafes and various pastries. “Have you eaten yet?”

“Taking care of that problem right now,” the mulberry unicorn chirped as she happily cantered over to the foodstuffs.


A few minutes later, the two were seated at the table, eating a much-needed breakfast. “Okay, now that I’ve had some coffee and feel more pony,” Razz said to her friend as she set down a mug, “what’s going on?”

“Everything,” Twilight said, taking the coffee carafe in her magic and refilling both their mugs.

“Everything, huh? That’s...really descriptive.” Razz thought about it for a second. “Why, do we have an escalation of the Allucinor issue?”

“Not just that. Do you know what happened to Sunset?” Not waiting for an answer, Twilight then went on about what had occurred just several hours ago and how it had seriously affected her fellow alicorn, but just as much how it had harmed the human Pinkie. Razz listened intently; while she knew to some degree what had likely gone on – with what she’d learned about Allucinors just a few hours back it wasn’t hard to assume what would have been the result – but she still felt for her friends and how they’d suffered.

“How...how are they doing?” she asked softly.

Twilight pursed her lips. “I just spoke with Sunset’s human parents a little while ago. They’re both distraught, needless to say. Dr. Velvet is consulting with the medical doctors that are over in Cadance’s office right now, working with her on a purge regime to get the venom out of Sunset’s system. From what I’d heard earlier, they’re pretty sure it’s all out now, but they plan to run a final check on her just in case. As for Dr. Light, well, my father took him over to the Royal Observatory in order to let him relax and let the doctors do their thing.

“As for Pinkie...we don’t know. She’s only spoken to Adagio so far, and since then, we haven’t heard anything from her. Both Fluttershys tried to see her about thirty minutes ago, but to no avail. She made some comment about ‘130 hours of Krautrock’. Flutters said that it was a German style of rock music, but other than that she had no idea what Pinkie meant.”

“Knowing Pinkie? Who knows?” Razz said sadly. “I guess that means we’re going to have to delay the coronation another day?”

“We can’t afford to – the populace is already wondering why there was an extra day, and the diplomatic entourages that have shown up are already asking questions as well. Granted, they understand about the overcrowding and the extra preparations needed – remember what happened when Iron Will was crowned? – but that’s only an excuse that will buy us an extra day at most. Furthermore, with what happened early this morning, I’m sure that news is bound to get out soon if it’s not already.”

Razz looked puzzled at that. “So how do I fit into this?”

“With we princesses tied up taking care of various issues because of everything going on, we’ve had to delegate some issues,” Twilight explained, picking up another donut. “Cadance has her hooves full into looking at Sunset’s health. Sunset, obviously, is otherwise occupied. Luna, my brother and Div are looking into increasing security given everything that’s happened. And I’m personally helping Celestia deal with everything else, as well as taking things off her plate so she can go see Sunset later.

“But that also means, for a rare change, we’ve had to enlist some of the minor royals and some of the trusted nobility to take care of things.” She sighed. “Do you know who Prince Exhibition is?”

“Not really, why?”

“Well, he’s the prince in charge of the nations museums and art foundations. If you can believe it, he’s even more of an anti-social bookworm than I used to be. In any case, we’ve pulled him off that duty and he’s talking to some of the diplomats who’ve been asking around about what’s going on. But obviously it’s not enough. So, we’re looking at members of our individual courts that are present and free to assist. Rarity, Applejack, and Rainbow already had plans today. Pinkie is helping in the kitchens, as per her norm. Fluttershy is assisting Cadance in the medical examination of Sunset, which just leaves you.”

“You know that I’m always willing to assist, Twi,” Razz stated, “but what can I do?”

“We’re going to need you to take charge on the Allucinor issue. Clearly both you and Fluttershy are the most familiar with them, but as she’s assisting Cadance, that leaves you. I’m sure you’ll know best what to do with them, because we really cannot afford to have them hatch in the middle of town even in the best of times, much less now. So we’ll need your help with that.

“At the same time, you’ll also have to take the lead on the investigation regarding the stallion who brought the original Allucinor into town. He’s currently in jail right now.”

Razz gave Twilight an odd look. “Isn’t that usually handled by the Guard?”

“Yes, but given that my brother is filling in for Cady’s diplomatic duties while she takes care of Sunset, something’s gotta give. Arrowswift is handling the day-to-day needs of the Guard, but we’ll need a specialist to look into potential dark magic avenues in the investigation, and you know who that usually falls to.”

Razz sighed, then poured herself another cup of coffee. “This is going to be a long day for me, isn’t it?”

“I’ve already sent the documents to your office at the Mage Guild. Additionally, because of the situation, the Hooves have offered their assistance, so the Castellan will report to you later today.”

“That’s nice of Marimba.”

“No, it’s revenge,” Twilight told her friend. “Remember that most of them have known Sunset since she was a filly. The fact that she was injured severely while under their protection? If somepony is genuinely trying to start something? They’d better hope that Sunset’s SIRENs find them first, because at least they’ll try to act under the law. If the Hooves find them? I’m not even sure Celestia herself could stop them.”

“You don’t say…” said Razz, not envying whoever – if anyone – was responsible for this.

“That’s all I have for you, Razz,” Twilight said, straightening out her papers with a sense of finality. “Unless you have anything for me, I suggest you get started.”

Razz turned towards the door to do just that, when something occurred to her. “Actually, I can think of one possible group who could be behind the Allucinor Wing attack.”

Twilight looked up from her papers. “Oh?”

“Just yesterday I spoke with a stallion who was arrested for attacking the Mage’s Guild Headquarters,” Razz explained. “He was with the Covenant.”

“The Covenant of Shadows?” Twilight asked. “You think they had something to do with the Allucinor Wing?”

“I don’t have anything to go on but a hunch,” Razz said. “But this stallion said things that made it seem like the Covenant had some larger play yet to make.”

Twilight put a hoof to her chin. “I suppose that makes sense. They are fanatics, after all. If anypony is crazy enough to try something before the coronation, it’s them.”

“I’m not so sure it’s that simple,” Razz said with a shake of her head. When Twilight gave her an inquisitive look, Razz explained, “This Covenant stallion I talked to… you might remember him if you met him. He was one of the militia ponies we met in Lonesome Dove all those months ago. He didn’t seem like a Sombra fanatic, he just seemed… desperate.”

“Desperate? How so?”

Razz leaned a little closer and said, “The fact is, ponies are scared. Between the war and the long winter… I think ponies are starting to lose faith in Princess Celestia as a ruler.”

Twilight looked at Razz like she’d just killed her owl. “B-but… that’s insane! Celestia is strong and wise. She’s always put Equestria’s needs first!”

“But she didn’t. Not during the months after the war.” Seeing that Twilight still didn’t look convinced, Razz continued, “What would have happened if Sunset hadn’t turned out to be alive?”

“She… Celestia would have pulled through for the sake of her ponies.” Twilight said the words confidently, but she didn’t look as certain as she had a moment ago.

“But how much longer would that have taken? Ponies were already starving to death when Celestia came to her senses. If the winter had gone on any longer than it had… how many of us would there even be left?”

Seeing how crestfallen Twilight looked, Razz realized she had to mitigate her own argument a bit. “Look, I haven’t lost faith in Princess Celestia, okay? She’s managed to keep Equestria running after banishing her own sister, after all. If anypony can find the strength to pull through a loss for the good of the world, it’s her. But most ponies don’t know Celestia like we do. For all they know, the entire world could very well have perished from Celestia’s melancholia.”

“I guess that makes sense….”

“All I’m trying to say is, most of these Covenant ponies aren’t inherently bad. They’re just scared, and only joined the Covenant out of fear.” Razz approached Twilight and looked her dead in the eyes. Twilight knew she was talking from personal experience when she said, “Take it from me: Fear can lead ponies to make really bad decisions.”

More than anything else, Sunset Shimmer wanted to scream. But even if she had the capability to do so, it would have been hard with her lips so firmly interlocked with Pinkie’s. Sunset felt every ounce of her dear friend’s curves as her hands worked their way up and down her body of their own volition. It felt wrong, so very wrong, but no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t pull away.

Sunset was utterly helpless as she roughly shoved Pinkie onto the bed her of her royal suite. Unable to stop her body’s autonomous motions as she straddled her friend’s naked, vulnerable body and began to kiss every inch of her, top to bottom. Pinkie returned the favor in kind, and despite how badly Sunset wanted to stop, she moaned as a shiver of pleasure ran down her own treacherous body. Then Sunset worked her way lower still until she was just above Pinkie’s womanhood.

“Sunny, wait,” Pinkie said softly, and Sunset wanted to. Instead she could only watch as her own hands pulled down her friend’s panties. “Sunny, stop.” Again Sunset tried, and again her body didn’t obey her commands.

“Sunny, no!” Sunset saw Pinkie’s exposed womanhood grow closer as she moved in for the kill. Then she felt a hand grab her head and lift her face. Pinkie was holding her back, looking directly into her eyes with her own, and she looked scared. “Something’s wrong. Can’t you feel it?”

I do, Pinkie! I want to stop. I just want to stop! But no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t speak any of her thoughts. And nor could she stop.

So Sunset could just helplessly watch as her hand batted away Pinkie’s own, and her body once again tried to bring her mouth closer to Pinkie’s center. This time Pinkie tried to fight her off more aggressively. Sunset was momentarily dazed as she felt Pinkie’s foot connect with her face, knocking her back. Then Sunset’s hands waved in front of her, weaving together ethereal cyan light. Pinkie, who had been trying to get out of the bed, was suddenly and forcefully pinned back down, her arms and legs held in place by cyan astral chains.

Pinkie tried to fight back with her own magic, but next to Sunset’s immense power she might as well have been a candle trying to fight back the night. The chains of Sunset’s magic held Pinkie tighter, and Pinkie cried out.

Stop it! Sunny please! It hurts! STOP!

“Yeah, stop it, Sunny,” a new, familiar voice said dryly.

From behind her, a pair of masculine arms wrapped themselves around her waist, and Sunset wanted to recoil when she felt the familiar touch of lips on her neck.

“Wouldn’t want you to totally break her before I’ve had my turn,” continued the voice of Flash Sentry, who moved from Sunset to the bed beside Pinkie.

There were two more figures in bed on Pinkie’s other side, a man and a woman. Their features were vague and unrecognizable, but somehow Sunset knew without ever having met them who they were.

“Don’t get too ahead of yourselves, you two,” Sweet Cicely cooed.

“Don’t forget who has first dibs!” Royal Atlas exclaimed, caressing Pinkie’s tear-stained cheek.

Seeing Pinkie’s teary face as she silently and ineffectually begged all of them to stop broke Sunset, utterly and completely. She could feel the tears running down her own face even as her body moved to claim Pinkie’s once and for all.

In her mind, Sunset thrashed and fought with every ounce of her strength against whatever spell she was under, but it was no use. Sunset wanted nothing more in the world to scream until she was hoarse. She tried to do so even as she and the others set about using Pinkie completely and thoroughly.

Then Sunset realized that she was screaming, and what was more, Pinkie, Flash, and the others were gone. Her body was her own as she sat up in her bed, wailing like a banshee. Sick to her stomach, Sunset crawled from her bed and staggered almost drunkenly towards the bathroom, but didn’t make it and hurled on the carpet.

That had been the regular pattern every hour or so throughout the night. Go to sleep, nightmare, wake up, be sick, repeat. The doctors who had examined her after the incident earlier this morning told her that her body needed to evacuate the leftover Allucinor Wing venom, and that the vomiting would be fairly regular. The nightmares, though, was one thing that wasn’t mentioned. Perhaps Sunset should have expected that without being told.

It was hard to say for sure whether the nightmares were really just that, or if they were… memories. Sunset couldn’t consciously remember the events of the night after the Allucinor Wing bit her, but the subconscious was its own beast entirely. It couldn’t all have happened as it did in the dreams, of course – Flash and the others hadn’t been there, after all – and that provided Sunset with some small measure of comfort. Even so, Sunset couldn’t help but wonder how much truth there was to them.

Had Pinkie really tried to stop her in the middle of it? Would Sunset have been able to hear her in that state? Or would she have simply kept going, pushing past whatever protests Pinkie had until she was finished? It wasn’t like Pinkie had the power to fight her off if things had come to that point. If Cadance and the others hadn’t arrived when they did….

Sunset thought all of her tears had dried up hours ago, but she found them spilling forth all over again when a simple thought occurred to her.

Pinkie and I… things between us will never be okay again!

Sunset wasn’t sure how long she’d been there, crying on the floor of her bedroom, before she felt an arm drape itself across her shoulders. Sunset flinched and recoiled, but then let her posture relax somewhat when she saw that Twilight was kneeling beside her, giving her the heartbroken look of a person watching someone they love in terrible agony.

“I-I…” Sunset said, her broken voice barely audible. It took her a few tries to remember how to speak, and even then the words that came out were as disjointed and broken as she felt. “I… threw up… on the… the….”

“I know, it’s okay,” Twilight said, stroking her back tenderly. “Don’t worry about that. I’m sure someone on staff will clean it.”

Sunset let her sister just hold her there on the floor for a little while. “W-what am I going to do?” she finally asked.

“Right now? Just take it easy,” Twilight said. “Thank God that the coronation isn’t today.”

“Small blessings,” Sunset muttered, slowly but surely feeling her ability to vocalize her basic thoughts returning.

“It’s about breakfast time. Do you think you’ll be good to come down?”

Sunset could only shake her head.

“Okay, I’ll bring up something.”

“Thanks, Twily.” After another silence, Sunset asked, “Is Pinkie doing okay?”

Twilight’s warm smile disappeared in a flash. “Don’t know. Haven’t checked.”

“Can you make sure someone checks on her? Please?”

“I’ll see what I can do.” The warmth was gone from Twilight’s voice as well as her face, and as she got up to go about getting breakfast, Sunset held onto her arm.

“Twily… please don’t hate Pinkie, okay? She didn’t do anything wrong.”

Twilight’s face contorted into a hateful grimace. “Didn’t do anything wrong?! She nearly raped you, Sunny! Whether she was aware it was happening or not doesn’t change that!”

Sunset could only stare into the distance, stunned. Is that what really happened? She supposed it made a certain amount of sense. Pinkie loved her more than the girl had probably loved anything in her life. If Sunset had suddenly started making love to her, Pinkie wouldn’t have questioned it. Even if she had figured out what was happening, would she have tried to put a stop to it? Or would she have let it happen because it was what she always wanted?

Sunset realized the truth immediately. “You know that’s not true, Twily. Given her experiences, Pinkie is the last person who would do such a thing. Especially to me.”

Twilight was still frowning, but she looked less hateful than she had a moment ago. “Maybe you’re right. I don’t know. It’s hard to be objective when family’s involved, you know?”

With a nod, Sunset said, “Trust me, I know.”

Ugh, this is all so fucked!

“Trust me, I know!

“I’m gonna get us some breakfast.” Twilight once again made to leave and this time Sunset didn’t stop her.

But she did get one final word in. “Maybe you can talk to Pinkie later? For me? If you really believe her intentions were pure, she deserves to know it. At the very least you should apologize for hitting her.”

Twilight lingered at the door for a few moments. “I’ll think about it.”

With that, Twilight was gone, and Sunset decided she should probably get off the floor. It was good that she could rule out the idea that Pinkie would have violated her if they had been allowed to continue that night. Unfortunately, that left her with a much more unappealing alternative: that the reverse was true.

Just down the hallway, Pinkie Pie sat in bed in the room she had been allocated in the castle. She didn’t realize it, but she was having the same terrible thoughts that Sunset was having, only in reverse.

“I wouldn’t have let it happen… I wouldn’t have…” she muttered feverishly. “I would never hurt Sunny… I was going to put a stop to it…. As soon as I knew… I was going to.”

“Pinkie, I know,” Adagio said patiently from her spot on the edge of the bed. “You’ve been saying that non-stop since last night. Trust me, I believe you.”

Adagio was sweet to say so, just as she was sweet to come check on her first thing in the morning. Unfortunately, she wasn’t the one that Pinkie was trying to convince.

“I’m a terrible girlfriend,” Pinkie moaned. “And an even more terrible protector. That thing should have never gotten to Sunny in the first place!” Pinkie slumped down further in her bed. “I’m not worthy to be her Swordbearer.”

“Now you know that’s not true,” Adagio insisted, wondering what Pinkie meant by “Swordbearer”, but quickly writing it off as Pinkie’s current melodrama. “You did everything you could. You just… didn’t know.” Then with a sigh, the SIREN added, “Besides, you’re not the only one who has a vested interest in Sunny’s safety. My sisters and I should have known that stupid thing wasn’t a part of her dress!”

“But I was with her practically the whole night! I was in the best position to see that something was wrong!” Pinkie exclaimed, looking downright ashamed. “Instead, I was so intoxicated just by being with her that I didn’t see what was right in front of me!”

“Well, then it looks like both of us will just have to work on being more vigilant in the future,” Adagio said as she stood. “Speaking of which, I have to get going. Got a full day of SIREN business ahead of me. You gonna be okay here?”

Pinkie nodded, even though she wasn’t so sure. “Think you could have someone bring me breakfast?” she asked. “I don’t think I’m ready to face everybody yet.”

“Wasn’t Fluttershy here earlier? She said she’d come by.”

Pinkie didn’t say a word, and that was enough for Adagio. “I’ll see what I can do, Pinkie.”

“Thank you,” was all the other girl could squeak.

With that, Adagio departed, leaving Pinkie alone with her thoughts. And what a terrible thing to be left alone with. Visions of the nightmare that had awoken her that morning were still vivid in her mind. It was the worst one she’d had in a long time, comparable to the nightmares she had in the days after the horrible evening that Atlas and Cicely had ruined her. Comparable even to her more recent nightmares about the old man with no eyes.

She dreamed she was back at the fancy house where she had been so thoroughly violated, in the company of the very group of people who had done the deed. Only this time she greeted them as old friends, and they treated her in kind. Sunset was there too, and all of them were drinking beers and laughing. Sunset, however, was drinking out of an almost comically oversized bottle with the word VIBE on it, along with the image of a blue butterfly.

Then Sunset started removing her clothes until they were all gone, and when Pinkie looked down, she realized that she was naked too. Then Flash led Sunset to Pinkie on a leash (Pinkie wasn’t sure where it had come from. It had just always been there, existing with a sort of impermanent permanence the way some things in dreams do). Pinkie had to admit, the image fired her up real good, but then she saw Sunset’s eyes. They were blank. Emotionless. Lifeless. Sunset wasn’t there. Not on the surface, anyway.

“She’s all yours now, Pinkie,” Flash said, placing the end of the leash in her hands.

Royal Atlas placed a hand on her shoulder. “Welcome to the Club!”

Then Sunset was on top of her, kissing, licking, and biting in a frenzy. But it wasn’t Sunset: her eyes were simply empty.

“This is wrong!” Pinkie said.

“Then why does it feel so right?” Sweet Cicely said breathlessly. And hadn’t she said that to me before?

Pinkie couldn’t go through with this. She just couldn’t! So she tried to disentangle herself from Sunset. To fight back against the other girl’s strength and her own beating desire. She could do neither. If this is going to happen regardless of what I do, might as well enjoy it, Pinkie thought, sick to her stomach with guilt.

“Hey, don’t worry about it,” Flash said. “You’re one of us now!”

That nauseous feeling of guilt and shame had followed Pinkie to the waking world when she awoke to find that she had made a mess of the bedsheets in the night.

Even hours after that horrific recall, the whole thing still seared in her mind to the point that she wished there was some – any – way to make it stop.

Unfortunately for her, no answer was forthcoming.

“You want me to what?” asked Vinyl, giving her friend an incredulous look while levitating up her cup of coffee. The mug, reading “WORLD’S BEST DJ” floated in an aura of neon blue, delivering its caffeine loaded goodness to the off-white unicorn’s mouth.

“Look, you know Octy gets…intense when she’s putting her heart and soul into her work,” said Lyra.

Vinyl blinked, then looked into the sky. It was so early in the morning that the sun wasn’t even fully up yet – from their location on Vinyl’s front porch at her house in Ponyville, one could barely even make out the outline of Canterlot, let alone Canterlot Castle. “Isn’t it kinda late to be asking me? That whole coronation thing is today, isn’t it?”

Lyra shook her head. “It’s been pushed back a day and of course Octy’s taking every opportunity to ensure her suite for the coronation is better than perfect. But the added stress given the whole reason for the delay is there’s even more ponies and other creatures attending? She might die of a brain aneurysm.”

Vinyl shook her head. “Look, we all go way back, but you’re the one who can relate more toward her style of music, given she mainly plays the double bass and you’re literally named for yours. Me? I’m all about dropping the bass and boosting subwoofers to the point where you can barely discern what the noise actually is – yet you totally know it’s an awesome electrodance mix blasting at max volume.”

“Yeeeeeaaaaahhhhh, sure.” Lyra remembered what her friend’s ‘normal’ concerts were like, with her ears ringing from the sheer memory of the event. “Anyway, point is that she needs to back the buck down and the reality is I think everypony else is too close to the problem right now.”

Vinyl tapped a hoof to her chin. “What about those human musicians?” she suggested. “They really know their stuff. They performed at my auditorium while they were in town and they were amazing. Heck, one of them even sorta reminded me of Octy though I’m not sure why. Maybe it was the similar mane and eye colors.”

Lyra nodded. “Yeah, I’ve been meaning to look into that, actually – part of my study on humans, now that their existence is not mythical anymore. Though there was another thing I needed to ask you about as well.”

Vinyl sighed, it was clear she wasn’t going to be able to enjoy her day off – given Sunset Shimmer was yet another alicorn princess, Vinyl really wasn’t as excited about the whole affair as most other ponies. Sure, it was neat when it was Twilight Sparkle given she was the local regent, but to Vinyl the whole song and dance again just for a pony who really only seemed important because she’d been Princess Celestia’s daughter? It wasn’t worth hauling her plot up to Canterlot where it was insanely crowded just to maybe catch a glimpse of the new princess who wouldn’t even be relevant to Equestrian politics…just like the previous five or so years. “What else do you need from me?”

“It’s about the tech – among our circle of friends, you’ve always been the one with the knack for sound systems.”

“So you still want me to go to Canterlot, just for a different problem that Octy might be having?”

“Do it for me, please?”

Vinyl shrugged. “Okay, fine, plus it might be good for business if my name is attached to this whole shindig without me actually having to perform. Let me get cleaned up and we’ll catch the next train…do the trains even run this early? How did you even get here given you’re supposed to be in Canterlot anyway?”

“Blu let me use a pegasi chariot. It’s ready to go as soon as you are.”

“Oh, I see,” said Vinyl in a very unenthusiastic tone. She’d never told anypony, but…she wasn’t a fan of flying.

Down a main thoroughfare of Canterlot, three figures walked head and shoulders above the ponies. Even though they were not the only non-ponies, nor even the tallest on the street, they still attracted attention from all sides. However, by that point, all three girls were already used to the stares.

“I still don’t get how you had this entire place for a week and only now are getting around to doing the touristy thing and walking around?” asked Rainbow Dash.

“Never really had the chance to do so,” said Tavi with a shrug. “Originally I was just shepherded between pony psychologists, who all were ultimately of no help for a lack of interest in their part, then I nearly got kidnapped which was fun, and finally I’ve spent the remainder of the week largely at Tierfenbuckers because, well, it’s a music shop. That’s where Fluttershy went again today.”

“She certainly is starting to fully embrace becoming the next Coloratura,” remarked Rarity, flipping her hair to rid her face of an unruly strand.

“Yeah, I think she was interested in one of their guitars – minotaur-sized but they’re able to rescale it up to full human standards. I didn’t go because I’ve been there so much this week that I figure with an extra day, it’d be more interesting to see the sights, so to speak.”

“Yeah, pity the rest of the gang couldn’t come – those of us who were in Ponyville the whole time.” Rainbow then started counting down on fingers listing off the friends who were missing. “AJ’s still healing from that Beat Go-something or other so she’s seeing the royal doctors, already covered Fluttershy, and Pinkie’s God only knows where given what the hell went down last night.”

Rarity nodded sadly, adding, “Sunset’s never been one to show that kind of romantic infatuation before, and from what you told me happened last night, well...it explains why she wasn’t at breakfast this morning. Her or Pinkie.”

“So, why aren’t you with Sunny and here with us, instead?”

“She’s with Twily right now – I wanted to be there, but Twily insisted that she be the only one with Sunset right now, since having anyone else might be overwhelming. Especially after last night.” Octavia sighed; it was clear that she wanted to be there for her sister figure, but Twilight was correct. “As for the triplets, they’re off doing their Amazons-in-fatigues thing and, well, here I am.”

“Well, you got me now, so you won’t get kidnapped or anything – I’ll make sure of that!”

Tavi rolled her eyes. “My hero.”

Not too far up the street, a shiny bit hovered in the air, lit by a light blue hue.

“Now, this is a bit,” said Prince Blueblood. “I realize you commoners have rarely ever seen its like – please don’t go ‘Oooh!’ and ‘Aaaah!’ with the shinies! – but we use these things to procure goods. And, as it so happens, today is your lucky day as I happen to wish to procure goods from you! Yes, you! Now, please, hold your adoration – you can bow down before my magnificence after you get me what I want.”

The shopkeeper pony looked at Blueblood with an unamused look, as if this was hardly something new – indeed, while Blueblood was known for being a new level of pompous plothole, he was far from the only noble pony who lorded their wealth and privilege around. “Your Highness, we sell planters and jeweled boutonnieres here.”

“Oh, um…” Blueblood had been absolutely sure this had been the bowties and carpetbags shop, but as much as he was playing up his asshole guise, he did have the nigh infinite coffers of the Crown. So, time to figure out how to buy all these…jeweled boutonnieres… “Yes, well, I’d like to buy everything you have in stock.”

The storekeeper raised an eyebrow. “Seriously?”

“You dare question somepony like me?”

“Where are you going to put all the planters, let alone the boutonnieres?”

“That is immaterial.” A thought came to his mind. “Perhaps I will wear them on my head and start a fashion trend. After all, given some of the...tastes in fashion some ponies have, how much different would wearing a planter on the head be?”

The shopkeeper wisely kept his mouth shut.

“It is a bit of a shame,” said Rarity, musing to herself.

“What’s a shame?” asked Octavia.

“Look around,” the fashionista said, spreading her arms out and around. “All these cute little shops and we really can’t take part in any of them since we’re human.”

“I had no problem with Tierfenbucker’s.”

“That’s because you’re a musician, Octavia, darling. I’m sure things like acoustics work the same way across dimensions. But as my counterpart and I have noted, it’s very difficult to properly design matching attire for the same individual in two different bodyframes.”

“To say nothing of what Pinkie had you and your little fashionista squad do for her outfit last night,” said Rainbow with a smirk. “Seriously? You’ve never seen Utena?”

“No, Rainbow, I am not as versed in anime as you are,” Rarity commented. “Furthermore, well, it was for love – though I do have my concerns about that relationship. Especially after last night.”

“I agree,” said Octavia. “Given last night, Sunny really needs to decide where this relationship is going. I realize that she was apparently hypnotized by that butterfly thing Dagi was talking about at breakfast this morning, but from what I gather, the bug only brings out repressed desires – it can’t manufacture them.”

“You know she’s only going along with it because Pinkie’s…unstable,” remarked Rainbow. “Plus, like the guys always say, you don’t stick your dick in crazy.”

“Rainbow Dash! That’s a new level of crass, even for you!” snapped Rarity, “Furthermore, how dare you talk about one of our close friends like that!”

“Tell me I’m wrong, Rares,” Rainbow defended herself. “Look, Pinks is a friend of ours and I hate to even admit she’s got those issues. But just because I’m supporting her doesn’t mean I’m going to eat the pink taco.”

“Look, I’d rather not talk about ‘instability’,” added Octavia, whose own psychological issues rivaled – if not in a way superseded – Pinkie’s. While Melody, thankfully, hadn’t reappeared during Octavia’s time in Equestria, the fact the young musician still was having Melody-esque thoughts of macabre violence on her loved ones continued to haunt her.

“Well, what about your romantic life, then?” piped up Rarity with a knowing eyebrow raise.

“Rarity, we’ve been over this…”

“Wait, Tavi’s interested in somebody?” said Rainbow, surprised.

“I guess you could say that,” the fashionista inferred.

“Don’t you Goddamn dare do this to me,” said Octavia, looking mortified. The last thing she needed now was for Rarity to unintentionally reveal to Rainbow that she thought Octavia and Prince Blueblood were totally interested in each other – the truth was Octavia wasn’t sure herself about the matter but Rainbow would simply take it too far. Not ‘Catherine the Great Horsefucker’ levels, if only because Rainbow was probably the least historically intellectual of Pinkie’s so-named "Majestic Twelve', but while Rainbow would try to keep it all in the good natured spirit of ribbing friends, she would inevitably push too far.

“So give us the deets, Tavi. Who’s the lucky guy? Or... is it a girl?” Rainbow asked, immediately proving Octavia’s inner monologue right.

“Wow, is it your day to play insensitive bitch or what, Rainbow? I mean, oh, sure, just bring up bisexuality to the girl who was nearly date raped by a lesbian, as well as has a split personality who would love nothing more than to make the very act of sex into the textbook definition of grand guignol!”

Rainbow raised an eyebrow, asking “Er…what’s a grand goognohl?”

Tavi’s head fully snapped to look at Rainbow, violet eyes glaring daggers at the athlete and not looking where she was going as her temper started to flare up more. “Don’t tell me you’re that dense, Rainbow! Given the kind of anime I know you watch, I’m honestly surprised that you don’t knoooOOOOHHAAAA!”

Her full attention having been on Rainbow, the musician had not seen the pony immediately exiting the store just to her left – nor had the pony, themselves distracted with their own inner train of thought, noticed the humans. The end result was Tavi toppling over the back of the pony onto the ground.

“Well, I never!” exclaimed the stallion, turning to look at the offender. “Some ponies just don’t know when to–” Blueblood bit off his sentence when he realized that by some cosmic chance, it was none other than Octavia Melody – the human one. He wanted to profusely apologize – the only saving grace being that she already knew his public persona was the complete opposite of who he truly was, but that didn’t change the fact he hated being a bastard all the same. “Ah, I see – one of the hyoomahns.”

“Well, I was going to apologize,” spat Tavi turning around from her place on the ground, “but with an attitude like that I–” When she realized who the stallion was, though, she immediately changed tact. “Oh, I’m…I’m sorry!”

Rainbow, however, was not in the know about Blueblood’s duality, and took offense on Tavi’s behalf.

“Hey!” she exclaimed angrily, “Do you have any idea who you’re talking to? That’s one of Princess Sunset Shimmer’s cousins!”

“Yes, I’m aware – it isn’t like any other ponies dragged a bunch of, I don’t know, largely hairless overgrown monkeys in to soil Equestia’s domain lately.” He turned to face Rainbow, looking her up and down disapprovingly. “As for you, I’m guessing you’re the counterpart to Rainbow Dash – your hair certainly seems to match. As does the fact that the number of colors in your hair is inversely related to the number of brain cells you have, your garish manestyle of course being the larger number in that relationship, since you don’t know who I am.”

“And why should I give a damn about that?

Blueblood took mock offense at that – if anything, the idea of ponies or any sentient creature simply not knowing who he was would be a relief. “I beg your pardon? I am Prince Blueblood, beloved nephew of Princesses Celestia and Luna, and also a cousin of your own Princess-to-be-Sunset Shimmer! And you will deliver unto me the respect I deserve!”

“Oh, so you’re an asshole – believe me, I’m well aware of what the name Blueblood entails.”

“Rainbow!” exclaimed Tavi, having gotten to her feet and now in between Rainbow and Blueblood. “You can’t talk that way to nobility!”

Rainbow did a double take. “Whoa whoa whoa…did you just defend a Blueblood, Tavi?”

“Yes, because unlike the asshole at home, this Blueblood is an actual prince!”

“She is right, you know,” added Rarity. “Plus, Sunset did bring her friends and family to her native world to be good representations for humanity should our two species eventually establish formal connections, and insulting their royalty isn’t exactly going to do our friend any favors.”

“Okay, did I just get dropped into an episode of The Twilight Zone or something?” Rainbow looked between her musically and fashion inclined friends like they were another species entirely. “I mean, we all know Blueblood’s a goddamn sexual predator and both of you were almost his prey!” Rainbow did not notice that for the briefest of seconds, the stallion Blueblood lowered his ears as if in shame.

Then, in a stroke of cosmic mercy, the Equestrian Rarity and Rainbow Dash appeared.

“There you two are!” exclaimed the latter in a slightly exhausted tone. “We’ve been looking all over town for you – which isn’t easy given there’s barely any room to even fly in this city with this many ponies and other creatures around!”

“And she’s the actual flyer – I’m quite comfortable in a crowd if I do say so,” said Rarity, fluffing up part of her mane that had become less than perfectly styled, “but this really is pushing my limits.”

“Why have you been looking for us?” asked human Rarity.

“Why, to take you to the Wonderbolts show, of course, darlings.”

“Wonderbolts?” asked human Rainbow, “Those are the stunt flyers, right?”

The two mares were left in stunned silence for what felt like forever – hearing Rainbow Dash’s voice ask what the Wonderbolts were was a surreal experience indeed – before pony Rainbow spoke up. “Uh, yeah, basically. Anyway, we’re holding an impromptu show because the coronation got delayed, so I got tickets for you to come see! After all, we got to see how awesome you are,” pony Rainbow punctuated this with a hoof jab in her counterpart’s direction, then followed with a jab at herself, “but now it’s time to show you what I got!”

“And I do find that sometimes, Wonderbolts shows make for great inspiration – I’ll have to show you my Bright and Blue line sometime – and I feel that since you’re, well, me, it might be beneficial for you, too.”

“Well, that sounds like a lovely idea,” said human Rarity.

“Yes, one of those silly ‘shows’ where it’s just a bunch of pegasi flying around in circles because there isn’t enough air in their heads already,” dryly commented Blueblood, “Honestly I don’t even know why my aunts insist they remain on the military payroll.”

“You got a problem with the Wonderbolts?” challenged Rainbow, getting right up into Blueblood’s face. As she was part of Princess Sparkle’s inner circle, Rainbow knew that Blueblood was merely putting on an act – in private, he’d even commended her performance – but she had to feign ignorance of that in public. Besides, even as part of an act, one did not simply disrespect the Wonderbolts! “Let’s see you do a double-half turn quarter spin, backwards!”

“Likewise, let’s see you cast a simple breeze summoning spell.” Blu then smirked a humorless smile. “Oh, wait, you can’t. Regardless, I actually approve of you and…her…” Blueblood grimaced when he looked right at Rarity – again, it was mutually known between them this was a lie as Blu had long since made up with Rarity about the incident so long ago. “Taking these humans away means I don’t have to deal with them anymore.”

“Oh, you’re not getting off that easily,” said human Rarity, a mischievous smile coming to her features. “Rather, you haven’t even apologized for tripping up my friend here!”

“That’s not necessary,” said Octavia, wondering what Rarity was up to.

“Au contraire,” said pony Rarity. Since she and her human counterpart were, barring the obvious differences, quite similar, they could read each other’s body language like a book. And it was clear to the unicorn the human was trying to make something of the romantic persuasion happen – privately, the unicorn was unsure if her human counterpart knew that Blu knew the Equestrian Octavia as close as a sister and that whatever she was trying to do wouldn’t work, but maybe there was more that the unicorn wasn’t seeing here. Regardless, she was now committed. “What would the press say if they were to learn that the inner circle of Princess Sunset’s friends were so grievously insulted by one with such a public presence as yourself, Prince Blueblood? Not even apologizing for possibly, oh so nearly breaking the nose of her cousin.”

“The press wouldn’t care one bit for tripe such as that!” argued Blu. He knew he was wrong – that was the kind of scandalous crap the press ate up, given Blu himself had to instigate it more often than not. But he would absolutely not involve Octavia. She didn’t deserve that. “Why, I’ll have you know that–”

“Bored. Can we go now?” asked pony Rainbow.

“Ditto,” human Rainbow agreed.

“Then it’s settled,” said human Rarity. “The ever so gentleman…er, gentlestallion…ly? – you get the point – Blueblood will escort the lovely Ms. Octavia to lunch to make up for his grievous offense, while the remainder of our group shall go to see this air show.”

Wait, what are you doing Rarity?” Rainbow hissed. “We can’t just leave Tavi alone with this creep!

Just trust me, darling,” Rarity whispered back. “There are things about this situation that you don’t understand.” She then turned to Octavia and said, “We’ll meet up later, Octavia, dear and you can give me the details. Enjoy yourself!”

And then simultaneously, Rarity grabbed Rainbow’s arm while the unicorn version trapped the pegasus version in her azure blue aura and the two pairs were gone before either Blu or Tavi could say anything.

“Er…lunch it is, I guess?” asked Octavia, confused.

“Y-you’re just lucky that I already happen to have lunch reservations that I can cram you in, since at this point the choice is out of my hooves. Come along,” huffed Blueblood, though really he couldn’t have been happier in his heart. Another luncheon with Octavia Melody: what more could he want?

According to his brain, as he internally sweated bullets, anything other than what was about to happen, because his lunch plans already were to have a luncheon with Octavia Melody…just not the human one. It then occurred to Blu that at no point had there ever been a situation where the two Octavias ever would have met, nor had he actually divulged his feelings about the human to the pony.

It was the setup for a perfect disaster.

Having looked over the budget for the rebuilding of several settlements in the Unknown West – it was both amazing and horrifying to read about how much damage had been done to those who lived out in that sparsely-populated portion of the realm – Princess Twilight decided she needed a break. At first, she thought about going to check on Sunset and see how her fellow alicorn was faring, but realized with all the medical attention she was probably receiving right now, she would probably just be in the way.

Her stomach growled, and she realized that her break would better be served eating lunch. So, with a few words to some Hooves she knew, she decided to have lunch in the Lunar Wing Library. A lot of the books in the Lunar Wing’s library were vastly different from the other sections of the castle, including many volumes that had been retrieved from the ruins of Castle Everfree and restored to their original condition. Perhaps it was there that Twilight could find something that would take her mind off the growing stress she felt at the moment.

So, ten minutes later she found herself in front of a half-demolished plate of double-chili hayburgers with a side of onion rings and an oat-strawberry shake, reading from a book that dated back to the earliest days of the post-Luna kingdom. It was sad, really; Twilight knew Celestia had suffered so much after having to banish her sister, but from the position of the book, written just a few decades after the end of Nightmare Moon, it showed that the nation had been in what best could be called a “malaise”. Celestia, according to the author, was “fetching beyond pony ken but alas unappr’chable, just as the sunne” and that things were bleak. if anything, comparisons could be drawn between that time and the most recent Winter and it made her wonder if this most recent case of melancholia Celestia suffered hadn’t been the first, as she’d insisted. Not that she would believe her mentor and surrogate mother figure to lie to her, but in the end, goddess or not, ruler or not, she was still pony.

It was a sobering thought.

Closing the book, Twilight reached out with her magic to grab another book...and felt a tug back. Thinking that was odd, she got up from her table and walked down the aisles to find, of all ponies, one of the Hooves grabbing at the book.

The Hoof in question, a young mare with a gray coat, cyan eyes and a mane of midnight blue stopped in mid-grasp of the book, looking at Twilight in surprise. “Lady Twilight!” she squeaked, bowing. “My apologies! I wasn’t aware you were retrieving this book as well!”

Twilight smiled. “No, it’s my fault; I should have done a sensory spell to make sure that nopony else was grabbing it. You don’t have anything to apologize for; if anything, I’m the one who should apologize.”

“No no no no, I shouldn’t really be here, so I’m the one at fault,” she pled.

“Why? The library is for anypony’s use in the palace,” the alicorn stated. “It’s just not typically used because of the books’ average age, so everypony tends to think they’re more museum pieces than things to peruse. But I am glad to see somepony getting some use out of them.” Twilight paused for a second. “Weren’t you the pony that gave us the information on the Allucinor Wing last night?”

“No, my lady, I only mentioned stuttermoths initially, but I was glad to be of service.” She bowed. “Lentando Fury, at your service.”

“Please, you don’t need to bow to me, Miss Fury, though I’m glad that there’s another pony here who can appreciate books in the Lunar Wing. Luna’s always stated she wished it would be used more.”

Lentando blushed. “Well, unlike most sirens, I’m not as musically inclined, so I never took it up as a hobby. But I do love reading and I’ve always been fascinated with history.” She gestured to a book under her arm.

Twilight looked at its title: The Lamentable Historye and Chronicle of the Laemioi. “Oh, that’s the first definitive book about the lamia, isn’t it? I recall attending a lecture by Dr. Timeseeker at the Royal Scoltland University a few years ago and he mentioned it, but I never had a chance to read it.”

Lentando nodded. “Yes, milady. The book is mainly about the pact that Queen Heracleum of the lamia had with Nightmare Moon and the aftermath of what happened to them after Moonfall.” A sad look came over the siren’s eyes. “So many of their kind paid because of a mistake that their greedy queen made, and if it wasn’t for the sacrifice of her daughter, Princess Boerhavia, they would have been completely wiped out.”

“I don’t think that’s the case. Yes, it was tragic with what happened to Princess Boerhavia, and even Princess Celestia has said so herself,” Twilight commented, recalling a lecture from her youth. “But it was Boerhavia’s tragic suicide that led her sister, Princess Pastinaca, to plead for a peace treaty with Celestia and to become one of Equestria’s lesser known protectorates.”

“Just like the Sirenian Islands and the Sirenian Coast,” Lentando stated. “Our lands used to be independent as well...now, they’re just part of the Province of Canterbury.” She paused. “Of course, given that we were ruled by a warlord queen, it worked out for us thanks to the Princess, and now we’re just normal ponies. But I can’t help but see parallels between sirens and the lamia.”

“Someday that might happen to the lamia as well,” Twilight commented. “I read a monograph last month that states that more and more lamia, due to mating with ponies, are changing less and less into their half-snake forms and their blood is becoming warmer. In a generation or two, they might just be an outright subspecies of ponies, just like pegasi, thestrals, unicorns, zebra, donkeys...or sirens.”

Lentando pursed her lips. “I...see.”

Twilight yawned. “Sorry, I’m probably not thinking entirely straight; it’s been a long day for me. Anyway, I need to get back to my duties, Miss Fury. Again, thanks for all your help last night and I hope you enjoy that book. Also...when you get a chance, you might also want to read up on the Mesaponytanians and Shaka Zebra. Some fascinating history there as well.”

“I’ll do that, Lady Twilight,” Lentando noted as the alicorn departed. “Thank you for the suggestions.”

Twilight had been on her way to the castle kitchens to see what was being prepared for lunch when she ran into the last girl she wanted to talk to at the moment. Pinkie Pie was on her way out of the kitchen area, a tub of chocolate ice cream tucked under her arm – not exactly a balanced meal, but ideal comfort food. Pinkie looked like hell, with swollen bags under her eyes and ruler-straight hair that was matted in some places. Clearly she had been hoping to sneak back to her room without being seen by anyone, but she stopped like a deer in the headlights when she saw Twilight.

For her part, Twilight’s first instinct was simply to ignore Pinkie, and she started to walk past her without so much as looking at her. At least, that was the plan. However, Twilight couldn’t stop herself from glancing again at the other girl, and seeing the utter despair in her eyes made Twilight pause. She remembered what Sunset had asked her to do that morning.

“Hey Pinkie?” For better or for worse, Twilight just couldn’t say no to her sister. “I’m sorry for hitting you, I guess.”

“You guess?” Pinkie’s voice was so dry Twilight wondered if it hurt her throat to talk. “It’s okay. I’d have done the same thing in your place. Maybe worse.”

For a moment, Twilight was ready to leave it at that. She’d done the minimum of what Sunset had asked her to do. But since when did Twilight the overachiever ever settle for the bare minimum?

“I want to hate you,” Twilight said. “I really, really want to hate you.”

Pinkie met her eyes for the first time in the conversation. “Do you?” She asked the question in the same dry voice, like she didn’t care one way or the other.

“To be honest… I don’t know.”

With a shrug, Pinkie said, “Well, if it makes you feel better, you can’t hate me any more than I hate me.”

In the heat of her emotions the previous night, Twilight remembered looking at Pinkie and feeling the same hot rage inside of her that she felt when she saw Flash Sentry after their ill-fated date. In that brief, terrifying moment, Pinkie had been exactly the same as him in Twilight’s eyes. Perhaps even worse. But looking at Pinkie now, she saw something in her eyes she had never seen in Flash’s: genuine guilt and remorse.

“He’s a predator…” Twilight muttered unconsciously.

“Huh?”

“Flash,” Twilight said more intently. “He’s a predator. But you’re not.” In that moment, Twilight saw something in Pinkie’s eyes that wasn’t pain or guilt. Maybe it was hope. So Twilight decided to feed it. “I don’t know if I’m ready to forgive you yet, Pinkie. But I think, in time, I will.”

This time Twilight really did decide to leave it at that, and continued past Pinkie on her way to the kitchen.

“Thanks, Twilight,” she heard Pinkie say as she rounded the corner. The girl’s tone, however, said something very different. Now if only I could, in time, forgive myself.

At a private table in the back of Chez Bouigeur, one of the long established fine dining eateries in Canterlot, Octavia Melody sat impatiently. The extra day had done nothing to sate her worries about making the coronation music absolutely perfect and she’d nearly choked out one of the bassists for being ever so slightly off key. She’d been hoping this long lunch break with Blu would have calmed her nerves, except…Blu wasn’t here. This was most certainly not like Blu to be late, especially given their long friendship.

“Sorry I’m late,” said Blu, hurrying through the private room’s door. “There was, and honestly might still be, complications.” He also seemed extremely nervous, like he wanted to delay something.

“Blu, don’t bullshit me,” said Octavia, “It’s been a hell of a day and I’m not in the mood for…”

That was when Octavia Melody, the human walked into the room. And it took no time at all for Octavia Melody, the pony, to realize she was in effect looking at herself but rendered as a different species.

“…surprises.”

Chapter 3 - In Modo Di

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Book 3 Chapter 3 – In Modo Di

Octavia Melody couldn’t help but stand as if time itself had stood still. There, sitting at the table, was a pony with raven hair, violet eyes, and an air about her that just radiated the poise and expertise of a musician. It had bothered Octavia that of her whole circle of friends and family, she was the only one whose equestrian counterpart hadn’t been encountered or otherwise explained away. Given the degree to which counterparts differed as reflections of each other, in the back of her mind Tavi had wondered where hers would fall. Now, it was clear that where her counterpart was not part of the local Twilight Sparkle’s family, she was engaged in the same general career.

“Um, hello?” she asked, venturing a small wave. How did one greet an individual who was effectively also them?

“Uh, hi?” The pony in turn looked at the human with a mixed expression of surprise and suspicion, clearly trying to put things together in her head. Finally, she smiled slightly and shook her head. “Suddenly, it all makes more sense.”

“What makes more sense?” asked Blueblood.

“Remember when I told you about encountering Sunset Shimmer back in Ponyville sometime last year? And how she knew a little too much about what was left over from my operation?”

“Is this something you really want to talk about in front of, er, her?” Now Blu looked positively embarrassed – because of the human who was unmistakably also Octavia Melody? The voice certainly had confirmed it, if it wasn’t for the mane style and eye color. Octy certainly was beginning to wonder how long Blu had been keeping this a secret. She’d get the answer out of him all in good time though.

“Not particularly, but it’s Sunset’s fault for mentioning that scar, or rather I should say her scar. Something about an ‘appendix’?”

Now it was human Octavia’s turn to be embarrassed. “I don’t even really know you or how you know Sunny, but she told you about that?!”

Pony Octavia laughed. “It was odd, given she seemed to think I was somepony I wasn’t, though in a sense maybe I am. Because you just confirmed that whatever she was on about at the time, she seemed to think I was you.”

“Why would she think that?”

“You tell me,” the mare drolled. “Other than her having some business with Raspberry Beryl at the time, the only other interaction I had with her was…well, it involved the discussion on whether or not humans existed with Equestria’s resident ‘humanologists’ Lyra Heartstrings and Sandalwood. Obviously, since you are standing here in front of me and Blu, they were correct in that regard.”

“She didn’t mention any of that,” said Tavi, grunting in annoyance. “Then again, it took the near end of the world and her own death before she finally confessed to being a creature from another dimension.”

“Here, Tavi, please sit,” said Blu, magically drawing out a chair. “It seems you and Octy have a lot to talk about.”

“Why didn’t you ever mention you knew my counterpart?” the human asked as she graciously took the offered chair.

“The chance never really came up,” lied Blu.

“I’m sure it’s that and not anything else,” said Octy in a lightly teasing tone. She then turned back to her counterpart. “Regardless, we’re here now and by whatever string of fate orchestrated this, I think we might have quite an interesting little lunch.”

Curled up on the bed and surrounded in sheets, Sunset Shimmer didn’t look like an alicorn at the moment, or a radiant goddess or even the drop-dead gorgeous teenage girl that she was usually. With her hair disheveled, her eyes still red from tears and covering herself with the blanket as if she was attempting to become a monastic just from fabric infusion, she looked broken in a way that Twilight Sparkle had never seen her sister appear before – not even when they had been fighting in the old timeline had Twilight ever seen her sister like this. Suffice to say, it had been a long day and it was only half over.

“Sis?” Seated just a slight distance away in order to give her space, Twilight now wondered if it was a good idea to have their cousins-slash-sister figures not be here in attendance. Twilight had thought it best not to crowd Sunset at such a critical time, but now she was second-guessing herself and for a girl that did that more often than she liked, it wasn’t going to be comfortable.

Sunset continued to sit there, silent and motionless.

“Sunny, speak to me, please,” Twilight told her. She had just finished telling Sunset that she had talked to Pinkie, and had formed a tentative truce with her, just as Sunset had asked. Twilight had expected the news to make her sister feel a little bit better, but instead Sunset had been quiet, staring listlessly into the abyss.

Sunset fixed her cyan eyes on her sister, and the look in them was of someone that was utterly shattered. “Twily...do you wish I’d never come into your life?”

Twilight walked over and sat down next to her sister. “What brought that on? I literally wouldn’t even be alive if you weren’t! Let alone be who I am today.” She went and hugged Sunset, feeling her stiffen beneath the embrace. “Sunny, we’re sisters. I’m always going to be here for you, just like you’ve always been there for me.”


At that point, there was a knock at the door. “I’m going to go see who it is right now. Do you think you’re up for visitors?” The words went unspoken: Except if it’s Pinkie?

Sunset shook her head and gave her sister a look of fear and it nearly brought Twilight to tears to see her much stronger sister brought this low.

I should hate you for this, Pinkie, Twilight thought to herself as she got up and headed towards the door, but I know it’s not your fault. Still…. She opened it, seeing their parents standing there.

“Twily, how is she?” Velvet asked.

“She probably could use both of you right now, Mom, Dad,” Twilight said, opening the door and letting them in. “I take it you two are the only ones here?” the teen asked, and it was instantly clear who she was referring to.

“She thought it would be best to talk to the other victim in this situation,” Night said, pointedly reminding his daughter about that. His nieces had told them about her reaction and while he was glad that she moved to protect her sister, the violence wasn’t needed.

Sunset saw them both and shrank in fear once more, that emotion turning into another round of tears as Velvet went over and comforted her older daughter.

Standing in the room, Princess Celestia dared to not move. She’d already been apprised of what had happened and while she reluctantly left the care of her daughter to Sunset’s adoptive parents, she felt it was more important to visit the one without parental assistance.

“Ah’m not sure this is a good idea, Princess,” Applejack said, the human girl looking at the princess with guarded eyes. Twilight – Celestia’s Twilight – had often commented that the earth mare Applejack could have either been Honesty or Loyalty due to her sincere and good nature, and it seemed that the human girl was much the same way, choosing to be here with her friend in her time of need.

“Miss Applejack, I am here because I know she did nothing wrong,” the solar alicorn assured her. “Cadance told me everything and even before that I got to know Miss Pie and I know she is not capable of anything sinister.”

Reluctantly, Applejack let the alicorn in. As she walked in, she saw Pinkie, lying on the bed, looking frazzled and also huddled in a blanket, her own eyes red from tears and hair straight as hell. She looked at the princess and her heart caught in her throat.

“I heard about what happened, Pinkie,” Celestia said carefully. “I want you to know I don’t blame you. I know you love my daughter and I know she understands that. You weren’t to blame, and if anypony has anything to say otherwise, I promise you they will answer to me.”

“I don’t care about that,” Pinkie said in a strangled voice. “I just want Sunny to know that.”

Carefully, Celestia reached over with her wings and enveloped the cotton candy-haired girl in their folds, feeling the silent sobs of the distraught teen as she bawled against the mare’s chest, desperate to be forgiven. Eventually, Pinkie exhausted herself, and Celestia gently put the teen to bed.

“Please, take care of her,” the monarch told Applejack. “I know you will, but….”

The blonde nodded. “Yeah, Ah know what you’re going to say, Princess. Ah would no matter what – we may just be crazy teens, but we’re crazy teens together.”

Canterlot Castle’s secondary ballroom was not nearly as opulent and grand as the main one, but considering the Allucinor infestation still festering there, this ballroom would have to do. The plan was for the secondary ballroom and the entire surrounding wing of the castle to serve as the area for the after-coronation reception party. The decision to expand the area in which the reception would be held came relatively at the last minute. Evidently, whoever was organizing the thing realized that the extra day before the coronation could be used to increase the amount of beings who would be able to attend the reception after. That was all well and good (wouldn’t want any of Equestria’s neighbors to feel left out), but for Raspberry Beryl, who was overseeing security in Shining Armor’s place, it was a logistical nightmare.

Currently, a number of different bars and catering companies that had been contracted to assist the castle staff in providing food and drink for the event were loading in as many additional supplies as they could. Razz did her best to ignore all of the frantic hustle and bustle to focus on her conversation with the member of the Hooves in front of her.

“We’ll have guards posted at every doorway, positioned to cover all angles of each room,” the Hoof said. “Additionally, the Castellan is placing a few Hooves among the wait staff.”

“Excellent, thank you Lentando,” Razz said, glancing around at the myriad of ponies pushing carts full of every kind of food and drink to their various destinations. Razz nodded to them and asked, “What about the contract ponies.”

“I’ve personally vetted every catering, serving and alcohol distribution company the crown has contracted, along with their employees,” Lentando Fury said with a reassuring smile.

“You’re a lifesaver. Thanks again, Lentando!” Razz earnestly exclaimed. “I think that will be all for now.”

“By your leave, Archmagus,” Lentando finished, bowing slightly before departing.

With that taken care of, it was possible that Razz would actually get a few minutes break before her meeting with….

“Archmagus Beryl!”

Ugh, what now? Razz thought, her face betraying none of her annoyance as she turned and greeted the approaching pony. It was Lemon Ricotta, one of her subordinates in the Guild and currently the Guild’s liaison to SIREN.

“Adm. Loam is unable to make your scheduled meeting,” Lemon explained, appearing somewhat frazzled. “Apparently, Adm. Tumblehome requested an impromptu meeting with all Naval brass, and it’s expected to go on for quite a while.”

“Dammit,” Razz cursed.

With how quickly the new SIREN initiative was growing in notoriety among all branches of Equestria’s armed forces, her associates in the Guild had wanted to get a piece of that pie. Despite her close familiarity with Sable and the triplets, this needed to be as official as possible. Unfortunately, there was no way she was going to be able to push back her meeting with Sable. Her schedule was full for the rest of the day well into the evening.

“Go find out if one of Adm. Loam’s subordinates can attend in his stead,” Razz ordered.

Lemon Ricotta nodded and immediately departed. When Ricotta was gone, Razz allowed herself to deflate a little, letting out a long sigh. If she understood SIREN’s chain of command correctly, that meant that the person who would be meeting her in Sable’s place was her. Razz didn’t understand why Adagio hated her so much, but she had been comfortable enough simply keeping her distance until now. Something would definitely have to be done about it if the Guild and SIREN were to continue working together.

A loud clatter startled Razz out of her thoughts. She turned to the source of the noise and saw a mortified looking young stallion standing over what appeared to be a violently murdered cardboard box. It belatedly occurred to Razz that the red liquid puddling around the box was not blood, but a vivid red wine. Clearly it had fallen from the very precariously stacked cart the stallion had been pushing.

“Ugh, I leave you alone for five minutes and you already screw up?!” A harsh male voice rasped. “That was fifty bits a bottle, you total moron. You make me want a lobotomy!”

A middle-aged stallion walked up and surveyed the scene. He was well-dressed in a white tuxedo, but it was offset a little by the five o’clock shadow, bad mustache and scars on his face. Razz had to remind herself that he was in all likelihood vetted by the Hooves, otherwise she would have for sure classified him as “shady”.

Of course, I know better than most that not all ponies who look completely evil actually are.

“I-I’m so sorry, sir!” the younger stallion said, his ears flat against his head.

“Don’t be sorry. Be less of a constant disappointment,” said the older stallion, grimacing at the mess on the floor as if he could see all of the wasted bits washing away with the wine and broken glass. “You know this is coming out of yer paycheck, right?”

“Um… you’re not paying me.”

“Eeeeexactly. Now, maybe you can reflect on why that is while you’re cleaning this up.”

The younger stallion nodded. “Yes sir. Right away sir!”

As the younger stallion fled searching for cleaning implements, his apparent employer turned towards Razz, and when he saw her staring at the little scene, he tried to give her a smile despite his clear frustration.

“Interns, am I right?” he asked. Razz didn’t know what else to do but smile and nod, and she was about to move on when the stallion’s expression suddenly changed to one of recognition. “Wait a minute… you’re Raspberry Beryl, aren’t you?”

Another smile, another nod, and to Razz’s surprise, the other pony’s face lit up like a Hearth’s Warming tree. “I knew it!” The stallion then skittered towards her with remarkable speed in a way that made Razz think of a spider more than a pony, and before she knew it her hoof was being shaken with gusto. “It is such an honor to finally meet you, Miss Beryl. I am a huge fan of your work!”

Once she had a moment to process what was happening, Razz gave the strange pony a much more genuine smile. “Oh, thank you! Y’know, that’s actually really refreshing to hear. Most of the time when I’m recognized in public, ponies say things like ‘Oh, aren’t you the descendant of that insane old usurper king?’”

The other pony frowned at that, and his eye twitched slightly. “Don’t heed their words, Miss Beryl. Faithless fools, the lot of ‘em!” Still holding her hoof, the stallion leaned closer, and Razz could smell the alcohol on him. “Not like me. I get you, Raspberry Beryl.”

“Please, call me Razz. Everyone does,” she said, pulling back to get reclaim some space from this zealous pony. “I have to say, it’s not often I get to meet a fan! Truth be told, I don’t exactly have very many.”

At that, the other pony smiled wide. “Oh but you do, Miss Beryl. There are ponies like me all over Equestria who are eagerly waiting to see you change our land for the better!”

“Oh, I don’t know about that.” Razz couldn’t help but give a humble laugh. “I’m not looking to change the world. Just looking to live the best I can in it!”

“Most ponies who change the world don’t set out to do it. It just happens because it’s their destiny,” the stallion said, beginning to return to his work. “C’mon, Razz! Have a little faith in your destiny!”

“Well, I suppose I wouldn’t want to disappoint my fans!” Razz said with another laugh, about to return to her own work before pausing to ask, “Hey, I didn’t get your name, Mr….”

The scarred, mustached stallion simply spread his forelegs and said, “I’m just a barkeep with faith in our destiny, Razz!”

Razz turned and headed towards her next task with an amused smile. It really does take all sorts….

“…so, we’re already running late for the rehearsal, and who shows up but Silver Chimes.” Octy rolled her eyes as her two dining companions stifled their chuckles. “And nobody in the orchestra has time to really give him the once over, except the moment the conductor gets to the woodwinds, what happens? This!” She proceeded to blow a raspberry. “We all look over and somepony – I think it was Brass Beauty – simply goes and says ‘Chimes, that’s not a flute, that’s a plunger you’re trying to blow into!”

Blu and Tavi burst into laughter. After the wary beginning, things had quickly gotten quite chummy between the three, much to the waitstaff’s confusion. Blu himself marveled at how much musical terminology the two Octavias could pass between one another, and while he himself understood less than half of it, he was content to just sit and listen.

“By the way, Blu,” said Octavia, taking a sip out of her champagne glass, “You never mentioned how you came to know Miss Melody here.”

“Oh, um, did I never tell you that story?” He replied, knowing full well he hadn’t. Namely because he hadn’t wanted Octy to be worried – he was just one stallion who had gone up against a whole flock of murderous griffin mercenaries who had already killed two guards and a siren. He’d taken some minor wounds – a simple healing spell fixed that – but Octy wouldn’t be like most ponies who would believe that he’d simply hidden in a thorny bush just to be in the area so ‘Auntie Celestia would give him another title’ as the “official” investigation said.

“Well,” said Tavi, not noticing Blu’s intentional hesitation, “he pretty much is the entire reason I’m even still here.”

“Is that so?” asked Octavia, leaning in on her hooves, “I feel this is something I should have been told.”

Sighing, Blu conceded. “To make a long story short, a particularly bothersome Kitsune Prince named Fujitsu decided that he was going to take the lovely lady here for his own. So, he hired a bunch of griffin mercenaries to kidnap her after finding out her schedule and they ambushed her guard escort.”

“They also hit me with some kind of sedative,” added Tavi, shuddering at the memory. “Then I got shoved in a bag. I think that’s when Blu showed up and took them all out – I honestly don’t recall what happened between getting stuffed in the bag and then waking up to see Blu, though…” she sighed, hugging herself in the recollection that she was, indirectly, the reason three ponies died pointless deaths. “I’m just glad he was there – didn’t you say you were only even around because you were coming from the music hall?”

“Yes, coming from one of Octy’s rehearsals, actually,” he said, “She’s the one commissioned to write the backing music for Sunset’s coronation tomorrow.”

“Are you really?” Tavi asked with surprise, “That’s so amusing! I mean, I jokingly suggested to Sunset that I should write the music for her coronation but she said it would be best left to a professional. I guess in a way I wrote it regardless?”

Octy, who had been lost in something back when the topic of discussion was that griffin attack, suddenly snapped back to the present. “Huh? Oh, yes, quite.” It had been something in the way Tavi had talked about Blu saving her, something underneath that hinted…well, she could tease Blu about it later. Now she was presented with a curious, unique opportunity. “In fact, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, maybe you could come with me after lunch and take a look over the music? Everypony is saying I need somepony else to give me assistance and who better than myself?”

“That sounds like a grand idea,” said Blu, glancing up at the nearby clock and sighing. “Sadly, while I’ll gladly escort you both to the Music Hall, I have to go back to being the complete embarrassment of the royal family in public and can’t join you for the melodies you’ll likely make.”

“You’ve seen me perform often enough; I’m sure you’ve already gotten quite a concert experience from me,” said Tavi with a smile, “and obviously you’re close with my counterpart here, so while it does sound dreadful you have to go back to being, well, a jerk, the fact you’re willing to do it for the safety of every, uh, pony here really is magnificent.”

As the trio finished up their lunch and stood to head to the music hall, it was all laid out in concrete in Octy’s head that there was blatant chemistry between these two. Oh, Pavane, thought Octy sadly of her lost friend, you always did want me and Blu to be a couple. Maybe you might get your wish in a bit of a different way.

“Turn to, ladies, turn to!” shouted Adagio, in full Old Man mode to the motley crew of Equestrian SIRENs in front of her. “I want to see you all push yourselves to the limits!” At the moment she had command of the situation, making sure the ATG was working out, while Sonata was giving a lecture to the rest of the candidates on what they would be doing. Aria had chosen to stick around with her older sister, in the event something came up.

So far, however, the only thing that had come up was the groans and whimpers of the ATG members as they went through the cycle. While they were in their physical primes as ponies and that had translated over to their human forms, the movement of muscles was slightly different and that they had yet to get used to.

“I’m trying!” said Moonblazer, clearly not used to doing one-arm push ups. “But I got my medals in flight combat, not–”

“What’s that?” Adagio walked right up to where Moonblazer was and got to the ground, looking at the batpony-turned-human in the eyes, “You thought that pile of past medals exempts you from basic training? Well, congratulations – you just earned double duty!

The look of shock on the former flyer’s face was enough to make it clear Dagi’s order had hit home, and satisfied the SIREN field commander. As Adagio walked back to where she could see the other SIREN candidates, she noted that Aria was talking with a member of the Guild – in particular, their liaison, Magus Lemon Ricotta.

“Greetings, Learned One,” the senior SIREN commented, hoping she got the term of address right. “What’s the occasion?”

“Good morning, Captain,” Ricotta replied. “Your presence is requested by Archmagus Beryl.”

The look on Dagi’s face visibly darkened as her mouth became a hard line. “I was under the impression that Adm. Loam would be attending the follow up meeting with…the Archmagus…”

Aria, noting that the last words had been seemingly forced out of Dagi’s mouth, frowned. “Yeah, well, he had to meet with the brass regarding SIREN placements in the crowd to prevent potential issues. Since you’re next in command, that means it’s your job, sis.”

“Doesn’t mean I have to like it,” Adagio noted. “I don’t suppose I can delegate this to you, can I?”

“I have weapons training with the candidates in ten minutes, remember? Soni’s already with the other candidates. And unfortunately, we didn’t bring the Master Chief along with us for this jaunt, so that means you have to deal with Razz.”

“Great,” Adagio grumbled.

“Follow me, please,” Ricotta gestured, choosing not to get involved. If there was bad blood against the terrifying human leader of Princess Sunset’s SIREN guard and the Archmagus, the only pony who was legally allowed to wield the terrifying power of King Sombra, Ricotta diplomatically would have preferred not to be in the middle of such an argument.

“Have fun, Captain,” Aria teased. “Remember: we’re doing this for Her Highness’ sake.”

Dagi merely grunted in acknowledgement as she followed the other pony off to her meeting with the embodiment of living sin itself.

Soaring above the air and to the delight of the crowds below, the Wonderbolts performed their tricks for all to see. Given that the crowds were far too large to simply place in the Canterlot Coliseum, the flight team had simply decided to use the entirety of the Canterlot sky as their metaphorical canvas, performing tricks for the city to see.

Seated at a special booth reserved for nobility, both Raritys and the human Rainbow Dash watched. The human Rainbow cheered as much as the ponies did, excited to see her counterpart perform tricks and aerobatics that simply couldn’t be done by even the most advanced fighter jets.

On the other hand, however, the human Rarity watched with mild interest, as it was clear her mind was elsewhere.

“Bit for your thought, dear?” the older Rarity said to another, as the unicorn placed a comforting hoof on the teen’s hand.

“Is it that obvious my mind is elsewhere?”

“I can tell you’re concerned about the news we received this morning about Princess Sunset and your Pinkie,” the unicorn commented. “You could not in good conscience be a good friend if you weren’t worried.”

“I’m genuinely disquieted about what this will do to both of them,” Rarity admitted. “Granted, it was clear that this wasn’t Pinkie’s fault, but from what I was told, Sunset reacted...badly. And now with the stress of the coronation tomorrow already on her mind, I just….” She frowned. “I hate seeing them like this, I truly do.”

“I quite understand. But some things must be worked out for the betterment of themselves. If they are truly meant to be together, then they will get past this together. If not, then you will need to be there to pick up the pieces. It is hard, I know. But take it from a mare who has been around the block once or twice: Sometimes generosity is letting somepony make the choices for themselves, instead of making it for them.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I know.” The unicorn gave her younger counterpart her most dazzling smile. “But you will someday. That, my dear girl, is wisdom – and that’s one thing a Rarity, regardless of world, cannot do without.”

“…and that’s the last of the Mage Guild’s concerns regarding the new SIREN program,” concluded Razz. At the moment, the two were at Guild Headquarters, in Razz’ office there. Though she mainly operated in Ponyville, as the Archmagus of the Mage Guild, she still had an office here in Canterlot. “We’re very much interested in expanding the Guild’s capabilities, and while I don’t think we could benefit from a special warfare program like SIREN, having some of our best candidates try out for SIREN would be the best for both Equestria and the Special Initiative,” Razz stated. “Now, do you have any questions on my proposal, Captain?”

“Actually, I do,” Dagi commented, leaning over the desk. “How the hell did you manage to get this gig, given how useless you can be?”

Razz looked hard at Adagio. She’d taken enough of this girl’s shit. “Captain...no, Adagio,” began Razz, “are you really still pissed off at me for being completely out of my element when not one but both worlds we know were threatened by total assholes?”

“I don’t think it was threatened by total assholes…unless you’re including yourself among that count.”

Exercising the patience of a saint, Razz merely took another deep sigh before following up. “Okay, I’d ask a rephrased question about if you hate me, which clearly you already do.”

“No shit.”

“So much for the military professionalism you’re supposed to display,” the unicorn admonished.

“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”

“Exactly what I said. Because if you ask me, I think you’ve taken yourself so seriously that you’ve lost sight of what you are.”

Adagio’s eyes narrowed. “You know damn well how me and my sisters were originally raised, practically since birth, to be illegal child soldiers in service to Canada. And even though thanks to Queen Faust our own personal histories have been completely rewritten, that doesn’t change the fact we are things that should not exist.”

“And yet here you are. Because at no point did you acknowledge the why of all of that. Why Queen Faust made it so you were never a part of that SIREN in the new timeline.”

“Oh, then please, all knowing bitch, please elucidate as to what I am, then.”

“Answer this first – why do you hate me?”

“Because you’re a pain in the ass?”

“That might be true, but that’s not a valid reason. Ari’s got just as much of an acerbic nature, and you clearly love your sister. I’m not asking you to treat me the same, but that still doesn’t answer the question: why do you hate me?”

The SIREN commander raised a finger to start listing off other reasons, except she found that they were not forthcoming. She hated Razz, but now upon being asked, she couldn’t justify it.

“I thought so. You forgot that even though in the human world I appear roughly the same age as you, I am still a mare in my mid-twenties. Which is what I’m getting at – for all your insane special combat training, you are still a teenager. You got all pissy at my very existence around you because I showed up powerless and you saw me as a pure liability. And even though by now you should be well aware that I had no say in getting thrown into your bra-ridden hell that is the human world, you still think of me as a useless burden you have to contend with.”

“So you’re a little more useful than usual. Big fucking whoop. You’re still a useless bitch to me.”

Razz’s eyes narrowed. “In case you forgot, Captain, as Archmagus, I am the head of one of Equestria’s service branches. Which means I hold the same rank equivalency as Adm. Tumblehome – and thus I outrank Adm. Loam. Which, of course, means I definitely outrank you. So unless you want to be the first human in history court-martialed by the Navy, I would hold your tongue if I were you.”

Razz got up from her seat and walked over to Adagio, who grew tense as the pony approached. “Let’s get something clear here, Capt. Dazzle. Even though I might revert to a teen in my human form, at the end of the day, I am an adult. You, on the other hoof, though you’re a very capable individual, are still just a teenager. I’m not the one who needs to grow up – I’ve done that already. You, on the other hoof….”

“Are you done, Archmagus?” Adagio hissed through clenched teeth.

Razz merely shook her head sadly; it was clear this wasn’t going as well as she hoped. “Yes, I’m done. I just hope you pay heed to my words, Captain. You’re dismissed.”

The military officer departed as quickly as she arrived, and Razz conjured herself some tea. That was not fun, she thought to herself. I just hope that Ari and Soni can straighten her out.

Octavia Melody stood upon the precipice, nodding her head in time with her conducting stick, as the orchestra bellowed the umpteenth-numbered revision of what could very well be her magnum opus. After all the screaming, the nagging, and the near-defenestration of certain instruments at one point, it was all finally coming together.

As the music reached its crescendo and ultimate climax, Octavia Melody stood off to the side and applauded. It had been a unique experience helping her own counterpart develop music on this level – Tavi had joked with Sunset about writing her coronation music, but it hadn’t been serious as for all her musical skills, actually writing music was something she didn’t have much experience with. But with the orchestra playing through parts and Tavi giving her input – change the pitch here, a rearrangement of notes there – and it had been far easier than she’d believed. As both she and Fluttershy were starting a band, it was an experience that might prove beneficial down the road. All in all, it had been an extremely nice day.

“Hey, what up, ponies?” suddenly came a disturbingly familiar voice. Tavi snapped her head toward the back stage door and in walked an off-white unicorn wearing a pair of fancy sunglasses and a two-tone blue mane with loud, pronounced electric blue streaks.

“Ah, yeah, DJ P0N3 in da house!”

Chapter 4 - One More Step

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Chapter 4

“One More Step”

“Vinyl!” said Octavia, both surprised and a little concerned. “I wasn’t expecting you to come visit. Like, at all.” She quickly turned to her ensemble of musicians. “Uh, take five, everypony!”

“Yeah, I was planning on sitting this coronation out,” said the electric-maned deejay, trotting up to the gray mare, “but then Lyra came and said you desperately needed the help looking over your music and whatnot.”

Octavia immediately looked over Vinyl’s withers and saw the familiar mint green unicorn approaching from behind. “I take it Sandalwood will not be joining us?” she asked.

“Nah,” said Lyra, “turns out she miscalculated her time off from work at Ponyville Spa, so she’s stuck working there for the next few days. Shame, too; she really wanted to ask the humans more questions.”

While Lyra and Octavia made small talk, Vinyl trotted up to the strange, exotic creature that looked simultaneously like a mostly hairless monkey and yet at the same time, more than just vaguely resembled the gray mare standing not too far away.

“Hey, you played at my venue a few days ago, didn’t you?” asked Vinyl, recollection coming to mind.

“Uh, I guess?” replied Tavi. Truth be told, when Fluttershy had told Tavi earlier in the week that they’d be playing at Vinyl Scratch’s Wubsarena, it had taken quite a few deep, calming breaths in order to center herself. Fortunately, at the time, she hadn’t needed to interact at all with the unicorn mare who was clearly the counterpart of the human version, same occupation and all…and Tavi had hoped that was the last time she would ever need to be near a Vinyl Scratch of any species.

“Well, you and that other, uh, human, who played with you were massive hits! I certainly wouldn’t mind you two coming back. Especially not given I find your music appealing…and you in general…” Vinyl had said that last bit after having trotted past Tavi and casting a glance up at her very fine hindquarters.

“Stop being such a lech,” chided pony Octavia, coming over to reel her friend back in – Vinyl was certainly a hoofful to deal with normally, but given she wore her bisexuality like a badge of honor, it was a miracle she was still going steady with Neon Lights.

“Aw, come on, you know I–”

“You really want the princess coming down on your plot for–” Octavia cut herself off given she realized the unintended double entendre was something Vinyl would very much want happening. “You know what I mean, if you’re here to help, then be an actual help and not a hindrance!”

“Yes, please, I’d prefer not to be treated like a pleasure object, thank you very much,” Tavi growled. She wasn’t sure what was worse – the human Vinyl had seemed friendly enough at first…until she had gotten Tavi drugged up on the mother of all date rape drugs and probably would have gotten more out of her body than just a full on kiss had Sunset not saved her. This Vinyl, on the other hand, was making absolutely no subtlety about finding Tavi interesting and after that chauvinistic fuckstick of a fox prince tried to have her violently kidnapped, Tavi wanted nothing to do with being the object of unusual interspecies affections.

Except… She mentally cut that line of thought off immediately. No, best not to think about the one possible exception.

“Well, you certainly are abrasive,” snapped back Vinyl, “but fine, let me look at the sound system. If this is supposed to play for an insane crowd of ponies, you want to milk the speakers for every last note you can get.”

Mentally bracing herself, Princess Celestia stood before the firmly closed door to Sunset Shimmer’s room. It took every ounce of self-restraint for Celestia not to spend every moment of the day comforting her daughter. Sunset was blessed with a wonderful family that loved her, and that simple fact was the only thing that allowed Celestia to carry on with her royal duties for the day without distraction. But with evening approaching, and the time to lower the sun drawing near, Celestia decided that one way or another, she had to be there for her most precious daughter.

Granted, there were also practical concerns that she had to have as the ruler of the nation as well – Sunset’s coronation was tomorrow and as the monarch, Celestia had to see that her junior princess-to-be would be ready for the event. But Celestia felt guilt about that as well: it had been her “professional mentoring” of Sunset instead of raising her that had set the young alicorn on the path she was on now, and for better or worse, Celestia would never do that to her daughter again. She hated that she had to break that self-made promise to some degree, but the nation had suffered enough already when she’d held her daughter’s well-being over that of her little ponies.

It was a delicate balancing act, and she wondered how her fellow parents to Sunset – the human Velvet and Night – were able to balance all of this. For Celestia, it had been easy to train students and mentees. Being a parent, however, was something she was still working on.

With that in mind, the princess rapped lightly on the door, calling Sunset’s name. She received no answer, but a quick check confirmed that the door was not locked. If Sunset was really keen on keeping visitors out, such a simple oversight would not escape her. So Celestia cracked the door open, checking to make sure that Sunset wasn’t asleep. Not only was she awake, Sunset was hard at work at her desk. A mess of books lay strewn around her, and Sunset’s eyes were closed in concentration as she focused on casting a spell through the horn of her alicorn form.

Celestia called out to her again, and again received no reply. So the elder princess slipped into the room, carefully stepping around Sunset’s mess of books. A quick glance at the cover of one of them revealed the title: Mysteries of Mind Manipulation Magic. It was a safe bet that the rest of the literature Sunset had gathered around herself covered the same topic, and Celestia guessed with some concern that the spell Sunset was currently casting (seemingly on herself) was related.

Rather than call her name again, Celestia stood back and waited until Sunset was finished casting her spell. In no time at all, Sunset did so, a disappointed frown on her face.

Celestia cleared her throat. “Bit for your thoughts?”

Mildly startled, Sunset turned around and grinned when she saw her. The usually radiant expression was made a tad unsettling by Sunset’s unkempt mane and wild, bloodshot eyes.

“Mother!” Sunset exclaimed, lunging forward in a hug.

Celestia returned it with gusto. “It’s such a relief to see you, my precious little filly. How are you feeling?”

“Better than I was,” Sunset said. Based on what Celestia had heard, that wasn’t really saying much.

“I’m so sorry I wasn’t here to comfort you sooner. I had my duties, plus your family seemed to have things well in hoof…or well, you know. I didn’t want to crowd you.”

“Mother, we’ve had this discussion a million times. You don’t have to always compare yourself to them,” Sunset said firmly. “Besides, your timing is actually perfect. I could use your help with this.”

“Oh? And what is ‘this’?”

Sunset looked at Celestia with deadly seriousness. “I need you to cast a full Identify spell on me, and you need to go deep. Focus it on locating any residual mind magic or foreign contaminants in my bloodstream. Go down to the mitochondrial or RNA level if you have to.”

Celestia blinked at that; she had no idea what those terms were, but Equestrian researchers had theorized that there were smaller parts to ponies’ genes than what was commonly known. Perhaps humans had discerned that with their science. Celestia reluctantly made a mental note to ask the human Night Light about that later, but then turned her mind back to the more important issue on hoof.

Oh, Sunset… Celestia thought, her heart breaking for her daughter. “Is that what you’ve been doing in here?”

Sunset nodded. “I already cast the spell myself several times and came up with nothing. But since Twi isn’t available and I need a peer review with a magic level around my own, you could probably find something that I missed or….”

Celestia lifted Sunset’s chin with a hoof, and the young mare’s rambling petered out. “Sunset… the doctors already confirmed that the last of the Allucinor venom is out of your body. You have nothing to fear.”

“I...I know, but….” Sunset’s ears folded back. “It doesn’t feel gone, y’know?”

“No, I’m afraid I don’t know.”

With a sigh, Sunset got up and started pacing the room. Celestia was silent, allowing her daughter time to organize her thoughts.

“I care about Pinkie. I always have,” Sunset started, her thoughts clearly still jumbled. “I don’t want to lose her friendship. So, I’ve spent today trying to reflect on it. To push all of the ugliness of what happened last night aside and just try to remember the good stuff, y’know?”

Celestia did, and nodded to indicate as such. Then Sunset looked up at her with a hint of fear in her eyes. But this wasn’t the fear of someone who had been through something traumatic. This was the fear of someone filled with uncertainty for the future.

“But when I think about everything we’ve been through together… of all the ways she’s been there for me and shown me that she loves me… I want to go back and experience that again. It was nice, knowing that she would always be there for me. Knowing she loved me. And I want to go back to that because she never heard me say….”

Although the words died on her lips, Celestia heard them all the same. I’ll always be there for her. Because I love her.

“I care about Pinkie. I always have,” Sunset said again. “But I’ve never felt like this about her before. So you see? There must still be something of the Allucinor Wing left inside me. We need to find it if Pinkie and I ever hope to go back to the way things were!”

“I understand,” Celestia said, her heart growing heavier. And now, she needed to make Sunset understand. “But the fact is, things between you and her can never go back to the way they were ever again.”

Sunset looked at her like the lost soul she was, and Celestia knew there was no turning back. Looks like you were right, Cadance. It was foolish of me to doubt you on matters of the heart. Of course the solar alicorn had known that from the moment her niece had delivered her report, but if there had been any way to spare Sunset the emotional distress she would have to endure….

No. Like it or not, as a mother, I have to let my filly grow, even if that means it hurts to do so.

“Sunset… I don’t think you quite understand how the Allucinor Wing works,” Celestia said.

Sunset tilted her head and looked at her. “What do you mean?” she asked, but it was clear some part of her had already figured it out.

“When Cadance told me about it, I asked her not to mention it to you. I wasn’t sure whether it would help you or harm you. Now I’m sure you need to know.” Just as she had before entering, Celestia mentally braced herself. “The Allucinor Wing… it doesn’t create feelings of love or lust from nothing. All it does is enhance what’s already there.”

Sunset looked at her, utterly stupefied. The truth had been right in front of her all along. Minutes passed. Sunset opened her mouth a few times to argue the point, but no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t find the logic to dispute her mother.

“Fuck….”

“That’s not the reaction I expected,” Celestia said with a wry grin.

“This just made everything ten times more complicated!” Sunset exclaimed, her voice starting to break all over again.

Celestia draped a wing around her. “I believe Cadance would say that love is complicated, but worth it in the end.”

“What am I going to do?”

“I’m afraid I can’t tell you that. The only one who can make that decision is you.” Celestia then leaned closer and said softly, “But if you want my advice? Perhaps talking things out with Miss Pie would be a good start.”

“You’re right. It’s time I finally confronted this head on,” Sunset said, already sounding far more sure of herself than she had all day. “No more half measures.”

In a flash of light, the young alicorn mare returned to her human from and the teenaged girl threw her arms around Celestia. “Thanks a million.”

Celestia smiled. “What are mothers for?”

After the brief verbal war of words between Tavi and the ever shameless flirt Vinyl, things seemed to be going apace. The two Octavias, with input from Lyra, were refining the orchestral suite pieces while Vinyl singlehoofedly was making sure the amplification spells interfaced with the technology – it eliminated the need for wiring up entirely acoustic instruments.

The same could not be said of the ponies who were part of the orchestra, suffice to say.

“Is it weird that one of those humans that came with the new princess looks just like Octzilla?” whispered Brass Beauty to her next seat neighbor.

“I agree,” said Wahwah Pedal.

“What’s worse is that Vinyl seems to have her flirty eye on her, too – see how she keeps glancing at the human?”

“You know her name?”

“Yeah, we dated for like, two months back when we were students at the Conservatory. I shouldn’t need to explain why it didn’t work out.”


Unfortunately, Vinyl was one who didn’t seem to take rejection lightly. And to reinforce her bad habit of not knowing to take a blatant hint, it had only been her constant advances which had eventually gotten Neon Lights to propose taking her out on a date if she’d simply stop bothering him. And while she did genuinely love him, she wasn’t about to let a fine piece of ass like Two-Legs Octy go so easily. It was weird, given it was so obvious that the two legged, largely hairless version was somehow a different incarnation of the local, four legged furred version, and while the latter Vinyl strictly only liked so far as a friend...the former really seemed to have some kind of gene lottery jackpot since she wasn’t even a pony and Vinyl found her attractive.

And the equipment Vinyl had been tinkering with seemed to have been tinkered with as far as possible, so Vinyl needed something to do. So, she leisurely wandered over to where the Octavias two were poring over copious amounts of sheet music. She donned her signature oversized purple-lensed sunglasses, namely to hide the fact she was stealing glances over at Two-Legs Octy.

“Hey, uh, so your system is good to go,” said Vinyl.

“Well, thank you, Vinyl,” said Octy, not looking up from her work.

However, the other Octavia paid the off-white unicorn a little more attention. “At least you’re helpful, I’ll give you that.”

“See? You don’t need to be such a hardass!” said Vinyl, who promptly decided to do the absolute worst thing and gave what she would have described as a love-tap by slapping Tavi’s butt.

To Tavi...it was the last straw of sexual harassment.

“That does it!” shouted Tavi, stamping her foot on the ground hard enough that it echoed through the chamber. She wheeled around and faced the diminutive unicorn, the analogue to her would-be rapist. “Of all individuals in how many dimensional realities there are, I have to be saddled with you, Vinyl Scratch! You lecherous, promiscuous, sybaritic WHORE!”

“Uh…excuse me?” replied the unicorn confused and more than a little self aware at how she was now being accused of things she honestly wasn’t.

“No, no excuses!” continued Tavi – she had a lot of animosity and now that the dam gates had been opened, she wasn’t going to stop until she had her say. “Not after what I’ve been through because of girls who want muff instead of a stick and berries! And especially not after getting drugs stuffed into me that have completely ruined my life!”

Now everypony in the auditorium was looking at Tavi and Vinyl.

“Look, it was just some harmless flirting, it wasn’t–”

“I already gave one Vinyl Scratch the benefit of the doubt and I’m still paying for it every single day of my life!”

“Okay, look,” said Vinyl, trying to end the situation amicably, “if you could just calm down and–”

That was the wrong thing to say, though Vinyl didn’t know it, because it had been her human counterpart trying to calm her down in order for the Vibrasnopam to take effect, and as far as Tavi knew, that had been what had brought on Melody. And for this Vinyl to be trying to do the same thing on the surface? It was too much for Tavi. So the teen immediately attempted to rush Vinyl, with every intent of violence.

But she hadn’t even gotten more than a foot before she was immediately surrounded by a golden glow.

“Yeah, no,” said Lyra, clearly not happy herself. “Other Octavia, I’m not condoning what this Vinyl did, but she isn’t responsible for whatever that other Vinyl did, so you need to back the hell off.”

“Fine with me,” spat Tavi, being put back on the ground. “But I’m afraid I can not be of assistance while she is around to make catty remarks about getting me into her bed!” Tavi then spun on her heels and immediately stormed out of the room.

“Does she even know where she’s going?” asked Vinyl, only getting hard stares in response. “What?”

“I told you that your flirting would get you into trouble,” said Octy, facehoofing.

“It wasn’t even my fault!”

“Try telling that to her,” Octavia said. “Clearly she’s had bad experiences with some version of you in the past.”

“But it wasn’t me me!”

“What wasn’t you…you?” asked a distinctly male voice. All attention turned to discover Blueblood had suddenly shown up.

“Blu! What are you doing here?” asked Octy, surprised.

“Thought I’d come and check in on how things were doing, since I have to be in attendance at this bore fest for my cousin not of the bloodline,” he said, looking bored and disinterested – but to the two unicorn mares and the earth pony on stage, they knew he was doing it just to maintain appearances for the rest of the orchestra. “Though, where is that ungainly human I left with you, Octavia? Surely you didn’t abandon her in a ditch somewhere, Sunset would be…well, disagreeable if that happened.”

“No, she unfortunately just ran off in a huff,” said Octy, who then turned to gesture at a sheepish Vinyl, “Because apparently Vinyl couldn’t resist flirting with another version of me and apparently the human me doesn’t have a good history with the human version of her.”

“How was I supposed to know?” protested Vinyl.

But to the surprise of the three mares, learning what had happened to human Octavia seemed to snap Blu completely out of his fake mannerisms. “Oh, no…” he muttered, looking horrified, prompting Octy to wonder if he’d actually known the whole story as well. “Where did she go?”

“She ran off through that door,” said Lyra. She was going to add that she had seemed to be a massive bitch, but she never got the chance – Blu immediately started running off after her. “Wow, he’s never been that concerned about anypony.”

“Yeah, it makes one wonder,” said Octy with a smile, her previous thoughts on the matter only seemingly more confirmed, as weird as they were.

“Somepony want to clue me in here?” asked Vinyl, both the center of the problem and yet completely out of the loop.

Mentally bracing herself, Sunset stood before the firmly closed door of Pinkie Pie’s room in the castle. She had no idea that her position mirrored Celestia’s outside her own room mere hours before. So knowing that the coming talk could no longer be put off, Sunset rapped on the door and called Pinkie’s name.

Unlike when Celestia had done the same in front of Sunset’s own door, Pinkie answered, her voice quiet and un-Pinkie like. “Come in, Sunny.”

Sunset did, and found Pinkie standing out on the modest balcony attached to her bedroom, looking over the breathtaking Equestrian countryside.

“Your mom was just here,” Pinkie said in that same uncharacteristic neutered voice. “Your human one, that is. She was checking to see if I was okay.”

“Are you?” Sunset asked.

Pinkie said nothing in response for several disquieting seconds before she added, “Then your other mother came by. She was the one that told me you’d be coming by.” She then turned to look at Sunset with sunken eyes mirroring Sunset’s own. “Sunny, I’m so so sorry! Everything that happened was my fault! If I was a better Swordbearer – a better partner – none of this would have happened!”

Before seeing Pinkie, Sunset had decided that any intimate contact would be a mistake. Considering what had happened to both of them the previous night – not to mention the clear message Sunset wanted to convey now – she believed that touching Pinkie would only harm both of them all over again. But seeing Pinkie now, so lost and heartbroken, Sunset knew that keeping her distance was simply not possible. Whatever else Pinkie Pie was to her in that moment, one thing hadn’t changed: Pinkie was still her dear friend.

So Sunset went to her and pulled her into a deep warm embrace. Pinkie was hesitant to return it, but did so after only a few moments. Sunset just held her like that for some time, both girls emotionally exhausted after going through so much.

“You don’t have to apologize for anything, Pinkie,” Sunset said. “Everything’s okay, now. I’m okay, now. That means you didn’t fail me, right?”

“I guess….”

“No. No more of that,” Sunset said, pulling away from the hug to look Pinkie directly in the eye. “You’ve spent enough time beating yourself up over this already. This doesn’t help you and it sure as hell doesn’t help me. It’s time to move on.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” Pinkie said, sniffling and wiping her eyes. It was more out of habit than anything, as they had dried up much earlier in the day. Then she smiled, and for the first time that day started to look more like her old self. “You’re always right, Sunny!”

If only that were true, Sunset thought. Otherwise I wouldn’t have to put you in the position you’re about to be in.

“Feel like taking a walk?” Sunset asked. “After today, I feel like both of us could use a lot more fresh air.”

Pinkie nodded, and Sunset cast a teleportation spell. The two of them appeared in the castle gardens in a flash of light. Soft lantern light lit the various statues, hedge sculptures and flower arrangements, and the sound of a nearby fountain created a tranquil atmosphere.

“Not sure I’m ever going to get used to that,” Pinkie said, giving her head a couple of shakes.

The two of them started walking along one of the many garden paths side by side. After about a minute, Pinkie reached to take Sunset’s hand, then reconsidered and simply settled for continuing to walk beside her.

“So… what happens now?” Pinkie finally asked.

“That’s what I’ve been trying to figure out for the rest of this evening,” Sunset said. “Things have changed. We can’t just go back to the way things were.”

“I know.” Pinkie nodded. “Pretty sure I knew from the moment you came to your senses last night.”

“The problem is, I’m still not sure how things have changed yet.”

With a dry smile, Pinkie said, “Well, I guess both of us have a whole eternity to figure it out, right? Whatever it is, we’ll figure it out together!”

Again Pinkie reached for Sunset’s hand, and again Sunset pulled away. Pinkie’s optimistic smile started to fade away. “Right, Sunny?”

With a sigh, Sunset shook her head. “No, Pinkie. I think this is something I need to figure out myself.”

A worried frown now formed on Pinkie’s face, and the girl looked ready to start crying all over again. “Wait… Sunny, are you…?” Pinkie sniffled. “Are you breaking up with me?!”

“No, I’m not breaking up with you, Pinkie,” Sunset said. How can I, when we were never really dating in the first place? Unfortunately, Sunset couldn’t quite bring herself to say it out loud. “However, I think we need to take a break. At least until things have settled down after the coronation. But honestly? I think I’m going to need longer than that.”

Finding the courage to smile again, Pinkie said, “Well, you take as long as you need, Sunny. I’ll be here whenever you’re ready.”

The two of them stopped walking, and Sunset gave Pinkie another hug. A simple, chaste hug from one friend to another. “Thanks, Pinkie.”

The two of them spent a few more minutes following the garden path, which eventually ended at a gazebo at the center of a few artificial streams.

“I’m going to head back to the castle,” Sunset said.

“You go on ahead. I think I’ll stay here for a while.”


Nodding, Sunset bid Pinkie good night and disappeared in a flash of cyan light. Pinkie crossed the small bridge over the smaller stream and entered the gazebo. Another figure joined her in a blue tunic, seeming to appear from nowhere. The two of them stood silently together for a time, just taking in the scenery.

“Hey, the one you once protected… she loved you, right?” Pinkie eventually asked.

“Not as yours doth, but aye,” the other said.

“What would you have done if… if the one you protected no longer loved you?”

The other answered immediately, “Such would ne’er be an occur’nce… for the twain of us.”

“But what would you have done?”

With a shrug, the other replied, “I am that regal lady’s Swordbearer, sworn to defend and serve as long as I shalt draw breath. Coequal anon, millennia after the lady is gone, I continue to fulfill mine oath.” Her gaze then fell away to her own hands. “Unthinkable though ’t may ken, if 't be true mine own liegelady hath lost all love f'r me, such would not moot mine choice.”

With a bitter edge to her tone, Pinkie sighed, “Sounds like a lonely life.”

“‘Tis so. But I endure.” The other woman’s look turned distant and haunted as she continued. “In truth… I fear what I wouldst become were I to give into despair.”

Pinkie looked at her. “What would you become?”

The other returned her gaze, but it was some time before she answered, “I wish not to verse of such things anon. Thy own future still shines. Thou shouldst enjoy it while such lasts. Few things do.”

It didn’t take long for Blu to track down the wayward human – all he had to do was follow the sound of crying echoing through the halls. Sure enough, he found Octavia alone and miserable on a bench in an otherwise deserted hallway, on a floor beneath the main auditorium. It was not dissimilar to how Blu had first really talked with Octavia just a few days prior following her attempted kidnapping.

“Why me?” she seemed to ask no one in particular, her forehead resting in her palms as she was in a slumped over position.

“I’m afraid I don’t know the question,” said Blu.

Octavia gasped, looking up with a frightened expression, but it immediately softened to simply being morose when she realized who had joined her. “Blu!” she exclaimed, practically leaping up from her seat to tackle the unicorn with a big bear hug. “Oh thank God you’re here!”

“What happened?” the stallion asked, wrapping his forelegs around the human and rubbing her back, trying to soothe her. “Was Vinyl being too rough with her flirting? I know she’s been warned about it but…if I’d known she was going to show up then I would have said something earlier.”

“You couldn’t have known,” said Tavi, sniffing, “But it’s just… well, I already told you about my experience with the human Vinyl, and that unicorn…she just has the same hair, the same voice, but just being way more open about her advances? It brought back the trauma.”

“I understand,” said Blu, who then broke off the hug to look Octavia face to face. “After all, you freaked out when you first saw me. Except you initially saw the Bluelood who hurt you in your world. But you have to have known at least through your experiences with me that just because ponies and humans may look and sound similar – barring the obvious differences, of course – that the Vinyl of this world, as much of a shameless flirt as she is, wouldn’t go so far as to really hurt you as the human one did.”

“I’m not seeing where you’re going with this.”

“You told me about how much of a monster my counterpart is, how we even have the same voice, the same eyes, practically everything. But while you can easily tell the difference between me and that plothole from your world, you’re having a problem disambiguating both Vinyls. Why is that?”

Tavi was silent for the longest time. “It’s because you’re…well, Blueblood, but in a way that I guess I both didn’t expect and yet, once had expected.”

Blu suspected that there was something more that Tavi was withholding, which seemed odd – had she been romantically involved with that cur Blueblood at one point? It seemed strange to think of himself in those terms and not be encapsulating the fake persona that he had cultivated over the years. Though he also had so readily dropped it when he had come to fear Tavi might get herself into more trouble when not around trusted ponies – he’d never dropped it before, not like that. But now was not the time to think about that. “Look, let’s get you back upstairs, in case Octy has any more music she needs your help with.”

“Are you sure? I’m not confident I can stand being around–”

“I’ll stick around – in one disguise or another, since I do have appearances to keep up, as much as I despise myself for it.”

“Oh, no, I couldn’t ask you to do that for me!”

“But I am a prince, my dear Octavia, one who doesn’t get to be as princely as he wishes he could be. So please, for my sake, let me indulge in something wholesome for a change.”

Peering at the tons of egg casings in the ballroom, Flambé, the Dragonlands representative to the coronation event, looked at Raspberry Beryl. “Archmagus,” he said with a smile, patting his sizable belly, “Do you realize what this means?”

Instead of Razz, it was the Castellan, Marimba Rondo, that spoke. As the one who primarily oversaw security in the palace, she was checking on the Hooves present that were watching over things. Because of the number of dignitaries present, they had to disguise themselves as typical palace guards, which put the Hooves at a functional disadvantage. “That we have a serious problem?”

The dragon shook his head and looked at both of the ponies present. “No! This is an unprecedented windfall! Dragon Lord Ember has been focused on getting a breeding program for the Allucinors, as they are the only thing that keeps edgemites in check! If the edgemites are not controlled, they weaken dragon eggs during incubation and we end up with….” The dragon’s dark orange muzzle pursed in distaste. “We end up with weak dragons, barely able to fend for themselves.”

“Well, given the potential danger they present to the populace and those present,” Razz told him, “we need to find a way to remove these before they hatch. Currently, as much as we’d rather not, we’re trying to find a way to transport them––”

“Unacceptable!” Flambé insisted. “Transporting Allucinor Wing eggs is extremely delicate, so much so that we dragons have never attempted to do so – and no offense intended, but I doubt you ponies have the ability to do what generations of we dragons have not. The safest way to transport them back to the Dragonlands would be to wait until they hatch, capture them and then transport.”

“We don’t have that kind of time,” Razz told him.

“Make that kind of time,” he insisted. “They are vital to both the ecology of the Dragonlands and to the wellbeing of dragonkind in general. And if you so much as try to move them, Archmagus, as regrettable as it is, I will lodge a protest with Her Majesty Princess Celestia!”

The two stared at each other for several minutes before Razz backed off. “Fine,” she said. Turning to the Castellan, she said, “Please inform the Guard Captain in charge of protecting this room that they are not to be disturbed. However, we expect that a guard liason from the Dragon Embassy will be present to watch over things.”

“You can be certain of that,” Flambé insisted.

“I don’t doubt it. Now, if you’ll excuse me, Ambassador, I have other duties to attend to.” Giving a quick perfunctory bow, Razz departed before she decided to tell the dragon what she really thought.

“Why did we have to have the one relatively personable dragon as the ambassador?” she sighed aloud. “It’s so much easier to deal with them when they’re being their normal plothole natures.”

“Nature of the beast,” the Castellan told her. “Politics is politics, Archmagus. And speaking of which, since you’re the one assisting us with security because of the issues that have occurred, we just received a report from the Solar Guard concerning the pony arrested for having the initial Allucinor Wing.”

“This was the unicorn researcher that Rarity had arrested earlier in the week, right? Simple Science?” Razz asked. “I had been meaning to have a word with him myself on the matter.”

The Castellan frowned. “Well, you’re gonna have a pretty hard time of that. That is, unless you’ve added necromancy to your repertoire of dark magic.”

Razz whirled to face her. “Wait, he’s dead?!

“He was rushed to the hospital early this morning. Apparently he suffered an extreme allergic reaction to something in the Guard barracks,” the Castellan explained. “The doctors managed to keep him in critical condition for most of the day, but apparently it was a lost cause from the start.”

“Sweet Celestia, that’s terrible….”

“Terribly suspicious, more like,” the Castellan said, and when Razz looked at her quizzically, she said, “Think about it, Archmagus. The only pony who could definitively tell us where the original Allucinor Wing came from just happens to go into critical condition the morning after the incident involving said Allucinor? I don’t buy it.”

Razz thought of the theory she had mentioned to Twilight that morning, but wanted to get the Castellan’s opinion. “I have to admit, that is a suspicious coincidence. Any idea what it could mean?”

“I was hoping you could tell me, Archmagus. You have a better image of the full picture than most of the ponies involved with this case.”

That was certainly true, but Razz was certainly not going to divulge the details of the prophecy of the Scions to somepony not in her inner circle. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust the Castellan, but information spread faster the more people knew it.

“This could be the work of the Covenant of Shadows. Sombra did toy with the idea of weaponizing Allucinors during his time. Maybe the incident last night was a sort of field test?”

“There’s plenty of more remote locations to test experimental weapons,” the Castellan said. “No, my instincts tell me this was a deliberate act of sabotage.”

“Well, whatever the case, we won’t know for sure without more information,” Razz said, making to leave. “If you’re liasoning with the Solar Guard on this case, can you have them send a copy of Science’s autopsy report to my office as soon as it’s ready?”

“Of course, Archmagus.”

After thanking the Castellan, Razz left her to her own part of the investigation. In several minutes, Razz was back in her room in the castle and let out a big sigh as she started removing her Archmagus robes for the day. A familiar tap at the window indicated to Razz that her oldest friend was back from his evening flight, and Razz opened the window to let the green phoenix inside.

“I hope your day was better than mine,” Razz said, and Heliodor confirmed as such with a happy chirp.

He’d been spending a lot of time with Philomena of late, the elder phoenix teaching the younger a few things about their particular way of life. Razz had raised him the best she could since she first found him all those years ago, but she could only raise him as a pony. It was good that he was learning more from his own kind.

Heliodor tilted his head and gave her an inquisitive chirp, and Razz sighed, knowing what he was asking. “I’m worried, Heelee. Everything I’ve learned these past few days is making me more and more certain that something’s going to go down at Sunset’s coronation tomorrow, and all I can do is just sit and wait for the enemy to play their hoof.”

In the Badlands, the changeling guards left protecting the main entrance of the hive were doing their best to stay awake, or even look eager to stand around as their job. Instead, due to the ongoing love famine brought on by a complete lack of orders from Queen Chrysalis, they could do barely more than just lean against the walls, brandishing spears in an attempt to look dangerous.

So, it came as a surprise when none other than Queen Chrysalis herself appeared, walking up to the main hive entrance looking like she was dead set on some kind of mission.

“Y-Your Highness!” they stammered in unison, immediately going from a slumped, semi-resting position to at full attention.

“At ease,” she said almost unconsciously, passing them by without a second thought. As she strode further into the confusing network of tunnels, word quickly spread through the hive, both by word of mouth as well as the sensations within the hivemind, that their queen had returned…and she wanted them all to attend to her.

It wasn’t long before the entirety of the hive – well, most of it, those who had reasons not to be there would be informed through the hivemind – was present in front of the Black Throne, the literal seat of power of all Changeling kind as well as having been infused by some dark power that negated normal magic in a radius of about five miles around it. It had the side effect of rendering the area a wasteland but Chrysalis had never really cared about that.

“My loyal changelings,” she addressed the swarm, “I know you’ve all been…concerned…about my recent activities and there has even been talk about replacing me with one of those usurper-would-be-queens like Mandible. Well, I am here to assure you that is not necessary. No, I’ve been away because my plans required a certain…delicacy to the operation that none of you could have handled, intelligence pertaining to the matter only I and I alone am privy to.

“But know this – now is the time to prepare for our revenge on pony kind, for all the injustice done onto us by Canterlot and otherwise!”

“Queen Chrysalis!” exclaimed one changeling. Chrysalis identified him as Pharynx, one of her more loyal warriors. Things must have been bad if even he was now questioning her. “How are we supposed to do that if we barely have enough love energy to even stand?”

Of course, Chrysalis did not care. Her endgame was in sight. After that, nothing else mattered.

“I already have seen to a solution for that,” she replied with a malicious grin. “I’ve secured a substantial amount of love we can drain from a source that, shall we say, wasn’t entirely ready to volunteer the love for our cause. But we shall feed from it nonetheless, and then the dominance of the changelings will be ensured! As it is, now…now we shall begin the final phase!”

Chapter 5 - A Day to Remember

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Golden Age of Apocalypse Book 3 Chapter 5

A Day to Remember

During the times when the Guard or Army did a traditional run down the main streets of Canterlot, it was both a display of prowess in the protectors of Equestria as well as a show of national pride. The young stallions and mares, regardless of what division they would ultimately be assigned to, all galloped up and down the streets under the broad daylight of Celestia’s sun. Under the proud watch of ponies throughout the city, the populace knew that the next generation of defenders trained and stood ready to be there for ponies, hoof, wing and horn. Over the years, this had become a tradition known as the Military Gallop.

Today, however, came a very different story. Rather than the thundering hooves that accompanied the military recruits that echoed throughout the streets in the midday, a very different sound came just before the rise of dawn, at an hour where very few ponies and other beings were awake.

“LEFT, LEFT, LEFT RIGHT LEFT!
WE LOVE TO DOUBLETIME!
WE DO IT ALL THE TIME!”

To those who had been awakened by the strange chanting, they looked out their various windows to see something that had never been seen before on the streets of Canterlot: dozens of strange, minotaur-like figures, all wearing odd, form-fitting clothing and following after another figure that was taller than all but one of them. Their movements were rhythmic, clapping the pavement and seemingly a muted version of the Military Gallop, but at the same time, their cadance canted into the sky as they moved along.

“JOLLY, JOLLY, SIX FOOT FOUR
PUT HIS FOOT RIGHT IN MY DOOR!
BREAK HIM LIKE HE’S MADE OF GLASS –
SIRENS KICK SOME SERIOUS ASS!”

The figures moved with a purpose that seemed like a parody of the Military Gallop: rather than the armor of the Army or the Guard, the strange creatures all wore shirts that bore the simple word NAVY, dark blue shorts, an painful-looking attire on what might have been their hooves. The procession moved quieter than the Military Gallopers but sang loud enough for their chants to peal from the alleyways louder than the great bells of the Church of the Alicorns.

Legends had foretold, from generation to generation, of these monsters: humans. Nevermind the claim from the Crown that they had come in peace – this was clearly an army of the beasts, meant to subdue and conquer and spread an evil even more vile than that of Tirek.

Foals brave enough to peek through windows looked on in fright, cowed by the stories their parents had told them of these fiends. In turn, parents nearby clutched their children, pulling them away from windows and closing the shutters as fast as they could. Those unlucky souls outdoors quickly tried to find themselves a location as far away from the growing horde as their hooves could carry them.

More than a few wondered why Celestia would allow this to occur – in the capital, no less! But there had been more than enough questions of late about their regent. And the freakish figures continued down the promenade, those who watched with horror and anxiety only added to those who would ask questions as to what was happening to their world.

In any case, this was clearly an ill omen – on today, of all days – as the unnatural beasts roamed the streets, and it was a catastrophic portent for the coronation of Equestria’s newest princess.

As the SIRENs jogged down the street, with the original four in the front, followed by the Advanced Training Group and then finally the remainder of the candidates behind them, Sable quietly gave himself a smile of satisfaction. It was military tradition for unit cohesion to have the troops run together as one, and given soon that he, the triplets and the ATG would have to return to Earth to plan out Sunset’s full protection operations, there would likely be scant opportunities to do this with the whole of the group. Best to do it now while they had the chance, especially since the majority of these SIREN candidates would not get the rush training that the ATG would, nor would they immediately move to Earth.

He then made a mental note to discuss the construction of the new SIREN base, which would house SIREN Development Training Command, Special Initiative Command and anything else that would fall under Troubleshoes’ purview. It made him wonder if he was putting too much on his new Force Master Chief, but given the man’s extensive experience in the human Special Warfare community, it was probably right up his alley, anyway.

He did, however, make a second mental note to talk with Troubleshoes about the potential of setting up Construction Battalions. From his talk with Adviso yesterday, Equestria had scarcely heard of military engineering and naval military engineering even less so. Furthermore, with the SIRENs restricted to their human forms unless they were on leave, they would grow used to human norms, something not common here where humanity was still a myth. Having Seabees building in human dimensions would not only help speed up acclimation to human norms for the Equestrian military, but might also be a way for males to be assigned to the SIC and even in their normal forms rather than just humanized. He would have to discuss that with Sunset later.

But for now, Sable turned to look at his three subordinates, the members of the ATG and the other immediate candidates that had been chosen for training. Today, SIREN stepped out of the shadows and into the light, and under the first rays of dawn they marched down the streets of Canterlot to let the ponies of this world know their newest protectors stood ready.

He wondered what the ponies thought as they saw them move on. Probably pride, most likely.

“Rise and shine, Little Sun. The day can't start without you."

It had been over five years since it happened, but as Sunset drearily woke to that familiar phrase being called, the passage of time had not made it seem out of the ordinary, as if the last occurrence had only been yesterday.

“Unh….there’s gotta be some irony in that given I’m named for the day ending of all things,” groggily said the young alicorn, rubbing her eyes with her hooves. She then looked woosily at the window – it was still night outside. “Uh, Mother? Aren’t you forgetting something?”

Celestia shook her head. “Given that today is your long awaited coronation, I figured it would only be appropriate that you were with me when I raised the sun.”

“Oh, uh, okay.” Sunset quickly got out of bed and cast a refresher spell on herself, in order to skip the usual morning rituals of the average, everyday high school junior...who happened to be an almost immeasurably powerful deity.

Soon, the two of them were walking down the corridors of Castle Canterlot, their hoofsteps echoing through the hallways. At such an early hour, the only ponies active were the various maidstaff, Hooves included, though with the seaponies in disguise they seemed rather agitated.

“The maids seem unnerved,” Sunset commented to the taller alicorn.

“They’re usually like this, especially since this is the first major national event following the whole war with Tirek. Coupled with a whole slew of things going on, none of the Hooves would say it to you but they honestly would prefer to get your coronation over and done with, so there isn’t as much of a threat.” As if to underline it, the elder solar alicorn gestured towards a Hoof walking past them; though dressed in the typical maidstaff attire of the palace, the throwing knives she had strapped around her hindlegs weren’t as subtly hidden as they would normally be.

“It feels like coming back to Equestria with my whole family - my human family, mind - was a mistake,” said Sunset, glumly. “Applejack got mauled by a bear with an afro, Rainbow got pretty beat up as well, poor Tavi nearly got turned into an Inijarin consort at swordtip, and then to top it all off, I basically had a winged aphrodisiac attached to my head and I really just don’t want to worry about how Pinkie and I feel about each other!”

“While it is regrettable about what has happened to your friends and family,” said Celestia, choosing her words carefully - after all, although the bond between her and Sunset had largely been mended, it had been the younger mare’s human relations that had truly brought Sunset back on the right path, “as I understand it, Miss Apple and Miss Dash were injured as a result of stepping in to assist the younger sisters of their Equestrian counterparts. And the incident upon your cousin’s near-kidnapping by the disgraced prince Fujitsu is a matter that I’m sure Equestria's ambassadors to Inari will not let the kitsune forget anytime soon, but…” a wistful smile came to her muzzle, “it’s certainly had an unexpected benefit, as, if what I’ve heard is true, your cousin Blueblood certainly has been making the most of every opportunity he can get to spend time with her.”

“Come again? I know Blueblood met Tavi after he saved her, but they don’t really seem to be running in the same circles.”

“Understandably, you’ve been preoccupied with...other matters, but it would seem that instead of being seen by the best psychiatrists in the city for her condition, Miss Melody has instead been giving free concerts at Tierfenbuckers. And escorted by Blueblood himself.”

“How exactly do you even know that?”

“The Hooves, of course - after Dolente Ascent gave her life in protecting Octavia, the Castellan was willing to commit three more Hooves to her personal security detail. It was Blueblood himself who overruled that and stated he was going to assign Agency assets to protect her. Granted, that alone is something he’s never done for any mare that expressed interest in him, but Marimba found out that the asset he placed to watch over her is himself, of all ponies!”

“That’s odd, because apparently the only mares interested in him are vapid socialites. Or, apparently, every single kirin in the city on the orders of their empress.”

“Yes, I will need to talk to Rainshine about that, as apparently more than a few ponies are starting to believe that the kirin are a race of dragon-pony prostitutes. It doesn’t help that before Blueblood helped their village, they were entirely cut off as a society. I feel they may have even regressed some.”

“Given social isolation, maybe they think that it’s totally normal - goodness knows there’s probably species out there that think ponykind has some kind of polygynous ‘herd’ mentality where one male gets to screw a bunch of females due to the gender imbalance of pony kind.”

“Wherever would they get that idea?”

“I dunno, probably that Cats film Rainbow dared us all to watch some months back. I’m pretty sure it was some kind of weird porn - and given I’m from a non-human race? Seeing humans portrayed as furred animals was especially unsettling. And that was just the straight adaptation of the stage play from 1988 - I’d hate to see a version done with modern effects. It might cause the Abyssians to sue for false representation. It might also look like something that you get after consuming massive amounts of hallucinogenic drugs.”

“Hrrm, yes,” said Celestia, though she had no idea what ‘hallucinogenic drugs’ were - maybe it was like consuming too much alcohol? She herself couldn’t get drunk as her metabolism processed it too fast for it to take effect, but she’d seen plenty of ponies over the centuries succumb to alcohol overconsumption. However, it did prompt her to think about another, very recent discussion she’d had about drugs from the human world. “Sunset, I feel that I should disclose to you that I spoke with your human parents and they did ask if you were exposed to powerful drugs on the level of this, erm, ‘Vibe’ which you helped stop soon after you were brought into their family.”

Sunset didn’t reply for a bit, clearly lost in thought. “In a way,” she finally began, “I guess the effect the Allucinor venom had on me was kind of like the Vibe, except the only suggestions I was being made to follow were my own. No offense, Mother, but I’d really not think about that right now.”

“I understand,” replied Celestia. The two continued walking in silence before the solar matriarch once again spoke up, almost as if trying to fill the void. “Sunset, I just want you to know that, no matter what happens today or after today, I am proud of you and everything you’ve accomplished. And all that you will do further still.”

“I know,” said Sunset, though in the corner of her eye, Celestia noted the blush on the younger alicorn’s muzzle.

Finally, the duo arrived at Celestia’s private quarters.

“Feels like forever since I’ve been here,” said Sunset to herself in a whisper. Celestia heard it, but chose not to acknowledge as if she had. As habit always dictated, she trotted over to her familiar balcony overlooking the city of Canterlot, and beyond it, the eastern lands of Equestria. It always brought a smile to her muzzle to look out across the land of her people, her ponies, and see them thrive - though ever since Tirek waged war on the country, the scars still could be seen.

She didn’t even need to look down to know that Sunset stood next to her side, just like the days of old before they had drifted apart. It always had been something Sunset had treasured, being right next to the Princess of All as she raised the epitome of warmth and light itself into the sky. Celestia also knew that Sunset would have already remarked as such had her thoughts not been elsewhere.

So, to further remind her daughter of happier times, Celestia lit her horn ablaze in her yellow aura, bright as the day itself. She reached out with her magic onto the big burning nuclear furnace countless miles away in the sky and with her great magical strength, tugged it up. Since before Celestia had even been born, the path of the sun and moon had been etched into reality along a track of magic that nopony knew the origin of. In times of old, it had been teams of unicorns who would handle the cycle of day and night, but Celestia was unsure if there were any ponies alive who were not alicorns that could handle this task - her top and really only two choices had of course ascended to alicornhood themselves.

Thus, it fell to her as it had every single day across millenia to bring the day. On the other side of the castle, Luna was doing the same but in reverse to lower the moon. The transition between day and night was a delicate balance and it was the transition that the arcane tracks the celestial bodies followed were at their weakest, needing a helpful push to keep the cycle going. Numerous other countries on the planet had of course tried to take control of the day and night cycle, usually with disastrous results Celestia had dealt with, but the fact the planet was named Equus reminded all who controlled time itself.

Then she noticed Sunset had proceeded forward and was leaning on the railing - exactly as she had as a filly. It had been something Celestia had missed for so long, and despite both of them being immortal at this point, would likely never see again given Sunset’s place in a completely different reality.

Nothing was said further as Celestia finished her butt-assigned duty of raising the sun, feeling the magic tether detach as the Sun’s own magical presence latched onto the framework that would carry it across the sky.

“Y’know, it’s funny that you and Aunt Luna move the sun and moon,” said Sunset out of the blue. “On Earth, the day and night cycle occur from the rotation of the planet, with the Moon being independent of the Sun. It does make me wonder: does Equus actually rotate or is it simply static in space?”

“I...actually don’t know,” admitted Celestia. “You’d have to ask a member of the Astronomy Guild about it, I suppose.”

“I might just do that.” Sunset then turned, nuzzled Celestia, and began walking away. “Still, thanks for bringing me up here, I didn’t realize how much I missed being a filly. But that’s in the past - I need to get ready for the pomp and circumstance.”

In another part of Canterlot, in the rising sun, two figures threw and punched against one another, moving with an acrobatic grace that amazed any of the few housekeeping staff that were up and watching the whole thing. Punches and kicks, sweeps and feints, throws and parries – both were going all out, trusting that the other would be able to control their strength and prevent injury.


But as Applejack barely dodged the fist thrown at her, only to be swept off her feet and land on the ground with an embarrassing plant, she realized she was outclassed. She’d studied tae kwon do for most of her life and was going up against someone who didn’t even study formal martial arts...and yet, here she was, dropped completely on the ground, unable to keep up with her sparring partner.


Pinkie offered her friend a hand up. “Thanks for working out with me, AJ.”


“Pinkie...Ah’m not gonna mince words: Where the hell have you been studying? Ah’ve been doing this mah whole life and you just dusted mah ass like it was nothing!”


Pinkie gave her friend a sad smile. “I don’t think I’m human anymore. I’m...tied to Sunny now, tied in a way I can’t explain.”


Applejack looked at her friend, saying nothing. It had only been late last night that Pinkie had finally come out of her shell and went to see everyone to let them know she was okay. But the blonde could see that not everything was okay, despite what the cotton-candy-haired girl stated. “Did Sunny…?”


“No. No one did. Or rather…it was always my destiny to be her Swordbearer.” Pinkie looked away. “It was always my fate to protect her. I just hope she doesn’t stop loving me for what I know I have to do.”


“And that is?” Applejack asked. She didn’t understand what Pinkie was saying. She wasn’t sure she understood anything anymore.


It didn’t help that Pinkie started walking away, pausing only to say over her shoulder, “Let’s go eat breakfast and get ready, AJ. It’s going to be a long day.”


Her tone of voice was low and subdued, but Applejack figured she was going to be fine. Or, well enough to make it through the coronation at least. Then Pinkie stopped mid-stride, as if she had just realized she’d forgotten something.


“Actually, you go on ahead AJ,” she said, before turning and heading back in the direction of the guest rooms.


“Okay. I’ll save you a spot at breakfast,” Applejack offered.


But Pinkie just said, “Don’t bother. I probably won’t be down ‘till later.”


The words were as good as a red flag raised at full mast to Applejack. Well shoot. Guess it’s time to muster up the damage control crew.

“That lock isn’t gonna hold,” stated Lockbox, to which Razz rolled her eyes. While the coronation was in a few hours, right now was a rare opportunity where somepony wasn’t requiring Raspberry for some official duty or some inevitable false alarm about yet another “cursed mailbox” that was nothing more than a malfunctioning privacy spell meant to keep any random pony from reading another pony’s mail. So she figured it would be best to spend time with her distant cousin Lockbox, both to enjoy the company of the only blood relative she knew of but also the one other pony Razz could openly discuss matters of their shared heritage to King Sombra when it came to their black arts affinity.

In particular, their ties to Sombra through his mysterious mirror and the foreboding prophecy engraved on its back. The conversation for the most part went as Razz expected, but when Lockbox immediately found the vault door more interesting, that worried Razz as a result.


“Hold against what?” Razz dared to ask. “They just replaced it after that dark magic energy beam from the Amulet ripped through the previous one.”


Anything,” emphasized Lock, rolling her eyes at the same time. “Sure, it’s got specially reinforced crystal sandwiched between pure bedrock that’s been treated with rheanimum, and the lock is a septuplet hypoid pinion tumbler––”

“A what?”


“A bolt mechanism composed of smaller bolt mechanisms,” the locksmith explained. “But here’s the thing: a diamond dog with half a brain cell could just core right through this if they worked with a pony who could radically shift the internal temperature within the door between freezing and boiling points for water.” She held up a hoof when Razz tried to offer a counter argument, adding “and yeah, the massive list of protective spells that are probably on the door and the vault would prevent that, but wouldn’t that be approaching the same kind of security protecting the walls of this very castle?”


“ Well, I guess,” admitted Razz, “but wouldn’t that be a good thing?”


“If it was just a random vault in some big bank, it would be ridiculously overkill. But here in the castle? It’s only as good against somepony or something that doesn’t need to brute-force their way through the castle defenses. Otherwise, the party in question wouldn’t break a sweat simply ripping this massive eyesore from its hinges. Don’t know why Tirek didn’t do just that when he barged into the castle and sent this whole country into another massive crisis.”


At that point, Heliodor suddenly let out a soft cry as he appeared at the entrance of the vault, gliding in to land on Razz’s horn as he typically did. He seemed to be bothered by something, but Lockbox could only look on in confusion as Razz apparently channeled Fluttershy and understood what the bird was trying to convey.


“That is a good point, Heelee,” agreed Razz, before turning back to Lock. “During that whole Tirek thing, why didn’t he go after you? You’re the only other pony who was regularly using dark magic and given Tirek apparently could smell my power from miles away, the fact all of Nightshade was soaked in the faux-curse of werewolves and whatever leaves it in question how exactly Nightshade survived the war virtually untouched.”


That led into Lockbox laughing. “Would you believe during that week I actually was out of the country, all the way over in Saddle Arabia?”


“I thought you wouldn’t leave Nightshade unless it was an absolute emergency?”


“Or a specific request,” corrected Lock. “Remember: I’m not just a locksmith, but a blacksmith, too. Apparently a noble heard from a griffin who had been stationed at Clawhoof that I can restore vintage armor to be entirely dent-free. I was there when that centaur started attacking all of Equestria ”

“That doesn’t explain Nightshade though.”

“This is only theory, but the quote-unquote ‘curse’ I put on the folks back home only really has dark magic be detectable when the spell is active. Tirek probably could sense you because you’re constantly using it.” She gestured to Razz, “After all, you’re doing it right now if what you’ve said about your, ah, ‘handicap’ is true.”

“Hmm, good point; never did think about it that way,” replied Razz, realizing that her glamory spell that made her appear like a normal pony and not the dark, externally corrupted figure she truly was essentially made her reek of dark magic as she was incapable of doing any light magic unless in her human form. “And that explains why I never could detect Corner Shot as the third Scion even though she had limited dark magic channeling herself - quite significant, given she’s a pegasus.”

“And what about the fourth?” asked Lockbox, concerned. “I honestly hope they never surface for obvious reasons, but it just seems weird that the three Scions - you, me, and Corner - all pop up on the scene within a few weeks of each other, but the fourth never shows.”

“That’s what I’m worried about - something’s off. We’re missing something but this coronation business is just taking up so much attention that without any solid leads to whom could be another Sombra descendant, we just can’t spare the resources to go on a wild goose chase. Once Sunset is crowned and her family goes home, then I can put something together. As it stands, we just have to hope nothing goes wrong. Equestria really needs this to go smoothly.”

From this high up, Fluttershy mused, she could see practically the whole of the central part of Equestria. She gave a whimsical smile that would have made her father proud: for all his tales of his tours and travels around the world, he’d never been to another reality before, much less spent extensive time with the royalty and nobility of said place.

She then frowned, recalling the brief mental trauma she had when coming across her father’s bizarre counterpart – and the unbridled chaos that went with that. Her own counterpart had assured her she’d talked with that Discord and that wouldn’t happen again, nor would Fluttershy’s father remember what happened, but…

She turned back from her view, spoiled by her memories. Besides, she was being counted on right now for something else, and she had to focus on that right now. It sucked, but nominally, she was the adult here.

Well, as far as normal humans are concerned, she mused.

She looked at the others in the room. Twilight, as seemed to be the norm over the past day, was ready to pounce on anything that could be a literal or metaphorical threat to her sister. To a lesser degree, so was Aria, though thankfully she wasn’t currently armed. Rounding out the quintet in the room was Rarity, drinking from a cup of tea and looking completely composed, though Fluttershy had known her friend long enough to see the worry in her eyes.

She took a breath, then looked at the owner of the room, as well as the purpose for which they were all present. “Look, Sunny….”

Seated across from her, the look on her face unreadable, Sunset shook her head. “No. We’re not going through this. Not now, especially when we have to get ready in a couple of hours for this. I’ve already been through the emotional roller coaster over the past day and I would really not like to go through it again, Flutters.”

“This isn’t an intervention.”

“Look, I just….” Sunset fell unnaturally quiet and contemplative, staring into space with the uncomfortable thousand-yard stare.

“Do we have to do this now?” Twilight asked them all. “We have probably one of the most important events in our lives about to happen in a few minutes and it’s gotta be even more stressful for her!”

Aria went and patted her cousin on the shoulder. “Twily...take it from me. This is just going to fester if we don’t resolve it, okay? Do you remember the time in Eighth Grade when I accidentally broke your science experiment and I didn’t want to admit it and I let it fester to the point that I was feeling more guilt than I actually should have if I’d just come clean?”

“Yeah, and you weren’t happy about when Dad grounded you for not fessing up earlier,” Twilight admitted.

Sunset blinked. “Sounds like I missed some really interesting times in your lives.”

“Stop sidetracking,” Aria and Twilight said to her at the same time.

“Girls, I don’t think that’s quite helping,” Rarity admonished.

“Rares, when have I ever been the touchy-feely type?” Aria asked in return.

“Not the point, dear,” Rarity stated. “Besides, if you weren’t, you wouldn’t be here, would you?”

“Well, Sunny’s family,” Aria defended. In response, Rarity gave a self-satisfied smirk, and the pigtailed girl rolled her eyes in response.

That done, Rarity turned her attention back to Sunset. “Sunset, dear, I understand what you’re going through, I truly do. But it’s clear that––”

“Is it?” Sunset asked. “I mean, I’ve never had these feelings about anyone my own gender before. It’s not like I’ve repressed them or anything; I mean, I’ve been hit on by tons of other girls before, and I could have easily had my way with any of them back when I was as, ahem, ‘well-behaved’ as Flash––”

“Let’s not go there, sis,” Twilight pled.

Sunset nodded. “But my point is, up to just a few weeks back, things were perfectly normal between me and Pinkie. And now? I just don’t know. I really don’t know anymore.”

“Sunny, I told you before, there’s no shame in being a carpet muncher or a switch hitter,” Aria commented. “But being a cocktease to her is just bullshit, okay?”

Nice peptalk,” Twilight drolled.

“I’ll be sure to buy her a Hallmark card later, Twily.”

“I think what Aria was – rather inelegantly – trying to say is that things between Pinkie and yourself were anything but normal before this,” Rarity said, looking at Sunset seriously, but not unkindly. “In a way, I suppose I am just as much to blame for how things turned out between you two. I saw how one-sided your blooming relationship was, but decided not to intervene because I believed true love would prevail. Perhaps I still have a bit more growing to do than I thought.”

Rarity then went to her friend and took her hands in hers. “Regardless of that, Sunset...I think it’s fair to say that no matter what, we have your back. We are your friends, and we will support you. It may be pleasure, it may be pain. But we won’t let you suffer alone.”

The look in Sunset’s eyes was bleak. “It’s not me I’m worried about.”

Meanwhile, in another room, Rainbow Dash was about to lose her mind. “I hate this shit, you know? I mean, I got both your backs, but you’re both acting so terarded!”

Sonata rolled her eyes and counted off her fingers. “First, Rainbow, the word is retarded, not terarded. Secondly, that’s kinda offensive, you know. And third, that’s not helping in the least, okay?”

The athlete huffed and blew her bangs out of her eyes. “Yeah, whatevs.”

“Wow, and Ah thought Ah was gonna be the most obstinate person here,” Applejack commented. “But if you’re just gonna be an ass, Rainbow, don’t help, okay?”

“Oh, blow it out your ass, AJ.” That earned a glare from Applejack.

“Enough, both of you! We’re not here to solve your issues,” Octavia told them. She then turned to Adagio. “Dagi, if they do this shit again, toss them both out on their asses.”

“Can I pretend they’re both Razzbitchy Bitchyl?” she said with a tone of slight glee.

“Dagi, not now, okay?”

Seated on the bed, hugging a pillow like a lifeline and looking like a million miles of bad road, Pinkie looked at her friends. “Please, don’t do this. Not now.”

Adagio, Applejack and Rainbow quickly blurted hasty apologies and quickly shut up.

“Soni? Could you go get me another tub of that Marzipan Mascarpone Meringue Madness ice cream that the kitchens have?” Pinkie asked.

In response, Sonata pointed to the six demolished tubs of ice cream that sat by the trash can on the other side of the room. “Fuck no! I’m not even going to ask where the hell you’re putting it all! Plus, the kitchen staff is already complaining that you ate the remaining weekly stock of chocolate and fudge ripple ice cream – I’m brave enough to face being outgunned, but not enough to face the head chef!”

“I figured if I ate enough, I could put myself in a coma and not have to go to this thing. I...I don’t want to be a further embarrassment for Sunny.”

“You’re not an embarrassment,” Octavia assured her. “Hell, look who she keeps company with,” the musician said, gesturing to the others around the room.

“Really funny, Tavi,” Rainbow grunted.

Octavia ignored her and instead hugged Pinkie. “Do you really think she thinks that about you?”

“I...I don’t know. I just think that maybe it would be better if I didn’t go.”

Sonata looked at Pinkie. “Pinkie, if you don’t go, I don’t think it would hurt Sunny...but I’ll tell you this much: I’ll be disappointed in you.” Pinkie looked up as if she’d been slapped, and the youngest triplet noted she got her friend’s attention. “Pinkie, you say that you love Sunny. I don’t know a damn thing about relationships at all, but seeing my aunt and uncle? They’ve always supported each other whether good or bad. That’s what someone who really loves another does. Even if it hurts, you’re supposed to be there for them.”

“I just...I’m already clearly a horrible girlfriend and maybe she’d be better off with Rose….” Pinkie murmured.

“Do you really believe that?” Adagio asked her.

“Yes. I mean, no! I….” Pinkie blinked away tears that were starting to form in her eyes. “I...I just don’t know anymore. I know that I’m tied to her forever now. But that doesn’t mean that we’ll be together.”

Before Octavia could say anything else, there was a knock at the door, and in came a group of Hooves. “Forgive me, ladies,” the apparently senior one stated, “but it is time to prepare for dressing for the occasion. We have others out there awaiting to see you to your rooms to assist you in preparations.”

“Well, I guess that’s that,” Octavia said, rising from the bed. “I think we all need to get ready.”

“Yeah,” Adagio agreed. “We’ll save you a spot, Pinkie.” With that, the others filed out of the room, with the lone exception of Rainbow.

Pinkie knew the athlete still had something to say. “Yes?” she asked.

Rainbow paused for a second, as if to really think her words through. “I know this is going to sound odd, coming from me, but...whether or not Sunny wants you? Right now, she needs you. And speaking for myself? If I were ever in the situation that you and she are, I would want Soarin’ there when I needed him the most. She might not be the best at admitting it, but I think if you were to ask her? She would admit she needs you there, too.”

Taking a drink from her tea, Velvet sat in Princess Celestia’s room as the parents talked. “You know, I remember when Shiny was going through this in his high school years. I was so sure that by the time he and Cady figured out how they felt about each other, I’d be able to dispense parental wisdom with the best of them. And now, seeing Sunny go through all this?” She groaned. “This is just a hell of a mess.”

“And here I thought Tavi or Dagi would be the ones with the social problems,” Night commented sardonically.

“Don’t remind me about that,” Velvet growled. “It’s bad enough that I feel like my degree is worthless nowadays, but I don’t need to add parental inadequacy to that.”

“You’re not the only one that feels that way,” the alicorn reminded her. “That’s a road I’ve well traveled myself. And in any case, I would think we would be best served by discussing what our daughter has in mind for her future.”

“For her immediate future, or further off?” Velvet asked. “I mean, parental issues aside, I believe Sunset’s personal life is hers, so long as it doesn’t result in anyone being hurt. And as for college, as much as she’s improved her grades, she’s not going to be headed off to an Ivy League college anytime soon.”

“Well, I might be biased, but I think she’ll be able to get into Canterlot State,” Night said with a slight grin. “Besides, I think they’d be more than happy to have the daughter of their most valued professor attend.”

“Well, she already has a slot available for her at Royal Canterlot University,” Celestia commented. “She and I parted ways before she could attend, but I’ve had a slot remain open for her – for all my students ever since I founded the university five hundred years ago.” She took a second sip from her cup, and then stated, “But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the growing ties between Sunset and her Swordbearer.”

“Swordbearer?” Velvet asked. “When I went to speak to Pinkie earlier, she mentioned that term, but I’d written it off as some teenager thing.”

“It’s far from that,” Celestia stated, then launching into a full explanation of what a Swordbearer was and what it portended, the fates of the lost Swordbearers and the status of the sole known one.

When she was done, Velvet and Night looked at each other with brief horror before turning back to their fellow parent. “And you’re saying Pinkie doesn’t have a say in this?”

“I wish I could spare her this, just as I wished I could spare Shining his fate. When Twilight’s Swordbearer appears, I will likely want the same for her or him as well – and I know that will be just as futile. And I need not tell you how my sister feels about her lost fiancé, or my own lost Swordbearer, who was like a father to me. As for my mother’s own, we’re not even sure if The Megan was real, and my mother was never forthcoming about that.”

Night’s face was ashen. “I...I wouldn’t even know what to tell Carrot and Cup about this. We’ve struggled on whether we can even tell them everything, given how close Pinkie and Sunset were before all this. And from the last time I talked to them, they’re still dealing with Pinkie’s personal revelations to her. This...this would just break them.”

“Nonetheless, from what I gather, her power was already growing substantially as a result of her status as a human Element Bearer, and now, as a Swordbearer...she may as well be the closest thing you humans have to an alicorn.” The solar alicorn paused for thought, then added, “Of course, that still doesn’t mean that she’s not capable of the typical foibles and mistakes others make. After all, she is only pony. Er, human, sorry.

“Ultimately, we will need to be there for both of them. I don’t know how much my duties here will allow me to cross over to your world and help, but I will always make myself available when I can. I love my child too much to do otherwise, and I would be remiss if I didn’t have concerns about Miss Pie as well.”

There was a knock at the door, and one of the pages came in. “Your Majesty, it is time to prepare for the event.”

“Thank you,” she said. “Please have the Hooves come in.” Looking at her fellow parents, she said, “This will be the most important time for me and a moment I never thought I would experience. So, please forgive me if I get a little misty-eyed today.”

“All things considered, you love Sunny as much as we do,” Night told her, “and she is your daughter as much as she is ours. So I’d be surprised if you didn’t.”

“I know I will,” Velvet said, and her smile was enough to set Celestia at ease. She never would have expected to have co-parental duties with any others, much less beings of another species from another reality. But looking at Sunset’s human parents, the alicorn knew she couldn’t see it any other way now.

Taking in a deep breath, Octavia allowed herself to relax in the chair as the pair of Hooves worked delicately on styling her hair. She watched them work in the reflection of the mirror, wondering whether this sort of pampering was going to become a regular part of her life, assuming her music career was going to take off as much as everyone seemed to think.

The thought was a welcome distraction from… well, everything that was going on of late. Her cousin Sunset was being coronated. Her circle of friends were fracturing at the seams with everyone seeming to have a different position on the incident between Sunset and Pinkie. And that wasn’t even getting into any of her own issues. Like, for instance, what I’m going to say to Blueblood when we inevitably meet at this coronation.

“Your mane has gotten quite long on the sides, milady,” one of the Hooves tending to her said. “Would you mind if we trimmed it a little?”

“Not at all,” Octavia said, closing her eyes and taking another deep breath as she listened to the snip snip of the Hooves going about their work.

I’m just not going to worry about it, Octavia decided then. I’m going to endure this long, stressful day for Sunset’s sake and then we’re all going to go back home where there will be a return to some modicum of normalcy.

Snip snip.

Of course, nothing was truly normal anymore. Not after everything they’d all been through. Still, Octavia would be damned if she let the insanity of their lives keep her from enjoying it to the best of her abilities.

Snip snip.

Maybe she’d talk to Lyra when they went back home. It would be good to have a proper jam session with Lyra, Fluttershy and herself. No stress or worrying about the future. Just good music and good friends.

Snip.





Snip.








Snip.








Something wasn’t right. The Hooves working on her hair no longer seemed to be cutting it. They were just… snipping their scissors in place. Slowly, almost melodically….

Octavia’s eyes shot open, and the pair of Hooves who had been styling her hair were gone. In their place was… herself. Only it wasn’t really her; every one of her features was just… off. The smile was hers, but it was too wide. The eyes were hers, but they were wild and full of hate. Her doppleganger was holding the scissors in her hands, idly opening and closing them. Snip… snip.

“Long time, huh Tavi?” Melody said as she opened the scissors and brought them around to her throat.

Octavia screamed, leaping out of the chair in blind terror. The open scissors missed her throat, but Octavia felt them slice along her cheek and into her right ear. Octavia threw her back into the make-up mirror, pressing up against the wall as she instinctively tried to keep the chair she’d just been sitting in between her and the smirking Melody.

“You’re not real…” Octavia muttered feverishly to herself. “You’re not real.”

Melody merely held up the scissors in her hand, the blade dripping with some of Octavia’s blood. Octavia reached up to where she’d been cut and hissed in pain. Sure enough, there was blood on her fingers when she pulled them away.

“Seems pretty real to me,” Melody said, bringing the scissors to her mouth and slowly, sensually, licking away the blood.

Octavia bolted for the door. She didn’t even see whether Melody had moved to intercept her. Either way, Octavia made it and threw the door open. She sprinted down the hall as fast as she could, screaming as loud as she could.

GUARDS! HELP! THERE’S A MANIAC IN THE CASTLE!

Octavia reached the end of the hallway without seeing anyone, and turned the corner. The next hallway was just as empty. Octavia called out for help again, but received no answer. I’m alone, Octavia realized. Except that wasn’t strictly true.

Snip snip.

The sound seemed to come from down the hallway where she came from, so Octavia kept running forward. She quickly looked inside every room she passed, hoping to find someone, anyone to help her.

Eventually, Octavia reached the ballroom where the coronation reception was to be held. There was not a living soul inside.

Snip snip. Snip snip.

The sound was getting faster now, and Octavia couldn’t tell whether it was coming from behind her or in front of her this time.

I’ve gotta get outside, Octavia realized as the snips grew ever more frantic. So Octavia exited through the far door of the ballroom, once again running through a maze of empty hallways and corridors. But something didn’t add up. None of the halls Octavia was running through matched what she remembered of the castle’s layout. Was it… changing?

Snip snip snip snip snip snip snip snip snip.

Looking over her shoulder, Octavia saw Melody down the hallway in the distance, scissors in hand, loping towards her like a rabid animal. Tears streaming down her face now, Octavia could do nothing but continue to run through the maze of endless, identical corridors and hallways with no exit in sight.

You can’t get out, you know! Melody’s voice wasn’t coming from behind her, but within her. Where do you think we are right now?

Octavia rounded a corner and saw Melody waiting for her at the other end of it, her bloody hair hanging limply in front of her face.

“Let me out, please!” Octavia begged.

No. It’s your turn to feel what’s it’s like to be trapped while a complete stranger gets to use what’s rightfully yours!” Melody intoned. Octavia caught a glimpse of something lying in a heap on the floor just behind the psycho. It looked like a slab of meat from a butcher’s shop left bleeding on the floor. Then Octavia saw the red and yellow hair and wailed.

“Milady?”

The voice was distant, but it wasn’t Melody, so Octavia clung to it like a life preserver.

“Milady? Can you hear me?”


Octavia opened her eyes and found herself lying on the floor of the dressing room. The pair of Hooves who had been styling her hair were standing over her, looking at her with concern in their eyes.

“There you are! Milady, are you alright?”

“Wha… what happened?” Octavia asked, dazed.

“Not quite sure,” the Hoof who was primarily speaking to her answered. “One moment we were styling your hair, and the next you suddenly jumped out of your seat, screaming before you passed out.”

“Oh God…” Octavia whimpered, feeling fresh tears coming whether she wanted them to or not.

“Do you mind my asking: what exactly made you react like that? Is it something we did?”

Octavia wasn’t sure what she was going to tell these ponies. Dammit, just when I thought I’d been making progress with my damn disorder!

“I think I know what happened,” the Hoof who had been quiet up to this point said. “I know a traumatic flashback when I see one. You’re the human who was nearly whisked away by that kitsune prince, aren’t you?”

Octavia decided to take that ball and run with it. “Yes, I am. Guess I still haven’t quite recovered from that one.”

The Hoof put a sympathetic foreleg over her shoulder. “Poor thing, that must have been terrible. But you’re safe now. You know that, right?”

No.

“Yes.”

The Hoof gave her an encouraging smile. “Alright, then. I’ll summon a doctor for you.”

“No, it’s okay. I’m fine, really.” Another useless pony psychiatrist was the last thing she needed right now.

“But you’re bleeding.”

Octavia reached up and touched the right side of her face gently. A stinging sensation made her wince, and she pulled her hand a way to see a few drops of blood on her fingers. Octavia went pale. No… it can’t be… she can’t be….

“I… may have accidentally cut you with the scissors when you suddenly jumped up,” the first Hoof said, rubbing her neck sheepishly. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. Wasn’t your fault,” Octavia replied.

“Well, let’s get you cleaned up. There should be a first aid kit around here somewhere,” the other Hoof said as she made her way to the other side of the room and started rummaging around. “Then we need to get back to doing your mane. Wouldn’t want you to be late for your cousin’s coronation, after all!”

“Yes, can’t have that,” Octavia said, absentmindedly touching her cheek around where she’d been cut.

Now that the adrenaline was starting to wear off, Octavia could feel the sting of her wound far more sharply than she had a moment ago. The damn thing itched like a mother, and it was all Octavia could do not to scratch at the wound as the itching spread.

Snip snip.

Octavia looked up to see the Hoof who had been cutting her hair, still holding the scissors and absentmindedly giving them a few snips. The two of them locked eyes, and the Hoof had a mind to look thoroughly embarrassed.

“I don’t think I’ll be wanting my hair trimmed, after all,” Octavia said.

The Hoof smiled awkwardly and said, “Yeah, that’s fair.”

Chapter 6 - The Coronation of Princess Sunset Shimmer

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GAOA Book 3 Chapter 6

The Coronation of Princess Sunset Shimmer

While ponies were still talking about the disturbing “Hash of Humans” that had occurred that morning, they gradually had already begun putting it behind them as the hour drew closer to the coronation. Already ponies and other species of all kinds were pouring into the parade grounds to fill the stands. Some visiting dignitaries already had taken their seats in the reserved boxes even though the ceremony itself wasn’t due to start for another few hours.

As she looked over the capital city of this still quite alien world, seeing the alien equines congregate down the city streets to the parade grounds, Celestia couldn’t help but wonder if this had been how her ancestors felt. She was descended from Italian nobility, but the closest she’d ever come to having this kind of sensation was her first day as Canterlot High’s principal and watching all the students come into the auditorium for the first day speech.

“Man, if only we could tell our families about this,” said Luna, who had opted to come visit her sister in the hours leading up to the reason they’d journeyed quite literally across time and space. Sable was off doing drills with the SIRENs in preparation for the big event so it was just the two sisters once more.

“Heh, yeah. Imagine what Mama would say if she even had an inkling of where we were now. She’d probably say we’d drunk too much wine.”

“I mean, how long did it take Sable to come around? We are in a land straight out of a fairytale book for children, where not only do a ton of different civilized species exist, but our own counterparts are literally goddesses whose eternal youth makes our own looks like we got hefty plastic surgery bills.”

“You ever wonder if there’s some kind of greater purpose to all this?”

The non-sequitur question caught Luna off guard. “What do you mean, Tia?”

“Isn’t it strange how between our social and familial connections in both our own world and of this, we generally seem to have the same relationships? The translation between worlds isn’t perfect, but even discounting how Sunset plays into all this – which is not a minor thing – me, the human Celestia, is in a position of authority, while my counterpart is literally one of the most powerful beings on this planet. As is you and yours, Luna.”

“And yet if I recall what I heard correctly, your boyfriend’s counterpart was an infamous terrorist who lived a thousand or so years ago and had no love for the local Celestia.”

“There has to be some irony in how that worked out.” Celestia shook her head in mock disbelief. “Still, it makes me wonder if we’re going to be ready for what comes next. I remember telling you that Sunset was nothing but a trouble magnet the first year she went to CHS, and while obviously the context has changed as have our opinions, I fear that statement is still true.”

“Are you talking about that whole affair when those mercenaries attacked Sunset’s house a few weeks ago?”

“Yes, that’s exactly what I’m talking about – in the old timeline, when Sable had nothing to do with Sunset’s military cousins, we all got attacked simply because I resembled Solaire, who happened to be the human Sunset’s mother. And now we are privy to a falsehood on an international scale, all to protect Sunset. And now that Sunset has become obscenely powerful... – I’d honestly be scared out of my wits to think that a girl like her with that kind of power at her fingertips was around if it wasn’t for the fact she did reform and ultimately become worthy of being royalty.”

“Is there anything we can really do about it, though?” said Luna, “All we can do is protect her the best we can – admittedly now more me than you since I’m the principal of CHS.”

“If you were to tell me a little over a year ago that the terror of CHS would not only become one of our most treasured students, but straight up a beloved family member we would visit an alien world simply to be there for, I would have called you crazy.” Celestia then turned and walked over to the bed where she’d laid out the beautiful gown that had been made for her by both human and pony Rarity. It has been specifically designed so the human Celestia wouldn’t look like she was trying to copy the princess given their hair colors were identical. “Anyway, we’d best start getting dressed.”

Nestled down the street from Nobility House, the 2862 Club was possibly one of the ritziest and most exclusive lounge establishments in all of Equus. Being the domain of the nobility – by tradition, none of the royal ponies could venture into its spaces, as to allow the nobles a chance to talk freely without having to worry about upsetting the princesses – the waiting list had a waiting list: were a pony to put their name on the list, it was likely that the honor of being let into the Club would fall to their grandfoals. Only the ponies that everypony simply absolutely had to know if they were anypony were among its clientele, and to even be a part of a member’s entourage, to be allowed in as a guest was a privilege beyond words.

And on the day of Sunset’s coronation, it was largely sparse save for a small group of ponies who wanted absolutely nothing to do with the orgy of commoners that was being gathered at the grand arena to hold the lot.

“This whole ‘coronation’ is a farce,” groaned Riven Oak, drinking from a brandy snifter and relaxing in a lounge chair made of the finest starspider silk. Even though he’d been discharged with a full bill of health from the hospital following him passing out cold from that...illusion...that the undeserving princess-to-be pulled and somehow fooled the majority of the idiotic commoners, he certainly didn’t feel all that great. “I have no doubt Celestia had Sunset sent away purely so she could trot out her orphaned whelp as a precipice of distraction from the fact this country is still aching from Tirek running roughshod over it!”

“Indeed,” agreed Diamond Life, one of the newer socialites to join the Canterlot scene. Technically, her mother, Diamond Amore, had the actual membership, but the staff at the Club knew better than to get into an argument with somepony as powerful as that so they let her daugher have full access. She had grace and beauty finer than any fashion runway model, but her personality was anything but. “These dirty humans are just attention whores of the worst kind – one of them’s even passing off some sad excuse for music down at that two-bit instrument stand! It’s bad enough that the little runt Celestia ran off for five years is back in town going ‘Look at me, my wings are so pretty!’ but with inequine beasts in tow? Why, they’re taking all the attention away from ponies who deserve it!”

“Like you?” drolled Oak.

“Yes, because I am worthy of attention!”

“Hrmph!” harrumphed the younger mare sitting next to Riven Oak, apparently disinterested in virtually everything except the sasparilla pina colada in which she only slightly less disinterestedly sipped from. “You want to talk about undue attention? Prince Blueblood has the attention of virtually every mare in the city when everypony damn well knows he’s mine – he’s just playing hard to get!” She slammed the glass down on the counter, cracking it. “Even that harridelle he grew up with should know better than to try to present for him!”

Riven Oak diplomatically chose to handle the comment from his daughter Heatherfield the same way he always handled it: by ignoring her. “It’s bad enough so much is being spent on this ridiculous celebration for a pony who hasn’t been relevant for the past five years, but she’s getting all the trimmings of a pony of high station when it’s been made clear she isn’t even going to live with pony kind again! She’s chosen the hyo-mahns over her own native species! The traitor!”

“Well, she’s being given a worthless title, isn’t she?” observed Diamond. “I mean, Westphalia is largely condemned to the history books, I honestly couldn’t tell you what part of the country it used to be in.”

“You couldn’t tell me where Percheron is,” Oak retorted. “I’m frankly surprised you know where Canterlot is.”

“Yes, but my calling in life is to be beautiful and envied by others, not a filthy geographer.”

“Whatever. But the fact Sunset is being made Princess means that the Barony of Westphalia – which contains significant portions of my land – is going to humans! Can you believe it? All this warring and protection from other species, only to just hoof it over to a bunch of furless, tailless monkeys who have never had anything to do with our society and if there is any justice left anywhere, never will!”

“If there was any justice in this world, Blueblood would already be mine!” continued Heatherfield, completely oblivious to whatever her father and the other well-to-do pony were blabbing about. “I almost had him at that party following Sunset’s stupid little speech, but then when I found myself the next morning with no Blueblood but instead a–”

“That’s nice, dear,” Riven Oak said dismissively .

Just then, another pony entered and sat down at the table. “Glad to see there are still some ponies who know better than to bow to that anorexic winged unicorn’s wishes.”

“Ah, Brass Shock, good to see you’re still out and about.”

“Yes, old friend, I needed to get out of my business and somewhere where I could relax.” He plopped into the seat across from Oak and poured himself a brandy as well. “My business has been threatened, and it stands on the verge of ruin now!”

“How so? You’re one of the ponies whose companies produce the weapons that are vital for the military to protect the land! After the war with Tirek, you’ve been instrumental in rearming not only us, but the kitsunes and the yaks as well!”

Shock crushed his glass in his magical grasp, the brandy spraying everywhere. “And none of that matters anymore! And do you know why? Those damn humans and their weapons – the military have been fawning all over them, with the exception of sensible ponies like Adm. Tumblehome!”

Oak nodded at the sage wisdom. “Ah, yes – I’ve met the good admiral. It’s a good thing to know we still have sensible ponies in charge where we need them. But please, continue.”

Shock’s eyes narrowed. “Ever since those ‘SIRENs’ – what the hell is a ‘Special Initiative’, anyway? – showed up with their inequine weapons, the military has been telling me they want those, or else they’ll have to see about having that human admiral procure them.”

“A human as a flag officer?” Oak gasped. “We already have enough issues with zebras and griffins in our military, and now we’re letting monsters into our midst?”

“Oh, you haven’t heard the rest, I presume. Many of our best mares in barding are willingly being turned into humans! Hell, there was that little stunt they pulled this morning, scaring the wits out of countless innocent ponies in a sad parody of the Military Gallop!” Shock then leaned in, as if conspiratorially. “It wasn’t enough to take hardworking ponies and whatever other species serve our country and turn them into humans, but they completely besmirched the dignity and honor of our realm’s fighting forces! Have we completely sold out to these human monsters, completely ignoring the legends of yore?“

“Oh, how dare you question the wisdom of Celestia,” Oak replied in a mocking tone. “How wise it is to fawn over her alleged daughter by giving her and her human entourage whatever they want?”

“Indeed,” Shock laughed, summoning another glass. “How dare I think of the good of Equestria and its ponies rather than throwing a tantrum, blowing up a mountain and then plunging the world into an unnatural winter because of my supposed runaway child. I guess I must not have proper perspective that wings and a horn provides.”

The two clinked their glasses and were about to comment further when a pair of ponies came in, a husband and wife. “Please, can anypony spare a glass of champagne? I fear it will be the last before we are ruined by the damnable alicorns and their need to ‘change the world’.”

“Indeed,” the mare added. “Perhaps it is not Tirek we should fear, but those who are reputedly our, ahem, ‘benevolent rulers’.”

Typically, nopony present – or anypony at all, really – ever paid much attention to Baron Wormwood and his wife, Baroness Chamfered Joist. They were small potatoes in the scheme of things and were only members of the Club because the baron’s company had done refurbishment of the premises free of charge. But as of recent, perhaps even what they had to say made more sense than originally thought.

“Something on your mind, Wormwood?” Shock asked.

“Yes. A little pain in the plot known as Princess Twilight Sparkle,” Wormwood grunted as he made his way to the champagne bar, pouring himself a large flute. “It seems that engineers working for that dolt Mayor Mare found...irregularities...in the recent apartment complexes I’ve built in Ponyville. And when she demanded that I fix them, I told her that with the cost of the construction materials, she’s lucky that I’m building them at all, since it would be far more lucrative to build in places like Manehattan or Baltimare! And do you know what her response to that was?”

“No, but I suppose you’ll tell us,” Oak drolled.

“Damn right I will! She got that simpering little bookworm of an alicorn – Princess Twilight – to demand that I make all repairs to the buildings and then check all my buildings nationally to ensure they are up to safety or else she will institute a board review of my business! And then to top things off, she put that snivelling plothole Fancy Pants in charge of the inspection! My biggest business rival! What is she trying to do, ruin me?”

“Well, you know that brown noser and his wife have been friends of the royal family for years,” Joist commented. “It wouldn’t surprise me if Pants’ wife gave ‘special favors’ to some of the royal stallions.” She drained her glass, adding, “Everypony knows that Fleur dis Lee is nothing but an open stifle anyway.”

“Yeah! She’s even tried to get with my Blueblood!” Heatherfield cried, though none paid attention to that.

“Well, perhaps it’s not my place to say,” Oak commented as he looked at his brandy glass, “but maybe our dear friend Highfalutin’ has the right of it. She may be technically part of the royal family, but she’s always had our best interests in mind, you know. She’s been complaining for years that just to get by, we’ve been practically forced to kiss the collective ass of the royals!” –

Joist nodded. “Yes, I’ve spoken to her myself. She admits that even though they are her family, the truth is that in her opinion, the alicorns should have been deposed after Celestia nearly killed us all in her melancholy. She even stated that this whole bit about Sunset Shimmer’s ‘secret mission’ wasn’t just so she could be forgiven for betraying Equestria and forging ties with those horrible humans.”


“You don’t even know the half of it,” Shock commented. “Halberd and his fellow senior military officers are completely fawning over how those SIRENs unleashed some kind of new weapon technology and laid waste to some griffin mercenaries.”

“Mercenaries? In Canterlot?” Wormwood asked.

“That’s what the news is calling them,” Shock replied. “In truth, they were likely just a diplomatic group dispatched from that wreckage of a kingdom that the griffins call home and were trying to insist that runaway griffoness simply return to that shithole – excuse me, homeland of hers – where she belongs.” He swirled the brandy in his glass and then added, “Instead, those human barbarians ‘saved’ her with their horrifying weapons and then, from what I understand, Celestia appointed that griffin as Sunset’s Seneschal!”

“You mean the catbird is going to the human world?” Diamond snorted in amusement. “That’s the best damn news I’ve heard all day! One less catbird clogging up our city the better.”

“Don’t be a fool,” Joist noted. “While she might be getting out of Equestria and going to live with a different sort of trash – humans instead of her own kind – it still means she will wield considerable but undue influence in the halls of the palace. It’s just that she won’t be hiding under Princess Twilight’s tail instead.”

Oak scoffed. “There was a time when I had such high hopes for that filly. She had everything going for her – noble unicorn birth, her parents are extremely well respected by the commoners, and the understudy of the princess such that she almost was an acceptable choice for succession. But then Celestia sent her to goddamn Ponyville with the mudponies and feather dusters for ‘friendship’. While, yes, it led to Equestria being saved a couple times, then she became an alicorn and a princess and who knows what do-gooder mess she’ll do now?”

“She’s already doing it!” Wormwood argued. “She’s destroying my business without knowing a damn thing about how the real world works! She may as well hoof all my life’s work over to Fancy Pants in return for getting some time in bed with his wife!”

“Not if we can help it.” Shock took a drink, then smiled. “Once this business with Sunset is over, I propose we discuss things with Princess Highfalutin’. Perhaps it’s time that we spoke to a royal who cares about the true future of this nation instead of turning it into some nonsensical farce.”

As the hour of ascension drew ever nearer, the stands seemed to inexplicably continue to fill with ponies and creatures of all kinds. But for a select few, the personal entourage of Sunset, they were waiting in a private box seat until they were later to be brought down to the VIP seating at the edge of the stage.

“Part of me is in awe at being at the heart and center of such a grand occasion,” said Rarity, “but at the same time, I can’t be the only one who is thinking this feels like a bigger school assembly we would have back at CHS?”

“You mean a bunch of individuals gathered in one place to listen to a speech from Celestia?” replied Fluttershy, “I guess it is funny that in a way that’s what it boils down to.”

“I hope this is quick,” quipped Rainbow, “I do not do dresses.”

“You will for Sunset’s sake,” chided Applejack, who admittedly didn’t seem to be all that enthused about wearing something so elaborately fancy herself.

“Well, yeah, for her I’d do anything,” Rainbow said. Applejack’s eyebrow raised mischievously in response, to which Rainbow angrily snapped back, “Oh, come on, don’t you dare go there!”

“Ah don’t have to,” Applejack said with a grin. “But you’ll have to explain that one to Pinkie.”

“Oh, fuck you, AJ.”

“Hey, not mah problem you’re offering everyone your feminine charms, Rainbow.”

As the two bickered, Twilight giggled at the amusing scene. Sometimes it was hard to believe Dash and AJ got along so well, but the two were as thick as thieves. Which was something Twilight would have used to describe the relationship between herself and Octavia, at least normally, but strangely, Octavia seemed to be withdrawn.

“Is everything okay, Tavi?” asked Twilight.

“Uh, yeah, yes, everything is fine,” said Tavi, in a tone that suggested that wasn’t entirely true.

“Tavi, you know I can tell when you aren’t even trying to hide something is wrong.”

“I just don’t want to talk about it, okay, Twilight?” Nothing established seriousness more then for Octavia to use Twilight’s full name instead of her shorter nickname.

However, any further discussion was cut off by the sound of Rarity squealing in anguish. Instinctively, all present members of the “Majestic Twelve” turned to look at their Rarity.

“That wasn’t me,” said Rarity. Which in their collective minds, everybody realized that it was the other Rarity. And sure enough, as they turned to look down the aisle, they saw their pony counterparts coming. But specifically, they saw pony Rarity freaking out because for whatever reason, Pinkie had chosen to wear the same outfit she had worn at Sunset’s coronation ball, this time with the addition of a princely rapier. And while that would be more than acceptable under different circumstances, as of now, the fashionista was having none of it.

“You can’t wear that!” she squealed in frustration. “Both myself and my counterpart worked to make sure everypony was wearing matching ensembles and I would think especially after what happened in that thing, you’d never want to wear it again!” The rest of the ponies didn’t say anything but had looks on their faces suggesting they thought the same thing, except pony Pinkie who seemed to have some undeterminable opinion on the matter.

「くそ....」 swore human Fluttershy, facepalming. Human Rarity was absolutely mortified and looking like she would rather die than have that outfit ever be seen in public again.

“I’m sorry, Rarity,” said human Pinkie, “but this is basically formal attire of my station. I am Sunset’s Swordbearer and-”

“I FORBID IT!” the pony shrieked, “Swordbearer or not, I will not allow this crime against fabulosity go unanswered! You need to change right now!”

“I’ll handle it,” said pony Pinkie who then promptly vanished, having run off impossibly fast as she was wont to do, before instantly reappearing and having changed out of her intended outfit for a pony version of human Pinkie’s outfit. “I always have hidden clothing stockpiles in case of dress emergencies – granted I rarely use them since you tend to take care of them first, Rarity.”

The pony immediately passed out from the sheer force of unbelievability of the situation.

Just then, the blaring of trumpets sounded out, announcing that the coronation, was, in fact about to begin.

“Ah got her,” said pony Applejack, who managed to haul the passed out Rarity onto her back. “C’mon, we gotta get ready.” She cautiously avoided making eye contact with her human self, though, as she still hadn’t quite forgiven herself for how she’d treated the human earlier that week.

If the royal wedding had been an event to absolutely not miss and Twilight Sparkle’s coronation a once-in-a-lifetime spectacular, then Sunset Shimmer’s looked to be the event myths and legends were written about. Everywhere a being could look, the decor was festooned with crimson and gold decorations, the proud imagery of an eclipsed sun cutie mark placed all around. Sure, the usual national imagery like the Equestrian National Flag and the sun-and-moon iconography of the dual monarchy were present as well, but it was no mistake that Sunset was front and center.

The stands were absolutely packed, and the clouds around the parade grounds would have been as well had it not been forbidden due to security concerns...as well as Tumblehome desperately trying to apply whatever clout was still recognized (in her mind’s eye) to ensure that at least one of the naval airships she’d been allowed by Luna to have in the air could rain cannon fire down if the situation required it.

Within the parade grounds themselves, it was as if the world itself was a stage, with only part of the back of the stands blocked off simply so ponies wouldn’t be staring at the backs of the royal ponies taking the stage. The rest of the stands were packed virtually to standing room only capacity, from the nosebleed sections to the orchestra sections in front – only a wide path running from the offset center stage down the middle to the back of the parade ground stands was clear, with additional, thinner paths running perpendicular purely for ease of movement so the manager of escorts could exit stage left or stage right instead of interrupting the coronation itself. Any other remaining empty space was reserved seating for those who would be participating in the ceremony itself.

The trumpets continued blaring, making sure that absolutely everypony knew what was going on, and with a final triumphant note, the trumpets ceased. At the head of the orchestral section, Octavia Melody took to her podium and with her conductor’s wand firmly in hoof, tapped the podium and began the motions for her legion of musical equines to begin playing.

On cue, they began to play the national anthem of Canterlot, as the first group of ponies began marching down the center aisle. The Solar Guard, their armor finely polished, escorted their liegelady Princess Celestia – herself wearing an absolutely breathtaking dress in a rare occasion where she actually wore clothing – down to the center stage, and then departed as the large alicorn proceeded to the center, where the Royal Canterlot Voice had been cast to ensure all present would hear the noble words of their rulers. No sooner had the Solar Guard disappeared into the sides of the parade grounds then did the Lunar Guard, resplendent with their dark carpaces and the pointier profiles of bat ponies, escorting the ever beautiful Princess Luna to the Lunar Anthem, a new piece of music commissioned to mark her place in the alicorn pantheon. That was followed by the Romance Guard escorting Cadence and Shining Armor to the ancient Crystal Empire anthem. While Shining, as Captain of the Guard overall would normally be with the other Equestrian senior military officers, as the prince of the Crystal Empire, today he would be with his wife, while Arrowswift filled his Guard role,. Finally, the formerly newest branch of the guard, the Friendship Guard, followed suit with its captain Prince Divine right at the helm, and Princess Twilight Sparkle walked down the path to the sound of a surprisingly upbeat yet no less appropriate theme that sounded familiar to everyone present, but they couldn’t quite place the origin beyond the theme of friendship itself having been woven into the chords.

As soundproofed as the parade grounds staging room under the stands was, the echo of so many hoofsteps from the acoustics of the parade grounds still sounded around in the immediate vicinity all the same. And to the nervous Sunset, all the rehearsal in the world wouldn’t make her any more prepared to face destiny – which really said something given she’d readily killed herself to save her deceased counterpart not all that long ago.

And I really need to talk with someone…somepony…anyone, she thought, glancing around at her immediate surroundings. Unfortunately, despite there being two columns of identical looking royal choir mares behind her – who all looked like quite literal pale imitations of Fluttershy, bizarrely enough – they were so serious about their duty that they wouldn’t utter a sound until they were in the hall, just so they could repeat “Behold, Behold, the Princess Sunset Cometh” or something like that. Farther ahead, Sable, the triplets, and the advanced training group of SIRENS would escort them to the stage, but being professionals all, Sunset couldn’t reach out to them for some nerve-calming conversation.

A standard guard then appeared from an adjacent hallway.“The Friendship Guard just started walking down, your highness,” he said cordially, before adding, “Is…everything alright?”

“Huh?” Sunset hadn’t expected the question – normally the guards and the concept of “inquisitive” were unrelated in every way. But it wasn’t unappreciated. “Oh, uh, no…I’m fine.”

“My apologies, but…I’d say you have a bad case of nerves, m’lady.”

Sunset nervously laughed. “That obvious, huh?”

The guard shrugged. “It’s something everypony goes through. Becoming a princess is no easy thing to go through, but nerves gets to us all. I’m no noble, but I was probably just as nervous when going to accept my commission in the Guard several years ago. Probably doesn’t help that you’re Princess Celestia’s daughter and this is the realization of something you’ve been working your whole life toward.”

“You think?” sarcastically replied Sunset. Strangely, as much as she should have felt even worse at this guard outlining her fears as if reading her like a book…the butterflies in her stomach were gone.

“Ah, there we go,” chuckled the guard. “Sometimes you just can’t let these things hang over your head, you just gotta go for them in the best of your ability.” Sunset wanted to thank the guard for the sudden but very beneficial help, but then a light tapping could be heard down the hall. “You can thank me later, Princess Sunset – right now, Equestria is waiting for its newest princess.”

Celestia, clad in her self-admittedly semi-garish outfit with that stupid crown she really kind of hated, took a deep breath before she began. “Ladies and gentle…beings, of Equestria and other nations gathered here, we are privileged in gathering here today to celebrate a truly historic occasion in honor of a mare whose journey in life has brought down hardship and obstacles greater than many of us can even comprehend. As many of you may remember, Sunset Shimmer’s raw proficiency with powerful magic appeared very early in her fillyhood, being able to tap into the power of the sun itself – a feat that no other pony aside from myself has ever been able to accomplish, which is why I took her under my wing, eventually regarding her as my own daughter in addition to my most faithful student.

The nervous swallow of the bile in her throat was barely perceptible to even those who knew her well. Suffice to say, lying to her entire country still left a bad taste in her mouth. “That is why it brought both pride and sorrow to me, when five years ago, without any hesitation, she volunteered for a mission that would take her far from home, from family, with full knowledge that the cover story would be a lie detailing her betrayal of me. The bravery she showed in facing the fact her reputation would forever be squandered remains steadfast, as even now with her return, there are those who hate her for what she supposedly did, even though none of it is true. More still look upon her with wariness and suspicion, as her home now lies in the world she traveled to, where she now has ties with other civilized species that are unlike anything encountered in Equestria’s history.

“But those same individuals who she calls her friends and family show that, like ponies, they too value the bonds of friendship and harmony they share with Sunset. That they willingly traveled to an alien world unlike anything they’ve known in their lives, is a testament to their courage and conviction that honors Sunset by their simply being here for this coronation.

“And that is why this particular coronation is so significant: because Sunset Shimmer has become more than an alicorn princess of Equestria, but of both Equestria and the world of humanity. Her ascension was brought about by her saving her adopted world, in effect becoming the sole alicorn of that reality, the Alicorn of Earth – for that is the name humans have given their planet as Equus is the name we have given ours, though why they named it after dirt is a matter for another time.” Celestia could hear chuckles in the audience; they were warming up to her speech.

“For now, however, it is time we gave the mare responsible for bringing together two worlds in harmony a name – the name of Princess Sunset Shimmer!”

As one, all those gathered in the audience turned to face the opposite end of the parade grounds, where the SIRENs dressed in their dress uniforms emerged with perfect military precision – and giving more than a few ponies in the crowd apoplexy of the horror that had come that morning in the strange desecration of the Military Gallop. Behind the SIRENS approached two rows of identical mares, their backs bearing banners with the two-color sun image. And behind this procession was the mare whose cutie mark was plastered all over the place in her wake.

“The Princess Sunset cometh,” the pale Flutterclones all sang in unison, “behold, behold…”

The maize alicorn was clad in a fine velvet dress, royal purple with pink ribbon lining, with a gorget of gold bearing a central feature of paired yellow nephrite and ruby gems forged in the shape of her cutie mark. Smaller versions of her cutie mark adorned her golden shoes, glinting with every ray of light they caught with every step she took closer to her destiny, the great doors closing behind her.

“A princess here before us, behold! Behold!”

Along the way, Sunset glanced over to see her friends and family, a world away from home, and all of them had – what was the term – liquid pride in their eyes. And despite years of experience in keeping a serene face in front of a crowd, Celestia was tearing up as well – on the inside, at least, for only being keen on Celestia’s tiniest motions a lifetime together could Sunset know.

“Behold, BEHOLD!”

Under the gaze of the four alicorns princesses before her, Sunset bowed before them. Dragon Spike, once again pressed into the role of “the one holding the cushion”, held to his duty as rock steady as a statue, the pillow on which the tiara matching the rest of Sunset’s clothes sat raised in front of him.

“Behold! Behold! The Princess Sunset cometh! Behold! Behold! The Princess Sunset cometh! Behold! Behold! A princess is here!”

The singing mares, their job fulfilled, all fell back to the side aisles as wordlessly, the tiara lifted from the cushion, borne by an aura of golden magic, and Celestia held it into the sunlight for all to see. “This tiara is special. This is not a tiara we ponies have created, but instead a tiara from the human world, belonging to a former human monarch. This was granted to Sunset by the people of that world, in gratitude for all she has done...and all she has yet to do as the Alicorn of Earth.”

Celestia’s speech done, she lowered the Tiara of France towards Sunset’s head.

“I’m so proud of you, my child,” whispered Celestia, as she placed it upon Sunset’s head.

As Sunset turned to face the crowd and deliver her no doubt heartfelt speech, every single one of the humans who had come through with her stood and applauded. And if she could, she would sing their praises as well, but given their duality with the local versions it was best to not focus on them. In her heart, though, she owed so much to them.

Rarity, who Sunset had tortured for years before getting her ass curbstomped into the ground by Princess Twilight Sparkle, had been the first of the core group of Princess Twilight’s friends to reach out to Sunset. Maybe it was for that reason she’d been the one Sunset had first revealed her true form to after Gilda had shoved a knife in her abdomen. But life without Rarity was something Sunset couldn’t even comprehend at this point.

Fluttershy had been such an easy target and it had taken Sunset forever to forgive herself for what she’d done to torture the wallflower. But Fluttershy had also shown an inner strength and was full of surprises – ones Sunset was happy to have the opportunity to share with her.

Applejack had never been one to mince words or sugarcoat things, and Sunset valued that in her friend. AJ had been a conscience, albeit externally, that was always there to point out when she wasn’t being honest, to herself or to others.

Rainbow originally had been one of the most hostile to Sunset, largely because of her protective streak over Fluttershy given those two had known each other longer than anybody else in their little friendship circle. But now that loyalty extended to include Sunset herself.

Twilight and Octavia were the sisters that Sunset never really knew she’d wanted. Sure, Princess Cadence had been around but back then, Sunset hadn’t really been interested in knowing her – she already spent all her time around the biggest alicorn, why would she care about the smaller one? Regardless, the bond Sunset now shared with Twily and Tavi would be reason enough for Sunset to – and had – sacrificed herself over to save them, and she’d gladly do it again. They meant the world to her.

While they weren’t applauding, observing military discipline and all, the triplets showed their love and devotion to her through their steadfast vigil. Privately, Sunset would have admitted that Adagio Dazzle, Aria Blaze, and Sonata Dusk seemed to be the most out of place in her close family and social circle, may it be the complicated custody battle that had gotten them from Canada to California, or the fact they continued to uphold their military origins even though Sunset would have allowed them to never pick up a gun again if they wanted.

There was also Shining Armor, Cadence, and Spike. It was ironic that Shiny had lived up to his name in that it was he who had brought Sunset to his mother, setting up her integration into her human family, and while after that his role was minimal as was Cadence’s, they were still cherished members of her human family. And Spike...was the quintiessential little brother that all families needed.

Sunset wondered if it was intentional or simply ironic that Sable Loam had ended up next to Raspberry Beryl off on the side – while they were relatively distant considering how they related to her own journey, they were still important individuals in her life and they looked happy for her. As she was happy to have them in her life.

Then there was Ms Celestia, and next to her Ms Luna. For the first two years, Celestia and Luna had suffered having Sunset the troublemaker as a student and had rightfully opposed Sunset’s presence in Velvet’s house – justified considering their almost lifelong friendship. But as had Sunset proven to redeem herself, so too had the sister principals turned their attitudes around and now were two of Sunset’s biggest human adult supporters.

The most important human adults in Sunset’s life, though, had to be Twilight Velvet and Night Light. They hadn’t had any obligation to take Sunset into their home - their lives - that night and the truth was they probably shouldn’t have...but they did. They’d been the parental figures in the direct way Sunset had needed all her life, and she was proud to call them parents as much as she called Celestia one. And she was sure they felt the same about her.

But it was Pinkie who Sunset made eye contact with last, and for good reason – the relationship between them was only going to get more and more increasingly awkward from this point on. Granted, their relationship had, from the beginning, been unusual – when the girl who professes her love for you admits she originally wanted to see you die horribly (and for good reason given the absolute scale of what Sunset indirectly caused to happen to her) it really can’t be considered normal – but now following the Allucinor Wing incident, Sunset herself wasn’t sure about her own sexuality. And Pinkie being Sunset’s Swordbearer? Just multiply that complexity by a billion. While Sunset kept smiling, the fact was once the coronation business was all over...there were going to be a lot of uncomfortable questions coming.

Among the cheering crowd, a nondescript mare waited, her only real defining feature the curious hairclip in her mane. She ruffled her wings, checking that the knives tucked away in their secret compartments were ready. Her compatriots would all be in position soon. Their time was nigh, and Corner Shot was ready.

Chapter 7 - Intermission

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GAOA Chapter 7 – Intermission

As soon as the coronation had been over and everybody left the parade grounds, Spike had virtually made a beeline for his quarters. By the time Twily had caught up with him, he’d already stripped out of his custom-fitted tux (made by Rarity, of course) in favor of his comfortable t-shirt and jeans. He was also firmly planted in front of the wall and stared at it like he expected it to do something.

“Spike, are you okay?” asked Twilight, before suddenly the wall came alive with a blue screen asking for a profile to be selected. Spike, with the Dualshock 3 in his hands, nudged the joystick to select the one with a fierce looking purple dragon attached to a username of ‘Dragonboy9’.

“Yeah, why?” He asked without turning around, the wall becoming the main menu selection screen and the system indicating the disc for Call of Duty...whatever, Twilight really didn’t follow video games like her little brother did.

“Oh, it was just that you were staring at a wall.”

“Sunny used her magic so I can play PS3 on a wall given she said something about how television technology here isn’t up to the point of using HDMI input.” To emphasize, he pointed to a small box that was lightly glowing with a now familiar cyan hue that was connected to the PS3, while next to it was a coiled surge protector that was also glowing with the cyan hue, powering the game console without there being any familiar, much less compatible power outlets this side of the mirror portal.

“Ah, right,” said Twilight. “Still getting used to this whole magic thing, honestly.” She usually prided herself on being the smartest in her family and it was slightly disconcerting how she really was the last to come to terms with the reality that was her sister being in command of a form of, for the lack of a better concept, matter and energy manipulation on a quantum string level, controlled purely from her mind. “Well, you’ll be safe in here, and I’m sure you’d rather be shooting people in the head than attending the big to-do reception party anyway. To be honest, I’m not looking forward to it, but I’m old enough now that I have to do these things, so I’ll catch up with you later, little brother…” She turned to leave.

“Hey, Twily,” said Spike, stopping Twilight in her place. She turned back around and saw that he hadn’t selected the game – the panel over the Call of Duty selection glowing expectantly for Spike to press the button to engage in a campaign of slaughter and angry shouting men. But he wasn’t looking at the screen, he was looking at her. “Before you go, can I ask you something?”

“Oh, of course. Anything.”

“Why have you been avoiding Pinkie all of a sudden?”

The question caught Twilight completely off guard. “A-avoiding her? Spike, I don’t know what you mean.”

“I know I’m young, but I’m not as dumb as everybody seems to think I am.” He stood up and walked up closer to his sister. “It’s clear that something happened between you and her, since until we came here to Ponyworld, you were just as close with her as all your other friends. But now I see you doing your best to avoid her.”

“That’s not true and you know it, whatever you’ve seen is taken out of context.”

“Don’t bullshit me, Twilight.”

“Language, Spike.”

Spike crossed his arms. “Twily, after everything I’ve been through, I think I’ve earned the right to swear once in a while – I certainly get called ‘squeaker’ often enough by sweaties and I hear a lot worse. But I’m only eight years old – and I’ve been kidnapped by mercenaries and then we had more armed people attack the house, and now we’re not even in our own world. And I think I deserve to get more than simply non-answers. After all, Sunset seems to think I’m at least old enough for that.”

“And how do you know that?” asked Twilight, crossing her own arms in turn.

“Remember when that one black girl stayed over? Tirespin?”

“Tirespin, yes, I remember her – she’s Troubleshoes’ daughter.”

“Well….”

Pinkie Pie paced back and forth in her own quarters. She’d already come to terms with the fact the girl she loved was not truly human, but having been at the coronation and seeing Sunset in her true form and all its glory...Pinkie’s belief that their relationship transcended normal concepts of love had only been cemented further. It went beyond the physical – and Pinkie certainly was not about to suggest Sunset Shimmer looked anything less than the most perfect human woman ever conceived despite not truly being human biologically – and lay entirely within the interpersonal.

But at the same time, what had happened between them thanks to that damn butterfly...Pinkie still couldn’t forgive herself. It was her job to protect Sunset, to ensure that kind of shit didn’t happen. And as her Swordbearer...she’d willingly let herself succumb to it.

Ultimately, all this pacing about wasn’t going to get anything done, Pinkie needed something to take her mind off it all. Her thoughts drifted to what she’d been told about regarding the differences between the three main pony races of unicorns, pegasi, and earth ponies. The former wielded magic directly, and pegasi could fly, but it was the earth ponies that were the most relevant. The counterparts to Pinkie and Applejack were both earth ponies and it was said that Applejack was potentially one of the strongest mares alive, stronger than even the average earth pony mare. Certainly on par with an Olympic level athlete, Pinkie could confidently guess. And then during the resolution to the Radiant Hope incident, she herself had punched through a car like it was butter...was she also magically gifted with strength beyond that of the average human, even if her ability wasn’t able to match Applejack’s?

It made her recall the devastation caused by her own battle with the creatures Applejack had fought a few days ago. If that was any indicator, it was possible that Pinkie herself might be even stronger than her friend.

As Pinkie changed out of the uniform and into some workout gear – she didn’t want to get the nice outfit sweaty given she would wear it again that evening at the reception – she departed her room for one of the guard training spaces within the castle. She wasn’t sure what the answer was, but at least she was probably a match for some of the guards and there was only one way to find out if that was true.

Since they were not expected to engage in any major activities before the reception that evening, Celestia and Sable had retired to their own quarters but opted to remain in their outfits – Celestia in her resplendent formal dress attire while Sable remained in his Navy dress blues.

“Something the matter, hon?” asked Sable, adjusting his collar in the mirror. Celestia didn’t immediately reply, prompting Sable to turn and face his girlfriend.

With him looking right at her, Celestia relented. “It’s just...trying to come to terms with where we fit in with all this.”

“All this?”

“Sable, like it or not we are inexorably tied to Sunset’s life, and to some extent it’s not through any action of our own – I’m simply involved because Velvet has been a close friend of mine since childhood and you’re involved partly because you’re with me, and partly because you chose to be.”

“Yes, but this isn’t anything new, Tia. We knew this going into it all before Sunset’s grandma reset the timeline.”

“Maybe it’s just hitting me now, since it's possible I’m never going to return to this land of Equestria. I certainly have no need to, I’m just an educator.”

“An educator who happens to know a lot of, shall we say, interesting people,” he cracked. “Human and otherwise.”

“Yes, but now I’m in the role Sunset was for all those years – I have to keep all of it a secret.”

“So, you kept it a secret she was actually a magic horse expat at your school while you were still its principal, did you not?”

“I didn’t find that out until last year!”

“Are you saying you aren’t up to it?” He walked over and sat down on the bed next to her. “Because if you aren’t, then I’ll leave the SIREN program. Troubleshoes probably would be able to handle taking over as the admiral and–”

“No, don’t: the triplets need you and I know you have a soft spot for them.”

“Well, that’s true, I guess.”

Celestia flashed a soft smile. “Besides, you probably know too much about all this to just walk away from it. I know I certainly can’t. After everything Sunset’s done for me – for everyone – I owe it to her to shoulder this burden.”

Sable draped an arm around Celestia’s shoulders. “Then we’ll do it together.”

Meanwhile, elsewhere in Equestria, future plans of a much more sinister sort were being formed.

“Yes, marvelous, marvelous!” cackled Mandible, rubbing her pock-marked hooves together happily. “You’ve done excellent work, Clypeus.”

“I live to serve you, my liege,” replied Clypeus, the purple colored changeling bowing, his report having been received appreciably. “The ponies will never know what hit them.”

“Yes, it will prove to any changelings not under my banner that I am the true queen and that our kind will regain the territory lost by that idiot Chrysalis. Those ponies think that we’re just bugs that no longer pose a threat...those ponies of course are wrong. They still think Chrysalis is in charge when she’s in no position to do anything.”

Clypeus ventured a thought. “My queen, if I may, I have some concerns about her.”

Mandible looked at her most trustworthy minion with a quizzical look, “You may speak your mind.”

He looked up at her, slightly worried. “Even though my interaction with the three loyalist changelings indicated that the hive is, in fact, close to the point of collapsing, we don’t know what Chrysalis has even been up to. I’m worried she might have some kind of secret advantage with which she can use to strike us down and restore her reign over all changelingkind.”

“Oh, Clypeus,” said Mandible, laughing and patting his head like a mother to a confused child. “There’s nothing she can possibly do! My hive strength easily is double hers in numbers alone, and our mole inside the hive has continuously managed to avoid detection, suggesting the hive mind is fragmenting under her. And that is enough to cause colony collapse – changelings can not exist without a queen to guide the hivemind. No, she only serves as a reminder of why I am the proper ruler. And we will soon make that clear to all creatures on this planet!”

Spike had just finished explaining the talk he and Sunset had had about Tirespin, and Twilight wasn’t sure how to feel about the matter.

“But this is different,” said Twilight, nervously rubbing the toes of one of her dress shoes into the floor.

“Is it?” asked Spike. “You’re being irrational, Twily – and the fact I’m the one having to explain this to you of all people really should put this into perspective!"

With a small “oh” of shock, Twilight realized Spike was right. Normally, Twily was the logical, reasonable one, but ever since...that had happened with Pinkie and Sunset, Twilight had been hiding behind an emotional wall.

“Look, I get that Pinkie and Sunset obviously like each other,” said Spike, unwittingly understating just how far the relationship had actually gotten – Twily thanked the stars Spike wasn’t aware of the near date rape that had occured because of magic butterfly venom or whatever it had been explained as. “But maybe this is just stuff we need to live with. Like, I thought everybody had gone crazy when Sunset moved in – this homeless loser just getting Shiny’s old room, and then you and Tavi latching onto her like she’d been brought into the family without anybody telling me? I didn’t like her at all! But she grew on me so much that when we surprised her with the adoption papers, I was happy seeing her happy. Then having her be part of our family didn’t seem so bad.”

Twily stood there, lost in her own thoughts. Maybe Spike was right, maybe she was...but Pinkie had….

“Thanks, Spike,” said Twily, walking over to give him a hug. “You’ve given me food for thought.”

“Heh, yeah, just remember to say that the next time one of your friends says I’m the dumb one, alright?”

Elsewhere in the castle, a familiar pair of arguing voices sounded out, but to the guards and Hooves setting up for that evening’s festivities, it wasn’t the expected duo that came around the corner.

“Ah’m tellin ya, the book is far deeper than what you are taking it to be!” argued human Applejack. “It’s a very–”

“–insane and nonsensical book!” replied Rainbow. “I mean really, some airheaded chick lands in the middle of some far flung southeastern Asian country, then eventually runs off to go scalp the natives with a necklace of tongues? And this book is supposed to be realistic?”

“It’s about the Vietnam War, you twit,” sighed Applejack, “the whole story was a metaphor for how soldiers were goin’ crazy from the heat and everything was becoming almost surreal to them.”

“I guess that does explain the bad guy from that one film about the cryogenically frozen super soldiers...you know, the one with the bad guy soldier with the necklace of ears?”

“Rainbow, I don’t watch nearly as much bad action film crap as you do.”

“Your loss…” Rainbow suddenly realized where she and AJ had walked to. “And I think we’re lost.”

AJ took a quick look around. “Eeyup, seems that way.” But before either athlete could make a suggestion about what to do and promptly get into another argument with each other, they heard the sounds of heavy exertion. Giving each other questioning looks, they moved as one to look around the nearest door frame.

Inside, the two were surprised to see Pinkie – as in, their Pinkie – in workout clothes and handling a very large sword in what appeared to be a guard training room. And while they were both familiar with Pinkie’s near contortionist-level of flexibility between being a cheerleader and taking dance classes, what Pinkie was doing almost nonchalantly as if from memory looked like the aforementioned “bad action film crap” Rainbow consumed like an addict. Pinkie herself didn’t seem to even notice her friends, but if she did, she made no move to acknowledge them.

“Okay, Ah’ve seen some of those moves in books my su-bah-nim lent to me once, about old fighting art styles,” said Applejack in awe. “And Ah highly doubt Pinkie’s read them and yet she’s doin’ em – even Ah couldn’t do that stuff! Plus, what happened this mornin’ between her and Ah…”

“Wait, what happened?” asked Rainbow, looking at AJ suspiciously. “We already had the situation between Sunset and Pinkie, please don’t tell me–”

You’re the one with the living gay pride flag for hair, don’t start sayin’ Ah swing that way,” retorted AJ, “and what happened was Ah was sparrin’ with Pinkie. Now, Ah take pride in being a blackbelt but Pinkie...she’s on a whole ‘nother level.”

“Almost...inhuman, you’d say?”

AJ looked at Rainbow in surprise. “That’s extremely insightful for you, you know.”

The Latina merely shook her head sadly. “It’s just what we’ve all been thinking – I mean, let’s be honest, ignoring this ‘Swordbearer’ whatever that Pinkie’s been hung up on for awhile now, we all are becoming something that makes us more than regular teens. And it’s not some magical girl stuff where we have powers because we’re wearing magical, color-coded geode necklaces or whatever, but it’s something we were born with. Like we’re mutants.”

“And in non-X-Men terms, please?”

“We’re all kinda magical now, and it’s changing us. And I’ll admit: I’m a bit freaked out where it’s going to take us.”

“Ah’ll be honest too...Ah think we’re all scared of it.”

The two watched for a few more minutes, as Pinkie, apparently unaware they were there, gestured for a burly stallion to spar with her. As the two clashed with the magically-dulled swords, at first it seemed as though Pinkie was clearly out of her league against a well-trained and experienced guardspony. But a few seconds later, as if a switch had been flipped inside the girl’s head, she immediately started attacking with a ferocity and adroitness that surprised the guard, and within seconds, she had him to the point where he’d given up, much to the surprise of both combatants.

Applejack and Rainbow looked at each other. “And Ah’d be a damn fool if Ah didn’t say those fears might just be justified, Rainbow.”

“So, all hail the Princess Sunset Shimmer!” joked Razz, walking into Sunset’s private quarters. She’d been surprised when she’d received the summons by way of Hoof, but it must have been important.

“Sure feels like a lot more pomp and circumstance than I think I’m comfortable with,” admitted Sunset, who was taking the opportunity to preen herself. Being human almost all the time meant she didn’t concern herself with maintenance of her new appendages nearly as much as she probably should have, especially given that she hadn’t had said appendages up until a month ago.

“Tell me about it: I remember when they had one for me up at the Crystal Empire since, well, you know.” To emphasize, Razz momentarily dropped her normal guise to reveal her true, physically corrupted state, before immediately bringing herself back to normal. “And I’m just a minor royal; Sombra actually ruled the Empire, even if he was really just a usurper.”

“It’s still something, though – I remember you mentioning something about getting royalties because some amusement park ride is using your family crest in a horror setting themed around him?”

“Says the mare-slash-human who if I recall, gets like half the French national royal budget?”

“No, I get a stipend from the Imperial House trust, as well as my ‘family inheritance’, quote unquote – certainly not from the Republic’s coffers,” groaned Sunset, in a way that indicated she still thought it was too much. “Besides, given how famous my human parents are now? And the fact I’m apparently such a ‘legit snack’ as a human that I still get other students making marriage proposals to me almost once a day? Sometimes I’d beg for normality.”

“Have you talked with Twilight about it? I mean, Princess Twilight – she still gets by without having to do the whole ‘Hark! A royal approaches!’ crap.”

“She also lives in a giant crystal root shaped like a tree. You know, the complete opposite of subtle.”

“Yeah, that’s true.”

Sunset shook her head. “Maybe I’m still just grappling with the fact I am finally the princess I originally wanted to be. Granted, ‘originally’ just covers having the wings and the title in a recognizable way, the mare I’d been back then…” Sunset shuddered.

Razz simply smiled awkwardly, not sure how to respond. “Yeah, but you’re not the same mare, er, girl that you were back then, right?”

“True, and I intend to keep it that way.”

The two were quiet for a few more seconds before Razz asked, “Not that I mind coming to see you, Sunny, but is there a reason you needed me? I still have to oversee security for tonight’s reception, remember?”

“Actually, there is,” Sunset stated. “Has there been any developments about the whole Scions thing?”

That caught Razz by surprise. “You know about that?”

Sunset nodded. “Yeah, the whole doomsday prophecy or whatever. Twi filled me in on the whole thing yesterday. She felt that while my family’s still here, I could use a debrief on the situation.”

“She did?” asked Razz, nervously. Damnit, Twilight, please don’t tell me you told her that–

“Just the summarized version, but she did emphasize that the fourth one hasn’t been found yet or even surfaced.”

Razz exhaled in relief, not realizing she’d stopped breathing in the panic. “Ah, right, yes, er...the fourth Scion. Nope, so sign of her. Or him, because it could totally be a him even though the three we know of are mares. To be honest, given how Sombra operates, the ‘fourth Scion” might even just be trickery on his part to keep us off-balance, but we’re taking it as valid until proven otherwise.”

Sunset noticed the catch in her friend’s voice. “Are you okay?”

“Just tired; I feel like I could sleep for a week after all this,” Razz sighed. “Look, let me handle the whole Scions thing, okay? You have your hooves in enough jars right now as is, even with your SIRENs and court to assist.”

“I’m still not comfortable with referring to my friends and family as my courtiers, Razz.”

“You know what I mean,” the unicorn commented. “Look, honestly I’m just glad Corner Shot or the Covenant haven’t shown up to ruin things.” Especially since all evidence is suggesting you’re the fourth Scion, Sunny!

Sunset shrugged. “Hey, maybe it’s time Equestria caught a break from the constant conga line of crap it’s been buried under ever since Tirek.”

Razz chuckled. “Yeah, maybe for once that’s the truth.”

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the castle, the three heads of security that would be present during the reception were discussing their asset placements.

“...and so we’ll be reassigning this unit to the southern wall,” said Barrier Dome in a matter of fact tone. The current captain of the Solar Guard, Dome was a shade almost baby blue in color, his black mane shaved down to a near invisible fuzz (“made the helmet fit better” he often said, though nearby guards had whispered under their breath that he never actually wore the helmet short of formal events) and his tail was just a suggestion of hair sticking out of the bright, resplendent silver armor he was clad in.

“He likes saying that a lot,” said his second in command, a pegasus by the name of Poncho. She was a true rarity among ponies, not only being a pony of Pinto pattern fur coat but that she was a pegasus on top of that. Unlike her boss, she was as non-regulation as possible, preferring to wear naval-grade flight armor instead of the standard Guard barding.

“Yes, but it’s on the complete other side of the castle complex,” pointed out Marimba. “Beyond normal Guard details I doubt we need to put any extra defenses there. Just have a guardspony and either a Hoof or a SIREN within typical patrol zones for big well-to-dos like the Grand Galloping Gala and everything should be fine.”

“What about the compromised ballroom?” asked Adagio. “I know that bi-er, Archmagus Beryl has ordered the room off limits, but with a bunch of mind-controlling psycho butterflies around, that should have airtight security.”

“Literally, given their nature,” Poncho added.

“No worries there,” said Marimba, “I’ve made sure Lentando Fury is going to be handling that. She isn’t one for parties – if anything, she’s something akin to Lady Twilight when she was still merely a student of the Princess.”

“I insist we have two guardsponies there as well,” said Dome. “It doesn’t hurt to have more protection on a dangerous problem like that.”

“You just never quit, do you?” sighed Poncho.

Chapter 8 - Querelle des Bouffons

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Chapter 8—Querelle des Bouffons

Sunset could feel the edges of her mouth beginning to strain from having to smile so much. I betrayed my mother, turned into a raging she-demon, and straight up burned my own life out...for this? Looking into the mirror and having seen herself as an alicorn princess had not included having to stand alongside Celestia and greet a whole menagerie of nobility. She felt like she could die again from the monotony of it all.

In fact, if anything, it felt kinda like her first day back at Canterlot High following the whole timeline change that resulted in Sunset being made a French princess—if in title only—in addition to resurrecting as an alicorn princess to be. The reactions from the student body had run the gamut, from those who still hadn’t forgiven her for the walking nightmare bitch she’d been originally, to those who didn’t make a big deal of it (though admittedly the only people who fell into that category were those who Sunset would count among her direct friends), and those who immediately wanted to cozy up to Sunset for their own personal gain.

It really is amazing how high school is basically a microcosm of society at large, she thought, while smiling all the while, shaking the hoof of a noble whose name she’d already forgotten and would likely never need to learn again.

But she hoped that like high school, barring the fact of what she’d been, nothing extremely bad was going to happen.

In a gazebo in the castle grounds, away from the grand party being held elsewhere in the complex, a dark pony with bright mane hairs arrived and waited. Getting into the castle unseen had been a slight hassle, but nothing too troublesome. In a way, this was something of a homecoming for Neon Lux, and now everything had been set in motion. Soon, the four Scions—Raspberry Beryl, Lockbox, Corner Shot, and Sunset Shimmer—would be gathered properly for the prophecy to be fulfilled, bringing back their master Sombra from beyond the grave and to take back control of the world from the unfit hooves of the Alicorns. A smile came to his muzzle as he thought of the grand irony that one of the Scions themselves was an alicorn.

“Even their vaunted bloodline can not deny what the truth stands to justify,” said Neon Lux with a chuckle. “Everything the Covenant has worked for...the day has waited long enough to come!”

“But we are not at that stage yet,” came a new voice, and soon Neon Lux was joined by his wise oracle, Tiny Dynamine.

“Oracle Dynamine,” said Neon Lux, “you’ve been disappearing more frequently as of late…”

“Are you questioning my divine mission to our Lord?” questioned Dynamine. Curiously, Lux thought he heard a bit of disgust in Dynamine’s voice on the word Lord, but maybe it was just her being disgusted with him. “I trust I can have more faith in you having done yours than you do in me having done mine?”

“Yes, Oracle” nodded Lux, recomposing himself. “The identification spell has been cast so that all of our loyal Covenant members will be able to pick out at a glance where the four Scions are while they do their business, with Corner Shot being in position to take care of matters when the time is right. And one of our most truly faithful, Barkeep, will lead the charge, for he hates the alicorns more than even we do!”

“Good,” said Dynamine, who didn’t seem exactly that focused, so much so that Lux wondered if she was entranced with a vision. “Soon, everything I-we’ve worked for will come to fruition, and the wrongs of the past will be made right! Come, Lux, we must return to the hideout, we have much to prepare!”

It didn’t take long for Celestia to notice Sunset was already beginning to tire of greeting the nobles.

[I know it’s a hassle, dear,] she said telepathically, [but it is part of being royalty—we should be done soon enough.]

[I understand the necessity of it all, despite the choice natures of some of these ponies,] replied Sunset telepathically as well, [but it just feels like...well...I shouldn’t even be here.]

Celestia turned to look down at her daughter with concern, though the mental conversation continued. [Let’s discuss this more in private. We’re nearly finished here.]

And sure enough, they were, but not nearly soon enough, in Sunset’s opinion. By the time they had finished greeting the last noble (an elderly stallion who seemed pleasant enough, but just went on and on), Sunset was drained. Fortunately, Celestia had a private room designated for her to take refuge in when she needed a break from long nights such as these. That was where she and Sunset continued their talk.

“Now, what’s this about feeling like you don’t belong?” Celestia asked.

“I don’t know, I just….” Sunset struggled to find her words for a time, and Celestia patiently waited for her. “You and all the other princesses have lived such amazing lives and done such amazing things. It seems only natural you would become alicorns. But everything I did to earn my wings felt more like repentance. And even then, I don’t think it was enough to make up for all the bad I did.”

Sunset, it isn’t about making up for the past. It’s about doing what you can for a brighter future, here and now.”

Sunset took a moment to mull this over. She didn’t look convinced. “That’s nice and all, but I still don’t feel like I deserve… any of this. Even when I try to do good things and help others, I keep messing up. Like last month, when I took in a veteran and his daughter who were in danger and every decision I made seemed to only put everyone in danger. Or even the other night, when I let that Allucinor thing get to me.”

Taking an uneasy look back towards the reception, Sunset continued, growing more and more manic. “All of those people out there—ponies, humans, and everything in between—think that I’m this perfect goddess who can do no wrong. What’ll happen when they all realize I have no idea what I’m doing?!”

Taking a moment to sip from the mug of coffee she had poured for herself, Celestia said, “Thousands of years ago, there lived a young filly just like you. Her mother left her the throne when she was even younger than you are now, and no matter how hard she tried, her mother’s horseshoes always seemed too big to fill.

“Her early years on the throne were plagued with so many problems, and it always seemed that her every decision only made a bad situation worse. But do you know what happened?” Celestia asked with a warm, encouraging look. “She persevered. She kept making mistakes, but each time she did she learned something new, and kept learning and growing until she became the leader many ponies continue to count on today.” Then with a playful smile, Celestia said. “I’m talking about myself.”

“Yeah, I guessed that,” Sunset said with a grin of her own.

“I haven’t stopped making mistakes, of course. My folly with Luna is the stuff of legends. And….” Celestia’s eyes grew sad, and her entire posture fell as she said, “I let the thought of your death consume me to the point I neglected all those who count on me.”

The two were silent for a time. After everything that had happened between them, the topic of the long winter that followed the war with Tirek had never come up. It was a difficult subject for both of them, and one both felt shame for. Sunset didn’t know what to say to her mother then, so she said nothing.

“Don’t ever let anyone tell you that they have everything figured out. That they don’t ever have doubts about what they’re doing,” Celestia said so quietly Sunset almost couldn’t hear her. “Any one who claims so is lying.”

Sunset looked up at Celestia in awe. Hearing the pony in charge of the fucking sun itself admit that she too, had no idea what she was doing was an eye-opener. “Wow, I didn’t...I didn’t know,” Sunset voiced.

“I don’t go around talking about how much I worry over every little thing I do,” said Celestia, letting out a chuckle. “It’s not a good image for the general public, after all.”

If Blueblood had been able to, he would have found any excuse—any at all—to avoid having to come to the reception. Namely, he just wanted a break from having to pretend to being a colossal plot hole and constantly misleading mares into thinking they had a nephew of Princess Celestia in their grasp only to wake up the next morning in whatever situation he concocted in such fashion that he could get rid of them.

But, alas, since this was a reception for none other than the newest alicorn princess, his status forced him to come. And worryingly, another pony had figured that out: specifically, Heatherfield. He’d had to play his unenviable role for years but in all that time, he’d never had to deal with a mare like her. She was single-minded in her pursuit of him, evidently only moreso after he’d given her the slip at the last party thrown in Sunset’s honor. He never bothered to find out what trouble she’d gotten herself into and he didn’t want to find out—she was trouble in and of herself and he wanted no part of it, as he wasn’t sure he could talk his way out of a second encounter.

And that seemed to be inevitable as for the past ten minutes, he’d been doing his hardest to simply avoid having to even confront her. She’d noticed him and so it was all he could do to keep hurredly moving through the party, always keeping a look over his shoulder as Heatherfield implausibly seemed to be getting closer and closer and-

“Oof!”

“I beg your pardon?!” said Blu, slipping into “asshole mode” to confront whatever poor sod he hadn’t noticed and of course ran into...for all of five seconds.

“Well, I never!” gasped the human Octavia.

Both immediately changed their tone when they realized who they’d run into.

“We have got to stop running into each other like this,” she remarked with a smile.

“Yes, well, I suppose even humans can’t help but be attracted to my dashing handsomeness.” He then realized that this might be his chance to get rid of Heatherfield—the fact it would involve spending time with Tavi of course being a solid bonus. He stuck out his hoof, offering it to the human girl. “Now I suppose you want to dance with me, then?”

Tavi looked at him briefly in confusion, but then noted that while his body language suggested indifference, his eyes were practically pleading.

“Well, if you insist,” she said, playfully feigning as much disinterest as Blueblood was as she took his hoof into her hand.


From a distance, Heatherfield saw the act and was outright scandalized. Blueblood, her Blueblood, was heading to the dance floor with one of those damn humans? He must be drunk, clearly. Her citrine eyes narrowed with fury behind her gainsboro and purple locks, she quickly would have to devise some kind of plan to free him from that human harpy.


Soon, Tavi and Blu were slow dancing and looking quite odd—but neither of them cared.

“It’s funny,” she said in a low tone so only Blu could hear, “but this reminds me of something I used to do with the family dog years ago—a Great Dane we called Fortissimo. He was about the same size as you and Sunset as ponies.”

“Are you calling me a dog, Miss Melody?” he asked, lacing his usual faux self-important tone with a hint of playfulness. “I know that my reputation precedes me, but I think I’m owed more respect than that!”

Octavia matched his playful tone with one of her own. “Wouldn’t dream of it, Your Grace.”

The two of them couldn’t stop themselves from chuckling tenderly as they both grew more and more lost in each other’s eyes—this was doing nothing for Blueblood’s supposed guise as a plothole, but...he didn’t care. He couldn’t do that to Tavi. But he had to do something to address the fact he was finding himself more and more attracted to her. “Look, I know this is a bad time, but I feel like we need to talk about—"

“No, I understand—you have to keep appearances up and all, and this might be the last time we have a chance like this to talk. But, please, I know what you’re going to say.”

Blu’s heart skipped a beat. “You...you do?”

“Yes, and...you don’t have to apologize.”

That confused Blu. “What do you mean?”

“Seriously, Blu: I know you feel like it’s somehow your fault for all the misfortune I’ve encountered here in Equestria. Honestly? I can’t wait until I get home and can put all of this behind me, this whole affair has almost completely been a horrid experience.”

“I...yes, of course,” he replied, ears drooping. The fact was, she was right: she’d gone through what could only charitably described as her own personal Tartarus ever since arriving here. Between Fujitsu and then the incident at that specist restaurant—and boy howdy had Blu taken probably more than a little satisfaction at personally managing the fine those plotholes were going to have to pay given the laws that their cook broke by assaulting Whiskey, Amicable, and Tavi—he couldn’t blame her for never wanting to come back to this world. It certainly had been nothing that suggested Equestria was a good place.

Noticing Blu’s demeanor, Tavi quickly added “But if there’s one good thing that came of this trip, it’s that I met you. And really? It was all worth it for that.”

“Really?” Blu immediately felt his heart rush at that. He felt like a little colt, almost, it was most unbecoming of one of his position and completely out of ‘character’ for him, but damn it all, he liked hearing that. “It’s a shame that once you get back to the human world, we won’t have a way to communicate.”

“Well, maybe there is a way,” suggested Tavi. “Sunset mentioned that she communicated directly to Princess Twilight via a magic candle and a smartphone.”

“A what?”

“A smartphone—it’s a communication device.”

“Well, that’s...that’s a novel idea! I’ll have to talk with Sunset and Twilight about it but, yes, if we could keep in touch, I’d really like that. It’s...well, rare that I can find somepony to confide the truth in, given my line of work.”

“I understand, but...it’s very noble of you to do it.”

To anypony who might have been paying attention to the odd couple, they would have remarked that it seemed both had been genuinely more happy in each other’s company than they had at any point in the past week when they hadn’t been together.

Divine Right, Captain of the Friendship Guard, would honestly have loved nothing better than to have spent the evening in the company of Twilight Sparkle. He longed for the opportunity to finally get to speak at length with the fine lavender mare on a casual level again, something the two really hadn’t had an opportunity to do for years, not since Twilight had been sent to Ponyville and their lives had seemingly taken different paths. But now, as he stood guard at the main entrance, he watched as the beautiful princess was making her way through the crowd.

“One of these days, I’ll…” he sighed, not finishing the thought. The truth was it was practically unheard of for a guard captain to woo a princess; indeed, Shining Armor had only pulled it off because he and Princess Cadence had been virtually an item since their late foalhoods and then he’d become a guard captain.

Divine, on the other hoof, had not realized his feelings for Twilight until after she’d moved to Ponyville. He wasn’t sure how he’d lucked out in taking command of the Friendship Guard in the wake of his predecessor’s departure, but as much as he would say he loved his job...he did want more.

“Now, that’s a look of lovesickness if I’ve ever seen it,” suddenly came a voice.

Startled by what sounded like being addressed, and then a bit more by the fact his posture had slumped slightly, Divine immediately straightened up, but he wasn’t sure who had addressed him. Until they ended up walking right up to him, bringing him both relief and fear.

Because if there was any one pony who was empathic to the point of knowing how others felt? It was Princess Cadence, Alicorn of Love.

“You’re cute when you try to hide it, you know?” mused Cadence with a giggle.

“H-hide what, Cady?” asked Divine. Had it been over literally any other regular old unicorn, Divine would have easily asked Cadence for advice, given their close bonds as royals and cousins. But in this case, the mare of his affections was her sister in law and he knew very well of their closer bond.

Before she could comment, Shining Armor, dressed in his dress uniform, came alongside his wife. “Oh, come on, we’ve both seen the way you look at my sister,” he added with a smile on his face.

“Ah, Shining, is there something I can, uh, do for you and Cadence?” Divine asked, hoping to change the subject.

The couple looked at each other knowingly before turning back to Divine. “Div, do you really think I can’t tell you have a thing for Twily?” Cadence asked him drily.

“I, uh…” Divine sighed, she was right: it was futile to hide the truth from the Princess of Love. “I just can’t ever seem to find the right time to say it.”

“Well, now seems as good a time as ever,” said Shining. “I mean, it’s a big party and she’s still out there wandering all alone. Maybe now is the time to ask her to dance?”

“Are you asking me to ask your sister to a dance?” asked Divine, raising an eyebrow. “Because I’m still on duty, and—"

“Oh, come on, this place is crawling with guards and you’re the head of Twilight’s own Guard division. If shit hits the fan, what better place for her captain than to be by her side?” He then leaned in to whisper in Divine’s ear, adding, “And if anything does happen to her, well...it isn’t just me who is going to want an explanation and between us, she’s got the bigger horn.” He then gestured with his head to his wife, whose half-lidded eyes certainly suggested that should anything happen to her sister in law, it would not end well for Divine.

“I...sure. Let me ask her, then,” said Divine, who magically teleported his helmet back to its presumed place in a guard armory, then cautiously walked off to do the requested act of asking Twilight Sparkle to dance while feeling the combined gaze of Shining and Cadence the entire way.

“Do you think we were a bit too rough with him?” Shining wondered, once he was sure Divine was out of earshot.

“Nah,” said Cadence, “and besides, sometimes you gotta engage in a little tough love to get things moving. In this case, it appears to have worked.” She gestured with a hoof over to where Divine had caught up to Twilight and evidently asked the question—even from a distance, it was clear that he was extremely nervous about it. And then extremely relieved when Twilight enthusiastically nodded and the two ponies headed to the dance floor.

“Well, hun, looks like you still got it,” said Shining, giving his wife a quick peck on the cheek.

“Who said I ever lost it in the first place?” replied Cadence with a warm smile. “Now, all this talk of dancing has me antsy!”

Before Shining could say anything, he found himself being dragged over to the dance floor with the others. He wasn’t exactly unhappy about it.

After making sure the few ponies who seemed to be occupying the bar knew he was ‘going on break’, the barkeep departed from the reception’s bar ostensibly to use the little colt’s room.

Except there was a much more pressing matter at hoof. Fortune had of course worked out in favor of the deserving side and while it necessitated some more...arrangements...to be made, the fact there had been a willing party on the inside had made it almost suspiciously too easy to alter the plan.

Darting into a side corridor as to avoid the gaze of anypony actually coming to use the restrooms, Barkeep found his contact already waiting.

“Took you long enough,” the other pony said.

“Hey, look, it’s a reception—hearts are going to be broken and some ponies would rather crawl into a bottle then deal with their problems. Besides the night is still young—unlike that bag of bones that still calls herself a night princess—and ripe for some mayhem.”

“Are you saying its time, then?”

Barkeep gave the mare in a maid’s uniform his version of a charming smile. “Oh, definitely—release the party favors. It’s time to get this party truly started.”

To any normal member of the reception crowd, the only thing that made Whiskey stand out from the other SIREN members posted around to maintain security was the fact the twin-ponytailed girl had two swords on her person that were both a far cry from the standard issue formal design the other SIRENs wore.

But independently of the other SIRENs, and even to her actual marching orders, she wasn’t simply milling around keeping an idle eye on the party. Instead, she’d reverted—partially to her own shame—to her old habit of simply shadowing her liege, invisible to them unless she needed to directly intervene. Ever since she’d been made a formal member of the SIREN guard, Whiskey couldn’t believe how liberating it felt to be treated as an actual individual instead of just an assumed presence or, as the former Kashingo had experienced first-paw, be berated and shamed. To simply return to being a non-entity, even temporarily, brought back trauma Whiskey doubted she’d ever truly get over: after all, she hadn’t been sure if Sunset would have shown mercy on her or if Kashingo would have had to take her own life out of shame.

But privately, there was one individual that Whiskey valued more than even Sunset: that person being Octavia Melody. Even if she hadn’t intended it, Tavi had set in motion the sequence of events that had led to Kashingo being forever shamed...and yet had set her free as Whiskey. And where Whiskey trusted Sunset to be able to handle herself if need be (she was after all, one of the five alicorns), Tavi did not have magic at her disposal and thus would need protecting.

Of course, Tavi would insist that Whiskey not be mindlessly protective, which while Whiskey appreciated, was why the kitsune-as-human kept her observation at a distance. Right now, she watched as the fair Octavia danced with Prince Blueblood—another noble Equestrian who had shown Whiskey compassion—and the kitsune couldn’t help but smirk at the amusing sight of the human dancing with the comparatively much shorter unicorn.

“Hey, Whiskey!”

Blinking in surprise, Whiskey quickly looked around, her primary hand instinctively moving to rest on the hilt of her sword in case of the worst. However, it was only Softwing coming toward her, wearing a dress that seemed to attempt to—and quite honestly not exactly succeed in—contain the ample mounds of flesh on the young woman’s chest, a feature the transformed griffoness herself seemed to still be coming to grips with.

“Oh, Miss Softwing! Is there something I can help you with?” asked Whiskey, her hand coming off the sword hilt.

“Well, for starters, you can stop calling me Miss Softwing. I am your older sister now, after all,” the woman said with a grin.

Whiskey was caught off-guard by that. “Um….”

The former griffoness decided to let the SIREN off the hook. “No, rather it’s just something I thought I’d bring up to you. You remember that we’re moving to the human world tomorrow, right?”

Whiskey nodded, not sure of what to say. Internally, she still was unsure how she felt about that: while she’d been able to mold herself into a SIREN easily enough, given it was essentially just her transitioning from one strict, regimented military life to another, but in the human world she’d have to blend in. And that meant having to be a “normal teenager” as Sunset had told her.

And from what Whiskey had observed from the mannerisms of Sunset’s inner circle of friends? It was the complete opposite of the kind of lifestyle Whiskey had only ever known. How Captain Dazzle and Commanders Blaze and Dusk managed to balance both lives was an art form Whiskey would have to figure out and master fairly quickly.

“Well, odds are it’ll be a while before you come back to this world, right?” Softwing stated.

“That is likely, yes.” That was true—since she couldn’t go back to Inari, nor could she be a citizen of Equestria. No, Whiskey really didn’t have a land she belonged to. Rather, she belonged wherever Sunset wanted her, and soon that would be the alien human world which Whiskey had only briefly glimpsed when Sunset had shown everybody at her Preps speech.

“Then now might be the time to at least see about any business you might still have to take care of before leaving tomorrow.”

“Now? But I’m on duty.”

“Say you’re carrying out a special request from Sunset’s Seneschal, because you basically are. If one of the triplets raises a stink about it, let me talk to them.”

“Oh, um, okay.” The truth was Whiskey wasn’t sure what business she had left to take care of—having been a retainer for Fujitsu for at least the past fifty years, she’d simply lived to serve him. But in the corner of her eye, Whiskey saw none other than the Inari ambasador, Han’nya, moving through the crowd toward a door which she knew led to the beautiful—and largely unoccupied—castle gardens. “Maybe I do have something that I should settle before leaving Equestria…”

“Where did you ever learn to dance?” laughed Twilight, blushing slightly as she and Divine finally left the dance floor, exhausted but full of energy at the same time—though neither knew really why.

“Our caretakers made sure that Highfalutin’ and I were well trained as nobility for all manner of needs,” Divine answered, “and that includes having at least a basic education in dancing. Thank goodness Saddleworth isn’t here because, let’s be honest Twilight: you have a lot to learn when it comes to dancing.”

“Dancing isn’t an academic field of study. Well, maybe interpretive dance I know a thing or two about, but actual formal dancing...I always have had four left hooves.”

“Well, it was adorable, all the same,”

Twilight blushed even harder as the two approached the bar.

“I guess the bartender’s on break,” said Divine with a shrug as he walked behind the counter. “No matter, I know a drink or two myself.”

“Dancing and personal bartending,” said Twilight, “guess it was a good move to make you the captain of the Friendship Guard.”

“Just two of my many skills, though obviously dancing and being able to mix alcohol doesn’t defend as well as skills with a sword and shield.”

“I guess you’re just full of surprises,” said Twilight, before sighing. “We aren’t even on a real date and you’re already far better than my previous one.”

“Oh?” asked Divine, ignoring the implication that Twilight may or may not have been making with the “date” comment and focusing more on getting the drinks mixed.

“Yeah, I doubt you know who Smouldering Looks is.”

“Of course, the big fancy male fashion model?”

Twilight raised an eyebrow as she leaned on the counter. “You didn’t take me for a fashion stallion, Div.”

“I’m not, but I know of him because he was also nominated Equestria’s top bachelor for the second year in a row, namely because he somehow managed to avoid being in the country during the whole Tirek business and most of his usual competitors...well, we both know too much about those dark days.” Divine was hoping she wouldn’t inquire why he knew about Equestria’s most eligible bachelor: the reason being in a fit of existential crisis on whether or not Twilight would even entertain a romantic relationship with him, Divine had tried to see if he resembled any of the hottest stallions that would themselves catch a princesses’s eye.

“Well, whatever, Rarity pulled a few strings because you know how much of a romantic she is and is always trying to set up her friends with dates.”

“Trying to beat Cady at her own game?”

“Maybe. But Cady would have at least known from the get go there was no chemistry. Turns out Rarity set me up with a gay stallion. I don’t even know how she did it but it probably involved him trying to be a gentlestallion about the whole thing. But, likewise, he obviously was not into me and kept talking about how tough it is to be a supermodel as well as how he and his partner, Life Bloom—he’s a medic in the guard as I was reminded constantly—and...ugh, I don’t want to think about it.”

“I don’t understand why a stallion would hide being romantically attracted to other males,” admitted Divine, “Discrimination based on sexuality really isn’t a thing ponies do.”

“He said he keeps it quiet because of his job—won’t attract as many pretty mares to whatever he’s promoting if they knew publicly they stood less than zero chance of getting him as a husband. It’s just such disgusting, dishonest duplicity that it really isn’t something I want to be part of.”

“Then don’t,” said Divine, who finished pouring the drink and slid it across the counter to Twilight. “This is a little something I like to call the ‘Mount Canterhorn’—a mix of vodka and butterbeer with a little whipped cream topping.”

Twilight took a sip of it and it was good. “You know, Div,” she said, “I’ve really enjoyed spending time with you tonight. It felt...right.”

“I feel the same way,” said Divine, his own heart skipping a beat. Was this possibly leading where he thought it was leading?

“That’s great!” said Twilight with a sudden spike of enthusiasm, before settling back down with the cutest blush Divine had ever seen. “I, uh, mean, you wouldn’t be against—”

“Doing this again back in Ponyville?” said Divine, finishing her sentence. “I mean, I’d be more than happy to, if you are. Except...” he sighed. “You know, if I did, I would have to step down from being the captain of your Guard forces. It would be a conflict of interest.”

Twilight gave him a smile. “Oh, I’m sure we can think of something.”


From a distance, Cadence spied upon the two and nodded approvingly.

“Yup, still got it,” she said to herself with a grin.

However, on the other side of the reception, another individual who was in need of Cadence’s skills looked morosely out onto the dance floor. Romance had never truly been Applejack’s thing—especially given her reputation as one of the toughest girls at Canterlot High tended to scare off all but the dumbest of jocks who thought she’d be just a good one night stand. But she was still a girl at the end of the day and with the growing number of her friends in relationships—Rainbow with her on-off status with Soarin’, Fluttershy pretty much having Puppytails wrapped around her finger, and...whatever exactly was going on between Pinkie and Sunset.

So to see her own local counterpart cutting up the dance floor with that beige coated, maroon and charcoal maned stallion with the seafoam eyes? It made her heart pang with longing she wasn’t used to, wondering if she’d find her own better half someday.

“Penny for your thoughts?” asked Rarity, walking up with a flute of champagne. Naturally, Rarity was just living it up, this being the kind of well-to-do outing she lived for, even if the majority of the attendees were not even the same species.

“Just wonderin’, that’s all,” said Applejack.

Following AJ’s gaze, Rarity immediately figured out what it was the human was wondering about. “I dare say you’ll find your man someday, Applejack. There’s somebody for everyone out there.”

“Yeah, as soon as Ah can find a man who isn’t scared stiff I’m going to crush him with my thighs.”


Meanwhile, pony AJ and her possible paramour were just walking off the dance floor when the former realized they were headed straight for the human Rarity...and the human Applejack. Instinctively, AJ started to veer away from the humans, hoping Boomer didn’t notice. Unfortunately, he did.

“Something wrong, AJ?” he asked, before glancing between her and where they had been heading, immediately putting two and two together but somehow getting five. “Oh, yeah, humans—after what I hear went down at the parade grounds involving the first of Sunset’s guards taking out all those griffns, I can’t blame you for being skittish. To tell the truth, they freak me out a little as well—how can they live with so little fur on their bodies? Is that why they’re always wearing clothes?”

“Uh, yeah, sure,” she said in response, rolling with what she was given. To anypony who truly knew Applejack, Element of Honesty, she was a contender for the worst liar on the planet with the obvious tell of her eyes darting all over the place. Boomer, however, was still an acquaintance and so was not familiar with this detail.

Still, the two continued to walk away from the humans, while talking about how scary the humans were, and shortly ran into the pony Pinkie and Fluttershy, both of whom had come stag.

“Hey, AJ!” said Pinkie happily, before immediately noticing AJ was definitely uncomfortable about something. “Is everything okay?”

“Er, no, everything’s fine!” she lied. The look from Pinkie and Fluttershy confirmed they knew she was lying and without even asking, made it clear they wanted the truth.

At the same time, Boomer seemed to fixate his attention on something. “Hey, is that...it is! Wow, I haven’t seen Leafwing since we left the guard academy and he got posted to Saddle Arabia!” He turned to AJ with an apologetic look, “Sorry, but I gotta go say hi—he and I were thick as thieves back in the academy.”

“Huh? Oh, no, don’t go worrying none—go catch up with yer friend! Ah’m not goin anywhere!” Her strained smile lasted as long as it took Boomer to vanish into the crowd, before she dropped it and turned back to her friends.

“You know,” said Fluttershy, “Normally it isn’t like you to hide what’s bothering you, Applejack.”

“Is it the fact that the other you isn’t a farmer, like you?” asked Pinkie, once again showcasing an uncanny ability to hit home with little assistance.

AJ sighed; at least with friends as good as these, she could feel safe in confiding in them. “Yeah, Ah still can’t get over the fact she and Ah are so different, despite obviously bein’ two versions of, well, ourselves. Ah can’t help but resent her—an Apple givin’ up th’ farm life! Ah just can’t understand it. But Ah know it’s wrong, an’ that the other AJ—the other me—is her own person, but Ah can’t help how Ah feel.”

“And so, what, are you just going to let it sit until she goes back home?” asked Pinkie. “It isn’t like you to avoid a problem, Applejack. Barring that whole werewolf thing from so long ago it hardly even relates to what’s going on right now.”

“Tell me about it—sometimes Ah wonder if it was all a bad dream, but that’s besides the point. The problem here is...Ah don’t know how to approach it. Ah’ve been a silly pony through this whole thing but Ah don’t want to muck it all up the wrong way, you get me?”

“You’ll figure out something,” said Fluttershy, reassuringly with a smile. “Besides, your counterpart is more like you than you seem to realize. Between me and my counterpart? There’s definitely more different than similar.”

“Ah hope you’re right,” said Applejack, glancing over to where her human counterpart was still chatting with human Rarity. “Ah feel like Ah just gotta fix all this before it’s too late.”

Elsewhere within the festivities, Razz found herself party to a conversation that she wasn’t quite sure where it was going. As it was, she was seated at a table with Lockbox and human Rainbow Dash, who were quite engrossed in some kind of argument involving a field Razz was unfamiliar with: magically enchanted weapons. Though if that was a good or bad thing given the current circumstances was still up for debate.

“But you’re a unicorn!” said Rainbow, pointing at Lockbox’s horn, “and you’re a blacksmith! What do you mean you can’t make swords that shoot lightning?”

“Because magic doesn’t work that way!” sighed Lockbox. “To infuse magic into an item, you have to implant an entire miniature latticework of magic channels to ensure the effect is distributed evenly. And even then, since weapons aren’t sentient things, you have to infuse a magical core, which in itself is an extremely risky proposition if you don’t know exactly what you’re doing. Not to mention that because it’s a core and not a wellspring, it’s not alive, so it needs to be replaced on a regular basis.” Lockbox then shrugged, adding “And I honestly can’t do that kind of thing. Normal arms and armor, in addition to any kind of non-magical metalsmithing? Sure, I can manage. But you really have to have a talent—as in, it’s what your cutie mark represents—to pull off magical weapons on that scale.”

“Oh, uh, okay then,” said Rainbow, looking dejected—her heart evidently having been set on commissioning some kind of magical sword that shot lighting for all Razz could figure.

“Why do you even need a weapon?” Razz asked. She honestly would have prefered to distract herself with caring for Heliodor, but the guard had politely asked for him to be left out of the reception, citing how much of a fire hazard he would be if he got startled or, unfortunately more likely, attempted to be stolen. The last time he’d been stolen had nearly gotten Blueblood killed—albeit more from raging dark unicorn distraught over heliodor’s untimely first death than anything to do with phoenix fire—but he was still an extremely rare variant of an already uncommon species and with so many dignitaries around who would covet such a rare prize for their own courts, it would have just been more trouble than it was worth.

So, instead, at that moment he was standing guard on a provided birdstand over the Alicorn Amulet, which Razz had left in a secured box in her room.

That did, however, leave Razz with only her distant cousin Lockbox for company, though this discussion with Rainbow over ‘anime weapons’ certainly wasn’t getting anywhere productive.

“Because being able to have weapons made specifically for us, the first humans since ever to wield magic, to reflect our standing with Sunset, who is a Princess if this day means anything. Hey, what about a Big Fucking Sword?” asked Rainbow, evidently having given up on the magical weapons and just going for simple weapons of absurd size instead. “Like Dragon Slayer from Berserk! Maybe also his armor...though without the whole insanity thing.”

“How big are we talking?” asked Lockbox skeptically.

“Oh, somewhere north of 400 pounds. The armor also kind of looks like a werewolf and—"

“400 pounds?” Lockbox laughed. “Forgive me but you’re not an earth pony, and if what I’ve been told about Sunset’s inner circle, even though you may be magical, strength isn’t your specialty. Maybe a shield or something would be more your speed—like Flash Magnus in the old legends, his shield was strong enough to survive raw magma in the heart of a volcano without magic!”

“A shield?” scoffed Rainbow. “That’s totally uncool and I’m sure my counterpart would agree!” A thought then occurred to her. “Though, that Rising of the Shield Hero seems to be a new title everybody’s getting interested in.”

Lockbox turned to Razz, exasperated. “Do you have any idea what the hay she’s talking about?”

Razz shook her head. “Not a damn clue.”

“OH!” exclaimed Rainbow, slamming her hands down on the table dramatically. “What about the Master Sword?! The Blade of Evil’s Bane?”

“Blade of ‘Evil’s Bane’?” Lockbox shook her head. “Again, with magical weapons—because that’s what this ‘Master Sword’ seems to be based on the absolute lack of information you’ve provided—but the only things even comparable to having a pretentious title like that which I can think of are alicorn weapons, and those only really work by channeling the magic of the user, so it’s dependent on the magic level of the wielder. Obviously, somepony like, say, Princess Celestia is obscenely powerful in her own right, and the sword benefits from that. In your hooves...er…”

“Hands,” said Razz with a giggle.

“Yeah, those. Anyway, it wouldn’t really be any better than a regular sword. Probably worse, given that the magical core would try to absorb your magic, and just leave you exhausted.”

Just then, Razz felt her blood itch. A quick look at Lockbox confirmed she’d felt it, too.

“Hey, you two alright?” asked Rainbow, who seemed a bit more concerned about still not convincing Lockbox to forge her some kind of exotic weapon from human pop culture.

“It’s magic business,” said Razz, “ask Sunset to explain. Otherwise, nothing for you to worry about right now.” However, as she said that, she thought in the corner of her eye she saw a pegasus who seemed to be preoccupied in trying to hide in the crowd, with fidgety wings...and a hairclip.

Corner Shot?

Razz recalled the discussion with Sunset earlier about how she hoped this reception would go without a hitch. Razz was beginning to worry if she’d instead invoked the Rule of Magical Surety: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.

“...so that was when the Admiral decided to punish us by having him try out being our drill instructor. And it started with him blowing his whistle in our ears at five in the morning to make us run laps around the house,” said Adagio, recounting the beginning of what had become their first experience with Troubleshoes in his element as a military instructor.

“He also sprayed us with freezing water from the garden hose halfway through the—I wanna say fourteen?—laps, as if running in the chilly morning wasn’t bad enough,” added Sonata, shivering at the mere memory of being that cold. “It’s nothing compared to the kind of extreme training we used to do like Cycling.”

“That’s us being forced to exercise for twenty four hours straight,” explained Aira.

“Yeah, although if I’m brutally honest? I think the only reason that’s no longer on the table is because we have our lives as normal teenagers going to a prep school so we can’t actually be held at home to work out. Zacherle doesn’t have a football team—though there I think me and my sisters would still stand a fair chance against any regular old high school footballers.”

On the other side of the table, the local Adagio, Aria, and Sonata sat with varying faces of shock at the near horror stories being told to them. The triplets were taking a quick break from their guard duties and had run into their counterparts, so they took the opportunity to continue trading stories with each other.

“You had to suffer worse when you were part of the original SIREN?” asked siren Sonata.

Adagio nodded. “With the original SIREN, we were basically trained from birth to be killers. Sometimes, the Canadian government would use criminals as effectively live target practice to train the initiates so they would become numb to taking lives. I first shot a man to death when I was eight.” The absolute look of horror on pony Adagio’s face led to human Adagio quickly adding to her statement “In the old timeline, that is. My sisters and I still have the memory and the training from then, but in the new one, that never happened.”

“I couldn’t imagine making any new Hooves have to go through that,” remarked pony Aria. “Sure, we have a grueling initiation course to make sure all Hooves are prepared to defend the Princess and other Ladies against all conceivable threats, but there is no shame in flunking out—there are other ways to hold up our tribe’s promise to serve the Princess that are not as violent or, admittedly, as themed around domestic upkeep.”

“You were also born with magic powers,” pointed out human Aria. “You can hum a tune and make all kinds of things happen, including taking on a much larger form capable of flight. You sirens are pretty much born with magical advantages.”

Just then, a buzzer went off on Adagio’s phone. Pulling it out of her pocket, she noted which of the many timers on it had gone off. “Okay, ladies, break’s over, back to work.”

“Aye!” Sonata and Aria said in unison. The three sisters bid the other three sisters farewell before disappearing into the crowded masses.

“It’s always nice to talk with them,” said Sonata with a smile before adding somewhat less mirthfully, “Even if most of the details of their lives are quite frankly horrifying.”

“And yet they turned out alright. More than alright actually, if I understand their position in their new SIREN organization correctly,” said Aria, who took the opportunity to make sure her collapsible hoofheld crossbow and the ammunition was still safely accessible under her outfit.

“Well, they also had a point in that we have a job to get back to as well,” said Adagio.

However, no sooner had the trio started to part when as one they all saw what appeared to be a Hoof heading off into the depths of the castle.

“Who is that?” Adagio asked, pointing the figure out. Aria and Sonata looked up just in time to see a midnight blue tail disappear through a door leading to a hall outside of the reception area.

“Harmonica Glow? No. Bassoon Blast?” Sonata asked, then groaned. “There must be half a dozen Hooves with those colors!”

“Well, whoever it is seems to have left her post,” Aria pointed out, and the three of them exchanged a meaningful look.

Hooves weren’t in the habit of taking unscheduled breaks. If one of them was leaving her post, it could only mean there was trouble afoot.

“If something’s going on, she may need backup. C’mon,” ordered Adagio, and together the three of them headed out the door after her. The other Hoof was moving fast, and once or twice the triplets almost lost her, but eventually they caught up to her as she approached the main ballroom—the one closed and off limits due to the Allucinor Wing infestation—and the Hoof who was supposed to be guarding it, one Lentando Fury, was nowhere to be seen.

Adagio called out to her, but the other Hoof must not have heard her as she entered the ballroom without hesitation. So with a growing sense that something was very wrong, the three siren sisters followed her in.

The main ballroom was dark, lit only by the moonlight shining in from the windows and the blue bioluminescent glow from the hundreds of Allucinor cocoons covering the walls and ceiling. The other Hoof sat in the center of it, her back to them as she surveyed her surroundings. Adagio and her sisters wasted no time in approaching, snapping off sharp salutes when they saw the uniform of a senior Hoof.

“Hooves Dazzle, Blaze, and Dusk reporting,” Adagio stated. “What’s the situation, Ma’am?”

The figure turned, and the triplets recognized her as Latendo Fury herself. “Nothing that concerns you three.” She then flashed a smile that was closer to a sneer and said, “Why don’t you just run along, like good little dogs?”

Adagio knew that they had been given a direct order, but something about this whole situation seemed wrong.

“With all due respect, Ma’am, we’d like to be informed of the situation,” she said as she slowly reached for her collapsible spear. She only hoped Aria and Sonata had the presence of mind to go for their own weapons.

“Figures you three would try to interfere,” she groaned, before promptly letting out a subsonic wail that, with her siren powers, was more than enough to seemingly trigger every single Allucinor Wing cocoon in the ballroom to begin to hatch.

“Oh no,” gasped Aria, before turning back to Lentando. “What in Tartarus have you done, Lentando?”

“Why?” was all Sonata could ask.

“The fact you even need to ask is more proof of the problem!” Lentando shouted, promptly assuming her full siren form, clearly looking for a fight.

Whiskey felt extremely nervous as she walked behind Han’nya. Hardly a week ago, she wouldn’t have really felt anything—namely because under those old circumstances, he may have regarded her as much as the breeze in the cool evening air. It was made worse by the fact it had been his offer to return Whiskey to her life as Kashingo that she’d turned down in favor of life with the humans. They were not as prominent in kitsune mythology as they were in pony lore, but stories like the fabled Megan taking down an emperor in a bloody battle certainly were not unheard of.

“I know you’re there,” said Han’nya, catching the distracted Whiskey off guard. He turned to face her, but when he seemed to finally register the true nature of the human in front of him, he actually appeared startled.

“I’m sorry!” blurted Whiskey, old instincts immediately returning and she dropped to the ground in a deep bow, arms outstretched toward the ambassador.

Han’nya blinked in surprise, and then...laughed.

“Please, rise, Kash...no, that’s not who you are anymore, is it?” He stated, almost more amused than anything. “Ah, yes, Miss Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, I believe?”

“Y-yes?” she answered cautiously, rising only to a kneeling position—she may have abandoned her old ways but the senior officers had made it very clear to respect them when interacting with other cultures, even one that had formerly been her own. And Han’nya was certainly one who deserved respect.

“Please, stand up—the fault is mine, I was expecting...well, not a human, but I can tell you are the vixen formerly known as Kashingo, are you not?”

“I am her, your highness.” Whiskey stated as she got back to her feet.

Han’nya nodded. “Yes, I see now—if only to satisfy my curiosity, can you please take your true form?”

“Of...of course!” she stammered, and immediately a cloud of leaves swirled around her—where the young Japanese teen had been standing, in her place was a gold-and-black furred kitsune, but still clad in her SIREN outfit, the only difference being that the two ponytails having moved to their true place as actual fox tails sticking out of a hole in her pants.

“Very interesting…” the ambassador seemed to look Whiskey over, but not in a sexually predatory way as she had been so used to Fujitsu doing. No, Han’nya seemed to be inspecting her like a soldier, and the subtle nod suggested he...approved? “Very interesting indeed. I am glad that we have met in this circumstance. I had hoped for a chance to speak with you personally, Miss Whiskey.” He gestured to a nearby stone bench. “Will you sit with me?”

Nodding in turn, Whiskey wordlessly approached and sat down next to the ambassador. She kept a wary eye out, however; having been a retainer herself, she knew that no less than two other retainers were around, doing the same distanced shadowing she had been doing to Tavi earlier. And should they deem it necessary to attack her, Whiskey knew she would be no match; ambassadors typically had bodyguards with no less than four tails.

“Do not worry: they will not interrupt us,” reassured Han’nya, easily reading Whiskey like a book. “I knew you were there from the moment you followed me into the garden, but that was because you wanted me to.”

“Yes,” admitted Whiskey. “I know this is extremely outside of how Inari usually handle things, but—"

“Ahahahaha!” laughed Han’nya, startling Whiskey. “I’m aware, but the truth is, Miss Whiskey, you are quite unusual yourself. I have been keeping tabs on you ever since I learned what became of the former Kashingo. You are a very different individual to the one who arrived with that scandalous half brother of mine the other week, to which I dare say is for the better.”

“I wish to speak to you about that, namely…” she sighed. “I feel like I am not doing our people justice. I appreciate the gift of the swords you gave me, but the fact is I was given an almost unheard of chance to redeem myself after being kicked out of my clan by Fujitsu. And I turned it down because...because I honestly prefer my new life as Whiskey. I couldn’t go back to being Kashingo. And I don’t know if that is worse than simply having been stripped of my position, and even my name, in the first place.”

Han’nya did not immediately respond, taking time to consider his words carefully. “Given how our culture raises swordvixens like you and what you have endured, I can see why you think that. But...if I am to be honest, it was not you who wronged our ways, it was our ways that wronged you.” Han’nya shook his head in disgust as he added “Fujitsu had no right to kick you out over such a trivial matter, especially given the so-called ‘offended party’ took no offense at all. I have the testimony of Princess Sunset herself on that, and I would think that Equestria’s newest princess is a word to back.

“Furthermore, he had the audacity to flippantly disobey a direct command—even after I told him in no uncertain terms—to attempt to kidnap not only part of Sunset’s family, but one from a completely different world? The fool could have caused a crisis between worlds on a scale he can’t even comprehend, all because he sought the clouds and rain with a human. He has done much to damage the relations between Inari and Equestria, and even the human realm as well, though Princess Sunset has assured me she would do her best to intercede in that regard.” Han’nya then turned to Whiskey, “But that’s why I’m glad you chose not to come back as Kashingo.”

“You’re...glad?”

“Indeed. There is much that can be learned from the current state of affairs, where the humans of another world first establish relations with Equestria challenge the old myths. And their first real impression they have of our people, the Inari, is that one of them—a noble, no less—wanted to take one of their daughters by force to be, if I remember the term correctly, a ‘trophy wife’. No amount of diplomacy is going to settle that problem, not immediately. That takes trust, and trust can only be earned over time.” He looked at her intently, adding, “And they trust you implicitly. You are, after all, the first non-human who was chosen for Princess Sunset’s personal guard, over any member in the actual Equestrian armed forces.

“I understand you will wear your human disguise almost perpetually while you live in that world, but even so, you represent all of Inari should the time come when you must reveal who you really are. It is not your own honor that you must redeem, because you never truly lost it—it’s the honor of all kitsunejin that you will uphold, for no other kitsune is so trusted with the life of an Equestrian noble.”

“I...thank you…” Whiskey was truly taken aback. She hadn’t expected the conversation to go where it had, but it certainly had led her to revisualize where she stood. The realization that she was the only frame of reference that an entire civilization would have for her kind...it was a lot to take in.

“Now, I expect that you should get back to being a, ah, ‘SIREN’ I do believe, but before you go, is there anything you’d like me to take back to Inari? For instance, a message?”

“Actually, yes, if you could tell my clan back home that—”

Before Whiskey could finish, two four-tailed kitsune swordvixens appeared, looking clearly agitated. “Your highness, we must depart with haste” one of them said. Then turning to Whiskey, added, “And you need to return to your forces—they will have need of you shortly.”

“What’s going on?” he asked, standing up immediately. The answer provided itself as a worryingly familiar looking blue butterfly appeared hovering above them all, fluttering toward Han’nya—and only stopped when one of the vixens quickly drew her sword and sliced it in half.

Instinctively, Whiskey turned toward the ballroom where she’d followed Han’nya out...and gasped. Hundreds of similar blue butterflies were pouring out from the windows.

Chapter 9 - Butterfly Effect, Part 1

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GAOA Chapter 9—Butterfly Effect

To be a Hoof and uphold the siren’s promise to protect Celestia—to repay their eternal debt of her having saved them from the evils of the corrupt Cantata Blast—the training was rigorous and secretive. Nothing like what their counterparts, the human SIRENS, would undergo, but defending the princess was serious business indeed. Regular combat drills where sirens fought each other in controlled sparring was a regular occurance.

But to the three newest among the Hooves? That training against their superior ranking fellow sirens had been nothing like what they had to deal with now. Namely: a senior Hoof having gone rogue and endangering not only the Princess and Ladies she was sworn to protect, but countless other individuals, by unleashing a swarm of mindshredding butterflies.

“Siren form!” shouted Adagio as the three split up when Lentando immediately swung her own weapon—a Thagomizer spike attachment for her tail—at the trio, driving it hard enough that it cracked the marble floor where they’d been only moments prior, “NOW!”

In unison, the trio burst into flashes of light, replaced in their own aquatic-yet-flight-capable siren forms. The enhanced mobility however was not as great as it seemed since all around them, the Allucinor Wings were so tightly packed into the ballroom.

“This is crazy!” shouted Aria, “You of all ponies would know how dangerous this is to literally everypony!"

“PONY THIS!” roared Lentando, PONY THAT! Did it ever occur to you three naiads at how far pony society has assimilated our kind?! Our ancestral home is a bloody tourist attraction on the level of Hoofalulu! If the ponies have their way, sirens will be nothing more than just another subspecies just like the bats and the lamias!

Naiads?” repeated Sonata, ducking to avoid some Allucinors that flew right at her face. That was the term that technically was supposed to be used to refer to young sirens, but since sirens were so enfolded into pony culture as Lentando pointed out, normally the term was purely reserved for use in paperwork within the Hooves management structure alone—all other situations had long since defaulted to ‘Everypony’. The fact Lentando was specifically using their species-exclusive terminology and was going on about how much she apparently disliked Equestrian culture…

“You are not seriously channeling Queen Cantata here,” shouted Adagio, stating what she and her sisters already feared was the case. Cantata and the Black Sirens—Contralto Rush, Canizone Burst, and Medley Trance—had plunged their entire species into a pointless war over trying to overcome what was a blatantly biological issue of relying on ponies to continue their species. On the same premise that Lentando seemed to have convinced herself of. “You took an oath as a Hoof!”

“Nothing but empty words!” Lentando’s face then scowled as she seemed to be disappointed in something. “And here I thought the Allucinors would have taken care of you three already, I guess you’re so complacent you don’t have any strong desires anyway.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” demanded Aria, who got her answer when Lentando charged her and, with that spiked tail weapon, smashed open one of the ballroom windows. Immediately, Allucinors began to pour out of the new opening.

“Stop this!” shouted Adagio, racing toward Lentando with her spear—despite having less dexterous hooves in siren form, Hooves were still perfectly capable of wielding their weapons. And on paper, it looked like Adagio should have easily trumped the limb held weapon-less Lentando, but the senior Hoof’s skills with a mere tail attachment proved to be more than equally up to the task.

“It’s already too late!” laughed Lentando, beating away Adagio with another swing of her mace-like tail. “You three can’t possibly hope to defeat me and stop the Allucinors!” And as if to underscore her point, she then raced to another window and smashed that open as well, allowing even more Allucinors to escape.

Regrouping, the three sane hooves looked at each other with grave concern. Lentando was right—how exactly were they supposed to stop hundreds, maybe thousands of butterflies while the insane Hoof in front of them was attacking at the same time?

Gritting her teeth, Adagio made the call. “Forget the butterflies!” she told her sisters, “We’ll have to leave it to the guards—focus on taking this crazy bitch down!”

In the auxiliary ballroom where the reception was being held, chaos was already beginning to reign—and Discord was nowhere to be found. It had taken almost no time at all for the Allucinor Wings to start latching onto any of the party goers that offered a tantalizing mix of both magical power and/or desire.

“Get this place evacuated!” shouted Marimba Rondo, who had only realized the scope of the situation when some random stallion had suddenly tried to make out with her, with one of those Celestia-damned mind bugs attached to his head . The fact that the room was beginning to fill with the blue bugs made evacuation the only option.

But no sooner had Marimba taken care of the unwanted affection, than did she suddenly take a hard blow to the side of her head. Recovering quickly, she blocked the second attack and was shocked to discover it was one of the waiters.

“This is your end, pet of the tyrant!” the waiter screamed.

“Oh I am so done with this,” groaned Marimba, using the stallion’s own limb as leverage to vault over him and deliver a flying axe kick onto his back. He went down wailing in pain as the Hoof hit her mark dead center, spraining his back muscles. No sooner had she touched back down then did she follow up with a punch that knocked him out cold. But she had no time to dwell on the victory as she looked up and knew rallying the Hooves was going to be extremely difficult.

What was worse, the fact the butterflies were here meant something had happened to Lentando. She was supposed to have prevented this—what had gone so wrong?

“Quickly, my princess!” said Divine Right, gesturing with his foreleg as the guards quickly began hustling the princesses out of the ballroom and to a safe room. Following the incident with Tirek, some of the more loyal nobles had gotten quite paranoid about some other magical ne'er-do-well stealing all the magic of the princesses—one even citing something about a weird blue monkey with a fixation on the weather—they had insisted on a magical safe room being installed in the castle. Not that it would have really stopped Tirek, but it wasn’t like the princesses had been using the room behind the thrones for anything much for years at that point anyway, at least not since the Elements of Harmony had been returned to the Tree.

But still, it brought Celestia absolutely no pleasure that the reception for Sunset, her daughter was ruined by these events, and after everything Celestia had gone through, it was enough to make her dangerously start veering into territory that Luna had embraced a thousand years ago.

You know you want to, that voice in Celestia’s head whispered. A little force to show who’s boss, to remind everypony that you aren’t just a stupid tall mare who goes ‘oh, look, my wings are so pretty!’ when nopony’s looking.

“Shut. Up,” mentally thought Celestia, remaining focused on retreating to the saferoom. She was more worried about Sunset, who had stayed behind to make sure the human contingent were okay. The solar princess feared what might happen if another Allucinor happened to sink its venom into Sunset.

Of course, if you’d stop holding back and use your full power, you never need worry about your loved ones again. Celestia blinked away the mental image of herself, far different from what she wanted to be. A mane and tail of fire wreathed a figure who laughed at her.

“Me and by big mouth!” groaned Razz, who fired off dark magic blasts, causing two of the now hostile waiters to get stuck in the ground with dark crystal anchoring them to the ground. No sooner had she and Lockbox noted the worryingly familiar blue butterflies than had the wait staff suddenly began attacking the guards indiscriminately.

“Who the hell is attacking the capital this time?!” exclaimed Lockbox, whose chains had come out in force now and were busy tossing waiters into each other, using their own bodies as flying bludgeons.

“Take a wild guess!” It didn’t take a genius to figure out that the Covenant was behind this, and much to Razz’s chagrin, she had a sneaking suspicion she knew one major player in this—that damn bartender. Wallbreaker had mentioned something about some asshole running around as a Covenant recruiter, preaching about faith while serving up drinks, and what had that bartender who suspiciously had never given a name gone on about? Fucking faith.

How didn’t I realize it before? She was going to hunt that fucker down, that much was sure. But first, she was going to have words with the dragon ambassador Flambé—that fat fuck had insisted that the Allucinor Wings not be moved, but look what had happened! She certainly was going to recommend Celestia force the dragons to help clean up this damn mess since it had only been set up at their request and—

“NGHHAAA!” she screamed, collapsing to the ground as a sharp pain radiated from her right foreleg. Curling into a defensive ball, she didn’t even think about her actions when she reverted to her true corrupted form and ripped out the thing that was ledged into her foreleg with her fangs. But as soon as the metallic clink rang out from the feather knife hitting the floor, Razz paled.

“So, we finally meet!” Lockbox could be heard shouting from behind. Razz, getting back onto her hooves despite the pain—it would heal quickly enough after all given her powers—turned to face the commotion and saw Lockbox was confronting—who else? Corner Shot, who had shed her hair clip—revealing her green fur coat and those dark wing racks on her pegasus appendages— and was hovering over the ground a short distance, but still high enough that she could deftly dodge the skyrocketing chains Lockbox was trying to entangle her with.

“That the best you got?” Corner shouted back, doing a spin in the air before deftly taking several knives in one hoof and throwing it at Lockbox—the unicorn immediately forming a shield from multiple chains swirled together.

“That the best you got?!” countered Lockbox, who deftly managed to grab Corner’s rear leg with a chain and bring the surprised pegasus crashing into the ground.

“Quickly, tie her down!” shouted Razz to Lockbox, while the Sombraic unicorn was using her magic to quickly incapacitate more waiters.

“On it!” replied Lockbox, but before she could, Corner recovered and instead rushed Lockbox. The unicorn blacksmith, not expecting the sudden charge, took the blow head on and the two tumbled backwards.

“I don’t have time for pleasantries!” said Corner, who withdrew another knife—one that in the split second Lockbox had seen it, she noted had a very blunt edge instead of the razor sharp blades the pegasus had been using up to that point—and brought it down on Lockbox. However, instead of simply driving itself into her flesh, the knife instead failed to even scratch the surface—but that wasn’t its purpose. Instead, both it and Lockbox in full simply vanished in a flash of light.

“LOCKBOX!” screamed Razz, who managed to look over just in time to see the other unicorn disappear, before another one of the blunt knives suddenly was in the air and without any time to react, it too made contact with Razz and promptly disappeared with her in tow.
Getting to her hooves, Corner noted that she was relatively safe in the now empty void within the chaos of ponies going crazy and the wait staff attacking anypony who could establish any sense of order.

“Hey, pool brain!” one of the imprisoned waiters called out, “give us a helping hoof here?”

“She’s got bigger fish to fry!” came another voice, and soon enough Corner found herself joined by—who else—Barkeep. In the middle of all the chaos, he’d gone and mixed himself a rather foul-smelling cocktail.

Corner leaned over, took a whiff, and immediately recoiled. “What the fuck even is that?!”

“It’s called the ‘Sudden Death in the Afternoon’—you take a heaping large fuckin’ amount of Spiritus Faustus, mix in a little absinthe, a few splashes of sparkling wine, and finish with a nice lemon twist. Most ponies take one sip and it knocks ‘em stiff!” He held out the beer stein filled with the potion, “Want some?”

“Uh, I’ll pass.” Corner then cleared her throat and continued. “Anyway, just took down two of the targets, going to take care of the third before moving on to the second objective.”

“Alrighty, you go do that—I’ve got a meeting with her royal snootiness.”

Corner just rolled her eyes before departing once again into the chaos. Barkeep for his part, simply drained the whole mug in one go before tossing it callously behind him. “Alright, you two idiots,” he said, approaching the trapped waiters and using his earth pony strength to break the weak crystal holding them down. “Come with me, I need ya.”

“Octavia?” called out Blueblood, “OCTAVIA!”

When the chaos had begun, Blu immediately had gone to protect Tavi, but that had been short lived. As luck would have it, Allucinors had attached themselves to several Pegasi who had, evidently, all wanted to get into singing or something, and thus they’d all flown up to the big chandelier and planted themselves on it. The absolutely terrible cacophony that rang out mercifully only lasted a few seconds, however, as the weight of all the ponies was too much for the delicate furnishing and it immediately came crashing down. In the ensuing extra chaos (on top of the existing chaos), Blu had lost Tavi and was frantically trying to relocate her.

“There he is, girls!” shouted a strangely familiar voice, and as Blu turned, he saw none other than Autumn Blaze, Allucinor firmly attached to her head. Behind her were two other Kirin with similar adornments, and it was very, very clear what they wanted.

It wasn’t like they’d been at all subtle about it even before the Allucinors.

Damn you, Rainshine! Blu swore internally as he promptly started fleeing the scene. Now he had to find Tavi while also simultaneously avoiding extra horny Kirin. And then life got even more difficult when he got blindsided by a pony that somehow materialized out of the rolling chaotic crowds.

“There you are, my Blueblood!” said Heatherfield, who also had an Allucinor attached to her head.

“Fuck. Me.” cursed Blu, before realizing his extremely poor choice of words.

“With pleasure!” gleefully exclaimed Heatherfield.

“HEY!” came the loud, almost demonically changed voice of Autumn Blaze, who emerged as some kind of fire demon creature and tackled Heatherfield off Blu. “HE’S OURS!”

Blu wasn’t sure how to feel about arcane powers being awakened because of mares literally fighting over who would have the right to have sex with him. So instead he just opted to stop talking and try to find Tavi instead—trying to break up the fight between Heatherfield and the three crazed kirin probably would have just ended up with them all trying to screw him at once, and Blu was just so tired of his fake persona he didn’t even want to begin trying to work his way out of that fivesome.

“There, that should be the last of it,” said Sunset, her horn de-powering after applying the last spell. The first thing that Sunset had done when she had realized the butterflies were loose was gather her family and friends safely into a side room and promptly cast a counterspell ward which would make them immune from the Allucinor Wings. The absolute last thing Sunset needed was for one of those damn things to make her start doing the horizontal mambo with Pinkie or for one of her other friends to start getting freaky because of those fucking butterflies.

“Thanks, Sunny,” said Fluttershy, rubbing the back of her neck where the spell had been applied—she’d been the last since, being Fluttershy, she stood the best chance of literally talking the butterflies away. But Sunset was taking no chances and evidently neither were her protection detail.

“We need to get out of here,” said Sable. The triplets were at the door, propped open slightly but weapons drawn as the chaos outside ensued as guards, Hooves, and the rest of the SIRENs were trying to bring order. “Does this castle have a safe room?”

“Yeah,” said Sunset, “it’s behind the Platinum Throne, in the throne room, it used to be just a vault but they recently upgraded it to a full blown panic room. I got myself locked in there once when I was still a filly and—"

“We get it, your magical horsey childhood,” drolled Aria, “but do you know the way there from here?”

“If you can find one of the Hooves, they can take you there—I’m needed here,” said Sunset, her horn lighting up with righteous fury.

“Negative—your safety is more important,” said Sonata, “Besides, we're not letting you die again for our sakes.”

“Please, Sunny, let’s just get out of here!” begged Twily. Sunset turned and saw the looks of concern in the eyes of her entire human supporting group...though Tavi seemed distracted.

“Tavi, what’s bothering you?” asked Sunset.

“Blu’s still out there!” she said, “He—"

“—will be fine,” insisted the maize alicorn, “they wouldn’t have made him the head of the Agency if he couldn’t get himself out of a shitshow like this.” Then she turned to Sable. “Alright, Admiral, when you think it’s a good time to move, we need to exit through the western door.”

“Right,” he replied, before turning to the triplets. “You three take up guarding the back, Sunset and I will lead.”

“Roger,” they replied in unison.

Sable then turned to the rest of the humans. “All of you, stay close and do not try to be heroes,” he said, seemingly focusing in on Rainbow Dash on that statement.

“Hey, why the discrimination?!” she explained.

“If what your two educators have told me about you is true, Ms. Dash, you especially need to cut down on the, and I quote Luna here, “Leroy Jenkins-ing””

“Who the hell is Leroy Jenk—"

“MOVE!” interrupted Sable, after seeing an opening in the chaos outside appear, “NOW!”

With the rather slapdash plan in place, the whole group of humans rushed out the door and towards safety. While the SIRENs focused on crowd control, Sunset continued to blast any Allucinors that approached—they’d messed with her head once before, and she wasn’t going to let that happen again. As they slowly made their way across the expensive marble floor tiles, Sunset gave a laser-like focus on taking out the threats to the point of practically ignoring all else.

Amazingly, it seemed to be working, as absolutely none of the partakers in the chaos seemed to even notice the sixteen humans and one alicorn princess making a straight beeline across the virtual battlefield that had become the ballroom.

Or that was what they thought up to the point they all got through the door into the relatively empty corridors. Because no sooner had they broken through than did Corner Shot make her ambush from the far end of the corridor, with Sunset Shimmer dead in her sights. With the defenders completely focused on the other threats, there was no way for them to stop her if she hit that 8-ball just right.

And so she did.

Wordlessly she unleashed a volley of her feathery missiles at Sunset. The Alicorn and her protectors were so focused on their original targets, they’d let the barrage slip through and even at this range, there was going to be no way for Sunset to stop all of them without switching spells.

So it was to her surprise that Tavi, sensing her cousin was in danger, darted out to take the blow. “NO!” Shouted Tavi, moving just in the nick of time to shove Sunset out of the way, but not fast enough to avoid getting hit herself. In a flash of light, she vanished.

Acting on pure adrenaline, the triplets had already pulled out their firearms and were pouring lead in Corner’s general direction. But it was to no avail, as Corner tapped her hairpin, activating an emergency short-range teleport.

“FUCK!” swore Corner, who immediately dashed back behind a wall which suddenly started resembling eyed cheese as anti-personnel ammunition slammed through the relatively weak wooden walls. While she’d gotten away immediately, there was still some distance to put between her and the soon-to-be-pissed-off alicorn—and it was clear that the weapons those humans used required even more space.

Regardless, she’d failed: that stupid bitch human had taken the hit for Sunset and now the Covenant had a silly human instead of the final Scion! What made it worse was that the Covenant had only supplied Corner with a limited amount of teleportation knives, and they were now all spent. Furthermore, the element of surprise was gone and with it any other chance of potentially capturing Sunset via other means.

“Guess it’s onto the second phase then,” she grunted in annoyance, departing out of sight.

“We gotta keep moving!” barked Sable when it was evident that the triplets were just pouring ammo into nothing.

“But what about Tavi?!” shouted Sunset, “We don’t know—"

“They’re going for you, Sunny!” Adagio growled, getting into the alicorn’s face, “Right now, we have a job to do and we need to get you and everyone else to safety! You can monster mash through the tulips on these fuckers after the castle is secured!”

“CLEAR!” shouted Aria, who had bravely scouted ahead and saw there was nothing in the way. Without looking back, she motioned for the group of humans to follow.

“These fuckers are going to wish it was the monster mash when I’m done with them,” growled Sunset, “because that would be me going easy on their sorry asses!” It only then occurred to Sunset she had no idea what a ‘monster mash’ even was, but she opted to keep that to herself given the present circumstances.


Pinkie stepped out of the group. “I’ll go,” she said. “We need to stop these freaky butterflies, anyway.”

“No,” Sable said. “Too dangerous.”

“I didn’t ask.” The man looked at the teenage girl and something in the normally-bubbly teen had changed. She suddenly didn’t seem, attire aside, very much different from the three other heavily-armed teens he was in charge of.

Before he could say anything further, she went over to Sonata. “Soni, give me your knife.”

“I’m not sure that’s a good idea, Pinkie,” the youngest triplet commented.

In response to that, without even so much as batting an eye, Pinkie pulled Sonata’s EK Commando knife, turned and threw the blade. The blade effortlessly speared an Allucinor that was just about to connect with Cadance’s head. By the time Cadance flinched in shock and surprise, the creature was impaled on the wall.

Pinkie then folded her arms and looked at Sable evenly.

“This goes against my better judgement.” Adagio reached into her blazer and pulled a small satchel from an inner pocket. “You be careful, okay?”

Pinkie opened the satchel to find a batch of KA-BAR throwing knives.

“You can count on it, Dagi,” Pinkie promised, turning to give Sunset a brief unreadable glance before running down the hallway in the opposite direction.

Sunset looked at her, suddenly feeling helpless. But there was nothing more she could do as Sable and co. ushered them on—if one Allucinor could get to them, there were likely others still between them and safety.

“Stop!” shouted one of the guards before promptly getting knocked out from a well thrown beer stein—Barkeep had decided to pick up his discarded mug specifically so when he threw it again, it actually would hit something meaningful besides the floor. The other gate guard was quickly taken out by the two Covenant ponies disguised as waiters.

“Nah, I’ll take the suggestion under advisement, but I think your terms are unacceptable,” jested Barkeep to the unconscious guard. He then turned to the waiters he’d dragged with him. “Open the gate.”

As the two entered the little box that held the gate controls, the massive metal gates opened up to reveal an already waiting crowd of ponies. Of all races and colors, they shared a similar background in that they’d been hit hardest by the long winter and to that end, they really did not have high opinions of the current government.

To Barkeep, he only thought of the lot as ‘useful idiots’ and were otherwise worthless. He resented the fact they were only in this for themselves. They needed to be brought into the realm of the educated, the realm that believed in the true Lord. But he could work with what he had at the moment.

“Alright, you scraggly bastards!” he shouted at the crowd. “Who here thinks the alicorns are doing a good job of running this country?”

The overwhelming negative noises that came from the crowd gave him a grin.

“I thought so! And I bet you all want to give them all a piece of your minds right?”

A chorus of cheers sounded out.

“Well then!” He backed up, swinging a foreleg wide and behind him. “Let’s all go tell those giraffe necked bitches exactly what we think of them and how unhappy we are with their manner of rule!”

“UNGH!” grunted Sonata, the force of being slammed into the back wall of the ballroom taking its toll as she couldn’t even manage the strength to keep flying, instead sliding down the wall and collapsing on the floor beneath. Aria was already knocked out cold on the other side of the room, a bloody wound on one of her forelegs where she couldn’t effectively block Lentando’s Thagomizer in time.

Adagio was not in much better condition. Despite it having been three on one, Lentando’s senior status and moreover experience had proven superior. Adagio had never felt so alone and helpless.

“Look at you pathetic minnows!” said Lentando, feinting with her Thagomizer and then delivering a mean punch into the side of Adagio, sending the siren flying into one of the solid stone columns. “All three of you—you’re nothing but ponies in scaled clothing!”

Adagio knew she was outmatched, so instead tried to play for time. By now, the Allucinors would be causing absolute mayhem throughout the rest of the castle. Somepony was bound to come check on what had happened to the ballroom they’d all come from.

“So, I take it you were the one who supplied Simple Science with the original Allucinor Wing, then?” she asked, hoping to get her opponent talking.

“No, I only gave it to my contact in the Covenant of Shadows,” Latendo explained. “He gave it to that idiot scientist.”

“Huh. Never would have figured you for a Sombra fanatic!”

The barb clearly hit its mark, and Latendo lunged at her with another attack, but in her rage, telegraphed it so clearly that even with the huge disparity of skill between them, Adagio was still able to parry with ease.

“Oh, please! Those Covenant fools are just a means to an end,” Latendo monologued, hardly able to stop herself now that she was going.

Good, Adagio thought as Latendo continued, “I couldn’t risk being discovered before the big night, so I used that filthy bartender as my patsy. Even convinced him the whole Allucinor plan was his idea. It wasn’t hard; all I had to do was sing the suggestion to him.” Then with a glower, Latendo added, “That our kind now refuses to use our greatest ability is just more proof of our subjugation! Tell me, why should our entire race be made to suffer for the sins of our forebears?”

“Oh? We were suffering?” Adagio asked mockingly. “I hadn’t noticed!”

“Because you’re blind!” Latendo jabbed at Adagio with her tail weapon again, and again Adagio deflected it. It clearly wasn’t meant to do any damage; just another probe at her defenses.

“Maybe you’re the one who needs her vision checked,” Adagio countered, using her swords to do a little probing of her own. “Because even I can see that helping a cult that worships King Sombra is a bad move!”

Latendo opened her mouth, a retort already on its way, but then she hesitated. A smile crept across her scaly face. “Y’know? Maybe my eyesight really isn’t what it used to be. After all, it’s taken me this long to realize that you’re stalling!” Then Latendo lunged at her with a full body check, pinning Adagio to the wall as her speared tail came over her shoulder to strike, this time with intent to kill. “And that is not our way!” Fortunately, Adagio managed to move her head to narrowly avoid getting it skewered.

“What are you even talking about?” said Adagio, wincing from the pain but still dodging the follow up punch.

“I’ve bothered to read up on our culture! Before we got all namby-pamby with the ponies, sirens would finish off their enemies as fast as possible!” She did a somersault in the air, the spikes on her tail coming dangerously close to Adagio’s face. She was able to dodge getting hit in the face...not so much getting spiked through one of her dorsal fins. The spikes tore through and blood gushed from the wound. Never having experienced a dorsal tear, the pain was great enough to finally send Adagio crashing into the ground. “Trying to reason things out? Bah! What a pony thing to do!”

“I’m sure your dad must be so proud,” snapped back Adagio, trying to get up and failing. “After all, a male siren certainly has to have high standards.”

“Male siren?” asked Lentando, before realizing what Adagio was annoyingly pointing out—that for all her bluster, Lentando was half pony herself. Lentando tried to ignore it, “He doesn’t have anything to do with this!”

“He has everything to do with it! We’re not an all-female species, you dumbass! What, did you think we suddenly became whiptail lizards or something?”

“I’m about to whip you to death! It’s only a shame you won’t live to see the resurgence of our species...” said the rogue Hoof, swinging her Thagomizer right at the downed siren’s head…

...only for there to be a deep metallic CLANG noise, followed by one of the Thagomizer spikes embedding itself into a column far away from Lentando.

Adagio, who had closed her eyes in readiness for the end, opened them when she realized she was neither dead nor in any more pain than she was already in. She saw, standing above her, a kitsune dressed in the SIREN clothing, and brandishing a sword made of a metal Adagio had never seen before, given the glowing golden veins in the blade.

“Clearly, loyalty and honor mean nothing to you, it seems,” said Whiskey, looking the larger Lentando dead in the eye. “Unfortunately for you, it means everything to me!”

“One of Sunset’s guards, hmmm?” Lentando didn’t seem impressed, though Whiskey could tell from subtle eye movement that cutting off one of those tail spikes had definitely alarmed the fishy bitch. “I guess you’re that disgraced kitsune Sunset picked up out of pity.”

“Enough talk,” demanded Whiskey, not lowering her sword, “surrender, or else I will take you down.”

“You couldn’t even make it as an Inari swordsvixen!” laughed Lentando. “What makes you think you can take on a Hoof?”

“Because you’re not a Hoof—Hooves have an oath to keep. And I’ve got mine to Sunset to uphold!”

“Your funeral!” Lendando rushed Whiskey, who dodged nimbly and out of the way. Lentando had counted on this and oriented the momentum of her Thagomizer to impale the golden furred bitch. But what she didn’t count on was the vixen being able to change her own course of trajectory so that the Thagomizer spikes, instead of being the cause of her death, turned into platforms which she used to get up higher on Lentando.

“Or maybe yours!” said Whiskey, who had taken her daito out and drove it into Lentando’s back. The wounded siren shrieked in pain, the sudden 180 in the battle’s direction not at all factoring into how she could fix things—the major downside of specializing in Thagomizer combat was it was not good for true close quarters combat as it posed more self-harm than enemy harm.

And to put the cherry on top of it all, Lentando only realized too late that she’d been distracted and flew head first right into a wall, hard enough that it knocked her out cold. Slumping to the ground like a lead snake, her brief stint as a rogue Hoof at an end.

Whiskey, who had already removed her smaller sword, rushed back over to the wounded Adagio. “Miss Dazzle!” she exclaimed, “are you okay?”

“I’ll live,” she said, grinning weakly. “But you have to stay here—my sisters and I are in no condition to move and we can’t risk that bitch over there getting away.”

“Oh, she’s not going anywhere” a new voice said, and as Whiskey looked over, Marimba Rondo and several other Hooves, all of whom looked worse for wear. A gesture with her head and three of the Hooves with medical gear quickly headed for the downed triplets. “Never thought I’d be the Castellan who had to deal with the first rogue Hoof.”

“Castellan Rondo,” stated Whiskey, bowing with respect, “I need to get back to my own unit.”

“Go, take two of my Hooves with you; once we get this shitshow secured—because the Lunadamned one downstairs certainly isn’t—we’ll try to reconvene. We’ve got to prepare for the counterattack!”

Sunset’s own personal group had survived navigating the halls of Canterlot Castle relatively unmolested following the attack that had simply made Octavia vanish into thin air. The rest of the humans meanwhile had only needed to fend off the occasional straggler of the Covenant or one of the reception guests who had been driven off thanks to mental butterfly mind control. Fortunately, the latter all seemed to simply be out of it, as if drunk, while the former were driven off with some gunfire and demonstrations of magic which would intimidate any single pony.

“The throne room is just ahead,” said Aria, noting the familiar architecture. “Let’s hope there’s enough room in the saferoom for all of us…”

“It’s a room enchanted to be bigger on the inside,” said Softwing, “it’s supposed to be able to handle the entire complement of palace staff in addition to Princess Celestia herself.

Just the one princess?” asked human Night Light.

“When it was built, there was only her. We’ve gotten a number of new princesses back—either returned from exile or otherwise. And with them, a whole lot more staff.”

“It’ll have to work,” grunted Adagio, but as she looked around the last corner to make sure it was clear—it most certainly wasn’t. The massive crowd of angry ponies—complete with torches and pitchforks of course—was now storming the throne room. There was no way they were getting in.

“Fuck!” swore Sonata, “What are we going to do now?!”

Velvet put a hand to her head in disbelief. “At least Spike is still in his room and away from all this.”

“Wait, what?” asked Sunset, before she made the connection. “That’s it!”

“What’s it?” asked Aria.

“The apartments! They’re far enough and protected—we’ll be safe there! Hold on, let me teleport us all.”

“No,” Sable told her. “We don’t know where the majority of the infestation is. We could be jumping right into the center of it.” He looked at his charges. “Okay you three, go check it out,” he said, and the triplets immediately blazed a trail for the apartments.

Barkeep had not missed the fact there had been a group of individuals who had tried to get into the throne room and had stayed out of sight just behind a wall, before retreating. And he was sure of the little details he’d been able to make out, there had been a vivid crimson and yellow tail.

“Did that pool hussy fail to even do that part of her job to get the last Scion?” he idly asked himself, before shaking his head. He’d let Neon Lux handle the punishment for her failure—it wasn’t Barkeep’s place to be concerned. No, he had a far more important role as he strode up the center of the throne room, itself filled with the song of angry ponies wanting the heads of the alicorns. The gold and silver thrones had been knocked over, and the platinum was tipped backwards. The safe room was just beyond, hidden behind a wall with a magical horn lock. That meant none of the rabble could get in...but it also meant only one way out for those inside, and that had been what Barkeep had been counting on.

Casually, he walked right up to the door and rapped his hoof on it. “‘Scuse me!” he shouted with a manic grin, “but do you have a moment to talk about our lord and savior; King Sombra?”

Chapter 10 - Butterfly Effect, Part 2

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GAOA Chapter 10—Butterfly Effect, Part 2

Taking care to step around the unconscious bird of fire, Corner Shot couldn’t believe how easy it had been to take out Razz’s pet. Granted, when Chrysoberyl had basically shoved onto her the collapsable blowpipe and a dart with enough sedative to knock out a minotaur, Corner had been skeptical...but she couldn’t argue with the results. The birdbrain hadn’t even noticed the opened door or the long stick until the needled dart had already hit him in the chest.

Corner had no idea how long the sedative would last, though, so she had to make it quick. Fortunately, it wasn’t like the Amulet was exactly hard to find—evidently Razz had thought it just enough protection to post her phoenix in front of the chest containing the stupid trinket. And really, under normal circumstances, she’d have been right.

“Especially since I’ve been reduced to a lowly cat burglar,” grumbled Corner. In truth, she wasn’t even sure why she was doing this, only that the Covenant required it and she’d been taught since she could remember that the Covenant was good, was her family, and that the existing government was evil. But ever since she’d put down Tilled Fields...she found herself questioning everything more and more. But once all the Scions were gathered, along with the Amulet and the Mirror—there was a separate team that was retrieving that with the help of the insider Wonderbolt, Skysmear or whatever—then this Scion destiny thing could be resolved and maybe it could be put behind her.

Then, no sooner had she secured the Amulet inside her small saddlebag which she’d smuggled into the reception, than did she sense something else behind her. She spun around, knives drawn, and looked into three sets of very familiar eyes.

“Nowhere to run this time, bitch!” snarled Adagio, drawing a bead right between Corner’s eyes, with her equally vengeful sisters doing the same. They obviously wanted a rematch after Corner had kicked their asses last time, except now they were in full human form and had even more dangerous weapons.

Of course, this time, Corner had absolutely no reason to stick around. She’d gotten...most of what she came for and without any more teleport knives, Sunset was still out of the Covenant’s reach for now.

“Who said anything about running?” snapped Corner...before promptly hurling herself out the convenient window. The cuts from the glass hurt like hell but she had enough wing control to safely land on the ground below and vanish into the shadows.

“Goddammit!” hissed Adagio, racing to the window and pointing the gun out of it, but Corner was long gone by then.

Alongside her fellow princesses (at least, all but the newest) and a handful of guards and assorted castle staff, Princess Celestia sat uneasily within the confines of the castle saferoom. When it first became apparent that Sunset wasn’t going to make it inside, it took all three of the other alicorns in the room to keep her from going out and getting her daughter personally, as well as going on the warpath against anypony who would dare to try harming her.

“Sunset has incredibly skilled protectors who will not fail her,” Luna had told her.

“Besides, she’s more than capable of taking care of herself,” Twilight added, and Cadance nodded in agreement.

Celestia knew they were right, of course, but didn’t feel any better about sitting in heavily-armored safety while her daughter was still out there in the thick of it.

“With all due respect, Your Highness, you and yours are too important to risk yourselves needlessly,” Divine Right said diplomatically. “Especially with so many Allucinors out there. Could you imagine what would happen if any of them were to get to you?”

Now there was a terrifying prospect, and one that ultimately convinced Celestia that staying put was the right choice. Her ponies needed her to be a leader, after all, and she couldn’t do that while under the effects of one of those things.

However, looking at the image of the throne room outside on the magical projections on the walls, Celestia was starting to wonder how true that really was. The room outside was even more packed than the saferoom, and every one of the ponies outside were clamoring for her removal. The thought was more upsetting than Celestia was willing to admit, even to herself; how had such great unrest gone unnoticed by her? Was she really so out of touch with her ponies?

“C’mon, you know you want to come out of there!” taunted the apparent ringleader, who Celestia recognized as one of the barkeeps at the reception. “Must be gettin’ pretty cramped, considering your huge, blubbery mass! I recommend you give up comfort food!”

The boorish, raspy-voiced stallion who seemed just a little intoxicated had been going on like that for the past several minutes now. Making crass jokes and petty insults at her expense, to the apparent amusement of the angry mob he had rallied.

Starting to get annoyed, Celestia cast a spell to project her voice into the throne room and said in her most condescending tone, “With an attitude like that, I don’t see much incentive in coming out there.”

Ooooh, tough mare. I think I struck a nerve!” the barkeep exclaimed, to the chuckles of his crowd.

“Auntie, I advise taking the ‘crazy homeless pony yelling at you’ approach with this one,” suggested Cadance. “Don’t engage.

“I understand, I understand,” Barkeep continued, unaware of their conversation. “You’ve spent milennia always getting your way. This must be sooooo frustrating for you!”

The only thing frustrating me right now is your continued blather, Celestia thought, but heeding her niece’s advice, didn’t voice it. In fact, Celestia had been ready to cut the arcane feed entirely when a group of figures entering the throne room outside caught her attention. They looked like a group of waiters—the ones who had been outside hires to help with the reception—and they were escorting a group of other ponies front and center.

Celestia recognized nearly all of them. There was Riven Oak and all of his supporters. There was also Fancy Pants, Fleur Dis Lee, and a number of other much more sympathetic faces. Despite their differences politically, they were all united by the looks of fear and uncertainty on their faces.

“Well, lookee at who just showed up: the One Percent!” Barkeep happily exclaimed, sauntering over to the group and putting an arm around a profoundly uncomfortable looking Fancy Pants. “Tell me, does giving orders make you feel like a big, tough stallion?” he asked him, his tone verging on baby-speak as it increased in condescension. “Or are you just trying to make up for the fact that mommy didn’t wuv you enough?”

To his credit, Fancy kept a stiff upper lip, but Celestia could see the fear in his eyes even in the low-quality holographic image. “We will not b-be intimidated by the likes of you!”

Yeah?” Barkeep swayed in place for a few moments as he studied Fancy for any signs of weakness. Then he started to laugh, but Celestia didn’t know if that meant he found something. “I don’t need you to be intimidated… I just need you to hold still for a few….”

Trailing off, Barkeep wandered down the line of his supporters until he came to a silver-coated mare (who Celestia recognized as one of the caterers they’d hired) and took the large kitchen knife from her hooves. Then to Celestia’s growing horror, he started to wander back towards the hostage nobles.

Under normal circumstances, Pinkie liked butterflies—probably not as much as Fluttershy did, but it wasn’t as though they were a problematic species for her. She could count the number of times she remembered that Monarchs or others sat on the windowsill in the upstairs loft (in the old timeline) or on the garden bushes (in the new one), and how much she loved watching them flitter and dance about, fluttering by, just like their names.

But those were Earth butterflies. And the ones here? Definitely not.
The ones here had hurt the girl she loved.
Needless to say...Pinkie had a serious beef with them.

Having picked up a pair of short swords from a guard under the influence of one such insect who was busy doing...interesting...things to a plant, she moved on, only pausing to blush slightly. She was sure that when things turned back to normal, the disposal of that guard’s “lover” was going to be the least of his problems. But right now, she had bigger fish to fry—or rather, Allucinors to slice.

Moving like a whirlwind, she used every bit of her martial arts skill and dance routines to move like a bladed dervish, slicing everything in her path. When the Allucinors approached other potential victims, a well-placed throwing knife took care of that. Most of those she saved looked on at her with a mixture of fear and gratitude, unable to reconcile their ancient fear of humans with their current savior, but she didn’t give a damn about that.

Besides, if they put up with her mentor, they’d learn to deal with her in time as well.


Rounding a corner, she came across another pony who had somehow managed to survive the Allucinors as well and had much the same idea she had. Weilding a dual-bladed quarterstaff, the heavily-armored pony moved with surety of purpose and motion, slashing and bashing at the creatures. It was enough to get Pinkie to pause in awe for a second—but only for a second, as she immediately went back to her own attack.

The two combatants tore into the wall of flying creatures, slicing through them like living buzzsaws, leaving the ground slick with ichor as they destroyed countless lives. Finally, after gruelling seconds, the last one fell, smashed against the wall by a well-placed heel kick from Pinkie.

“Wow, this was a hell of a workout,” she gasped, drawing breath in quick, ragged gulps of air. Her hair was slick with both ichor and sweat, and her clothing was coated in the same. She felt exhausted, but she couldn’t give up now. “You okay?”

The pony next to her set down the staff and removed his helmet, revealing an aged earth stallion with a plum coat, short, soft brown mane and warm brown eyes. While he did look like he’d had more than a few years on him, he also had that look that, as Adagio was fond of saying, “beware the old man who’s able to keep up with the young man’s game of war”. This was clearly no amateur, and given his black armor, probably not a standard guard, either.

“You’re one of those humans, huh?” the stallion asked, as short of breath as she was. “Gotta say, you know how to fight. But I guess that’s the norm for your kind, right?”

“Not any more than yours,” Pinkie told him, “but I have a job to do.” She offered him a hoof—or rather, a fist—to bump. “Pinkie Pie.”

He bumped in return. “Like the Knight of Laughter, huh? Will wonders never cease. Well, you can call me Smokechaser. I’m a...unique case, shall we say.”

Pinkie saw another batch of Allucinors floating down the hall and heard the screams of panicked innocents. “If you can help me take these bugs down, you can be as unique as you want!” she chirped, steeling herself for more combat.

“I hear you there, mare,” Smokechaser said in turn, grabbing his staff. “Let’s get back to work.”

“Yer time as the all-powerful rulers of this nation is over, princess,” Barkeep said as he paced around the hostage nobles holding the knife, once again addressing those in the saferoom. “Soon the Scions will be together and our Lord Sombra shall return! Now, I have every faith—it’s kind of my thing—that our Lord will be able to deal with all of you with his newfound power when he returns, but I figure that doesn’t mean I can’t do my part to help… clean house a little before that. I may not be one of his Scions, but I think I can safely say I am his most faithful. That is why I have tasked myself with making sure the throne to Equestria is vacant for his return!”

“You’re insane!” Fleur’s thick Prench accent rang out, the supermodel-esque mare glaring at the barkeep with impassioned fury. “You can’t actually think a boorish drunk like yourself can kill one of the high princesses with a mere kitchen knife, or are you truly that delusional?”

Barkeep leered at her for a moment before responding, “You look like you struggle with simple concepts. I guess that’s the One Percent for ya! Listening is hard to do with yer head so far up yer hindquarters, huh? So, let me reiterate: I want King Sombra to return to an empty throne so that he can hunt you alicorns down at his leisure.”

He then grabbed Fleur around the barrel and grabbed her chin with his free hoof, puppeteering the struggling unicorn’s mouth as he affected a facsimile of a feminine voice (a true feat considering his dry masculine rasp). “‘But Barkeep,’ you’re probably asking. ‘How are you going to do that?’” Fleur finally managed to shove him off of her, but he persistently stuck to her. “Well, m’dear, I’m going to make our fair princesses an offer: Leave Equestria. I don’t care where they go. The Badlands. Tartarus. Maybe disappear entirely like dear old Mom.”

Turning to speak directly to the saferoom door now, Barkeep said, “That’s right, this country is no longer your open bar, princesses. It’s closing time! You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here!” Then almost as an afterthought, he added, “Oh, and every minute you don’t leave, I’ll clean up some of the mess you made,” he said, gesturing to the hostage nobles gathered before him. He then pressed the knife to a suddenly very terrified-looking Fleur’s throat. “Starting with this one! Clock’s started. Sixty… fifty-nine….”

Sunset felt useless. Helpless.

Pointless.

Right now, her troops—no, her cousins—were fighting against rebel ponies and alien butterflies that had robbed her ability to reason. It was fair enough to say that she’d been mindraped. Others were throwing themselves against the problem and all she could do here, for all her vaunted power, was to let others deal with it. Others who didn’t have her power, or durability or anything of the sort.

She hated it, and it gnawed at her skull. She looked around at her family, both literally and metaphorically, and as much as she wanted to protect them...she couldn’t. With every bit of the power she had at her command...she couldn’t protect them.

She couldn’t even protect herself.

She couldn’t even save Tavi.

Sunset felt herself shrink into a ball feeling the sting of tears coming to her face. Why? Why, when she finally reached the pinnacle of everything she’d once wanted to achieve, when she’d finally gained the love of not one, but two families, was it all falling apart?

She looked at her sister, feeling lost. No doubt Twily felt the same—they’d lost someone they loved dearly and they had no idea if she was even still alive.

She felt her mother’s arms encircle her, and as Sunset turned back into her human form to take advantage of the embrace, she didn’t feel like she deserved it at all. Everyone, everypony, everywhoever—had been put in danger because of her, a so-called princess.

Alicorn of Earth?

No. Right now she felt like the Alicorn of Wishful Thinking.

“Fifty-five… fifty-four….” Barkeep continued counting as all of those gathered in the saferoom looked on with horror.

Celestia exchanged a look with Luna, and it was all the latter needed to know exactly what the former was going to do.

“Celly, don’t!” Luna hissed.

“I’m sorry Luna, but innocent lives are at stake,” Celestia said. “This is no longer up for discussion.”

Divine Right stepped forward, “But, Your Highness….” He stopped. “Auntie….”

Celestia looked at her nephew. “I already know what you’re going to say, Div, but you’re wrong. Some things are more important than me and mine.” She looked at him fondly. “You were so fond of saying that it was our, ahem, ‘divine right’ to rule our ponies fairly and honestly. Can I truthfully do that if I’m here while they’re out there suffering?”

He sighed. “I hate it when you’re right.”

She reached down and kissed him on the forehead, a motherly gesture. “No, you’re not.” She looked at those in the room: family and friends alike, not just her subjects. “I do this, because I must,” she told them. “I do this because I am the Princess.”

Saying nothing more, Celestia’s horn lit up and the huge doors to the saferoom began to open. She stepped out into the throne room, where the crowd of angry ponies looked so much bigger than it did on the arcane hologram. For his part, Barkeep was frozen in place with the knife still to Fleur’s throat with a look of genuine surprise on his face.

“Huh. I honestly wasn’t expecting you to come out so quickly,” he admitted. “I thought I’d at least get to go through a couple of bodies before you came to your senses.”

“I am not going to let anypony die for me,” she said resolutely. “But make no mistake: I am not abandoning Equestria to King Sombra either.”

Sensing movement just beside her, Celestia glanced over and saw Luna at her side. Cadance and Twilight quickly followed, determined looks filling each of their faces. It brought Celestia some comfort, because despite how well she hid it, Celestia was as scared as she was heartbroken. These were her little ponies; it was her responsibility to protect them. Yet here they stood, ready to kill each other all because of her. Because she hadn’t been a good enough leader.

Barkeep looked at each of the alicorns in turn, momentary worry filling his features at the sight of them before the more familiar insanity returned.

“Aaah, okay. I think I know where yer head’s at right now,” he said with a knowing grin. “You think you can take me out before I open up this pretty little bottle.” He applied more pressure to Fleur’s throat, and Celestia saw a drop of blood start to trickle down the blade. “Try it if you like. Of course, after you kill me, the rest of this crowd will probably immediately rush you while my boys in the service industry clean up the rest of your pet nobles. Not like that would be a problem for you, of course. Between all of you, they probably don’t stand a chance!”

“No,” Celestia said firmly. “I will not hurt any of these ponies.”

Surprisingly, Barkeep started to look annoyed, and for the first time that shit-eating grin began to falter. “C’mon, we both know how badly you want to! Let’s see a little of that tyrannical wrath!”

The terrifying part was, some dark, terrible part of Celestia did want to unleash that wrath. To make this violent psychopath experience the full power of the sun.

It would be so easy, the voice inside Celestia’s head said. Indeed, after a millenia, having to hold back her power in all cases except those where no other choice could have been made, to simply smite without abandon to underscore her position would have solved so many, many problems. It would have shut the nobility up...but she was a Princess. Not an authoritarian. The creature she’d seen in her darkest nightmares—the thing calling itself Daybreaker—would not come into the light here.


There was always another way.

“You want to speak of tyrants?” said Celestia raising an eyebrow, “then let’s talk about your favorite pony: King Sombra. You claim to be the most faithful of his followers, acting as if that somehow gives you the right to dictate terms to the actual head of state. But I was actually alive to see the horrors that Sombra inflicted upon innocent ponies.”

She looked up to address the crowd of ponies, “I understand that you are not happy with my leadership, following the war with Tirek and then the aftermath of the early Winter I inadvertently caused in my grief. For that, you’re right to resent me, and I am truly sorry for all you have suffered. For all my power, I am but a pony much the same as the rest of you. But to all of you I ask—do you really want a leader whose own self-proclaimed faithful holds innocent ponies at knife point to ransom their lives for a king who isn’t even around? I have made mistakes as a leader, that much I understand more than I have in a long time. But as your princess, I will address these issues so that I can be a better leader for all of you.”

“‘Innocents?’” Barkeep exclaimed, more and more of his smile evaporating. “You call the ponies who hoard all the wealth to themselves while the rest of us starve are innocent?!

“They’re more innocent than your tyrant king.” She then glared back down at Barkeep. “A stallion so vile and self-absorbed that he damned an entire civilization to a thousand years of isolation, trapped out of time, simply to spite the ponies that had overcome him? At what time did Sombra ever do anything that was not primarily in his own self-interest with little concern or care for the well being of his subjects?”

“Spoken like a true fool,” said Barkeep, looking at Celestia like one would regard a foolish child. “At least King Sombra understood strength and how to use it, as well as being honest. Isn’t that one of those Harmonic Elements or whatever, Honesty? Sure, he isn’t the easiest to understand, but you knew where you stood with him—with you, it’s all this faux ‘friendship’ crap and making good with other species. Funny how one of the few times you ever actually used your full power is to vanquish him—a power you couldn’t even use on your own traitorous sister!”

“What happened to me is nothing compared to what Sombra embraced,” said Luna, not wanting to step over Celestia’s words but feeling the need to defend herself, even if she pretty much had embraced evil at the time.

“And when Nightmare Moon did come back, as you can see my sister Princess Luna was restored by the very friendship you scoff at,” said Celestia. “What happened to Sombra on his return? I think a bad case of atomization, no? Not much of a ruler who rules with strength if he turned out to be weaker than the power of friendship you so callously disregard.”

“Ugh, spare me! You may have most of this pathetic country fooled with your ‘friendship’ crap, but we all know better don’t we, boys and girls?!” retorted Barkeep. However, the crowd of angry commoner ponies was a different story, the murmuring being audible and some even lowering their weapons. That did not sit well with Barkeep, who wheeled around on them angrily. “Oh, don’t tell me you pansies are going to actually believe these bloated tyrant whorses! Or did you forget the reasons you all came in here in the first place, that big ol winter storm that we all suffered? It was her fault, after all!” He jabbed a hoof in Celestia’s direction.

“Yes, it was unfortunate that my grief led to the Winter and for that I feel I may never be able to make up for what it caused,” said Celestia, “but I am willing to admit my faults. You can’t even admit Sombra was an illegitimate child born out of wedlock. Which, for the record, he was. I would know, I was around back then after all.”

Just then, a commotion could be heard from the entryway to the throne room, and there appeared Whiskey, still in her kitsune form, flanked by two Hooves, and a small company of guards they’d been able to wrangle up.

“All of you,” intoned Whiskey, “drop your weapons and surrender, now!”

“Ha!” chortled Barkeep, “Like we’d ever listen to a Sombraforsaken dustpan like you!” He stopped laughing when he looked around and saw that he was the only pony in the group who hadn’t backed down. Evidently, he’d been right about all of these morons and their lack of faith—they’d bought right back into the solar tyrant’s lies. He sighed, then put his hooves up—he knew when it was time to fold.

However, as the guards surged forward to secure the situation, he turned back to face Celestia, that crazed grin back on his muzzle.

“Don’t be thinkin’ this is the end, your highness. It never mattered what happened here—now the truth is out and there ain’t nothin you can do to stop the loyal followers of Sombra. Especially now that we have two more Scions!”

Making her way through the castle halls, Pinkie moved with the grace and finesse of a professional dancer with more experience than she had years of life. Everywhere she moved, the glowing blue Allucinors felt her wrath as she exacted her vengeance upon their kind. Killing butterflies should not have been so satisfying.

Just behind her, Smokechaser trailed behind, huffing and puffing, but aside from the occasional grumble that he wasn’t as young as he used to be, managed to keep up with her.

“Are you really just a civilian?” the grizzled stallion asked as he swatted aside a stray Allucinor—the last one in this hallway as far as Pinkie could tell. “You’re pretty good.”

“What I am is… complicated,” Pinkie said, and Smokechaser seemed content to leave it at that.

Of course, that may have been because something more pressing caught his eye. “Dammit….”

Pinkie followed where he indicated and managed to catch a glimpse of another group of Allucinors fluttering out a nearby window.

“If those things make it into the city…” Smokechaser started, but Pinkie already knew how that was going to end.

“Let’s go!” she exclaimed, but before either of them could get very far, a new voice called out.

“Asst. Director Smokechaser!”

Pinkie and her cohort turned and saw a blonde-maned white unicorn stallion cantering toward them at a brisk pace. Something about him seemed vaguely familiar to Pinkie, and she couldn’t help but feel an instant dislike as soon as she heard his upper class voice.

Smokechaser immediately stood at attention and saluted upon seeing him. “Director Blueblood, sir!”

“At ease. I need you to come with me. We need all hooves on deck,” he said. “A huge mob of ponies has broken into the throne room, and apparently they have high profile hostages!”

Smokechaser nodded, but spared a brief glance Pinkie’s way.

“It’s fine. I can handle the Allucinors on my own,” Pinkie said. Without saying anything more, her comrade for the past while sped off after Blueblood and Pinkie used every ounce of her newfound unnatural speed to race out into the gardens where what she hoped was the last of the Allucinor stragglers had flown to.

She spotted them in no time, lazily fluttering across the grounds towards the far wall, beyond which the city of Canterlot proper lay unsuspecting of the danger. They had already thrown pretty high, well out of reach of her shortswords, and she’d already used the last of the throwing knives she’d found. Resolving for none of these things to ever draw near Sunset again, Pinkie crouched low, felt her magical power gather around her, and leapt into the air.

For a brief moment, Pinkie seemed to float in place alongside her prey, and she felt as light and nimble as a butterfly herself. Then she spun in place, her swords swiftly and accurately slicing through every last Allucinor in the sky before gravity at last pulled her back down and she landed on one knee, the grass and hedges billowing around her from the power she radiated. The diced Allucinors drifted down around her a few moments later.

All too easy, Pinkie thought as she stood to her full height. It was then that another voice—one she recognized as the Megan’s—called out in her mind, Behind you!

Without hesitation, Pinkie whirled around just in time to knock aside a thrown dagger with her offhanded blade… but not in time to stop the second dagger from penetrating her dominant arm. Despite the sudden, sharp pain, Pinkie didn’t make a sound as she sheathed one of her swords so she could calmly pull the dagger out. She then looked up at where the attack had come from.

A pegasus mare with a felt green coat and a red, white, black, and yellow mane and tail stared at her with what appeared to be honest surprise.

“Huh…. Usually my sneak attacks have more lethal results,” the pony said. “You human things are fast!

With her shortsword in one hand and the mare’s own dagger in the other, Pinkie adopted a ready stance. Unfortunately, it was considerably more effort than normal to keep the sword raised, as the wound in her arm started bleeding more and more.

“Okay, whoever you are, I’ve had a trying day, and right now you’re not looking too hot yourself,” the pegasus said with a twitch of her wings. Pinkie realized upon a second glance that they were made of some sort of black alloy, and she could see the handles of more knives tucked away inside. “What do you say we just skip the fighting and get to the part where I get away? No reason for us both to get hurt when the end result will be the same regardless.”

Of course, the prosthetic wings weren’t the only thing Pinkie noticed at a second glance: she’d seen this mare before.

“You attacked Sunny,” Pinkie said, her tone growing dark.

A look of understanding came over the mare’s face in an instant, and with a resigned sigh, she said, “Okay. Guess we’re doing this then.” Flicking both of her chitinous wings upwards, a pair of knives came twirling out, passing each other midair before the mare reared up and caught each one in a hoof. “Just let the record show that I tried to be reasonable.”

Then with a beat of her artificial wings, the mare lunged forward, while moving almost too fast for the eye to track, Pinkie followed suit.

Chapter 11 - Insane in the Refrain

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GAOA Chapter 11— Insane in the Refrain

The first thing that Octavia could say she sensed after the blinding flash of light was her hitting a cold stone floor. The second thing was the light metallic clanging as the knife which had hit Tavi clattered to the ground.

“Ungh, fuck,” swore Tavi, raising herself off the floor with her hands. It didn’t help that because of that flash, her eyes were not adjusted for the extremely dim lighting of wherever she was. Based on what her hands were feeling, it was some kind of subterranean rock.

Wait...rock? Wasn’t she...no, she’d thrown herself in front of Sunset to save her from that knife-throwing pegasus. Except she should have been on the ground at Canterlot Palace, bleeding and probably screaming from the pain. A pain that was, strangely enough, not there.

As her eyes slowly adjusted, Tavi looked down and saw the knife edge catching what little light there was in the cave. Sitting up, she picked up the knife. It was vaguely feather-shaped, which made sense given a pegasus had thrown it, but the insulting thing was that it was obvious the knife’s edge was extremely dull. This thing couldn’t have cut a stick of butter. But why would a pegasi assassin be using non-lethal knives?

Then there’d been the flash after Tavi had been hit. Given her extremely limited experience with Sunset’s native species, Tavi still understood teleportation well enough that she figured out the knife’s purpose—it hadn’t been to kill Sunset, but instead send her here.

But where was here?

Just then, another bright light—this time localized and much less piercing, lit up.

“Hey, it’s one of those humans.”

Even though she was squinting, Tavi was able to make out the outlines of two ponies—unicorns. And one of them she immediately recognized as a familiar silhouette, though obviously the owner was very different.

“R-razz? Is that you?”

“Yeah, it’s me and Lockbox,” said Razz, stepping closer so Tavi could see better. “That bitch Corner Shot must have used enchanted teleport knives, but why’d she go after you?”

“It was Sunset she was targeting. I jumped in to protect her, and, well…”

“So it is true, then?” asked Lockbox of Razz. “Your theory about who the fourth Scion was correct.”

“Either that or the Covenant came to the same conclusion I did about the matter.”

“I don’t understand,” said Tavi, “what about Scions?”

“Descendants of King Sombra, basically four ponies who are supposed to bring about his quote-unquote revenge on Equestria. We only know of three: me, Lock, and Corner.” Razz sighed before continuing, “But it’s possible Sunset is the fourth, based on information that would take too long to explain and, well, it’s awfully convenient we don’t know her true heritage given she was adopted.”

“Twice,” added Tavi who couldn’t help but smirk a little. Then she noticed that even though there were two unicorns, only one of them was using a light spell. “Razz, why aren’t you adding more light in here?”

“Because of my handicap, I can only use dark magic.”

“That doesn’t explain.”

“Dark, evil, opposite of actual light like what Lockbox is using.”

“Still not understanding what you mean, Razz.”

Lockbox giggled. “You’re going to have to show her,” she remarked, extinguishing her own horn.

With a groan, Razz lit up her own horn to reveal...blacklight.

“I’d be great as equipment for forensics,” sighed Razz, embarrassed. “But yeah, just another one of the absolutely riotous problems I have given every drop of blood in my body is literally enchanted to prevent me from doing normal unicorn things.”

“Hey, maybe you can get a part time job at one of those raves thrown by DJ P0N-3!” laughed Lockbox, restoring her own light as Razz put hers out.

“But, real talk now—we gotta get outta here.”

“Where even is here?” asked Tavi, standing up. She was happy there was enough room to do that much, given she towered over the two diminutive unicorns. But from the light of Lockbox’s horn, it was clear they were in some kind of sealed cavern room.

“I have a hunch,” said Razz, “and it’s not good.”

Just then, one of the rock walls dissolved and in came a pair of ponies with cloaks, hoods drawn.

“Scions,” one intoned; he was trying to sound both threatening but at the same time couldn’t quite keep the awe from his voice – the awe of a Sombra worshipper. “If you—"

He didn’t get any farther before he found himself blasted against the wall, trapped in crystal. The other one didn’t even have time to react before he was slammed against the other wall by raging chains, the red and black hues clashing with the purple and green miasma of their mistress’' horns.

“Take your door-to-door religion and fuck off!” Lock shouted..

Just then, two more ponies entered, but these were lightning fast and this time, it was Razz and Lock who couldn’t react in time. Instead, it was Tavi’s turn to be a victim once more as she was suddenly held down to the ground by two pegasus mares, each holding a feather knife—these being the razor-sharp real deal—to her throat.

“Surrender or the furless monkey dies!” spat one of them.

“Great, Corner Shot has equally bitchy sisters,” remarked Razz.

“Perhaps,” one of the pegasi taunted, “but we’re also effective.”

“And stupid,” Razz called out, playing her trap card. She focused on her necklace, and a second later, had changed into her human form. Before the two assassins could react, she immediately flung fireballs in their direction, blasting them aside.

“What the hell?” Lock asked, completely shocked.

“Look, now is not the time for this,” Razz told her, offering her hand to Tavi. “You okay?”

“Yeah, thanks.”


That, however, didn’t last long as several blasts of energy filled the area they were at as a bunch of unicorns mercilessly hit the trio, knocking them unconscious.

“Okay, they’re down,” one of the unicorns said, looking over Razz as her unconscious form automatically switched back from human to unicorn. “Have to admit, this one is worthy of Sombra’s blood—I don’t think I would have had the gumption to change into a weak ape thingy, but it turned out to catch us unawares.”

“My, my, they’re certainly feisty, aren’t they?” came another voice, this time of one who had a very high opinion of himself. The stallion who Lock had smashed into the wall had since gotten up and was bowing to the newcomer. The other stallion was still pinned to the wall and thus could do nothing but watch. The newcomer walked into the room, pulling his hood back to reveal a garishly neon green mane and a black coat, with hot pink eyes.

“Hobble them,” he ordered the troops. “And this time have your spells ready. I won’t tolerate a third failure.” He looked at the trio, just as Lock began to stir once more. “A valorous attempt, but it will not change your fate.”

“What, did you escape from a rave or something?” asked Lock incredulously. Razz, who was also coming to and over heard the exchange, knew she really shouldn’t but was feeling particularly impish at that moment...so she lit her horn up in blacklight. Lock laughed.

“I fail to see what is so funny,” said the stallion, more annoyed than anything, but he recomposed himself. “Still, to be in the presence of two of Sombra’s descendants worthy of their heritage, it is an honor.”

“Glad to see somepony hates Corner like we do,” mused Razz, quickly figuring out that this pony knew Corner was also a Scion but had decided to mention she was...not worthy by omission.

“Hrm, yes, but she will rejoin us in time,” the mysterious pony said, turning to fully face Razz. “But please, let me introduce myself—I am Father Neon Lux, one of your vaunted ancestor’s greatest and most faithful followers.” He bowed, and then extended a hoof like he expected Razz would even want to touch him.

She instead stared at him in disbelief. “You do know I want nothing to do with him.”

The used cart salesman smile Lux wore faltered slightly. “Surely, the fact you use dark magic openly suggests otherwise.”

“Apparently you didn’t notice that I was just using light magic just now? I’m a mare of all trades,” Razz sneered. “Funny how you Covenant freaks figured out I was Emerald Joy some time ago but you still don’t know about that part of my powers. But if you do respect us—or at least me—so much, maybe see about letting us go?”

Lux sighed, lowering his hoof. “I had been hoping my advisors were wrong, but it appears that you do still stray from the path Sombra laid out for you.” He then gestured to the guardstallion with a lethal-looking sword held against Octavia’s throat. “Very well then, we will have to keep you in the garrison along with your...pet...that Corner seems to have retrieved instead of the alicorn she was supposed to have gotten.”

“Pet?” said Tavi, indignantly, but a brief look from Razz silenced her.

“You have no idea how much trouble you bastards have invited upon yourselves,” said Lock, “Because it isn’t just Equestria you’ve pissed off...and you’ll wish it was just them.”

Meanwhile, on one of the large external prominades of Castle Canterlot, a pitched battle of blades continued. Despite being wounded in one arm, Pinkie was still doing incredibly well against the trained-since-birth assassin pegasus who was far more agile.

Corner grunted in annoyance as every time she tried to break away from close quarters, the magenta-haired human was right on her again. While as a trained assassin Corner was more than skilled at melee range knife fighting, the truth was she didn’t like engaging in combat at all with knives. Ironic, given her talent for knife throwing, but her feather knives were designed for utilizing distance and momentum to drive the edges into targets. As actual close range weapons they weren’t the best; even when switching from wing grip to hoof grip, they didn’t offer much leverage against the human’s short sword or even themselves as the human was wielding the feather knife that Corner had thrown into her arm earlier. She held it in a strange, blade-down kind of stance that seemingly made it easy for her to keep parrying away any moves Corner tried to pull. It was extremely annoying to put it mildly as Corner’s window for escape out of Canterlot was shrinking rapidly.

“You’ve hurt a lot of people,” said the human in a strangely calm fury, deflecting another thrust from Corner and spinning, using the momentum to. “And you’re going to pay for it.”

“Oh, trust me, bitch,” replied Corner, the briefest flashes of Tilled Fields popping up in her mind, “I’m already paying for it.”

“No, you’re only aware of the price. You have yet to see that the true payment is due. And I’m the interest!”

The human suddenly dashed at Corner as if to tackle, but then leapt up and somersaulted over the pegasus. Corner moved to turn around, but the human was faster—with strength that her frame suggested shouldn’t have been possible, she threw the feather blade hard enough that it lodged itself right below where Corner’s left wing was attached to her body.

“AAAAGGHH!” screamed Corner—the pain was quite unlike anything she’d felt since first receiving her artificial wings, and she wasn’t sure what was worse—the fact the blade was lodged in such a way that she couldn’t pull it out, or the humiliation of having her own weapon turned against her. That pissed her off...and then she felt it. That surge she’d felt before when it had been those three humans—the pigtailed one having fired a crossbow bolt into her hindquarters.

As the green and purple mist began to flow from her eyes, Corner let out a primal, inequine scream which caught the human off guard.

“What the fuck even are you?!” asked the human, taking a defensive stance as Corner turned to face her. However, her wounded arm and having lost the feather blade meant her defenses were not as airtight as before—it would be her undoing.

“The last thing you’ll ever see,” hissed Corner, who then used her good wing to withdraw one of the three knives left in her holsters and then launched it at the human. Predictably, the human deflected it—but the knife had been a distraction only. When the human looked back at Corner, the pegasus had already launched herself full speed at her, and there was nothing she could do before getting knocked back. Vaulting into the air, Corner withdrew her last two feather blades, tossed them in the air just before her, and then while still airborne did a hammerhead turn. The pain was nearly unbearable, but Corner used it to fuel whatever of Sombra’s dark powers was empowering her, giving her the ability to land the finishing blow.Her rear hooves make contact with the hilt of the blades at the same time the blade tips pressed into the human’s chest. Finally, with all her might, Corner bucked both legs and drove both knives into the human’s chest down to where the blades met the hilt.

Both bodies ended up crashing to the ground, but only Corner got up—the human seemed to have hit her head on the hard ground knocking her out cold, and the already considerable amount of blood pouring from her chest wound suggested she would not be getting up.

“Shoulda just let me walk,” groaned Corner, the quickly evaporating purple/green mist signifying her Scion power fading. It didn’t last long, but damn did it help in a pinch. She then hurried over, wincing in great pain as the feather knife was still buried in her back, and used the discarded short sword as a kind of reach extension to catch the blade’s hilt guard and yank it out. Sure, she’d be bleeding from the wound, but she knew where she could get help—the human on the other hand was most likely going to die.

Suddenly, what felt like a fly going faster than Rainbow Dash at max speed whizzed right past Corner’s head, just barely scraping her right ear and drawing blood, followed by a numbing yet burning sensation. Wheeling around, Corner groaned as her luck proved to be against her yet again—the blue haired human of those damn triplets had shown up and, likely having seen what Corner had done to the magenta-haired one, didn’t even try to negotiate. She was shooting to kill with one of those explosive boxes with the long tubes in them, like Griffonian shootsticks but a lot smaller, and far more deadly. And Corner was out of knives.

So, bleeding and in pain, Corner immediately raced off, praying that whatever the fuck weapon the human was using was not loaded for additional shots.

“FUCK!” shouted Sonata, pulling the trigger again, missing the green pegasus by the thinnest of margins, and the pistol’s slide locking in the ‘fired’ position indicating the magazine was empty. With rote practiced precision, Sonata ejected the magazine and had already slammed in the last reserve magazine she’d had, but it was too late—the pegasus was moving too fast to try shooting from a distance.

But as Sonata glanced back down at the unconscious, copiously bleeding form of Pinkie, she swore again and went to try and do anything to save the girl’s life. Ripping off her dress jacket to try and contain the bleeding, careful to not push the blades even deeper, Sonata also pulled out her—mercifully unharmed—smartphone and jabbed the app that would turn the phone into a radio.

“MEDIC!” she barked into it, not waiting for an acknowledgement from Adagio. It was a violation of protocol but Sonata didn’t give a fuck. This was Pinkie dying in front of her and if she didn’t get help now...Sonata banished the thought, the alternative was simply not going to happen on her watch.

Sonata glared at the place where the pegasus had been and swore that when she saw her again, she was going to kill her, rules of engagement be damned.

Meanwhile, in a dilapidated hotel room a relatively safe distance from the palace, Corner’s “roomie” Chrysoberyl had been hard at work preparing an escape. She was currently seated on the floor holding rune-drawing chalk in her magical aura, where she worked her very literal magic on a space she’d cleared out in the middle of the room.

“Just a little here...a little more there…” she hummed to herself in an off-tune key.

Suddenly, the door flung open and a bleeding Corner Shot collapsed into the room.

“Having fun out there?” asked Chrys, looking up. “I trust that the mission was successful?” She magically removed the pillow cover from one of the bed pillows and tossed it over to Corner.

“Uh...mostly,” grunted Corner, struggling to her feet and using her extreme wing dexterity to wrap the pillowcase around the wounded area at her wing’s base—it was far from ideal triage but it didn’t need to last long. “Think I missed one of the Scions.”

That made Chrysoberyl’s fur bristle on end. “You...missed one?”

“Yeah, one of Sunset’s stupid humans got in the way—got Lockbox and Raspberry, though. Pretty sure I killed another one as well.”

“Oh, then that’s fine.” Truth be told it wasn’t great that Corner had failed to get the complete set of Scions, but at the same time, there really was only one of them Chrys was truly interested in and that one was not Sunset Shimmer. “You got the usurper, as long as she suffers then that’s all I honestly am concerned with.”

“Suffer?” asked Corner, confused. “What are you talking about?”

A distant look crossed Chrysoberyl's face then, and whatever she was now staring at with her mind's eye caused a hateful grin to spread across her muzzle. “Oh, I’ve been wronged by one of the two you did get since birth, and now the time has come for her to get what is due.”

“Really starting to creep me out here,” the pegasus said to the unicorn, but then the lamp on the bedside table started flashing rapidly.

“The proximity charm got tripped,” said Chrysoberyl, seemingly getting serious. “You’ve really brought down the heat this time haven’t you?”

“I...might have killed that one human that seems to hover the most around Sunset, yes,” admitted Corner.

“Inconsequential what happens to the humans, but right now we need to go.”

Chrys gestured for Corner to step into the ritual circle in the middle of the room. Chrysoberyl herself was not powerful enough to perform a multi-pony teleportation, so the ritual was required to give her that power. Indeed, by the time the guards finally got to the hotel room, there was a bright flash that signaled a successful teleportation.

Followed by a big explosion that ripped the hotel room apart, removing all chance of tracing the ritual circle’s destination.

“What do you mean they’re in hiding?” Sunset asked one of the nearby guardsponies. She’d since returned to pony form, if only to not freak out the civilian ponies who were still being treated for Allucinor overexposure.

“We simply can’t find Archmagus Beryl or Miss Lockbox,” the guard replied, looking frazzled.

Indeed, the attack had generally only just been stopped and the combined efforts of guards, Hooves, and SIRENs were working hard to restore order. The very ancillary ballroom which had earlier that day been the site of the reception party for Sunset’s coronation was now a staging ground of sorts for the wounded and those whose minds were affected by the Allucinor Wings. Looking around, it was easy for Sunset to figure who was in the latter group by the lost, mortified, and utterly broken looks on their faces. The feeling was uncomfortably familiar to Sunset, and it only spurred on the rage she already felt roiling inside her.

“Find them,” Sunset snarled. “Now.”

“Sunny, calm down,” came the voice of a very exhausted looking Princess Twilight.

Sunset looked at Twilight, fear in her eyes. “Why? Someone just vaporized my cousin––”

“Teleported, not vaporized,” Twilight corrected. “For that matter, they did the same to Razz and Lock—they’re not anywhere in Canterlot. I’ve tried to locate Razz by tracking her magic signature—it simply vanished somewhere in the main ballroom.”

“You can track her magic?” asked Sunset, raising an eyebrow.

“I know you’re stressed right now, so you’re forgetting things,” Twilight reminded her. “Remember that Razz is literally as powerful as Sombra in the Left Hoof Path when it comes to how much dark magic output she creates. I could track her from orbit with a strong enough spell if I was so inclined—it would completely burn me out, however, so unfortunately that’s not an option right now. Need I remind you of the pony from the human world who managed to track her down because of a misfired dark magic spell?”

Sunset nickered, annoyed at the memory. “For the record, I only went after her because I thought she was an evil version of me. But you made your point.”

“Exactly. Plus, I found this,” Twilight levitated a feather-shaped knife that looked like it hadn’t ever been sharpened to cut anything. “Look familiar?”

Sunset paled. “That’s...one of Corner Shot’s knives...was that in the ballroom?”

“Yup, two of them. There’s traces of a powerful force-teleport spell on them. Furthermore, the spell’s got an encrypted enchantment on it.”

Sunset looked down, simultaneously worried yet...relieved, much to Twilight’s confusion. “Then they’re still alive, thank God,” said the maize alicorn.

Twilight nodded in sympathy. “But it means she’s alive and with Razz and Lockbox, so unless something else happens, I know those two can keep her safe. I hope. But speaking of safety: where are the other humans?”

“Back in their rooms. Naturally, Spike was wondering what the hell was going on since he’d been so absorbed in his video games, but not enough that he realized Tavi wasn’t there. Mom told him she’d been taken to safety with another group but...I just don’t know how we’re going to tell him she’s been kidnapped because they were trying to kidnap me.”

Just then, the human Applejack, Rainbow, Fluttershy, and Rarity came around the corner, as did Sonata...but Sonata was conspicuously missing her blazer, and all of her clothing was stained heavily by blood.

“Soni?” said Sunset, feeling her gut wrench harder and harder at the sheer amount of blood covering her. She hadn’t looked like she’d waded neck deep into a war like this even after the first time she and her sisters had met Corner Shot. “I thought you were trying to find Pinkie?”

“I did…” she said, clearly at odds between trying to observe military restraint and being, well, Sonata Dusk level of normal emotionality. “I’m sorry, Sunny: Corner found her first.”

“We got her to the castle infirmary in time,” said Applejack, who Sunset then noted also seemed to have a lot of blood—it had been drowned out in the red dress she’d been wearing from a distance. “But it’s bad.”

“Two knives to the chest like they’d been kicked there by a horse,” said Rainbow, looking visibly shaken up.

“She might not survive,” Fluttershy finally spat out.

Rarity could only nod, looking on the verge of tears.

“And Corner got away,” added Sonata, her fists by her side clenching hard enough for her knuckles to turn white. “I might have gotten her but I only had two shots in the mag left and by time I reloaded, it was either try to get Corner or try to save Pinkie. I just hope it doesn’t turn out it wouldn’t have mattered what choice I made.”

The next thing they knew, they had all been teleported by the maize alicorn to the infirmary. Twilight, immediately realizing what was going on, stepped in front of her fellow princess.

“Sunny, don’t! Medical rules!”

Fuck the medical rules! I’m not going to let her die!”

“You can’t just apply a blanket healing spell if you don’t know anything about detailed medical care for humans!” the lavender alicorn argued back. “The doctors in there have been trained for this eventuality with all the books you sent from your world! Let them do their job, Sunny! Please!”

Sunset stood there in front of the others as her brain began to register that, as much as she was an omnipotent being that bordered on the legitimately divine, there was nothing she could do to avert the fact Pinkie might not make it back to the human world. Not alive at any rate. She tried in vain to speak, to say something, but where words failed her, emotions were only just getting started.

Just then, the four remaining human girls who had known Sunset prior to Princess Twilight cratering her in front of their school saw something come over Sunset which triggered a deep seated fear within each of them. Fear of something that they’d thought had died when Sunset had turned over a new leaf.

Sonata, who had not seen Sunset at her absolute worst, could sense that something very, very wrong was happening given the reactions of the four other teens. “S-Sunny?” she carefully asked, knowing full well that if she so wanted, Sunset could be likened to a short fused nuclear bomb ready to blow.

But the very air that seemed to radiate around Sunset? Sunset the redeemed wasn’t in the building anymore.

“Where. The Fuck. Is the instigator of all this,” hissed Sunset, pure venom dripping from every word she spoke out of her gritted teeth.

The old Sunset, the ‘my way or my way’ Sunset, was back. With a vengeance.

“BACK THE FUCK OFF OR I WILL STAB ALL OF YOU!”

Corner was not in a good mood, suffice to say. While the teleportation ritual circle had gotten her and Chrysoberyl out just in the nick of time, it hadn’t been a perfect spell and so the two of them had emerged within the Covenant hideout looking more than a little worse for wear. And given Corner Shot already had been subjected to a hell of a night, the last thing she wanted to do was deal with other ponies’ bullshit or more annoyingly, be regarded like some kind of demigoddess as some of the Covenant had tended to do ever since it was known she was the third Scion.

“But, Corner,” said one cloaked acolyte, trying to calm her down. “The mission was a success, was it not?”

“It ain’t a clean pool table if the damn eight ball is still on it!” she retorted loudly, slipping back into using pool terminology—and weirdly, doing so made her feel a bit better. Boy how she would have loved nothing more than to just knock some billiard balls around right now to relax.

“It’s been a...rough night for her,” said Chrysoberyl, who seemed to be for the most part okay save for the singed fur and mane/tail hairs. “She got two of the other Scions but one remains at large.”

“No fucking shit! Now where the fuck is the Oracle?” Corner demanded, holding up a certain dark amulet carved in the likeness of an alicorn. “I got her stupid trinket to give her and then I’m taking a fucking shower, finding a healer to patch my ass up and gutting anypony who tries to stop me!” Corner stomped off, noting that the big ugly ass mirror that had been stolen during the whole fiasco was on its way to the central atrium looking clean and shiny. Fucking mirrors and not fucking up getting magiced all over the fucking place, Corner griped in her head, but said nothing as she continued on her mission to be rid of the stupid-looking neck accessory.

“I should have known it was an eventuality,” groaned Marimba, rubbing her temples with a forehoof, “but for a Hoof to betray the Oath, the Promise, to the Princess…”

“She isn’t our princess and you know it!” said Lentando, glaring death at her former commander. Since she’d straight up admitted to being the one behind the Allucinor Wing even being let into Canterlot in the first place, let alone the shitshow the reception had turned into, she’d been stripped of anything she could use as a weapon, forced back into her pony form, and had her ruby necklace forcibly removed, which would make it much harder for her to switch form—the ruby necklaces each Hoof wore served as a kind of conduit for the wearer to more easily change forms. Furthermore, in her weakened state it was virtually guaranteed she wouldn’t be able to turn again without it, much less put up further resistance.

Just in case, however, she now was tied up and leaned against one of the supporting pillars of the ballroom, right next to Barkeep who was similarly tied up.

“You really should listen to her,” he said with a smirk, “She’s got the right idea of it.”

“What, like how you listened to her basically tell you how to plan a terrorist attack?” said Marimba, glaring over to the stallion with awful taste in facial hair.

The disheveled stallion’s smile grew wider. “Hey, can’t argue with success.”



“Oh, I think I can.”


Before Barkeep could react, he suddenly found himself aglow in cyan and rocketed straight up into the ceiling, slammed hard enough to crater the plaster, raining dust to the ground. He had no time to even react to the pain before getting slammed back down into the ground. By the time he recovered from being dazed—he was lucky he was an Earth pony and thus could take outrageously ludicrous amounts of punishment—he found himself staring right in the face of a very, very, very angry teenage human.

“Huh, so I guess Corner didn’t get ya after all,” he remarked, looking nonplussed.

“I’m gonna make you wish she had unless you tell me what I want to know.” To underscore her threat, she raised a fist that was engulfed in cyan flame.

Barkeep was unimpressed. “Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, huh? Figures the daughter of the sun tyrant would behave like her mother.”

That response got him backhanded across the face hard enough to cause an audible snap as his head reeled back from the blow.

A second later, he spat out a tooth. “Oh yeaaah, I like a lady who plays rough!

Sunset’s cyan aura came back, this time around Barkeep’s throat, lifting him into the air and tightening.

H-harder, Mommy,” he choked, somehow still grinning.

Sunset obliged. “Is this a fucking joke to you?” she asked, squeezing his throat with her godlike power just a little longer before releasing him, sputtering and coughing to the floor.

“Lady, this whole world is a fucking joke, and I am tired of being the butt of it,” Barkeep rasped. His usual devil may care attitude cracked just a little, and Sunset realized there was something else buried underneath: pain. Terrible, emotional turmoil. Enough to drive a person mad. “Family, friendship, they’re all jokes, and even the best jokes stop being funny after you’ve heard ‘em enough times.”

Barkeep returned to a sitting position, shifting a little in his bonds as he continued, and Sunset got the feeling that she was suddenly seeing beyond the facade he kept up for what had likely been most of his life up until now. “That’s why when Father Lux found me, a useless nopony in the slums, and told me the good word of Equestria’s true Lord, I jumped at the chance to serve him. If everything’s a joke anyway, may as well double-down and bring back the greatest monster of our history.”

Sunset looked at him with the utter disgust of Rarity looking at a rat. “I can think of a lot of reasons to follow an evil megalomaniac, but that’s probably the worst one I’ve ever heard.”

“And that’s why I’m not afraid of you or your mother. There’s nothing you can do to me that’s worse than the joke called ‘existence.’”

Through all of the righteous fury, some part of Sunset (the part of her that became capable of compassion after she changed her ways) saw Barkeep for what he really was: just a sad, desperate pony barely more than a shell of whoever he had once been. It was enough for her to stay her hoof for one moment, then another.

Then she thought of Octavia, in the clutches of his mad cult. Of Pinkie, who lay dying in a hospital bed. All of it made possible by the broken pony in front of her.

“I’m a creative pony. I’ll think of something,” Sunset said with a quiet intensity that spooked everyone present. A second later, she moved faster than the eye could follow, hitting him with a punch that sent him flying across the room, ending up with him colliding into—and through—a nearby pillar. He crashed against the ground, but didn’t land as he suddenly found himself kicked back across the room by Sunset, who had teleported over to deliver the second blow. This time she let him come close to the wall on the other side before teleporting once more and grabbing him in mid-air, slamming his face into the marble hard enough to shatter the wall, as well as Barkeep’s nose.

“You wanna try giving me the wrong answer again?” said Sunset, raising her fist again.

“Lady Sunset,” Marimba voiced, as a look of alarm came over her face, “I would please ask you to—"

“STAY OUT OF THIS,” Sunset barked back, the glare in her eyes making it clear that she would not brook argument before turning back to Barkeep. “Even if I have to use every bit of my magic to rip the answer out of your fucking head, I will damn well do it!”

“Then let’s see you try,” replied the Sombra worshiping scumbag, with that infuriating grin that having just had his face broken didn’t seem to impede. Sunset ignored the part of her that told her he was only putting his mask back on.

“Your funeral,” said Sunset, not really piecing it together that maybe it was what the stallion was hoping for, but she never got the chance to carry out that threat.

“STOP IT, SUNNY!” said Twily, who had somehow shown up out of nowhere and was holding onto Sunset’s arm to keep it from getting her knuckles even bloodier.

“Twily?” Sunset said in surprise, the magic leaving her fist.

“This isn’t you, Sunny!” Twilight had let go of her sister’s arm and was now standing between her and the bloodied Barkeep.

“This asshole is the reason Tavi is missing!” hissed Sunset, “He’s the reason Pinkie’s dying!”

“And is this the message you want to send the rest of Equestria, your own homeworld, that you’re going to bloodily beat the shit out of anyone and anything?” Then Twily gave her a look that utterly destroyed the proverbial raging she-demon inside of her; she looked on the verge of tears. “When the others first told me what you used to be like, I didn’t believe them. I couldn’t even imagine a Sunset Shimmer who was callous and cruel.” Then as if Sunset’s guilt wasn’t already bad enough, Twily’s heartbroken eyes gave way to nothing but disappointment. “Now I can.”

Sunset made to continue her retorts, but found she couldn’t.

Twilight then approached Sunset and hugged her. “C’mon, this isn’t you—this isn’t my sister.”

Sunset just stood there, not sure what to do, before returning the embrace and beginning to cry softly into Twily’s shoulder. Not saying anything, Twily merely led her sister away.

“Aww, how sweet, I might die of a sugar overdose” said Barkeep sarcastically. He got a nice hard buck to the side of the head in response. “Ow! What the fuck, lady!?”

“She may have stopped Lady Sunset from beating you up further,” said Marimba, “but it’s in my job description to defend my Princess and the Ladies from any threats… even if the only threat you pose is to her pride!”

Meanwhile, oblivious to the events transpiring, the two ruling princesses were taking a moment to recuperate in Luna’s chambers, sitting at her tea table.

“Equestria really does not need this kind of shit right now,” said Luna, sipping from her cup while absent mindedly running a comb through her hair with magic.

“I’m wondering if Equestria really needs me,” said Celestia, glumly.

Luna was shocked. “Celestia! You can not be serious, just because the actions of a few...hundred ponies, admittedly, doesn’t mean—"

“It’s been something that’s been on my mind for a long time now,” admitted Celestia. “The country needed me to be there for the ponies in the aftermath of Tirek’s rampage and...I failed it. I failed everypony. Luna, there is blood on my hooves because I let my melancholy over Sunset’s death consume me, and ponies died because of how that influenced the sun. And ultimately it was all pointless because Sunset hadn’t died but ascended—she’d been dead for maybe an hour at the most!”

“Well, given the time shift, probably more like weeks in our realm,” Luna noted.

The older sister gave the younger one a reproachful look. “Not helping, Luna,” she admonished. “In any case, what kind of ruler does that? Sombra?”

“You are nothing like that ugly cad, my liege,” said Kibbitz, letting himself in the room. “Unfortunately, that is what the nobility now seem to think and, credit where due, Riven Oak has gotten them all in consensus and filed a motion.”

“So soon after their lives were on the line?” remarked Luna. “Now, if they were that adamant about tax reforms....”

“Quite. I’ll spare you the, ahem, rather choice words they’ve used here, but essentially they are demanding your presence at Nobility House to explain what just occurred. I’ve taken the trouble of looking up the legalese since they are invoking some truly ancient protocols but alas, they are justified and within their rights.”

“At the very least they aren’t trying to murder other ponies in front of me,” sighed Celestia. “I can handle legalese and red tape. I’ve had to sit through over a thousand years of it after all.”

“Sometimes I wonder if those imbeciles realize that even at your worst, you are still a benevolent ruler,” grumbled Luna, “compared to, oh I don’t know, what I would have done if I’d won the civil war and declared myself Queen Nightmare Moon.”

“An idea worth entertaining, if only just to get a rise out of them,” impishly giggled Celestia. In a trying time like this, it was critical to find relief wherever possible.

“A human?!” gasped Tiny Dynamine. After the two “rogue” Scions and their human had been escorted into their tiny holding cell, Neon Lux had sent for the Oracle to be fetched. She was evidently less than pleased to learn that not only had Corner failed to get all three Scions, but she’d wasted the knives on a useless human. “Unbelievable.”

“I don’t think it’s all bad,” said Lux, “We could probably ransom the human for Sunset’s cooperation, especially if we could get the other two Scions to understand their roles in life and work with us.”

“What makes you think we’d willingly work with a group of delusional nutcases just because your idol is the one we share blood with?” asked Lock incredulously.

“Plus, my job is to make sure asshats like you don’t go around doing whatever you want,” added Razz. Octavia merely kept quiet, this conversation had nothing to do with her and she didn’t want to make things any worse for the two ponies actually on her side.

You of all ponies should have more respect for the one who gave you such unimaginable power!” retorted Lux, thrusting an accusatory hoof at Razz. “His magic is the reason you have achieved such stupendous feats!”

“Yeah, because the fact I exist only because he raped a bunch of innocent mares is such a thing to be proud of!” She smirked as she added, “Almost brings a tear to my eye... tears of remorse.”

“Hmph, such insolence!” sneered Neon. “but no matter: even if we don’t have Sunset to have all four Scions in one place, I’m sure we’ll get you to realize the truth of your heritage soon enough. Besides, you’re at least attached to this human pet enough that you understand if you two try anything, I’ll have her killed on sight—she’ll never leave this place alive!”

“Are you all done yelling yet?” said Corner who appeared from a passageway just out of view—ostensibly the only way in and out of the main dungeon room. “I’ve had a hell of a fucking day and I really do not want to deal with more things shouting!”

“Oh, no, little miss winghooves is feeling bad?” said Lock in a sappy falsetto. “I think I might start to cry now too!”

“Yes, explain why we have this...human...instead of Sunset Shimmer!” demanded Tiny Dynamine.

“Things didn’t exactly go to plan, okay?” flatly stated Corner. “That damn human got in the way of me getting Sunset and then I had to fight off a couple of humans—probably ended up killing the one that likes Sunset the most, not sure, but two knives to the chest ain’t exactly something you recover from—and I got most of what you wanted.” Nopony seemed to notice Tavi clasping her hands over her mouth in shock, reacting to the news that the human Pinkie Pie might have been killed by Corner’s hoofiwork.

“So, the illustrious Corner Shot fails yet again, and looks like the failure she is too,” snarked Lux. “What a surprise.”

“Let’s see you deal with a bunch of humans shooting pieces of metal screaming past your head, Lux! Besides, I have the dumb Amulet, so here you go, Oracle.” Corner removed the Amulet from her saddlebag and carelessly just tossed it toward Tiny Dynamine. The Oracle promptly retrieved it with her sickly looking green magic.

“Thank you, Corner,” she said, “at least with this we can—huh?!”

Inexplicably, the Alicorn Amulet acted on its own, darting out of Tiny’s grasp, flew right through the cell’s iron bars and then latched itself around Tavi’s neck.“What the fuck?!” exclaimed Tavi, “Get this thing off me!”

“How the...why are you doing this?!” Razz shouted at Dynamine, “She’s not a pony!”

“You think this is my doing!?” retorted Tiny, “That I’d let some inferior non-magical scum touch an artefact as important as the Amulet!?”

Razz was about to fire back but then Tavi started to scream in what sounded like pain, almost as if possessed. In truth, as she tried to pry the Amulet off her neck, something was going on that was making her lower body feel extremely weird and unnatural.

And then a voice of pure terror sounded out in the human’s head, the laugh of nightmares that only Tavi would hear.

“Well, hello there, Octavia,” said Melody, “didya miss me?”

Chapter 4/1/20 - A Social Experiment - April Fool's chapter

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ҼⱯOⱯ Cμɑbϝԍʁ ƖƖ - Ɐ Ƨocᴉɑɼ Exbԍʁᴉwԍuϝ

ʇɥǝ ɟıɹsʇ ʇɥıuƃ ʇɥɐʇ oɔʇɐʌıɐ ɔonןp sɐʎ sɥǝ sǝusǝp ɐɟʇǝɹ ʇɥǝ qןıupıuƃ ɟןɐsɥ oɟ ןıƃɥʇ ʍɐs ɥǝɹ ɥıʇʇıuƃ ɐ ɔoןp sʇouǝ ɟןooɹ˙ ʇɥǝ sǝɔoup ʇɥıuƃ ʍɐs ʇɥǝ ןıƃɥʇ ɯǝʇɐןןıɔ ɔןɐuƃıuƃ ɐs ʇɥǝ ʞuıɟǝ ʍɥıɔɥ ɥɐp ɥıʇ ʇɐʌı ɔןɐʇʇǝɹǝp ʇo ʇɥǝ ƃɹonup˙

“nuƃɥ' ɟnɔʞ'” sʍoɹǝ ʇɐʌı' ɹɐısıuƃ ɥǝɹsǝןɟ oɟɟ ʇɥǝ ɟןooɹ ʍıʇɥ ɥǝɹ ɥɐups˙ ıʇ pıpu’ʇ ɥǝןd ʇɥɐʇ qǝɔɐnsǝ oɟ ʇɥɐʇ ɟןɐsɥ' ɥǝɹ ǝʎǝs ʍǝɹǝ uoʇ ɐpɾnsʇǝp ɟoɹ ʇɥǝ ǝxʇɹǝɯǝןʎ pıɯ ןıƃɥʇıuƃ oɟ ʍɥǝɹǝʌǝɹ sɥǝ ʍɐs˙ qɐsǝp ou ʍɥɐʇ ɥǝɹ ɥɐups ʍǝɹǝ ɟǝǝןıuƃ' ıʇ ʍɐs soɯǝ ʞıup oɟ snqʇǝɹɹɐuǝɐu ɹoɔʞ˙

ʍɐıʇ˙˙˙ɹoɔʞ¿ ʍɐsu’ʇ sɥǝ˙˙˙uo' sɥǝ’p ʇɥɹoʍu ɥǝɹsǝןɟ ıu ɟɹouʇ oɟ snusǝʇ ʇo sɐʌǝ ɥǝɹ ɟɹoɯ ʇɥɐʇ ʞuıɟǝ-ʇɥɹoʍıuƃ dǝƃɐsns˙ ǝxɔǝdʇ sɥǝ sɥonןp ɥɐʌǝ qǝǝu ou ʇɥǝ ƃɹonup ɐʇ ɔɐuʇǝɹןoʇ dɐןɐɔǝ' qןǝǝpıuƃ ɐup dɹoqɐqןʎ sɔɹǝɐɯıuƃ ɟɹoɯ ʇɥǝ dɐıu˙ ɐ dɐıu ʇɥɐʇ ʍɐs' sʇɹɐuƃǝןʎ ǝuonƃɥ' uoʇ ʇɥǝɹǝ˙

ɐs ɥǝɹ ǝʎǝs sןoʍןʎ ɐpɾnsʇǝp' ʇɐʌı ןooʞǝp poʍu ɐup sɐʍ ʇɥǝ ʞuıɟǝ ǝpƃǝ ɔɐʇɔɥıuƃ ʍɥɐʇ ןıʇʇןǝ ןıƃɥʇ ʇɥǝɹǝ ʍɐs ıu ʇɥǝ ɔɐʌǝ˙ sıʇʇıuƃ nd' sɥǝ dıɔʞǝp nd ʇɥǝ ʞuıɟǝ˙ ıʇ ʍɐs ʌɐƃnǝןʎ ɟǝɐʇɥǝɹ-sɥɐdǝp' ʍɥıɔɥ ɯɐpǝ sǝusǝ ƃıʌǝu ɐ dǝƃɐsns ɥɐp ʇɥɹoʍu ıʇ' qnʇ ʇɥǝ ıusnןʇıuƃ ʇɥıuƃ ʍɐs ʇɥɐʇ ıʇ ʍɐs oqʌıons ʇɥǝ ʞuıɟǝ’s ǝpƃǝ ʍɐs ǝxʇɹǝɯǝןʎ pnןן˙ ʇɥıs ʇɥıuƃ ɔonןpu’ʇ ɥɐʌǝ ɔnʇ ɐ sʇıɔʞ oɟ qnʇʇǝɹ˙ qnʇ ʍɥʎ ʍonןp ɐ dǝƃɐsı ɐssɐssıu qǝ nsıuƃ uou-ןǝʇɥɐן ʞuıʌǝs¿

ʇɥǝu ʇɥǝɹǝ’p qǝǝu ʇɥǝ ɟןɐsɥ ɐɟʇǝɹ ʇɐʌı ɥɐp qǝǝu ɥıʇ˙ ƃıʌǝu ɥǝɹ ǝxʇɹǝɯǝןʎ ןıɯıʇǝp ǝxdǝɹıǝuɔǝ ʍıʇɥ snusǝʇ’s uɐʇıʌǝ sdǝɔıǝs' ʇɐʌı sʇıןן nupǝɹsʇoop ʇǝןǝdoɹʇɐʇıou ʍǝןן ǝuonƃɥ ʇɥɐʇ sɥǝ ɟıƃnɹǝp onʇ ʇɥǝ ʞuıɟǝ’s dnɹdosǝ—ıʇ ɥɐpu’ʇ qǝǝu ʇo ʞıןן snusǝʇ' qnʇ ıusʇǝɐp sǝup ɥǝɹ ɥǝɹǝ˙

qnʇ ʍɥǝɹǝ ʍɐs ɥǝɹǝ¿

ɾnsʇ ʇɥǝu' ɐuoʇɥǝɹ qɹıƃɥʇ ןıƃɥʇ—ʇɥıs ʇıɯǝ ןoɔɐןızǝp ɐup ɯnɔɥ ןǝss dıǝɹɔıuƃ' ןıʇ nd˙

“ɥǝʎ' ıʇ’s ouǝ oɟ ʇɥosǝ ɥnɯɐus˙”

ǝʌǝu ʇɥonƃɥ sɥǝ ʍɐs sbnıuʇıuƃ' ʇɐʌı ʍɐs ɐqןǝ ʇo ɯɐʞǝ onʇ ʇɥǝ onʇןıuǝs oɟ ʇʍo douıǝs—nuıɔoɹus˙ ɐup ouǝ oɟ ʇɥǝɯ sɥǝ ıɯɯǝpıɐʇǝןʎ ɹǝɔoƃuızǝp ɐs ɐ ɟɐɯıןıɐɹ sıןɥonǝʇʇǝ' ʇɥonƃɥ oqʌıonsןʎ ʇɥǝ oʍuǝɹ ʍɐs ʌǝɹʎ pıɟɟǝɹǝuʇ˙

“ɹ-ɹɐzz¿ ıs ʇɥɐʇ ʎon¿”

“ʎǝɐɥ' ıʇ’s ɯǝ ɐup ןoɔʞqox'” sɐıp ɹɐzz' sʇǝddıuƃ ɔןosǝɹ so ʇɐʌı ɔonןp sǝǝ qǝʇʇǝɹ˙ “ʇɥɐʇ qıʇɔɥ ɔoɹuǝɹ sɥoʇ ɯnsʇ ɥɐʌǝ nsǝp ǝuɔɥɐuʇǝp ʇǝןǝdoɹʇ ʞuıʌǝs' qnʇ ʍɥʎ’p sɥǝ ƃo ɐɟʇǝɹ ʎon¿”

“ıʇ ʍɐs snusǝʇ sɥǝ ʍɐs ʇɐɹƃǝʇıuƃ˙ ı ɾnɯdǝp ıu ʇo dɹoʇǝɔʇ ɥǝɹ' ɐup' ʍǝןן…”

“so ıʇ ıs ʇɹnǝ' ʇɥǝu¿” ɐsʞǝp ןoɔʞqox oɟ ɹɐzz˙ “ʎonɹ ʇɥǝoɹʎ ɐqonʇ ʍɥo ʇɥǝ ɟonɹʇɥ sɔıou ʍɐs ɔoɹɹǝɔʇ˙”

“ǝıʇɥǝɹ ʇɥɐʇ oɹ ʇɥǝ ɔoʌǝuɐuʇ ɔɐɯǝ ʇo ʇɥǝ sɐɯǝ ɔouɔןnsıou ı pıp ɐqonʇ ʇɥǝ ɯɐʇʇǝɹ˙”

“ı pou’ʇ nupǝɹsʇɐup'” sɐıp ʇɐʌı' “ʍɥɐʇ ɐqonʇ sɔıous¿”

“pǝsɔǝupɐuʇs oɟ ʞıuƃ soɯqɹɐ' qɐsıɔɐןןʎ ɟonɹ douıǝs ʍɥo ɐɹǝ snddosǝp ʇo qɹıuƃ ɐqonʇ ɥıs bnoʇǝ-nubnoʇǝ ɹǝʌǝuƃǝ ou ǝbnǝsʇɹıɐ˙ ʍǝ ouןʎ ʞuoʍ oɟ ʇɥɹǝǝ: ɯǝ' ןoɔʞ' ɐup ɔoɹuǝɹ˙” ɹɐzz sıƃɥǝp qǝɟoɹǝ ɔouʇıunıuƃ' “qnʇ ıʇ’s dossıqןǝ snusǝʇ ıs ʇɥǝ ɟonɹʇɥ' qɐsǝp ou ıuɟoɹɯɐʇıou ʇɥɐʇ ʍonןp ʇɐʞǝ ʇoo ןouƃ ʇo ǝxdןɐıu ɐup' ʍǝןן' ıʇ’s ɐʍɟnןןʎ ɔouʌǝuıǝuʇ ʍǝ pou’ʇ ʞuoʍ ɥǝɹ ʇɹnǝ ɥǝɹıʇɐƃǝ ƃıʌǝu sɥǝ ʍɐs ɐpodʇǝp˙”

“ʇʍıɔǝ'” ɐppǝp ʇɐʌı ʍɥo ɔonןpu’ʇ ɥǝןd qnʇ sɯıɹʞ ɐ ןıʇʇןǝ˙ ʇɥǝu sɥǝ uoʇıɔǝp ʇɥɐʇ ǝʌǝu ʇɥonƃɥ ʇɥǝɹǝ ʍǝɹǝ ʇʍo nuıɔoɹus' ouןʎ ouǝ oɟ ʇɥǝɯ ʍɐs nsıuƃ ɐ ןıƃɥʇ sdǝןן˙ “ɹɐzz' ʍɥʎ ɐɹǝu’ʇ ʎon ɐppıuƃ ɯoɹǝ ןıƃɥʇ ıu ɥǝɹǝ¿”

“qǝɔɐnsǝ oɟ ɯʎ ɥɐupıɔɐd' ı ɔɐu ouןʎ nsǝ pɐɹʞ ɯɐƃıɔ˙”

“ʇɥɐʇ poǝsu’ʇ ǝxdןɐıu˙”

“pɐɹʞ' ǝʌıן' oddosıʇǝ oɟ ɐɔʇnɐן ןıƃɥʇ ןıʞǝ ʍɥɐʇ ןoɔʞqox ıs nsıuƃ˙”

“sʇıןן uoʇ nupǝɹsʇɐupıuƃ ʍɥɐʇ ʎon ɯǝɐu' ɹɐzz˙”

ןoɔʞqox ƃıƃƃןǝp˙ “ʎon’ɹǝ ƃoıuƃ ʇo ɥɐʌǝ ʇo sɥoʍ ɥǝɹ'” sɥǝ ɹǝɯɐɹʞǝp' ǝxʇıuƃnısɥıuƃ ɥǝɹ oʍu ɥoɹu˙

ʍıʇɥ ɐ ƃɹoɐu' ɹɐzz ןıʇ nd ɥǝɹ oʍu ɥoɹu ʇo ɹǝʌǝɐן˙˙˙qןɐɔʞןıƃɥʇ˙

“ı’p qǝ ƃɹǝɐʇ ɐs ǝbnıdɯǝuʇ ɟoɹ ɟoɹǝusıɔs'” sıƃɥǝp ɹɐzz' ǝɯqɐɹɹɐssǝp˙ “qnʇ ʎǝɐɥ' ɾnsʇ ɐuoʇɥǝɹ ouǝ oɟ ʇɥǝ ɐqsoןnʇǝןʎ ɹıoʇons dɹoqןǝɯs ı ɥɐʌǝ ƃıʌǝu ǝʌǝɹʎ pɹod oɟ qןoop ıu ɯʎ qopʎ ıs ןıʇǝɹɐןןʎ ǝuɔɥɐuʇǝp ʇo dɹǝʌǝuʇ ɯǝ ɟɹoɯ poıuƃ uoɹɯɐן nuıɔoɹu ʇɥıuƃs˙”

“ɥǝʎ' ɯɐʎqǝ ʎon ɔɐu ƃǝʇ ɐ dɐɹʇ ʇıɯǝ ɾoq ɐʇ ouǝ oɟ ʇɥosǝ ɹɐʌǝs ʇɥɹoʍu qʎ pɾ d0u-3¡” ןɐnƃɥǝp ןoɔʞqox' ɹǝsʇoɹıuƃ ɥǝɹ oʍu ןıƃɥʇ ɐs ɹɐzz dnʇ ɥǝɹs onʇ˙

“qnʇ' ɹǝɐן ʇɐןʞ uoʍ—ʍǝ ƃoʇʇɐ ƃǝʇ onʇʇɐ ɥǝɹǝ˙”

“ʍɥǝɹǝ ǝʌǝu ıs ɥǝɹǝ¿” ɐsʞǝp ʇɐʌı' sʇɐupıuƃ nd˙ sɥǝ ʍɐs ɥɐddʎ ʇɥǝɹǝ ʍɐs ǝuonƃɥ ɹooɯ ʇo po ʇɥɐʇ ɯnɔɥ' ƃıʌǝu sɥǝ ʇoʍǝɹǝp oʌǝɹ ʇɥǝ ʇʍo pıɯıunʇıʌǝ nuıɔoɹus˙ qnʇ ɟɹoɯ ʇɥǝ ןıƃɥʇ oɟ ןoɔʞqox’s ɥoɹu' ıʇ ʍɐs ɔןǝɐɹ ʇɥǝʎ ʍǝɹǝ ıu soɯǝ ʞıup oɟ sǝɐןǝp ɔɐʌǝɹu ɹooɯ˙

“ı ɥɐʌǝ ɐ ɥnuɔɥ'” sɐıp ɹɐzz' “ɐup ıʇ’s uoʇ ƃoop˙”

ɾnsʇ ʇɥǝu' ouǝ oɟ ʇɥǝ ɹoɔʞ ʍɐןןs pıssoןʌǝp ɐup ıu ɔɐɯǝ ɐ dɐıɹ oɟ douıǝs ʍıʇɥ ɔןoɐʞs' ɥoops pɹɐʍu˙

“sɔıous'” ouǝ ıuʇouǝp؛ ɥǝ ʍɐs ʇɹʎıuƃ ʇo sonup qoʇɥ ʇɥɹǝɐʇǝuıuƃ qnʇ ɐʇ ʇɥǝ sɐɯǝ ʇıɯǝ ɔonןpu’ʇ bnıʇǝ ʞǝǝd ʇɥǝ ɐʍǝ ɟɹoɯ ɥıs ʌoıɔǝ – ʇɥǝ ɐʍǝ oɟ ɐ soɯqɹɐ ʍoɹsɥıddǝɹ˙ “ıɟ ʎon—„

ɥǝ pıpu’ʇ ƃǝʇ ɐuʎ ɟɐɹʇɥǝɹ qǝɟoɹǝ ɥǝ ɟonup ɥıɯsǝןɟ qןɐsʇǝp ɐƃɐıusʇ ʇɥǝ ʍɐןן' ʇɹɐddǝp ıu ɔɹʎsʇɐן˙ ʇɥǝ oʇɥǝɹ ouǝ pıpu’ʇ ǝʌǝu ɥɐʌǝ ʇıɯǝ ʇo ɹǝɐɔʇ qǝɟoɹǝ ɥǝ ʍɐs sןɐɯɯǝp ɐƃɐıusʇ ʇɥǝ oʇɥǝɹ ʍɐןן qʎ ɹɐƃıuƃ ɔɥɐıus' ʇɥǝ ɹǝp ɐup qןɐɔʞ ɥnǝs ɔןɐsɥıuƃ ʍıʇɥ ʇɥǝ dnɹdןǝ ɐup ƃɹǝǝu ɯıɐsɯɐ oɟ ʇɥǝıɹ ɯısʇɹǝss’, ɥoɹus˙

“ʇɐʞǝ ʎonɹ pooɹ-ʇo-pooɹ ɹǝןıƃıou ɐup ɟnɔʞ oɟɟ¡” ןoɔʞ sɥonʇǝp˙˙

ɾnsʇ ʇɥǝu' ʇʍo ɯoɹǝ douıǝs ǝuʇǝɹǝp' qnʇ ʇɥǝsǝ ʍǝɹǝ ןıƃɥʇuıuƃ ɟɐsʇ ɐup ʇɥıs ʇıɯǝ' ıʇ ʍɐs ɹɐzz ɐup ןoɔʞ ʍɥo ɔonןpu’ʇ ɹǝɐɔʇ ıu ʇıɯǝ˙ ıusʇǝɐp' ıʇ ʍɐs ʇɐʌı’s ʇnɹu ʇo qǝ ɐ ʌıɔʇıɯ ouɔǝ ɯoɹǝ ɐs sɥǝ ʍɐs snppǝuןʎ ɥǝןp poʍu ʇo ʇɥǝ ƃɹonup qʎ ʇʍo dǝƃɐsns ɯɐɹǝs' ǝɐɔɥ ɥoןpıuƃ ɐ ɟǝɐʇɥǝɹ ʞuıɟǝ—ʇɥǝsǝ qǝıuƃ ʇɥǝ ɹɐzoɹ-sɥɐɹd ɹǝɐן pǝɐן—ʇo ɥǝɹ ʇɥɹoɐʇ˙

“snɹɹǝupǝɹ oɹ ʇɥǝ ɟnɹןǝss ɯouʞǝʎ pıǝs¡” sdɐʇ ouǝ oɟ ʇɥǝɯ˙

“ƃɹǝɐʇ' ɔoɹuǝɹ sɥoʇ ɥɐs ǝbnɐןןʎ qıʇɔɥʎ sısʇǝɹs'” ɹǝɯɐɹʞǝp ɹɐzz˙

“dǝɹɥɐds'” ouǝ oɟ ʇɥǝ dǝƃɐsı ʇɐnuʇǝp' “qnʇ ʍǝ’ɹǝ ɐןso ǝɟɟǝɔʇıʌǝ˙”

“ɐup sʇndıp'” ɹɐzz ɔɐןןǝp onʇ' dןɐʎıuƃ ɥǝɹ ʇɹɐd ɔɐɹp˙ sɥǝ ɟoɔnsǝp ou ɥǝɹ uǝɔʞןɐɔǝ' ɐup ɐ sǝɔoup ןɐʇǝɹ' ɥɐp ɔɥɐuƃǝp ıuʇo ɥǝɹ ɥnɯɐu ɟoɹɯ˙ qǝɟoɹǝ ʇɥǝ ʇʍo ɐssɐssıus ɔonןp ɹǝɐɔʇ' sɥǝ ıɯɯǝpıɐʇǝןʎ ɟןnuƃ ɟıɹǝqɐןןs ıu ʇɥǝıɹ pıɹǝɔʇıou' qןɐsʇıuƃ ʇɥǝɯ ɐsıpǝ˙

“ʍɥɐʇ ʇɥǝ ɥǝןן¿” ןoɔʞ ɐsʞǝp' ɔoɯdןǝʇǝןʎ sɥoɔʞǝp˙

“ןooʞ' uoʍ ıs uoʇ ʇɥǝ ʇıɯǝ ɟoɹ ʇɥıs'” ɹɐzz ʇoןp ɥǝɹ' oɟɟǝɹıuƃ ɥǝɹ ɥɐup ʇo ʇɐʌı˙ “ʎon oʞɐʎ¿”

“ʎǝɐɥ' ʇɥɐuʞs˙”


ʇɥɐʇ' ɥoʍǝʌǝɹ' pıpu’ʇ ןɐsʇ ןouƃ ɐs sǝʌǝɹɐן qןɐsʇs oɟ ǝuǝɹƃʎ ɟıןןǝp ʇɥǝ ɐɹǝɐ ʇɥǝʎ ʍǝɹǝ ɐʇ ɐs ɐ qnuɔɥ oɟ nuıɔoɹus ɯǝɹɔıןǝssןʎ ɥıʇ ʇɥǝ ʇɹıo' ʞuoɔʞıuƃ ʇɥǝɯ nuɔousɔıons˙

“oʞɐʎ' ʇɥǝʎ’ɹǝ poʍu'” ouǝ oɟ ʇɥǝ nuıɔoɹus sɐıp' ןooʞıuƃ oʌǝɹ ɹɐzz ɐs ɥǝɹ nuɔousɔıons ɟoɹɯ ɐnʇoɯɐʇıɔɐןןʎ sʍıʇɔɥǝp qɐɔʞ ɟɹoɯ ɥnɯɐu ʇo nuıɔoɹu˙ “ɥɐʌǝ ʇo ɐpɯıʇ' ʇɥıs ouǝ ıs ʍoɹʇɥʎ oɟ soɯqɹɐ’s qןoop—ı pou’ʇ ʇɥıuʞ ı ʍonןp ɥɐʌǝ ɥɐp ʇɥǝ ƃnɯdʇıou ʇo ɔɥɐuƃǝ ıuʇo ɐ ʍǝɐʞ ɐdǝ ʇɥıuƃʎ' qnʇ ıʇ ʇnɹuǝp onʇ ʇo ɔɐʇɔɥ ns nuɐʍɐɹǝs˙”

“ɯʎ' ɯʎ' ʇɥǝʎ’ɹǝ ɔǝɹʇɐıuןʎ ɟǝısʇʎ' ɐɹǝu’ʇ ʇɥǝʎ¿” ɔɐɯǝ ɐuoʇɥǝɹ ʌoıɔǝ' ʇɥıs ʇıɯǝ oɟ ouǝ ʍɥo ɥɐp ɐ ʌǝɹʎ ɥıƃɥ odıuıou oɟ ɥıɯsǝןɟ˙ ʇɥǝ sʇɐןןıou ʍɥo ןoɔʞ ɥɐp sɯɐsɥǝp ıuʇo ʇɥǝ ʍɐןן ɥɐp sıuɔǝ ƃoʇʇǝu nd ɐup ʍɐs qoʍıuƃ ʇo ʇɥǝ uǝʍɔoɯǝɹ˙ ʇɥǝ oʇɥǝɹ sʇɐןןıou ʍɐs sʇıןן dıuuǝp ʇo ʇɥǝ ʍɐןן ɐup ʇɥns ɔonןp po uoʇɥıuƃ qnʇ ʍɐʇɔɥ˙ ʇɥǝ uǝʍɔoɯǝɹ ʍɐןʞǝp ıuʇo ʇɥǝ ɹooɯ' dnןןıuƃ ɥıs ɥoop qɐɔʞ ʇo ɹǝʌǝɐן ɐ ƃɐɹısɥןʎ uǝou ƃɹǝǝu ɯɐuǝ ɐup ɐ qןɐɔʞ ɔoɐʇ' ʍıʇɥ ɥoʇ dıuʞ ǝʎǝs˙

“ɥoqqןǝ ʇɥǝɯ'” ɥǝ oɹpǝɹǝp ʇɥǝ ʇɹoods˙ “ɐup ʇɥıs ʇıɯǝ ɥɐʌǝ ʎonɹ sdǝןןs ɹǝɐpʎ˙ ı ʍou’ʇ ʇoןǝɹɐʇǝ ɐ ʇɥıɹp ɟɐıןnɹǝ˙” ɥǝ ןooʞǝp ɐʇ ʇɥǝ ʇɹıo' ɾnsʇ ɐs ןoɔʞ qǝƃɐu ʇo sʇıɹ ouɔǝ ɯoɹǝ˙ “ɐ ʌɐןoɹons ɐʇʇǝɯdʇ' qnʇ ıʇ ʍıןן uoʇ ɔɥɐuƃǝ ʎonɹ ɟɐʇǝ˙”

“ʍɥɐʇ' pıp ʎon ǝsɔɐdǝ ɟɹoɯ ɐ ɹɐʌǝ oɹ soɯǝʇɥıuƃ¿” ɐsʞǝp ןoɔʞ ıuɔɹǝpnןonsןʎ˙ ɹɐzz' ʍɥo ʍɐs ɐןso ɔoɯıuƃ ʇo ɐup oʌǝɹ ɥǝɐɹp ʇɥǝ ǝxɔɥɐuƃǝ' ʞuǝʍ sɥǝ ɹǝɐןןʎ sɥonןpu’ʇ qnʇ ʍɐs ɟǝǝןıuƃ dɐɹʇıɔnןɐɹןʎ ıɯdısɥ ɐʇ ʇɥɐʇ ɯoɯǝuʇ˙˙˙so sɥǝ ןıʇ ɥǝɹ ɥoɹu nd ıu qןɐɔʞןıƃɥʇ˙ ןoɔʞ ןɐnƃɥǝp˙

“ı ɟɐıן ʇo sǝǝ ʍɥɐʇ ıs so ɟnuuʎ'” sɐıp ʇɥǝ sʇɐןןıou' ɯoɹǝ ɐuuoʎǝp ʇɥɐu ɐuʎʇɥıuƃ' qnʇ ɥǝ ɹǝɔoɯdosǝp ɥıɯsǝןɟ˙ “sʇıןן' ʇo qǝ ıu ʇɥǝ dɹǝsǝuɔǝ oɟ ʇʍo oɟ soɯqɹɐ’s pǝsɔǝupɐuʇs ʍoɹʇɥʎ oɟ ʇɥǝıɹ ɥǝɹıʇɐƃǝ' ıʇ ıs ɐu ɥouoɹ˙”

“ƃןɐp ʇo sǝǝ soɯǝdouʎ ɥɐʇǝs ɔoɹuǝɹ ןıʞǝ ʍǝ po'” ɯnsǝp ɹɐzz' bnıɔʞןʎ ɟıƃnɹıuƃ onʇ ʇɥɐʇ ʇɥıs douʎ ʞuǝʍ ɔoɹuǝɹ ʍɐs ɐןso ɐ sɔıou qnʇ ɥɐp pǝɔıpǝp ʇo ɯǝuʇıou sɥǝ ʍɐs˙˙˙uoʇ ʍoɹʇɥʎ qʎ oɯıssıou˙

“ɥɹɯ' ʎǝs' qnʇ sɥǝ ʍıןן ɹǝɾoıu ns ıu ʇıɯǝ'” ʇɥǝ ɯʎsʇǝɹıons douʎ sɐıp' ʇnɹuıuƃ ʇo ɟnןןʎ ɟɐɔǝ ɹɐzz˙ “qnʇ dןǝɐsǝ' ןǝʇ ɯǝ ıuʇɹopnɔǝ ɯʎsǝןɟ—ı ɐɯ ɟɐʇɥǝɹ uǝou ןnx' ouǝ oɟ ʎonɹ ʌɐnuʇǝp ɐuɔǝsʇoɹ’s ƃɹǝɐʇǝsʇ ɐup ɯosʇ ɟɐıʇɥɟnן ɟoןןoʍǝɹs˙” ɥǝ qoʍǝp' ɐup ʇɥǝu ǝxʇǝupǝp ɐ ɥooɟ ןıʞǝ ɥǝ ǝxdǝɔʇǝp ɹɐzz ʍonןp ǝʌǝu ʍɐuʇ ʇo ʇonɔɥ ɥıɯ˙

sɥǝ ıusʇǝɐp sʇɐɹǝp ɐʇ ɥıɯ ıu pısqǝןıǝɟ˙ “ʎon po ʞuoʍ ı ʍɐuʇ uoʇɥıuƃ ʇo po ʍıʇɥ ɥıɯ˙”

ʇɥǝ nsǝp ɔɐɹʇ sɐןǝsɯɐu sɯıןǝ ןnx ʍoɹǝ ɟɐןʇǝɹǝp sןıƃɥʇןʎ˙ “snɹǝןʎ' ʇɥǝ ɟɐɔʇ ʎon nsǝ pɐɹʞ ɯɐƃıɔ odǝuןʎ snƃƃǝsʇs oʇɥǝɹʍısǝ˙”

“ɐddɐɹǝuʇןʎ ʎon pıpu’ʇ uoʇıɔǝ ʇɥɐʇ ı ʍɐs ɾnsʇ nsıuƃ ןıƃɥʇ ɯɐƃıɔ ɾnsʇ uoʍ¿ ı’ɯ ɐ ɯɐɹǝ oɟ ɐןן ʇɹɐpǝs'” ɹɐzz suǝǝɹǝp˙ “ɟnuuʎ ɥoʍ ʎon ɔoʌǝuɐuʇ ɟɹǝɐʞs ɟıƃnɹǝp onʇ ı ʍɐs ǝɯǝɹɐןp ɾoʎ soɯǝ ʇıɯǝ ɐƃo qnʇ ʎon sʇıןן pou’ʇ ʞuoʍ ɐqonʇ ʇɥɐʇ dɐɹʇ oɟ ɯʎ doʍǝɹs˙ qnʇ ıɟ ʎon po ɹǝsdǝɔʇ ns—oɹ ɐʇ ןǝɐsʇ ɯǝ—so ɯnɔɥ' ɯɐʎqǝ sǝǝ ɐqonʇ ןǝʇʇıuƃ ns ƃo¿”

ןnx sıƃɥǝp' ןoʍǝɹıuƃ ɥıs ɥooɟ˙ “ı ɥɐp qǝǝu ɥodıuƃ ɯʎ ɐpʌısoɹs ʍǝɹǝ ʍɹouƃ' qnʇ ıʇ ɐddǝɐɹs ʇɥɐʇ ʎon po sʇıןן sʇɹɐʎ ɟɹoɯ ʇɥǝ dɐʇɥ soɯqɹɐ ןɐıp onʇ ɟoɹ ʎon˙” ɥǝ ʇɥǝu ƃǝsʇnɹǝp ʇo ʇɥǝ ƃnɐɹpsʇɐןןıou ʍıʇɥ ɐ ןǝʇɥɐן-ןooʞıuƃ sʍoɹp ɥǝןp ɐƃɐıusʇ oɔʇɐʌıɐ’s ʇɥɹoɐʇ˙ “ʌǝɹʎ ʍǝןן ʇɥǝu' ʍǝ ʍıןן ɥɐʌǝ ʇo ʞǝǝd ʎon ıu ʇɥǝ ƃɐɹɹısou ɐןouƃ ʍıʇɥ ʎonɹ˙˙˙dǝʇ˙˙˙ʇɥɐʇ ɔoɹuǝɹ sǝǝɯs ʇo ɥɐʌǝ ɹǝʇɹıǝʌǝp ıusʇǝɐp oɟ ʇɥǝ ɐןıɔoɹu sɥǝ ʍɐs snddosǝp ʇo ɥɐʌǝ ƃoʇʇǝu˙”

“dǝʇ¿” sɐıp ʇɐʌı' ıupıƃuɐuʇןʎ' qnʇ ɐ qɹıǝɟ ןooʞ ɟɹoɯ ɹɐzz sıןǝuɔǝp ɥǝɹ˙

“ʎon ɥɐʌǝ uo ıpǝɐ ɥoʍ ɯnɔɥ ʇɹonqןǝ ʎon qɐsʇɐɹps ɥɐʌǝ ıuʌıʇǝp ndou ʎonɹsǝןʌǝs'” sɐıp ןoɔʞ' “qǝɔɐnsǝ ıʇ ısu’ʇ ɾnsʇ ǝbnǝsʇɹıɐ ʎon’ʌǝ dıssǝp oɟɟ˙˙˙ɐup ʎon’ןן ʍısɥ ıʇ ʍɐs ɾnsʇ ʇɥǝɯ˙”

ɯǝɐuʍɥıןǝ' ou ouǝ oɟ ʇɥǝ ןɐɹƃǝ ǝxʇǝɹuɐן dɹoɯıuɐpǝs oɟ ɔɐsʇןǝ ɔɐuʇǝɹןoʇ' ɐ dıʇɔɥǝp qɐʇʇןǝ oɟ qןɐpǝs ɔouʇıunǝp˙ pǝsdıʇǝ qǝıuƃ ʍonupǝp ıu ouǝ ɐɹɯ' dıuʞıǝ ʍɐs sʇıןן poıuƃ ıuɔɹǝpıqןʎ ʍǝןן ɐƃɐıusʇ ʇɥǝ ʇɹɐıuǝp-sıuɔǝ-qıɹʇɥ ɐssɐssıu dǝƃɐsns ʍɥo ʍɐs ɟɐɹ ɯoɹǝ ɐƃıןǝ˙

ɔoɹuǝɹ ƃɹnuʇǝp ıu ɐuuoʎɐuɔǝ ɐs ǝʌǝɹʎ ʇıɯǝ sɥǝ ʇɹıǝp ʇo qɹǝɐʞ ɐʍɐʎ ɟɹoɯ ɔןosǝ bnɐɹʇǝɹs' ʇɥǝ ɯɐƃǝuʇɐ-ɥɐıɹǝp ɥnɯɐu ʍɐs ɹıƃɥʇ ou ɥǝɹ ɐƃɐıu˙ ʍɥıןǝ ɐs ɐ ʇɹɐıuǝp ɐssɐssıu ɔoɹuǝɹ ʍɐs ɯoɹǝ ʇɥɐu sʞıןןǝp ɐʇ ɯǝןǝǝ ɹɐuƃǝ ʞuıɟǝ ɟıƃɥʇıuƃ' ʇɥǝ ʇɹnʇɥ ʍɐs sɥǝ pıpu’ʇ ןıʞǝ ǝuƃɐƃıuƃ ıu ɔoɯqɐʇ ɐʇ ɐןן ʍıʇɥ ʞuıʌǝs˙ ıɹouıɔ' ƃıʌǝu ɥǝɹ ʇɐןǝuʇ ɟoɹ ʞuıɟǝ ʇɥɹoʍıuƃ' qnʇ ɥǝɹ ɟǝɐʇɥǝɹ ʞuıʌǝs ʍǝɹǝ pǝsıƃuǝp ɟoɹ nʇıןızıuƃ pısʇɐuɔǝ ɐup ɯoɯǝuʇnɯ ʇo pɹıʌǝ ʇɥǝ ǝpƃǝs ıuʇo ʇɐɹƃǝʇs˙ ɐs ɐɔʇnɐן ɔןosǝ ɹɐuƃǝ ʍǝɐdous ʇɥǝʎ ʍǝɹǝu’ʇ ʇɥǝ qǝsʇ؛ ǝʌǝu ʍɥǝu sʍıʇɔɥıuƃ ɟɹoɯ ʍıuƃ ƃɹıd ʇo ɥooɟ ƃɹıd' ʇɥǝʎ pıpu’ʇ oɟɟǝɹ ɯnɔɥ ןǝʌǝɹɐƃǝ ɐƃɐıusʇ ʇɥǝ ɥnɯɐu’s sɥoɹʇ sʍoɹp oɹ ǝʌǝu ʇɥǝɯsǝןʌǝs ɐs ʇɥǝ ɥnɯɐu ʍɐs ʍıǝןpıuƃ ʇɥǝ ɟǝɐʇɥǝɹ ʞuıɟǝ ʇɥɐʇ ɔoɹuǝɹ ɥɐp ʇɥɹoʍu ıuʇo ɥǝɹ ɐɹɯ ǝɐɹןıǝɹ˙ sɥǝ ɥǝןp ıʇ ıu ɐ sʇɹɐuƃǝ' qןɐpǝ-poʍu ʞıup oɟ sʇɐuɔǝ ʇɥɐʇ sǝǝɯıuƃןʎ ɯɐpǝ ıʇ ǝɐsʎ ɟoɹ ɥǝɹ ʇo ʞǝǝd dɐɹɹʎıuƃ ɐʍɐʎ ɐuʎ ɯoʌǝs ɔoɹuǝɹ ʇɹıǝp ʇo dnןן˙ ıʇ ʍɐs ǝxʇɹǝɯǝןʎ ɐuuoʎıuƃ ʇo dnʇ ıʇ ɯıןpןʎ ɐs ɔoɹuǝɹ’s ʍıupoʍ ɟoɹ ǝsɔɐdǝ onʇ oɟ ɔɐuʇǝɹןoʇ ʍɐs sɥɹıuʞıuƃ ɹɐdıpןʎ˙

“ʎon’ʌǝ ɥnɹʇ ɐ ןoʇ oɟ dǝodןǝ'” sɐıp ʇɥǝ ɥnɯɐu ıu ɐ sʇɹɐuƃǝןʎ ɔɐןɯ ɟnɹʎ' pǝɟןǝɔʇıuƃ ɐuoʇɥǝɹ ʇɥɹnsʇ ɟɹoɯ ɔoɹuǝɹ ɐup sdıuuıuƃ' nsıuƃ ʇɥǝ ɯoɯǝuʇnɯ ʇo˙ “ɐup ʎon’ɹǝ ƃoıuƃ ʇo dɐʎ ɟoɹ ıʇ˙”

“oɥ' ʇɹnsʇ ɯǝ' qıʇɔɥ'” ɹǝdןıǝp ɔoɹuǝɹ' ʇɥǝ qɹıǝɟǝsʇ ɟןɐsɥǝs oɟ ʇıןןǝp ɟıǝןps doddıuƃ nd ıu ɥǝɹ ɯıup' “ı’ɯ ɐןɹǝɐpʎ dɐʎıuƃ ɟoɹ ıʇ˙”

“uo' ʎon’ɹǝ ouןʎ ɐʍɐɹǝ oɟ ʇɥǝ dɹıɔǝ˙ ʎon ɥɐʌǝ ʎǝʇ ʇo sǝǝ ʇɥɐʇ ʇɥǝ ʇɹnǝ dɐʎɯǝuʇ ıs pnǝ˙ ɐup ı’ɯ ʇɥǝ ıuʇǝɹǝsʇ¡”

ʇɥǝ ɥnɯɐu snppǝuןʎ pɐsɥǝp ɐʇ ɔoɹuǝɹ ɐs ıɟ ʇo ʇɐɔʞןǝ' qnʇ ʇɥǝu ןǝɐdʇ nd ɐup soɯǝɹsɐnןʇǝp oʌǝɹ ʇɥǝ dǝƃɐsns˙ ɔoɹuǝɹ ɯoʌǝp ʇo ʇnɹu ɐɹonup' qnʇ ʇɥǝ ɥnɯɐu ʍɐs ɟɐsʇǝɹ—ʍıʇɥ sʇɹǝuƃʇɥ ʇɥɐʇ ɥǝɹ ɟɹɐɯǝ snƃƃǝsʇǝp sɥonןpu’ʇ ɥɐʌǝ qǝǝu dossıqןǝ' sɥǝ ʇɥɹǝʍ ʇɥǝ ɟǝɐʇɥǝɹ qןɐpǝ ɥɐɹp ǝuonƃɥ ʇɥɐʇ ıʇ ןopƃǝp ıʇsǝןɟ ɹıƃɥʇ qǝןoʍ ʍɥǝɹǝ ɔoɹuǝɹ’s ןǝɟʇ ʍıuƃ ʍɐs ɐʇʇɐɔɥǝp ʇo ɥǝɹ qopʎ˙

“ɐɐɐɐƃƃɥɥ¡” sɔɹǝɐɯǝp ɔoɹuǝɹ—ʇɥǝ dɐıu ʍɐs bnıʇǝ nuןıʞǝ ɐuʎʇɥıuƃ sɥǝ’p ɟǝןʇ sıuɔǝ ɟıɹsʇ ɹǝɔǝıʌıuƃ ɥǝɹ ɐɹʇıɟıɔıɐן ʍıuƃs' ɐup sɥǝ ʍɐsu’ʇ snɹǝ ʍɥɐʇ ʍɐs ʍoɹsǝ—ʇɥǝ ɟɐɔʇ ʇɥǝ qןɐpǝ ʍɐs ןopƃǝp ıu snɔɥ ɐ ʍɐʎ ʇɥɐʇ sɥǝ ɔonןpu’ʇ dnןן ıʇ onʇ' oɹ ʇɥǝ ɥnɯıןıɐʇıou oɟ ɥɐʌıuƃ ɥǝɹ oʍu ʍǝɐdou ʇnɹuǝp ɐƃɐıusʇ ɥǝɹ˙ ʇɥɐʇ dıssǝp ɥǝɹ oɟɟ˙˙˙ɐup ʇɥǝu sɥǝ ɟǝןʇ ıʇ˙ ʇɥɐʇ snɹƃǝ sɥǝ’p ɟǝןʇ qǝɟoɹǝ ʍɥǝu ıʇ ɥɐp qǝǝu ʇɥosǝ ʇɥɹǝǝ ɥnɯɐus—ʇɥǝ dıƃʇɐıןǝp ouǝ ɥɐʌıuƃ ɟıɹǝp ɐ ɔɹossqoʍ qoןʇ ıuʇo ɥǝɹ ɥıupbnɐɹʇǝɹs˙

ɐs ʇɥǝ ƃɹǝǝu ɐup dnɹdןǝ ɯısʇ qǝƃɐu ʇo ɟןoʍ ɟɹoɯ ɥǝɹ ǝʎǝs' ɔoɹuǝɹ ןǝʇ onʇ ɐ dɹıɯɐן' ıuǝbnıuǝ sɔɹǝɐɯ ʍɥıɔɥ ɔɐnƃɥʇ ʇɥǝ ɥnɯɐu oɟɟ ƃnɐɹp˙

“ʍɥɐʇ ʇɥǝ ɟnɔʞ ǝʌǝu ɐɹǝ ʎon¿¡” ɐsʞǝp ʇɥǝ ɥnɯɐu' ʇɐʞıuƃ ɐ pǝɟǝusıʌǝ sʇɐuɔǝ ɐs ɔoɹuǝɹ ʇnɹuǝp ʇo ɟɐɔǝ ɥǝɹ˙ ɥoʍǝʌǝɹ' ɥǝɹ ʍonupǝp ɐɹɯ ɐup ɥɐʌıuƃ ןosʇ ʇɥǝ ɟǝɐʇɥǝɹ qןɐpǝ ɯǝɐuʇ ɥǝɹ pǝɟǝusǝs ʍǝɹǝ uoʇ ɐs ɐıɹʇıƃɥʇ ɐs qǝɟoɹǝ—ıʇ ʍonןp qǝ ɥǝɹ nupoıuƃ˙

“ʇɥǝ ןɐsʇ ʇɥıuƃ ʎon’ןן ǝʌǝɹ sǝǝ'” ɥıssǝp ɔoɹuǝɹ' ʍɥo ʇɥǝu nsǝp ɥǝɹ ƃoop ʍıuƃ ʇo ʍıʇɥpɹɐʍ ouǝ oɟ ʇɥǝ ʇɥɹǝǝ ʞuıʌǝs ןǝɟʇ ıu ɥǝɹ ɥoןsʇǝɹs ɐup ʇɥǝu ןɐnuɔɥǝp ıʇ ɐʇ ʇɥǝ ɥnɯɐu˙ dɹǝpıɔʇɐqןʎ' ʇɥǝ ɥnɯɐu pǝɟןǝɔʇǝp ıʇ—qnʇ ʇɥǝ ʞuıɟǝ ɥɐp qǝǝu ɐ pısʇɹɐɔʇıou ouןʎ˙ ʍɥǝu ʇɥǝ ɥnɯɐu ןooʞǝp qɐɔʞ ɐʇ ɔoɹuǝɹ' ʇɥǝ dǝƃɐsns ɥɐp ɐןɹǝɐpʎ ןɐnuɔɥǝp ɥǝɹsǝןɟ ɟnןן sdǝǝp ɐʇ ɥǝɹ' ɐup ʇɥǝɹǝ ʍɐs uoʇɥıuƃ sɥǝ ɔonןp po qǝɟoɹǝ ƃǝʇʇıuƃ ʞuoɔʞǝp qɐɔʞ˙ ʌɐnןʇıuƃ ıuʇo ʇɥǝ ɐıɹ' ɔoɹuǝɹ ʍıʇɥpɹǝʍ ɥǝɹ ןɐsʇ ʇʍo ɟǝɐʇɥǝɹ qןɐpǝs' ʇossǝp ʇɥǝɯ ıu ʇɥǝ ɐıɹ ɾnsʇ qǝɟoɹǝ ɥǝɹ' ɐup ʇɥǝu ʍɥıןǝ sʇıןן ɐıɹqoɹuǝ pıp ɐ ɥɐɯɯǝɹɥǝɐp ʇnɹu˙ ʇɥǝ dɐıu ʍɐs uǝɐɹןʎ nuqǝɐɹɐqןǝ' qnʇ ɔoɹuǝɹ nsǝp ıʇ ʇo ɟnǝן ʍɥɐʇǝʌǝɹ oɟ soɯqɹɐ’s pɐɹʞ doʍǝɹs ʍɐs ǝɯdoʍǝɹıuƃ ɥǝɹ' ƃıʌıuƃ ɥǝɹ ʇɥǝ ɐqıןıʇʎ ʇo ןɐup ʇɥǝ ɟıuısɥıuƃ qןoʍ˙ɥǝɹ ɹǝɐɹ ɥooʌǝs ɯɐʞǝ ɔouʇɐɔʇ ʍıʇɥ ʇɥǝ ɥıןʇ oɟ ʇɥǝ qןɐpǝs ɐʇ ʇɥǝ sɐɯǝ ʇıɯǝ ʇɥǝ qןɐpǝ ʇıds dɹǝssǝp ıuʇo ʇɥǝ ɥnɯɐu’s ɔɥǝsʇ˙ ɟıuɐןןʎ' ʍıʇɥ ɐןן ɥǝɹ ɯıƃɥʇ' ɔoɹuǝɹ qnɔʞǝp qoʇɥ ןǝƃs ɐup pɹoʌǝ qoʇɥ ʞuıʌǝs ıuʇo ʇɥǝ ɥnɯɐu’s ɔɥǝsʇ poʍu ʇo ʍɥǝɹǝ ʇɥǝ qןɐpǝs ɯǝʇ ʇɥǝ ɥıןʇ˙

qoʇɥ qopıǝs ǝupǝp nd ɔɹɐsɥıuƃ ʇo ʇɥǝ ƃɹonup' qnʇ ouןʎ ɔoɹuǝɹ ƃoʇ nd—ʇɥǝ ɥnɯɐu sǝǝɯǝp ʇo ɥɐʌǝ ɥıʇ ɥǝɹ ɥǝɐp ou ʇɥǝ ɥɐɹp ƃɹonup ʞuoɔʞıuƃ ɥǝɹ onʇ ɔoןp' ɐup ʇɥǝ ɐןɹǝɐpʎ ɔousıpǝɹɐqןǝ ɐɯonuʇ oɟ qןoop donɹıuƃ ɟɹoɯ ɥǝɹ ɔɥǝsʇ ʍonup snƃƃǝsʇǝp sɥǝ ʍonןp uoʇ qǝ ƃǝʇʇıuƃ nd˙

“sɥonןpɐ ɾnsʇ ןǝʇ ɯǝ ʍɐןʞ'” ƃɹoɐuǝp ɔoɹuǝɹ' ʇɥǝ bnıɔʞןʎ ǝʌɐdoɹɐʇıuƃ dnɹdןǝ/ƃɹǝǝu ɯısʇ sıƃuıɟʎıuƃ ɥǝɹ sɔıou doʍǝɹ ɟɐpıuƃ˙ ıʇ pıpu’ʇ ןɐsʇ ןouƃ' qnʇ pɐɯu pıp ıʇ ɥǝןd ıu ɐ dıuɔɥ˙ sɥǝ ʇɥǝu ɥnɹɹıǝp oʌǝɹ' ʍıuɔıuƃ ıu ƃɹǝɐʇ dɐıu ɐs ʇɥǝ ɟǝɐʇɥǝɹ ʞuıɟǝ ʍɐs sʇıןן qnɹıǝp ıu ɥǝɹ qɐɔʞ' ɐup nsǝp ʇɥǝ pısɔɐɹpǝp sɥoɹʇ sʍoɹp ɐs ɐ ʞıup oɟ ɹǝɐɔɥ ǝxʇǝusıou ʇo ɔɐʇɔɥ ʇɥǝ qןɐpǝ’s ɥıןʇ ƃnɐɹp ɐup ʎɐuʞ ıʇ onʇ˙ snɹǝ' sɥǝ’p qǝ qןǝǝpıuƃ ɟɹoɯ ʇɥǝ ʍonup' qnʇ sɥǝ ʞuǝʍ ʍɥǝɹǝ sɥǝ ɔonןp ƃǝʇ ɥǝןd—ʇɥǝ ɥnɯɐu ou ʇɥǝ oʇɥǝɹ ɥɐup ʍɐs ɯosʇ ןıʞǝןʎ ƃoıuƃ ʇo pıǝ˙

snppǝuןʎ' ʍɥɐʇ ɟǝןʇ ןıʞǝ ɐ ɟןʎ ƃoıuƃ ɟɐsʇǝɹ ʇɥɐu ɹɐıuqoʍ pɐsɥ ɐʇ ɯɐx sdǝǝp ʍɥızzǝp ɹıƃɥʇ dɐsʇ ɔoɹuǝɹ’s ɥǝɐp' ɾnsʇ qɐɹǝןʎ sɔɹɐdıuƃ ɥǝɹ ɹıƃɥʇ ǝɐɹ ɐup pɹɐʍıuƃ qןoop' ɟoןןoʍǝp qʎ ɐ unɯqıuƃ ʎǝʇ qnɹuıuƃ sǝusɐʇıou˙ ʍɥǝǝןıuƃ ɐɹonup' ɔoɹuǝɹ ƃɹoɐuǝp ɐs ɥǝɹ ןnɔʞ dɹoʌǝp ʇo qǝ ɐƃɐıusʇ ɥǝɹ ʎǝʇ ɐƃɐıu—ʇɥǝ qןnǝ ɥɐıɹǝp ɥnɯɐu oɟ ʇɥosǝ pɐɯu ʇɹıdןǝʇs ɥɐp sɥoʍu nd ɐup' ןıʞǝןʎ ɥɐʌıuƃ sǝǝu ʍɥɐʇ ɔoɹuǝɹ ɥɐp pouǝ ʇo ʇɥǝ ɯɐƃǝuʇɐ-ɥɐıɹǝp ouǝ' pıpu’ʇ ǝʌǝu ʇɹʎ ʇo uǝƃoʇıɐʇǝ˙ sɥǝ ʍɐs sɥooʇıuƃ ʇo ʞıןן ʍıʇɥ ouǝ oɟ ʇɥosǝ ǝxdןosıʌǝ qoxǝs ʍıʇɥ ʇɥǝ ןouƃ ʇnqǝs ıu ʇɥǝɯ' ןıʞǝ ƃɹıɟɟouıɐu sɥooʇsʇıɔʞs qnʇ ɐ ןoʇ sɯɐןןǝɹ' ɐup ɟɐɹ ɯoɹǝ pǝɐpןʎ˙ ɐup ɔoɹuǝɹ ʍɐs onʇ oɟ ʞuıʌǝs˙

so' qןǝǝpıuƃ ɐup ıu dɐıu' ɔoɹuǝɹ ıɯɯǝpıɐʇǝןʎ ɹɐɔǝp oɟɟ' dɹɐʎıuƃ ʇɥɐʇ ʍɥɐʇǝʌǝɹ ʇɥǝ ɟnɔʞ ʍǝɐdou ʇɥǝ ɥnɯɐu ʍɐs nsıuƃ ʍɐs uoʇ ןoɐpǝp ɟoɹ ɐppıʇıouɐן sɥoʇs˙

“ɟnɔʞ¡” sɥonʇǝp souɐʇɐ' dnןןıuƃ ʇɥǝ ʇɹıƃƃǝɹ ɐƃɐıu' ɯıssıuƃ ʇɥǝ ƃɹǝǝu dǝƃɐsns qʎ ʇɥǝ ʇɥıuuǝsʇ oɟ ɯɐɹƃıus' ɐup ʇɥǝ dısʇoן’s sןıpǝ ןoɔʞıuƃ ıu ʇɥǝ ‘ɟıɹǝp’ dosıʇıou ıupıɔɐʇıuƃ ʇɥǝ ɯɐƃɐzıuǝ ʍɐs ǝɯdʇʎ˙ ʍıʇɥ ɹoʇǝ dɹɐɔʇıɔǝp dɹǝɔısıou' souɐʇɐ ǝɾǝɔʇǝp ʇɥǝ ɯɐƃɐzıuǝ ɐup ɥɐp ɐןɹǝɐpʎ sןɐɯɯǝp ıu ʇɥǝ ןɐsʇ ɹǝsǝɹʌǝ ɯɐƃɐzıuǝ sɥǝ’p ɥɐp' qnʇ ıʇ ʍɐs ʇoo ןɐʇǝ—ʇɥǝ dǝƃɐsns ʍɐs ɯoʌıuƃ ʇoo ɟɐsʇ ʇo ʇɹʎ sɥooʇıuƃ ɟɹoɯ ɐ pısʇɐuɔǝ˙

qnʇ ɐs souɐʇɐ ƃןɐuɔǝp qɐɔʞ poʍu ɐʇ ʇɥǝ nuɔousɔıons' ɔodıonsןʎ qןǝǝpıuƃ ɟoɹɯ oɟ dıuʞıǝ' sɥǝ sʍoɹǝ ɐƃɐıu ɐup ʍǝuʇ ʇo ʇɹʎ ɐup po ɐuʎʇɥıuƃ ʇo sɐʌǝ ʇɥǝ ƃıɹן’s ןıɟǝ˙ ɹıddıuƃ oɟɟ ɥǝɹ pɹǝss ɾɐɔʞǝʇ ʇo ʇɹʎ ɐup ɔouʇɐıu ʇɥǝ qןǝǝpıuƃ' ɔɐɹǝɟnן ʇo uoʇ dnsɥ ʇɥǝ qןɐpǝs ǝʌǝu pǝǝdǝɹ' souɐʇɐ ɐןso dnןןǝp onʇ ɥǝɹ—ɯǝɹɔıɟnןןʎ nuɥɐɹɯǝp—sɯɐɹʇdɥouǝ ɐup ɾɐqqǝp ʇɥǝ ɐdd ʇɥɐʇ ʍonןp ʇnɹu ʇɥǝ dɥouǝ ıuʇo ɐ ɹɐpıo˙

“ɯǝpıɔ¡” sɥǝ qɐɹʞǝp ıuʇo ıʇ' uoʇ ʍɐıʇıuƃ ɟoɹ ɐu ɐɔʞuoʍןǝpƃǝɯǝuʇ ɟɹoɯ ɐpɐƃıo˙ ıʇ ʍɐs ɐ ʌıoןɐʇıou oɟ dɹoʇoɔoן qnʇ souɐʇɐ pıpu’ʇ ƃıʌǝ ɐ ɟnɔʞ˙ ʇɥıs ʍɐs dıuʞıǝ pʎıuƃ ıu ɟɹouʇ oɟ ɥǝɹ ɐup ıɟ sɥǝ pıpu’ʇ ƃǝʇ ɥǝןd uoʍ˙˙˙souɐʇɐ qɐuısɥǝp ʇɥǝ ʇɥonƃɥʇ' ʇɥǝ ɐןʇǝɹuɐʇıʌǝ ʍɐs sıɯdןʎ uoʇ ƃoıuƃ ʇo ɥɐddǝu ou ɥǝɹ ʍɐʇɔɥ˙

souɐʇɐ ƃןɐɹǝp ɐʇ ʇɥǝ dןɐɔǝ ʍɥǝɹǝ ʇɥǝ dǝƃɐsns ɥɐp qǝǝu ɐup sʍoɹǝ ʇɥɐʇ ʍɥǝu sɥǝ sɐʍ ɥǝɹ ɐƃɐıu' sɥǝ ʍɐs ƃoıuƃ ʇo ʞıןן ɥǝɹ' ɹnןǝs oɟ ǝuƃɐƃǝɯǝuʇ qǝ pɐɯuǝp˙

ɯǝɐuʍɥıןǝ' ıu ɐ pıןɐdıpɐʇǝp ɥoʇǝן ɹooɯ ɐ ɹǝןɐʇıʌǝןʎ sɐɟǝ pısʇɐuɔǝ ɟɹoɯ ʇɥǝ dɐןɐɔǝ' ɔoɹuǝɹ’s “ɹooɯıǝ” ɔɥɹʎsoqǝɹʎן ɥɐp qǝǝu ɥɐɹp ɐʇ ʍoɹʞ dɹǝdɐɹıuƃ ɐu ǝsɔɐdǝ˙ sɥǝ ʍɐs ɔnɹɹǝuʇןʎ sǝɐʇǝp ou ʇɥǝ ɟןooɹ ɥoןpıuƃ ɹnuǝ-pɹɐʍıuƃ ɔɥɐןʞ ıu ɥǝɹ ɯɐƃıɔɐן ɐnɹɐ' ʍɥǝɹǝ sɥǝ ʍoɹʞǝp ɥǝɹ ʌǝɹʎ ןıʇǝɹɐן ɯɐƃıɔ ou ɐ sdɐɔǝ sɥǝ’p ɔןǝɐɹǝp onʇ ıu ʇɥǝ ɯıppןǝ oɟ ʇɥǝ ɹooɯ˙

“ɾnsʇ ɐ ןıʇʇןǝ ɥǝɹǝ˙˙˙ɐ ןıʇʇןǝ ɯoɹǝ ʇɥǝɹǝ…” sɥǝ ɥnɯɯǝp ʇo ɥǝɹsǝןɟ ıu ɐu oɟɟ-ʇnuǝ ʞǝʎ˙

snppǝuןʎ' ʇɥǝ pooɹ ɟןnuƃ odǝu ɐup ɐ qןǝǝpıuƃ ɔoɹuǝɹ sɥoʇ ɔoןןɐdsǝp ıuʇo ʇɥǝ ɹooɯ˙

“ɥɐʌıuƃ ɟnu onʇ ʇɥǝɹǝ¿” ɐsʞǝp ɔɥɹʎs' ןooʞıuƃ nd˙ “ı ʇɹnsʇ ʇɥɐʇ ʇɥǝ ɯıssıou ʍɐs snɔɔǝssɟnן¿” sɥǝ ɯɐƃıɔɐןןʎ ɹǝɯoʌǝp ʇɥǝ dıןןoʍ ɔoʌǝɹ ɟɹoɯ ouǝ oɟ ʇɥǝ qǝp dıןןoʍs ɐup ʇossǝp ıʇ oʌǝɹ ʇo ɔoɹuǝɹ˙

“nɥ˙˙˙ɯosʇןʎ'” ƃɹnuʇǝp ɔoɹuǝɹ' sʇɹnƃƃןıuƃ ʇo ɥǝɹ ɟǝǝʇ ɐup nsıuƃ ɥǝɹ ǝxʇɹǝɯǝ ʍıuƃ pǝxʇǝɹıʇʎ ʇo ʍɹɐd ʇɥǝ dıןןoʍɔɐsǝ ɐɹonup ʇɥǝ ʍonupǝp ɐɹǝɐ ɐʇ ɥǝɹ ʍıuƃ’s qɐsǝ—ıʇ ʍɐs ɟɐɹ ɟɹoɯ ıpǝɐן ʇɹıɐƃǝ qnʇ ıʇ pıpu’ʇ uǝǝp ʇo ןɐsʇ ןouƃ˙ “ʇɥıuʞ ı ɯıssǝp ouǝ oɟ ʇɥǝ sɔıous˙”

ʇɥɐʇ ɯɐpǝ ɔɥɹʎsoqǝɹʎן’s ɟnɹ qɹısʇןǝ ou ǝup˙ “ʎon˙˙˙ɯıssǝp ouǝ¿”

“ʎǝɐɥ' ouǝ oɟ snusǝʇ’s sʇndıp ɥnɯɐus ƃoʇ ıu ʇɥǝ ʍɐʎ—ƃoʇ ןoɔʞqox ɐup ɹɐsdqǝɹɹʎ' ʇɥonƃɥ˙ dɹǝʇʇʎ snɹǝ ı ʞıןןǝp ɐuoʇɥǝɹ ouǝ ɐs ʍǝןן˙”

“oɥ' ʇɥǝu ʇɥɐʇ’s ɟıuǝ˙” ʇɹnʇɥ qǝ ʇoןp ıʇ ʍɐsu’ʇ ƃɹǝɐʇ ʇɥɐʇ ɔoɹuǝɹ ɥɐp ɟɐıןǝp ʇo ƃǝʇ ʇɥǝ ɔoɯdןǝʇǝ sǝʇ oɟ sɔıous' qnʇ ɐʇ ʇɥǝ sɐɯǝ ʇıɯǝ' ʇɥǝɹǝ ɹǝɐןןʎ ʍɐs ouןʎ ouǝ oɟ ʇɥǝɯ ɔɥɹʎs ʍɐs ʇɹnןʎ ıuʇǝɹǝsʇǝp ıu ɐup ʇɥɐʇ ouǝ ʍɐs uoʇ snusǝʇ sɥıɯɯǝɹ˙ “ʎon ƃoʇ ʇɥǝ nsnɹdǝɹ' ɐs ןouƃ ɐs sɥǝ snɟɟǝɹs ʇɥǝu ʇɥɐʇ’s ɐןן ı ɥouǝsʇןʎ ɐɯ ɔouɔǝɹuǝp ʍıʇɥ˙”

“snɟɟǝɹ¿” ɐsʞǝp ɔoɹuǝɹ' ɔouɟnsǝp˙ “ʍɥɐʇ ɐɹǝ ʎon ʇɐןʞıuƃ ɐqonʇ¿”

ɐ pısʇɐuʇ ןooʞ ɔɹossǝp ɔɥɹʎsoqǝɹʎן,s ɟɐɔǝ ʇɥǝu' ɐup ʍɥɐʇǝʌǝɹ sɥǝ ʍɐs uoʍ sʇɐɹıuƃ ɐʇ ʍıʇɥ ɥǝɹ ɯıup,s ǝʎǝ ɔɐnsǝp ɐ ɥɐʇǝɟnן ƃɹıu ʇo sdɹǝɐp ɐɔɹoss ɥǝɹ ɯnzzןǝ˙ “oɥ' ı’ʌǝ qǝǝu ʍɹouƃǝp qʎ ouǝ oɟ ʇɥǝ ʇʍo ʎon pıp ƃǝʇ sıuɔǝ qıɹʇɥ' ɐup uoʍ ʇɥǝ ʇıɯǝ ɥɐs ɔoɯǝ ɟoɹ ɥǝɹ ʇo ƃǝʇ ʍɥɐʇ ıs pnǝ˙”

“ɹǝɐןןʎ sʇɐɹʇıuƃ ʇo ɔɹǝǝd ɯǝ onʇ ɥǝɹǝ'” ʇɥǝ dǝƃɐsns sɐıp ʇo ʇɥǝ nuıɔoɹu' qnʇ ʇɥǝu ʇɥǝ ןɐɯd ou ʇɥǝ qǝpsıpǝ ʇɐqןǝ sʇɐɹʇǝp ɟןɐsɥıuƃ ɹɐdıpןʎ˙

“ʇɥǝ dɹoxıɯıʇʎ ɔɥɐɹɯ ƃoʇ ʇɹıddǝp'” sɐıp ɔɥɹʎsoqǝɹʎן' sǝǝɯıuƃןʎ ƃǝʇʇıuƃ sǝɹıons˙ “ʎon’ʌǝ ɹǝɐןןʎ qɹonƃɥʇ poʍu ʇɥǝ ɥǝɐʇ ʇɥıs ʇıɯǝ ɥɐʌǝu’ʇ ʎon¿”

“ı˙˙˙ɯıƃɥʇ ɥɐʌǝ ʞıןןǝp ʇɥɐʇ ouǝ ɥnɯɐu ʇɥɐʇ sǝǝɯs ʇo ɥoʌǝɹ ʇɥǝ ɯosʇ ɐɹonup snusǝʇ' ʎǝs'” ɐpɯıʇʇǝp ɔoɹuǝɹ˙

“ıuɔousǝbnǝuʇıɐן ʍɥɐʇ ɥɐddǝus ʇo ʇɥǝ ɥnɯɐus' qnʇ ɹıƃɥʇ uoʍ ʍǝ uǝǝp ʇo ƃo˙”

ɔɥɹʎs ƃǝsʇnɹǝp ɟoɹ ɔoɹuǝɹ ʇo sʇǝd ıuʇo ʇɥǝ ɹıʇnɐן ɔıɹɔןǝ ıu ʇɥǝ ɯıppןǝ oɟ ʇɥǝ ɹooɯ˙ ɔɥɹʎsoqǝɹʎן ɥǝɹsǝןɟ ʍɐs uoʇ doʍǝɹɟnן ǝuonƃɥ ʇo dǝɹɟoɹɯ ɐ ɯnןʇı-douʎ ʇǝןǝdoɹʇɐʇıou' so ʇɥǝ ɹıʇnɐן ʍɐs ɹǝbnıɹǝp ʇo ƃıʌǝ ɥǝɹ ʇɥɐʇ doʍǝɹ˙ ıupǝǝp' qʎ ʇɥǝ ʇıɯǝ ʇɥǝ ƃnɐɹps ɟıuɐןןʎ ƃoʇ ʇo ʇɥǝ ɥoʇǝן ɹooɯ' ʇɥǝɹǝ ʍɐs ɐ qɹıƃɥʇ ɟןɐsɥ ʇɥɐʇ sıƃuɐןǝp ɐ snɔɔǝssɟnן ʇǝןǝdoɹʇɐʇıou˙

ɟoןןoʍǝp qʎ ɐ qıƃ ǝxdןosıou ʇɥɐʇ ɹıddǝp ʇɥǝ ɥoʇǝן ɹooɯ ɐdɐɹʇ' ɹǝɯoʌıuƃ ɐןן ɔɥɐuɔǝ oɟ ʇɹɐɔıuƃ ʇɥǝ ɹıʇnɐן ɔıɹɔןǝ’s pǝsʇıuɐʇıou˙

“ʍɥɐʇ po ʎon ɯǝɐu ʇɥǝʎ’ɹǝ ıu ɥıpıuƃ¿” snusǝʇ ɐsʞǝp ouǝ oɟ ʇɥǝ uǝɐɹqʎ ƃnɐɹpsdouıǝs˙ sɥǝ’p sıuɔǝ ɹǝʇnɹuǝp ʇo douʎ ɟoɹɯ' ıɟ ouןʎ ʇo uoʇ ɟɹǝɐʞ onʇ ʇɥǝ ɔıʌıןıɐu douıǝs ʍɥo ʍǝɹǝ sʇıןן qǝıuƃ ʇɹǝɐʇǝp ɟoɹ ɐןןnɔıuoɹ oʌǝɹǝxdosnɹǝ˙

“ʍǝ sıɯdןʎ ɔɐu’ʇ ɟıup ɐɹɔɥɯɐƃns qǝɹʎן oɹ ɯıss ןoɔʞqox'” ʇɥǝ ƃnɐɹp ɹǝdןıǝp' ןooʞıuƃ ɟɹɐzzןǝp˙

ıupǝǝp' ʇɥǝ ɐʇʇɐɔʞ ɥɐp ƃǝuǝɹɐןןʎ ouןʎ ɾnsʇ qǝǝu sʇoddǝp ɐup ʇɥǝ ɔoɯqıuǝp ǝɟɟoɹʇs oɟ ƃnɐɹps' ɥooʌǝs' ɐup sıɹǝus ʍǝɹǝ ʍoɹʞıuƃ ɥɐɹp ʇo ɹǝsʇoɹǝ oɹpǝɹ˙ ʇɥǝ ʌǝɹʎ ɐuɔıןןɐɹʎ qɐןןɹooɯ ʍɥıɔɥ ɥɐp ǝɐɹןıǝɹ ʇɥɐʇ pɐʎ qǝǝu ʇɥǝ sıʇǝ oɟ ʇɥǝ ɹǝɔǝdʇıou dɐɹʇʎ ɟoɹ snusǝʇ’s ɔoɹouɐʇıou ʍɐs uoʍ ɐ sʇɐƃıuƃ ƃɹonup oɟ soɹʇs ɟoɹ ʇɥǝ ʍonupǝp ɐup ʇɥosǝ ʍɥosǝ ɯıups ʍǝɹǝ ɐɟɟǝɔʇǝp qʎ ʇɥǝ ɐןןnɔıuoɹ ʍıuƃs˙ ןooʞıuƃ ɐɹonup' ıʇ ʍɐs ǝɐsʎ ɟoɹ snusǝʇ ʇo ɟıƃnɹǝ ʍɥo ʍɐs ıu ʇɥǝ ןɐʇʇǝɹ ƃɹond qʎ ʇɥǝ ןosʇ' ɯoɹʇıɟıǝp' ɐup nʇʇǝɹןʎ qɹoʞǝu ןooʞs ou ʇɥǝıɹ ɟɐɔǝs˙ ʇɥǝ ɟǝǝןıuƃ ʍɐs nuɔoɯɟoɹʇɐqןʎ ɟɐɯıןıɐɹ ʇo snusǝʇ' ɐup ıʇ ouןʎ sdnɹɹǝp ou ʇɥǝ ɹɐƃǝ sɥǝ ɐןɹǝɐpʎ ɟǝןʇ ɹoıןıuƃ ıusıpǝ ɥǝɹ˙

“ɟıup ʇɥǝɯ'” snusǝʇ suɐɹןǝp˙ “uoʍ˙”

“snuuʎ' ɔɐןɯ poʍu'” ɔɐɯǝ ʇɥǝ ʌoıɔǝ oɟ ɐ ʌǝɹʎ ǝxɥɐnsʇǝp ןooʞıuƃ dɹıuɔǝss ʇʍıןıƃɥʇ˙

snusǝʇ ןooʞǝp ɐʇ ʇʍıןıƃɥʇ' ɟǝɐɹ ıu ɥǝɹ ǝʎǝs˙ “ʍɥʎ¿ soɯǝouǝ ɾnsʇ ʌɐdoɹızǝp ɯʎ ɔonsıu––”

“ʇǝןǝdoɹʇǝp' uoʇ ʌɐdoɹızǝp'” ʇʍıןıƃɥʇ ɔoɹɹǝɔʇǝp˙ “ɟoɹ ʇɥɐʇ ɯɐʇʇǝɹ' ʇɥǝʎ pıp ʇɥǝ sɐɯǝ ʇo ɹɐzz ɐup ןoɔʞ—ʇɥǝʎ’ɹǝ uoʇ ɐuʎʍɥǝɹǝ ıu ɔɐuʇǝɹןoʇ˙ ı’ʌǝ ʇɹıǝp ʇo ןoɔɐʇǝ ɹɐzz qʎ ʇɹɐɔʞıuƃ ɥǝɹ ɯɐƃıɔ sıƃuɐʇnɹǝ—ıʇ sıɯdןʎ ʌɐuısɥǝp soɯǝʍɥǝɹǝ ıu ʇɥǝ ɯɐıu qɐןןɹooɯ˙”

“ʎon ɔɐu ʇɹɐɔʞ ɥǝɹ ɯɐƃıɔ¿” ɐsʞǝp snusǝʇ' ɹɐısıuƃ ɐu ǝʎǝqɹoʍ˙

“ı ʞuoʍ ʎon’ɹǝ sʇɹǝssǝp ɹıƃɥʇ uoʍ' so ʎon’ɹǝ ɟoɹƃǝʇʇıuƃ ʇɥıuƃs'” ʇʍıןıƃɥʇ ɹǝɯıupǝp ɥǝɹ˙ “ɹǝɯǝɯqǝɹ ʇɥɐʇ ɹɐzz ıs ןıʇǝɹɐןןʎ ɐs doʍǝɹɟnן ɐs soɯqɹɐ ıu ʇɥǝ ןǝɟʇ ɥooɟ dɐʇɥ ʍɥǝu ıʇ ɔoɯǝs ʇo ɥoʍ ɯnɔɥ pɐɹʞ ɯɐƃıɔ onʇdnʇ sɥǝ ɔɹǝɐʇǝs˙ ı ɔonןp ʇɹɐɔʞ ɥǝɹ ɟɹoɯ oɹqıʇ ʍıʇɥ ɐ sʇɹouƃ ǝuonƃɥ sdǝןן ıɟ ı ʍɐs so ıuɔןıuǝp—ıʇ ʍonןp ɔoɯdןǝʇǝןʎ qnɹu ɯǝ onʇ' ɥoʍǝʌǝɹ' so nuɟoɹʇnuɐʇǝןʎ ʇɥɐʇ’s uoʇ ɐu odʇıou ɹıƃɥʇ uoʍ˙ uǝǝp ı ɹǝɯıup ʎon oɟ ʇɥǝ douʎ ɟɹoɯ ʇɥǝ ɥnɯɐu ʍoɹןp ʍɥo ɯɐuɐƃǝp ʇo ʇɹɐɔʞ ɥǝɹ poʍu qǝɔɐnsǝ oɟ ɐ ɯısɟıɹǝp pɐɹʞ ɯɐƃıɔ sdǝןן¿”

snusǝʇ uıɔʞǝɹǝp' ɐuuoʎǝp ɐʇ ʇɥǝ ɯǝɯoɹʎ˙ “ɟoɹ ʇɥǝ ɹǝɔoɹp' ı ouןʎ ʍǝuʇ ɐɟʇǝɹ ɥǝɹ qǝɔɐnsǝ ı ʇɥonƃɥʇ sɥǝ ʍɐs ɐu ǝʌıן ʌǝɹsıou oɟ ɯǝ˙ qnʇ ʎon ɯɐpǝ ʎonɹ doıuʇ˙”

“ǝxɐɔʇןʎ˙ dןns' ı ɟonup ʇɥıs'” ʇʍıןıƃɥʇ ןǝʌıʇɐʇǝp ɐ ɟǝɐʇɥǝɹ-sɥɐdǝp ʞuıɟǝ ʇɥɐʇ ןooʞǝp ןıʞǝ ıʇ ɥɐpu’ʇ ǝʌǝɹ qǝǝu sɥɐɹdǝuǝp ʇo ɔnʇ ɐuʎʇɥıuƃ˙ “ןooʞ ɟɐɯıןıɐɹ¿”

snusǝʇ dɐןǝp˙ “ʇɥɐʇ’s˙˙˙ouǝ oɟ ɔoɹuǝɹ sɥoʇ’s ʞuıʌǝs˙˙˙ʍɐs ʇɥɐʇ ıu ʇɥǝ qɐןןɹooɯ¿”

“ʎnd' ʇʍo oɟ ʇɥǝɯ˙ ʇɥǝɹǝ’s ʇɹɐɔǝs oɟ ɐ doʍǝɹɟnן ɟoɹɔǝ-ʇǝןǝdoɹʇ sdǝןן ou ʇɥǝɯ˙ ɟnɹʇɥǝɹɯoɹǝ' ʇɥǝ sdǝןן’s ƃoʇ ɐu ǝuɔɹʎdʇǝp ǝuɔɥɐuʇɯǝuʇ ou ıʇ˙”

snusǝʇ ןooʞǝp poʍu' sıɯnןʇɐuǝonsןʎ ʍoɹɹıǝp ʎǝʇ˙˙˙ɹǝןıǝʌǝp' ɯnɔɥ ʇo ʇʍıןıƃɥʇ’s ɔouɟnsıou˙ “ʇɥǝu ʇɥǝʎ’ɹǝ sʇıןן ɐןıʌǝ' ʇɥɐuʞ ƃop'” sɐıp ʇɥǝ ɯɐızǝ ɐןıɔoɹu˙

ʇʍıןıƃɥʇ uoppǝp ıu sʎɯdɐʇɥʎ˙ “qnʇ ıʇ ɯǝɐus sɥǝ’s ɐןıʌǝ ɐup ʍıʇɥ ɹɐzz ɐup ןoɔʞqox' so nuןǝss soɯǝʇɥıuƃ ǝןsǝ ɥɐddǝus' ı ʞuoʍ ʇɥosǝ ʇʍo ɔɐu ʞǝǝd ɥǝɹ sɐɟǝ˙ ı ɥodǝ˙ qnʇ sdǝɐʞıuƃ oɟ sɐɟǝʇʎ: ʍɥǝɹǝ ɐɹǝ ʇɥǝ oʇɥǝɹ ɥnɯɐus¿”

“qɐɔʞ ıu ʇɥǝıɹ ɹooɯs˙ uɐʇnɹɐןןʎ' sdıʞǝ ʍɐs ʍoupǝɹıuƃ ʍɥɐʇ ʇɥǝ ɥǝןן ʍɐs ƃoıuƃ ou sıuɔǝ ɥǝ’p qǝǝu so ɐqsoɹqǝp ıu ɥıs ʌıpǝo ƃɐɯǝs' qnʇ uoʇ ǝuonƃɥ ʇɥɐʇ ɥǝ ɹǝɐןızǝp ʇɐʌı ʍɐsu’ʇ ʇɥǝɹǝ˙ ɯoɯ ʇoןp ɥıɯ sɥǝ’p qǝǝu ʇɐʞǝu ʇo sɐɟǝʇʎ ʍıʇɥ ɐuoʇɥǝɹ ƃɹond qnʇ˙˙˙ı ɾnsʇ pou’ʇ ʞuoʍ ɥoʍ ʍǝ’ɹǝ ƃoıuƃ ʇo ʇǝןן ɥıɯ sɥǝ’s qǝǝu ʞıpuɐddǝp qǝɔɐnsǝ ʇɥǝʎ ʍǝɹǝ ʇɹʎıuƃ ʇo ʞıpuɐd ɯǝ˙”

ɾnsʇ ʇɥǝu' ʇɥǝ ɥnɯɐu ɐddןǝɾɐɔʞ' ɹɐıuqoʍ' ɟןnʇʇǝɹsɥʎ' ɐup ɹɐɹıʇʎ ɔɐɯǝ ɐɹonup ʇɥǝ ɔoɹuǝɹ' ɐs pıp souɐʇɐ˙˙˙qnʇ souɐʇɐ ʍɐs ɔousdıɔnonsןʎ ɯıssıuƃ ɥǝɹ qןɐzǝɹ' ɐup ɐןן oɟ ɥǝɹ ɔןoʇɥıuƃ ʍɐs sʇɐıuǝp ɥǝɐʌıןʎ qʎ qןoop˙

“souı¿” sɐıp snusǝʇ' ɟǝǝןıuƃ ɥǝɹ ƃnʇ ʍɹǝuɔɥ ɥɐɹpǝɹ ɐup ɥɐɹpǝɹ ɐʇ ʇɥǝ sɥǝǝɹ ɐɯonuʇ oɟ qןoop ɔoʌǝɹıuƃ ɥǝɹ˙ sɥǝ ɥɐpu’ʇ ןooʞǝp ןıʞǝ sɥǝ’p ʍɐpǝp uǝɔʞ pǝǝd ıuʇo ɐ ʍɐɹ ןıʞǝ ʇɥıs ǝʌǝu ɐɟʇǝɹ ʇɥǝ ɟıɹsʇ ʇıɯǝ sɥǝ ɐup ɥǝɹ sısʇǝɹs ɥɐp ɯǝʇ ɔoɹuǝɹ sɥoʇ˙ “ı ʇɥonƃɥʇ ʎon ʍǝɹǝ ʇɹʎıuƃ ʇo ɟıup dıuʞıǝ¿”

“ı pıp…” sɥǝ sɐıp' ɔןǝɐɹןʎ ɐʇ opps qǝʇʍǝǝu ʇɹʎıuƃ ʇo oqsǝɹʌǝ ɯıןıʇɐɹʎ ɹǝsʇɹɐıuʇ ɐup qǝıuƃ' ʍǝןן' souɐʇɐ pnsʞ ןǝʌǝן oɟ uoɹɯɐן ǝɯoʇıouɐןıʇʎ˙ “ı’ɯ soɹɹʎ' snuuʎ: ɔoɹuǝɹ ɟonup ɥǝɹ ɟıɹsʇ˙”

“ʍǝ ƃoʇ ɥǝɹ ʇo ʇɥǝ ɔɐsʇןǝ ıuɟıɹɯɐɹʎ ıu ʇıɯǝ'” sɐıp ɐddןǝɾɐɔʞ' ʍɥo snusǝʇ ʇɥǝu uoʇǝp ɐןso sǝǝɯǝp ʇo ɥɐʌǝ ɐ ןoʇ oɟ qןoop—ıʇ ɥɐp qǝǝu pɹoʍuǝp onʇ ıu ʇɥǝ ɹǝp pɹǝss sɥǝ’p qǝǝu ʍǝɐɹıuƃ ɟɹoɯ ɐ pısʇɐuɔǝ˙ “qnʇ ıʇ’s qɐp˙”

“ʇʍo ʞuıʌǝs ʇo ʇɥǝ ɔɥǝsʇ ןıʞǝ ʇɥǝʎ’p qǝǝu ʞıɔʞǝp ʇɥǝɹǝ qʎ ɐ ɥoɹsǝ'” sɐıp ɹɐıuqoʍ' ןooʞıuƃ ʌısıqןʎ sɥɐʞǝu nd˙

“sɥǝ ɯıƃɥʇ uoʇ snɹʌıʌǝ'” ɟןnʇʇǝɹsɥʎ ɟıuɐןןʎ sdɐʇ onʇ˙

ɹɐɹıʇʎ ɔonןp ouןʎ uop' ןooʞıuƃ ou ʇɥǝ ʌǝɹƃǝ oɟ ʇǝɐɹs˙

“ɐup ɔoɹuǝɹ ƃoʇ ɐʍɐʎ'” ɐppǝp souɐʇɐ' ɥǝɹ ɟısʇs qʎ ɥǝɹ sıpǝ ɔןǝuɔɥıuƃ ɥɐɹp ǝuonƃɥ ɟoɹ ɥǝɹ ʞunɔʞןǝs ʇo ʇnɹu ʍɥıʇǝ˙ “ı ɯıƃɥʇ ɥɐʌǝ ƃoʇʇǝu ɥǝɹ qnʇ ı ouןʎ ɥɐp ʇʍo sɥoʇs ıu ʇɥǝ ɯɐƃ ןǝɟʇ ɐup qʎ ʇıɯǝ ı ɹǝןoɐpǝp' ıʇ ʍɐs ǝıʇɥǝɹ ʇɹʎ ʇo ƃǝʇ ɔoɹuǝɹ oɹ ʇɹʎ ʇo sɐʌǝ dıuʞıǝ˙ ı ɾnsʇ ɥodǝ ıʇ poǝsu’ʇ ʇnɹu onʇ ıʇ ʍonןpu’ʇ ɥɐʌǝ ɯɐʇʇǝɹǝp ʍɥɐʇ ɔɥoıɔǝ ı ɯɐpǝ˙”

ʇɥǝ uǝxʇ ʇɥıuƃ ʇɥǝʎ ʞuǝʍ' ʇɥǝʎ ɥɐp ɐןן qǝǝu ʇǝןǝdoɹʇǝp qʎ ʇɥǝ ɯɐızǝ ɐןıɔoɹu ʇo ʇɥǝ ıuɟıɹɯɐɹʎ˙ ʇʍıןıƃɥʇ' ıɯɯǝpıɐʇǝןʎ ɹǝɐןızıuƃ ʍɥɐʇ ʍɐs ƃoıuƃ ou' sʇǝddǝp ıu ɟɹouʇ oɟ ɥǝɹ ɟǝןןoʍ dɹıuɔǝss˙

“snuuʎ' pou’ʇ¡ ɯǝpıɔɐן ɹnןǝs¡”

“ɟnɔʞ ʇɥǝ ɯǝpıɔɐן ɹnןǝs¡ ı’ɯ uoʇ ƃoıuƃ ʇo ןǝʇ ɥǝɹ pıǝ¡”

“ʎon ɔɐu’ʇ ɾnsʇ ɐddןʎ ɐ qןɐuʞǝʇ ɥǝɐןıuƃ sdǝןן ıɟ ʎon pou’ʇ ʞuoʍ ɐuʎʇɥıuƃ ɐqonʇ pǝʇɐıןǝp ɯǝpıɔɐן ɔɐɹǝ ɟoɹ ɥnɯɐus¡” ʇɥǝ ןɐʌǝupǝɹ ɐןıɔoɹu ɐɹƃnǝp qɐɔʞ˙ “ʇɥǝ poɔʇoɹs ıu ʇɥǝɹǝ ɥɐʌǝ qǝǝu ʇɹɐıuǝp ɟoɹ ʇɥıs ǝʌǝuʇnɐןıʇʎ ʍıʇɥ ɐןן ʇɥǝ qooʞs ʎon sǝuʇ ɟɹoɯ ʎonɹ ʍoɹןp¡ ןǝʇ ʇɥǝɯ po ʇɥǝıɹ ɾoq' snuuʎ¡ dןǝɐsǝ¡”

snusǝʇ sʇoop ʇɥǝɹǝ ıu ɟɹouʇ oɟ ʇɥǝ oʇɥǝɹs ɐs ɥǝɹ qɹɐıu qǝƃɐu ʇo ɹǝƃısʇǝɹ ʇɥɐʇ' ɐs ɯnɔɥ ɐs sɥǝ ʍɐs ɐu oɯuıdoʇǝuʇ qǝıuƃ ʇɥɐʇ qoɹpǝɹǝp ou ʇɥǝ ןǝƃıʇıɯɐʇǝןʎ pıʌıuǝ' ʇɥǝɹǝ ʍɐs uoʇɥıuƃ sɥǝ ɔonןp po ʇo ɐʌǝɹʇ ʇɥǝ ɟɐɔʇ dıuʞıǝ ɯıƃɥʇ uoʇ ɯɐʞǝ ıʇ qɐɔʞ ʇo ʇɥǝ ɥnɯɐu ʍoɹןp˙ uoʇ ɐןıʌǝ ɐʇ ɐuʎ ɹɐʇǝ˙ sɥǝ ʇɹıǝp ıu ʌɐıu ʇo sdǝɐʞ' ʇo sɐʎ soɯǝʇɥıuƃ' qnʇ ʍɥǝɹǝ ʍoɹps ɟɐıןǝp ɥǝɹ' ǝɯoʇıous ʍǝɹǝ ouןʎ ɾnsʇ ƃǝʇʇıuƃ sʇɐɹʇǝp˙

ɾnsʇ ʇɥǝu' ʇɥǝ ɟonɹ ɹǝɯɐıuıuƃ ɥnɯɐu ƃıɹןs ʍɥo ɥɐp ʞuoʍu snusǝʇ dɹıoɹ ʇo dɹıuɔǝss ʇʍıןıƃɥʇ ɔɹɐʇǝɹıuƃ ɥǝɹ ıu ɟɹouʇ oɟ ʇɥǝıɹ sɔɥooן sɐʍ soɯǝʇɥıuƃ ɔoɯǝ oʌǝɹ snusǝʇ ʍɥıɔɥ ʇɹıƃƃǝɹǝp ɐ pǝǝd sǝɐʇǝp ɟǝɐɹ ʍıʇɥıu ǝɐɔɥ oɟ ʇɥǝɯ˙ ɟǝɐɹ oɟ soɯǝʇɥıuƃ ʇɥɐʇ ʇɥǝʎ’p ʇɥonƃɥʇ ɥɐp pıǝp ʍɥǝu snusǝʇ ɥɐp ʇnɹuǝp oʌǝɹ ɐ uǝʍ ןǝɐɟ˙

souɐʇɐ' ʍɥo ɥɐp uoʇ sǝǝu snusǝʇ ɐʇ ɥǝɹ ɐqsoןnʇǝ ʍoɹsʇ' ɔonןp sǝusǝ ʇɥɐʇ soɯǝʇɥıuƃ ʌǝɹʎ' ʌǝɹʎ ʍɹouƃ ʍɐs ɥɐddǝuıuƃ ƃıʌǝu ʇɥǝ ɹǝɐɔʇıous oɟ ʇɥǝ ɟonɹ oʇɥǝɹ ʇǝǝus˙ “s-snuuʎ¿” sɥǝ ɔɐɹǝɟnןןʎ ɐsʞǝp' ʞuoʍıuƃ ɟnןן ʍǝןן ʇɥɐʇ ıɟ sɥǝ so ʍɐuʇǝp' snusǝʇ ɔonןp qǝ ןıʞǝuǝp ʇo ɐ sɥoɹʇ ɟnsǝp unɔןǝɐɹ qoɯq ɹǝɐpʎ ʇo qןoʍ˙

qnʇ ʇɥǝ ʌǝɹʎ ɐıɹ ʇɥɐʇ sǝǝɯǝp ʇo ɹɐpıɐʇǝ ɐɹonup snusǝʇ¿ snusǝʇ ʇɥǝ ɹǝpǝǝɯǝp ʍɐsu’ʇ ıu ʇɥǝ qnıןpıuƃ ɐuʎɯoɹǝ˙

“ʍɥǝɹǝ˙ ʇɥǝ ɟnɔʞ˙ ıs ʇɥǝ ıusʇıƃɐʇoɹ oɟ ɐןן ʇɥıs'” ɥıssǝp snusǝʇ' dnɹǝ ʌǝuoɯ pɹıddıuƃ ɟɹoɯ ǝʌǝɹʎ ʍoɹp sɥǝ sdoʞǝ onʇ oɟ ɥǝɹ ƃɹıʇʇǝp ʇǝǝʇɥ˙

ʇɥǝ oןp snusǝʇ' ʇɥǝ ‘ɯʎ ʍɐʎ oɹ ɯʎ ʍɐʎ’ snusǝʇ' ʍɐs qɐɔʞ˙ ʍıʇɥ ɐ ʌǝuƃǝɐuɔǝ˙

“qɐɔʞ ʇɥǝ ɟnɔʞ oɟɟ oɹ ı ʍıןן sʇɐq ɐןן oɟ ʎon¡”

ɔoɹuǝɹ ʍɐs uoʇ ıu ɐ ƃoop ɯoop' snɟɟıɔǝ ʇo sɐʎ˙ ʍɥıןǝ ʇɥǝ ʇǝןǝdoɹʇɐʇıou ɹıʇnɐן ɔıɹɔןǝ ɥɐp ƃoʇʇǝu ɥǝɹ ɐup ɔɥɹʎsoqǝɹʎן onʇ ɾnsʇ ıu ʇɥǝ uıɔʞ oɟ ʇıɯǝ' ıʇ ɥɐpu’ʇ qǝǝu ɐ dǝɹɟǝɔʇ sdǝןן ɐup so ʇɥǝ ʇʍo oɟ ʇɥǝɯ ɥɐp ǝɯǝɹƃǝp ʍıʇɥıu ʇɥǝ ɔoʌǝuɐuʇ ɥıpǝonʇ ןooʞıuƃ ɯoɹǝ ʇɥɐu ɐ ןıʇʇןǝ ʍoɹsǝ ɟoɹ ʍǝɐɹ˙ ɐup ƃıʌǝu ɔoɹuǝɹ sɥoʇ ɐןɹǝɐpʎ ɥɐp qǝǝu snqɾǝɔʇǝp ʇo ɐ ɥǝןן oɟ ɐ uıƃɥʇ' ʇɥǝ ןɐsʇ ʇɥıuƃ sɥǝ ʍɐuʇǝp ʇo po ʍɐs pǝɐן ʍıʇɥ oʇɥǝɹ douıǝs’ qnןןsɥıʇ oɹ ɯoɹǝ ɐuuoʎıuƃןʎ' qǝ ɹǝƃɐɹpǝp ןıʞǝ soɯǝ ʞıup oɟ pǝɯıƃoppǝss ɐs soɯǝ oɟ ʇɥǝ ɔoʌǝuɐuʇ ɥɐp ʇǝupǝp ʇo po ǝʌǝɹ sıuɔǝ ıʇ ʍɐs ʞuoʍu sɥǝ ʍɐs ʇɥǝ ʇɥıɹp sɔıou˙

“qnʇ' ɔoɹuǝɹ'” sɐıp ouǝ ɔןoɐʞǝp ɐɔoןʎʇǝ' ʇɹʎıuƃ ʇo ɔɐןɯ ɥǝɹ poʍu˙ “ʇɥǝ ɯıssıou ʍɐs ɐ snɔɔǝss' ʍɐs ıʇ uoʇ¿”

“ıʇ ɐıu’ʇ ɐ ɔןǝɐu dooן ʇɐqןǝ ıɟ ʇɥǝ pɐɯu ǝıƃɥʇ qɐןן ıs sʇıןן ou ıʇ¡” sɥǝ ɹǝʇoɹʇǝp ןonpןʎ' sןıddıuƃ qɐɔʞ ıuʇo nsıuƃ dooן ʇǝɹɯıuoןoƃʎ—ɐup ʍǝıɹpןʎ' poıuƃ so ɯɐpǝ ɥǝɹ ɟǝǝן ɐ qıʇ qǝʇʇǝɹ˙ qoʎ ɥoʍ sɥǝ ʍonןp ɥɐʌǝ ןoʌǝp uoʇɥıuƃ ɯoɹǝ ʇɥɐu ʇo ɾnsʇ ʞuoɔʞ soɯǝ qıןןıɐɹp qɐןןs ɐɹonup ɹıƃɥʇ uoʍ ʇo ɹǝןɐx˙

“ıʇ’s qǝǝu ɐ˙˙˙ɹonƃɥ uıƃɥʇ ɟoɹ ɥǝɹ'” sɐıp ɔɥɹʎsoqǝɹʎן' ʍɥo sǝǝɯǝp ʇo qǝ ɟoɹ ʇɥǝ ɯosʇ dɐɹʇ oʞɐʎ sɐʌǝ ɟoɹ ʇɥǝ sıuƃǝp ɟnɹ ɐup ɯɐuǝ/ʇɐıן ɥɐıɹs˙ “sɥǝ ƃoʇ ʇʍo oɟ ʇɥǝ oʇɥǝɹ sɔıous qnʇ ouǝ ɹǝɯɐıus ɐʇ ןɐɹƃǝ˙”

“uo ɟnɔʞıuƃ sɥıʇ¡ uoʍ ʍɥǝɹǝ ʇɥǝ ɟnɔʞ ıs ʇɥǝ oɹɐɔןǝ¿” ɔoɹuǝɹ pǝɯɐupǝp' ɥoןpıuƃ nd ɐ ɔǝɹʇɐıu pɐɹʞ ɐɯnןǝʇ ɔɐɹʌǝp ıu ʇɥǝ ןıʞǝuǝss oɟ ɐu ɐןıɔoɹu˙ “ı ƃoʇ ɥǝɹ sʇndıp ʇɹıuʞǝʇ ʇo ƃıʌǝ ɥǝɹ ɐup ʇɥǝu ı’ɯ ʇɐʞıuƃ ɐ ɟnɔʞıuƃ sɥoʍǝɹ' ɟıupıuƃ ɐ ɥǝɐןǝɹ ʇo dɐʇɔɥ ɯʎ ɐss nd ɐup ƃnʇʇıuƃ ɐuʎdouʎ ʍɥo ʇɹıǝs ʇo sʇod ɯǝ¡” ɔoɹuǝɹ sʇoɯdǝp oɟɟ' uoʇıuƃ ʇɥɐʇ ʇɥǝ qıƃ nƃןʎ ɐss ɯıɹɹoɹ ʇɥɐʇ ɥɐp qǝǝu sʇoןǝu pnɹıuƃ ʇɥǝ ʍɥoןǝ ɟıɐsɔo ʍɐs ou ıʇs ʍɐʎ ʇo ʇɥǝ ɔǝuʇɹɐן ɐʇɹınɯ ןooʞıuƃ ɔןǝɐu ɐup sɥıuʎ˙ ɟnɔʞıuƃ ɯıɹɹoɹs ɐup uoʇ ɟnɔʞıuƃ nd ƃǝʇʇıuƃ ɯɐƃıɔǝp ɐןן oʌǝɹ ʇɥǝ ɟnɔʞıuƃ dןɐɔǝ' ɔoɹuǝɹ ƃɹıdǝp ıu ɥǝɹ ɥǝɐp' qnʇ sɐıp uoʇɥıuƃ ɐs sɥǝ ɔouʇıunǝp ou ɥǝɹ ɯıssıou ʇo qǝ ɹıp oɟ ʇɥǝ sʇndıp-ןooʞıuƃ uǝɔʞ ɐɔɔǝssoɹʎ˙

“ı sɥonןp ɥɐʌǝ ʞuoʍu ıʇ ʍɐs ɐu ǝʌǝuʇnɐןıʇʎ'” ƃɹoɐuǝp ɯɐɹıɯqɐ' ɹnqqıuƃ ɥǝɹ ʇǝɯdןǝs ʍıʇɥ ɐ ɟoɹǝɥooɟ' “qnʇ ɟoɹ ɐ ɥooɟ ʇo qǝʇɹɐʎ ʇɥǝ oɐʇɥ' ʇɥǝ dɹoɯısǝ' ʇo ʇɥǝ dɹıuɔǝss…”

“sɥǝ ısu’ʇ onɹ dɹıuɔǝss ɐup ʎon ʞuoʍ ıʇ¡” sɐıp ןǝuʇɐupo' ƃןɐɹıuƃ pǝɐʇɥ ɐʇ ɥǝɹ ɟoɹɯǝɹ ɔoɯɯɐupǝɹ˙ sıuɔǝ sɥǝ’p sʇɹɐıƃɥʇ nd ɐpɯıʇʇǝp ʇo qǝıuƃ ʇɥǝ ouǝ qǝɥıup ʇɥǝ ɐןןnɔıuoɹ ʍıuƃ ǝʌǝu qǝıuƃ ןǝʇ ıuʇo ɔɐuʇǝɹןoʇ ıu ʇɥǝ ɟıɹsʇ dןɐɔǝ' ןǝʇ ɐןouǝ ʇɥǝ sɥıʇsɥoʍ ʇɥǝ ɹǝɔǝdʇıou ɥɐp ʇnɹuǝp ıuʇo' sɥǝ’p qǝǝu sʇɹıddǝp oɟ ɐuʎʇɥıuƃ sɥǝ ɔonןp nsǝ ɐs ɐ ʍǝɐdou' ɟoɹɔǝp qɐɔʞ ıuʇo ɥǝɹ douʎ ɟoɹɯ' ɐup ɥɐp ɥǝɹ ɹnqʎ uǝɔʞןɐɔǝ ɟoɹɔıqןʎ ɹǝɯoʌǝp' ʍɥıɔɥ ʍonןp ɯɐʞǝ ıʇ ɯnɔɥ ɥɐɹpǝɹ ɟoɹ ɥǝɹ ʇo sʍıʇɔɥ ɟoɹɯ—ʇɥǝ ɹnqʎ uǝɔʞןɐɔǝs ǝɐɔɥ ɥooɟ ʍoɹǝ sǝɹʌǝp ɐs ɐ ʞıup oɟ ɔoupnıʇ ɟoɹ ʇɥǝ ʍǝɐɹǝɹ ʇo ɯoɹǝ ǝɐsıןʎ ɔɥɐuƃǝ ɟoɹɯs˙ ɟnɹʇɥǝɹɯoɹǝ' ıu ɥǝɹ ʍǝɐʞǝuǝp sʇɐʇǝ ıʇ ʍɐs ʌıɹʇnɐןןʎ ƃnɐɹɐuʇǝǝp sɥǝ ʍonןpu’ʇ qǝ ɐqןǝ ʇo ʇnɹu ɐƃɐıu ʍıʇɥonʇ ıʇ' ɯnɔɥ ןǝss dnʇ nd ɟnɹʇɥǝɹ ɹǝsısʇɐuɔǝ˙

ɾnsʇ ıu ɔɐsǝ' ɥoʍǝʌǝɹ' sɥǝ uoʍ ʍɐs ʇıǝp nd ɐup ןǝɐuǝp ɐƃɐıusʇ ouǝ oɟ ʇɥǝ snddoɹʇıuƃ dıןןɐɹs oɟ ʇɥǝ qɐןןɹooɯ' ɹıƃɥʇ uǝxʇ ʇo qɐɹʞǝǝd ʍɥo ʍɐs sıɯıןɐɹןʎ ʇıǝp nd˙

“ʎon ɹǝɐןןʎ sɥonןp ןısʇǝu ʇo ɥǝɹ'” ɥǝ sɐıp ʍıʇɥ ɐ sɯıɹʞ' “sɥǝ’s ƃoʇ ʇɥǝ ɹıƃɥʇ ıpǝɐ oɟ ıʇ˙”

“ʍɥɐʇ' ןıʞǝ ɥoʍ ʎon ןısʇǝuǝp ʇo ɥǝɹ qɐsıɔɐןןʎ ʇǝןן ʎon ɥoʍ ʇo dןɐu ɐ ʇǝɹɹoɹısʇ ɐʇʇɐɔʞ¿” sɐıp ɯɐɹıɯqɐ' ƃןɐɹıuƃ oʌǝɹ ʇo ʇɥǝ sʇɐןןıou ʍıʇɥ ɐʍɟnן ʇɐsʇǝ ıu ɟɐɔıɐן ɥɐıɹ˙

ʇɥǝ pısɥǝʌǝןǝp sʇɐןןıou’s sɯıןǝ ƃɹǝʍ ʍıpǝɹ˙ “ɥǝʎ' ɔɐu’ʇ ɐɹƃnǝ ʍıʇɥ snɔɔǝss˙”



“oɥ' ı ʇɥıuʞ ı ɔɐu˙”


qǝɟoɹǝ qɐɹʞǝǝd ɔonןp ɹǝɐɔʇ' ɥǝ snppǝuןʎ ɟonup ɥıɯsǝןɟ ɐƃןoʍ ıu ɔʎɐu ɐup ɹoɔʞǝʇǝp sʇɹɐıƃɥʇ nd ıuʇo ʇɥǝ ɔǝıןıuƃ' sןɐɯɯǝp ɥɐɹp ǝuonƃɥ ʇo ɔɹɐʇǝɹ ʇɥǝ dןɐsʇǝɹ' ɹɐıuıuƃ pnsʇ ʇo ʇɥǝ ƃɹonup˙ ɥǝ ɥɐp uo ʇıɯǝ ʇo ǝʌǝu ɹǝɐɔʇ ʇo ʇɥǝ dɐıu qǝɟoɹǝ ƃǝʇʇıuƃ sןɐɯɯǝp qɐɔʞ poʍu ıuʇo ʇɥǝ ƃɹonup˙ qʎ ʇɥǝ ʇıɯǝ ɥǝ ɹǝɔoʌǝɹǝp ɟɹoɯ qǝıuƃ pɐzǝp—ɥǝ ʍɐs ןnɔʞʎ ɥǝ ʍɐs ɐu ǝɐɹʇɥ douʎ ɐup ʇɥns ɔonןp ʇɐʞǝ onʇɹɐƃǝonsןʎ ןnpıɔɹons ɐɯonuʇs oɟ dnuısɥɯǝuʇ—ɥǝ ɟonup ɥıɯsǝןɟ sʇɐɹıuƃ ɹıƃɥʇ ıu ʇɥǝ ɟɐɔǝ oɟ ɐ ʌǝɹʎ' ʌǝɹʎ' ʌǝɹʎ ɐuƃɹʎ ʇǝǝuɐƃǝ ɥnɯɐu˙

“ɥnɥ' so ı ƃnǝss ɔoɹuǝɹ pıpu’ʇ ƃǝʇ ʎɐ ɐɟʇǝɹ ɐןן'” ɥǝ ɹǝɯɐɹʞǝp' ןooʞıuƃ uoudןnssǝp˙

“ı’ɯ ƃouuɐ ɯɐʞǝ ʎon ʍısɥ sɥǝ ɥɐp nuןǝss ʎon ʇǝןן ɯǝ ʍɥɐʇ ı ʍɐuʇ ʇo ʞuoʍ˙” ʇo nupǝɹsɔoɹǝ ɥǝɹ ʇɥɹǝɐʇ' sɥǝ ɹɐısǝp ɐ ɟısʇ ʇɥɐʇ ʍɐs ǝuƃnןɟǝp ıu ɔʎɐu ɟןɐɯǝ˙

qɐɹʞǝǝd ʍɐs nuıɯdɹǝssǝp˙ “ɐddןǝ poǝsu’ʇ ɟɐןן ɟɐɹ ɟɹoɯ ʇɥǝ ʇɹǝǝ' ɥnɥ¿ ɟıƃnɹǝs ʇɥǝ pɐnƃɥʇǝɹ oɟ ʇɥǝ snu ʇʎɹɐuʇ ʍonןp qǝɥɐʌǝ ןıʞǝ ɥǝɹ ɯoʇɥǝɹ˙”

ʇɥɐʇ ɹǝsdousǝ ƃoʇ ɥıɯ qɐɔʞɥɐupǝp ɐɔɹoss ʇɥǝ ɟɐɔǝ ɥɐɹp ǝuonƃɥ ʇo ɔɐnsǝ ɐu ɐnpıqןǝ suɐd ɐs ɥıs ɥǝɐp ɹǝǝןǝp qɐɔʞ ɟɹoɯ ʇɥǝ qןoʍ˙

ɐ sǝɔoup ןɐʇǝɹ' ɥǝ sdɐʇ onʇ ɐ ʇooʇɥ˙ “oɥ ʎǝɐɐɐɥ' ı ןıʞǝ ɐ ןɐpʎ ʍɥo dןɐʎs ɹonƃɥ¡”

snusǝʇ’s ɔʎɐu ɐnɹɐ ɔɐɯǝ qɐɔʞ' ʇɥıs ʇıɯǝ ɐɹonup qɐɹʞǝǝd’s ʇɥɹoɐʇ' ןıɟʇıuƃ ɥıɯ ıuʇo ʇɥǝ ɐıɹ ɐup ʇıƃɥʇǝuıuƃ˙

“ɥ-ɥɐɹpǝɹ' ɯoɯɯʎ'” ɥǝ ɔɥoʞǝp' soɯǝɥoʍ sʇıןן ƃɹıuuıuƃ˙

snusǝʇ oqןıƃǝp˙ “ıs ʇɥıs ɐ ɟnɔʞıuƃ ɾoʞǝ ʇo ʎon¿” sɥǝ ɐsʞǝp' sbnǝǝzıuƃ ɥıs ʇɥɹoɐʇ ʍıʇɥ ɥǝɹ ƃopןıʞǝ doʍǝɹ ɾnsʇ ɐ ןıʇʇןǝ ןouƃǝɹ qǝɟoɹǝ ɹǝןǝɐsıuƃ ɥıɯ' sdnʇʇǝɹıuƃ ɐup ɔonƃɥıuƃ ʇo ʇɥǝ ɟןooɹ˙

“ןɐpʎ' ʇɥıs ʍɥoןǝ ʍoɹןp ıs ɐ ɟnɔʞıuƃ ɾoʞǝ' ɐup ı ɐɯ ʇıɹǝp oɟ qǝıuƃ ʇɥǝ qnʇʇ oɟ ıʇ'” qɐɹʞǝǝd ɹɐsdǝp˙ ɥıs nsnɐן pǝʌıן ɯɐʎ ɔɐɹǝ ɐʇʇıʇnpǝ ɔɹɐɔʞǝp ɾnsʇ ɐ ןıʇʇןǝ' ɐup snusǝʇ ɹǝɐןızǝp ʇɥǝɹǝ ʍɐs soɯǝʇɥıuƃ ǝןsǝ qnɹıǝp nupǝɹuǝɐʇɥ: dɐıu˙ ʇǝɹɹıqןǝ' ǝɯoʇıouɐן ʇnɹɯoıן˙ ǝuonƃɥ ʇo pɹıʌǝ ɐ dǝɹsou ɯɐp˙ “ɟɐɯıןʎ' ɟɹıǝupsɥıd' ʇɥǝʎ’ɹǝ ɐןן ɾoʞǝs' ɐup ǝʌǝu ʇɥǝ qǝsʇ ɾoʞǝs sʇod qǝıuƃ ɟnuuʎ ɐɟʇǝɹ ʎon’ʌǝ ɥǝɐɹp ‘ǝɯ ǝuonƃɥ ʇıɯǝs˙”

qɐɹʞǝǝd ɹǝʇnɹuǝp ʇo ɐ sıʇʇıuƃ dosıʇıou' sɥıɟʇıuƃ ɐ ןıʇʇןǝ ıu ɥıs qoups ɐs ɥǝ ɔouʇıunǝp' ɐup snusǝʇ ƃoʇ ʇɥǝ ɟǝǝןıuƃ ʇɥɐʇ sɥǝ ʍɐs snppǝuןʎ sǝǝıuƃ qǝʎoup ʇɥǝ ɟɐɔɐpǝ ɥǝ ʞǝdʇ nd ɟoɹ ʍɥɐʇ ɥɐp ןıʞǝןʎ qǝǝu ɯosʇ oɟ ɥıs ןıɟǝ nd nuʇıן uoʍ˙ “ʇɥɐʇ’s ʍɥʎ ʍɥǝu ɟɐʇɥǝɹ ןnx ɟonup ɯǝ' ɐ nsǝןǝss uodouʎ ıu ʇɥǝ sןnɯs' ɐup ʇoןp ɯǝ ʇɥǝ ƃoop ʍoɹp oɟ ǝbnǝsʇɹıɐ’s ʇɹnǝ ןoɹp' ı ɾnɯdǝp ɐʇ ʇɥǝ ɔɥɐuɔǝ ʇo sǝɹʌǝ ɥıɯ˙ ıɟ ǝʌǝɹʎʇɥıuƃ’s ɐ ɾoʞǝ ɐuʎʍɐʎ' ɯɐʎ ɐs ʍǝןן ponqןǝ-poʍu ɐup qɹıuƃ qɐɔʞ ʇɥǝ ƃɹǝɐʇǝsʇ ɯousʇǝɹ oɟ onɹ ɥısʇoɹʎ˙”

snusǝʇ ןooʞǝp ɐʇ ɥıɯ ʍıʇɥ ʇɥǝ nʇʇǝɹ pısƃnsʇ oɟ ɹɐɹıʇʎ ןooʞıuƃ ɐʇ ɐ ɹɐʇ˙ “ı ɔɐu ʇɥıuʞ oɟ ɐ ןoʇ oɟ ɹǝɐsous ʇo ɟoןןoʍ ɐu ǝʌıן ɯǝƃɐןoɯɐuıɐɔ' qnʇ ʇɥɐʇ’s dɹoqɐqןʎ ʇɥǝ ʍoɹsʇ ouǝ ı’ʌǝ ǝʌǝɹ ɥǝɐɹp˙”

“ɐup ʇɥɐʇ’s ʍɥʎ ı’ɯ uoʇ ɐɟɹɐıp oɟ ʎon oɹ ʎonɹ ɯoʇɥǝɹ˙ ʇɥǝɹǝ’s uoʇɥıuƃ ʎon ɔɐu po ʇo ɯǝ ʇɥɐʇ’s ʍoɹsǝ ʇɥɐu ʇɥǝ ɾoʞǝ ɔɐןןǝp ‘ǝxısʇǝuɔǝ˙’”

ʇɥɹonƃɥ ɐןן oɟ ʇɥǝ ɹıƃɥʇǝons ɟnɹʎ' soɯǝ dɐɹʇ oɟ snusǝʇ )ʇɥǝ dɐɹʇ oɟ ɥǝɹ ʇɥɐʇ qǝɔɐɯǝ ɔɐdɐqןǝ oɟ ɔoɯdɐssıou ɐɟʇǝɹ sɥǝ ɔɥɐuƃǝp ɥǝɹ ʍɐʎs( sɐʍ qɐɹʞǝǝd ɟoɹ ʍɥɐʇ ɥǝ ɹǝɐןןʎ ʍɐs: ɾnsʇ ɐ sɐp' pǝsdǝɹɐʇǝ douʎ qɐɹǝןʎ ɯoɹǝ ʇɥɐu ɐ sɥǝןן oɟ ʍɥoǝʌǝɹ ɥǝ ɥɐp ouɔǝ qǝǝu˙ ıʇ ʍɐs ǝuonƃɥ ɟoɹ ɥǝɹ ʇo sʇɐʎ ɥǝɹ ɥooɟ ɟoɹ ouǝ ɯoɯǝuʇ' ʇɥǝu ɐuoʇɥǝɹ˙

ʇɥǝu sɥǝ ʇɥonƃɥʇ oɟ oɔʇɐʌıɐ' ıu ʇɥǝ ɔןnʇɔɥǝs oɟ ɥıs ɯɐp ɔnןʇ˙ oɟ dıuʞıǝ' ʍɥo ןɐʎ pʎıuƃ ıu ɐ ɥosdıʇɐן qǝp˙ ɐןן oɟ ıʇ ɯɐpǝ dossıqןǝ qʎ ʇɥǝ qɹoʞǝu douʎ ıu ɟɹouʇ oɟ ɥǝɹ˙

“ı’ɯ ɐ ɔɹǝɐʇıʌǝ douʎ˙ ı’ןן ʇɥıuʞ oɟ soɯǝʇɥıuƃ'” snusǝʇ sɐıp ʍıʇɥ ɐ bnıǝʇ ıuʇǝusıʇʎ ʇɥɐʇ sdooʞǝp ǝʌǝɹʎouǝ dɹǝsǝuʇ˙ ɐ sǝɔoup ןɐʇǝɹ' sɥǝ ɯoʌǝp ɟɐsʇǝɹ ʇɥɐu ʇɥǝ ǝʎǝ ɔonןp ɟoןןoʍ' ɥıʇʇıuƃ ɥıɯ ʍıʇɥ ɐ dnuɔɥ ʇɥɐʇ sǝuʇ ɥıɯ ɟןʎıuƃ ɐɔɹoss ʇɥǝ ɹooɯ' ǝupıuƃ nd ʍıʇɥ ɥıɯ ɔoןןıpıuƃ ıuʇo—ɐup ʇɥɹonƃɥ—ɐ uǝɐɹqʎ dıןןɐɹ˙ ɥǝ ɔɹɐsɥǝp ɐƃɐıusʇ ʇɥǝ ƃɹonup' qnʇ pıpu’ʇ ןɐup ɐs ɥǝ snppǝuןʎ ɟonup ɥıɯsǝןɟ ʞıɔʞǝp qɐɔʞ ɐɔɹoss ʇɥǝ ɹooɯ qʎ snusǝʇ' ʍɥo ɥɐp ʇǝןǝdoɹʇǝp oʌǝɹ ʇo pǝןıʌǝɹ ʇɥǝ sǝɔoup qןoʍ˙ ʇɥıs ʇıɯǝ sɥǝ ןǝʇ ɥıɯ ɔoɯǝ ɔןosǝ ʇo ʇɥǝ ʍɐןן ou ʇɥǝ oʇɥǝɹ sıpǝ qǝɟoɹǝ ʇǝןǝdoɹʇıuƃ ouɔǝ ɯoɹǝ ɐup ƃɹɐqqıuƃ ɥıɯ ıu ɯıp-ɐıɹ' sןɐɯɯıuƃ ɥıs ɟɐɔǝ ıuʇo ʇɥǝ ɯɐɹqןǝ ɥɐɹp ǝuonƃɥ ʇo sɥɐʇʇǝɹ ʇɥǝ ʍɐןן' ɐs ʍǝןן ɐs qɐɹʞǝǝd’s uosǝ˙

“ʎon ʍɐuuɐ ʇɹʎ ƃıʌıuƃ ɯǝ ʇɥǝ ʍɹouƃ ɐusʍǝɹ ɐƃɐıu¿” sɐıp snusǝʇ' ɹɐısıuƃ ɥǝɹ ɟısʇ ɐƃɐıu˙

“ןɐpʎ snusǝʇ'” ɯɐɹıɯqɐ ʌoıɔǝp' ɐs ɐ ןooʞ oɟ ɐןɐɹɯ ɔɐɯǝ oʌǝɹ ɥǝɹ ɟɐɔǝ' “ı ʍonןp dןǝɐsǝ ɐsʞ ʎon ʇo—„

“sʇɐʎ onʇ oɟ ʇɥıs'” snusǝʇ qɐɹʞǝp qɐɔʞ' ʇɥǝ ƃןɐɹǝ ıu ɥǝɹ ǝʎǝs ɯɐʞıuƃ ıʇ ɔןǝɐɹ ʇɥɐʇ sɥǝ ʍonןp uoʇ qɹooʞ ɐɹƃnɯǝuʇ qǝɟoɹǝ ʇnɹuıuƃ qɐɔʞ ʇo qɐɹʞǝǝd˙ “ǝʌǝu ıɟ ı ɥɐʌǝ ʇo nsǝ ǝʌǝɹʎ qıʇ oɟ ɯʎ ɯɐƃıɔ ʇo ɹıd ʇɥǝ ɐusʍǝɹ onʇ oɟ ʎonɹ ɟnɔʞıuƃ ɥǝɐp' ı ʍıןן pɐɯu ʍǝןן po ıʇ¡”

“ʇɥǝu ןǝʇ’s sǝǝ ʎon ʇɹʎ'” ɹǝdןıǝp ʇɥǝ soɯqɹɐ ʍoɹsɥıdıuƃ sɔnɯqɐƃ' ʍıʇɥ ʇɥɐʇ ıuɟnɹıɐʇıuƃ ƃɹıu ʇɥɐʇ ɥɐʌıuƃ ɾnsʇ ɥɐp ɥıs ɟɐɔǝ qɹoʞǝu pıpu’ʇ sǝǝɯ ʇo ıɯdǝpǝ˙ snusǝʇ ıƃuoɹǝp ʇɥǝ dɐɹʇ oɟ ɥǝɹ ʇɥɐʇ ʇoןp ɥǝɹ ɥǝ ʍɐs ouןʎ dnʇʇıuƃ ɥıs ɯɐsʞ qɐɔʞ ou˙

“ʎonɹ ɟnuǝɹɐן'” sɐıp snusǝʇ' uoʇ ɹǝɐןןʎ dıǝɔıuƃ ıʇ ʇoƃǝʇɥǝɹ ʇɥɐʇ ɯɐʎqǝ ıʇ ʍɐs ʍɥɐʇ ʇɥǝ sʇɐןןıou ʍɐs ɥodıuƃ ɟoɹ' qnʇ sɥǝ uǝʌǝɹ ƃoʇ ʇɥǝ ɔɥɐuɔǝ ʇo ɔɐɹɹʎ onʇ ʇɥɐʇ ʇɥɹǝɐʇ˙

“sʇod ıʇ' snuuʎ¡” sɐıp ʇʍıןʎ' ʍɥo ɥɐp soɯǝɥoʍ sɥoʍu nd onʇ oɟ uoʍɥǝɹǝ ɐup ʍɐs ɥoןpıuƃ ouʇo snusǝʇ’s ɐɹɯ ʇo ʞǝǝd ıʇ ɟɹoɯ ƃǝʇʇıuƃ ɥǝɹ ʞunɔʞןǝs ǝʌǝu qןoopıǝɹ˙

“ʇʍıןʎ¿” snusǝʇ sɐıp ıu snɹdɹısǝ' ʇɥǝ ɯɐƃıɔ ןǝɐʌıuƃ ɥǝɹ ɟısʇ˙

“ʇɥıs ısu’ʇ ʎon' snuuʎ¡” ʇʍıןıƃɥʇ ɥɐp ןǝʇ ƃo oɟ ɥǝɹ sısʇǝɹ’s ɐɹɯ ɐup ʍɐs uoʍ sʇɐupıuƃ qǝʇʍǝǝu ɥǝɹ ɐup ʇɥǝ qןoopıǝp qɐɹʞǝǝd˙

“ʇɥıs ɐssɥoןǝ ıs ʇɥǝ ɹǝɐsou ʇɐʌı ıs ɯıssıuƃ¡” ɥıssǝp snusǝʇ' “ɥǝ’s ʇɥǝ ɹǝɐsou dıuʞıǝ’s pʎıuƃ¡”

“ɐup ıs ʇɥıs ʇɥǝ ɯǝssɐƃǝ ʎon ʍɐuʇ ʇo sǝup ʇɥǝ ɹǝsʇ oɟ ǝbnǝsʇɹıɐ' ʎonɹ oʍu ɥoɯǝʍoɹןp' ʇɥɐʇ ʎon’ɹǝ ƃoıuƃ ʇo qןoopıןʎ qǝɐʇ ʇɥǝ sɥıʇ onʇ oɟ ɐuʎouǝ ɐup ɐuʎʇɥıuƃ¿” ʇɥǝu ʇʍıןʎ ƃɐʌǝ ɥǝɹ ɐ ןooʞ ʇɥɐʇ nʇʇǝɹןʎ pǝsʇɹoʎǝp ʇɥǝ dɹoʌǝɹqıɐן ɹɐƃıuƃ sɥǝ-pǝɯou ıusıpǝ oɟ ɥǝɹ؛ sɥǝ ןooʞǝp ou ʇɥǝ ʌǝɹƃǝ oɟ ʇǝɐɹs˙ “ʍɥǝu ʇɥǝ oʇɥǝɹs ɟıɹsʇ ʇoןp ɯǝ ʍɥɐʇ ʎon nsǝp ʇo qǝ ןıʞǝ' ı pıpu’ʇ qǝןıǝʌǝ ʇɥǝɯ˙ ı ɔonןpu’ʇ ǝʌǝu ıɯɐƃıuǝ ɐ snusǝʇ sɥıɯɯǝɹ ʍɥo ʍɐs ɔɐןןons ɐup ɔɹnǝן˙” ʇɥǝu ɐs ıɟ snusǝʇ’s ƃnıןʇ ʍɐsu’ʇ ɐןɹǝɐpʎ qɐp ǝuonƃɥ' ʇʍıןʎ’s ɥǝɐɹʇqɹoʞǝu ǝʎǝs ƃɐʌǝ ʍɐʎ ʇo uoʇɥıuƃ qnʇ pısɐddoıuʇɯǝuʇ˙ “uoʍ ı ɔɐu˙”

snusǝʇ ɯɐpǝ ʇo ɔouʇıunǝ ɥǝɹ ɹǝʇoɹʇs' qnʇ ɟonup sɥǝ ɔonןpu’ʇ˙

ʇʍıןıƃɥʇ ʇɥǝu ɐddɹoɐɔɥǝp snusǝʇ ɐup ɥnƃƃǝp ɥǝɹ˙ “ɔ’ɯou' ʇɥıs ısu’ʇ ʎon—ʇɥıs ısu’ʇ ɯʎ sısʇǝɹ˙”

snusǝʇ ɾnsʇ sʇoop ʇɥǝɹǝ' uoʇ snɹǝ ʍɥɐʇ ʇo po' qǝɟoɹǝ ɹǝʇnɹuıuƃ ʇɥǝ ǝɯqɹɐɔǝ ɐup qǝƃıuuıuƃ ʇo ɔɹʎ soɟʇןʎ ıuʇo ʇʍıןʎ’s sɥonןpǝɹ˙ uoʇ sɐʎıuƃ ɐuʎʇɥıuƃ' ʇʍıןʎ ɯǝɹǝןʎ ןǝp ɥǝɹ sısʇǝɹ ɐʍɐʎ˙

“ɐʍʍ' ɥoʍ sʍǝǝʇ' ı ɯıƃɥʇ pıǝ oɟ ɐ snƃɐɹ oʌǝɹposǝ” sɐıp qɐɹʞǝǝd sɐɹɔɐsʇıɔɐןןʎ˙ ɥǝ ƃoʇ ɐ uıɔǝ ɥɐɹp qnɔʞ ʇo ʇɥǝ sıpǝ oɟ ʇɥǝ ɥǝɐp ıu ɹǝsdousǝ˙ “oʍ¡ ʍɥɐʇ ʇɥǝ ɟnɔʞ' ןɐpʎ¡¿”

“sɥǝ ɯɐʎ ɥɐʌǝ sʇoddǝp ןɐpʎ snusǝʇ ɟɹoɯ qǝɐʇıuƃ ʎon nd ɟnɹʇɥǝɹ'” sɐıp ɯɐɹıɯqɐ' “qnʇ ıʇ’s ıu ɯʎ ɾoq pǝsɔɹıdʇıou ʇo pǝɟǝup ɯʎ dɹıuɔǝss ɐup ʇɥǝ ןɐpıǝs ɟɹoɯ ɐuʎ ʇɥɹǝɐʇs… ǝʌǝu ıɟ ʇɥǝ ouןʎ ʇɥɹǝɐʇ ʎon dosǝ ıs ʇo ɥǝɹ dɹıpǝ¡”

ɯǝɐuʍɥıןǝ' oqןıʌıons ʇo ʇɥǝ ǝʌǝuʇs ʇɹɐusdıɹıuƃ' ʇɥǝ ʇʍo ɹnןıuƃ dɹıuɔǝssǝs ʍǝɹǝ ʇɐʞıuƃ ɐ ɯoɯǝuʇ ʇo ɹǝɔndǝɹɐʇǝ ıu ןnuɐ’s ɔɥɐɯqǝɹs' sıʇʇıuƃ ɐʇ ɥǝɹ ʇǝɐ ʇɐqןǝ˙

“ǝbnǝsʇɹıɐ ɹǝɐןןʎ poǝs uoʇ uǝǝp ʇɥıs ʞıup oɟ sɥıʇ ɹıƃɥʇ uoʍ'” sɐıp ןnuɐ' sıddıuƃ ɟɹoɯ ɥǝɹ ɔnd ʍɥıןǝ ɐqsǝuʇ ɯıupǝpןʎ ɹnuuıuƃ ɐ ɔoɯq ʇɥɹonƃɥ ɥǝɹ ɥɐıɹ ʍıʇɥ ɯɐƃıɔ˙

“ı’ɯ ʍoupǝɹıuƃ ıɟ ǝbnǝsʇɹıɐ ɹǝɐןןʎ uǝǝps ɯǝ'” sɐıp ɔǝןǝsʇıɐ' ƃןnɯןʎ˙

ןnuɐ ʍɐs sɥoɔʞǝp˙ “ɔǝןǝsʇıɐ¡ ʎon ɔɐu uoʇ qǝ sǝɹıons' ɾnsʇ qǝɔɐnsǝ ʇɥǝ ɐɔʇıous oɟ ɐ ɟǝʍ˙˙˙ɥnupɹǝp douıǝs' ɐpɯıʇʇǝpןʎ' poǝsu’ʇ ɯǝɐu—„

“ıʇ’s qǝǝu soɯǝʇɥıuƃ ʇɥɐʇ’s qǝǝu ou ɯʎ ɯıup ɟoɹ ɐ ןouƃ ʇıɯǝ uoʍ'” ɐpɯıʇʇǝp ɔǝןǝsʇıɐ˙ “ʇɥǝ ɔonuʇɹʎ uǝǝpǝp ɯǝ ʇo qǝ ʇɥǝɹǝ ɟoɹ ʇɥǝ douıǝs ıu ʇɥǝ ɐɟʇǝɹɯɐʇɥ oɟ ʇıɹǝʞ’s ɹɐɯdɐƃǝ ɐup˙˙˙ı ɟɐıןǝp ıʇ˙ ı ɟɐıןǝp ǝʌǝɹʎdouʎ˙ ןnuɐ' ʇɥǝɹǝ ıs qןoop ou ɯʎ ɥooʌǝs qǝɔɐnsǝ ı ןǝʇ ɯʎ ɯǝןɐuɔɥoןʎ oʌǝɹ snusǝʇ’s pǝɐʇɥ ɔousnɯǝ ɯǝ' ɐup douıǝs pıǝp qǝɔɐnsǝ oɟ ɥoʍ ʇɥɐʇ ıuɟןnǝuɔǝp ʇɥǝ snu˙ ɐup nןʇıɯɐʇǝןʎ ıʇ ʍɐs ɐןן doıuʇןǝss qǝɔɐnsǝ snusǝʇ ɥɐpu’ʇ pıǝp qnʇ ɐsɔǝupǝp—sɥǝ’p qǝǝu pǝɐp ɟoɹ ɯɐʎqǝ ɐu ɥonɹ ɐʇ ʇɥǝ ɯosʇ¡”

“ʍǝןן' ƃıʌǝu ʇɥǝ ʇıɯǝ sɥıɟʇ' dɹoqɐqןʎ ɯoɹǝ ןıʞǝ ʍǝǝʞs ıu onɹ ɹǝɐןɯ'” ןnuɐ uoʇǝp˙

ʇɥǝ oןpǝɹ sısʇǝɹ ƃɐʌǝ ʇɥǝ ʎonuƃǝɹ ouǝ ɐ ɹǝdɹoɐɔɥɟnן ןooʞ˙ “uoʇ ɥǝןdıuƃ' ןnuɐ'” sɥǝ ɐpɯouısɥǝp˙ “ıu ɐuʎ ɔɐsǝ' ʍɥɐʇ ʞıup oɟ ɹnןǝɹ poǝs ʇɥɐʇ¿ soɯqɹɐ¿”

“ʎon ɐɹǝ uoʇɥıuƃ ןıʞǝ ʇɥɐʇ nƃןʎ ɔɐp' ɯʎ ןıǝƃǝ'” sɐıp ʞıqqıʇz' ןǝʇʇıuƃ ɥıɯsǝןɟ ıu ʇɥǝ ɹooɯ˙ “nuɟoɹʇnuɐʇǝןʎ' ʇɥɐʇ ıs ʍɥɐʇ ʇɥǝ uoqıןıʇʎ uoʍ sǝǝɯ ʇo ʇɥıuʞ ɐup' ɔɹǝpıʇ ʍɥǝɹǝ pnǝ' ɹıʌǝu oɐʞ ɥɐs ƃoʇʇǝu ʇɥǝɯ ɐןן ıu ɔousǝusns ɐup ɟıןǝp ɐ ɯoʇıou˙”

“so soou ɐɟʇǝɹ ʇɥǝıɹ ןıʌǝs ʍǝɹǝ ou ʇɥǝ ןıuǝ¿” ɹǝɯɐɹʞǝp ןnuɐ˙ “uoʍ' ıɟ ʇɥǝʎ ʍǝɹǝ ʇɥɐʇ ɐpɐɯɐuʇ ɐqonʇ ʇɐx ɹǝɟoɹɯs˙˙˙˙”

“bnıʇǝ˙ ı’ןן sdɐɹǝ ʎon ʇɥǝ' ɐɥǝɯ' ɹɐʇɥǝɹ ɔɥoıɔǝ ʍoɹps ʇɥǝʎ’ʌǝ nsǝp ɥǝɹǝ' qnʇ ǝssǝuʇıɐןןʎ ʇɥǝʎ ɐɹǝ pǝɯɐupıuƃ ʎonɹ dɹǝsǝuɔǝ ɐʇ uoqıןıʇʎ ɥonsǝ ʇo ǝxdןɐıu ʍɥɐʇ ɾnsʇ oɔɔnɹɹǝp˙ ı’ʌǝ ʇɐʞǝu ʇɥǝ ʇɹonqןǝ oɟ ןooʞıuƃ nd ʇɥǝ ןǝƃɐןǝsǝ sıuɔǝ ʇɥǝʎ ɐɹǝ ıuʌoʞıuƃ soɯǝ ʇɹnןʎ ɐuɔıǝuʇ dɹoʇoɔoןs qnʇ ɐןɐs' ʇɥǝʎ ɐɹǝ ɾnsʇıɟıǝp ɐup ʍıʇɥıu ʇɥǝıɹ ɹıƃɥʇs˙”

“ɐʇ ʇɥǝ ʌǝɹʎ ןǝɐsʇ ʇɥǝʎ ɐɹǝu’ʇ ʇɹʎıuƃ ʇo ɯnɹpǝɹ oʇɥǝɹ douıǝs ıu ɟɹouʇ oɟ ɯǝ'” sıƃɥǝp ɔǝןǝsʇıɐ˙ “ı ɔɐu ɥɐupןǝ ןǝƃɐןǝsǝ ɐup ɹǝp ʇɐdǝ˙ ı’ʌǝ ɥɐp ʇo sıʇ ʇɥɹonƃɥ oʌǝɹ ɐ ʇɥonsɐup ʎǝɐɹs oɟ ıʇ ɐɟʇǝɹ ɐןן˙”

“soɯǝʇıɯǝs ı ʍoupǝɹ ıɟ ʇɥosǝ ıɯqǝɔıןǝs ɹǝɐןızǝ ʇɥɐʇ ǝʌǝu ɐʇ ʎonɹ ʍoɹsʇ' ʎon ɐɹǝ sʇıןן ɐ qǝuǝʌoןǝuʇ ɹnןǝɹ'” ƃɹnɯqןǝp ןnuɐ' “ɔoɯdɐɹǝp ʇo' oɥ ı pou’ʇ ʞuoʍ' ʍɥɐʇ ı ʍonןp ɥɐʌǝ pouǝ ıɟ ı’p ʍou ʇɥǝ ɔıʌıן ʍɐɹ ɐup pǝɔןɐɹǝp ɯʎsǝןɟ bnǝǝu uıƃɥʇɯɐɹǝ ɯoou˙”

“ɐu ıpǝɐ ʍoɹʇɥ ǝuʇǝɹʇɐıuıuƃ' ıɟ ouןʎ ɾnsʇ ʇo ƃǝʇ ɐ ɹısǝ onʇ oɟ ʇɥǝɯ'” ıɯdısɥןʎ ƃıƃƃןǝp ɔǝןǝsʇıɐ˙ ıu ɐ ʇɹʎıuƃ ʇıɯǝ ןıʞǝ ʇɥıs' ıʇ ʍɐs ɔɹıʇıɔɐן ʇo ɟıup ɹǝןıǝɟ ʍɥǝɹǝʌǝɹ dossıqןǝ˙

“ɐ ɥnɯɐu¿¡” ƃɐsdǝp ʇıuʎ pʎuɐɯıuǝ˙ ɐɟʇǝɹ ʇɥǝ ʇʍo “ɹoƃnǝ” sɔıous ɐup ʇɥǝıɹ ɥnɯɐu ɥɐp qǝǝu ǝsɔoɹʇǝp ıuʇo ʇɥǝıɹ ʇıuʎ ɥoןpıuƃ ɔǝןן' uǝou ןnx ɥɐp sǝuʇ ɟoɹ ʇɥǝ oɹɐɔןǝ ʇo qǝ ɟǝʇɔɥǝp˙ sɥǝ ʍɐs ǝʌıpǝuʇןʎ ןǝss ʇɥɐu dןǝɐsǝp ʇo ןǝɐɹu ʇɥɐʇ uoʇ ouןʎ ɥɐp ɔoɹuǝɹ ɟɐıןǝp ʇo ƃǝʇ ɐןן ʇɥɹǝǝ sɔıous' qnʇ sɥǝ’p ʍɐsʇǝp ʇɥǝ ʞuıʌǝs ou ɐ nsǝןǝss ɥnɯɐu˙ “nuqǝןıǝʌɐqןǝ˙”

“ı pou’ʇ ʇɥıuʞ ıʇ’s ɐןן qɐp'” sɐıp ןnx' “ʍǝ ɔonןp dɹoqɐqןʎ ɹɐusoɯ ʇɥǝ ɥnɯɐu ɟoɹ snusǝʇ’s ɔoodǝɹɐʇıou' ǝsdǝɔıɐןןʎ ıɟ ʍǝ ɔonןp ƃǝʇ ʇɥǝ oʇɥǝɹ ʇʍo sɔıous ʇo nupǝɹsʇɐup ʇɥǝıɹ ɹoןǝs ıu ןıɟǝ ɐup ʍoɹʞ ʍıʇɥ ns˙”

“ʍɥɐʇ ɯɐʞǝs ʎon ʇɥıuʞ ʍǝ’p ʍıןןıuƃןʎ ʍoɹʞ ʍıʇɥ ɐ ƃɹond oɟ pǝןnsıouɐן unʇɔɐsǝs ɾnsʇ qǝɔɐnsǝ ʎonɹ ıpoן ıs ʇɥǝ ouǝ ʍǝ sɥɐɹǝ qןoop ʍıʇɥ¿” ɐsʞǝp ןoɔʞ ıuɔɹǝpnןonsןʎ˙
“dןns' ɯʎ ɾoq ıs ʇo ɯɐʞǝ snɹǝ ɐssɥɐʇs ןıʞǝ ʎon pou’ʇ ƃo ɐɹonup poıuƃ ʍɥɐʇǝʌǝɹ ʎon ʍɐuʇ'” ɐppǝp ɹɐzz˙ oɔʇɐʌıɐ ɯǝɹǝןʎ ʞǝdʇ bnıǝʇ' ʇɥıs ɔouʌǝɹsɐʇıou ɥɐp uoʇɥıuƃ ʇo po ʍıʇɥ ɥǝɹ ɐup sɥǝ pıpu’ʇ ʍɐuʇ ʇo ɯɐʞǝ ʇɥıuƃs ɐuʎ ʍoɹsǝ ɟoɹ ʇɥǝ ʇʍo douıǝs ɐɔʇnɐןןʎ ou ɥǝɹ sıpǝ˙
“ʎon oɟ ɐןן douıǝs sɥonןp ɥɐʌǝ ɯoɹǝ ɹǝsdǝɔʇ ɟoɹ ʇɥǝ ouǝ ʍɥo ƃɐʌǝ ʎon snɔɥ nuıɯɐƃıuɐqןǝ doʍǝɹ¡” ɹǝʇoɹʇǝp ןnx' ʇɥɹnsʇıuƃ ɐu ɐɔɔnsɐʇoɹʎ ɥooɟ ɐʇ ɹɐzz˙ “ɥıs ɯɐƃıɔ ıs ʇɥǝ ɹǝɐsou ʎon ɥɐʌǝ ɐɔɥıǝʌǝp snɔɥ sʇndǝupons ɟǝɐʇs¡”
“ʎǝɐɥ' qǝɔɐnsǝ ʇɥǝ ɟɐɔʇ ı ǝxısʇ ouןʎ qǝɔɐnsǝ ɥǝ ɹɐdǝp ɐ qnuɔɥ oɟ ıuuoɔǝuʇ ɯɐɹǝs ıs snɔɥ ɐ ʇɥıuƃ ʇo qǝ dɹonp oɟ¡” sɥǝ sɯıɹʞǝp ɐs sɥǝ ɐppǝp' “ɐןɯosʇ qɹıuƃs ɐ ʇǝɐɹ ʇo ɯʎ ǝʎǝ˙˙˙ ʇǝɐɹs oɟ ɹǝɯoɹsǝ˙”
“ɥɯdɥ' snɔɥ ıusoןǝuɔǝ¡” suǝǝɹǝp uǝou˙ “qnʇ uo ɯɐʇʇǝɹ: ǝʌǝu ıɟ ʍǝ pou’ʇ ɥɐʌǝ snusǝʇ ʇo ɥɐʌǝ ɐןן ɟonɹ sɔıous ıu ouǝ dןɐɔǝ' ı’ɯ snɹǝ ʍǝ’ןן ƃǝʇ ʎon ʇo ɹǝɐןızǝ ʇɥǝ ʇɹnʇɥ oɟ ʎonɹ ɥǝɹıʇɐƃǝ soou ǝuonƃɥ˙ qǝsıpǝs' ʎon’ɹǝ ɐʇ ןǝɐsʇ ɐʇʇɐɔɥǝp ʇo ʇɥıs ɥnɯɐu dǝʇ ǝuonƃɥ ʇɥɐʇ ʎon nupǝɹsʇɐup ıɟ ʎon ʇʍo ʇɹʎ ɐuʎʇɥıuƃ' ı’ןן ɥɐʌǝ ɥǝɹ ʞıןןǝp ou sıƃɥʇ—sɥǝ’ןן uǝʌǝɹ ןǝɐʌǝ ʇɥıs dןɐɔǝ ɐןıʌǝ¡”
“ɐɹǝ ʎon ɐןן pouǝ ʎǝןןıuƃ ʎǝʇ¿” sɐıp ɔoɹuǝɹ ʍɥo ɐddǝɐɹǝp ɟɹoɯ ɐ dɐssɐƃǝʍɐʎ ɾnsʇ onʇ oɟ ʌıǝʍ—osʇǝusıqןʎ ʇɥǝ ouןʎ ʍɐʎ ıu ɐup onʇ oɟ ʇɥǝ ɯɐıu pnuƃǝou ɹooɯ˙ “ı’ʌǝ ɥɐp ɐ ɥǝןן oɟ ɐ ɟnɔʞıuƃ pɐʎ ɐup ı ɹǝɐןןʎ po uoʇ ʍɐuʇ ʇo pǝɐן ʍıʇɥ ɯoɹǝ ʇɥıuƃs sɥonʇıuƃ¡”
“oɥ' uo' ןıʇʇןǝ ɯıss ʍıuƃɥooʌǝs ıs ɟǝǝןıuƃ qɐp¿” sɐıp ןoɔʞ ıu ɐ sɐddʎ ɟɐןsǝʇʇo˙ “ı ʇɥıuʞ ı ɯıƃɥʇ sʇɐɹʇ ʇo ɔɹʎ uoʍ ʇoo¡”
“ʎǝs' ǝxdןɐıu ʍɥʎ ʍǝ ɥɐʌǝ ʇɥıs˙˙˙ɥnɯɐu˙˙˙ıusʇǝɐp oɟ snusǝʇ sɥıɯɯǝɹ¡” pǝɯɐupǝp ʇıuʎ pʎuɐɯıuǝ˙
“ʇɥıuƃs pıpu’ʇ ǝxɐɔʇןʎ ƃo ʇo dןɐu' oʞɐʎ¿” ɟןɐʇןʎ sʇɐʇǝp ɔoɹuǝɹ˙ “ʇɥɐʇ pɐɯu ɥnɯɐu ƃoʇ ıu ʇɥǝ ʍɐʎ oɟ ɯǝ ƃǝʇʇıuƃ snusǝʇ ɐup ʇɥǝu ı ɥɐp ʇo ɟıƃɥʇ oɟɟ ɐ ɔondןǝ oɟ ɥnɯɐus—dɹoqɐqןʎ ǝupǝp nd ʞıןןıuƃ ʇɥǝ ouǝ ʇɥɐʇ ןıʞǝs snusǝʇ ʇɥǝ ɯosʇ' uoʇ snɹǝ' qnʇ ʇʍo ʞuıʌǝs ʇo ʇɥǝ ɔɥǝsʇ ɐıu’ʇ ǝxɐɔʇןʎ soɯǝʇɥıuƃ ʎon ɹǝɔoʌǝɹ ɟɹoɯ—ɐup ı ƃoʇ ɯosʇ oɟ ʍɥɐʇ ʎon ʍɐuʇǝp˙” uodouʎ sǝǝɯǝp ʇo uoʇıɔǝ ʇɐʌı ɔןɐsdıuƃ ɥǝɹ ɥɐups oʌǝɹ ɥǝɹ ɯonʇɥ ıu sɥoɔʞ' ɹǝɐɔʇıuƃ ʇo ʇɥǝ uǝʍs ʇɥɐʇ ʇɥǝ ɥnɯɐu dıuʞıǝ dıǝ ɯıƃɥʇ ɥɐʌǝ qǝǝu ʞıןןǝp qʎ ɔoɹuǝɹ’s ɥooɟıʍoɹʞ˙
“so' ʇɥǝ ıןןnsʇɹıons ɔoɹuǝɹ sɥoʇ ɟɐıןs ʎǝʇ ɐƃɐıu' ɐup ןooʞs ןıʞǝ ʇɥǝ ɟɐıןnɹǝ sɥǝ ıs ʇoo'” suɐɹʞǝp ןnx˙ “ʍɥɐʇ ɐ snɹdɹısǝ˙”
“ןǝʇ’s sǝǝ ʎon pǝɐן ʍıʇɥ ɐ qnuɔɥ oɟ ɥnɯɐus sɥooʇıuƃ dıǝɔǝs oɟ ɯǝʇɐן sɔɹǝɐɯıuƃ dɐsʇ ʎonɹ ɥǝɐp' ןnx¡ qǝsıpǝs' ı ɥɐʌǝ ʇɥǝ pnɯq ɐɯnןǝʇ' so ɥǝɹǝ ʎon ƃo' oɹɐɔןǝ˙” ɔoɹuǝɹ ɹǝɯoʌǝp ʇɥǝ ɐɯnןǝʇ ɟɹoɯ ɥǝɹ sɐppןǝqɐƃ ɐup ɔɐɹǝןǝssןʎ ɾnsʇ ʇossǝp ıʇ ʇoʍɐɹp ʇıuʎ pʎuɐɯıuǝ˙ ʇɥǝ oɹɐɔןǝ dɹoɯdʇןʎ ɹǝʇɹıǝʌǝp ıʇ ʍıʇɥ ɥǝɹ sıɔʞןʎ ןooʞıuƃ ƃɹǝǝu ɯɐƃıɔ˙
“ʇɥɐuʞ ʎon' ɔoɹuǝɹ'” sɥǝ sɐıp' “ɐʇ ןǝɐsʇ ʍıʇɥ ʇɥıs ʍǝ ɔɐu—ɥnɥ¿¡”
ıuǝxdןıɔɐqןʎ' ʇɥǝ ɐןıɔoɹu ɐɯnןǝʇ ɐɔʇǝp ou ıʇs oʍu' pɐɹʇıuƃ onʇ oɟ ʇıuʎ’s ƃɹɐsd' ɟןǝʍ ɹıƃɥʇ ʇɥɹonƃɥ ʇɥǝ ɔǝןן’s ıɹou qɐɹs ɐup ʇɥǝu ןɐʇɔɥǝp ıʇsǝןɟ ɐɹonup ʇɐʌı’s uǝɔʞ˙“ʍɥɐʇ ʇɥǝ ɟnɔʞ¿¡” ǝxɔןɐıɯǝp ʇɐʌı' “ƃǝʇ ʇɥıs ʇɥıuƃ oɟɟ ɯǝ¡”
“ɥoʍ ʇɥǝ˙˙˙ʍɥʎ ɐɹǝ ʎon poıuƃ ʇɥıs¿¡” ɹɐzz sɥonʇǝp ɐʇ pʎuɐɯıuǝ' “sɥǝ’s uoʇ ɐ douʎ¡”
“ʎon ʇɥıuʞ ʇɥıs ıs ɯʎ poıuƃ¡¿” ɹǝʇoɹʇǝp ʇıuʎ' “ʇɥɐʇ ı’p ןǝʇ soɯǝ ıuɟǝɹıoɹ uou-ɯɐƃıɔɐן sɔnɯ ʇonɔɥ ɐu ɐɹʇǝɟɐɔʇ ɐs ıɯdoɹʇɐuʇ ɐs ʇɥǝ ɐɯnןǝʇ¡¿”
ɹɐzz ʍɐs ɐqonʇ ʇo ɟıɹǝ qɐɔʞ qnʇ ʇɥǝu ʇɐʌı sʇɐɹʇǝp ʇo sɔɹǝɐɯ ıu ʍɥɐʇ sonupǝp ןıʞǝ dɐıu' ɐןɯosʇ ɐs ıɟ dossǝssǝp˙ ıu ʇɹnʇɥ' ɐs sɥǝ ʇɹıǝp ʇo dɹʎ ʇɥǝ ɐɯnןǝʇ oɟɟ ɥǝɹ uǝɔʞ' soɯǝʇɥıuƃ ʍɐs ƃoıuƃ ou ʇɥɐʇ ʍɐs ɯɐʞıuƃ ɥǝɹ ןoʍǝɹ qopʎ ɟǝǝן ǝxʇɹǝɯǝןʎ ʍǝıɹp ɐup nuuɐʇnɹɐן˙
ɐup ʇɥǝu ɐ ʌoıɔǝ oɟ dnɹǝ ʇǝɹɹoɹ sonupǝp onʇ ıu ʇɥǝ ɥnɯɐu’s ɥǝɐp' ʇɥǝ ןɐnƃɥ oɟ uıƃɥʇɯɐɹǝs ʇɥɐʇ ouןʎ ʇɐʌı ʍonןp ɥǝɐɹ˙
“ʍǝןן' ɥǝןןo ʇɥǝɹǝ' oɔʇɐʌıɐ'” sɐıp ɯǝןopʎ' “pıpʎɐ ɯıss ɯǝ¿”

Chapter 12 - All the King's Ponies

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GAOA Book 3 Chapter 12—All the King’s Ponies

Kingdom of Navarre, 1502


As the sun rose above the hills in the Duchy of Viana, two men were already well awake and riding horses down well trodden paths to survey the land—something that the younger of the two enjoyed to ‘clear his head’ as he so claimed when saddled with pressing issues.

“Honestly,” sighed Almirante, the duke of the land, “I do not understand why my brother Coronel insists on continually claiming my lands for his son whilst his firstborn is barely a noticeable bulge in his wife’s belly—and may not even be born a boy, for that matter.”

“My duke,” said his manservant, Valeroso Sirviente, “you know as well as I that your brother envies your seniority placing the duchy in your name instead of his. But as you have no issue, let alone a wife, to all others it seems you have no interest in preserving the family legacy as the stewards of the Duchy. That your head is as full of air as the girls who fight for your attention and have no concern over the future of your estate or bloodline. Or that you may even be secretly uninterested in the fairer sex and…well, I’m not sure what the term is but—”

“Valeroso, my friend, the term you are looking for is sodomite.” The duke sighed again. “Not that I care about such petty rumors and histrionics. Let the courtiers have their intrigues; I care not of what the Court of Najera thinks. The king knows I am a loyal and responsible man.”

For his youth as a duke, many of the older nobility looked upon his preference for such early activities as being unfitting for a bachelor, it implied things that while untrue, did nothing to improve his reputation for defying social roles if he so desired. And few could argue against him, for his golden locks and grayish cerise eyes upon well chiseled features made many of the ladies swoon for him. But for all the potential bachelorettes throwing themselves at his feet, as well as other pressing matters of more personal nature, the usual antics of the vain women in upper society bored him. As his peers often entertained three or four girls in private during a single week, for him to have never been seen taking a lady home had reached the point of near scandal, for who had ever heard of a man of such prestige not seeking companionship?

And of course, the problem of needing an heir—why was it that nobles were so obsessed with clinging to their material wealth even after their death by proxy of their children? The whole practice disgusted the Duke.

But while he’d been distracted with the problems of progeny, he and Valeroso had ventured by a large lake and, due to a number of workers hauling some sort of gaudy mirror that looked vaguely italian made taking up the whole bridge, been forced off to a trail around the side. Likely it was a gift from one of the other dukes, trying to woo him by way of trinkets in order to marry off one of said duke’s daughters—a sad ploy if there ever was one.

But as fate would have it, this put the duke and Valeroso in the right place to realize something else about the lake.

¡Dios Mio!—is that woman swimming naked?” exclaimed Valeroso with raised eyebrows. He pointed to a dark-skinned woman—possibly one of the Moors from the south—who indeed was naked and splashing about in the water.

The Duke was a bit more observant. “You mean a woman drowning naked!” Acting quickly, the young duke leapt off his horse and ran for the lake. “Go, Valeroso! Get help!”

As Valeroso hurriedly galloped off on his steed back to the manor, Almirante dove right into the water without even stripping out of his clothes. Fortunately, he was an excellent swimmer, and despite the woman’s thrashing making it difficult to swim her back to shore, he managed it just in time for Valeroso to return with several more of the duke’s servants bearing spare clothing and towels.

“My word, she looks as if she’s seen the devil himself!” remarked Valeroso with shock, dismounting to assist his duke in getting out of the water.

Almirante paid his manservant no mind, instead focusing on trying to comfort the woman out of her hysterics. And he couldn’t help but note that despite likely being a heathen Moor, how beautiful she was—hair of silky platinum streaked with yellow and red like the king’s flag, eyes of a captivating blue, and even in this naked and vulnerable state an air of finesse and allure unlike anything he’d known before.

“Miss, please, you are safe now,” he told her, taking a towel from one of the bystander men and gently wrapping her in it so she wouldn't be as Aphrodite was when she was born. “I know not how you got here, but as the Duke of Najera I swear that I will protect you.”

To his surprise, the woman spoke in English, not the Arabic of the Moors: “I...I don’t understand!” she cried in a panicked voice. At that moment, Almirante was glad that he’d had a tutor from England as a child; the man had been a servant of the English crown and had left under terrible circumstances, so Almirante’s father insisted that his children be well-versed in many languages...and English was amongst those.

Almirante repeated his words, in English this time, and upon that the woman seemed to find some solace, but refused to let go of him. “I…I can’t go back,” she stammered, “Don’t make me go back! I wasn’t safe with him, no safety with the Sisters, no safety at all!” The trauma of what happened to her clearly started to overcome her emotions, she curled up in the duke’s arms more and started to cry softly.

The duke in turn only continued to hold her, providing comfort where the unidentified man and sisters presumably never did. “Valeroso,” he said, addressing his manservant, “take my horse back to the castle and bring the carriage, she is in no condition to ride horseback.” He then turned to the lone woman who had accompanied Valeroso upon his return: his wife, Obra Dulce. “Dulce, please see to her needs—I trust no other with her.”

Dulce curtseyed. “It shall be as you say, my lord.”

“I shall be back soonest, my lord,” replied Valeroso, departing with some of the men to fetch the carriage. Those who remained were guards trained well enough to ignore everything so long as it wasn’t immediately presenting harm to their lord.

“Now, then,” said Almirante to his unexpected female companion. “Surely a beautiful woman such as yourself has an equally beautiful name, no?”

She nodded. “Y-yes, my name i-is…Musica Allegra.”

They would marry six months later. Three months later would see the birth of their first child—extremely suspicious given Musica’s own unexplained appearance in the life of Duke Almirante, but at the same time she was a rising star with her legendary talent as a musician of seemingly all instruments. Only the duke’s brother continued to argue about Lutero’s father being somebody other than Almirante, yet even he eventually dropped it once he started becoming the displeased uncle of many nephews and nieces.

But not even Viscount Coronel could have known he was not only right, but that his nephew was not even human—he was born and raised as one, lived and died as one, but only his mother knew the truth...

...that Luthier was a colt who would never know his real father.

That he was the son of King Sombra.

Generations later, this buried secret in the famous bloodline of Musica Allegra had placed the blood of the heir stealer, Octavia Melody, in a position where all the horrors she thought were gone were now coming back worse than ever.

“N-no!” she yelped, confusing all the ponies around her. “You don’t exist! You’re just in my head!”

“Yeah, that's what the shrink told you?” taunted Melody from within Tavi’s head. “I told you: I am your unborn twin, and thanks to this little amulet, I finally understand how I’m even still here despite you having killed me in the womb!”

“The fuck does this tacky piece of shit jewelry have to do with you?!”

“Just as much as it has to do with you, too, sister! It all makes sense now—our destiny was greater than being just another name in Musica’s family tree! Oh, you certainly remember all the fun with that Club right before that bitch Sunset ruined it? What with the shower and the black stuff coming out from where the sun don’t shine?”

“H-how did-“

“Come now, Tavi, you ate me in the womb, we share the same body, the same memories…but not the same life! You denied me taking what I deserve!” Unsettlingly, Tavi then heard the voice in her head chuckle. “And you want to know the ironic thing? All the pain you blame me for? You can thank your beloved cousin for it!”

“What are you even talking about?”

“Oh, of course you wouldn’t know, she never even told you—dumb bitch probably never even realized it herself. But remember when that hot piece of DJ ass heavily drugged you? You think you just dropped being under the influence of a powerful substance like the Vibe when everybody else had that shit last for hours? No, it was your magical horsey cousin pumping you full of magic to purge the drug—she succeeded, obviously, but that’s also the very reason I was awakened!”

“Y-you’re lying!”

“Believe what you want, I honestly don’t care. Regardless, now that I know what this body we share actually is, if you won’t let me take what is mine, then I’ll just make it so neither of us can!”

Tavi was about to respond, before a splitting pain in her hips made her scream and clutch her dress as, to her horror, her hips were…widening?

"What, can't comment back?” cruelly laughed the voice in her head. “Or is your voice a little...hoarse?"

That was followed up by a razor sharp, piercing eruption from where her tailbone was, but the increasing pain in her legs was drawing much of Tavi’s tear-welled attention. Almost too rapidly it had become hard to even scream in pain as she felt her leg bones outright start cracking, her legs bending the wrong way of their own volition…and then as the pantyhose started to tear she was utterly mortified to see gray fur starting to sprout all along them. Her dress shoes spontaneously exploding at the same time her feet started to feel distinctly toe-less which only made her put two-and-two together with her evil doppelganger’s choice of words.

That was followed by her hindquarters spontaneously erupting with light. Having to try and control her body just so she could make out what further awkwardness she was being subjected to by Melody, she was able to just make out her new tramp stamps on the now copious field of gray fur now covering her deformed body from the hips down—they were indeed treble clefs, but purple in color with a distinct black outline.

Identical to what her own, fully Equestrian counterpart had called her cutie marks.

Tavi’s horror reached its crescendo as she finally understood just what Melody was trying to do. What she had meant; that Tavi’s own biology was not entirely human. But that clarity mattered little at the moment.

What mattered was that Melody was obviously hellbent on making sure Tavi’s biology went full equine and there was nothing Tavi could do to stop it.

“Celestia above…” whispered Lockbox, completely in shock. Sure, she was responsible for the whole “curse” that reputedly-plagued Nightshade, but that was more an illusory magic; none of it was actually real and every single one of the ponies who were supposedly cursed did so voluntarily and Lock was always careful to make sure it could be undone. But this? This was straight-up torture being inflicted.

Razz for her part was unable to even speak. Dark magic’s corruptive properties were well documented; she herself was living proof of it and it was only through the grace of her special talent (if it could even be called that) that she was even still sane. But even her own corrupted form was simply a darker, more predatory-looking version of a normal pony. From her perspective, the Amulet was straight up doing the impossible and turning a human into a completely different species. This was a violation of every magical principle that even Dark Magic followed, unless….

She’s the fourth Scion,” uttered Razz, completely flabbergasted. All the information started to finally fit together. Musica. The Mirror. Octavia’s constant psychological issues. The fact that the whole “itchy blood” thing had occurred while Tavi was inside Castle Canterlot. Had Sombra actually intended for one of his descendants to be hidden in the human world all along? But that made no sense, Sombra had thought little of humanity and the idea his own bloodline would somehow be mixed with theirs was something Razz knew would have been completely out of the question.

“S-STOP!” screamed Tavi, still writhing as strange magic sensations kept occurring within her. She had fallen to the ground, jerking and spasming like someone undergoing a grand mal, a conspicuously raven-hued tail lashing against the ground and getting longer as her nightmare continued.

As if!” taunted Melody, “Now I’m the one in control for good, and this time you’ll be the one trap—"

The Amulet suddenly lit up in a sickly green glow and was forcefully yanked off Tavi, who promptly stopped spasming, instead lying prone on the ground, hyperventilating and shaking.

Following the glowing Amulet as if to confront a new threat, Razz and Lockbox turned to see the one the Covenant called Oracle holding in Amulet in her magical aura. But there was more to it: the look on the Oracle’s face was annoyed, as if something had happened that she disapproved of, but for the briefest of moments, Razz thought she saw something else in the Oracle’s eyes. A flash of recognition...perhaps she’d seen something like this happen before?

“Oracle Dynamine!” exclaimed Lux, “What just happened?”

“It would appear that we will not need to ransom the human for Sunset Shimmer,” said the Oracle, “for Sunset was not the fourth Scion as we predicted. Instead, by the providence of fate, Corner did get all three Scions within Canterlot Castle, as this human inexplicably carries the blood of King Sombra.”

“Impossible! The idea that Sombra would have ever allowed his progeny to mate with these disgusting beasts is unfathom—"

“ENOUGH!” bellowed the Oracle, clearly incensed though in reaction to what exactly it was hard to say. “Even I am not privy to the full reasoning behind Sombra’s machinations, but the Amulet clearly shows this human is one of the chosen four, regardless of our own opinions of it.”

“Hrmph. Then put it back on her and finish the transformation. If she is truly of Sombra’s blood then she will serve in the form that such a task would be best suited to.”

“No, she is transformed enough—she even has a cutie mark, what is more pony than that?” Before Lux could retort, she turned and quickly started to leave. “Besides, we mustn't let the Amulet’s power be drained further—we will need it for the prophecy to finally be fulfilled.” Without further word, she left, and the rest of the congregation followed suit, except for Lux and Corner Shot.

“Well, looks like you managed to fail so hard you actually succeeded,” said Lux, before he too took his leave. Corner, for her part, didn’t say anything—she just looked at the transformed state of the broken, sobbing now half-human before her, then to the angry, accusing eyes of Razz and Lockbox, before slowly walking off herself.

The moment Corner departed, leaving nothing but a single disinterested guard behind, both Razz and Lock moved to Tavi’s side.

“It’s okay, you’re going to be okay,” Razz cooed, gently but awkwardly cradling the shattered girl in her forelegs. She regretted having changed to her human form earlier, because right now, it probably would have come in more use.

Then again, the last thing she probably would want to see is me turning into a human just as she’s going the other way, Razz mused darkly.

“Razz, she’s in shock,” Lock told her. “Can you put her under?”

“With my magic?” the mulberry unicorn replied. “I want to help her, not put her in a coma!”

“Try,” Lock insisted. “For her sake.”

Razz looked into Tavi’s shock-glazed eyes. “Tavi, I’m going to put you to sleep right now. I know it hurts, and I want to help you. But the best I can do right now is to put you to sleep. Do you trust me?” The broken girl didn’t say anything, but for a moment, Razz swore she saw a glimmer of familiarity within those terrified violet eyes, and that was enough for her.

Closing her eyes, she focused on an old trick that she’d learned from her days on the run: it was a sleeping spell (neutral magic alignment, thankfully) that she’d picked up after one too many nights being afraid for her life had caused her to become overtired. She’d read the spell years ago in a library in a small mountain town called Saddlesoar, and it had helped in the years since.

She now applied that spell as gently and carefully as she did the first day she’d ever cast it, but this time she was casting it on someone else. She wasn’t sure if it would work on a human, but as had been proven just now, Sunset’s human cousin turned out to be anything but.

Tavi’s eyes slowly closed and her breathing steadied. Finally, she began to doze gently, hopefully with the pain masked by the effect of slumber.

“I did what I could,” Razz told Lock. “I just hope it’s enough.”

Lock was no longer concerned about that. “I thought you said that Amulet couldn’t be removed by anypony except the one who put the damn thing on?” she asked.

“I know what I said and I know both Twilight and Trixie confirmed it,” replied Razz, “but the Amulet sometimes seems to have a mind of its own. First when it nearly blew up Zecora’s house in my mere presence which in turn led to the back of the mirror falling off, revealing this whole stupid prophecy, and now...this…”

“That’s not answering how the hell that shady bitch did what you are saying three ponies confirmed is impossible!”

“I DON’T KNOW!” shouted Razz.

“ISN’T IT LITERALLY YOUR JOB TO KNOW?!” screamed Lockbox.

“I’M NOT THE ONE WHO MADE THE FUCKING PIECE OF SHIT IN THE FIRST PLACE!”

“BUT YOU USED THE DAMN THING AGAINST CORNER DIDN’T YOU?”

“FOR LIKE FIVE SECONDS! TRIXIE WORE IT FOR A STRAIGHT WEEK AND SHE COULDN’T TELL YOU SHIT ABOUT IT!” She stared at Lock for a few minutes and then added, “Now shut the hell up or else you'll wake Tavi!”

Lock looked at the sleeping half-human and winced; she couldn’t imagine what it was like to be forcibly turned into a mockery of herself. “You can reverse this, right?” she asked Razz

Razz, however, glanced down at Tavi’s new equestrian anatomy and cringed. “I...I honestly don’t know if it’s possible.”

Back in Canterlot, it was all hands on deck; now that one of the human contingent was captured by an enemy force, the time had come for SIREN to prove itself. However, they weren’t the only ones interested in the situation, so when Sunset informed her fellow teens they weren’t allowed in, needless to say, they weren’t pleased about it.

It didn’t help matters that instead of being a part of the rescue operation, most of the “Eightmazing Eight” were instead looking on in a heavily-ensorcelled part of the infirmary, watching as one of their closest friends lay in a bed, hooked up to enough machines and magical devices to look like something out of a sci-fi movie, watching as she hung on by a thread.

“Fuck this,” Applejack snarled. She’d spent a few minutes in her room to change out of the bloody clothing she’d been wearing, something she knew was going to give her nightmares later. “Ah’ve just about had it with being a fuckin’ target, and Ah think Ah’m going to do something about it.”

“No, you’re not.” Trying to project a calm she currently didn’t feel, Sunset tried not to look at the girl lying in the hospital bed. The one she’d put there, both because of their intertwined fates and because Sunset had been too cowardly to make things final between them.

“But our friends are in danger, Sunny! These asshats are playing for keeps just like the ones we had to deal with in the old timeline!”

“Yeah, Sunny—I thought you out of all of us would have gone in guns blazing!” Rainbow added.

“No! I am not risking more of your lives!” insisted Sunset. “After what happened to Pinkie... I can’t let any more of you get involved!”

“But what about our powers?” Rainbow countered. “We aren’t ordinary humans anymore, none of us are, and you know that!”

“Yes, but you’re also barely trained in using them! Pinkie was the most well equipped out of all of you to handle something like this, and….” Her words trailed off, as if finishing her sentence would do even more grievous harm to their critically-injured companion.

“I’m afraid Sunset has a point,” agreed Rarity. She had just come out of another room, where she’d donated blood; out of all those present, she was the only one with the same blood type as Pinkie. “We’d be just as much a liability if we didn’t have powers at all. I mean, I’ve got shields and some telekinesis but honestly? I’ve yet to reliably cast either on command and it's not like I can just practice that at home. Sunset’s right, girls: we’re not really in any position to help here.”

“On that note,” added Fluttershy, “Shouldn’t you be in that meeting as well, Sunny?”

To all their surprise, Sunset shook her head. “No. I’m too close to the situation. After I saw what happened to Pinkie, something in me just… snapped. If it wasn’t for Twily, I might have crossed a line I could never go back over, and that was just against an unarmed prisoner.” Rubbing her arm in a nervous way more akin to old Fluttershy than Sunset, she said almost too quietly to hear, “In an actual fight… I’m legitimately terrified of what I might do.”

The others understood at once that Sunset was just as much a liability to the operation as the rest of them as she concluded, “We’ll have to trust the military on this one. And I’ve already instructed Sable to show those Covenant bastards how humans play ball.”

“Isn’t that just going to make Equestrians fear humans more? Eroding everything we’ve been trying to do?”

A hard look crossed Sunset’s features then. “After everything the Covenant was able to get away with? Maybe a little more fear is exactly what we need.”

Rarity looked at Sunset, then went over and hugged her. “Don’t cross the line. You know Pinkie wouldn’t want that. None of us do, but especially not her.”

“I know,” Sunset replied in a broken, soft voice. “And it’s the only reason why there are several dozen ponies still breathing.”

In one of the Castle’s briefing rooms (originally a storage room but in the face of rapid modernization it had been converted into a meeting place), Sable and the triplets had gathered to begin planning the rescue operation dubbed Operation LOST CHORD. There they would figure out how to act in Sunset’s interests in getting Tavi and the captured unicorns back, while also possibly shutting the Covenant down for good—whether it meant force multiplying by adding the Advanced Training Group or even throwing care to the wind and adding the bulk of the whole two hundred SIREN candidates.

“Capt. Dazzle,” said Sable disapprovingly, “why is there a bird in this meeting?”

“This is Heliodor, sir,” said Adagio, gesturing to the phoenix standing on the table in the middle of the room, “I’m sure you remember him as that canary in the old timeline. He’s Razz’s pet phoenix and he’s very insistent he come along to help save her.” Then with a bitter frown, added under her breath, “Says a lot that her own damn bird is more of a fighter than she is.”

Sable took a deep breath, but knew the bird wouldn’t understand military formality—or maybe it did and just didn’t give a damn. It certainly had known how to work a laptop to watch Top Gun repeatedly even though it was alien technology as far as Equestria was concerned.

“Okay, fine, maybe he can help be a scout. Having aviation assets is always beneficial.” He then gestured to the map which had been brought in by Aria. “Cmdr. Blaze, what am I looking at here?”

“This is a chart of Equestria, sir,” she replied, “After the Princess’s little...demonstration...on one of the enemy hostiles, some of the other captured Covenant agents were pretty keen on divulging what little they knew. Especially given they ended up meeting that one griffin we didn’t kill the other day on the parade grounds when we saved Ms. Softwing.”

Sonata gave a smirk that was unnerving, given her normally bubbly personality: “I don’t know who they’re more scared of at this point: Her Highness, us, or humanity at large.”

Sable groaned inwardly; that only served to make things harder in the long run. “So tell me more about the chart, Cmdr. Blaze.”

“Right. With the help of the Army’s scouting division, the information gained from the Covenant goons was generally filtered down into several potential locations of where they are hiding out.” She pointed in no set order to four locations that had been circled in red. “Unfortunately, these locations are quite scattered: Galloping Gorge, Hope Hollow, the Peaks of Peril, and Rambling Rock Ridge.”

“Hrrrmmm, figures three of those are diversions, if not all of them,” said Sonata, “but this is all we’ve got to go on.”

“Then we’ll have to make use of the ATG, then,” said Sable. “We’ll split into four teams and each of us will take two of the ATG personnel to scout—since there’s only seven ATG members, we’ll have to ask the Hooves to lend us a member to fill the missing gap for the fourth team.”

“With all due respect, sir,” Aria noted, “time is of the essence and if it turns out to be a wild goose chase, we’re not going to make the SIRENs look good.” Given the sudden glares of animosity from her sisters, Aria added, “I know that sounds like I’m prioritizing the wrong thing, and trust me, I want Tavi and the others back as soon as possible, but part of this whole trip to Equestria was to prove the viability of our program. Failure is just going to give Adm. Tumblehome the excuse she’s been looking for to axe our whole program.”

Just then there was a knock at the door, and the knob began to turn.

“This is a closed meeting,” intoned Sable.

“Well, consider this me throwing my weight around as Agency Director,” announced a tired, irritated voice as Blueblood, much to the surprise of the four humans, walked in as if he owned the place. What was more surprising was that of all ponies, he’d brought Princess Cadence as well.

“With all due respect, Director, this is not an Agency matter,” Adagio commented.

“I’m making it an Agency matter, because this is personal,” the stallion commented as he put his forehooves on the table and leaned forward, a typical gesture of authority. “The Archmagus of Equestria has been kidnapped, but as much as Raspberry Beryl and I are on good terms, admittedly she is not the reason I am here—I am quite confident the Archmagus is more than capable of handling herself.”

“Then why are you here? Lockbox?”

“No—Octavia.”

The three triplets shared a surprised look—they’d overheard Rarity talking with Fluttershy about Tavi finding a beau, but for it to be both a pony and specifically the counterpart to her own would-be rapist?

“Then that puts you out of contention, Director,” Sable told him. “I understand that the Agency is considered part of the military, but may I remind you that personal issues require you to recuse yourself from any direct intervention in matters? Furthermore, the rescue operation was assigned to the Navy and specifically the Special Initiative Command.”


But Blueblood wasn’t having any of it. “Admiral, if that’s the case, the SIRENs should be disqualified, as your three seniormost officers are compromised by personal matters as well, by reason of being close relatives of one of the kidnapped individuals.”

The triplets looked at each other with slightly sheepish glances; they had known that but had hoped it wouldn’t be pointed out.

“Furthermore,” the stallion added, “Archmagus Beryl has been captured, and with one of the service chiefs captured, it makes it a matter of national security. Doubly so, given that both of the known descendants of King Sombra have been taken and that cannot mean anything good.”

“Fine,” Sable acquiesced; he wasn’t going to get into a game of who had more authority than who. “Please have a seat, Director. Chances are, we could use the advice on intelligence matters, in any case.” He then turned to Cadance. “But I am curious as to why you’re here, Your Highness. My understanding is that as the princess overseeing defense matters, Princess Luna would be more likely to be present.”

“Trust me, I had the same thought myself,” Cadance said, passing off a mildly annoyed look to her junior royal. “But to my consternation, the director here is as forthcoming as his profession would imply.”

Blueblood sighed, seeming to be fighting an inner battle of some sort before evidently one side emerged victorious. “I know where Octavia is, which is likely where Razz and Lockbox are, too.”

The four humans—and Cadence—stared at Blu. “You do?”

“Well, my brain doesn’t, but…” he turned to his royal cousin. “Cadence, this is why I brought you here: that red line spell of yours, The Strand of Love?”

“Yeah?” The switch clicked in her head immediately and she was shocked that she hadn’t sensed this earlier. “Blu, you don’t mean—?"

He gave her a grim nod. “Just do it.”

She did as she was told—around Cadence’s forehoof, and a second around Sable’s wrist, were red circles connected to lines that ran out the open doorway. There was a third one, brighter still—around Blueblood’s forehoof.

Back in the cavern, the guard had noted the trio had stopped screaming at each other and had gone pretty quiet.

“Hey, you three better not be trying something,” he said, turning around to face them. What he saw immediately spooked him and he departed before he could get any answers.

“So, I suppose that means we’ll have to bring you along,” Sable said, after Cadance explained the purpose of the spell to him; the red string of fate was a well known romantic concept among humans, but he never would have expected it to be so literal for ponies. “I hope you’re combat capable.”

“Need I remind you who it was that saved Octavia from the band of mercenaries in the first place?” said Blu, annoyed. To further punctuate his annoyance, he magically summoned his personal agency armor and sword. “I rarely get to use this stuff, but I’m done playing the fool. It’s time I got to play the prince that I am.”

Helidor tweeted, seemingly in approval of the notion.

“Well, hell, if the bird’s in favor of it,” said Sonata with a shrug. “We could probably use an on-site intelligence expert anyway.”

“If that’s the case, then I expect that I’ll remain in command of the operation,” Sable insisted. “Furthermore, we do not have time to train you on our weapons and I don’t think we have time to teach you the transformation spell in time, in any case.”

“That’s fine,” Blueblood acknowledged. “I can take orders just as easily as anypony else. And frankly, having seen your weapons, I think I’d rather stick with my own.”

“That’s fair enough.”

Princess Cadance then spoke up. “Admiral, now it’s my turn to request something—and don’t worry, I’m not asking to come along as well; I’m not a combatant.” She looked at him and stated, “I would like to request some of your SIRENs as protection forces.”

“Protection forces?” Adagio asked.

Blueblood answered, and the look on his face was one of dismay. “The Hooves have been busy going through the potential list of Covenant accomplices, and it’s sobering. A good portion of the Solar Guard has been compromised, as well as quite a few other members of the other Guard divisions. The other services are going through their own ranks and we’re finding similar numbers. Quite frankly, due to training and vetting, the only forces we can be sure that are irreproachably loyal are the Wonderbolts, the Thunderheads, the Friendship Guard, and your own SIRENs. The Wonderbolts and Thunderheads are already taxed with combat duties, given that there are Covenant-related riots breaking out all across Equestria, and the Hooves and Friendship Guard are moving to protect the other princesses until the remaining Guards can be vetted.”

“But that still leaves the Bearers unprotected...and that’s why I need some of your SIRENs,” Cadance finished.

“And you need us to assign some of our forces to protect them?”

“As well as your own humans,” the alicorn pointed out. “Or would you like Sunset to go overboard again?”

That last was enough to get Sable’s attention. He trusted Sunset normally, but given everything that was happening, well, in the end, she was still just a teenager and one very much under stress right now. “Fine, I’ll assign the ATG. It means that we’ll have to do this on our own.”


“Not just on your own,” came another voice, and all present turned to see Whiskey standing in the doorway. She’d returned to her human form and her body language suggested she was nervous. “I want to come, too.”

“Recruit Foxtrot,” said Adagio, “While I appreciate the notion, I’m afraid that as part of the ATG you already have your assignment.”

But surprisingly, the humanized kitsune didn’t budge—quite a difference from the Fluttershy-like nervous wreck that had been recruited from the hospital courtyard mere days prior. “With all due respect, Captain, I think you’re forgetting just who I am. Before this, I was one of the appointed guards of an Inariese noble for more years then the combined ages of every human in this room. I may not be good with guns, but I don’t need guns.” She placed a hand on her ever-ready sword hilt at her side; at the same time, she held up another hand, and the leaves within it started spinning in the air like atoms circling an invisible nucleus. “And consider this a personal matter for me as well, because Miss Octavia, ironically, is the reason I am the individual I am today.”

This time, Heliodor straight up flew over to Whiskey and landed on her shoulder, tweeting his approval yet again.

Aria shook her head. “And of course the bird approves of her, too—though she’s got a point, she literally has more years of training in combat then we’ve been alive. If there was anybody in the ATG to take, it would be her.”

“Plus, the Covenant know we’ve got guns, so maybe they’ll be prepared for it,” Sonata said. “But her? We’ve never made it public what Whiskey used to be.”

Glancing between her sisters, Adagio nodded. “True, she would be a valuable asset.” She then looked over to Whiskey. “Alright, Recruit, you’re in.”

“No,” Sable said.

“No, sir?” Whiskey asked.

“You got her rate wrong,” the man told Adagio before returning his look at Whiskey. “Be ready to move within the hour, SO3. Am I clear?”

Whiskey’s eyes brightened. “Aye, sir!”

“This is what you brought me over here for?” asked an indignant Tiny Dynamine.

“B-but it could be some kind of Scion trick!” the guard stallion stammered.

Tiny rolled her eyes, then glanced down at the red circlet around the unconscious girl’s wrist. “Nonsense, it’s just some spell Sunset probably used to keep her human pet in line.”

“For the last time, she isn’t anybody’s pet!” said Razz.

“You’re in no position to decide who is whose pet, Miss Beryl,” snapped Tiny, before turning to the guard. “It’s nothing, so knock it off! I’m busy preparing for the prophecy to come to pass, so do not bother me again over trivialities!”

But as the Oracle was leaving, she made one last glance at the band around the former human’s wrist, and the red line that led from it and out the door. And Razz was pretty certain that despite the Oracle’s statement that the spell was of no concern, her body language betrayed that maybe Tiny Dynamine knew more than she was letting on.

Chapter 13 - Nothing Is What It Seems

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GAOA 13—Nothing is What it Seems

The only noise that was audible in the room in the medical wing was the steady chime made by the enchanted crystals. A magical equivalent to an electronic heart monitor, it sang in time with Pinkie’s heartbeat, the only sign she still lived. Buried under the strongest and most advanced medical enchantments known to ponydom, the normally energetic teen lay motionless, the rise and fall of her chest barely even noticeable under the blanket on her bed.

The good news was that Pinkie’s condition had stabilized and she wasn’t in immediate danger of dying. The bad news was that in a combination of the brain trauma she apparently had due to oxygen loss from her heart injury, the copious amount of blood she’d lost from the double knife wound, and her body having gone into shock from said wound, had put Pinkie into a deep coma.

Given that her heart had been nearly completely destroyed, it was a minor miracle that pony magic had been able to regenerate the heavily-damaged organ. But there were limits to pony magic, and even the best of ponies couldn’t pull an individual out of a coma. Even human science, for all the myriad advantages it had over pony physicking, couldn't do that.

“It’s all my fault,” said Sunset to herself. She was the only individual in the room, having turned back to pony form so she could fit in the pony sized chairs more than any other real reason. And for the past hour she’d sat there in silence while everybody else had come to check in on Pinkie (and also Sunset—given her temporary reversion to “Alpha Bitch Sunset”—though they hadn’t said as such), but had left, probably to try and take their minds off of it. Unfortunately, Sunset didn’t have that luxury since the two biggest things to happen since she’d been crowned Princess could be, at best, charitably labeled utter disasters. Her cousin had been abducted (for the second time since coming to Equestria) and now Pinkie had been critically injured protecting Sunset’s own native people.

“Some princess I am,” she mourned, not even able to cry at this point.

“Well, if it makes you feel better, I think you make for a better sister than a princess.” She looked up and saw Twily standing there, looking concerned. “You holding up okay?”

Sunset would have replied with a snark but she really just wasn’t feeling it. “Our cousin is gone, Pinkie’s fighting for her life, and I can’t do anything about it—I’m not holding up at all, Twily.” She got up from her seat, turned back human, and then embraced her sister. “I just don’t know what to do.”

“There’s nothing you can do, unfortunately,” said Twily, returning the embrace. “Pinkie knew the risks, but she...well, I won’t pretend to understand what’s driving her. I’m honestly still mad at her, even though I know it’s irrational.”

“But she didn’t even need to do it! She slaughtered a bunch of fucking butterflies and then got stabbed in the chest by a psycho pool-playing assassin! What did any of it accomplish?”

“A lot of ponies were saved that might have gotten mindjacked or whatever the one butterfly did to you,” Twily replied. “Pinkie may have sacrificed her life to save innumerable Equestrians that will never know of what she did.”

“And that’s just not fair! She deserves better than that!”

“I know, but again, there’s nothing we can do about it. C’mon, let’s get some of your favorite ice cream. Moose Tracks, right?”

“Only on Earth. Here, I prefer geranium vanilla.” In response, Sunset merely set her hand aglow and instantly summoned a cup full of that very ice cream flavor.

Twilight rolled her eyes. “You know what I mean, sis. Seriously, I know you’re worried about her, but you have to take care of yourself as well. I know you don’t want to hear this, but Mom and Dad actually asked me to come by and check on you.”

“Where are they?”

Twilight sighed. “Both of them are in consultations with the medical staff looking at Pinkie. The doctors wanted to speak with human ‘doctors’ and didn’t quite get that their doctorates aren’t medical doctorates. Still, they wanted to help, so….” The plum-haired girl left it at that.

The two of them were left standing there in uncomfortable silence for several seconds after. More than once Twily opened her mouth to say something, before evidently deciding that more meaningless platitudes would do no good, while Sunset merely grappled with the futility of doing anything at all.

“Oh, sorry,” suddenly piped up a new voice, and both teens turned to see Coco Pommel standing there. “I didn’t mean to interrupt anything.”

“Coco?” asked Sunset, surprised, “No, you’re not interrupting anything—but what are you doing here?”

“Well, I was told by Miss Rarity—both of them, in fact—to come and give a helping hoof with, erm, monitoring your friend on the bed there.”

“But you’re a fashion pony, Coco,” said Twily.

“Well, yes, but I’m not entirely a pony, if you know what I mean,” said the assistant fashionista. To emphasize her point, she briefly brought out her changeling wings and fluttered them momentarily before tucking them back out of view. “Even though Miss Pie's in a coma, she still has emotions. And because my, ah, ‘condition’ makes me empathic, I can sense them. The Raritys thought that if Pinkie’s condition improves, her emotional state would change and I could detect it. Without, er, anypony who doesn’t know what I am being any the wiser.”

“Thanks, Coco,” said Sunset, a brief smile coming to her lips, before turning back to Twily. “But I’m sorry, Twily, I just can’t leave Pinkie’s side. Not until I know for sure she’s going to be okay.”

“Absolutely not!” shouted Adm. Tumblehome, throwing the formal request back at the triplets. “You might have proven your SIRENs as something formidable on the Parade Grounds, but what do you want to requisition an entire airship for? We might as well be enlisting the damn elephants for crew members!”

“With all due respect, Admiral,” said Adagio, keeping herself composed, “this is a matter of national security. Not only are we trying to rescue one of the heads of the defense services of Equestria, but we are also trying to rescue two high-profile individuals; i.e. the ones related to this King Sombra.”

“Additionally, we’re also trying to rescue a foreign national who is a family member of Princess Sunset,” Aria added.

“And last but not least, we also intend to storm the Convenant’s main base of operations and perform a decapitation strike,” Sonata finished. “If we can successfully execute this, we can put the Covenant leadership out of business instantly.”

“A decapitation strike,” Tumblehome said with absolute distaste. “That sounds like a term you humans would come up with. In any case, I understand the reason, which is why I would expect you nitwits to come up with something actually sane and not...not...some completely asinine stunt that would probably get you all killed!”

Vice Adm. Apparent Wind, one of the pegasi with Tumblehome, narrowed his eyes. “As the head of the Naval Aviation section, I do not see a purpose for this folly. Frankly, I fail to see the purpose of this ‘Special Initiative’ to begin with. The combat squadrons, air fleets and surface fleets are all the Navy needs.”

Adagio’s mouth formed a hard line, wanting to rebuke the idiotic senior officers for being so set in their ways, but of course she couldn’t on account of the chain of command. Part of her wished that they’d taken up Gen. Halberd’s suggestion to be naval infantry for the Army instead of the Navy; he seemed to get an absolute kick out of how differently the SIREN program worked and would have been all for this. Unfortunately, the Army was spread thinly at the moment, dealing with the riots, as well as the betrayals within its own ranks.

“Actually, Admiral?” said Vice Adm. Adviso, who entered just then and picked up the discarded equipment requisition form with a wing, giving it a once over. “Based on the documentation Adm. Loam has given me, I’d say this is one of those ‘crazy enough to work’ ideas. Especially since it seems like this is almost standard practice for humans.”

Standard practice? How the hell are they not all dead?!” angrily argued Tumblehome.

“Perhaps we should let them demonstrate it, then?” said Luna, entering the office herself. She turned to the surprised triplets with a smile. “By happenstance, I ran into Adm. Loam earlier and by my request, he gave me the briefing on what it is that Operation LOST CHORD requires additional Navy resources for. And as the princess in charge of defense...I approve.”

From the look on Tumblehome’s face, it looked like she was going to pop a vein from so much anger. “Fine! Let them kill themselves! Good luck finding a ship captain crazy enough to…” She then facehoofed, remembering that a captain just crazy enough to let this stupid stunt happen on their ship not only existed, but said captain and ship were in fact in Canterlot at that very moment for resupply.

“I’m sure Capt. Easychord and the Super-Electric are available to get underway at a moment’s notice,” said Adviso with a smile, before glancing back down at the paperwork. “Though...you want to load in a ‘Valanx’? I’m not familiar with that kind of equipment.”

“It’ll fit,” said Sonata. “Trust me: we used to do this with bigger equipment all the time”.

Down in one of the armories, specifically the one lent to the SIRENs while their own facility was still being set up, the six members of the Advanced Training Group had caught wind that Whiskey—the only one out of all the nearly 200 females drafted into the organization who had not needed to go through the absolutely insane recruiting challenge—was going on a mission with the SIREN top brass to strike at the Covenant.

“It’s almost like you’re their favorite, or something,” groaned Moonblazer, leaning against a locker with her arms crossed. “But you weren’t even part of a formal armed group!”

“You make it sound like you’re jealous,” remarked Sunny Side.

“Well, she basically got a promotion from no rating to an SO3!”

“Do you even know what rating that corresponds to?”

“Of course I know what it is!” the former batpony argued. “I’m the one that came from the Naval combat squadrons, after all! It’s...it’s…” Moonblaze’s mind looked as if it was just about to short out from the attempt to figure out what it meant.

“It means she’s a Petty Officer Third Class in the Special Operator rating,” Sunny Side remarked with a grin. “Unlike we officers and our ranks, the enlisted troops have ratings that denote what their specialties are instead.”

“Well, aren’t we all just high and mighty,” Moonblaze pouted.

“No, it just means that I read the manuals, something that you should be doing,” Sunny Side snarked. “In any case, the enlisted are divided into two ratings: SOs, the special operators or mainline SIREN combat forces; and SBs, the special combat support, or backup. Given her extensive training even before she became a SIREN, chances are the Admiral wants her hooves on-ground...excuse me, boots on the ground.” Side made a mental note to keep that gaffe in mind; she couldn't afford that when they moved to the human world. “In any case, it means they have a lot of confidence in her skills already.”

“I wasn’t aware of all of that, either,” Whiskey admitted, “but given the senior officers call themselves Special Operators, it means they see me as truly belonging here.”

“That’s good,” said Embiggen, nodding. “I mean, you do kind of stick as the shortest among us—except Moonblazer.”

“Gee, thanks for reminding me,” groaned the ex-batpony.

Just then, all seven of the gathered girls heard the tell-tale sound of horseshoes—which was ironic to all but Whiskey given that they had grown accustomed to not hearing the noise their feet used to make. As one, they all turned to see Marimba Rondo approaching.

“That’s unnerving,” the seniormost Hoof said with a chuckle. “No wonder you’ve all made more than a few of my subordinates worried.”

“ATTENTION ON DECK!” shouted Side, and the SIRENS all fell into formation and as ordered, stood at attention.

“At ease,” Marimba told them with an appreciating glance. “Well, you’re all certainly well trained, that’s for sure. But I’m here to see Petty Officer Foxtrot, if only for a minute or so—I understand that you’re part of the response being sent to deal with the Covenant once and for all?”

“Aye, ma’am,” replied Whiskey as she left the formation.

“I understand military decorum is a thing in the armed forces, but the Hooves are a bit more informal.” She then beckoned for Whiskey to follow her, and together the two went a few feet away so they wouldn’t be heard.

“What do you need, ma’am?”

“Please understand that this is a big divergence from what the Hooves usually do,” the pony said, almost as if she was a bit nervous. “You already know that we Hooves are essentially a paramilitary unit, but we traditionally carry ourselves as just servants of the Princess, as part of our ongoing Promise to protect her the way she protected us against the evil Queen Cantata and the Black Sirens.”

She took a deep breath before continuing, “Alas, as varied as individual ponies are—and their beliefs—the same holds true for we sirens. It will forever be a regret of mine that under my watch the first traitor to the Hooves was able to carry out her plan. Worse still, she would have killed three of our youngest members to accomplish her goals. I won’t pretend I understand, but there had to be a bad egg at some point.”

“Castellan,” began Whiskey, “As much as I appreciate you opening up to me, I need to get ready for the upcoming operation.”

“Right, sorry,” the castellan apologized, then cleared her throat. “Ahem. Yes, well, the Hooves were lucky that the damage Lentando sought to do was mitigated and no lives were lost by her hooves all thanks to you. When I mentioned that the Hooves see ourselves as servants of the princess, I meant that we do not recognize particular feats like how the other branches award medals. To us, that is just part of the job. You, however, did the Hooves a valorous service and for that, I have decided to make an exception, particularly since I am aware of your history and how you came to be in the SIRENs.”

She then reached into her maid uniform and withdrew a necklace. It had a fine silk black band that met below the neck with a pure gold joiner, attached to which was a brilliant pure ruby fitted to a pendant frame. “Our rubies are part of how we are able to perform our function while also having our natural forms on hoof if need be, as these rubies are harvested underwater around our native home; the Sirenia Isles. This necklace...was Lentando’s. Obviously she has been removed from the Hooves permanently and we have as such stripped her of all paraphernalia associated with that position. It will all be reassigned to the next Hoof to join the ranks...except this.” She held it out for Whiskey to take. “This ruby’s magical properties will do nothing for you, since while you are a shapeshifter like we sirens, the magic behind it is different. Or maybe it will, I don’t know. The point is, I, Castellan Marimba Rondo, bestow upon you, Petty Officer Whiskey T. Foxtrot, Royal Equestrian Navy, one of our most closely guarded secrets, in recognition of the service you provided for the Hooves.”

Whiskey was taken aback. “I...I...er, thank you.” She reached down, picked up the necklace—immediately sensing that the band was in fact enchanted to stretch or shrink to fit the wearer—and put it on. As expected, it was a perfect fit.

“It looks good on you,” said Marimba with a smile, to which Whiskey blushed.

“SO3!” shouted Aria, running into the locker room and then turning to face the humanized kitsune, “You were to report on station three minutes ago! Get your ass in gear!”

“Cmdr. Blaze,” said Marimba, bowing, “I apologize, but I’m the reason your subordinate is still here. I wanted to give her a token of thanks on behalf of the Hooves.”

Aria immediately noticed that both Marimba and Whiskey were now wearing identical necklaces—and back when the triplets of SIREN and the siren triplets had eaten dinner together, the latter had explained to the former the importance of their necklaces. That Whiskey had one meant it must have been special and as such, could be considered a medal in the eyes of SIREN proper.

“Very well then,” she said to the Castellan, but then turned back to Whiskey. “Doubletime it, Petty Officer! We’re on the clock!!”

“Aye, Commander!” said Whiskey, snapping briefly to attention, before immediately rushing off. Aria nodded with approval; for a transplant from a relatively non-naval background, Whiskey would be a great SIREN.

“And as for the rest of you!” she then ordered, turning to the other ATG members, “I believe you have your orders as well! Turn to, or else you’ll be hearing from all of command when we get back!”

The Enstelleron was one of the most secure places in the castle. Not because of a need for security, but rather a need for comfort: the room, always reflecting the night sky and its starscape, was Luna’s personal art studio, where she could practice her nocturnal magics that allowed the moon and starlight to look so beautiful on so many nights. However, any artist always wanted a second opinion, which is why the Enstelleron was only available for use by a select few in the palace.

Thus, it had been used often when the Princesses wanted somewhere to talk in private, where they could be themselves and not the quasi-deified symbols of the nation. Where they could let their manes down and just be mares. It allowed them to speak with an ease they rarely felt.

And right now, Cadance was using it for all it was worth as she tried to talk her friends out of heading out on a mission that was, quite honestly, so far out of their hooves it was furlongs away.

“Ah’m goin' an' that’s final!” exclaimed pony Applejack, stomping the ground.

“No, you’re not, and that’s final,” said Cadence, using the tone of authority, something she didn’t care for using that often. “Besides, I don’t even have the authority to make such an approval. Princess Luna is the one in charge of matters of defense. Regardless, I’m sure she’d have the same stance.”

“But Ah gotta!”

“AJ, I know going off to fight the bad guys is what we all usually do,” said Twilight, “but this has a whole mess of politics involved because somepony, who isn’t even a pony, was kidnapped and the representatives of that, er, ‘country’ to put it in simple terms, want to handle it themselves.”

“And, well, if you think about it,” observed Pinkie Pie, “every time we’ve saved Equestria, it was usually against one single meanie and not against a group of them.”

“What about the Changelin’s?” countered Applejack.

“We kicked a lot of flank that day,” said Rainbow with a smirk, remembering how awesome they’d all looked, “but we still failed and got captured.”

“It was a crazy wedding, for sure,” said Cadence, the nigh-imperceptible tremor in her tone betraying the fact that she still hadn’t quite overcome her own ordeal then.

“I believe the point is, darling,” said Rarity, “that despite being the mares who showed that brute Tirek what for, this is a situation we are collectively out of our league in dealing with.”

“But we just fought a war a year ago!” the earth mare continued. “Yer tellin’ me that even with all that, we can’t do this?”

Rainbow sighed. “AJ, buddy, I’m technically the only military pony here, and even then, most of my duties in the Wonderbolts aren’t in a military capacity. Honestly, while it could be argued that we Bearers are a paramilitary force, we’re better off being used as troubleshooters for special situations that best fit our particular talents.”

Rarity looked at the pegasus. “That was...surprisingly eloquent, coming from you, dear.”

Rainbow shrugged. “I have my moments.”

AJ grit her teeth.

“This is about the other Applejack, isn’t it?” asked Fluttershy.

AJ nodded: her friends knew her too well for her to even try to lie about the subject. Being the Element of Honesty wasn’t exactly helping in that sense, either. “Ah just gotta make it up to her somehow, what with me bein’ such a stubborn mule about this whole thing. And on top of Razz bein’ there, savin’ that human seems to be the only way Ah can figure Ah can make it up to her.”

“Honestly, Applejack?” Rarity stated, “I think if you just went and apologized to her, that would be all you need to do.”

“A simple apology for the way Ah was actin’ is not going to change what Ah did!”

“I think you’re overreacting a bit on this one, AJ.” Twilight shook her head. “Maybe a few mean words were exchanged, but it isn’t like we don’t get on each other’s cases sometimes.”

“But she put her life on the line fer mah family!”

“And I think she would have done so regardless of how you have been acting. I mean, here you are willing to put your life on the line for her friend as well as our own. You and she are still very much alike, after all—your circumstances are just different.”

“Huh...Ah...Ah guess you’re right, Twi.”

The rest of the group nodded approvingly.

“So, when you next get the chance, just say you’re sorry, alright?”

Applejack looked away as she nervously scuffed a hoof along the ground. “Ah guess Ah’m just… nervous about facing her again, that’s all.”

Another thought entered Applejack’s mind then. There’s also the fact that a small part of mea stubborn part that I could honestly do withoutstill resents her just a tiny bit. She decided not to voice that one.

Cadence giggled. “Does this mean I can point out that the humans left to go fight the Covenant about thirty minutes ago?”

Everypony turned to look at her in annoyance.

“Coulda saved us a little hassle there, Princess,” rebuked Rainbow goodnaturedly.

“Besides, you six are still heroes to the land, regardless. If anything, you’re better off trying to appeal to your common pony to stop with all the rioting. Evidently this is the Covenant’s last-ditch plan and what with Celestia being hassled by the nobility, she needs all the relief she can get.”

Having gotten her back wound treated by the infirmary—or what passed as one in this hole—and showered, along with a fresh set of thirty normal feather knives so her OCD was under control, Corner was feeling better already. Physically, at least. Internally, she was becoming more and more unsure by the second as to what exactly was going on. Mostly because of what happened with the human getting her lower half turned into human sized pony legs, plus tail, and Oracle Dynamine acting like that was to be expected. Corner’s gut told her something was off and she needed answers. It had occurred to her that even though it was clear the prophecy meant for the four Scions to be gathered, it hadn’t actually ever said anything about needing the mirror or the Alicorn Amulet. Sure, those things were tied to Sombra, but not necessarily the Scions otherwise.

Corner soon found her quarry in the main atrium cavern, directing other ponies—mainly unicorns—to inscribe magic rune looking shapes on the walls, while the Mirror of Sombra had been moved toward the back wall. Corner figured they were setting up the ritual, though she didn’t know a lick of magic, so she couldn’t say for sure. Pool ball trajectories? Sure, she was a whizz at those, but ask her to differentiate between the runes of a unicorn foal’s first summoning circle and how that foal wrote their name and she wouldn’t be able to tell you the difference.

“Scion Corner Shot,” said Tiny, before Corner even tried getting her attention. “The ritual is not yet ready. What is it you need of me?”

“Answers, really,” said Corner.

“All in good time, Scion.”

“Yeah, no. After all the shit I’ve been through, I’d like to know what it is I’m actually trying to help achieve here. Can the power of the Scions really bring back King Sombra?”

“Your devotion to your ancestor will be rewarded, I assure you,” said Tiny, with the tiniest bit of irritation. “All will happen as foretold on the mirror’s backside: the darkness guides us and its manifestation will return to us in this time of our greatest need.”

So what, resurrect Sombra? Corner wondered, not entirely convinced. She keeps saying that but she doesn’t say how it will be done. “Uh-huh. See, I’m having the itsiest, bitsiest problem believing that,” Corner then trotted over to the mirror and nudged it sideways so the still-visible prophecy on the back was revealed. Giving it a quick glance over, Corner nodded as if in understanding, but it was more mocking how little she did. “This is the part I don’t get: “These four: Scions, dark legacy, called now and thus command, Take up stations and move on towards your struggle great and grand, Licorns broken, pinions ripped clear, strong bones ground into sand, My children—go, your quest awaits…” Corner then turned and looked at the approaching Tiny Dynamine with half lidded eyes of skepticism, finishing the last of the prophecy; “...on Canterlot’s grave, stand.”

“Yes, I would think it is pretty clear, is it not?”

Nothing is clear about this fancy poem,” the pegasus retorted. “The only thing that is clear about it is the fact that it doesn’t mention anything about resurrecting King Sombra.”

The Oracle studied her with a frown. “Have you considered, perhaps, that you simply aren’t interpreting our Lord’s words correctly?”

Have you? Corner wanted to ask, but held her tongue. Her thoughts inexplicably went back to her father (no, the traitor! the voice inside her insisted) as they had been doing more and more.

Closing her eyes and letting out a breath, Corner said, “Look, all I want is to make sure that everything I sacrificed…”

(Everyone I sacrificed)

“...will actually be worth it.”

Oracle Dynamine opened her mouth to answer but Corner cut her off. “And do me a favor, don’t just feed me a bunch of horseapples about ‘the importance of faith.’ I had enough of that from Barkeep.”

Tiny Dynamine’s calm frown deepened, and for a brief, almost terrifying moment, Corner could see genuine fury behind the eyes of the usually stoic, wise Oracle. “Mind your tone with me, young Scion….”

Corner met the Oracle’s cold fury with a little of her own. “I have done enough minding for you oh so wise leaders! I have done everything you and Father Lux have ever asked of me! Sacrificed everything because I believed in the cause! Now I just want to know what all of that loss is going to do for it.”

Dynamine suddenly slammed a hoof down with enough force to crack the ground they both stood on, and loomed high over Corner, the cold fury inside her turning hot. “You think you know sacrifice?!” Tiny Dynamine bellowed, her voice suddenly taking on a deeper, distorted tone. Alarmed, Corner actually took a step backwards. Dynamine stepped forward again, her presence still looming. “You think that you know loss?!

Corner realized that she could sense something else radiating from Dynamine aside from her fury. Corner may not have known runes from writing, but she definitely knew the feeling of powerful magic when she sensed it. She always knew that Tiny Dynamine was powerful, but this power felt different from unicorn magic…different even from the more familiar dark magic of her progenitor (though, there was definitely a hint of that as well). Whatever this power was, in this rare unguarded moment from Tiny Dynamine, Corner could tell that hate fueled it—not for her, but for something else. Something greater. Perhaps the whole world at large?

Then just as quickly as it had come, Dynamine’s rage was gone, as was the Oracle herself. Physically, Tiny Dynamine was still very much present, but she stared off into the distance with a clouded look on her face. It was as if someone had flipped a switch, and Dynamine’s body was just a shell. Corner thought that if she’d pushed her right then, the Oracle would fall over like a box of potatoes, but she dared not try it. It seemed a minute before Dynamine resumed talking right where she’d left off as if nothing at all happened, and something about that unsettled Corner more than Dynamine’s rage moments prior.

“I understand you had to do unpleasant things for this day to come. We all have,” Dynamine said with unsettling calm. “But you can rest assured that everything you have done has cleared the way for everything we are about to achieve.”

Shaking the mental cobwebs from her head, Corner found her center again. “How the actual hell was eliminating Father Tilled Fields ‘clearing the way’? Traitor or not, he was just minding his own business out there!”

“Because failure to deal with treason would look unfavorable in the eyes of our lord!” The Oracle said, the more familiar zealous fervor returning to her voice. But after what Corner had just seen, something about it seemed… hollow, now. “Besides, your resolve was slipping. My… informants in Ponyville seemed to think you were getting too comfortable with the companionship given by Rasberry Beryl and her friends. Scion or not, her loyalty is to the Crown. So, I deemed it necessary to test your faith, which is why I brought the matter of Tilled Fields to Father Lux in the first place. He was hesitant, mind you, but—”

“Wait, he was hesitant?” asked Corner, leaning in. “He thinks I’m a worthless bag of fur and feathers and makes no secret of that now, despite knowing I’m a Scion! You’re telling me that somepony actually disloyal to the Covenant almost had a stay of execution by him?”

There was another—much shorter—pause before Tiny spoke again, only this time she was fully present—physically and mentally. Corner had the feeling that the Oracle had just said more than she had perhaps intended. “Father Lux is still a neophyte when it comes to leadership, but he’ll need not lead us for much longer.” Tiny then abruptly turned away. “Now, please leave me to my work. No more distractions!”

“Sure,” said Corner, warily eyeing the Oracle as she walked away. That wasn’t right: Lux was a complete fanatic who wouldn’t tolerate treason for a second. Corner was now left with more questions then answers and the Oracle had suspiciously dodged the main question entirely. And then there was her outburst, and almost bi-polar behavior after. There was only one place Corner knew she could get some concrete answers now, so she immediately departed for it.

“Look, I dunno about you,” said Mizzenmast, “but are you sure this is a good idea?”

“We’ll have to do some recalculations due to the lower airspeed, but….” Sable shrugged. “It’ll have to do.”

Aboard the Super-Electric, the SIRENs were preparing themselves for their, as Tumblehome had put it, “stupid stunt that was going to get them all killed.” The Valanx itself was already boxed into its cage and strapped in securely, while the humans likewise strapped on their required gear. It had taken some explanation to Princess Luna how to both bring the Valanx from Earth to Equestria via the portal, as well as to teleport it to a location where they could load it into the Super-Electric’s cargo well, but now the big, bulky armored vehicle was in its cargo drop harness, ready to go. It looked as imposing as a barely-caged animal despite it being an inanimate object.

The sailors aboard the Super-Electric scratched their heads looking at the massive metallic wagon-like thing, wondering how it would move. It didn’t help that the giant harness it was in was called a MEATS—Maritime External Air Transportation System—as the name both confused and disturbed them. More than one made comments about “albatrosses” and how this would not bode well for the ship.

“We’re getting close!” shouted Easychord from an upper deck, more fascinated by the whole process than her crew was. Still, she was captain and the ship’s safety was her priority. “We’re not going to be able to continue this course for much longer unless you didn’t tell me you intended to wreck my ship!”

“Won’t be necessary, Captain!” Sable then turned to Blu who, strangely, refused to tandem jump with him or even use his own version of the required gear. “Director, are you sure you don’t want—”

“I’m afraid that my non-human physiology would just make it awkward for you to, er, attach me to you. I assure you, although my way will be different, it’ll work.”

Sable gave the stallion a skeptical look; while he had seen K9 jumping equipment, he would have to trust that Blueblood knew what he was doing. Hopefully. “Have you even done this before?”

“Never really had a reason for it, no. But...it’s for Tavi. And I’m the only way any of us are going to get to her,” he held up his hoof, which still had The Strand active on it. The line continued away from it and toward Saddleback Mountain, but disappeared within the trees.

Elsewhere on the well deck, Sonata and Aria noted that Whiskey looked extremely nervous.

“I’m guessing the kitsune normally don’t do this?” asked Sonata, trying to lighten the mood.

“The Inarese are typically attuned to the ground,” admitted Whiskey, “They don’t really even have an airship navy, either—no need when the stronger kitsune can summon entire storms like pegasi can move the clouds.”

“Well, just follow our lead,” reassured Aria, putting a hand on the shorter girl’s shoulder. “You’ll be fine.”

From high above them, Heliodor had been perched on the rigging and he started cawing loudly, before promptly opening his wings and diving off below the ship.

“Admiral,” Easychord noted, “if you’re going to do it, now is the time! I can’t let the ship get any closer to the mountain, the winds are too strong at this height!”

“Roger that!” he shouted back, before turning to his strike team. “Mission is go, repeat, mission is go! Green on the Christmas Tree!”

“Green on the Christmas Tree?” Whiskey commented confusedly.

“That means it’s time to jump,” Adagio said matter-of-factly, and the look she got back wondered whether she could have explained that better.

While Blueblood didn’t quite get the human military terminology, he did get the important part: the mission now officially starting. Summoning all his magic, the stallion telekinetically pushed the caged Valanx away from him...and off the edge of the well deck. The giant mass of metal and fabric plummeted to the ground until its parachutes automatically opened, slowing its descent.

Sable watched briefly before promptly running up to the edge and, calling upon all his Ranger training, jumped into the emptiness. Adagio soon followed as did Aria, plunging into the forested depths below.

Sonata patted Whiskey on the shoulder, then pointed silently towards the well deck’s edge. Looking back at the girl, who was a fraction of her own age but seemingly far skilled beyond her years, Whiskey nodded, took a deep breath, and then made her own jump. Sonata gave a thumbs up to Blu before she was the last human to jump.

“You’re crazy, you know that?” said Mizzenmast to Blu.

“Yeah,” he admitted, charging his horn with magic, “That’s what Pavane would probably say too.” Then he himself galloped off the side, but instead of the others who had parachutes or wings, all he had was the ability to teleport. He was going to have to pull a Twilight Sparkle and calculate teleports to kill his momentum or else he was going to be a bloody smear on the ground.

Deep within the underground compound, though still close enough to the surface that well disguised windows still let in light in some places, lay the archives. They’d already been moved from the former location of the Covenant’s headquarters by the time Corner had finally come here following her disastrous mission in Ponyville and the explosive escape from the train.

And then going to kill the closest thing to a father she’d ever had.

Had he really been a traitor? She hated herself for not even questioning it more when she realized who Barkeep had sent her to kill. Maybe it was the fact Fields had staunchly derided the Covenant in his own words immediately after he realized she was there, but now Corner was uncertain. The Covenant she’d grown up in had tolerated those who were not entirely loyal to the upper echelon of its ranks—loyalty to Sombra and his ideals was all that mattered, after all—the way she’d been raised alongside the other few pegasi assassins, which is why she’d been against Lux getting promoted after the old leader had suddenly passed.

Around the same time Oracle Tiny Dynamine had shown up, now that she was thinking of it.

Everything changed with her, thought Corner, and the implications were not good. She silently searched through the disorganized files, simply left here after moving more just to preserve the archive of the Covenant’s history for when it would rewrite Equestria’s own and condemn the evil Alicorns for what they were. It wasn’t easy; holding a torch in her good wing as to not sprain her other wing in light of her injury, she had to watch out to not set the whole thing on fire.

Eventually, she did find the file she was looking for—the one explicitly about Tilled Fields, a veteran of the Covenant and once one of its most esteemed and well-respected members. She immediately sat back on her haunches, torch still in her wing, and she rifled through the contents. At the back page, she found what she wanted...and dropped the torch. It fell to the ground and extinguished itself on the cold stone floor.

The fact was, according to the file, that Tilled Fields had left because of irreconcilable differences with the Covenant...with the full blessing of the leader at the time. He was no traitor. He’d never been.

I killed him...my father...over a lie.

A lie that evidently had started with Tiny, all to try and keep Corner in line. Was it paranoia that drove this deception? Or were Dynamine’s fears well-founded? I certainly had enjoyed spending time with Razz before circumstances turned us against each other. What had happened? Who could she even trust?

With a heavy sigh, she resigned herself to that irritating truth—the only one who she could trust to even remotely tell her the truth? Raspberry Beryl.

Chapter 14 - The 45th Day of Spring

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GAOA Chapter 14—The 45th Day of Spring

45th Day of Spring—3:00AM

The silent tranquility of nature was shattered by the sound of a thing unheard of to Equus: an internal combustion engine of human design. The tan-colored steel beast hammered the rough terrain, following the bare outlines of what might have once been a path pony carts used long ago but had since become overgrown. The creatures around scattered if they could, fearful of the machine simply known as the Valanx. The occupants of the vehicle scarcely noticed the movement over the rough terrain, due to its state-of-the-art armored suspension, as they made over little-traveled ground, following the red line emanating from Blueblood’s fetlock like an ersatz GPS.

One human was exposed to the elements—Aria, manning the main roof turret—while Sable commanded the controls. In the shotgun seat sat Adagio, ready to jump out of the moving vehicle at a moment’s notice if need be, while in the back Prince Blueblood couldn’t help but feel a bit squished between Whiskey and Sonata. Heliodor, opting to stick with the group instead of trying to keep up on his own power, was nestled in Sonata’s lap.

“So, remind me why we have a Valanx instead of a regular old Humvee?” Adagio grumbled as Sable pushed the vehicle through a stream that cut the old path in half. The long rotting remains of a bridge endured but the vehicle obviously didn’t need it.

Those who weren’t driving or manning the guns all turned to Sonata, whose face was locked in what had commonly been called the “infodump stare” as her mind mentally downloaded the information that existed between the time that wasn’t and the time that now was.

She seemed to snap back to reality less than a second later, answer in mind: “Because the overall specs are much better for more localized operations and maintenance is easier, too,” she noted.

“But this thing didn’t win the competition it was in: the Light Tactical Vehicle something something or other competition,” observed Adagio. “It was the Oshkosh thing, wasn’t it?”

“The LATV? Yeah, but honestly I think there was some money handed under the table since this thing was far better designed. It certainly was a bear obtaining it, though given–”

It was at that point Blueblood tuned out the two-tone blue-haired girl recounting how she managed to get the SIRENs to be the proud owners of what was effectively a failed competition prototype light armored personnel carrier. His sight drifted over to Whiskey, who seemed equally unfocused from the ongoing conversation as she looked out the window. Then he noticed her necklace.

“Whiskey,” he said, tapping her shoulder.

“Hmm?” she responded, turning her head to look at the unicorn.

“Where did you get that necklace?”

“Oh, the Castellan gave it to me,” she replied with a smile.

“Really? I’ve not known the Hooves to do something like that before.”

Whiskey shrugged. “I can’t really say I would know about the practice or lack thereof, I’ve only technically been part of the Equestrian armed forces for a week now.”

“It sure feels like months, though,” admitted Blu. A smile then came to his muzzle as a fond memory surfaced. “Reminds me of when my sister Pavane finally made it into the Hooves and they presented her with the ruby necklace. We were all so proud of her. The only thing they found where they figure Tirek killed her was actually her necklace...the ruby was cracked but otherwise it was intact. Mom put it on the mantle—she says it's like Pavane is still with us.”

It got awkwardly quiet inside the Valanx for the following few minutes, until suddenly Sable started applying the brakes.

“Either we’re here, or some other magic fuckery is about,” he said, pointing to where the Strand seemed to be leading. Indeed, the Valanx had come to a complete stop at the entrance to some kind of mire, with the red line leading straight into the center of some kind of strange rock formation.

“Are those parentheses?” asked Aria from above.

“No...it’s a cutie mark,” said Blu, leaning forward to get a better look out of the windscreen. “And not just any pony’s mark: that’s King Sombra’s.”

“Guess this is our stop, folks,” said Aria, remaining in the turret in case she needed to provide cover while the rest of the team disembarked from the vehicle. However, no sooner had they done so than did the line start to weirdly fizzle out, and then disappear completely. All eyes instantly shot over to Blu, who in turn looked worriedly at his hoof.

The Strand had worn off.

“Well, that’s just great,” sighed Sonata, frowning distastefully at the huge slab of stone bearing the mark of an old mad king. “How the hell are we supposed to get past this?”

“You’re overthinking this, Soni,” said Aria, still in position on the turret of the Valanx...until she promptly reached down and pulled out a large black tube of some kind, balancing it on her shoulder. “Firing, danger close!”

“What?” asked Blu, confused, before he suddenly got yanked by the tail by Sable out of the way. Aria pushed some kind of button on the handle of the tube, and instantly a column of fire and fury roared out of the tube right at the rock. The parenthetical shapes vanished in a large plume of smoke and rubble, and when the ringing in Blu’s ears began to subside, he looked and saw that the entire rock face was simply gone, reduced to rubble, and in its place was a cave that led into pitch black nothingness.

“Well...that’s one way to make an entrance,” said Whiskey, who had conveniently found a rock to hide behind.

“It’s the SIREN way,” said Aria, lowering the weapon and storing it, preparing to disembark the vehicle herself.

The rest of the team carefully made their way over the bog to where the exposed entrance lay, only stopping when they all heard Blu take a sharp intake of breath.

“Something the matter?” asked Adagio.

“This tunnel...physically, it leads to a dead end, but it’s enchanted. It’s like a portal to a different location altogether.”

“What?”

“This is definitely the entrance to the Covenant’s stronghold...but the very same stronghold isn’t here. For all we know it could be miles away.”

“Makes sense to put the entrance far from the actual base—makes it harder to break in if you know the latter but not the former. Too bad we know the former.” Adagio hefted her gun, a FN SCAR, and took point walking into the unknown.

As Blueblood followed her, he couldn’t help but ruminate on one simple fact: Tavi was nowhere near here, yet here they were, at the threshold to her physical location, all thanks to the Strand of Love. Cadance had told him when he first brought the idea to her that her spell was never meant to be used as a means of tracking; it was merely a metaphysical representation of the powerful bond between two people in love. Blueblood figured that wouldn’t be a problem...if the Strand went as the pegasus flies, it would still serve the purpose of finding Tavi.

But the way the Strand had led them not to Tavi directly, but to the best means of physically reaching her made Blueblood wonder whether even Cadance understood its true nature. It almost seemed as if this powerful love-based magic wanted him to find Tavi, and he honestly wasn’t sure whether he found that terrifying or reassuring.

45th Day of Spring—8:04AM

“Look, I’ll try to make this quick,” Princess Twilight said. “It is important that everything goes smoothly right now, as the eyes of Equestria—and even the world—are on us and what we do next.”

At the moment, the combined group was sitting in one of the conference rooms in the palace, and were going over the plans for the hastily-prepared “charm tour”, as Princess Cadance had so charmingly put it. Between the small group of advisors present and all the documentation that had been laid out before each of the individuals at the table, the lavender alicorn wondered if she wasn’t so much attending the planning of a press junket and more like yet another war council—a sad irony for the Princess of Friendship.

“Twi, if that’s the case, you really don’t need me to go right now,” Sunset admitted in a dull tone, cradling her temples in her hands. It was clear that she was forcing herself to participate in all this, when her mind—and possibly her heart—was elsewhere. “Right now this is giving me a whole fuckton of grief that I could really give two fucks about at the moment.”

“Are you saying that you don’t care about––”

“No, I’m not saying that, I just….” The teen sighed. “Look, I just don't know how to put it into words right now, okay? I have one friend hospitalized, my cousin as well as another friend are missing and my mother is on the verge of being impeached. To say that shit is rolling downhill is like noting that rain comes from the sky.”

“Look, ladies, Ah hate to be the one to rain on the parade, but Ah’m in agreement with Sunny,” human Applejack stated. “Ah mean, given how bad we humans look right now and what happened with Pinkie, us running around your nation is probably the last thing that’ll help right now.”

“You’re wrong about that, AJ,” Princess Twilight said firmly. “This is precisely why this trip is so important. Unfortunately, ponykind tends to let bad first impressions linger far longer than they should.” She recalled an incident that had happened within the first few months of her arrival in Ponyville, where the entire town was scared stiff of the “evil enchantress” who lived in the Everfree Forest. Naturally, Zecora had proven to be anything but and once Twilight and her friends got the town to listen, she was welcome to town anytime. Twilight hoped the same would apply for humans as well, since all the goodwill work that had been put forward in the past week was in the trash thanks to the Covenant.

“Plus, given how the majority of those gathered here happen to just be our own counterparts, there should be some follow-on trust for them,” added pony Rarity.

“I doubt it,” Fluttershy said, crossing her arms. Everyone looked at her with worry; if the human equivalent of the Element of Kindness wasn’t buying it, was that an ill portent?

“Be that as it may, Fluttershy, dear, it still stands,” the unicorn told her gently. “As both the Bearers and the Friendship Court, the realm trusts us more than the average pony. We can use that favor to our advantage.”

Your advantage,” the human Rainbow pointed out. “They might trust you, but not us.”

“I think after everything you’ve done, Ponyville trusts you,” pony Fluttershy ventured.

“Yeah, but look, the world isn’t Ponyville, any more than Canterlot is Cali back home, ¿sobres?” While several at the table didn’t catch the meaning of the Latina’s last word, the tone made it clear.

“They’ll listen to us,” Princess Twilight insisted.

Rainbow crossed her arms. “You can tell them to listen all you want, Princess, but you can’t make them!”

“Ladies, may I remind you that we’re trying to solve issues, not start them amongst ourselves?” human Rarity suggested. “Bickering isn’t going to make things better or solve the larger problem at hand...or hoof, to coin a phrase.”

“Point, Rares,” Rainbow shrugged. “Sorry, Twi.”

“Well, if we’re going to discuss conflict, then we may as well mention the elephant in the room: there are still riots and civil unrest out there in the major cities,” Twilight—the human one, this time—countered. “If we’re going to visit every major city in the country on this tour, it’s going to take weeks. We’re already staying here longer than scheduled because…” Twilight trailed off, her voice wobbling as she glanced at Sunset. “Because Tavi’s….”

Sunset gave her a reassuring look and could only hope she had masked her own worry well enough to hide it from her sister, but didn’t think it likely. Twilight in turn gave her sister a look that she hoped communicated what she was thinking: You’re used to fighting, sis. Fight this battle as well—don’t give up.

What made it so hard was the knowledge that by now, the SIREN raid on the Covenant headquarters should be finished and the team on their way back to Canterlot—hopefully with Octavia and the others safe and sound. Of course, lots could go wrong on an operation like this, as Sable had explained before they left, and there were a lot of unknowns involved. In fact, even if the mission went off without a hitch it was still a ten-hour journey from the suspected Covenant headquarters back to Canterlot, and the plan was for everyone to leave for the charm tour in five. With Equestria’s lines of communication centuries behind Earth’s, they likely wouldn’t even know how the SIREN operation went until days later.

The room settled into an uncomfortable silence. Princess Twilight used that time to have a few of the Agency members present give them an updated briefing on the civil unrest going on in the cities, particularly the full-scale pie fight that went on in Appaloosa—again—and the outright fighting between ponies that had occurred in Cloudsdale, Mareami, and Torontrot.

“It’s getting worse, isn’t it?” pony Fluttershy spoke, her voice quivering. Her human counterpart, sitting next to her, just reached over and gave the timorous pegasus a hug.

“There’s still a chance.”

The words, to everyone’s surprise, came from Sunset.

“We fight this the only way we can. We can’t do this as one group,” she told them. “We have to hit the cities individually.”

“Sunny, I’m not sure that’s the best way to go,” human Applejack told her.

“It is. They’re afraid of us because we’re in groups—for ponies, herd mentality is a double-edged sword. It means comfort and safety, but at the same time, timberwolves and bugbears hunt in packs.”

“Like swarms of parasprites?” Pinkie asked, a grin on her face. “We can just start another one-mare band!”

“Let’s not,” Sunset replied glibly. “But you have the gist there: the best way to deal with this is to go solo on this one. The nobility is playing their hooves and the Covenant is out there making a mess of things as well. Both groups are expecting an organized response in numbers, which is how the military is responding. But the Bearers here work as a small unit, and as for us, ladies,” Sunset said, a wry grin creeping to her face, “Well, we’re teenagers—we’re naturals for causing trouble. And maybe we can cause trouble to go the right way for us.”

“That sounds sooooo stupid, Sunny,” Rainbow snarked, leaning back in her chair and putting her arms back to cradle her head. “Wish I’d thought of it.”

The other princess nodded in agreement, looking at each of her five closest friends, her gaze in particular lingering on Applejack. “The six of us are Bearers of Harmony, and right now that’s something that Equestria is dangerously short on. It’s our duty to bring ponies together now that they’re so divided. I don’t need to point out that the whole world is watching what’s going on here—they’re worried that chaos will roil out of Equestria again.”

“Still not sold on this,” human Applejack admitted.

“Yeah, no shit,” human Fluttershy agreed, and her counterpart gasped in surprise.

Now, it was Sunset’s turn to look imploringly at her own closest friends. “I know you guys don’t feel like this is your fight. Equestria hasn’t exactly been kind to you during your time here, so I don’t blame you if you want to sit this one out. But this place is my home as much as Earth is! If you won’t do this for Equestria, won’t you do it for me?”

Nonchalantly running a hand through her rainbow hair, Rainbow Dash said, “Hey, we never said we weren’t gonna help out!”

Applejack replied, “Ah may not be sold on it, but...hell, when was the last time Ah ever paid attention to common sense? Besides, for the most part, the ponies have been welcoming, save for one or two here and there.”

She meant nothing by it, of course, and the conversation continued, her offhand remark already forgotten. But Sunset couldn’t help but notice the way pony Applejack’s ears wilted and remained so for the rest of their meeting.

“Well, I’m still not comfortable with this, but I’m not going to back out on my friends.” Fluttershy looked at Sunset. “So, how are we gonna split up? We’re following your lead, Sunny.”

“Well, despite Sunset’s suggestion that we all go individually, I think it’d be best that we break off in pairs instead,” suggested human Rarity. “In particular, we should each go with a pony, because as humans, we don’t know much about this world and our counterparts can help us so we don’t make repeated mistakes.”

“That’s not a bad idea,” Princess Twilight stated. “Plus, the opposite is true, too: even though ponydom trusts us as the Bearers, we might go too far—we’ve done that before, unfortunately. Having an outsider opinion might just prevent that.”

“Cool! Okay, me and my counterpart are heading out!” Rainbow said and offered a hoof to bump, which her counterpart did so instantly.

“Uh, no,” human Applejack commented. “Don’t need to tell your parents why you ended up in jail in some pony city, Rainbow.”

“Fuck you, AJ.”

“Raini, she’s got a point,” human Fluttershy added. “We may be different from our counterparts, but we’re alike in too many ways. We need a balance.”

“I hate it when you do that, you know?” the athlete facepalmed. “Fine, fine, whatever.”

“Plus, there’s the fact that my counterpart isn’t here,” Pinkie began automatically, “and that means….” She suddenly realized exactly what that meant and the unintentional damage her words had caused. “Uh...sorry, everpony,” she blurted.

“We know,” pony Rarity said softly.

“I’ll go with you,” Sunset said with clear reluctance, “since obviously I don’t have my human counterpart with me.”

“It’s still so weird hearing you say that, sis,” Twilight commented matter-of-factly.

“Well, Shimmy is the human of the two of us, despite how I spend my time on Earth,” Sunset reminded her.

“Then it’s decided,” declared Princess Twilight. “Let’s figure out the rest.”


Several more minutes went by as the group figured out who would go with who and what would be the best places to go. The cities with outright riots were quickly excluded, as it was decided to be too risky for the humans; likewise, the cities that seemed to have the least cases of unrest were written off, as the mayors and provincial nobles had it well in hoof.

“That just means that we have six cities in contention,” Princess Twilight noted. “The Crystal Imperial City, Manehattan, Vanhoover, Dodge Junction, Las Pegasus, and Fillydelphia. I’m obligated to go to the Imperial City, if only so I can speak to the provincial governor who has things in hoof for Cady and Shiny.”

“I’ll go with you,” human Rarity suggested. “It sounds like a lovely place.”

“Well, count me in for Manehattan,” pony Rarity suggested. “I need to check in with the manager of my store there, anyway.”

“Ah’ll go with you,” human Applejack said. “Ah’ve always wanted to go to New York, and this Manehattan sounds a lot like Manhattan, if you ask me.” The teen didn’t see the sudden crestfallen look from her counterpart as a result.

“AJ, why don’t you take Dodge Junction?” Princess Twilight suggested. “You know the place the best out of us, and it’s one of the fastest growing cities in the country right now.”

“Yeah, Ah guess,” the farmmare replied. “B’sides, they have that music festival goin’ on this week, so it’d be a good time to go anyway.”

“Music festival?” the human Fluttershy asked. “Well, I think I’m best suited for that.”

“Guess I’ll take Vanhoover, then,” pony Rainbow noted. “One of the elite combat squadrons is stationed there and I’ve been itching to test myself up against Sunshine Daffodil’s Strike Bats.”

“You’d best go with her, sis,” Sunset told Twilight. “Rainbow’ll probably be too busy trying to outfly other ponies to actually be diplomatic.”

“Hey, I can be dipplematic!’ the blue mare insisted.

“And so my point stands—she can’t even say the word correctly,” Sunset snarked.

“Well, I can go to Las Pegasus,” Fluttershy said, ruffling her wings nervously. “Old Cage asked me a while ago to come see their new animal preserve, so that gives me a reason.”

“Hey,” human Rainbow said to her counterpart, “didn’t you say that Las Pegasus was that pleasure town?”

“Yeah, why?”

The teen grinned giddly. “Yes, count me in!”

“Better behave, Rainbow,” Sunset advised her friend.

“It’s me, okay?”

“Yeah, you have a point. Shy, will you make sure Rainbow behaves herself?”

“Hey!”

The pegasus giggled softly. “Sure, I can do that.”

“Well, I guess I’ll go to Fillydelphia,” Sunset finished. “My grandmother’s museum and personal library is there, if I recall, so I have ties to the town.”

“Plus that’s where Ponyacci retired to!” Pinkie chirped. “He’s one of the greatest clowns in pony history! I always try to visit whenever I’m there, so we’re set!”

“Well, then, it’s settled. We still have some security to consider, so I’ll ask Div if he can detail some ponies from the Friendship Guard to protect us. Can’t be too careful, you know.”


“Actually, Your Highness, that won’t be necessary.” Entering the chamber dressed in a beige naval uniform, Sunny Side approached Sunset and saluted. “Ma’am, given the current situation, the Admiral has tasked us with escort duties. As the CDO of the ATG, I’ve taken the liberty of assigning each pair a particular guard.”

“Oh, uh, okay,” said Sunset, taken aback. “I don’t recall Dagi ever mentioning this.”

“Capt. Dazzle stated she sent you an email before she departed,” Side told her.

Sunset facepalmed. “Fuck. Knew I should’ve checked my phone. Actually, Softwing should have told me about that as well.”

Twilight wisely avoided telling her sister that she’d all but ignored the seneschal after Softwing had repeatedly attempted to get Sunset to leave Pinkie’s side to rest. Given the stress Sunset was under at the moment…

Well, the damage is already done, the plum-haired scholar noted.

“Well, this actually works out,” said Princess Twilight, “since you all are in your human forms, that will help with our mission to try and at least get the word out that despite what the Covenant have said, humans are not our enemy. All the more so given that you’re all a part of the Navy, because that means that you’re their protectors, even.”

“Well, have you already decided which towns you’re going to visit?” asked Side. “I noted that Dodge Junction was one of the choices.”

Princess Twilight nodded. “It’s a growing city in the southern regions, and since it avoided the worst of the war with Tirek, it’s looking to become a new pillar for the economy.”

“I’ll be accompanying whichever group is going there.”

“Family?” asked pony Applejack.

Side nodded. “Yeah, especially my little sister. She looks up to me a lot, but she’s seen me even less ever since I joined the Guard, and now with this assignment to the SIRENs… it may be quite awhile before I see her again.”

Pony Rainbow looked as if she was going to protest, likely because Sunny Side’s decision went against military regs. As a Wonderbolt, she would know about such a thing; arguably, as the more senior lieutenant present, she had a duty to say something about it. But she was also Rainbow Dash, who wasn’t above bending the rules at times. She of all ponies knew the difference between true loyalty and blindly following protocol, so she stayed silent.

“That means extra logistics then,” Princess Twilight mused. “We’ll need stronger pegasi pulling the phaetons. It’s amazing the difference one extra individual can cause if the math is wrong.”

“Good point,” Sunset noted.

“I’ll have my….” She then facehoofed. “Right, still don’t have one of those.”

“One of what?” asked pony Rarity.

“A seneschal,” Twilight said with a sheepish grin. “Somepony else was lucky enough to get the mare I wanted.”

Sunset simply shrugged. “Just have Softwing take care of whatever you want. I suspect that my office is going to be busy handling communications for us anyway.”

44th Day of Spring—9:32PM

Taking care both so that the guard wouldn’t overhear them, as well as to not risk waking up Tavi from the sleep that was keeping her unconscious and hopefully free of the agony of physical metamorphosis, Raspberry Beryl and Lockbox whispered in worried tones about what they were going to do.

“I’m sure taking out that guard would be child’s play for you,” said Lockbox, eyes darting between the disinterested guardstallion and Razz. “And, well, I’m not called Lockbox for nothing. I’ve picked a few locks in my time.”

“But what about Tavi?” said Razz, gesturing to the still sleeping human, who twitched every so often in unconscious pain.

“Do you think we would be in the clear to wake her?”

Razz shook her head. “I remember the pain of when my father cut my original horn off. I don’t even remember how long the pain lasted, it seemed to be forever. And for Tavi, she’s had half her body forcefully reconstructed through dark magic by means even I don’t understand. We wake her up and she’ll either go right back into shock or she’ll be screaming her head off.”

“But we’re not abandoning her,” said Lock, determined in her eyes. “Maybe I could form a kind of cocoon...no, you form a cocoon with crystal and we’ll drag it along behind us with my chains.”

“Too noisy and the caves might be too narrow for that—after all, we didn’t come in here by the main entrance.” Part of Razz’s mind drifted back to something from that horrid book Sombra had kept regarding his days as a tyrant. The mare, whose name Razz had forgotten, had insisted that Musica Allerga had wanted to come back to save Rose as well, but had been forced to continue her escape to Equestria and potentially from there, fled across dimensions to the human world. But looking back at Tavi, who without a doubt was descended from both Musica and Sombra and was thus the fourth Scion, another part of Razz’s mind couldn’t help but wonder if Musica in spirit hadn’t simply been dragged back into the clutches of the evil that she’d fled across time and space to escape.

“Then how exactly are we gonna get outta here? I don’t think any of us are keen on finding out just what exactly they think this whole prophecy nonsense is supposed to entail, given you’re the expert on this shit and even you don’t know why bringing together the four Scions will do anything!”

“Oh, but how dare you question the great and wise oracle!” suddenly came Corner Shot’s voice, who had appeared out of nowhere. Curiously, Razz noted a bitter, sardonic edge to her words.

“Where the hell did you come from?!” exclaimed Razz, forgetting momentarily the whole ‘don’t wake Octavia’ thing.

“Uh, hello? Assassin since birth?” said Corner, rolling her eyes and flaring her undisguised wings, showing off the chitin-cast wing racks with a full complement of knives within.

“Scion Corner Shot,” the guard said, looking nervous, “Er, are you allowed to be here?”

In response, she flicked out a knife and held it in a wingtip mere inches from the stallion’s muzzle. “Scram, I need to discuss...private matters with my fellow Scions.”

“But one of them is passed out.”

“Do I need to castrate you to get the message across? Wait outside the door if you absolutely have to, but this doesn’t concern you. And I’m not going to ask nicely a third time.”

The guard, finally getting a clue, hurriedly left to stand outside the main dungeons. As Razz watched, even in the low light she could see that despite a hoofful of cells, she, Lock, and Tavi were in the only occupied block.

“What do you want, Corner?” she asked through gritted teeth, choosing to let her magic guise slip a little so her fangs were exposed.

“I…” Corner trailed off, and for a brief but satisfying moment, Razz thought she might have actually scared her into silence. But one look at Corner Shot told Razz everything: all of the hostility and aloofness was gone from her face, and there was certainly no fear there. Instead she just looked like a pony adrift at sea—one too exhausted to keep fighting the current that was still pulling her this way and that. Something about the whole thing seemed familiar.

“What do I want?” Corner echoed with a bitter frown. “That’s really the question of the hour, isn’t it?”

Razz then realized where she had seen that look before. It was the look hidden just behind the cocksure attitude of a popular billiards champion who’d come to Ponyville for a friendly tournament. That was so long ago, and so much had happened since then that that champion seemed like a stranger now, but Razz remembered the rare unguarded moment where she saw the same adrift pony in front of her now. Perhaps that pony had always been there, hiding beneath the cocky pool champion, and then under the angry, arrogant assassin.

Of course, Razz also realized that pony had been her once. Moving from town to town, hiding under a magical disguise just trying to survive to the next day...what else would you call that but “adrift”?

“Something happened, didn’t it?” Razz asked without asking. “Either recently or during the past months. Something happened and now you’re not sure of your place in all of this.”

At that, Lockbox only sneered. “Finally had an original thought, at the very least, you feathered knife-throwing drone?”

At that, Razz whapped Lockbox in the barrel, and Lock turned to her with an indignant “What?” to which Razz gave her a stony glare in return.

Having received Razz’s message, Lockbox’s response was silence, and she moved to check on Tavi’s unconscious half-from, keeping her ears perked as the conversation between Razz and Corner continued.

“Well?” Razz prompted, returning her attention to Corner.

“Well what?”

“What happened to make you so uncertain?”

Idly scuffing a hoof along the ground, Corner retorted, “What makes you so sure anything happened?”

“Because I’ve been where you are, Corner,” Razz answered without hesitation. “I know what it’s like.”

“I doubt that,” Corner said. “We may have the same blood, but our lives are nothing alike!” Then with a little of the old vitriol returning, Corner looked at her and said. “You wouldn’t know the first thing about it!”

“Maybe so,” Razz responded calmly. “But you came to me, not the other way around.”

That took whatever fight was still in Corner out of her. She truly was adrift now. But as Razz suspected, Corner wasn’t content to just let the current take her, so she grabbed onto the one life preserver she could reach.

“You just…seem to have everything figured out,” Corner said. “You’re so certain of your place, even if it is on the wrong side. I just want to know…when did you know?”

“When I found ponies who cared about me unconditionally in spite of what I am and what I’ve done, my place seemed obvious,” Razz answered with an easy shrug. “Now, a question for you: what makes you so certain I’m on the wrong side?”

Corner’s answer was as immediate as it was rehearsed. “Because the alicorns are evil and their Equestria is corrupt!”

“Is that what you believe? Or is it what you were told to believe?”

“I…” Corner stuttered, and the fact that she couldn’t think of a retort right away only further proved Razz’s point, and they both knew it, which in turn only infuriated Corner even more. “There’s plenty of evidence to support this! The long winter….”

“Is something Celestia has since come to regret,” Razz argued without missing a beat. Something else that was not unnoticed to both of them. “Even if Celestia had managed things perfectly, the fact is, Equestria was recovering from a devastating war with an uncompromising enemy. There were going to be problems regardless of what Celestia did.”

“And what about before the war?!” Corner exclaimed, sounding almost desperate in her haste to respond. “Things were far from perfect then, too!”

“You’re right, but you know what?” Razz asked with a small smile. “Such is life. Perfection is unattainable, especially for government.”

“I’m not looking for perfection!” Corner hissed. “All I want is something better!”

“And you think King Sombra can give that to us?” Razz asked with a calm, deadpan expression. “I know you’re not stupid, Corner. Surely you’re aware of the things he did?”

“History is written by the winner,” Corner said, but it was clearly another pre rehearsed counter argument, and sounded weak even to Corner herself.

“To an extent, perhaps, but you can’t fake the scale of the atrocities that Sombra committed,” Razz said, then with a smile, added, “Besides, I have a book written by King Sombra himself, and it doesn’t exactly paint him in a great light either.”

This seemed to genuinely intrigue Corner. “What book?”

“It’s called The Rose With the Broken Neck. I don’t think your Covenant buddies even know it exists, seeing that the only copy was discovered in the Crystal Empire earlier this year.” Razz’s countenance was far more grim now, as memories of reading it clawed their way to the forefront of her mind.

“You’re lying…” Corner stated.

Razz just continued unabated. “Even if the Covenant did know about it, I doubt very much they’d want it getting out. I guarantee you the Covenant would probably lose most of its members if they read it cover to cover. Only the truly depraved would keep worshipping Sombra after reading that.”

“I’ve heard enough!” Corner all but shouted, turning to leave the prison. “Coming here was a mistake. I don’t know why I thought I could confide in a damned sun-kisser!” With that, Corner stormed furiously out of the room.

From her spot over by Tavi, Lockbox commented, “Damn. For a moment there I thought you were going to convince her to help us.” .

“For a moment there so did I,” Razz admitted, internally chastising herself. She’d done a good enough job reaching out to Corner Shot in what was clearly a time of need, but then they got to talking about Sombra and she just kind of got carried away trying to change the core beliefs of someone who believed in him since birth. It would seem the topic of her ancestor would always be a blind spot for her no matter the situation, and reading that damn book only exacerbated the problem. It would seem that in a way, he’ll always have a hold over me.

“Well, now what?” Lockbox asked, pulling Razz from her thoughts. “Back to Plan A? Take out the guard and make our escape?”

After some reflection on her recent talk, Razz said, “No. I don’t think that conversation went as badly as you think.”

With a doubtful look, Lockbox asked, “How do you figure?”

“Because regardless of how it ended, the fact remains: something is causing Corner to have doubts about all of this. And I just planted seeds of even further doubt….”

45th Day of Spring—1:02PM

As the chariot lifted into the air, Rarity tried to make herself as comfortable as she could, though it wasn’t easy. Granted, she was a survivor of a plane crash but that had been when she was a baby, so she had no memories of it and as a result, flying didn’t normally faze her. That being said, this was flying in a way that she’d never been accustomed to before.

How on Earth is this thing even managing to remain airborne? she asked herself, even though she knew the answer: magic, like so many other things on this world. The arcane force was something new in her life, something she was adjusting to. This, like that, would have to be just one more thing she’d have to grow to deal with, for Sunset’s sake.

“Are you okay?” Twilight asked her. “I remember that this isn’t how you’re used to flying back home.”

“Definitely not,” Rarity agreed. “For starters, the onboard service is lacking. We’ve been in the air for ten minutes now and I have yet to see a single flight attendant to ask if I want something to drink.”

The alicorn laughed. “Well, at least you’re able to deal with this.”

Rarity grinned. “If I didn’t, I’d have some severe issues. But like all things when dealing with Sunset, you simply have to make the abnormal the norm, as it were.”

There was a short silence after that, which was broken by Tomahawk’s calm rasp, “Do you?”

Rarity looked over at the vaguely Native American looking woman with black and beige hair matching her uniform. She had a dreamy smile on her face and seemed to be not all present. Speaking of abnormal….

“Do I what?” Rarity asked.

“Want something to drink?”

Rarity wasn’t quite sure what to think of the apparent pegasus-turned-woman, other than she was clearly a little spacey. She reminded Rarity of a few students at Canterlot High that she knew of, but didn’t associate with due to their penchant for partaking in… recreational narcotics. Rarity didn’t know that their escort was cut from the same cloth, but….

“I’m fine, thank you,” Rarity said, smiling politely.

Still smiling a dreamy smile, Tomahawk asked, “You sure? I’m making tea, there’s enough for everyone.”

Seeing only a duffel bag at Tomahawk’s side, Rarity was confused, but the pony princess beside her beat her to asking, “Right now?”

Tomahawk nodded, and Twilight looked around the inside of the phaeton, as if expecting a stove complete with a pot and kettle to have suddenly materialized.

“But… how?”

Smiling a bit more earnestly now, Tomahawk said, “Oh, it’s so easy to make tea, Your Highness. Here, I’ll show you….”

Twilight’s eye twitched in a way that reminded Rarity of the one from her own world. “No, I know how to make tea, I just don’t know how you’re going to….”

But Tomahawk was already digging through her duffel bag, either ignoring or oblivious to Twilight’s confusion (Rarity was pretty sure it was the latter). The human and alicorn watched with fascination as Tomahawk pulled out what appeared to be a bunsen burner, a small tin pot, and a few small bags of various pink, red, and yellow flowers. The burner had an orange gem attached to the bottom, and with the press of a button, it started to glow, and Rarity could see the air above it start to distort from apparent heat. Tomahawk filled the pot with water from her canteen and set it over the burner before putting the multicolored flowers in a small wooden bowl and methodically grinding them up. As the water began to heat up, the ground petals within started to glow, tiny stars submerged in a small sea within a bottle.

“These are burnbright roses, and they make for great tea, with an extra kick of spice.”

Soon, Tomahawk was finished with the tea, and handed off two steaming cups to Rarity and Princess Twilight before pouring her own. Rarity took a gingerly sip from her cup, and was surprised to find that it tasted similar to her favorite camomille back home. Then the kick that Tomahawk described came in, giving the tea an additional spicy flavor… but not spicy enough for Rarity to need to wash it down with something cold.

“This is good,” Rarity said, to which Twilight emphatically nodded.

Smiling serenely, Tomahawk said, “It’s an old family blend.”

The three of them continued the flight in silence, all of them enjoying their burnbright tea. Rarity was glad to admit to herself that she had a better opinion of their eccentric protector than she did moments ago.

45th Day of Spring—1:11PM

The phaeton flight to Manehatten was only quiet on Applejack’s end, mostly because the blonde girl didn’t really know what to say. As it happened, Rarity’s pony counterpart was very much the same as the girl Applejack knew, and as much as Applejack cared about her, they didn’t have much to relate to, at least as far as their hobbies went. So after the well of usual small talk dried up in the first minutes of their flight, the ever outgoing Rarity (another similarity to the human that Applejack was more familiar with) next sought conversation with their SIREN escort, and Applejack was content to just listen from the sidelines.

“So, Ekene,” asked Rarity, “What are the fashion trends like back in your native homeland? I have spoken with Zecora before, but I’m afraid that fashion isn’t quite her strong suit, per se.”

From what Applejack understood, the young Arabic woman seated at the head of the chariot was from a nation called Zebrica. When she’d asked Sunset more about it, she simply said, “Like Africa, but run by zebras.” Applejack figured there was a lot more to it than that, but the comparison was enough to give her an idea of where her new travel companion was from.

“Grand zebra wear is very fine,” the humanized zebra replied, “but rarely do we have the time. The styles and colors are a gift for the eyes, and many garbs bring awed sighs.”

Applejack nodded politely, still not quite sure of what to say. Sunset had warned her about the zebras’ queer cultural quirk to speak in rhyme, but Applejack had assumed she was joking.

Perhaps taking note of her human charge’s continued overly polite nodding and prolonged silence, Ekene slapped herself in the forehead. “I just did it again, didn’t I?”

“Did what?” Rarity asked, apparently far more used to zebra speech conventions than Applejack was.

“Cmdr. Dusk told me that I’ll sound like a ‘rapper’ if I rhyme all the time,” Ekene exclaimed, before slapping both hands over her mouth. “I did it again….”

Rarity let out an amused (yet still delicate and polite) laugh, while Applejack wondered whether to have a talk with Sonata about casual racism.

Her thoughts were interrupted as the phaeton apparently hit a pocket of stronger winds and Applejack’s stomach inverted. Under normal circumstances, she didn’t mind flying—even when it was turbulent—but the phaeton was no 747, and something about the open sky all around her set Applejack on edge a little.

This time it was Ekene’s turn to chuckle. “I remember my first sky chariot ride. I nearly vomited over the side.” She then closed her eyes and muttered, “Dammit….”

As the flight continued, Applejack eventually adjusted to the flight—ignoring everything outside of the phaeton tended to help with that. She also chalked it up to the magic, something that she was still trying to adjust to, just like so many things in her life. Still, she was an Apple, and she was part of Sunset’s court (assuming Sunset had one—did that mean Applejack was now a noblewoman?) so she would abide.

Part of that, I guess, means getting used to this world, she reminded herself. So with that in mind, she chose to ask a question.

“If you ladies don’t mind, y’all have to explain how cutie marks work,” she asked as she glanced at the trio of diamonds that decorated Rarity’s flank—a brief pang of memory flashed in her head of the “Uniquecorn” ceramic figurine she once saw over at Rarity (the human)’s place back in Canterlot, and how astonishingly it compared to the unicorn before her. “Ah know they have to do with your ‘special talent’, but you have yours all over your bags.”

“Think of it as a kind of personal signature,” said Rarity, “Obviously there are recurring themes—some would even say many cutie marks look identical, almost copied—but each one represents an individual pony as well as their unique talent.”

“So kind of like a personal branding? Humans usually don’t have one unless they’re fashion icons with their own clothing lines.” She then pondered for a moment before adding, “Some musicians do as well, but that’s out of mah expertise. You’d have to ask Flutters or Rares for more on that.”

“I see,” Rarity replied breezily. “Well, if I may ask, what is your interest in Manehattan? You mentioned an, ah, ‘Manhattan’, was it? It sounds similar.”

“Ah suppose they might be. Manhattan is a district in New York City, which is the biggest city in my home country, and Manhattan is considered its ritziest part. Ah have some family there, though Ah’ve never visited the place before.” The teen shrugged. “Ah was just wondering how similar it might be from what Ah’ve seen in pictures. ”

“Manehattan’s quite the busy place,” said Ekene. “Though there isn’t much open space.”

Rarity and Applejack exchanged a look, an amused smile growing across their faces as they waited for the inevitable moment of realization to set in. They knew that it came when Ekene pounded a fist into the side of the chariot.

Dammit!”

45th Day of Spring—1:23PM

As a guardsmare, Sunny Side had done plenty of escorts for VIPs before—it was just par for the course in the Solar Guard. But now, as a SIREN she was beginning to see how even something as simple as escort duty was more different than ever before. And right now, as she sat in the phaeton, seated next to Applejack on one seat while across from them Fluttershy strummed along on her acoustic guitar and singing softly, she realized she was being treated to something special.

“Carry me, caravan, take me away,
Take me to Portugal, take me to Spain
Andalucia, with fields full of grain—
I have to see you again and again
Take me, Spanish Caravan,
Yes I know you can….”

“Wow, Ah heard you could sing, but color me impressed,” the farmmare commented. “Ah haven’t heard a voice that beautiful in a passel o’ time.”

“Thanks,” Fluttershy commented, “but I can’t take all the credit. The song is about fifty years old and talks about even older times. But I do appreciate the compliment. I may need to work on playing some of my own songs, because I get the feeling the audience might not get where Spain or Portugal are. Those are nations on Earth, by the way.” The musician set down her guitar and looked out at the sky before turning back to the others. “So tell me: what’s Dodge Junction like?”

“It’s one of the outpost towns of Equestria,” said Side, eager to gush about home a little. “Well, it used to be—ever since the Cherry family expanded their orchard operations here, it’s been a growing city. As a result the town’s gotten bigger with all the refugees of the war moving in. I almost wouldn’t recognize it from the pics Dad has sent in his letters.”

“Sounds like ya really love yer home,” Applejack said. “If Ah c’n ask, why’d ya get into th’ Guard?”

Side sighed, smiling nostalgically. “You can blame my Dad for that; he used to be in the Solar Guard back before the other Guard divisions were established. He used to tell me and my sister stories about his service and, well, I really took to it.”

“Ah bet yer mom didn’t like ‘em much,” Applejack added, keeping her tone light.

Side’s demeanor darkened at the mention of her mother, but she kept up that nostalgic smile. Only, now she seemed to be wearing it like armor. “Oh, she used to love his stories. Probably why she married him.”

Applejack picked up on the way the humanized mare’s mood changed at the mention of her mother, and from what she just said, was able to piece together why. Fluttershy, however, did not share the farmpony’s experiences where her parents were concerned.

“Used to?” she ventured.

“Yeah, she uh… she passed away shortly after my little sister was born.”

That hit far closer to home than Applejack cared to admit in front of strangers. So all she settled for was a weak, “Ah’m sorry.”

Side just shrugged. “It happened a long time ago. I still miss her, but… I’ve managed to move on.”

Perhaps projecting some of her own experiences onto the guardsmare turned guardshuman (that didn’t sound right…), Applejack scuffed a hoof along the floor of the sky carriage and asked, “Was it hard for you to leave the farm and join the Guard after...after that?”

With another shrug, Side answered, “I think it would’ve been hard either way. It was worth it, though. Don’t get me wrong, I love the old homestead—would probably be escorting one of the other groups if I didn’t—but being a military pony is my dream.” She then glanced down at her very human body. “Well… ‘military pony’ is a relative term, I guess, but hey! I landed what is probably the coolest assignment any military mare could ask for, so I’m not complaining!”

And there it was: more fuel for the flame of Applejack’s guilt. Here she was, talking to a pony who had given up life on the farm to pursue what really mattered to her, and having an easy time of it. It would never have even occurred to her to resent Sunny Side—a braver and more honest pony than many she knew—for choosing to leave life on the farm. So why in Equestria had she given her own counterpart such a hard time over it?

She then thought about how she and Side had both lost parents at a young age, and wondered if perhaps that was the real reason behind her animosity; jealousy at what her counterpart had and she didn’t. No, that ain’t it. I’m happy that other Applejack still has her folks! Like Sunny Side said, it’s been a long time. I’ve moved on!

Contrary to popular belief, Applejack really was capable of lying. The problem was, the only one who believed her was herself.

45th Day of Spring—5:28PM

As the phaeton began to approach an airship in the distance, Rainbow Dash called out to the flight captain leading the trio of ponies pulling the craft through the skies. “Is that the relief ship?”

“Yes, ma’am,” the flight captain called back. “We should be there in about fifteen minutes.”

The cerulean pegasus flexed her wings. “Too slow—I’m going to go fly over and let them know we’re coming, so that they can make sure your reliefs are ready to go,” she told them.

It was at this point that Twilight looked up from her iPad; she’d been focused on it for the majority of the flight, trying to get herself up to speed on diplomacy in this unusual world she’d found herself in. “Something up?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Rainbow explained. “‘Cause Las Pegasus and Vanhoover are so far west, we’re not gonna make it in one day, so the flight crews are gonna get relieved. Guard flight procedures are to let the pull team rest and then replace it with a new one in the morning. For Las Pegasus, Rainbow—sounds so weird saying that—and Shy are gonna spend the night at Fort Nonsense.” The mare chuckled. “Yeah, silly name, but it’s named after Gen. Nonsense, who was a famous Army unicorn hundreds of years ago.”

“And what about us? We’re going to be aboard that ship?”

“Yup—VIPs aboard the Magne-Music, one of the best ships in the fleet. It’ll get us part of the way there, and then in the morning, the new team will take us the rest of the way. But that’s only if they’re up to snuff.”

“How so?” Twilight asked, curious.

“Well, as proud as I am of being a Wonderbolt and a Navy lieutenant, the truth is, Navy fliers aren’t known for their strength—that’s why the Guard handles most of the diplomatic and courier flights, because their ponies have the strength to pull towage like the phaeton. But we’re not getting Guard reliefs; we’ll be using ponies from the Magne-Music, so I need to make sure that they’re up to snuff.”

“Well, then!” Both Rainbow and Twilight turned to look at the third member of their group—the conspicuously short Moonblazer whose youth and relative impatience seemed to match the fact she was physically a fourteen-year-old quite well. “In that case, I guess it’s time for the best flyer we got to get over to the ship!”

“I know,” Rainbow said with a grin. “I’m already going.”

Moonblazer narrowed her eyes. “I meant me, obviously.”

The pegasus looked at the humanized batpony. “Oh? Forgetting something?”

“No, just give me a second and I’ll take off my amniomorphic bracelet and I’ll be ready to go in a sec–”

“No, you forgot your duty, Ensign.” Rainbow glanced at the other human aboard the phaeton. “Unless you want to explain to both your CO and Princess Sunset why you abandoned the person you’re supposed to guard while I’m out.”

“Oh, that’s bull and you know it!” Moonblazer argued. “I’m supposed to guard you too, and here you are getting ready to fly off! Can’t do that if you’re headed off to the ship!”

“Doesn’t matter,” Rainbow told her. “I’m a Wonderbolt and the Bearer of Loyalty. When push comes to shove, I can protect myself. Twilight over there is neither—she’s just a filly that can’t do anything if something bad comes her way!” She then realized what she said and added a quick, “Uh, no offense.”

Twilight gave a deadpan, “None taken.”

“Yeah, but–” Moonblazer began once more.

“No buts,” Rainbow told her. “You have orders. Granted, I’m not the most military pony there is, but look, even I know when orders are orders, okay?” She then grinned. “‘Sides, you’d probably have a hard time keeping up with my speed anyway.”

Moonblazer glared at Rainbow, then sat down, pouting. “Fine,” she huffed, crossing her arms.

Twilight shook her head. “¡Realmente espero no tener que lidiar con ella haciendo pucheros el resto del viaje!” she muttered.

Rainbow laughed. “Je, tú y yo los dos,” she replied.

“Espera, ¿hablas español?”

“¿Supongo? El otro yo dijo que así es como lo llaman en su mundo.”

“What the hell are you two saying?” Moonblazer groaned, and the other two ladies had a laugh before Rainbow took to the skies and rocketed off towards the airship in the distance.

45th Day of Spring—5:42PM

Dust kicked into the air as the pulling team came to a landing on the often-unused landing pad at Fort Nonsense. In the middle of the Oatlahoofa Dust Bowl, a small desert created by a magical accident centuries ago, Fort Nowhere stood as a safepoint for travelers coming westward, as well as to make sure that the tatzelwurms didn’t get out of control in this part of Equestria.

As the phaeton finally came to a stop, Rainbow wasted no time in hopping out of the vehicle and stretching her legs. “So glad that’s over!” she cried. “Thought I was going to lose my mind if I spent one more minute just sitting there!”

“Oh, it’s not so bad.” Fluttershy said as she fluttered off the phaeton, stretching her wings slightly as if in admittance that she, too, was glad to be off the ride. “The guardsponies were just trying to make our flight easier, after all. It wasn’t their fault we’d run into turbulence they couldn’t take care of.”

“Turbulence, shmerbulence!” Rainbow groaned. “People weren’t made to fly, you know? Unless, of course, they were in a kick ass fighter jet!”

“Well, I typically don’t like flying myself,” Fluttershy confessed. “Being that high up is kinda scary.”

Rainbow blinked. “Wait—aren’t you a pegasus?” When the pegasus in question nodded, that freaked the athlete out even further. “But...but...why? You have wings! If I were you, I’d be seriously airborne, rocking them things!”

“Some ponies just don’t like to fly.” Both of them turned to see Embiggen getting out of the phaeton; due to her general size, the guardsponies had to actually use one of Princess Celestia’s personal phaetons for the trip. “I know I don’t—it’s really frightening.”

Craning her neck, Rainbow looked up at the Amazonian figure towering over all else present. Initially, Rainbow found the massive SIREN initiate a little intimidating purely because of her size. Then an errant butterfly had caused Embiggen to nearly jump out of her skin before they took off, and Rainbow found herself wondering how someone like her had even made the cut as a SIREN, let alone in any military capacity.

Seeing how visibly Embiggen had flinched under her gaze, Rainbow averted it, opting instead to get her luggage out of the back of the phaeton.

“I can help you carry that if you want…” Embiggen’s timid voice said from somewhere above Rainbow,

“I got it,” was all Rainbow said as she brushed past the hulking woman. She might even be worse than Fluttershy used to be!

“Everything okay?” a different timid voice asked. Rainbow looked over to see Fluttershy—the pony, not her childhood friend—walking in step beside her.

She and the others all had lots to say about their pony counterparts after the week they’d spent in Ponyville. What surprised Rainbow the most was what Fluttershy had said about her counterpart: that she still had a long way to go when it came to overcoming her social anxiety. It had surprised Rainbow because up until that moment, she had thought the exact same thing about her Fluttershy. It put into perspective just how much her friend had changed; how much she’d grown.

Yet, even this world’s Fluttershy had managed to talk to her with what seemed to be little trouble. Maybe it helped that she was very close with this world’s Rainbow Dash too. Whatever the reason, it was still miles better than their so-called protector.

“I’m fine,” Rainbow answered. “I just….”

“Just what?” Fluttershy asked innocently.

“Don’t worry about it, Flutters,” Rainbow said completely by accident. Fortunately, this Fluttershy didn’t seem to notice her verbal gaffe. Perhaps her own counterpart had the same term of endearment for this Fluttershy?

“It’s about Embiggen, isn’t it?” Fluttershy asked. She then added, “You don’t like her.” It wasn’t a question, but a plain statement of fact.

“I just… don’t think she’s up to snuff, y’know?” Rainbow said. “I mean, sure, she’s big and intimidating at a glance, but she’s even more timid than you are. Uh, no offense.”

“I’m not offended,” the little butter pony said, but then she fixed her with a familiar annoyed glare. “But I think you’re being awfully unfair to her.”

Rainbow looked again at Embiggen, who was currently in the middle of a conversation with an armored pony—clearly a figure of some importance at Fort Nonsense if his appearance was anything to go by. Even from a relative distance, their escort’s nature was clear: the armored pony continually talked at (not to) Embiggen, who only stood there and took it, the giant woman all but flinching under the much smaller pony.

Nodding in Embiggen’s direction, Rainbow turned back to Fluttershy and said, “Do you really think that person has what it takes to protect us if shit gets loco?”

Fluttershy’s annoyed glare turned to a much angrier one that Rainbow had seen on her own Fluttershy’s face many times, and Rainbow knew that she’d said something wrong.

I think that you shouldn’t underestimate timid looking ponies!” Fluttershy exclaimed before storming off, leaving Rainbow with a very familiar feeling of shame.

45th Day of Spring—4:51PM

“Hey, Sunny, how’s—" asked Pinkie.

“DON’T,” insisted Sunset, resting her forelegs on the edge of the chariot and cradling her head in her forehooves. At Princess Twilight’s suggestion, she changed to her alicorn form and would only change back to her human form as necessary once they got to Fillydelphia.

“You know, you haven’t looked at me directly this whole trip,” observed Pinkie looking a bit annoyed.

Do you really need to ask why? mused Sunset, who then turned to face Pinkie directly and knew she would regret it. The fact that Sunset could see the friends and family she knew as humans every time she looked at their pony counterparts was bad enough, but with Pinkie...well, somehow, the pony one seemed to be a more innocent version of the Pinkie with whom Sunset’s current relationship status was in question.

And she just hoped it wouldn’t end up being “terminated” in the sense that one of their lives was terminated.

“Is everything alright?” asked Ushanka, who had respectfully been keeping to herself. She’d sensed the tension between the two mares and decided that it would be best if she stayed out of the conversation.

“I’m fine, er, what’s your rank again?”

“Just ‘Petty Officer’ will do, Your Highness,” the woman explained.

Sunset mentally went over the quick briefing of military protocol that Aria had tried to give her just before they came on this whole damned trip to Equestria. She still didn’t understand half of it, and chances are, she probably never would. “I see. Anyway, I’m fine. Just peachy.”

“No you’re not!” Pinkie said, chirping. “You’ve got a frown that looks like it went to town and we need to turn it upside down!”

Sunset silently sighed; her Pinkie—that is, the Pinkie I’m more familiar with, she quickly amended—was a lot more grounded and while she liked to have fun, she wasn’t as childlike in nature as her counterpart was.

“I brought a cake!” Sure enough, a four-story cake seemed to appear from nowhere. “It’s my famous strawberry blueberry elderberry raspberry loganberry cloudberry boysenberry blackberry sloeberry yewberry cranberry mulberry serviceberry–”

“How many berries are in this thing?” Ushanka asked.

Pinkie rubbed a hoof against her chin in thought. “About thirty-five. Normally it’s forty, but since the Winter, it’s hard to find flashberries, aquaberries, crunchberries, splashberries and prismberries. And, well, I kinda forgot to put crystalberries in it, now that I recall, so make that thirty-four berries.” Her manic grin slid on her face as she added, “But it’s still good, even if it’s a little incomplete!”

Sunset groaned. If this was how the trip was going to be, maybe she should have just stayed in Canterlot.

But if I did, then Pinkie would….

The frown lines on her face just seemed to deepen as they moved on through the air towards their destination.

45th Day of Spring—3:10AM

Corner Shot awoke on cold hard rock with aching joints and a bad headache. She tried to roll over to go back to sleep and nearly fell out of the alcove she was perched in to the cavern floor several feet below, where numerous bottles of Distinguished Cutie Mark cider lay strewn about. All at once Corner started to remember the events of the night before (though this deep underground, night and day were indistinguishable).

After her infuriating conversation with Raspberry Beryl, Corner had gone and raided the supply cache for as much alcohol as she could carry, then brought it all up to her favorite alcove. There were a number of hidden nooks and crannies in the massive underground cave network that made up the Covenant’s headquarters, and there was one in particular that Corner liked to use. It was well hidden and fairly high up on the chamber it was attached to, but not so high that Corner couldn’t reach it with her limited flight capabilities. The chamber it overlooked was also well out of the way of all the high-traffic areas like the main atrium making it the ideal spot for Corner to loaf around.

And that was exactly what Corner had done as she downed bottle after bottle of her favorite hard cider. All the while, thoughts swirled in her head like adrift pieces of refuse, not unlike the pile of empty bottles in the cave below (and that word ‘adrift’ seemed continually prominent in her thoughts now, too). Everything that Raspberry had told her was wrong, it had to be… but still, Corner couldn’t stop thinking about it. It went against everything that Corner had been raised to believe, but the things Razz had said to her just made too much sense to ignore.

Far easier to get shitfaced instead, Corner thought, and desperately searched her alcove for one more bottle of cider, but found what few were there empty.

“CORNER SHOT!” a nasally female voice shouted out, jolting the pegasus out of her thoughts. She cautiously peered down and saw two cloaked covenant ponies—their hoods drawn so she couldn’t identify them. The two of them were standing amongst her discarded bottles in the chamber below. “Honestly, that mare is just such a slob!”

“Do you think this is her doing?” asked the other cloaked pony—a stallion.

“Of course it is—she’s addicted to this Distinguished Cutie Mark crap. Low-grade hard cider she drinks like it’s water or something.”

“How unbecoming of a Scion.”

“Truly—though really, I’ve had my doubts that we actually need all four of them. Sombra had many issue, this is known, so surely he must have had backup offspring.”

“They certainly are not equal, that is certain; Raspberry Beryl is the only one we can say for certain is a true Scion, maybe the other unicorn as well.”

“My thoughts exactly! The human we should have disposed of the moment she got brought here instead of Sunset Shimmer, the far more likely true fourth Scion. And Corner Shot? I think it’s time we told Father Lux to take care of her, Scion or no.”

“You really think he’ll go with it?”

“He’s been aching for a reason to get rid of her for ages, and he’s...easily convinced if you know how to push his buttons.”

“Then let’s go press some buttons. The sooner we rid ourselves of that stain on Sombra’s legacy, the better!”

As the two ponies hurried off, Corner couldn’t wipe the shock off her face. Lux would jump at the chance to call her a traitor—hell, he’d probably use the fact the human was brought instead of Sunset as proof she was trying to sabotage them all, in spite of the fact she really was the fourth Scion and Lux knew it.

She’d not been entirely sure about leaving the Covenant, even when she was fully adrift in a sea of doubt and paranoia. But now, it seems she wasn’t abandoning the Covenant—the Covenant was going to abandon her.

Chapter 15 - By The Numbers

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Golden Age of Apocalypse

Chapter 15—By The Numbers

46th Day of Spring—8:02AM

A crystal gavel hammered into the striking board, a sharp ringing sound issued forth, echoing in the room. A deep, bassy voice called with it, “ORDER! ORDER, I SAY!”

Brigadier Stonehammer, the senior officer present, looked at the assembly of various commanding officers and representatives from the flight squadrons belonging to the Army, the Navy, the Guard and even the two Agency squadrons. He’d been tasked by Gen. Halberd to do this unsavory deed and so here he was.

He didn’t want to be here. Nor, for that matter, did the others. But that mattered little compared to the severity of what was being discussed.

Looking at the various faces around the room, Stonehammer said simply, “We have a traitor.” Seeing the look of shock on the faces of every pony and otherwise present, he said, “As many of you are aware, the security plans for Princess Sunset Shimmer’s coronation were compromised by somepony from one of the military flight divisions. In the past few days, four military fliers have been arrested for conspiring with the Covenant. All of them stated the same thing: that they received their orders from a flyer known as Empty. None of them can identify the individual, but at least one of them shows signs of magical mental tampering.”

“What?” a voice in the crowd shouted and Stonehammer held up his gavel once more. The speaker piped down and Stonehammer continued.

“Unfortunately for Empty, she or he was spotted leaving the area by a civilian, who stated the perpetrator was wearing blue flight armor.” Stonehammer looked at all the ponies around the room. “I don’t have to tell you what that means.”

The various other officers looked at one another, thinking about their flight armor. Granted, while the armor, when active, was enchanted to imitate its environment in order to provide some amount of protection, the squadron colors were represented when the armor was off.

And all seventeen officers represented squadrons whose primary color was blue.

One of the two Agency officers raised her hoof. “With all due respect, Brigadier, I fail to see why my associate and I are here. Our flight armor is black, as is the standard for all Agency gear.”

One of the Guard squadron leaders looked at the senior officer. “That goes for us as well—although it is lighter barding than regular Guard units since we have to be airborne, the fact remains that we wear barding just like the rest of the Guard while on field duty, and none of it is blue.”

The brigadier tapped his forehooves together impatiently. “Agent Nightfire, while you and Lt. Shining Sword might be correct about that, do not mistake me for a foal. I know that as part of your annual flight certification, you are required to do at least a two-week detail with an active duty Army or Navy combat squadron every three years. And as a result of that duty, those personnel were issued flight uniforms for each of the squadrons you were detailed to.” He gave Nightfire a lidded look. “Or did you forget the color of the uniform you were wearing when you completed your triennial certification three weeks ago, Agent?”

Nightfire immediately recalled the blue-and-lilac Starsong squadron uniform she’d been issued during that time and had kept as a memento of the time. “No, sir,” she said thickly.

He nodded tersely. “I see we are in agreement, then. Or do I need to pass out the reports from the Agency that lists all the uniforms your personnel wear or have worn during their details?”

Shining Sword gulped. “That, er, won’t be necessary, sir,” he demurred.

“A wise stallion, indeed. Now, I know that not all of you are commanders of your respective squadrons and that you were sent here to represent your COs. For example, Lt. Black Tar, most of your unit is in the field serving as scouts for the anti-Covenant operations, correct? And given that the Wonderbolts are tied up in Cloudsdale, Ens. Skystreak is representing Capt. Spitfire, is that not so?” The two officers nodded, and Stonehammer paused for effect.

“Be that as it may, you two are both active in your squadrons and likely have seen things as well, so I am expecting you to speak up if you have seen or heard anything, am I clear?” Not waiting for an answer, the brigadier looked at all of those gathered once more. “So on behalf of Princess Luna, I would like to make this very clear, ladies and gentleponies: think. We have a traitor in our midst, and that traitor is doing the military—and thus the Crown—a grave injustice. So I want you to think, and think carefully—about who might just be the culprit.”

The officers were quiet and looked at each other, as if sizing up suspects.

The brigadier smiled. “Oh, let me add an extra wrinkle for all of you, in case any of you—Celestia perish the thought—are protecting a suspect, even perhaps Empty. Lt. Rainbow Dash of the Wonderbolts will be here later today. Except...she will not be here in her military capacity, but instead as the Bearer of Loyalty. I don’t think I have to explain further, do I?”

The officers looked at each other once again. Rainbow Dash, as a military officer, was capable, even if sometimes a hothead. Rainbow Dash in her capacity as a member of the Court of Friendship and Knight Bearer of Loyalty, was something very different. In that role, she had more authority than any other individual in the room, the brigadier included.

“I don’t believe Lady Dash knows anything about this meeting,” Stonehammer added lightly. “I would think you’d want to keep it that way.”

A wing went up. It was Capt. Gallard, the CO of the Thunderheads, the all-griffin naval combat squadron. “With all due respect, sir, I don’t think any of my fliers could be Empty. I think a witness would have focused less on the outfit color and more on the fact that the flier was a griffin.”

Stonehammer nodded in agreement. “That is correct, Captain. And for the record, even despite your squadron colors, none of your regular flyers are suspected. However, you have had ponies fly with you during certification and that is the main reason why you’re here.” At that, Gallard nodded, and fell silent.


Standing amongst the other officers, her heart hammering in her chest like a minotaur throwing a tantrum, Skystreak looked at all of them and desperately tried to keep a calm look on her face. They knew about her activities and even her Covenant codename. The only reason she wasn’t in hobbles at the moment was because they couldn’t clearly identify her.

I need to think of a scapegoat and fast, she concluded. Otherwise, somepony’s going to figure it out fairly quickly!

Fortunately for her, somepony else gave her the out she was looking for.

A hoof was raised—this time it was Midnight Shade, the batpony leader of the 37th Lunar Guard Flight Detachment. “With all due respect, Brigadier, what if it was a stolen uniform? Or even a damaged uniform that was thrown away and taken by another pony?”

The look in Stonehammer’s eyes indicated that he had not thought of that.

Inspiration immediately hit Skystreak, and she went with it: “Or...what about a transferee? Somepony who was originally with another squadron, one with the suspected colors, and then moved on?”

Stonehammer looked at her. “Would you clarify, Ensign?”

“Yes, sir. Originally, I was with Domino Squadron before the war, and I still have my black and white uniform from those days. It’s entirely possible that somepony could have started out with one of our squadrons and then moved on to….” She paused, as if in thought.

“You have something in mind?”

“Sir, I’m not sure it would be a good idea to—”

“Speak, Ensign.” That was an order, clear as day.

“Yes, sir. I’m thinking about Ens. Rainbud, sir.”

“Rainbud? The name doesn’t sound familiar.”

A second pony spoke up, an Army squadron leader named Gray Ghost. “It does to me, sir: Ens. Rainbud is an Army flier, for Lowball Squadron, as I recall. They’re out in the field right now, so I’m representing both my squadron and Col. Long March’s.” He turned to Skystreak. “But the Lowballs wear green-and-black.”

“Yes, but she used to wear Wonderbolt blue-and-yellow.”

Another voice spoke up from behind. “An Army flyer, in a Navy squadron? You’ve got to be kidding, Ensign.”

Skystreak turned to look at the speaker. “I’m afraid not. During the beginning of the war, a lot of fliers with potential got sent to various squadrons and even for elite squadrons like the ‘Bolts, we still got some run of the mill folks, or pegasi whose talents really didn’t work for us. In Rainbud’s case, she’s a low-flier, which really doesn’t suit the Wonderbolt combat specialty. Capt. Spitfire spoke with Col. March and they made a trade—we transferred Rainbud in return for one of theirs. The pony we got, Hailstorm, was a better fit for us, anyway.” She looked around the room, as if confiding a secret. “In more ways than one, to be honest.”

Stonehammer noticed that. “In what way, Ensign?”

Skystreak sighed. “To be honest, Ens. Rainbud was...difficult to work with. She was a prima donna, because she was originally a star at buckball.” At that, various ponies spoke with murmurs of agreement; many celebrities or famous athletes who had joined the military due to the war did not adjust well, and most had either left after the war of their own volition or had been cashiered in disgrace. “She claimed that she did it to protect her family, but she didn’t seem to care about the war otherwise. With all due respect, I think if there hadn’t been a need for fliers due to the war, she probably would have been drummed out of the service.”

“I see. Thank you, Ensign.” He looked at the others. “Is there anypony else that has any potential suspects?”

A throat cleared and all eyes turned to a Guard pegasus wearing the duty uniform of the 86th Crystal Guard Flight Detachment. “I...don’t know about others, but I think I can corroborate Ens. Skystreak’s testimony, sir. I’ve had run-ins with this Ens. Rainbud as well.”

“Oh? Do tell.”

“It was in mid-Winter, and we were assigned to strike at a remainder of Tirek’s forces outside of Snowfallton. Because they were well-hidden, we requested assistance from the Army and they sent two scouts from Lowball Squadron: Lt. Hail Raiser and Ens. Rainbud. We split our forces in two and while Lt. Raiser scouted for the other element, Ens. Rainbud scouted for ours. She was....a problem, to put it plainly. Constantly complained about how her family in Torontrot was killed because ‘Celestia didn’t give a damn and let ponies in the town die’ and how she was wasting her time in military service when she could be making a fortune in buckball, that sort of thing. I finally told her to shut up or else I would be issuing a report to her commanding officer. She finally did her job and the rest of the operation went without a hitch, but I sent a letter of reprimand with Lt. Raiser to take to their CO.”

“I see. Anyone else?” A third hoof went up—it was Black Tar. “Yes, Lieutenant?”

The look on her face was filled with emotions. “I hate doing this, sir. I really do. I...I have reason to believe that Ens. Rainbud may be Empty.”

“Start speaking, Lieutenant.”

“Sir, I—”

“That’s an order, Lieutenant.”

Black Tar’s ears cantilevered; it was clear that this was not going to be an easy story to tell. She looked around at the rest of those assembled, and winced before continuing. “She told me…. She told me this the night we slept together. I...I kinda liked her, and while I knew she didn’t like me, she was drunk and looking for some emotional support, since her lover had just been killed the week before in a skirmish with Tirek remainders.” Tar fell silent. “That lover was Lt. Raiser.

“Rain...she’s filled with a lot of hatred, sir. She blames Her Majesty for what happened to her family and to her squadron. She stated that if Lowball had been trained better, there would have been more than just four of them left—”

“Four of them?” Stonehammer asked.

Gray Ghost spoke up. “After the Winter, the only surviving members of the original Lowball Squadron were Col. Long March, Maj. First Knight, Ens. Rainbud and Cnt. Groundsail. The squadron is currently in reserve while they train new replacements, even though the squadron members are being seconded to other units.”

“I see. You may continue, Lt. Tar.”

“Yes, sir. She...she said that in a fair world, it would have been the alicorns fighting, since they're all-powerful and can’t die, but instead, Celestia didn’t want to dirty her pretty white coat with blood, so she sacrificed countless lives just to keep her hooves clean. She...she said that in a world that was truly fair, the….” She trailed off.

Stonehammer’s eyes softened. “I know this must be hard for you, Lieutenant.”

Tears formed in Tar’s gray eyes. “She said that if there was any justice in the world, the Covenant would show the Crown how things are really supposed to be.” At that, the mare broke down, crying. In a selfless display of solidarity, Skystreak moved to her side to help her.

“Thank you, Lieutenant, I know that was difficult,” Stonehammer stated. “Ens. Skystreak, will you take Lt. Tar to the infirmary? I think she would like some time to recuperate.”

Silently thankful that she’d managed to escape the noose, at least temporarily, Skystreak nodded. “Will do, sir.”

“Thank you.” He then looked at the others. “Col. Ghost, as soon as you can, fly back to your base. I want Col. March informed and more importantly, I want Ens. Rainbud arrested until we can find out just what she has done. As for the rest of you, continue to be vigilant. We may have just captured Empty, but that does not mean that there aren’t other Covenant sympathizers amongst our ranks. We cannot let this continue. Dismissed.”


The short walk to the infirmary was a silent one. For Black Tar, this was likely because all she could think of was that somepony she was close with had betrayed Equestria. Skystreak’s silence, however, could be attributed to just one thought: What the hell is my next move?

It was only after dropping Black Tar off at the infirmary and rounding the corner that Skystreak let out the huge breath that she’d involuntarily been holding. More heavy breaths came as her heart raced, and Skystreak had to lean on the wall for support while she let her anxiety attack run its course, keeping an alert ear for approaching hoofsteps. Things in there had gotten too close; that they were aware of her activities and even her codename was definitely an unpleasant surprise, but then Skystreak had surprised herself with her inspired decision to pin it on Rainbud.

It was, of course, only a temporary solution. Inevitably the investigation into Rainbud would turn up no concrete evidence (though Black Tar’s testimony had been a pleasant surprise, and was sure to extend the process), and the military’s changeling hunt would be back to square one. Naturally, every possible suspect would be questioned, and Skystreak wasn’t sure she’d be able to come up with a strong enough alibi when the time came. But she had bought herself precious time, and she was going to put it to use to answer that question: What’s my next move?

She had assumed—hastily, it turned out—that Sunset Shimmer was the primary target of the Covenant’s attack on the coronation. It was the whole reason she had even agreed to help them in the first place (well, that and she had been hoping to find a spellcaster among their ranks strong enough to power up her dormant “family heirloom”). Had that been the case, Skystreak could have lived with being caught so long as her father’s revenge had been carried out. But Sunset Shimmer yet lived, now a princess seated on a throne of lies and corruption, and Skystreak needed to avoid detection just long enough to finish what she started.

But what’s my next move? She asked herself. Think!

It occurred to Skystreak with some despair that she may not get another chance to avenge herself on Sunset while the bitch was still in Equestria. This meant she would have to keep one step ahead of the military’s investigation into her activities for likely years until another opportunity presented itself… a frightfully bleak possibility.

Another much more positive thought suddenly occurred to her then. Rather than wait years for Sunset Shimmer to maybe return, Skystreak could always go after her where she lived instead. And thanks to her father’s last gift to her, Skystreak would actually have the power to cross dimensions to do it. That is, once she found a spellcaster strong enough to power it up.

So, with her breathing under control, Skystreak made her way to the break room with a smile on her face.

“Well, somepony’s sure in a good mood,” said Gray Ghost, who sat brooding over a coffee as bitter as his expression. “Can’t see how a pony can be so cheerful after that meeting.”

“I just had a little epiphany, is all,” Skystreak said. She wasn’t going to let his attitude ruin her good mood. “No matter what happens, everything is going to work out the way it’s supposed to!”

“You think so?”

“Definitely, sir—those rotten to the core always get what they deserve in the end.”

45th Day of Spring—3:15AM

Even though it was getting closer and closer to the moment the Covenant had been seemingly formed to bring about, the need for ensuring safety of the base was paramount. And so, two-pony patrols were still required to go around. One such pair was slowly making their circuit around the outer areas of the subterranean lair.

“Ugh, this totally sucks,” groaned the first of the two stallions. “Why do we even need to worry about security? Canterlot is so far up its own ass that there’s no way they could even mount an investigation to where the Scions went!”

“We can’t let our guard down,” said the second stallion. “Those damn alicorns haven’t been in charge as long as they have without having some tricks hidden in their wings. And with the threat of Sombra’s return—”

“Are we sure that we’re actually resurrecting him?”

“That’s what the Oracle said. Do you doubt her wisdom?”

“Well, no, but—”

“Then we have to stay vigilant! Sombra himself fought against the will of reality itself to bring about a new order, who is to say lesser beings will not try the same?”

clink

The two stallions snapped their heads in the direction of the noise, which made a closer sounding clink before the source revealed itself to them in the dim magical torchlight lining the walls—a black metal cylinder.

“What the?” asked the first stallion, lighting up his horn. A pale lavender aura appeared around the cylinder as it flew to just before his eyesight. “What exactly is this?”

The cylinder promptly answered by exploding in a bright flash of light. At the same time, a massive, ear-shattering boom sounded out, enough to bathe the stone-carved hallway in a ringing, riotous echo.

“AAAAAGGHHHH!!” he wailed, not expecting the full force of the sun to imprint upon his retinas, combined with the full brunt of the explosion so close to his ears rupturing his eardrums. He immediately collapsed, his forehooves instinctively rubbing at his bleeding, damaged ears and at the same time, desperately trying to recall some—any—spell that would take away the retina-searing blindness he was feeling.

The second stallion, who hadn’t been looking directly at the cylinder, but instead farther down the otherwise empty passage they’d just come through, was not as strongly affected—but he still couldn’t see clearly. It was enough, however, for him to make out the silhouette of a tall unicorn stallion rushing right at him out of the blue.


The humans and phoenix quickly followed up after a minute or two, finding Blueblood using the first stallion’s own cloak as impromptu bandages to tend to his mangled eyes and ears, but only after having knocked him out cold. The other stallion was hogtied with his own cloak—except for the part Blueblood had ripped off and turned into a gag.

“Well, color me impressed,” said Aria, glancing down the dimly-lit hallway. She grimaced and added “Looks like the path splits ahead.”

“We’re gonna have to choose one path,” said Adagio.

“What if we split up?” suggested Blu.

“Here,” said Sonata, pulling out some radios, “over in the human world, we have these things called—”

“Radios, yes,” drawled Blu. “The pony world may be behind yours in technology, but we are familiar with radio waves.”

“We’ll need to figure out who’s going with who,” said Sable. “I recommend that we break into three elements. Capt. Dazzle, you and Cmdr. Blaze will take that pathway, while Cmdr. Dusk and I will go the middle route. Director, I suggest you take Petty Officer Foxtrot and go down the last path.”

“I concur,” Blu agreed. “You’re all used to working with each other while I’m used to working with teams of mix-n-match abilities, so that would be the best course of action.”

“Are you sure about this?” Whiskey asked.

“Absolutely—I don’t know how humans do it, but I’m not the Agency Director for nothing. The Agency doesn’t allow ponies without plenty of field experience to be in my position after all. Plus, they have Tavi,” he turned and looked down into the darkening abyss that awaited him, “And I’m her knight.”

45th Day of Spring—3:18AM

“FATHER LUX!” the stallion shouted, running into the atrium in a panic. “FATHER LUX!”

“WHAT?!” shouted the leader of the Covenant, clearly irate at the interruption. “We are in the middle of final preparations for the ritual! What reason do you have for bothering us now?!”

The stallion approached Lux and those gathered around him, among them the Oracle, and he was clearly out of breath. “We’re...we’re under attack!”

Lux exchanged a glance of momentary worry with the Oracle before turning back and laughing. “Oh, please, you think Canterlot could manage a response this quickly? They couldn’t even find their asses in the dark!”

Suddenly, a loud sharp percussive noise rang through the atrium, even though the pitch indicated it had come from far within the tunnels.

“No, it’s not Canterlot—it’s the humans!

“Impossible!” scoffed Oracle Dynamine, before turning to Lux.

“Impossible or not, they’re here!” the guard stated.

“We have no choice, then—rally the Covenant, the ritual must not be prevented! Not when we’re this close!” Dynamine suggested.

“Indeed,” Lux said through gritted teeth. He then reared to make himself look more imposing. “My brothers and sisters! The foul humans seek to stop the march of Destiny! Show them the futility of such hubris!”

Numerous cloaked ponies silently and efficiently did as they were bid, leaving for the armory while a few remained, continuing to draw arcane runes around the mirror in the atrium’s center.

“We need not hold them off for long,” Dynamine said calmly. “Just long enough for the work to be done.”

“Too right,” Lux agreed, but moved closer to his Oracle to speak without the other ponies hearing. “Though, I can’t help but be concerned about how the enemy managed to find us. We may have a traitor in our midst!”

“Perhaps,” Dynamine said indifferently. “It matters little at this juncture. Victory is certain.”

Father Lux studied her curiously. “Do you know something I don’t?” he asked, feeling small and insignificant next to Sombra’s all-knowing Oracle as he all too often did. But not for much longer. Your usefulness is about to reach an end, Oracle.

Dynamine sighed. “If you must know, one of our ponies guarding the Scions reported that he had seen what appeared to be an ethereal strand of red thread emanating from the human, but I didn’t think….”

“Too right, Oracle. You didn’t think!” Lux all but shouted, briefly drawing curious looks from the ponies working to complete the ritual space. He quietly hissed, “Why was I not informed of this?!”

“Quite simply, the thread didn’t match up with any known tracking spell, and further investigation yielded nothing: there was no trace of the thread when we next checked on the Scions.”

Lux sulked for a few moments. “You should still have informed me of the situation.”

“What’s done is done. And like I said, it makes no difference anyway. Once King Sombra is resurrected, the alicorns’ toy soldiers will be just that: mere playthings before his might!” ”

45th Day of Spring—5:31PM

Even from the sky, the trio in the carriage could tell that Dodge Junction was preparing for a big celebration.

“Ah wasn’t aware that th’ Country Cacophony Music Festival had gotten so dang big,” said Applejack, surprised.

“Well, as far as I know, this is the first time it's been held ever since the end of the Winter,” said Sunny. “Ponies want to get out and celebrate.”

“Maybe this could be good for our purpose here as well?” suggested Fluttershy.

“Yeah, aren’t you supposed to have been some kinda big hit as a music star? You and Miss Octavia? Obviously she can’t be here but you can play guitar and sing, right?”

Fluttershy nodded, patting the guitar case she’d brought along just in case—she didn’t know if it was her inherent magic or what, but her music seemed to bring a calming effect, especially around ponies. She knew if Rainbow—the one she knew—was here, she would make some comparison to some 80s movie that involved music bringing world peace. And time travel. And likely it would have been a reference that only Pinkie would have caught.

The sudden thought of her dying friend made Fluttershy wince inwardly, but she brushed it aside. She needed to be stronger than ever right now, especially for Pinkie’s sake—so that her sacrifice wouldn’t have been in vain.

Unaware of the teen’s thoughts, Applejack asked, “Can you do country? Ah’ll admit Ah never caught one of yer concerts back in Ponyville. Ah wuz...doin’ other stuff on th’ farm.”

Not catching the self-guilt trip, Fluttershy responded by simply pulling out her guitar and strumming a few notes, along with some lyrics:

“Comes the morning and the dreams all fade away
Hundred thousand changes, everything’s the same
I’ve been waiting long for one of us to say,
Save the light and let it never fade away”

As she played the final notes, the phaeton began to alight in front of their accommodations for the next two days: The Resort at Cherry Groves. Had either of the Raritys been among their number, they would have insisted it was more something along the lines of a timeshare than a true resort, but as the three that were in the group didn’t have exotic tastes, it was more than enough for them.

As the resort was still quite new, there weren’t accomodations for arriving air travelers, so the pegasi pulling the phaeton had to land on the adjacent street. As she helped Fluttershy down from the phaeton, Sunny’s heart skipped a beat when she heard the sound of a familiar filly’s voice.

“Daddy, look! That one kinda looks like Sunny!”

A little ways down the street was a gray earth pony stallion with a toeheaded mane and tail pulling along a cart full of food and supplies. Riding at the front of the cart was a tiny sky-blue filly with a blonde mane and tail nearly identical to Sunny’s own. What are the odds? Sunny thought with a joyful smile before remembering where she was and returning her attention to her charges.

But Applejack was looking up at her with a smile of her own, clearly understanding what was happening. “Go on an’ say hi, Sugarcube. We got time.”

Smiling appreciatively at her and Fluttershy both, Sunny turned and sprinted towards the other ponies. “Dad! Bright!

It was only when she noticed her little sister instinctively recoil and her father take a nervous step back that Sunny Side remembered what she looked like. She stopped a few feet away from the cart and two ponies, awkwardly rubbing her neck and waving.

“Hey guys, it’s me!” she exclaimed, adding a nervous, “Surpriiiiiiiiiise….”

Finally a spark of recognition entered her father’s eyes, and he said in his familiar deep twang, “Sunny?”

Sunny nodded. “Yep! I’m, uh… trying a new look!”

Starting to realize who the big human was as well, the little filly hopped down from the cart and took a few stubby steps forward, gasping, “Whoa… you’re rilly tall, Big Sis!”

Sunny giggled. She had missed her baby sister’s wide-eyed innocence.

Her father, on the other hoof, was still looking at her skeptically. “Yeah, it’s, uh… it’s nice to see you Sunny, but I gotta ask: what are you doing here and why do you look… like this?”

“And you haven’t written in a rilly rilly long time!” her little sister added.

“I know, and I’m sorry about that, but things have been crazy. We have a lot to catch up on!” Sunny explained. “I’m now part of the new Special Initiative set up by the new princess.” She then gestured back to where Applejack and Fluttershy were watching at a respectful distance. “I’m in town escorting Lady Bearer Applejack and Miss Fluttershy, one of Princess Sunset Shimmer’s court.”

Sunny then waved the two of them over, and when they approached she introduced them in turn before doing the same for her family. “This is my father, Iron Side….”

The strong stallion dipped his head towards Applejack. “Ma’am.”

Applejack took his foreleg in hers and shook it with gusto. “Howdy!”

“...and this is my baby sister, Bright Side.”

The tiny filly puffed her cheeks up in a pout. “Hey! I’m not a baby! I’m eight years old!”

“Yep, and I won’t care when you’re eighty. You’ll always be my baby sister!” Sunny exclaimed, ruffling Bright’s mane. The relatively recent addition of fingers allowed Sunny to apply some tactical massaging to the tiny filly’s noggin, and a little extra scratching behind her ears caused Bright to lean so far into her hand that she nearly fell over when Sunny took it away.

Whoa…” Bright exclaimed breathlessly, looking at Sunny’s new appendages like she was seeing the face of Faust. “Can you do that again?”

Unable to restrain herself any longer, Fluttershy bent down and started administering head scratches which the filly all too eagerly leaned into.

“We’re here as part of the ‘Charm Tour’ set up by Princess Sunset and Princess Twilight,” Sunny said, returning her attention to her father.

“Eeyup. Fluttershy here’ll be performin’ a short concert here at th’ resort t’morrow,” Applejack said, glancing at the girl in question who was now speaking in increasingly high-pitched gibberish to Bright Side as they continued to play. “Which Ah’m sure she’d love ta tell y'all about when she’s less… distracted.”

The stoic Iron Side couldn’t help but crack a smile at how easily the human girl was getting along with his daughter. “Well, I’d be happy to hear all about it,” he said. “Any chance the three of you might want to join us for dinner?”

“Actually, maybe you and Bright would like to join us,” said Sunny. “Apparently this resort has a five-star restaurant.”

“I’d like that.”

46th Day of Spring—5:48 PM

Her attention razor-focused on the two pegasi in front of her, Rainbow bellowed, “I WANT TO KNOW WHO IS IN CHARGE OF THIS CHICKEN COOP—NOW!” She knew she had the eyes of the others on her—she wanted it that way.

After all, their flight, for the most part had been good, until just before the phaeton pegasi began making their descent approach to Royal Naval Airfield Vanhoofer. That was when a flight of pegasi buzzed by too fast, causing turbulence hard enough to rock the vehicle, and had Moonblazer not been fast enough, Twilight would have fallen over the side. Immediately recognizing the offenders as members of Dust Devil squadron, Rainbow told the tow team to gently land behind her and then took off after her quarry, hurling herself at them fast enough that she nearly landed before them. The moment they were all on the ground however, she let loose.

“You got a problem with this operation?” came a very distinctly accented voice, one that was from the southern reaches of Equestria. Sure enough, a mare in a red and beige flight suit approached, and from her attitude, she certainly seemed to be cut from the same cloth as Rainbow in her early years. Her build was taller and leaner, with less muscles than Rainbow; and she had a deep violet coat which accented her cornflower and gray mane and tail. Her cyan eyes had a familiarly cocky look to them, though the mare also sported a noticeable X-shaped facial scar over her left eye. But the thing that caught Rainbow’s attention most was the fact she was limping with bandages around a lame right hind leg.

“Lt. Rolling Thunder—I’m the flight leader of Dust Devil Flight Three,” said the mare, introducing herself. “And I guess you must be Lt. Rainbow Dash, yeah?”

Rainbow’s eyes narrowed. “Normally, yes—but right now, you can address me as Lady Knight Rainbow Dash, Bearer of the Element of Loyalty, Lieutenant. And then after that, you can explain why the hell you just buzzed a Crown VIP phaeton.”

Thunder’s eyes widened. “What?” As if on cue, the phaeton immediately came to a landing right behind Rainbow. The look of panic on her face widened as it was clear the VIPs in question...were humans, the strange new species that had come to Equestria as part of Princess Sunset’s entourage.

“So, start explaining,” Rainbow told her.

Thunder sighed. “I...have no excuse,” she said, gesturing to her injuries. “I should be up there, teaching them, but as you can see, I’m not flightworthy right now, milady. And had I known there was going to be a VIP approach, I would’ve kept these low-wingers on the ground. As it is, I’m busting my tail to get them their flight quals!”

Rainbow realized at that point that it was just the four flight pegasi, plus a couple of members of the support crew “Where’s your CO? Your XO?”

“Out in town supporting the Guard with the riots,” Thunder explained. “As for the SMO, they left me behind to train our newest recruits.” That made sense to Rainbow; Squadron Maneuver Officers—or SMOs for short—were charged with the training of squadron flight personnel. “But as you can see, we’re short on qualified candidates.” The taller pegasus sighed. “Unlike the Wonderbolts who have an Academy just to be able to make it into the squadron, we’re a regular combat squadron, which means we evaluate and take on anypony who signs up. Unfortunately, with so many qualified ponies already gone for one reason or another, well….” She shrugged her wings, as if the gesture explained everything.

“You make it sound as if they can’t do the complex calculations that are required for aerobatics and combat maneuvers,” Rainbow stated.

“They can’t!” Thunder shouted back, pointing to a dark-gray mare. “Rollover there? You know what she used to do for a living? Let’s just say it involved counting to one, and making sure where inputs and outputs go. She signed up because the recruiter she was sleeping with told her it was a good way to make quick money for her family back home.” She then pointed to a stallion who looked very much out of place in a uniform. “Sh’Oab over there grew up in Sibearia! He can barely speak Equish! The reason he joined was that he wanted to ‘protect his kind’—" she did air quotes with her forehooves "—and a member of the Sibearean military referred him to Equestria’s military! And don’t get me started on Wipeout!”

Hearing her name, Wipeout, a white pegasus with a green-and-brown mane and tail, waved to Rainbow. She had the same strabismus issue as Derpy, Rainbow noted, but where Derpy had intelligence in her eyes, with Wipeout, it was clear that the stars in her eyes shone through the hole in the back of her head.

“So you’re saying that—”

“I need to teach them complex flight calculations, because somehow all three of them managed to avoid getting them in their life. Hell, it’s a wonder they can even fly! Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure they can pick it up, but I’m an SMO, not a flight school teacher. This is stuff they should have learned as foals—and with all the crises going on, I don’t have time to turn them down or turn them away!”

“Then maybe I can help.” All eyes turned to one of the humans, who had gotten out of the phaeton. To Thunder, she looked a lot like a human version of Princess Twilight Sparkle, though that obviously didn’t make any sense.

Rainbow looked at Twilight and grinned. “Egghead stuff, huh?”

“If I can be a substitute teacher for foals, I can probably teach these ponies. And, as my sister would say, that’s probably the most important thing, right?”

Thunder looked at the newcomer. “Uh, sorry, Miss Human, no offense intended, but I don’t think you know the first thing about fli—”

L=Cl*A*5*r*V^2,” Twilight rattled off the top of her head.

Thunder’s eyes threatened to pop out of her own head. “How in Tartarus do you know the basic equation for flight?”

Twilight said nothing, but instead just crossed her arms and smirked.

Rainbow stifled a laugh and said, “Think you can help them?”

“Not a problem.”

Rainbow turned back to Thunder. “Will you accept the help? Or do I need to make it an order?”

Thunder got the point immediately. “Well, Miss Human, if you follow me, I’ve got a chalkboard and some other things that you can use to teach these low-wingers. Celestia knows they’ll need every bit of it.”


As Twilight followed Thunder and the others, Moonblazer went up to Rainbow. “Time to go,” she told the senior officer.

Rainbow looked at her. “You stay with Twilight. I’ll go rustle up the base commander and find out what else is going on.”

“You don’t have to.” Moonblazer pointed at an earth pony wearing a naval uniform, talking to an Army brigadier. To Rainbow, that spelled trouble.

“They came looking for you the moment we landed,” Moonblazer explained. “They want to speak to you and me. You because of your higher rank, if you get my drift.”

And you?”

“Because I’m a SIREN—and the moment they realized the Special Initiative was available, they made it clear to involve me. I’ve already detailed one of the tow team to stay with Twilight.”

“Fine,” Rainbow said, not liking this at all. “Let’s get going then.”

46th Day of Spring—7:00AM

Sunset yawned as she got out of bed. As they arrived late yesterday, the first thing they did was check into their hotel rooms at the Golden Tiara Resort & Spa, the grandest hotel in all of Fillydelphia and only a stone’s throw from the Faust Memorial Library. In fact, her penthouse had a clear view of it.

As she set her legs on the floor, she looked at the bed. The staff had apologized profusely for not having a minotaur-sized bed available for her, and while she could have taken care of that herself via magic, she didn’t want them to think that she didn’t respect them or the care they’d taken in making sure they felt at home, here in the ancient capital and “cradle of ponykind”. Besides, she reasoned, she rarely had the opportunity to sleep at home in her normal form, and while she was long used to sleeping as a human, there were some advantages to sleeping as an alicorn.

For one, I can cover myself with my own wings. Can’t say I come with built-in blankets in my daily form, she thought, mentally chuckling at the image in her head.

No sooner had she exhaled than had a furious banging began to sound at her door. Shaking her head at what she already knew was likely to happen, she reached out to the door handle with her magic and pulled it open, only to find that the door had been one second short of being bulldozed by Pinkie, wearing a toque and pushing in a cart loaded with more pancakes, syrup and various confections that any being in any universe had a right to be pushing.

“Hi!” the pink pony squealed. “I figured you were going to sleep in, so I thought I’d bring you breakfast! I figure your sweetie usually does this, but since she’s out of…” Pinkie realized she was about to make a verbal faux pas and quickly amended with, “Unavailable! Yes, let’s go with that! Anyway, since she can’t do it, I thought I’d bring a little Pinkieness into your life and make you breakfast in bed or something!”

“Pinkie, you really don’t have to,” Sunset pled.

“Oh, it’s never a problem, Sunny!”

“No, I meant it—you really don’t have to.”

“Again, no problemo!” With that, Pinkie pulled the cover off one of the serving trays, letting a dozen balloons gaily float into the air. “I thought we’d start off with some pretty balloons!” Pinkie chirped, apparently far too in her idea to realize that Sunset was already giving her a lidded look. “I love balloons, don’t you?”

Sunset facehoofed and seriously debated banishing Pinkie to the moon, but then reconsidered as she’d likely have to answer to her aunt for that. I swear, you’re not my Pinkie, she thought, ignoring the possessive term and all it implied. At least she wouldn’t be this...this….this!

A knock sounded at the door, and Ushanka poked her head in. “Apologies, Your Highness,” she said. “If I had known she had planned to do this, I would have….” The rest of the sentence was lost in a stoic Slavic-like nature that was Ushanka’s normal demeanor.

“Good, Ushanka, you’re here. Now I can lose my sanity in relative peace.”

“Is there something you need me to get for you, Your Highness?”

Sunset shook her head.

“Bring me the Disco King!” Pinkie said to Ushanka.

Ushanka, in return, blinked in confusion.

Sunset groaned. “Fuck this,” she hissed. “I’m going to go get some breakfast. I’ll meet you girls in thirty minutes by the phaeton.” With that, she started to depart the room.

“Where are you going?” Ushanka asked.

“Paris! At least I’ll get some peace and quiet!” With that, she teleported away.

Pinkie watched as the alicorn departed. She then turned to Ushanka and asked, “Would you like breakfast? Got a ton of pancakes and some syrup, whipped cream, chocolate syrup, caramel, and a whole bunch of other stuff! Even I can’t eat it all!”

Ushanka just stared in disbelief. “Do you realize what you’ve done, Lady Pie?”

Pinkie nodded. “Yup. She’s worried about her fillyfriend, but she’s not going to admit it. Sunny’s not that kind of mare. Hopefully, by getting her to go out, maybe it’ll help her to get her mind off her worry. She’s not me, but I don’t think Pinkie...well, the other Pinkie, obviously...would like it if Sunny worried constantly.”

“You could have just told her that, you know.”

“No. She’s too headstrong to listen. You can see that. Besides, I’ll have plenty of time to talk to her later. But for now….” She held up a plate with a stack of pancakes on it. “Care for some crystalberry pancakes? Just made ‘em!”

45th Day of Spring—1:59PM

Normally, the halls of Nobility House were generally welcoming, even if the majority of those it served were anything but. After all, this had once been Celestia’s home—her original one in Canterlot, before the current palace was built. So whenever she came here for various reasons, in some ways, it always felt like a homecoming of sorts.

Now, however, the expanses before her seemed to be imposing—imperialistic even—and it unnerved the ruling princess. For a mare of her extremely advanced age, to have what was once her own home turned into a virtual place of judgement felt like a former sanctuary having turned against her.

But the nobility can not be denied, she thought glumly, passing through the doorways. At least she had Luna to accompany her on what felt like a perpetrator’s march to the gallows.

“I honestly can not fathom what the nobility wants,” Luna nickered. “Are they grumpy because the coronation’s gone south and it took all night to figure out what happened? We barely had any time to lower the moon and raise the sun!”

“Leaving the nobility intact was part of the agreement we made with their ancestors thousands of years ago,” sighed Celestia. “Though the ponies back then would be offended to learn how...disagreeable their descendents are. Most of them, at least.”

“Let’s just get this over with.”

But Luna also felt trepidation when they entered the main atrium. The glare of virtually all the nobles—the only ones not in attendance most likely having been hit by the Allucinor Wings—seemed to bore through her soul. With nothing being said, the two princesses took their seats in front of the gathered crowd. Shortly afterward, Riven Oak appeared at the dais.

“Princess Celestia,” he intoned, sounding as if he thought he embodied the will of all the other nobles—and at that moment, he probably did. “I’m sure you and your sister have plenty enough to handle at the moment, but the gathered nobles here are all in concordance and we wish to enact...L'Équilibre de la Noblesse.”

Luna had a puzzled look on her muzzle. “I’m...not familiar with that, I’m afraid.”

Celestia said in an aside to her sister, “It’s old Prench. It means—”

“I know what it means, Cellie,” Luna whispered back. “I just don’t know what it pertains to.”

Celestia looked at her sister with a non-expression, but Luna knew her sister well enough to see the deep worry in her eyes. “That’s because it only came about after your...episode. I passed it after the Civil War saw Nightmare Moon banished, so that ponies would always have the means to legally prevent another such as her.”

“That still doesn’t explain what it is, sister.”

“It is impeachment,” said Oak, clearly enjoying the ability to even state what was probably a wet dream of the greedy, power hungry nobles. “And after everything that has happened in the past year, we believe it is in ponykind’s best interest that you, Princess Celestia, are removed from your position as High Ruler of Equestria. And while...regrettable...we have to think of the safety and welfare of the citizenry in the long run.”

Luna gasped. “You...you can’t do that!”

“They can, sister,” said Celestia, keeping an even look on her face. “In fact, they tried to invoke it on you immediately after your return, fearing you were still Nightmare Moon. Fortunately, your...inexperience with the modern world proved you were not.” She then turned to Riven Oak, “I trust I will be allowed the customary time to form my defense.”

“Of course,” Oak stated. “That is what the law requires and that is what we agreed upon.”

“Very well then. Is that all or is there other business to attend to?”

“No, that is all.”

No sooner had the two left the room than did Luna let her feelings be known.

“Those intolerable bastards!” she whinnied in anger. “Those plotholes will see this country burned to the ground if it means more bits in their coffers!”

“Not all of us, at least,” came a new voice, and as the two sisters turned, they found none other than Fancy Pants having followed them out. “I trust you aren’t including me among my, ahem, more notorious peers?”

“Of course not,” said Luna, favoring him with a smile. “You’re one of the few nobles that truly engender the term.”

Fancy Pants bowed. “Well, if it means anything, I have taken the liberty to proffer to the impeachment group that I shall be representing you as your legal counsel. That is, of course, if you should desire that, Your Majesty.”

“Thank you, Fancy Pants,” said Celestia, genuinely touched by the gesture.

“Though with that now established…” he tugged at his collar nervously, “as your legal counsel, I would recommend you turn over full control of the government to your sister, at least for the moment.”

“What?” The suggestion clearly caught Celestia off guard.

“Given that the case against you stems from mismanagement of the government, it would be wise to step away from the throne, if only temporarily, to prevent them from trying to use anything else against you that they don’t already have.”

“...you’re right,” the solar matriarch finally said in agreement, before turning to Luna. “I’m sorry, sister, but I must ask—”

“Consider it done,” said Luna. “You’ll need some time away from all this, anyway. We should have Kibbitz’s office draft the accords as soon as possible.”

46th Day of Spring—7:03PM

The meeting now over, Rainbow and Moonblazer departed the building, both disquieted by the revelation. Rainbow was the first to speak. “I remember Rainbud,” she said simply. “She was a helluva pain in the plot, but I never thought she’d turn traitor!”

“I don’t believe it,” was all Moonblazer said.

“Yeah, it’s hard to believe, but these are the times we live in, I guess.” Rainbow Dash scowled. It seemed that loyalty was especially hard to come by these days.

Moonblazer stopped in place. “No, I mean I don’t believe it.”

Rainbow looked over her shoulder at the once-batpony. “You don’t think Rainbud’s really a traitor?” she asked, and when Moonblazer shook her head, Rainbow followed her question with another. “Why? You know her?”

Moonblazer shook her head again. “Well no, but….”

“C’mon, Moonblazer. You heard the report in there! She all but admitted it to Black Tar!”

“She admitted to losing faith in the princesses, but that doesn’t mean she’s a traitor!” Moonblazer argued, on the cusp of raising her voice. “Way I hear it, that kind of sentiment has been pretty popular these days.”

Rainbow cocked her head and looked at the humanized batpony like she was simple. “Yeah, popular with traitors!”

Rainbow knew she didn’t like Moonblazer the moment they first met. An egghead like Twilight might suggest that it was because she reminded Rainbow of her own worst qualities—her hotheadedness and her ego—but Rainbow knew that wasn’t it. Now, she believed she had finally figured it out: Moonblazer clearly didn’t value the virtue of loyalty!

With a petulant scowl (that most definitely didn’t remind Rainbow of herself!) Moonblazer said, “Not everyone who looks like a traitor is one, you know!”

Rainbow flew up so that the two were eye-to-eye. “And what do you know about that sort of thing, huh?”

Rainbow expected yet another petulant outburst from the mercurial batpony. But instead, Moonblazer looked at her with eyes filled with...sorrow?

“I know that sort of thing because I’m from a tribe that many ponies still don’t trust because my ancestors sided with Nightmare Moon during the civil war. A war that happened centuries ago, and yet ponies still think we're Nightmare Moon worshippers! Hell, I even got it from my own sister!”

Rainbow looked at her, confused. “What, your own sister’s a Nightmare Moon worshipper?”

“Kinda weird for a pegasus to be that—and my parents wouldn’t have let her in any case, given that they’re pegasi as well.”

“Wait—your parents are pegasi?” Now Rainbow was really confused. “You adopted or something?”

“Not even.” Moonblazer rolled her eyes. “Look, clearly my family had a batpony ancestor and I got the luck of the draw; you make it sound as if that’s not common. But that’s not the point. Anyway, it’s bad enough that I get it as a batpony, but when your sister’s Lemonburst, well, then you really get shit.”

Rainbow’s jaw dropped. “Lemonburst? The famous actress?”

“Yes Lemonburst, who hates her sister for being a batpony and thus ‘dragging down her career,’ despite there being no proof of that. Lemonburst, who didn’t listen to my parents when they explained that yes, I was born to our mother and no, I wasn’t adopted and definitely no, they weren’t going to send me to batpony jail or whatever. And I’ve put up with shit all my life.” She then gestured to herself. “I even heard from Cmdr. Blaze that the human tribe I’m now a part of also gets shit back in the human world. So yes, I know what it’s like to be accused of shit you didn’t do.

“Now, I have no clue whether or not Ens. Rainbud is guilty and frankly, it’s none of my business. And with all due respect, lieutenant, I don’t think it’s yours, either. It isn’t our job to pass judgement on Rainbud—especially when all of the facts aren’t clear yet. So maybe we shouldn’t abandon our loyalty to our fellow serviceponies until they are.”

Moonblazer remained silent for a moment after, and for the life of her Rainbow couldn’t quite bring herself to fill it. She thought she had the measure of Moonblazer right up until she used that word. Loyalty.

“Now if you’ll excuse me,” Moonblazer said with a confident tone of finality that seemed at odds with her apparent human age, “I need to go meet up with Lady Sparkle and do my job.” Nothing more to say, she walked off, leaving the pegasus behind with a whole lot of confusion and far more questions than answers.

45th Day of Spring—3:20AM

Down in the cavernous lair’s dungeon cells, the loud percussive echoes suddenly sounded out, putting the conscious occupants on edge.

“What was that?” asked Lock, concerned.

Razz, of course knew; she’d been around guns just long enough to recognize the noise. “I think the SIRENs are here.”

Then, the sound of a much closer struggle sounded and the Covenant guard that was supposed to be watching the imprisoned Scions flew across the room, crashing into the opposite wall and collapsing in a heap. A fresh line of blood was evident on his neck, which telegraphed the arrival of Corner Shot rushing over and, surprisingly, grabbing the keys off the still warm corpse. Noticeably, Corner was now sporting what looked to be a hastily-packed saddlebag.

“Oh, great, you’re back,” drolled Lock, clearly none too thrilled to see the one Scion who had embraced Sombra the most.

“What do you want now, Corner?” asked Razz suspiciously. “We’re not about to start worshiping Sombra like you if that’s what you’re here for.”

“Fuck Sombra, Fuck the Covenant, Fuck everything!” spat out Corner, clearly fretting over something upsetting. Finally prying the keys off the dead guard, she raced over to the cell containing the other three Scions and began trying to figure out which key would unlock it. “Long story short: they’re going to kill me and your human friend if they get their way, and I doubt you two will last much longer after that. So I’m willing to make a deal: I set you all free and we work together to get out of this minotaurshit fuckhole filled with morons as far as the eye can see, you get the law off my ass so I can fuck off to some other part of the world and live a solitary life.”

“And you expect us to belie—" began Lock, before Razz interrupted.

“Deal,” the darker unicorn answered, silencing any further retort from Lock with a stern look.

“Okay, fine, we’ll trust the literal backstabber for now,” the blacksmith grumbled. “But what are we going to do about her?” She gestured to the still slumbering form of Octavia. “We wake her up, she’s going to start screaming her head off, but she’s too big to effectively carry out on our own!”

“Got you covered,” said Corner, who used her good wing to reach into the saddlebag and pulled out a bottle of a sickly green-blue looking mixture. She then shoved it into the bars of the cell, allowing Razz to pick it up with her telekinesis and bring it close to read.

“Healthy Hearth’s Hale and Hearty Herbal,” she read, eyes opening wide as she realized what it was: an expensive brand of magical elixir that even Princess Twilight said was hard to come by for her uses. “This shit is expensive! Where did you—"

“I hit the base infirmary on the way here,” said Corner, grunting as the fifth key she tried wouldn’t even fit into the hole in the lock.

“Pity this cell is magically suppressive,” said Lockbox. “Given that I probably could have picked it from here if only—"

“Shut up!” whinnied Corner.

Ignoring Lock for the moment, Razz looked at the healing remedy and the sleeping form of Octavia. She would have greatly preferred keeping the teen asleep so the pain would pass naturally, but...there was no choice.

Chapter 16 - Pressing Hooves

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Golden Age of Apocalypse

Chapter 16—Pressing Hooves

45th Day of Spring—6:31PM

“It’s so lovely to have a quiet spot of tea, isn’t it?” asked Col. Tea Kettle, using her magic to magically pour more of her honey lemon tea out for her two guests. “Especially since your, er, human friend is keeping those more rowdy recruits busy. I didn’t know humans could move so fast!”

“That’s, well, unique to her,” said Fluttershy, holding the teacup in one wing and using the other to fan it a bit cooler. “She’s the counterpart of this world’s native Rainbow Dash.”

“So, humans don’t move that fast?”

Uncomfortable with her towering size even for a human, Embiggen gestured to herself. “I’m only in this form because I’m part of the human guard services now. I can assure you, most humans don’t move as fast as pegasi, much less anything approaching the speed that I’ve heard Lt. Dash is capable of.”

“Well,” chuckled Kettle, “from the sounds of things, she’s certainly leaving a good impression on the troops.”

But then suddenly, one of the enlisted ponies burst through the doors of the dining room. “Colonel!” he shouted, “Tazlwurm!”

“Again?!” sighed an exasperated Kettle. “I swear, these things are becoming such a pain to deal with.”

“It’s worse, ma’am,” the soldier added. “The human mare...she’s caught in one of its tongues!”

At that news, all three tea drinkers immediately got up from the table and raced outside. Even over the walls of the fort, they could see the towering Tazlwurm wrestling with the struggling Rainbow Dash.

“I DIDN’T SIGN UP FOR SOME TENTACLE PORNO!” the Latina shouted, trying desperately to free her ankle from the tongue wrapped around it as she herself swung through the air.

“Oh no!” whimpered Fluttershy, “Embiggen, what are we gonna do?” But when the timid pegasus looked over to where the Amazonian teen should have been, instead there was nobody—and Embiggen was already racing to the front of the fort, carbine in hand.


“PONIES!” shouted Col. Kettle, “ANTI-TAZLWURM FORMATION ALPHA, NOW!”

Immediately, ponies from both outside and inside the fort converged to form defensive lines just outside the base’s entrance, creating two rows on either side of the door. From the battlements on the front wall, several unicorn mages had popped up and were ready to fire localized earthquake spells to confuse and disorient the crazed beast.

“That human mare is still in its clutches, Colonel!” a pegasus stallion wearing the rank insignia of a lieutenant shouted. “We can’t risk hurting her!”

“And what’s that other human doing?” another soldier added. “Is she actually running right toward the damn thing? She’s going to get both of them killed!”

The ponies of Fort Nonsense called out to Embiggen to return to the safety of the battlements, but to no avail. The hulking figure was moving at a speed unthinkable for someone her size, weapon in hand as she headed straight for the towering creature and the rainbow-haired human in its clutches.

45th Day of Spring—3:25AM

As Octavia slowly started coming to, the first thought she had was that she’d experienced the worst lucid dream—or rather, lucid nightmare—of her life.

Her second thought was that the absolute amount of pain that suddenly roared up from her lower body made it clear that it had not been a nightmare: that Melody had somehow used that magic amulet to try to finally ruin Octavia’s life once and for all, and that she was now a half-monstrous parody of a human.

Her third thought was to scream, but no sooner had she opened her mouth, than a bottle was suddenly shoved into it.

“Tavi, I need you to drink this,” said Razz, her horn glowing in its bubbly purple-green aura. “It’s medicine from this world. I don’t know how much it’ll help, but if we’re going to get out of here, I need you to drink this and trust me."

Quickly nodding, it was all Octavia could do to grab the bottle with her own thankfully still recognizably human hands. It tasted like a can of lukewarm tea that had been left open for too long, but as she drank it, she could feel the intense pain in her lower body begin to dial down towards the dull sensation of having worked out for too long.

“Ungh,” she groaned, finally removing the emptied bottle from her mouth. “God...what the fuck is even happening?”

“Utter pandemonium,” drolled Corner Shot, who finished undoing the lock and threw the cell door open. No sooner had she done that than did Tavi instinctively throw herself at Corner, pinning the pegasus to the ground with her hands around her neck.

“YOU!” she seethed, anger in her eyes. “It’s your fucking fault all of this happened, you cunt!”

“Yeah,” gasped Corner, trying to pry the human’s hands off her neck. She could have used knives, but stabbing the human probably wouldn’t have been wise given the deal she’d just negotiated with Razz and Lock. “Tell me something I don’t know!”

“Tavi, let her go! We need her alive right now!” said Razz, who didn’t even wait for an answer before using her magic to essentially rip Octavia off the downed pegasus and suspend her in the air. “She’s our only ticket out of this madhouse!”

“And you trust this bitch?!”

“She’s the one who brought you that elixir, which is the only reason you aren’t in terrible pain right now,” said Lock, in a tone expressing she wasn’t happy about giving Corner credit but that the facts were facts.

“Right now you have other things to be concerned about,” added Razz, “like seeing if you can still walk. I’m not going to abandon you, but as hard as it is right now, I need you to see if you can get back on your hooves—I mean, feet.” She saw Octavia wince at her verbal error, and frowned at her own gaffe.

“Leave Corner to Razz and me, okay?” Lock insisted. “You focus on taking care of yourself right now.”

“Fine,” Tavi huffed, though with her anger subsiding it was clear the fear and uncertainty was coming back. Suddenly, the gunshots sounded out again. “Was that gunfire?”

“Gunfire?” Lock asked, unfamiliar with the term.

“Yeah, sounds like the triplets are pissed,” Razz said sardonically, and despite the situation, Tavi couldn’t help but laugh.

“That red band must have brought your humans here,” Corner commented, unaware of Razz’s joke. “I guess they’re showing that incident at the parade grounds with the griffons wasn’t a one time deal.” Loud ringing retorts then rang out again.

“Trust me, I’ve seen them in action before. Your Covenant buddies aren’t going to last very long,” Razz noted.

“Also part of the reason I’m saving your asses” said Corner, getting off the ground and dusting herself off with her wings, “I’m sure those three humans with the tiny shoot sticks particularly want me dead after I killed the pink-haired human.”

“You killed one of my friends!?” Octavia gasped, suddenly feeling numb, and not due to the pain. Razz, however, having had enough experience with the relatively mercurial nature of human emotions, put a foreleg up to stop her before said numbness turned into murderous fury.

“All the more reason to get out of here,” the mulberry unicorn said, trying to calm her own self down—the dead person was one of her friends as well, after all. She then turned to Corner, adding, “You have my word I’ll help you if you get us out...but even I can’t stop Sunset if you honestly killed one of her friends.”

“A risk I’ll have to take,” Corner replied. “Now come on; I’m honestly surprised the Covenant hasn’t already tried to send extra guards here!”

45th Day of Spring—7:10PM

Dinner at the restaurant in Cherry Groves Resort was going well, Sunny Side thought. The food was pretty good (if predictably cherry-themed) and her family seemed to be getting along well with her charges. Her father Iron Side talked a little about what was happening on their chicken farm in the past weeks (they’d just built a new coup and were ordering about a dozen new chickens). Sunny had then caught them up on her new assignment, and told them all about how she had come about it.

“Let’s just say that Cmdr. Dusk was walking funny for the next couple of days, and not for the reason most mares like to be walking funny if you know what I mean!” Sunny said with a wink.

Her father just gave her a glare and discretely gestured to Bright Side, who looked over to her with an innocent smile.

“I like walking funny too!” the little sky-blue filly exclaimed. “Sometimes at school, I walk around on my hind legs and it makes all the other foals laugh!”

Sunny hastily changed the subject to the reason she and her charges were here, inevitably bringing up the mini-concert planned for tomorrow.

“So… Miss Fluttershy, is it?” Iron asked, clearing his throat. “What’s human music like?”

Taking a moment to chew and swallow the food in her mouth, Fluttershy answered. “From what I can tell, it isn’t much different from the music of your world. There’s lots of different styles and genres from cultures all over the world.”

“But I thought you said that humans were the only intelligent species in your world?”

“We are, but there’s lots of different kinds of humans, just like there are different kinds of ponies. On our world, we have over two hundred different nations and around eight billion people. That, along with centuries, gives plenty of time for dozens of different styles of expression, whether music, art, acting or what comes to mind.”

Iron nodded, but Sunny could tell he still didn’t quite understand. He was a stubborn stallion, her father. Not intolerant or completely unaccepting of new ideas, but he was still very much set in his ways. It was the reason, Sunny suspected, that he kept stealing uncertain glances her way as the meal went on.

“So, you can change out of… that form any time you like, can’t you?” he suddenly asked.

Sunny held up her right arm, where the magical bracelet remained around her wrist. “Just need to take this off.”

“Then why don’t you?” Iron asked. “You’re off-duty now, right?”

“Actually, I’m on-duty as long as I’m with Miss Fluttershy and Lady Applejack,” Sunny said, the presence of the sidearm on her hip a constant reminder of that. She was only able to let her guard down as much as she was now because she’d earlier spoken with the Resort’s security team, who knew to inform her of any problems.

“Okay… is there a time later on that you can?” her father asked carefully. “I’d like to see you once in your natural form before you’re shipped out to their world.”

“I’m really not supposed to. Capt. Dazzle wants us all to be completely used to our human bodies before we ship out. Doesn’t want us to fall back on any of our ‘pony’ habits that might expose us when we’re over there.”

“And you’re okay with that?” Iron said, the food on his plate slowly being forgotten. “You’re okay with just… losing your pony heritage?”

“I’m not losing my heritage, Dad,” Sunny said, an annoyed tone taking hold of her voice.

“You sure?” Iron persisted. “Because you’re being made to live as a completely different species, and you don’t even know how long it’ll be for….”

“Dad….”

But her father continued as if she hadn’t spoken. “There’s a term for that, Sunny: it’s called cultural assimilation.”

Dad, it’s not like that!

“Oh, then what’s it like, Sunny? Because the way it looks to me, these humans just showed up in our world, turned you into one of them, and are taking you back to their world....!”

“Dad, I’m not being taken against my will…!”

“...And the Princesses are just allowing this?!”

Sunny became acutely aware of just how silent the rest of the table had gotten then. Fluttershy and Applejack were looking at each other, wordlessly trying to decide whether to say anything. Even Bright Side had gone silent, staring intently down at her plate as she ate. Sunny looked away from her father and returned her attention to her own meal. For a few moments she thought the rest of the dinner was going to carry on in that oppressively uncomfortable silence when Applejack spoke up.

“Mr. Side, Ah c’n honestly say Ah unnerstand where yer comin’ from,” she said. “Lettin’ family go is hard, and well… Ah know how strange these human folk seem t’ us. There was a time when Ah trusted them even less th’n you do.

“But in shunnin’ what was different, Ah ended up deprivin’ myself of what coulda been a lasting friendship. These humans are strange an’ different, sure enough. But they’re also good folk, an’... Ah was blind not t’ see it sooner!”

Another silence followed the blonde farmpony’s short speech, but rather than awkward it was reflective.

“Applejack’s right,” Sunny said after giving them all a moment to consider the Element of Honesty’s words. “There’s so much we can learn from these humans—so much that I’m already learning. They’re not the monsters from our bedtime stories, Dad.”

With a long sigh, Iron said, “Right, I’m sorry. So much of our world is changing and, well… you know how well I cope with change, Sunny.”

“It’s okay,” Sunny said, smiling now that things seemed to be civil again. “Trust me, you’re not the only pony who’s having a hard time realizing that these humans aren’t the monsters from our legends.”

Fluttershy nodded. “That’s right. In fact, it’s the main reason why we’re here on this publicity tour.” Her eyes suddenly went big as evidently an idea just hit her. “Hey, how would you both like free seats at the concert tomorrow?”

Bright Side gasped, and looked at her dad with big eager eyes. “Yeah! Can we go, Daddy? Please?”

“Well…”

“Pleeeeeeeeeeeeeease?” Bright exclaimed before Iron even had a chance to say one way or the other. “Please please please please please please please please please please please…?”

“Okay, okay!” Iron said with a good-natured laugh. “We’ll be there.”

Soon everyone had finished their dinner, and Iron Side announced that it was time for him and Bright to go home.

“It’s a school night, after all,” he reminded the little filly, whose response was an over-dramatic groan.

When the time came for Sunny to say goodnight to them, she couldn’t help but notice a little of her father’s unease from earlier in the evening had returned.

“Hey, you know I’ll always be a pony at heart right?” she told him.

“You know, I’m not sure that matters all that much to me anymore,” Iron said, standing up on his hind legs to give the human woman a loving embrace. “All I care about is that you’ll always be my filly.”

“Of course,” Sunny said, immediately returning the hug. “When I’m back from my first tour in the human world, you’ll understand why I did it. The humans are amazing! With their help we can further modernize Equestria’s military so that we never have to see another war like the one we fought against Tirek. That’s why I want to be a SIREN!”

45th Day of Spring—3:30AM

Pushing through the Covenant headquarters with a murderous fury, the SIRENs proceeded to introduce the enemy forces to human warfare as only they knew how—brutal and unrelenting. The three teams proceeded to “take the gloves off”, as Sunset had ordered and the Covenant ponies found themselves at a particular disadvantage, not having seen combat on a scale like this before.

Gunfire and grenades went up against swords, magic and other weapons, firepower against pony arts of war—and it was quickly becoming clear which one was more efficient. The five humans present didn’t even bother to waste time dealing with the lines and ranks of traditional pony warfare, instead firing around corners, throwing grenades and treating magic bolts as if they were enemy tracer fire. Spears and arrows did no good, as human trigger fingers were far faster than even the fastest draw from a pony archer.

Watching from his vantage point, Blueblood could only stare in awe as the “human” he was with showed what she’d learned from them in a quick amount of time. As the Covenant guards began to converge en masse on the invaders, Whiskey quickly pulled out her carbine and started firing, pausing only occasionally to pull out a leaf and use her innate kitsune magic to turn it into a giant shield with the strength of inch-thick steel to hide behind.

Voices came across the radio and carried through the radiowaves:
“This is Sierra Three—tangos down, second wave incoming.”
“Sierra Five, Sierra Two—I have Agency Six with me and we are engaging, repeat, we are engaging.”
“All units, Sierra Six—push harder. Weapons now free, repeat, weapons free.”

Hallways began to fill with bodies as the ponies watched gods of war at work, cutting down their opponents as if they were nothing. Some of the smarter ponies panicked and ran or flew as fast as they could, their natural instinct to flee taking over their minds. The ones that had been trained as warriors stood their ground, only to be met with 5.7×28mm small-caliber, high-velocity rounds straight into the head or worse as the SIRENs switched from flashbang grenades to the standard M67 “baseball” grenade and its deadlier ordnance.

However, on the minds of three of the SIRENs present, there was a cold fury and rage as they pushed forward. One of their own—a sister, even if not a SIREN—had been taken, and there would be no quarter given. They fought on the order of their princess, but more so they fought because their sister had ordered them to save their other family. And if even so much as one hair was harmed on Octavia’s head, there would be hell to pay.

Watching his charges via the radio communications and his orders, Sable grimaced. Once again, he was bringing what he felt were children into battle. But this time it would be different. He would be here for them in a way he couldn’t before, and he would see them through this. He had to, both because of the ties Celestia had to this family as well as his own personal ties to the triplets—he needed to protect them, even as they themselves protected others.

The air between the two groups burned and sizzled with dozens of rounds crossing space in one direction, while a desperate attempt to put up a defense against the human ferocity looked more and more feeble and futile as the minutes went on.

The human race was, for the first time in history, actively teaching another species about the art of war.

The “students”, in this case, were likely not going to survive the lesson.

45th Day of Spring—6:33PM

“¡Déjame ir a la mierda, pedazo de gusano de mierda!”

The tazlwurm was forty feet in diameter and roughly 200 feet long; a colossal beast that normal ponies would run away from, and even the guards at Fort Nonsense weren’t immune to the sheer fear that the creature projected. Normally, they resided deep within the wastes and didn’t come this close to settled land, but ever since the war their normal lands had been disturbed, one of Tirek’s more indirect tactics to cause trouble for the ponies. And while he was gone, the wurms were unlikely to return to their normal nomadic, solitary lives anytime soon.

Naturally, Rainbow had thought she could kick its ass so long as it didn’t get its disgustingly wet tentacles around her. And naturally, she’d been wrong. Now she was being flung all over the place as if the giant disgusting thing was deciding if it wanted to eat her or not and there was nothing Dash could do about it much to her chagrin.

However, out of the corner of her eye, she was able to catch a glimpse of a familiar looking figure charging the giant worm. The fact they were human was a dead giveaway to their identity, but that confused the athlete: the impression Rainbow had gotten was that Embiggen being in the SIRENs was a complete fluke. This certainly couldn’t have been the same individual who made Fluttershy look like an extreme extrovert in comparison.

Then the Latina saw Embiggen, while still running headlong at this giant monster, lift her carbine and apparently take aim right at Rainbow. She felt the blood in her veins go so cold that her normally tan skin probably went as pale as Rarity. Then she closed her eyes and braced for the worst, but the bullets only flew around her and suddenly she was falling—had Embiggen actually just shot the tentacles? Rainbow was too scared to open her eyes given she didn’t want to see the ground rushing up to meet her—a long time ago, the idea had been suggested by Sunset that when the girls ‘ponied up’ that Fluttershy and Rainbow should get wings, and Rainbow had thought the idea stupid. She didn’t think it was so stupid now.

But then she was caught in thick strong arms. Daring to open her eyes, Rainbow was shocked to see that Embiggen had, in fact, caught her and was now running back to Fort Nonsense at full speed, paying no attention to the carbine flailing around behind her attached by nothing but the nylon strap wrapped around her midsection. As much as Rainbow hated being the damsel in distress—wasn’t her style—she didn’t object but instead just wrapped her arms around the teenaged Amazonian’s neck.

“FIRE! FIRE FIRE!” shouted Embiggen as she ran past the defensive lines and back into the fort, with a voice and tone far different than the softspoken one she usually used. The ponies around certainly didn’t seem to notice, as they followed her cue and started to launch the defensive measures against the tazlwurm.

The tazlwurm itself, already in pain from its tentacle tongues having been perforated with tiny metal objects, suddenly found itself bombarded by arcane earthquakes and ballista arrows. Evidently trying to grab that strange multi-colored creature had been a very bad move and it decided that it didn’t want to deal with more trouble. So, it let out a pained cry and then suddenly tunneled deep into the ground, the tremors indicating that it was moving deeper into the desert where nopony lived.

“Embiggen, that was amazing!” gushed Fluttershy, feeling pride for her fellow shy pony.

“Er, what?” asked Embiggen, who strangely seemed to have returned to her normal persona. Then as if not having even known what she was doing, she realized she was cradling Rainbow. “Oh, right, Miss Dash. You’re safe.”

Rainbow allowed herself to be put back down before immediately launching into her own little episode of excitement. “What was that?! You...you were amazing!”

Embiggen seemed to not quite understand what was going on. “Ah, uh...I know this is going to sound weird but, er...what did I do?”

“You ran out of the base with nothing but your rifle looking like you were going to cave that overgrown earthworm’s face in, then you shot it in the face in a perfect enough way to free me, then you caught me and hightailed it back here!”

“I did?”

“How can you not know what you literally just did?!”

Embiggen blushed, putting her two index fingers together nervously. “I dunno if you’ve ever experienced things like this but, er...I tend to black out in highly tense situations and only come back when the issue has been resolved, typically by me.”

“But you make it sound like you pass out!” observed Fluttershy.

“I, uh, kinda? In my old unit, when I did that, the other enlisted ponies said I opened up a can of butt kicking like I was Saddle Rager of the Power Ponies. In that absolutely insane thousand-pony stunt that the admiral and the rest of the SIREN command pulled, the last thing I remembered was a bunch of ponies and other creatures surging past me, then I blacked out, and when I came to I had several injuries, but I was standing over the Admiral’s unconscious body and, um...I think some of his blood on my hooves.”

Rainbow just stood there, dumbfounded. She made a mental note to never, ever be judgemental of wallflowers ever again. What the internet said about being cautious around the shy people—humans, ponies, whatever—had just been proven. True, Rainbow had always thought this about Fluttershy, but Fluttershy wasn’t going to potentially clean Rainbow’s clock if she got on her bad side.

45th Day of Spring—3:35AM

“C’mon, this way!” said Corner, leading the two unicorns and the very unsteady hoof-footed human through the corridors, with Corner quickly dispatching any and all Covenant forces unfortunate enough to stand in their way. Razz, meanwhile, was taking a less lethal approach: anypony behind them got their legs frozen in dark crystal. It was crude but it wasn’t like there was much time to perform more elaborate measures.

“Ow, ow, ow!” moaned Tavi, feeling the uneven rock surface under her new hooves in addition to just the dull soreness of her transformed legs. The most insulting part was probably the fact she also had pain in her newly elongated tailbone, since now she had soreness being a literal pain in her ass. She gasped,“This shit better not be permanent!" She then took two more steps, then collapsed to the ground.

“Hey, this is not a walk in the park!” Corner shouted back. “Get your ass up!”

“She’s not used to walking on these legs, okay?” Lock called out. “Give her a break!” Lock did not point out the fact that Tavi might not ever have her normal legs back ever again.

“Fine,” growled Corner. “This is just past the main kitchen area,” she added as she led the group past a slightly brighter area littered with what looked like higher end camping equipment specifically for large group campouts, “but if the main atrium is not loaded with ponies—which it shouldn’t be given the chaos going on right now and Lux throwing ponies at problems as usual—then we can make a beeline through the middle and get the fuck out of this hell!”

“And it’s just behind that door?” asked Lock, as Corner tried to open the door but found it locked.

“Yeah, just behind this—" said Corner, rushing into the door and smashing it with her body weight. “—door.”

Unfortunately, her prediction had been wrong and there were still plenty of ponies in the Atrium—including Lux and the Oracle. And naturally, their attention was all drawn to the noise of smashed wood, which surrounded Corner.

“Why do we even have doors?!” she said, thankful that due to the bend in the corridor behind her, nopony else could see the other three Scions.

“Sombradamnit!” shouted Lux, “what the hell are you even doing, Corner Shot?!”

“A filly apparently can’t even take a dump without you bringing the damn roof down, Neon Lux!” she shouted, hoping that the ponies hiding around the corner behind her got the hint.

“Well, it’s just as well you’re here,” said the Oracle, “since we need the Scions here now anyway—we have to get this ritual over with sooner rather than later since somepony has been negligent in preparing this cave for an attack!”

“How were we supposed to know the humans would come in force?!” whined Lux, “and then there’s that other group apparently with that phoenix Raspberry has—how they got a bird to agree to go underground is anypony’s guess!”

45th Day of Spring—3:36AM

“Phoenix?” whispered Razz, quickly having gotten herself, Lock, and Tavi hidden out of view after catching on to what Corner was saying. She perked up as she realized who exactly it could have been Lux was bitching about. “Heliodor!” He’s come to help save me!”

“That bird really must love you to come into a deep hole like this,” Lock agreed. “But that still leaves the matter that there’s a crapload of Covenant between us and the exit—we’re going to have to take them all out if we’re getting all of us out of here.”

“I’m sorry,” Tavi moaned, her face a mask of exhaustion and pain, “but it’s all I can do to keep up!!”

“You’re doing fine, Tavi. Just keep it up and we’ll get out of this okay,” Razz assured her. She then eyed something in the kitchen area. “Lock, you stay with Corner and get going in the fight if it breaks out. Tavi? Come with me.”

The two other Scions nodded and Tavi followed Razz into the kitchen.

“You need me to hide?” Tavi asked.

“Probably under that wooden box,” Razz said, gesturing to a large box left over from an unpacked large portable kitchen stove. “Get in and I’ll move you to the corner, out of the way.”

“I never liked Metal Gear—that was Ari’s favorite,” Tavi mused.

“Huh?”

“Nevermind,” the human commented. “But what if whoever is here to save us comes in here? They won’t notice me!”

“Tavi, listen,” said Razz, knowing she really didn’t have the time to explain this but Tavi needed to simply go with the plan. “Some time after I put you to sleep, there was this red band...thing...that appeared on your wrist. It must have been some kind of spell from Sunset, Twilight or one of the other alicorns, I dunno. I’ve never seen it before. However, the fact there is clearly somebody fighting against the Covenant? It has to mean somepony from Canterlot was able to trace your location. And whoever it is, I can only assume they won’t leave here without you. And, well, I can probably just tell them if all else fails.”

“But you could die out there!”

“Hah!” laughed Razz. “Please, I’ve died countless times—it’s getting me to stay dead that’s the trick.”

With no further argument to be made, Tavi reluctantly allowed Razz to place the box over her and then the box was moved into the corner just inside the wall, so it wouldn’t be easily noticed. Then, Razz joined the other two pony Scions, in effect her own cousins if several generations removed due to their common ancestor having been around before the time of interior plumbing.

“We’ll have to move soon,” said Corner, “they’re busy arguing with each other but they’ll eventually get wise,”

“Then let’s go now,” said Razz, “when they’re distracted.”

“As good a time as ever,” said Lock. “They wanted Scions? We’ll give them Scions, with all our power.”

“Alrighty then, on my mark, we charge. One...two….THREE!”

Together, the two unicorns and pegasus leapt out of the doorway and started throwing spells and knives every which way.

45th Day of Spring—3:37AM

You fools think you’ve won? said a Covenant mare, tangled in vines, It doesn’t matter how quickly you cut through us, you’re already too late. The plan is too far along to be stopped now!

“Oh? What plan is that?” Whiskey asked, the humanized kitsune standing victoriously over the trapped mare.

The Covenant mare smiled, and for a moment Whiskey thought one of her teeth looked...sharper. “The only plan that actually matters,” she said. “You’ll see!”

Knowing that she was unlikely to get any more information out of the crazed zealot, Whisky swiftly knocked her out with the butt of her weapon and the transformed kitsune gave it no more thought. The stealth on the mission had already gone sideways and now her orders were to go weapons free. She didn’t relish the thoughts of killing, but if this meant saving Octavia, that would be what she would do.

A short distance away, Blu telekinetically slammed another pony—this one a stallion—into the wall with enough force to knock them out cold. Then he noticed something else about the wall.

“Whiskey, come here a moment,” he said, gesturing to the humanized kitsune.

She did as she was instructed, then looked where Blu was looking. “Sorry, I don’t see anything. These caves are dark, I can’t risk changing back and I didn’t bring any night-vision goggles.”

“Heliodor?” asked Blu, and the phoenix perched on his back complied by letting out a small amount of emerald fire. It was enough to illuminate the spot that had caught Blu’s interest: a rock face that was flickering in and out of existence, in tandem with what could only be described as rock that had been dissolved by some kind of acid.

However, soon even the fire from Heliodor became unnecessary, as the walls all over the chamber started to flicker like dying embers. Most notable was that the torches on the wall would shift between the warm, low orange glow of fire—and sickly green bioluminescent cocoon-like objects.

“What are those?” asked Whiskey, instinctively putting her hand on her sword hilt.

Changeling light pods,” said Blu. “This doesn’t make any sense. Unless…” he spent a moment in deep thought, before coming to an enlightenment and moreover horrifying realization about the nature of their environment. “Come on—we’re in even deeper danger than I thought!”

45th Day of Spring—3:38AM

“Ungh!” groaned Lock, pinned to the ground by no less than five Covenant stallions, her dark chains faltering and then disappearing into the ground as her focus was broken. Likewise, Razz was out as well. She was so sure they could take out what Covenant ponies were in the atrium, but then more showed up… and then more, and more. They had practically crawled out of the shadows like insects from the woodwork.

“Foolish mares!” gloated Lux, who hadn’t even been harmed—namely because he’d run from the scene the moment danger was evident, only coming back when it was clear his life was not in danger. “You continue to fight your destiny, but in the end you will serve!” He then glanced around worriedly, realizing that only the two unicorns were down. “Wait, where’s Corn—"

The feather knife that would have easily planted itself right between Lux’s eyes, right at the base of his horn, and driven itself right into his brain, was instead intercepted by one of the few still standing Covenant ponies—she was dead before she hit the ground. For Corner’s trouble, she was then tackled by two of her former fellow pegasus assassins.

“I always knew Father Fields misplaced his faith in you!” Lux chided.

“I’m not the one he misplaced faith in!” she retorted, trying to break free and failing.

However, all attention soon was drawn to the dead Covenant pony who was suddenly enshrouded with green fire—and instantly turned into an equally dead changeling, the feather knife still buried to the hilt in its head.

“Well, it seems even the changelings understand that the reign of Sombra is nigh if they’re serving our cause!” gloated Lux, clearly revelling in this reveal even though his own Covenant was getting their asses kicked elsewhere. “Not that I would blame them—that stupid bitch of a queen Chrysalis has been losing her touch ever since her failed attack on Canterlot. She can’t even hope to compare to us! Compare to ME!

Tiny, for her part, merely smirked. “If only she knew what she was doing—haven’t heard a peep from her in a long while. Too busy dealing with issues within her own hive, or so I’ve heard. She’ll get what she deserves soon enough—just another thing Canterlot failed to handle.”

45th Day of Spring—3:45AM

Tavi, hiding in her box, only heard the sounds of raging battle and shivered in fear and pain, the adrenaline in her system still having kept her from fully grasping the fact she was half-alien horse from the waist down...that she was of alien ancestry, and related to her adopted cousin and sister figure in more than one way. But as long as she kept hiding out of the way, everything would ultimately be fine—

“GOT ONE!” a voice called out, alarmingly close to Tavi’s box. Her worst fears were confirmed when the box promptly exploded outward, leaving her merely sitting on a wooden square, looking right into the faces of two angry looking ponies.

What happened next was decided in the blink of an eye. More specifically, to the ponies who thought they’d gotten a lucky break, one moment they saw the abomination’s wide, purple eyes full of fear, then in that blink of her eyes, suddenly they were purple and green and emitting a purple haze.

And then came the scream.

Chapter 17 - The Veil

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Golden Age of Apocalypse

Chapter 17—The Veil

As Rarity had warned Mr. and Mrs. Cake a few years prior right after the birth of their twins, unicorn foals were prone to experiencing random magical surges on account of their rapidly developing brains, which uniquely for unicorns connects directly to their magically-charged nervous systems. As the infantile mind matures into foalhood or fillyhood, the free-flowing magic which initially was greater than what the body could safely contain without the periodic outbursts—a remnant of an ancient survival trait from before ponies developed civilization—becomes normalized and ultimately stops. From there, the unicorn foal will learn, through practice and instruction, how to master the energies within to perform feats otherwise impossible for other species. Similar magics exist within pegasi and earth ponies, though their abilities are more passive.

In terms of humans using magic, this field was relatively unknown simply because the very idea of magic within humans was inconceivable until Princess Twilight Sparkle discovered the human counterparts of her closest friends, who coincidentally happened to all come from powerful bloodlines and had their all-but-extinct ley cells awakened when their friendship harmonized with the alicorn.

But the way Sombra’s dark magic worked, woven into his own progeny’s genetics to bloom generations later, was different. He had intended for his Scions’ powers to manifest uniquely and differently; an end that had occured, though likely not in the way he had intended. Raspberry Beryl had manifested her power in a moment of true life or death and the darkness had forced itself around her broken horn—by growing a new one, but corrupting her physical form in the process. Lockbox was arguably more like what Razz might have been had her father not sawed her horn off, having been able to balance using light magic with her dark magical chains. Corner Shot was more passive, in that she could summon her power only in times of extreme duress in combat.

Octavia Melody was the exception even among her distant alien cousins, for it was her split DNA—the result of having consumed her unborn twin in the womb—that had made her the fourth Scion, as it was in fact “Melody” who had originally been fated to carry Sombra’s power. This mismatch within the girl had led to the magic and its true mistress laying dormant inside her until by chance, a raw injection of Equestrian magic had been carried out by Sunset, triggering its reawakening. With no way of controlling it or even sensing it properly, Octavia had been subject to Melody’s growing power and consistent attempts at taking over their body. But at the moment of her greatest victory, Melody had made an error—by drawing upon the power of the Alicorn Amulet to try and torture Octavia in a way she could never hope to recover from, she had in fact bridged the metaphorical gap that prevented Octavia from accessing what was technically her own magical inner wellspring.

The problem was that having zero experience using magic, in addition to having no idea she even had the capability, Tavi was no better than a newborn filly about to experience their first foalsflare. It was similar to what had happened with the true human Sunset Shimmer in the aftermath of the battle with Chernabog and the pony Sunset sacrificing herself to save her counterpart, imbuing her with the power of a unicorn. But Sunset had been a unicorn, so her magic was more able to be controlled directly. For Octavia, whose own counterpart was an earth pony, her magic would manifest more indirectly.

As it so happened, in that moment when she was confronted by the two Covenant ponies, the perfect combination of fight-or-flight response, uncontrolled magic flareup, and the unpredictable properties of dark magic whose uniqueness on the level of Razz’s crystals or Lock’s chains had yet to be defined...all she could do was scream with the amplified power of her dark birthright.

The shockwaves of Tavi’s pain and anguish could be seen reverberating through the air itself, shaking the very foundations of the earth and passing through solid rock as if it was tissue paper.

45th Day of Spring—3:46AM

Throughout the lair, the sonic shockwave passed through every corridor it could—quickly losing its most destructive aspects but remaining strong enough to knock even the sturdiest pony off their feet and rendering weaker ones unconscious.

“What is that?” said Whiskey, clutching at a rock outcropping for stability as the sensation ripped through her being.

“Whatever it is, it can’t be good!” said Blu, who had been forced to sit on his haunches and hold his forehooves over his ears, as the piercing wail certainly wasn’t doing his fine sense of hearing any favors. Heliodor likewise was cradling his head in his wings trying to achieve the same.

When the scream, wherever its origins, finally subsided, the radio crackled to life.

“All units, this is Sierra Six” called out Sable from the black plastic box attached on Whiskey’s hip, “Report in, over.”

“This is Sierra Five. Currently engaging tangos,” Adagio responded over the line, before the sound of gunfire briefly sounded out as well. “Do we have any idea just what kind of weapon that was?”

Blu immediately pulled the radio off Whiskey’s hip with his golden magic, keying the input to speak. “This is, ah, Agency Six here. We’re fine on this end, but we don’t think that was a weapon—it seems to have hit their own people as well. If anything, it may have been a miscast spell...specifically a sonic wave spell that may have gone wrong.”

“A what?”

“It’s somepony outputting enough vocal energy to distort the very air around them in a kind of physical attack—believe me, growing up with both a mother and two sisters who were sirens that have vocal based magic? It got very loud at home during my foalhood.”

“But only a siren could generate that kind of vocal power, right?” Sonata asked over the line; as expected, she had dived into the arcane research for potential weapons that could be used against them.

“Sonic blast spells can be generated by any magic caster, though it’s most commonly used by sirens.” Blu explained, turning to face Whiskey. “That being said, we shouldn’t rule out the possibility of the Covenant having another rogue siren like the one you defeated.”

“Well, all units, keep an eye out,” Sable ordered. “If it’s a surprise the tangos have for us, I don’t want to deal with any further ones. Sierra Six out.”

Blu then gave Whiskey back the radio and pressed on. “And it isn’t like this place isn’t already getting more and more suspicious by the minute,” he voiced, unsure if he was talking to Whiskey or thinking aloud.

45th Day of Spring—3:46AM

In the atrium proper, the Covenant had all been shaken as well, but to the misfortune of the three trapped Scions, it hadn’t made it any easier to break free as those ponies were already pinning them to the ground.

“What in Sombra’s name was that?!” exclaimed Lux, looking shaken—both physically and metaphorically. Dynamine’s opinion was much more subdued.

“Hrmph,” the Oracle said, seemingly brushing off the fact a localized sonic earthquake had just occurred. “I’m surprised the humans brought one of the Hooves to help with their dirty work. Not that it matters if they have a flying fish freak in here, as their advantages do not apply within the caves. But it does mean we need to make haste and finish the ritual.”

“I already sent two ponies after the fourth Scion, that human freak—don’t know why they haven’t returned yet.” He turned to face two other members of the Covenant, ordering, “You two, go find the others!”

“Y-yes, Father Lux!” one of them stammered and together they ran off.

45th Day of Spring—3:47AM

Off to the side, Razz noticed one particular pony in a cloak—a unicorn mare based on the hood having a slightly more deformed top surface indicating the presence of a horn—looking at her oddly. While the other cultists regarded her with wary annoyance at worst, Razz could practically feel the concentrated hate coming from this particular individual.

“The fuck is your problem?” Razz spat, still straining under the weight of the ponies holding her down.

“Funny you should say that,” the mare said, her cyan eyes glimmering with anticipation—Razz figured she must have really been into this whole ritual thing. “I’d say that my problem is you, Raspberry Beryl.”

“Wait, she’s the one you’ve had a stick up your ass about, Chrysoberyl?” commented Corner, overhearing the exchange. Chrysoberyl shot a glare at the downed pegasus but Corner didn’t care; they’d never really gotten along anyway. “What did she even do to you?”

“You wouldn’t understand, Corner,” said Chrysoberyl. “This is personal.”

“I don’t even know who you are,” Razz stated.

Chrysoberyl studied her with a thoughtful frown. “Of course you don’t. You truly do embody him the best out of your fellows. Even your arrogance is the most like his.”

Razz was surprised to hear a supposed Sombra fanatic speak so… honestly about the pony they all worshipped.

“That sounded dangerously close to heresy, Acolyte Chrysoberyl.” Evidently, so was Father Neon Lux.

“Relax, Father Lux. My conviction is still without question,” Chrysoberyl said in the airy way of somepony used to getting what they want. “I just don’t understand some of our Lord’s decisions is all.” Chrysoberyl’s attention then returned to Razz, as did her disdainful frown. “After all, with generations of ponies to choose from, why oh why was it you who inherited his power?”

“Excuse me?” Razz asked, more puzzled now than annoyed.

“There’s more to a pony than just her power,” added Lockbox. “As a unicorn I would expect even you to know that.”

“Not her power,” said Chrysoberyl, looking disdainfully at Lockbox but gesturing with a hoof toward Razz. “She had everything given to her and what she doesn’t reject, she uses to undermine her true purpose!”

“No, I define what my purpose is,” said Razz, getting a swift back-hoofed slap to the face for her trouble.

“Your purpose—the purpose of the Scions—was decided on your birth!” seethed Chrysoberyl. “As was mine!” She then raised her hoof again, looking to deliver a heavier blow this time.

“Acolyte Chrysoberyl!” accosted Dynamine out of the blue, stepping in front of the aggressive mare. “Stop it—the ritual is no good if the Scions are dead!”

“Oh, please, like punching the mare who can cheat death is going to do anything,” hissed Chrysoberyl.

Do not test me,” warned Dynamine, her horn glowing green as a warning.

“Fine, Oracle; let’s get this over with and bring back Sombra,” said Chrysoberyl, backing down with a cruel smile. “Who knows? Maybe I’ll ask him myself!”

But as Razz exchanged looks with Corner and Lock, it was becoming evident that the Oracle wasn’t the only one with an agenda that ran counter to that of the Covenant’s. Worse: they still didn’t have much of a plan getting out of this predicament.

45th Day of Spring—3:49AM

Tavi remained seated in the box, hands over her mouth, as she struggled to comprehend what had just happened—what she had just caused. The sudden onset of emotion had triggered something in her that had led to some kind of scream and the next thing she knew, the two ponies that had found her were now laying on the ground in front of her, clutching their heads as their ears were bleeding.

What the fuck am I? she thought, her mind in a panic. Strangely, of all the things that could have brought her comfort, it was the fact that nowhere inside of herself did she sense that damnable presence of Melody. It was like that mental pestilence had simply vanished after the amulet thing had been yanked off her neck, like some sort of obscene parting gift from her self-claimed “twin sister”. This would normally have been cause for celebration, but given that she might have just permanently rendered two ponies deaf if not outright killed them, the jury was still out on if she was an individual—a thing—worth celebrating anymore in the slightest.

It was then that she heard commotion outside, and it was all she could do to try and shrink farther into the box and pray none of these ponies would come in. Given the two twitching bodies in front of her, though, it was unlikely.

But then they spoke.

“What happened to these two?” said a distinctly Japanese-accented young female voice, which Tavi immediately recognized.

“They apparently ran afoul of whatever is in that box,” came a voice Tavi was (to her own surprise) even more excited to hear, and sure enough even in the poor lighting of the kitchen area of wherever the fuck she was trapped, she could make out his face just around the edge—but not before the european looking broadsword first appeared, as if drawn to combat some horrible monster.

Which I am, Tavi grimly thought. But she had to banish that concept now—she had to trust her friends still considered her one. “B-blu?” she ventured, carefully.

The sword immediately dropped and Blu virtually teleported right in front of the box.

“Oh my Aunt Celestia,” he gasped, “Octavia! Are you alright?!”

“I...I don’t fucking know,” she swore, emotions awash between joy and sorrow at Blu finding her...and finding her like this where she was some kind of mockery fusion of both human and his own species—worse, as she recalled with even more horror, the latter part of her now more closely resembled the Octavia he knew of this world.

He immediately noticed Tavi’s new inhuman lower body and couldn’t help but take a step back in shock. “What have they done to you?” He then shook his head out of his funk. “No matter, we’ll figure it out later—in the meantime we need to get you out of here!” He immediately wrapped Tavi in his aura—which felt warm, almost as good as an embrace from him—and carefully extracted her, putting her back on her feet/hooves, though the moment he let go, she collapsed onto her knees as she still hadn’t gotten used to standing on her new ungulate anatomy.

“Miss Octavia!” exclaimed Whiskey, dropping to her knees and embracing the human. “I’m so glad you’re alive!”

“I’m glad to see you, too, Whiskey,” said Tavi. Looking behind Whiskey, Tavi noticed a familiar green and gold phoenix respectfully keeping his distance—Heliodor wasn’t as close to Tavi so she appreciated he thought well enough to give space.

“Now, I know this is going to sound awful,” said Blu, who as Tavi turned to look at him she was shocked to find a stern expression on his face, “but...I have to make sure it’s you.”

“Wh-what are you talking about?”

“I have reason to believe changelings are involved with the situation—"

“Changelings?” Octavia asked.

“Shapeshifting monsters, and it just makes everything more complicated since they can disguise themselves as virtually any other creature—which I assume includes humans, too.” Blueblood then took on a pleading look in his eyes, as if desperately hoping this exercise was not going to reveal what he hoped wasn’t true. “Tavi...the name of the restaurant I took you to the night after those gryphons attacked, what was it?”

“I… don’t understand what you—"

“WHAT WAS IT?!” He demanded, but not out of anger—but out of some kind of sensation that for all his power, for all the things he could do, he needed her to do this for him. Reluctantly, behind him, Whiskey followed suit and trained her rifle on Octavia.

“It, uh was...oh what was it...The Shroom Room?”

Tavi was immediately hugged by Blu, while Whiskey joined in again—it felt almost like the big group hugs she and her cousins often shared. Though Blu was wearing armor and it felt a bit awkward—not like Tavi cared.

“I’m sorry about that, Tavi,” apologized Blu—was he actually crying? “But, well...standard Agency protocol and all that.”

“It’s okay, really…”

Whiskey suddenly broke off, whipping out a radio from her hip. “This is Sierra Echo. We have one Package Alpha in hand, repeat, we have Package Alpha. We are now moving to a defensive position, over.”

Roger that,” came a garbled voice that Tavi could just make out as Aria’s voice. “SITREP? Over.”

“We’re in some kind of kitchen area,” Whiskey responded. “Not secure, so we’re definitely going to have to leave, over.”

Continue to move towards the entrance. Once there, secure the package in the Valanx and await further response, over.”

“Negat action,” Whiskey told her. “Package is...debilitated. Can’t explain exactly, but will need additional reinforcement. Neither I nor Agency Six can provide full extraction, over.”

Copy that. Stay there, we’ll find you. Can’t imagine this shithole has more than one kitchen area, over.”

“Roger that. Sierra Echo, out.”

“God, I just want this to end,” moaned Tavi, who moved to sit on the ground morosely. She then briefly jumped up, as she realized she’d sat on her tail, which made her feel all the more depressed.

“We’re going to get through this, okay?” reassured Blu. And as Tavi once again looked at Blu, even after everything she’d seen, everything she now was...she believed him.

But then she noticed the walls were starting to slowly fade between the not-quite-adequately lit torches...and some kind of sickly, almost toxic looking shade of green. “Blu...what’s happening to the walls?”

Blu didn’t even look up, as he already knew what was going on. “I think the Covenant is about to learn they’ve been played for fools.”

45th Day of Spring—3:55AM

“What do you mean you can’t find them?!” seethed Lux. The two ponies he’d sent off to go find the human—and the original two ponies he’d sent on the task—had come back empty-hooved.

“We can’t get anywhere!” one cried. “Those humans are closing in on us and most of the access is blocked!"

“I’m surrounded by incompetent fools!” groaned Lux. But as he facehoofed, he happened to be looking at the walls, where it was quickly becoming apparent something was starting to fizzle out. Naturally, he stormed over to where the three Scions were being restrained, pointing a hoof accusingly at Razz. “I know this is your doing, but it’s accomplishing nothing but giving me a headache!”

“What are you accusing me of now?” asked Razz. But as she too looked at the walls having an identity crisis, a sinking feeling in her gut started to become more pronounced—as the walls began to become more uncomfortably familiar.

Lockbox also was starting to worry for the same reason. “I am getting the worst sensation of deja vu right now.”

It was Corner Shot who finally stated the obvious in her own abrasive way, as the magical charm that had been holding to disguise the walls all this time, weakened by Tavi’s sonic wail, finally gave way and exposed the cave for what it truly was; “Where the fuck did you even get this base, anyway? The changelings?”

“Clearly the changelings will rent out to anyone,” Razz deadpanned. “I wonder if they also do weddings, receptions and cuteceañeras?”

To the sudden disconcertion of the Scions, only Lux and a couple of the Covenant acolytes looked at the walls in horror...but not the majority. Meanwhile, the sickly green bioillumination put a grim underscoring on the situation, as well as killing the whole “cultist” mood.

“Well, that’s disappointing,” Tiny Dynamine sighed, “I was hoping we could have at least gotten through the mock ritual, but I suppose time is of the essence.”

“Mock ritual?!” Lux wheeled around and confronted the oracle. “What are you—" He suddenly found his muzzle clamped shut by Dynamine’s magic.

“You’ve been such a good little puppet,” she grinned; once she did, everypony in the room started getting a much, much more threatening vibe from what had been the unassuming crazy mare guiding this shitshow. She walked over to Lux, and cradled his chin in her forehoof. “So willing to follow orders from some random mare preaching the good word of Sombra.”

“B-but…” Lux hopelessly babbled.

“True, I knew about the prophecy and gave your Covenant hope, but that isn’t the real reason you so eagerly brought me into the fold,” Dynamine said with a triumphant sneer. “You just wanted what any creature without use or merit wants: power. That’s why I came to you right after your old leader passed on; the timing of that was no coincidence. I would have had a hard time convincing a more principled leader to do half the things I got you to do—having the ex-Father Fields killed by his own prized assassin, for instance—but you so desperately clung to to the illusion of power, you made my acts of sabotage easy.”

Neon Lux’s face was a blank slate of horror as the illusion of control slipped away as surely as the arcane illusions dispelled over the changeling hive around them. With a sadistic, patronizing smile, Dynamine patted Lux’s cheek like a mother to a disappointed child.

“So much for faith,” she said.

“Okay, will somepony please explain just what the hell is going on here?!” asked an exasperated Corner.

“We’re in a changeling hive, you dumbass,” said Lock. “Take a wild guess.”

“More than that,” chuckled Dynamine, turning her attention back to Lux. “It is cute how you said all those lovely things about Queen Chrysalis only a few minutes ago, given the situation you’re now in.”

“You work for that bitch?!” exclaimed Lux, cautiously putting the pieces of his shattered world back together.

“Oh, no, I don’t serve Queen Chrysalis,” said Dynamine, before emerald fire enshrouded her, and in a flash of green embers took on her true form, “I am Queen Chrysalis.”

Now finally seeming to understand just how fucked he was, he started to back away from the now imposingly tall figure that had been masquerading around as the Oracle he had blindly followed. It was made worse by the fact as he frantically looked around at what Covenant ponies were still in the room, one by one they began to change in emerald fire, from cloaked ponies into the ebon, insectile equinoids that formed the swarm.

Fortunately for the three Scions, all the ponies that were still keeping them pinned all proved to not be changelings, and in the shock they let their quarry go. Corner immediately tried to make a run for it but was surprised when she felt Razz’s magic keeping her back.

“No,” insisted the dark unicorn. “Don’t draw attention to us!”

“Yeah, we have experience dealing with changeling queens,” Lock boasted. In fairness, it had been one queen and the two unicorns had exploited the fact that said queen had set up a hive inside an unstable mine shaft.

Unfortunately for them, this was not an unstable mine shaft, but instead a satellite hive far more well established.


“But...but why?!” asked Lux, “And how did you know so much about King Sombra?!”

“Oh, he and I have had quite the history, I assure you,” she stated with a touch of distaste. “More than you’ll ever know, unfortunately. Besides,the only truth I’ve ever told you as your precious Oracle was what I knew from the back of that mirror,” she gestured to the largely forgotten furniture near one of the walls. “I happened to find it while I was running around as the pretty pink princess and it revealed its greatest secret to me. But all it talked about was his precious four Scion descendants, there never was anything about his resurrection—the old fool wouldn’t have need of Scions if he could pull that off! Only a being of Discord’s power could resurrect someone like Sombra and he wouldn’t ever have any reason to do something that stupid.”

Not seen by Chrysalis was Razz and Lock having to hold Corner’s mouth shut with their magic lest she scream “SO I WAS RIGHT ABOUT EVERYTHING, YOU BITCH!”

“As for why...well, in case you haven’t gotten a clue yet, the fact is I really don’t like Sombra all that much.” Then with a disappointed sigh, Chrysalis said, “I had hoped to personally destroy Sombra from the very throne he coveted after he and the Crystal Empire returned to this world. Unfortunately, Twilight Sparkle and her friends ruined my plans to take over Canterlot, and then they went and destroyed Sombra themselves while I was busy replenishing my numbers.

“I’ll admit, for a while after that I despaired. All those years of planning, and I’d completely missed my only chance at revenge. Finally, I realized that I could at least take a consolation prize: the complete annihilation of his legacy. What better way to show that old shadow up than to completely dismantle his own circle of worshipers from the inside out?”

“B-but the Scions-!” stammered Lux, before finding himself levitated in the air by Chrysalis.

“The Scions are nothing more than Sombra’s final legacy; a pathetic last grasp for immortality.” Chrysalis silently held Father Lux aloft, allowing the knowledge of his own folly to stew just a little longer. A few times Lux opened his mouth and tried to speak only for his words to die on his tongue. Razz thought that Chrysalis was strangling him at first, but then she realized: the Covenant’s supposed leader was well and truly speechless.

“You understand now, don’t you? The true foolish nature of the one you so venerate,” Chrysalis teased, pulling Lux closer to her. “I truly couldn’t have picked a more perfect puppet, and as reward for your service, I’ll give you what you want: the chance to finally meet him in whatever abyss he’s rotting in now! Tell that old fuck Chrysalis says hi when you get there.”

And with that, she used her telekinesis to effortlessly snap Lux’s neck with full torque. An expression of shock and excruciating pain etched onto his face as he breathed his last. She then dumped the body on the floor like a wet rag, laughing, before turning to face the Scions.

“Now, speaking of dismantling legacies….”

45th Day of Spring—4:00AM

The fact the walls had completely turned into changeling halls only confirmed what Blu had begun to suspect, and it made the situation very dire indeed.

“We have to get you out of here,” he said to Tavi. He remembered what Whiskey had told the SIRENs over the radio—Tavi was in no fit state to move around—but the more changeling ichor he eyed on the walls, the more he realized it may be better to risk moving Tavi than it was to risk staying.

“But what about Archmagus Beryl and Miss Lockbox?” asked Whiskey. Helidor especially looked angry, given the whole reason he was here was to save Razz.

Noting that Octavia was in a fragile mental state at the moment, he felt that he had to have a better reason than “I want to protect her because I love her”, at least as far as mentioning at the moment. And, so, given his experience as an intelligence agent, he did what they were trained to do: lie and distract. “We’ll have to trust that they can handle themselves. They singlehoofedly leveled an entire changeling hive on their own and I trust they can do it again. But you have to remember: Octavia here is a civilian and that means that she’s in extreme danger. Our first priority is to extract her safely.

“But I’ll just slow you down—I can’t even reliably walk on these things!” said Tavi, gesturing to her hooves.

“I’ll support you,” said Whiskey, getting down on her knees to help shoulder Tavi’s weight.

“No. She can lean against me,” Blu ordered. “We need your weapons to cover us in case we run into more changelings.” As she nodded, Heliodor spat out an angry stream of chirps, making it clear what he thought of all this.

“I’m sorry, Heliodor,” said Blu, “but we don’t have a choice. And you know that she would insist on the same thing.”

The bird looked fit to pop a vein of anger, but let out a low, keening warble in agreement.

It was then that a low droning noise caught all of their attention. Blu cautiously ventured a look around the kitchenette’s door and paled—an impressive feat for a snow-white furred stallion. “It's as I feared—this is a hive loaded with changelings, and they seem mainly to be waiting for us to go the way we came.”

“But the Scions went the other way to fight off changelings, at least that’s what Octavia said."

“We have a phoenix,” said Blu, gesturing toward Heliodor, “and as for you—looks like we will be getting your mistress after all."

Heliodor cawed, pleased that the original plan was being adhered to and indicated he was ready to burn some bugs if it meant getting reunited with Razz

45th Day of Spring—4:01AM

Razz then stepped forward. She knew that the SIRENs were currently fighting their way toward them, and needed to stall for time. She did have at least one question for Queen Chrysalis, and if she’d learned anything about megalomaniacs, it was they loved to talk about the complexities of how they outsmarted everyone. “Look, before you do...whatever...you want with us, can you answer at least one question?”

Chrysalis gave an idle shrug as she blaisly watched her changelings round up and cocoon what remained of the genuine followers of King Sombra. “An obvious stalling tactic if I’ve ever seen one, but I’ll bite.”

With a sweeping hoof gesture inviting Razz to ask away, she did so. “If you’ve been controlling the Covenant the whole time, why did you send Corner Shot after me, but then as yourself send Coco to protect me?”

Chrysalis chuckled. “Isn’t it obvious? It was simple misdirection—you didn’t even think I had anything to do with the Covenant until now with that simple action.”

“You mean that whole exercise of me having to stalk Razz during the pool tournament was pointless?!” exclaimed Corner, sensing a growing theme with her entire service with the Covenant as of late.

“For you, yes. But it kept attention off me while I further drove the Covenant into oblivion. I will admit that Coco even being on that airship was not my doing—it was that usurper Queen Mandible who brought that thing down and Coco just happened to be on it—but it worked to get her inserted into your little clique.”

45th Day of Spring—4:02AM

With Tavi stabilized via one of Blueblood’s more complex spells, Whiskey pushed towards the door, that Tavi had mentioned the three Scions had gone through earlier.

“Okay, on the count of three,” said Blu, steeling himself. “One...Two...Three!”

The bird, unicorn, and magically-supported human, all covered by the kitsune-turned-human, all made a rush for the exit.


Oof!

All attention was drawn to the door leading to the kitchenette, where Whiskey had been unable to prevent Tavi from taking another tumble as they entered alongside Blueblood.

“Ah, the final Scion. Perfect timing!” A sinister female voice exclaimed. “Now we can begin!”

Octavia looked up and locked eyes with a horror. A twisted equine figure of black chitin leered at her with hungry harlequin green eyes framed by stringy cerulean hair, grinning at her with a fang-lined mouth. Octavia could do only one thing. “What in God’s name is THAT?!”



But her words had an unexpected effect. “God?” asked the monster, her tone not hiding the rising fury within her. “God? You dare bring up that blasted human god in front of me, Queen Chrysalis?! I am living proof that the ‘God’ we believed in does not exist! Where was our ‘God’ when I—“ Chrysalis quickly covered her mouth with a chitinous hoof, but she knew she’d said too much.

45th Day of Spring—4:02AM

“God?” asked Razz, narrowing her eyes. In her time on human Earth, she’d learned that the humans had many religions. How that was even possible, she had no idea given they didn’t have anything remotely resembling alicorns and even Sunset had struggled to try and explain how human belief structures worked. But the major one Razz had encountered the most references to was Christianity, which had a singular god and had been a dominant religion in human culture for hundreds of years.

And it suddenly seemed very suspicious that Chrysalis knew anything about it.

More gunfire suddenly rang out, and that seemed to spook the changeling queen even moreso. “Looks like our little playdate is up,” she said, sidestepping her apparent slip of the tongue. “Now that all four of you Scions are here, time to clean up the trash left over from a thousand years ago!” As punctuation, Chrysalis started charging her horn with magic as the changelings launched their attack.

“Don’t you dare!” shouted Lockbox, charging her horn with dark energy as the red and black chains shot from the ground like a leviathan on the warpath. Razz meanwhile immediately began firing off shots to freeze changelings in their place with crystal, while Corner made scarce to get her advantage of stealth back before she started knifing some insects. The few remaining Covenant could only watch helplessly within the changeling cocoons.

Over by the door, Blu had conjured up a shield around his group while Whiskey fired off shots with her carbine. Meanwhile, feeling the need for speed, Heliodor had darted into the air—the atrium being large enough for him to play to his advantage—and began shooting off fire, keeping bugs away from Razz. She briefly looked up and made eye contact—the smile in her eyes signaling her appreciation her loyal bird had come for her.

But in the middle of the chaos, Chrysalis had other plans. She didn’t attack anypony—instead, she simply ran over to Sombra’s Mirror, between it and where the Alicorn Amulet had been sitting on a pedestal the entire time. It was only Razz who caught in the corner of her eye what the queen intended.

“NO!” she screamed, but it was too late. Enshrouded in green magic, the Amulet flew from the podium and around Chrysalis’s neck.

“AHAHAHAHAH!” cackled the queen. “Now, I shall destroy what remains of Sombra’s legacy with his own power! And then I’ll—" She suddenly was cut off mid sentence, eyes gone wide as if something had interrupted her. “No...no no no no!” She then collapsed onto her haunches, cradling her head while the crystal inside the Amulet glowed ominously.

All around the Equestrians, the changelings likewise suddenly fell to the floor as if in pain.

“What the fuck is going on now?” whined Corner, appearing from thin air next to her fellow Scions.

“It’s like they’re all experiencing a collective seizure or something,” said Lock, keeping her guard up.

“It’s the hivemind,” said Blu, who took the opportunity to group up with the trio. “The Agency has long postulated that some kind of attack on it would cripple a group of changelings of any size, but...what is causing it?”

“The Amulet?” said Razz, watching the increasingly convulsing form of Chrysalis as she suddenly started speaking in two voices; her own...and a more twisted version of Octavia’s.


“Get out get out GET OUT!” Exclaimed Queen Chrysalis, the sadistic cunning in her voice replaced by sheer desperation.

“I WILL NOT BE DENIED AGAIN!” shouted another voice—a voice that was horrifyingly familiar to Octavia.

“This is MY body! I will not have some ursuper take it from me!”

“HA! I can already tell that’s a lie!”

But then, to everybody’s shock, a third voice emerged in the struggle. Barely audible, it didn’t sound anything like the evil voices of the queen or what could only have been Melody. And this third voice wasn’t speaking English.

«Cosa...cosa sta succedendo?»

Whatever collective bipolar crisis Chrysalis had invited upon herself, she finally seemed to be regaining control. But then she screamed with all three voices, as if involuntarily, she was being forced to change form again by the struggle inside of her head.

And this time, the scream that was heard the loudest was the third voice. A voice Razz already knew the identity of.

A voice that should have been dead.

Chapter 18 - Prophecy Realized

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Chapter 18—Prophecy Realized

Back in Canterlot, Pinkie Pie remained in her coma while the magically aided hospital equipment continued to chime regularly. Coco, staying true to her promise to keep watch over Pinkie should there be any emotional signals she was on the upswing, had remained in the hospital room for the sake of her vigil. However, despite her best attempts, Coco had dropped off to sleep in her chair, face covered by her latest trashy thrift store romance novel focus; Sweet, Elite, and Petite. It was the daring love story of a young colt who sought to prove himself to his love, a minor princess, despite his diminutive size.

To Rarity, it was a page-turner. But for Coco, it was life itself: a way to both enjoy herself and get a little closer to her new queen-slash-employer. Right now, at a little past four in the morning, it was a sleep mask.

Suddenly, Coco woke up with a jolt, feeling a strange twinge in the back of her head. As if something wrong was going on with the hivemind. Thankfully, ever since accepting Rarity as her new queen, it meant she was all but severed from the hivemind, a step closer to being a true, one-hundred-percent pony. It still left her sensitive to the hivemind, but she no longer was subject to it as before.

As she tried to think of what it possibly could have been, she recalled that she’d overheard reports that a group of changelings led by a purple-colored queen was currently attacking Oatmaha, so Coco figured it had to be the hivemind reacting to that. Queen Chrysalis was still around and things really didn’t go well if there were multiple dominant queens.

In the end, Coco chose to ignore the call of the hivemind and just went back to sleep. She’d figure it out in the morning—nothing she needed to be concerned about.

45th Day of Spring—4:03AM

There had been many theories over the years as to just what made Chrysalis different from other changeling queens. After all, typically they only lasted for maybe a century or two at most before they were done in by rivals. But Chrysalis had somehow defied the odds, proving that even though there might be many potential queens of the changeling race, in the end Chrysalis was the Queen—a changeling above and beyond that of a normal changeling. A super changeling, so to speak.

The truth, as was quickly made evident to the Scions, their rescuers, and the changelings who were experiencing the hivemind acting in ways it was never meant to behave, was that Chrysalis was not, in fact, fully a changeling to begin with.

It was hard to believe, but there was just no getting around it—Chrysalis, queen of the changelings, had been a thirteen-year-old human girl when she was cruelly thrown into a completely alien world by her own husband in exchange for cheap magic tricks. And whatever Sombra had done to her, as well as the harsh erosion of time, had turned a young Tuscan noblewoman with hopes and dreams into a walking horror show of the damned. She’d somehow gained a brilliant jade and teal dress, obviously once a masterpiece of mercery that would have made Rarity—both of them—swoon with its beauty…and weep at the ruined threads it had become. Mismatched scraps of cloth patterned all around it but even then, it was torn and moth-eaten to the point Chrysalis must have desperately clung to the faded rags as a possession of utmost importance—maybe as the last possession she had from her human life, but just as likely to hide as much of her ruined body as possible. Though what benefit the dress provided in that regard was minimal at best.

Her body was a twisted amalgamation of changeling parts grafted to her once-beautiful human form seemingly at random. Her right arm became a black hoof partway down, as did her left leg. A blue carapace adorned her midsection, from which emerged familiar hole-ridden wings, and holes dotted the inhuman limbs she bore like rotten swiss cheese. A malformed black horn emerged from her forehead, punching through blond hair halfway turned blue (identical to the tail protruding from her backside), mocking the regal appearance of the alicorns. It was almost comical in how she still had her tiny black crown on her head, given the horror of its wearer.

“Y-you’re supposed to be dead!” Raspberry cried, horror clear on her face. “Like, Sombra killed you dead! Kicked into a pit of molten metal with a sword run through you dead!”

“Did that fucker write about that in his little diary, too?” hissed Chrysalis, pointing a human finger at Razz. “Sombra truly was a simple little pony—if he wasn’t killing, torturing or enslaving, he was writing about it in his stupid little book! I’m not surprised it made the rounds to the mare whose entire job it was to go sniffing about his old junk.” Her voice had now turned into a twisted reverb, layering the voice of the queen in with that of the much more adolescent, innocent voice that had appeared when donning the amulet seemed to have gone all wrong.

Lockbox glanced over to Razz. “Let me guess—Broken Neck?”

“Yup,” replied Razz with a nod.

Corner, however, was more preoccupied with the sheer what the fuck factor. “Wait, why is the queen of the changelings not a changeling?” A quick glance around the room would suggest that some of the changeling drones themselves seemed to be asking the same question.

“Do you see? Look at what your progenitor has done to me! I don’t even know what I am anymore!” shrieked the patch-quilt queen, clutching her head with her human hand, like someone with the worst migraine of their life. “Am I Chrysalis, ancient queen of the changelings? Or am I Crisalide della Lucca? Is there even a difference between the two now?”

Seeming to regain her center, the mad queen looked at the figures standing in opposition to her, focusing on the four Scions with a hard glare. “I know what I’m not, though! I am not The Rose With the Broken Neck! Today, I shunt that title by destroying the last of Sombra’s legacy!” She glanced down at the murdered body of Neon Lux. “The Covenant of Shadows is already no more….” She then returned her attention to Razz and the others. “All that remains now are his Scions.”

Knowing what was coming next, Razz took a step forward and desperately called out, “Wait! You don’t have to do this!”

“Do you think any of us love Sombra any more than you?” Lockbox said, moving to stand beside Razz.

“Even I can see how much evil he’s done now!” Corner Shot added, standing on Razz’s other side.

Behind her, Razz heard Octavia try to stand and fall to her knees again. Even so, she straightened her back and looked the malformed queen right in the eye. “If this Sombra person is the reason I’m like this now, you can bet your ass I want nothing to do with him!”

Chrysalis—or maybe it was Crisalide—looked at the four Scions standing before her, defiant; not just to her, but to their progenitor. For a moment, she looked uncertain, before her mutated face hardened again.

Blood calls to blood. I may have twisted Sombra’s prophecy for my own ends, but I still remember how the original goes, and so far it’s all come true. For here you are, Sombra’s Scions, standing united before me.” A twisted smile formed on the queen’s face then. Razz was struck by just how desperate such an expression could look. “Only one part of the prophecy has yet to come true: the final verse.” Then she quoted, “These four: Scions, dark legacy, called now and thus command, Take up stations and move on towards your struggle great and grand. Licorns broken, pinions ripped clear, strong bones ground into sand. My children—go, your quest awaits...on Canterlot’s grave, stand!
Her smile returning to the cold calculating thing it had been moments ago, the mad queen said, “I may not care for the ponies of Equestria, but I have no intention of letting Sombra’s progeny seize the throne.”

“Well, it’s a good thing we have no intention of seizing it, either!” Razz countered.

Yet!” the queen argued. “That’s the funny thing about prophecies… they rarely specify when they’re supposed to happen.” Then she leaned forward, her eyes boring into Razz… through Razz. “You may go the rest of your life hating Sombra… but how much longer until you become him?”

“How about never?” Razz retorted, but something about what Chrysalis said rooted itself firmly into the back of her mind.

“You believe that now, but do you honestly think Sombra planned on becoming a monster when he was your age?” Chrysalis asked. “I certainly didn’t! It just happens without you noticing.”

Worryingly, Razz couldn’t think of a retort for that, and based on the silence, neither could her fellow Scions.

So Chrysalis continued, “You can’t fight fate, Razz. But you can check out ahead of it! Here, I’ll help you with that. You don’t have to thank me… you just have to die!” Chrysalis then outstretched a hand to her waiting swarm. “Tear them limb from limb!

Raspberry Beryl shut her eyes and braced herself for… for what? The end? She didn’t prepare any spells. Wasn’t ready to fight back. Her own response (or lack thereof) surprised her. Did she really believe what Chrysalis said?

No, she realized. Becoming Sombra is not my destiny!

Of course, by the time Razz came to realize this, she also came to realize something else: that she was not, in fact, currently being torn limb from limb. Razz opened her eyes.

The changelings around them did nothing. They just looked back between the Scions and the thing that had been their queen except...now she wasn’t. The hivemind, normally the driving element of having the swarm obey the queen, was mysteriously silent, as if it had lost all cohesion and simply wasn’t around anymore. Without the hivemind, the changelings were, effectively, truly on their own as individuals and they didn’t know what to do.

This naturally infuriated Chrysalis. “Did I stutter? KILL THEM!”

Some changelings took the hint and lurched toward the group, with the Scions and what few allies they had bracing, but then the telltale burst of a carbine rang out and a few of the changelings fell dead.

All attention then turned to the other side of the room where the entire command structure of the SIRENs emerged from the entrance, weapons drawn. They’d evidently reunited at some point in the crusade to kill everything in their path and now had finally reunited with the group. And it was obvious by the look in their eyes that the triplets noticed Tavi was now 50% less human. It was almost enough to make them break their military bearing...almost.

“This party is over!” shouted Adagio, drawing a bead on the individual who seemed to be the one calling the shots—and nearly failed to follow through in the action when she registered what seemed to be the profile of a thirteen-year-old human. As far as anybody knew, the only humans that were supposed to be on this side of the mirror portal were Sunset’s family and friends. And the only one under the age of sixteen had been Spike. The fact there was now an unaccounted for human in the mix had not been part of the plan.

“Hold fire!” barked Sable, though he kept his gun up and pointed toward his enemies—superior firepower or not, they clearly still had a numerical advantage and given the previously displayed tactics of the Covenant ponies, a bum rush would not end well for either side. Not missing a beat, he then turned to look at the semi-human teenager at the other side of the room. Brief mental images flashed of the would-be suicide bomber girl he’d shot back in the Middle East, but he banished them—the trauma could wait until later. “You! Identify yourself!”

The girl—who Sable had to admit looked like a twisted version of Tinkerbell mixed with a rotting tree—seemed to be taken aback by the order. “Y-you!” she hissed, now pointing a finger at Sable. “You damn werewolf, I guess you would side with the humans!”

“Werewolf?” asked Octavia, confused.

“Yeah, that human ain’t one of my werewolves,” said Lockbox.

“No, I think she’s talking about the original werewolf pony,” answered Razz, making a mental note that somehow, Chrysalis was unaware that the Sable Loam she thought she was addressing had actually been killed a few years prior, long before any of them even knew about the man standing before them.

“Knees on the ground and hands up!” ordered Adagio. Unlike Sable, Adagio and her sisters were not hesitant to shoot hostiles under the age of eighteen, though they found the idea as unappealing as he did. For better or worse, that had been part of their upbringing as SIREN in the time that never was.

“How about just the latter?” In the blink of an eye, Chrysalis lit up her horn, hand, and forehoof in the toxic green aura, the latter two raised in the aura and, boosted by the amulet, the aura turned blood red for a moment before suddenly a similar aura appeared around the SIRENs, levitating them and ripping their guns to the ground.

“NGgh!” grunted Sonata, “Can’t...move!”

Chrysalis, meanwhile, also seemed simply more agitated—evidently, that had not been the spell she’d been trying to cast. In fact, she seemed to be struggling with the Amulet. “Damn you, whoever you are,” she swore, “stop interfering!”

Razz immediately charged her own counterspell to take advantage of the fact the changelings around her seemed to simply be in some kind of daze. But it was best to take no chances—she had to redirect Chrysalis’s attention toward her, since of everypony involved, she alone could handle the power that amulet was capable of boosting the humanized queen’s own output.

Slamming her forehooves down, Razz fired off her counterspell right at Chrysalis. The queen immediately threw up a shield, but evidently something was going wrong and it caused the original spell to fail, dropping the four SIRENs to the ground.

Something’s wrong with her, Razz thought to herself. On her own, Chrysalis was formidable—enough to be a worthy adversary to a pony like Princess Celestia. With the Alicorn Amulet, she should have been damn near unstoppable. Yet here she was, struggling to maintain more than one spell at a time. Razz then recalled her own first struggles casting magic in human form, and hope filled her as all at once it was clear. Chrysalis isn’t used to casting magic like this, Razz realized, and having to fight Melody for control means she can’t use the Alicorn Amulet effectively!


“Everyone, ATTACK!” shouted Razz, switching to a localized blizzard spell—she’d read somewhere that changelings hated the cold and while it would make things rough for Razz’s own side, it would throw a wrench into what clearly was disorganization within the changelings on a level that their race had never experienced before.

As the battle waged on between the powerful but clumsy Queen Chrysalis and the gathering of ponies and humans, Thorax and his fellow changelings watched in a stupor. The voices of the hivemind in his head had always been a comfort to Thorax—a constant reminder that as bad as things got, he was never alone. But now, the hivemind had been severed at the source, and Thorax couldn’t hear anything but his own thoughts. The silence was disorienting.

Thorax hadn’t been one of the changelings selected for the infiltration mission from the very beginning (more evidence that the queen didn’t trust him). He tried to imagine how the drones who had infiltrated the Covenant with their queen from the beginning handled being cut off from the hivemind intentionally—it was the best way for them to remain undetected within the cult’s ranks, after all (and Chrysalis clearly didn’t want the rest of the hive to know what she was up to until the time came for her decisive strike). Clearly each of them had time to acclimate to living without the hivemind in order to carry out their mission effectively.

But when Chrysalis gave the order to finish off the Scions, the changelings who had infiltrated the Covenant from the beginning were just as paralyzed as Thorax and the rest when Chrysalis had assumed her true form. This clearly went further beyond the mere disorientation of losing their connection to the hivemind. Seeing their queen for what she really was changed something within the hive.

“Should we do something?” asked one drone to another. Not in Thorax’s mind, but through his ears. “Is the hivemind saying anything?”

“I’m getting mixed messages,” said another. “Like, I think that’s our queen up there but...was she really ever our queen?”

“She certainly is barking orders like she thinks she is.”

“Well, she was until she put on that necklace.”

“I’m hungry.”

“That’s enough!” said a newcomer, and Thorax turned to see a changeling he was honestly surprised to be glad to see.

“Pharynx!” Thorax exclaimed, “what should we do?”

“We’re leaving,” he said in a tone that brokered no argument. “We’ve all been fooled—that thing up there has pretended to be our queen for centuries, but she was never a changeling—she merely hijacked the hivemind.”

Thorax had to admit, the prospect of leaving Chrysalis’s hive had grown more appealing the longer she spent focusing on this personal project of hers. Still, the idea of actually doing it…. “But...but can we function without a queen, fake or not?”

“We won’t have to. You forget, there is still a queen we can serve.”

Thorax gave his brother an uncertain look. “I hope you don’t mean Mandible.”

At that, Pharynx’s voice actually softened somewhat. “I know it isn’t ideal, brother, but better Mandible than a pretender changeling!” With a gesture of his head to the exit, he immediately started to head out. All the remaining changelings exchanged looks of uncertainty between one another, before slowly starting to make their way out themselves, some even taking care to pick up their dead while leaving the bodies of the actual fallen Covenant ponies behind.

Unbeknownst to them, one of those bodies wasn’t quite as dead as it appeared. Hiding behind a simple illusion spell, Chrysoberyl silently waited for her chance.

Chrysalis, naturally, was infuriated at seeing the swarm—her swarm—turn their back and leave her.

“Where are you all going? You all exist to serve ME!” she screamed, “GET BACK HERE AND FIGH—" Her declaration was cut off by a sudden blow to the chest, courtesy of a balled up end of a dark chain from Lockbox.

“Give it up!” the blacksmith shouted, while Razz quickly raised walls of crystal around the queen, preventing escape. “Your own bugs have abandoned you! You have nothing!”

“No thanks to you lot!” Chrysalis hissed. But then she took a quick look behind her, the sudden smile putting her aggressors at unease. “But even if I won’t get my revenge now...you haven’t beaten me yet!” Then, with agility that seemed surprising given the off-kilter stance of mismatched legs, Chrysalis turned and ran for the mirror, firing off a spell that immediately reactivated it.

“STOP HER!” Sable barked. The SIRENs immediately fired off several rounds, shots over the bow intended to make her stop rather than to kill her, but she ignored them all. A second later, they all stood there as the cackling human-changeling abomination vanished into the mirror.

“Oh no,” gasped Octavia, “is...is she loose in the human world?”

“No way,” Adagio snarled. “SIRENs, we’re going after her. Lethal force authorized, Admiral?”

“As much as I don’t like it, if that’s what it takes, that’s what has to happen. Authorized.”

But Razz shook her head. “I don’t think that will be necessary,” she told them, brow furrowed as she tried to recall everything she knew about the mirror in front of them. Something about the situation was nagging at the back of her head, but what was it?

It was Sonata that put the puzzle together. “Isn’t this the mirror that connects to the one at the history museum? Baldy something or other’s mirror?”

“The one that’s broken?” added Aria.

Adagio said nothing, not really remembering the mirror at the Baldassare di Cavalcanti exhibit all that well—selectively on account of a particular liability having been found in front of it—but her attention was drawn to another movement just in the corner of her eye. She snuck off to investigate.

It was risky, but Corner was out of options. She had to ditch the other Scions now, since technically with Chrysalis gone, her end of the deal was settled—but it would be even more in her favor to simply vanish without Razz or the others knowing where she went. It wasn’t that Corner didn’t trust Razz to keep her word, it was just that Corner couldn’t trust herself to trust Razz.

So, while they were all distracted about that dumbass mirror, Corner began to sneak away. Once she was out of earshot, she could use the cave’s non-linear architecture to sneak out before any of them noticed and—

“I don’t think so!” Adagio jumped the assassin, who had been distracted herself in her own thoughts, and before Corner could do anything the SIREN had the pegasus in a chokehold; furthermore, apparently the human had recalled her knives and placed her legs against her wings, preventing Corner from accessing her weapons. With her ability to breathe now restricted and unable to defend herself, Corner couldn’t do anything other than attempt to use her forelegs to beat off Adagio’s arms in vain until finally unconsciousness claimed her.

Sable listened as the little unicorn explained to Aria the nature of the mirror in front of them.

“Yeah, that’s it!” said Razz. “The mirror is broken, meaning it can’t act as a portal door!”

“But she went in this one,” pointed out Sable. “She’s got to end up somewhere.”

“It’s actually simple, if I’m getting what Razz is saying,” said Sonata, ever the engineer of her siblings. “I may not know magical teleport-whatsit, but there’s only as many ways in as there are ways out. The way the mirror was set up had one entrance and one exit per side, but if one of those exit portals no longer exists…”

“Then there’s only one way out,” finished Razz.

And as predicted, the mirror suddenly flashed and then spat out the form of Chrysalis, though curiously the Alicorn Amulet had become detached and landed separately from its most recent user, coming to a clattering halt against some rocks.

“Guess we’re getting both tangos today,” Adagio commented, busy tying up the unconscious Corner with 550 cord. She immediately stopped when to her surprise, Sonata drew her handgun and aimed right at the pegasus’s head. “Sonata, what are you—"

“She hurt Pinkie!” said Sonata, rage in her eyes.

“Cmdr. Dusk, stand down,” Sable ordered. He knew that this moment was going to come sooner or later, and it was exacerbated by the fact that Sonata was still, when push came to shove, just a kid.

But Sonata kept her furious gaze trained on Corner’s limp body, her sidearm unflinching. Her finger drifted onto the trigger, and Sable realized he was going to have to disarm her himself, and then what? She will have lost his trust, and that of her sisters. He would have to demote her, maybe even suspend her permanently. Sunset’s SIRENs would be one step closer to breaking apart.

Adagio placed her hand on her sister’s gun. “Soni...she’s not worth it.”

“But what if—”

“Sunny won’t let that happen—you know that. Plus, Pinkie herself would say this bitch here isn’t worth losing your soul over. We’re protectors, sis—not vigilantes.”

“I know this is hard for you, Commander, especially with the losses you three have suffered before,” Sable told her. “But it’s important that you retain your humanity so that we can show ponies that we’re not the nightmare they think we are.”

Sonata continued to point the gun at Corner and seconds flowed that seemed to pass like hours. Finally, she holstered her gun and pulled her glare away from the downed pegasus.

“Standing down,” the blue haired sailor said with distaste. “It’ll hurt more when her ass is in the brig, anyway.”

Adagio nodded toward Whiskey, then hooked a thumb to the unconscious pegasus. “SO3, finish binding her. We’re taking her back to Canterlot to be tried for terrorism...and anything else we can make stick.”

While that was going on, Razz carefully approached the form of Chrysalis, horn lowered and ignited with dark energy if need be. Heliodor, for his part, landed on Razz’s back and was ready to do the same. Strangely, Chrysalis seemed to have forgotten or not even noticed the hostiles around her, instead merely having just picked herself back up on her knees and slowly running her hand/hoof over her form. She looked like someone waking up with a nasty hangover after a night they’ll never remember.

“It’s over, Chrysalis,” Razz calmly intoned. “Surrender.”

“Over?” Chrysalis said with either a chuckle or a sob, Razz honestly couldn’t tell. “As long as I live, it will never be over! There’s only one way you can end this, and you already know what that is, don’t you? It’s like I said: you can’t fight fate, but you can check out ahead of it….”

Razz knew exactly what Chrysalis meant. It was why she suddenly found herself wondering whether it was worth it to stop the creature in front of her from ever being able to come after her or her friends again. Why she found herself wondering what kind of life such a fractured, broken person could lead after what Chrysalis had been through. Whether death at this point would be a punishment...or a mercy.

That line of questioning stopped when everyone cognisant of the situation heard a very loud crack, their heads turning toward the mirror as a gigantic crack formed on it. Razz wasn’t as knowledgeable about portal magic like her counterpart alicorns, but she did distinctly remember there was a peculiarity about this one. Namely, that it had never been properly closed—it had been propped open due to the imperfect manner by which Sombra had constructed it and due to one or more figures having only made one way trips through the mirror, the frame was “bent” and thus couldn’t properly fit the door. Razz shot a quick glance at the still oblivious Chrysalis, then the mirror again, and it all made sense.

Dimensional travel required a lot of energy to actually pull off, normally in a closed circuit of portals the energy transfer was balanced and so could happen normally. There had been nothing balanced about Sombra’s portals, and to compound the problem the portal on this end had been forced back open without its counterpart existing. So all that energy had to go somewhere and...

“We need to get out of here,” said Razz with authority. “NOW.”

“But we need to figure out what we’re going to do with—" protested Sable, but Razz cut him off.

“That mirror portal is beginning to collapse in on itself and it’s been open for a thousand years. That’s a thousand years of potential energy about to get unleashed like an interdimensional bomb. You wouldn’t just get killed by the shock, you would be physically erased.”

The cracking noise happened again, followed by a jolt to the ground. That ended any and all arguments.

“Okay, all units back to the Valanx!” barked Sable, and instinctively the trio got to work. Razz provided crystalized cuffs to restrain Chrysalis, as Adagio and Sonata quickly picked her and Corner up in fireman carry positions. Sable, being the biggest, handled Octavia.

Despite everything that had happened, Tavi couldn’t resist having a little fun in her situation. “Is this how you take Ms. Celestia everywhere, Mr. Loam?”

Sable merely grunted in what sounded like amusement—he was still focused on a rapidly deteriorating situation. “Okay, hostages up and out, let’s move move move!”

Together, the group immediately ran out the way opposite the kitchen, as the single crack on the mirror’s face became two, then four, then eight, the arcane surface of the mirror spiderwebbing—and with it the earth again began to quake, this time worse than what had happened with Tavi’s scream. While there were still Covenant ponies within the halls, they didn’t bother stopping the rescue group as they too could figure out that self-preservation was more important than anything. Thus, they unintentionally provided the means by which the humans and Scions were following to escape the hive.

As they were running, Razz noticed that Chrysalis looked right at her and, to her surprise, asked in a younger voice with no trace of the malice heard in the queen’s:

“Why are you saving me?”

With nothing but the bodies of the dead and dying left behind, those few unfortunate souls bore witness to a magical phenomenon few could ever conceive of.

Sombra’s Mirror, fracturing ever more by the second, finally succumbed to the ravages of time and entropy. Like its twin in Canterlot, the explosion reached supersonic pitch as the glass shattered, but unlike its twin, there was no ominous message behind the glass. With nothing left to hold it together, the mirror shattered and collapsed, its ancient frame released from the stress, and the first piece to fall was the countenance of Sombra himself from the top, still holding the chains leading to the alicorns four. The moment it hit the ground, an intense burst of energy from between worlds exploded out, rocking the ground and triggering a collapse.

Forgotten in the corner was the Alicorn Amulet, now dinged, dented, and scratched, but still very much potent.

The tunnels and caverns that formed the Covenant hideout were a labyrinth, but as per his training, Sable had kept track of every twist and turn since first arriving. He knew that the teleportation sigil that served as the entrance was close—through the next chamber, around the next bend and down a final corridor about eighty meters long. We can make it.

His confidence was momentarily shaken along with what felt like the entire world as a deafening CRACK echoed throughout the entire cave system. The mirror just detonated, he thought as he struggled to maintain his balance while holding Octavia over his shoulder. After the initial CRACK and tremor, everything went still, and Sable thought for a moment that it was over.

Then he felt more tremors beneath his feet, and more loud CRACKs began to sound as the rock all around them began to shift.

“DON’T STOP, GO!” Razz shouted as the little unicorn galloped past him. Sable wasted no time following suit, spurred on by the CRASH of rock on rock somewhere back the way they came.

The entire group ran through the rest of the chamber, rounded the corner, and started running down the final stretch. The soft glow of the teleportation circle shone steadily at the end of the tunnel; then another tremor shook the cavern and the arcane glyphs that made up the circle started to flicker like a dying light.

Adjusting Octavia’s position over his shoulder, Sable pushed himself harder, running the last eighty meters to the exit in a mad sprint. He could feel dust and pebbles from the ceiling sprinkle the top of his head. A rock bigger than his head dislodged from the wall and rolled into his path. Sable bounded over it like an olympian clearing a hurdle.

The exit was close now. Just another thirty meters and they would be out of here. The ponies had already made it to the teleportation circle (four legs were faster than two, it would seem). Then another CRASH of rock on rock sounded a fair distance behind him, and Sable’s heart went cold when a pained scream accompanied it.

Sable whirled around and saw that the way they came had been completely blocked by a pile of huge rocks...and buried under that pile nearly up to her waist was Sonata. The tied up, unconscious form of Corner Shot was sprawled out on the ground just in front of her—evidently Sonata had just enough time to throw her clear of the cave-in before it came down.

The good news was Sonata had been at the back of the pack—none of their people were trapped on the other side of the cave-in. The bad news was Sonata was trapped under it.

SONI!” Adagio called out, making to set down Chrysalis to go back for her sister.

Sable put a stop to that with a sharp order, “Focus on the mission, Capt. Dazzle! Get the target out of here and make sure the rest of the packages are safe!

Adagio nodded and set about her task like the professional she was, but couldn’t stop herself from sparing a worried look back at her sister. Sable immediately called Whiskey over to him. He gingerly set Octavia down on her alien feet and passed her over to the young humanized kitsune. “Take your charge the rest of the way, SO3,” he ordered. “I’m getting Cmdr. Dusk.”

Whiskey said nothing, merely draping Octavia’s arm over her shoulder as the two of them limped as quickly as possible to the intermittently flickering teleportation circle. With everyone else accounted for, Sable sprinted back down the corridor toward Sonata, where Aria was already struggling to move the rocks covering her.

Aria had managed to move some of the smaller ones already, but a particularly heavy looking one still had Sonata’s right leg pinned

“Lift on three,” Sable said, kneeling beside Aria and gripping beneath the boulder. “One, two, three!

The two of them grunted as they lifted with all their might… the boulder barely budged.

Sable counted again. “One, two, three!” Again the two of them put all of their strength into lifting, and again it wasn’t enough.

Sable gathered his breath, shook out his arms, and gripped beneath the boulder for another attempt.

“Just go.”

Sable almost didn’t hear Sonata’s voice, as quiet and broken as it was.

“Just go,” Sonata said again. “I’m already dead.”

“No you’re not!” Aria said, determination filling her voice.

But then she got one look at Sonata’s face, and all that determination washed away.

Sonata was looking at both of them, tears pouring down her cheeks. Yet inexplicably, they were lifted by a smile. “I’m already dead, but that doesn’t mean you have to be too,” she said. “So just go. Save yourselves.” She nodded towards Corner Shot, still tied up and unconscious nearby. “Make sure that garbage gets punished for what she did to Pinkie. And….” she hiccuped, and somehow laughed through the tears. “Tell Sunset… it was an honor being her SIREN!”

Sable knew she was right. They couldn’t lift this rock. It was just too big. They couldn’t save Sonata—they’d die trying.

So Sable gripped the huge stone again. “I wasn’t aware that SIRENs made it a habit of leaving their people behind, but that isn’t how I do things.”

“Neither do I.”


Sable and Aria turned and saw Adagio approach.

“I ordered you—” Sable started.

“To focus on the mission, and I did,” Adagio said as she knelt on Sable’s other side. “Hostages made it out safely, the enemy leader is in custody, and Agency Six is currently signaling the Super-Electric for extraction.” She then gripped the boulder’s underside. “All that’s left to do is make sure everyone makes it home.”

At that, Sonata began full-on sobbing. “Please, just go… I don’t want all of you to die for me!”

“Well, tough shit, Soni,” Adagio said. “We’re SIRENs. No, more than that. We’re family. Live or die, we’re in this together!”

Sable smiled. He knew at that moment that for as long as he lived, he would be proud of all three of them. Even if that turned out to be only for a few minutes.

Sable gripped the boulder’s underside alongside Aria and Adagio as another rumble sent more dust and pebbles raining onto his head.

“On three….”

45th Day of Spring—4:46PM

Letting out a big yawn, Softwing paused momentarily only to stretch before getting back to the eternally endless amount of work that a royal’s seneschal was required to process. It often was a thankless job that required tremendous dedication for normally only moderate returns, since it was in effect a glorified secretary position in the highest levels of government.

But Softwing absolutely loved this job and being made Sunset’s seneschal had been a dream come true—especially after the Equestrian nobility had refused to allow Twilight Sparkle to take her on initially. The fact she was required to take on human form and would in the near future be working more out of a world still alien to her as opposed to Equestria was just an added bonus, as it meant no longer having to worry about her own supposed “people” trying to drag her back to being a pawn of her birth father’s political machinations.

However, the job did have its downsides, and today was probably the first time that Softwing even had the inclination of questioning if it was all worth it. It had been hell dealing with the fallout of the coronation ball ending with mass kidnapping, mentally compromised guests, and ponies blaming the presence of the humans being the cause of it all. As a result, sleep had been in short supply and only now was Softwing beginning to understand why Princess Sunset practically Idealized morning coffee.

To make things worse, Precious Jewel had simply taped her resignation letter to the temporary office’s door, citing a “change in her life goals” being the reason and that she would be unavailable due to going on a “pre-honeymoon” with her new coltfriend. Softwing had made a comment about how love makes ponies do strange things, lamenting that now it was a one-pony show in the aftermath of the disastrous events the previous evening. She did, however, make a mental note that if things didn’t work out and Jewel wanted her job back, she was going to have to do quite a bit of explaining.

And to top it all off, Softwing also had to deal with the fact Sunset and the triplets had made mention of devices called “PCs” and “smartphones” which supposedly could handle writing and filling out forms where mere typewriters and hoofwriting could not. Such devices did not exist in Equestria and eventually Softwing knew she’d have to understand a way to reconcile the massive difference in technological levels between the two societies she was going to straddle.

There was suddenly a distinct knocking, a rapping of horseshoes on the wooden door, and before Softwing could tell voice for the pony to come in, a messenger pegasus stallion dressed in a standard Royal Equestrian Navy uniform entered.

“Report from the top regarding Operation: Lost Chord,” the stallion said without introducing himself, reaching into his saddlebag with a wing with which he then placed a single closed manila envelope, gave a courteous nod to Softwing, and then departed.

“Uh, okay,” said Softwing, a bit taken aback at the abrupt interruption. It had been roughly thirty-six hours since Operation: Lost Chord was expected to end, and Softwing had been wondering when her office would receive the report on it. So, Softwing applied the particular decryption magic that she was informed to use for these types of messages, then immediately opened the envelope.

She scanned the message briefly, and her eyes widened. She then read the message in full, then read it through again. Oh no…. A second later, she reached over and opened the strange silver plate with a glowing white apple on it. She was going to have to learn how to send a message to Princess Sunset via this device.

One she was not looking forward to sending.

Chapter 19 - Calamity

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GAOA Chapter 19—Calamity

46th Day of Spring—4:36PM

Despite having been born a pony and spending the majority of her life to that point as a unicorn, Sunset really hadn’t had it driven home how different her native civilization was to her adopted human culture until she finally was walking down the streets of Fillydelphia—the high vaulted openings in Canterlot for Celestia’s great (by pony standards) height were on par with human sized openings and so it had gone without notice for Sunset. And the majority of time she’d spent in Ponyville had been in pony form, too, so she hadn’t noticed the difference then, either. Plus, she’d decided that it probably would be for the best if she, Ushanka, and Pinkie spent time in the museum before giving the speech that had been arranged for later that day in front of said museum. It had been years since Sunset had last been here and, having met her grandmother herself upon her own ascension, the newest alicorn felt it prudent to revisit the museum.

The entrance to the Faust museum, where Sunset would make her speech calling for ponykind to embrace humans, was very imposing. The museum’s entrance facade was done up in some kind of Greco-Roman style, like the Parthenon in the human world, if only from the big Corinthian-style columns on either side of the entrance. More noticeable was the big stained glass circular window, in which was cast the image of Faust herself, though it was unusual to see the archalicorn wearing her full regalia—in this case, a grand tiara, torc, and hoof guards made from pure platinum or what was supposed to look like it in stained glass form.

It was a stark contrast to Sunset’s current attire which was far more modern. A simple herringbone blazer and skirt, with a red tie over a white shirt – Rarity’s expert opinion on businesswear had proven as perfect as always and ideal for a reserved, formal appearance. Part of her debated going to pony form and donning her full regalia but decided against it, given the whole point of this outing was to plead the case of her adopted species. In fact, the only hint of her true identity, aside from her hair and eye color, was the addition of a cloisonné pin in the shape and color of her cutie mark.

But as far as the entrance was concerned, it was almost dwarfed in and of itself by the impromptu bunting, banners and balloons Pinkie was setting up—how in the hell did that pony ever find the time to get all this prepared? Sunset merely shook her head and approached the landmark.

Unusually, Sunset wasn’t attracting much attention from the ponies milling about. Nor was she attracting any attention by simply being human alongside another human, the ever emotionally blank Ushanka, who really should have been putting the fear of Faust into them with the fact she had a sidearm at her side – and given her hand motions, it was clear she already knew how to speed draw it. Maybe it was the other ponies were respectfully keeping their distance—Twilight had made mention about a disastrous free air cruise her family had been given a year ago which had turned out to have used Twilight’s entire immediate family as a marketing ploy for obsessive ponies, a scam led by some minotaur named Steel Grip (and who apparently was a cousin to the crown prince consort Iron Will, who Twilight had stressed had been super apologetic about the matter once he’d heard about it and promised to handle the repercussions very assertively)—but if it was actually respect or fear, Sunset wasn’t sure.

“Princess Sunset,” said Ushanka.

“Yes?” replied the princess, turning from the display of old archeological artifacts believed to date back from the time Faust herself had been an infant.

“Forgive me if this is overstepping but, you are not truly Princess Celestia’s biological child, yes?”

Sunset sighed. “She is my biological mother in the same sense that she and I are of the same species in this world, but no, she’s not my dam.”

“Then why are you listed as such here?” Ushanka pointed to a large display of a family tree, showing how the complex nature of the royal family worked given so many ponies could call Celestia aunt but Celesta herself had no true biological offspring known.

Sunset walked over and looked at where Ushanka was pointing. To her delight, she saw that the display had been updated and now she was listed as a direct daughter of Celestia.

“This wasn’t here last time,” said Sunset, beaming and feeling her eyes water. “I know it's probably because I’m the newest princess and unlike Twilight or Cadence, the only connection I have to anything nobility is Celestia, but...yeah, thanks for pointing this out to me, Ushanka.”

“Of course.”

Sunset’s eyes drifted from the display of the royal family tree and scanned over the other works of art around it, her gaze finally falling upon a depiction of Queen Faust herself.

The painting was titled The Bells Shall Ring No More and depicted the tragedy of Queen Faust learning of the death of Star Swirl the Bearded. The resplendent queen, dressed in her platinum adornments, was depicted sitting on her grand throne in regal majesty, but with her head hung low. Her expression could not be seen save for a single tear running down the side of her muzzle, subtle but masterfully depicted by the artist. Surrounding her are a legion of guardsponies, all dressed in a style of barding that had been replaced long before Celestia and Luna would take the reins of government. They, too, looked despondent. Overall, it was a true masterpiece of art.

“The death of Star Swirl was a great loss for Equestria,” said Ushanka, unprompted.

“Yeah,” was all Sunset could say in reply. In truth, her mind was wandering as it often had of late to Pinkie Pie back in Canterlot.

Looking at the depiction of her grandmother’s mourning, she couldn’t help but draw parallels to how she herself had taken the news that a close friend...maybe a bit too close...had potentially been killed. According to Celestia (who had been a mere filly when her Swordbearer passed), Star Swirl had died in battle with the goat necromancer Grogar, using up the last of his power to seal him away and banish him to another world. He had died before he’d even gotten to be a proper Swordbearer for Celestia. Would that be Pinkie’s fate too? Cut down before her time?

No, I’ve got to stop thinking like that! Sunset urged herself.

Suddenly, an electronic jingle started playing in Sunset’s pocket and Sunset immediately summoned it to her hand—she didn’t actually need to teleport it the equivalent distance of two feet but it was an instinctive reaction. She also didn’t think about how exactly she was able to get service in Fillydelphia given that Castle Canterlot was the only place that had a local wi-fi network set up...unless Sonata had managed to actually construct that insane global network system from those few civilian satellites she’d asked Sunset to ask Luna to put into orbit earlier that week. Regardless, she knew it had to be a message regarding the result of that operation, and so without paying much attention to the subject line of the email, Sunset immediately opened the message:

To: sunset@aeoffice.sgo.go.eq
From: softwing@aeoffice.sgo.go.eq
Subj: OPERATION LOST CHORD

1 Atch

Your highness, I write to you regarding the preliminary report that I just received from the Royal Equestrian Navy. While details are scarce due to the nature of it, I feel that it would be imperative that you and your retinue return to Canterlot at once.

Sincerely,
Softwing, Seneschal to Princess Sunset

––-
ATCH BEGINS
––-
To all parties involved,

The vessel Super-Electric is enroute to return and Operation LOST CHORD can, despite the logistical odds and unusual means of how it was carried out, be considered successful. However, due to not following recognized protocol and appreciating why such protocol exists, the team that executed the mission suffered heavy casualties. A further report will be detailed, but the executive summary is as follows:

1. The majority of the human contingent who also happened to be the entire command structure of the Special Initiative (SIREN) form the entirety of the aforementioned casualties, Agency Asset 1 and one of the SIREN members are the only confirmed survivors. A terrible loss, to be sure, but the destruction of the Covenant along with the capture of one of Equestria’s greatest enemies, as well as the recovery of all the suspected Scions—guilty of dark magic abuse on the highest level—means this was not a loss incurred in vain, but instead a strong victory for crown and country.
2. The responsibility of this failure is likely due to Vice Adm. Aviso’s fraternization and favoritism of the methods used by humans. Without vetting them for fleet standards and without ensuring that the Super-Electric and her crew was familiar with them, she counted on the humans to just bulldoze through the issues like a minotaur in a porcelain shop. This is by no means standard policy or practice and I will refer the vice admiral to a board of inquiry to determine whether court-martial is necessary.
3. Contrary to the above, the Super-Electric and her crew should not be faulted by the many failures of this operation. Given her adaptive nature, Capt. Easychord most likely directed her crew to belay the unique situations of the operation and to fall back on tried and true techniques, and I firmly believe this is likely what saved the operation in the end.

Again, I will have a complete record to the Crown within a day and once that occurs, I humbly request that Princess Luna, in her capacity as Defense Leader of Equestria, convene the surviving military heads for a board of inquiry. The sooner we put this tragedy and farce behind us, the sooner we can get back to the business of defending the nation as it should be.

Respectfully,


Tumblehome, Admiral, REN
First Lord of the Fleet
––-
ATCH ENDS
––-

Gradually, but noticeably, everybody in the Faust museum could feel the very atmosphere begin to get noticeably colder. And Sunset’s expression became a mirror image of her grandmother’s as immortalized in the painting behind her.

46th Day of Spring—6:10PM

All things considered, the concert went pretty well if Fluttershy did say so herself. Considering how last-minute the whole thing had been, she was impressed that the ponies of Dodge Junction were able to put together a decent soundstage complete with stellar lighting and even a dry ice machine (or something like that. Fluttershy saw what appeared to be an actual cloud backstage). And even though the concert was only an hour, the ponies in the crowd seemed to love it, just as they had in Ponyville.

If only Octavia was here to share this with me, Fluttershy thought sadly. They’d talked about starting a band together, but circumstances had kept her away from Ponyville when Fluttershy made her debut there, and now…. Well, hopefully the triplets had her safe and sound by now.

As well as the concert had gone, however, there was one thing that nagged at Fluttershy even after it was over: namely, the two empty seats in the front row. The ones that had been reserved for Sunny Side’s father and sister. To make things worse, Fluttershy clearly wasn’t the only one to notice their absence.

“No security threats to report,” Sunny Side stated without any of the warmth or friendliness Fluttershy had grown accustomed to. “Oh, and here’s your phone back by the way.”

Sunny had asked Fluttershy if she could borrow her phone between her first and second set, and considering she hadn’t looked at it once since leaving Canterlot (no reason to when the only source of wi-fi on the planet was there), obliged without even asking why. She had been too busy preparing for her next set to think about it, figuring she’d ask Sunny why she needed it after the concert was over. Now, seeing how disappointed the humanized earth pony looked, Fluttershy again put her curiosity on the back shelf of her mind.

“I’m sure your family had a perfectly good reason not to show up tonight, Sunny,” Fluttershy said softly.

“Yeah? Like what?” Sunny asked. She didn’t sound especially bothered by it, but Fluttershy could tell it was because she was trying very hard not to.

“I wish I could tell you, but I do know that… sometimes with family, not everything is what it seems.” Fluttershy thought back to another, far larger concert; one that she would likely never forget. “Family is complicated like that.”

“Yeah, well I don’t think things are very complicated this time,” Sunny said. This time, she did sound bothered. “You heard the way my dad talked at dinner last night. The things he said about humans.”

“Ah thought you ‘an yer pa settled things,” Applejack said, the stocky little earth pony walking by with a large amp securely strapped to her back. She wasn’t a part of the stage crew, but if she was anything like the Applejack Fluttershy knew, she wouldn’t have been able to stand idly by while there was work to be doing. As far as the crew knew, she was just another unpaid intern doing work she should honestly be making money off of.

“Yeah, I thought so too, but my dad’s always been the kind of pony to say one thing and do another.”

Stopping to set the amp down, Applejack took a momentary break from volunteering her services to set teardown to face Sunny. “That’s a mighty small amount of faith you have in yer family, Sunny.”

“Maybe, but… I dunno…” Sunny said, closing her eyes and letting out a sigh. “If it’s not that, then I don’t know what else it could be.”

It was at that moment that a rather frantic looking earth pony with an earthy brown coat and green mane and tail found them, and galloped up to them panting.

“Sunny! Thank the stars I found you, I’ve been looking all over—”

Sunny’s dour mood brightened immediately. “Oh hey, Sod! I didn’t know you would be here!”

The problem with the main head of security not knowing someone was supposed to be backstage immediately became evident as a pair of burly security ponies tackled the hapless stallion to the floor.

There you are!” one of them yelled.

The other approached Sunny and said, “Sorry, ma’am. This one tried to get backstage without a pass, and when we tried to turn him away, he rushed past us.”

“Please, wait! I need to talk to Sunny!” Sod shouted as one of his hooves was twisted painfully behind him.

“This isn’t necessary, Shades,” Sunny said to the security stallion (evidently named Shades). “Let him up, he’s a friend.”

After some hesitation, Sunny gave the security stallions a glare that conveyed the seriousness of her order plainly, and the stallion holding Sod down begrudgingly complied.

“Thanks, Sunny,” said Sod. “Now—”

“No problem, Sod. Oh! Intros,” Sunny said, not giving poor Sod a chance to speak. “Sod, these are the VIPs I’m here protecting, Fluttershy and Applejack. Girls, this is Fresh Sod. He’s been working on my family’s farm for…” Sunny paused to think as Sod desperately tried to get a word in.

“Sunny, listen—”

“Has it been four years now?”

“Uh, maybe? But Sunny—”

“Sod and I go back way further than that, though. Remember second grade, when we stole the teacher’s house key and put it in the aquarium?”

“Sunny,” Fluttershy said with an amused smile. “Maybe you should let the guy speak?”

Turning thoroughly red, Sunny ducked her head and motioned for poor Sod to continue. The color in her face drained as quickly as it came when Sod said, “Sunny, your sister’s in the hospital!”

What?! Why?”

“I don’t know, your father just told me to come find you and then took your sister to Dodge General as quickly as he could.” Sod swallowed hard. “I think it might be serious.”

Her own heart fraught with worry, Fluttershy put a hand on Sunny’s shoulder. “Let’s go.”

Sunny looked at her with listless eyes. “But… you still have the fan meet and greet….”

“This is more important,” Fluttershy said, earning a resolute nod from Applejack.

Sunny nodded much more nervously. “Okay, let’s go.”

So, the four of them went with full haste. As they did, Fluttershy wondered whether this was a better or worse reason for Sunny’s family not to show than her initial suspicion. She figured it would depend on what state Bright Side would be in when they arrived.

46th Day of Spring—5:58PM

Behind a partition just to the side of where Sunset was to make her speech to the ponies of Fillydelphia, the princess in question tapped her foot, groaning for what might have been the fifth time that minute. This did not go unnoticed.

“Is something the matter, your highness?” asked Ushanka, ever deadpan but at the same time clearly aware something big had been in that message. The information on Operation: Lost Chord was need-to-know, so Sunset hadn’t told anyone else.

Being here was infuriating. Her cousins were dead, and as far as Sunset was aware she was the only member of her family who knew it. She couldn’t do this.

“We have to leave,” said Sunset affirmatively, already turning toward the exit of the building.

“We do? But your speech—"

“The speech can wait!” Sunset wheeled around to face Ushanka and the Staliongrad native could tell that the princess was quite obviously emotional about something. This was confirmed by Sunset thrusting her smartphone toward Ushanka, the as-of-yet undisclosed email content still displayed on its monitor.

Taking the device, Ushanka momentarily had trouble operating it given touchscreens were not something normally found in Equestria, but didn’t take long to get the hang of it and soon had read the entire report.

“You understand why this whole charm tour thing needs to be called off, right?” To Sunset’s surprise, Ushanka shook her head.

“No, quite the opposite—this is all the more reason you need to give this speech.”

“But my family—"

“You are not military so you might not be aware, but just because this message indicates the worst does not automatically mean that is the case. This report in all likelihood is assuming initial vague information as fact and you acting in response in this way is simply making you guilty of the same. And even if it is accurate, the fact remains that your duty is to be here and not run off to mourn the dead.”

Ushanka took a deep breath and Sunset could have sworn she saw something wash over the normally unreadable unicorn-turned-human. “It is not the easiest place to live where I come from; Staliongrad. Ponyville makes a big deal about the dangers of the Everfree Forest but they are not the only ones whose ancestors were dumb enough to park a town next to a haven of predators and worse. And you were not here to see the war. Everyone you know came out of your conflict alive. The same can not be said of those who I was close to. But I did not drop everything to mourn when death came to call again and again, because it was my duty to fight. Maybe it was for as hollow a cause as simply fighting for the ability to mourn openly once the fighting was done, but mourning during the fighting was only going to get more killed.

“You are a princess of Equestria as much as you are the Alicorn of Earth. This is part of the duty that you accepted. Comes with the wings, given what happened with Princess Twilight.” For the briefest of moments, Sunset thought she caught the ghost of a smirk on Ushanka’s mouth. “There will be time to mourn later—for now, you have to be the leader ponies need you to be.”

Sunset, taken aback by the truth in Ushanka’s words, opened her mouth to speak, but she paid it no further heed as something else demanded much greater attention.

“Fillies and Gentlecolts!” shouted Pinkie from the stage, having hijacked the rather bewildered looking stallion who originally was going to introduce Sunset, “The moment you’ve allllllll been waiting for has arrived! I present to you the princestliest princess who ever princesses this side of non-ponykind, Sunset Shimmer!”

Well, if anypony would be able to pull that corny intro off, it would be Pinkie, thought Sunset who quickly checked the time on her smartphone. Damn! I wasn’t paying attention to the clock! She glanced up at Ushanka, who simply nodded with what almost had to be that ghostly smile in the corner of her lips. Nodding back, Sunset quickly teleported away into the main foyer before walking out onto the stage erected in front of the museum.

“Ah, yes, thank you Pinkie, and thank you to everypony who has come today. I know I may not look like it, but I am the newest princess of our country: Sunset Shimmer. And I am here to tell you about the truths behind humanity…”

After raising the sun, Celestia found herself in an unusual situation she’d long forgotten was possible—having absolutely nothing requiring her presence. Luna had been made acting regent in light of the impeachment case leveled against the elder alicorn; further advice by Fancy Pants suggested Celestia should keep a low profile and appear in public as little as possible.

But as the alicorn sat at her private desk trying to find anything interesting to read that wasn’t work-related, her mind kept drifting to how things could have reached this point: Princess Celestia, the ruler of Equestria for a thousand years and under her reign the country had prospered like never before...but all the good that had been done over the years had been swiftly wiped away—largely in part due to Celestia’s own actions no matter at what point one examined the situation.

Charge One: Humanity. Regardless of what possible interactions in the past had occurred by individuals such as the Megan (as suggested by research done by Sunset on both sides of the mirror), the fact was, Celestia had indirectly led to the reputedly ancient monsters appearing in Equestria in modern times.

That, of course, was a result of the second charge she laid against herself: not having been as good a mother for Sunset growing up as she should have been and instead trying to mold the filly into something Celestia herself could never be—the means by which Nightmare Moon would be vanquished and her sister Princess Luna restored.

This, naturally, led to Charge Three, the possible ur-charge, if one would: Celestia not having been as supportive of her sister in their early years of rule, when the night was thought of at best as rest time and at worst as the hunting period for predators and worse. Nothing quite like today, where ponies, not just batponies, practically were nocturnal, thanks to the existence of things such as nightclubs, theaters and more.

Every single thing Celestia reflected on, every major disaster which happened to have reached its climax in the recent past, stemmed from mistakes she had made as ruler. It was almost amusing how the period between her early rule and just before everything went to Tartarus with Tirek seemed inconsequential, even though she couldn’t think of any major faults that occurred in that period.

Now the nobility wanted her out and no doubt would try to implicate the ruling House Faust was unfit to rule; a blatantly naked attempt to re-establish Unicornia, no doubt. And unless there was some magic or legal loophole worked into Equestria’s constitution, Celestia’s ageless wisdom failed her in how this could possibly work out.

“Your Majesty?”

Celestia almost lifted off the ground, caught off guard—she’d been so worked up about her own inner turmoil she hadn’t heard the approach of one of the Hooves.

“Ah, uh, yes, Miss Symphony Rise, I apologize, I didn’t hear you come in.”

“I understand you are concerned, my lady, but I suspect that is what your visitor is here to help with.”

“Visitor?” asked Celestia, getting to her hooves.

Rise nodded, and then stepped aside as, much to Celestia’s surprise, Fleur de Lis walked in.

“Pardon the assumption, my liege,” said the Prench-born noblemare, “but I figured you’d be in an advanced state of self-disrepute.”

“Guilty as charged,” said Celestia with a shrug. Like Fancy, Fleur was one of the few nobles who genuinely were interested in the well-being of their fellow, less well-off ponies, and as such could be trusted around to let one’s guard down.

“Indeed. Well, I asked Fancy if that was something you’d need to worry about what with this ridiculous impeachment thing, and he said it would be best if I took you around town—you’re free from duties, so maybe you should get to experience the finer things in life. You’re a workaholic as it is!” the unicorn said with a smile.

“Hmmm, perhaps you’re right,” agreed Celestia, who promptly then cast a self-transformation spell. Gone was the alabaster alicorn and in her place was a bright cream yellow pegasus with rich gold locks—save for the slight purple tinge around her right ear. Fleur was amused at how the “pegasus” had a cutie mark of a sun with an opera mask over it...and was less amused at this pony’s hair style.

“Fitting form, My Princess, but...I can’t say your style works much.”

“Ah, yes, well,” said Celestia, blushing slightly, “I haven’t updated my ‘Golden Feather’ disguise for a long time, admittedly.”

“A long time? That manestyle went out of fashion back before I was even born!”

“Well, that was the last time I ever really got to sneak out and be a normal pony—you can probably understand that.”

“As much as I can for being a mere unicorn. Anyway, it’s clear where we need to go first,” Fleur said as she turned to leave, with “Golden Feather” following suit, “Onwards, to the mane salon!”

Meanwhile, in another part of the castle, the six human adults sat around for breakfast, whereupon Night Light and Twilight Velvet had been given the barest of essential information about the operation to rescue Octavia.

“So we aren’t even being allowed to know just what happened with the raid?” asked Cadence—her lawyer mind already trying to work its magic in deciphering any loopholes she could exploit for the benefit of her family.

“As the legal guardians of both Tavi and the triplets,” said a frustrated Velvet, “we have the right to know about their condition, and she’s alive, thank God. But that’s literally all that the Equestrian navy is willing to tell us - they’re citing some bullshit about operational security about the triplets.”

Shining looked at his father; unfortunately, both he and Cadance understood both sides of the equation, though it didn’t make it any easier. “Remember, they’re still in an operation, so they can’t afford to give out critical details,” he explained. “It works that way for police business, and I don’t doubt the military is much different.”

“That doesn’t make it right, Shiny,” Velvet told him.

“That might be the case, Velvet,” Cadance added, “but it is what it is. Trust me: they don’t divulge critical information unless they have to. Otherwise, it’s a need-to-know situation.”

“And I suppose ‘Mission success: heavy casualties inbound’ is a perfectly good example of that?” Night asked glibly.

Both Luna and Celestia gasped at how...callous Night seemed to be about the matter, given the words he’d just spoken would imply that he somehow no longer cared that his triplet nieces might possibly have been killed in action.

“Night!” admonished Luna, “This is your own family we’re talking about here!”

“I know, I don’t mean to sound callous, but we all heard what the navy messenger said,” he said, looking far older than his years in that moment. “We have to be prepared for the worst.”

“All due respect, Night, but fuck that,” Celestia said.

“My, you’re sounding callous today, sister,” remarked Luna.

“Luna, you’re forgetting just who the SIREN commander is,” Celestia said with a hard look. “I am not giving up on Sable that easily. Remember how you felt when Moonshadow died in the old timeline?”

“I do,” said Luna, not appreciating the pang of pain and loss she still felt when she even thought about an event which had now never happened, as evidenced by the engagement ring she wore.

“Which reminds me,” said Night, “has any of us thought of what we’re going to tell Cup and Carrot if Pinkie...well, doesn’t recover?”

“I haven’t even had that on my mind, dear,” admitted Velvet, “I’ve been so preoccupied worrying about the triplets and Tavi.” The unspoken additional part of it was still understood by the rest of the present group—that Velvet was still unsure about the whole “Pinkie-Sunset” relationship given the latter of the involved pair still seemed to be struggling with her own sexuality.

“I’m debating whether we should tell them anything even if she does,” Night admitted.

“I’m of two minds about it,” Cadance chimed in. “On one hand, the lawyer in me is saying that withholding that kind of information is going to get us in very legal hot water no matter what happens to Pinkie. On the other hand, none of my legal training has ever prepared me for this kind of situation at all.”

“Suffice to say, none of us have,” admitted Celestia. “Especially this ‘Swordbearer’ business – it certainly doesn’t help. I still don’t understand what Sunset was talking about and how Pinkie somehow is linked to her.”

“Maybe we’re just worrying too much,” suggested Luna, trying to lighten the mood and calm everyone, “After all, this is literally a land of magic and friendship and whatever, and if what happened to Pinkimena is true, then she should have by all rights died instantly. As it is, she’s hanging on by a thread but clearly something’s working to keep her alive with this magic business. Maybe we just need to trust things will work out in the end?”

The five looked at Luna skeptically, not entirely convinced by her case. And in truth, Luna wasn’t entirely convinced of her own argument, either.

The newly constructed Dodge General Hospital stood as a shining beacon of civilization in the middle of downtown Dodge Junction—yet another sign of just how much the small town had grown over the last several months. Before the war, the town of Dodge only had a single clinic operated by a single doctor and a handful of nurses. Now, that very same doctor was likely one of many on staff at Dodge General.

Of course, none of this mattered to Sunny Side as she raced into the reception area. The sight of what appeared to be a full-grown human woman barging into the hospital drew some curious looks from ponies waiting in the reception area (and the janitor seemed to be giving her the evil eye), but again, this didn’t matter to Sunny in the slightest.

“Excuse me!” Sunny called out to the pony at the front desk as she approached. The desk-pony’s ears folded back as she looked up at the seeming human, who said, “My name is Sunny Side, my sister Bright Side was admitted here about an hour ago, is she okay? Where is she, what’s wrong with her?”

The desk-pony looked at her, rattled by the onslaught of questions from the decidedly non-pony creature. “Uh….”

But Sunny didn’t have time for this mare’s verbal stumbling, and slammed her hands on the desk. “Don’t just sit there, answer me!

“Sunny!”

Her father’s voice brought Sunny out of her blind panic. She turned and saw him coming out from deeper in the hospital. Sunny immediately ran to her father and embraced the smaller pony, who hugged her back without hesitation. Fluttershy and Applejack, who had been trailing behind Sunny all the way from the concert, joined them, giving Sunny’s father a kind “Hello there,” and a single solemn “Howdy” respectfully.

“Your sister’s okay for now,” Iron Side said as soon as they parted. “She’s not in any immediate danger anymore.”

Anymore? Dad, what happened?!”

Looking at her with red-rimmed eyes, Iron said, “When she got home from school, Bright was feeling a little under the weather. Runny nose, cough, the works. I-I thought it was just a cold at first, gave her some cold medicine and told her to get some rest. Then, when we were getting ready to go to the concert, she sounded worse. Told me she couldn’t breathe, and when I heard the wheezing noises….”

Iron didn’t finish, but Sunny didn’t need him to.

“Got her here in the nick of time,” Iron concluded. “Doctor said it was strep… er, streptococka… no….”

“Streptococcus equi, more commonly known as the strangles.” Sunny and the others all turned to see a stallion wearing a white coat in front of them. Immediately apparent was just how large and fit this doctor was. “It’s a contagious bacterial disease most commonly found in young foals. Primarily affects the lungs, so we’ve got her on a ventilator. State of the art technology we had shipped straight from Canterlot last month, and good thing too.” The doctor looked at Sunny seriously. “I won’t lie to you, this is probably the worst case of the strangles I’ve ever seen, so we’re keeping a very close eye on her.”

“Can we see her?” Sunny asked.

“Sure.” Then with a loud sharp whistle like he was calling a dog, the large doctor shouted, “Newbie!” and just like that, a rather meek looking stallion wearing blue scrubs appeared like a dog to his master.

The big doctor firmly planted a clipboard with what were presumably Bright Side’s charts in the mouth of the smaller pony. “For once in the sad, miserable existence you call a life, make yourself useful and take these people to the room we’re keeping little miss Bright Side.”

“Sure thing, Dr. Pox!” answered the pony in blue scrubs in a voice that was as nasally as it was gratingly cheerful. “Ooh, me and some of the other interns were thinking of putting some bits down for some lottery tickets, you in?”

Dr. Pox looked insulted, flashing his medical junior a condescending smile. “Well gosh, Newbie, I’m thrilled that you asked, but I’m gonna have to decline for two main reasons. Reason numero uno: I already chucked a cart full of money over a cliff today, so the lottery just feels superfluous. And Two: the thought of interacting with you any more than I already have to on a daily basis fills me with such existential despair that I actually regret not going over the cliff with it.”

Newbie opened his mouth to interject but the bigger doctor stopped him with another sharp whistle. “If the next words out of your mouth aren’t ‘see you later, Dr. Pox’ I may find myself blinded by a white-hot rage, during which I simply can’t be held responsible for my actions.”

There was a pause as everyone waited for Newbie to respond. “See you later, Dr. Pox.”

With that, Newbie turned to leave, and Sunny and the others could do nothing else but follow him, leaving the strangely aggressive Dr. Pox behind them. Although, Sunny couldn’t help but wonder if “Newbie” was widely disliked at this hospital, based on the way the janitor from earlier had leveled his evil eye at the pony in scrubs, who visibly flinched under his gaze. If nothing else, the whole series of weird exchanges was a welcome distraction from the current situation.

Eventually the group reached Bright’s room, and Newbie shuffled off, leaving them alone. Sunny’s heart wilted at what she saw inside. Her eternally energetic sister was lying in the hospital bed with a clear plastic mask over her face connected to a large machine making rhythmic hissing sounds as it breathed for her. Sunny had never seen her look so frail.

Yet Bright’s eyes lit up when she saw her enter the room. “Hey, Sunny!” Her voice sounded weak, yet still held that youthful joy Sunny knew and loved. At least, at first. “I missed the concert, didn’t I?”

“There’ll be other concerts,” Sunny said, kneeling beside her bed and running a hand through her mane.

“Are you gonna stay in town until I’m better?” Bright asked hopefully.

Sunny winced. “Sorry, sis. We’re heading back to Canterlot first thing tomorrow.”

“And then you’re going on your deployment?”

Sunny just nodded, and the look of disappointment on Bright’s face was crushing. “I really wanted to show you all the new stuff around town….”

“I know,” Sunny said. “But y’know, by the time I’m home again, you’ll be better, and there will probably be even more cool new stuff for you to show me, right?”

“Yeah, I guess,” Bright said, looking down at her sheets. “Still really wanted to see that concert though.”

At that, Sunny smiled. “Well, you’re in luck.” She then turned to Flutershy and Applejack, who had been standing respectfully at the threshold of the room. “Fluttershy, could I borrow your phone again, please?”

Fluttershy silently obliged, and Sunny unlocked it with the number combination Fluttershy had given her when she first borrowed the phone between sets at the concert. Fluttershy then learned why Sunny had asked to borrow it in the first place.

“When it looked like you and dad weren’t coming to the concert, I thought I’d bring some of the concert to you instead.” Sunny motioned for Iron to join them, cued up a video, and an image of Fluttershy on stage, her trademark soft-pink 60s Jazzmaster Lacquer ringing out thanks to the magic Sunset had imbued on it at Fluttershy’s request; it allowed the guitar to sound out without an amp or electric power. Playing an easy, funky melody, Fluttershy sang out, enthralling the audience with her music: .

“If the sun refused to shine
I don't mind, I don't mind (yeah)
If the mountains fell in the sea
Let it be, it ain't me
(Alright, sing a song),
Got my own world to live through an’ all –
Ain't gonna copy you

“Now if a 6
Turned out to be 9,
I don't mind, I don't mind
If all the hippies cut off all their hair
I don't care, I don't care
Dig it –
Got my own world to live through
Ain't going to copy you…”



“Whoa… what kinda magic is this?” Bright asked, her weak raspy voice filled with the childlike wonder of her old self.

“Not magic. Technology,” Sunny said. “Apparently, every human has one of these back in their world.”

“They built this without magic?” Iron Side asked, sounding genuinely impressed.

Sunny nodded, and the family of three sat silently for a time, watching the videos Sunny recorded of the concert. She only managed to get the second set, and even then the iPhone’s speakers paled in comparison to actually being there, but her sister and father sat, enraptured, just the same.

As the last video came to an end, Bright looked up to Sunny and asked, “Are you gonna get your own, uh….”

“iPhone.”

“Eye-foam when you go to the human world?”

Sunny laughed. “Probably.”

Her sister looked at her with eyes as bright as her name. “You’re amazing, Sunny!”

“Bright and I are gonna miss you while you’re gone, Sunny,” Iron said. “But you really are doing something amazing. I’m proud of you.”

“Thanks, Dad,” Sunny said, giving him a warm hug. She then gave Bright the best hug she could around the tubes and breathing mask. “And you know I’d do anything for you, sis. Anything.”

Fluttershy and Applejack had walked back to the main reception area of the hospital when Sunny and her family had started watching videos on her phone. Applejack had suggested they give them some privacy, and Fluttershy wholeheartedly agreed.

“Jus’ goes to show you can’t take yer loved ones fer granted,'' Applejack said to her. Or, perhaps to no one in particular.

Fluttershy took a sidelong glance at the little farm pony, noticing once again that her thoughts had taken her on another distant voyage.

“You can talk to me, you know,” Fluttershy said kindly. “About whatever has been bothering you since this whole trip began.”

“Goes a little further back than just the charm tour, Fluttershy,” Applejack said, but nonetheless looked at her with a reassuring smile. “But I’m fine, sugarcube. I know what I have to do now.”

Fluttershy wasn’t entirely sure what the farm pony meant, but she had a sneaking suspicion it had something to do with her Applejack. She didn’t have long to think about it though as familiar red and yellow colors suddenly appeared in her peripheral.

Sunny?” Fluttershy asked, surprised, looking not at Sunny Side, but at Sunset Shimmer. The SIREN recruit who had escorted her on her leg of the charm tour was with her, and Fluttershy struggled to remember her name (only that she sounded weirdly Russian) as she asked, “What are you doing here? I thought you were still in Fillydelphia?”

“No time to explain, Flutters, but I’m teleporting everyone back to Canterlot,” Sunset said. “Where’s Side?”

“Inside with her family.”

“Bring her out here, I’ll teleport you all back to Canterlot.”

“Sunny, what’s going on?”

Sunset looked at her and Fluttershy could see something she hadn’t seen in her friend’s eyes for a long time: sheer, utter heartbreak. “Something changed – rescue mission’s over and all pertinent personnel and their escorts are to be pulled back to Canterlot immediately.”

Chapter 20 - Barratry

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Chapter 20—Barratry

For the past thirty-three years, Adm. Tumblehome, First Lord of the Fleet of the Royal Equestrian Navy, had prided herself on being the head of the best of what kept Equestria safe. Granted, the past few years had given her more than a few hiccups, constantly being upstaged by mere civilians, and the way the princesses had favored this behavior instead of leaving it to the professionals. It left one thinking that maybe the alicorns had been in power too long—they certainly had started springing out of the woodwork and deep down, Tumblehome had been horrified to learn that the mare who had been none other than Nightmare Moon herself was now not only the crown princess behind Celestia herself (in what could only be described as blatant nepotism by Tumblehome’s definition), but that Princess Luna had taken charge of the entire military—including the Navy!

Thankfully, however, she’d largely been hooves-off, and that had worked just fine for Tumblehome—there were enough problems from within the Fleet’s ranks that kept her hooves busy enough. Such as the one she was dealing with at the very moment.

“So let me get this straight,” said the admiral, forelegs resting on her desk while rubbing her temples, feeling the migraine of annoyance already forming—it seemed to be a chronic problem for her these days and one she refused to take medication for. “You want to strip the High Expectations of its wooden hull for some inane experiment?”

The pony being addressed, Cdre. Main Spaces was the Fleet’s Senior Shipwright, and so Tumblehome was long used to his strange ways and bizarre ideas.

One might think he was a human in disguise, she thought.

Unaware of her thoughts, Cdre. Spaces nodded enthusiastically, his head bobbing up and down like some demented idiot. “Yes, Ma’am! The design originally came from my cousin Torque Wrench and she gave it to me when I took liberty—"

“You mean shore leave?” asked Tumblehome.

“Didn’t Vice Adm. Aviso give the new term in the message she sent to the fleet three days ago?” Spaces commented.

Tumblehome bit off a scoff—another bit of proof that Aviso was too much in bed with the humans. At this rate, probably literally, given the embarrassment to the Fleet that she was.

“Anyway, I was visiting her and her family in Hope Hollow and she gave me some rough designs for possibly revolutionizing the way we build ships. Equestria is already falling behind other international navies. Now you have Griffon warlords outfitting their ships with hardened metal and we know that some Griffon mercenaries are employing the same.

“That, and the High Expectations is, to put it bluntly, no longer fit for service. I was in charge of the recovery effort in getting her out of the Badlands following the Whisper Pitch incident that grounded her, and her hull was pretty smashed up. Additionally, she was one of the scant few ships of the Navy to survive the Tirek War unscathed simply because she was never returned to service—she was cannibalized to keep other ships of the line going due to supply lines being cut all over the place. But the majority of her frame is still intact and with the war over, we can take the opportunity to try and get ahead of other nations with improved armor that would improve durability, maybe even survive an impact with the ground and need minimal repairs if any are needed at all.”

Tumblehome looked at Spaces like he was an alien. “Commodore….you do understand that as far as our ships are concerned, the weight needs to be an exact calculation to how much phlogiston is pumped into the balloon, or else the ship does not fly at all? And you want to take a ship that already has its weight measured out and slap on heavy metal armor? The ship would plummet off the side of Mount Canterhorn the moment it was released from drydock!”

Spaces was undeterred. “But that’s just it—we use live oak timber for its strength, but modern metalsmithing can produce armor plating that is both stronger and lighter in comparison! Our ships could be faster and—"

“I won’t hear more of this,” said Tumblehome, slamming a hoof on her desk hard enough to make the various clutter on it jump in the air. “There is absolutely nothing wrong with our ships as they are and we are still critically short on ships as it is given our losses against that stupid centaur. The High Expectations will be repaired in full to her original specifications and returned to duty.” She cleared her throat before continuing, “That said, when the time comes for the next class of airship to be designed, your suggestion will be kept in mind. However, until that time, I recommend you not listen to non-naval personnel on Fleet matters. Dismissed.”

“But…” started Spaces, before withdrawing his hoof. “Aye, ma’am.” He turned and left, looking a bit dejected, getting a look of confusion from the incoming Aviso as he exited the room.

“Can I help you with something, Vice Admiral?” said Tumblehome without missing a beat. Typically, it was okay to drop the modifier when speaking to a lower rank, but it was time to put this little skylark back on the deck.

“May I ask why I am being pinned for the blame of Operation Lost Chord?” asked Aviso, putting a copy of the preliminary report on the Admiral’s desk.

“As I recall, you were the one who lent your full support behind letting the humans have free reign over this operation instead of letting the proper ponies handle the situation.”

“Yes, as did Princess Luna,” said Aviso, “given you and I were both in that room when she overrode your veto on the matter, I hope you aren’t trying to alter history just because you felt forced to take on SIREN in the first place.”

“Regardless of your opinion of what my motives are, you knew better than to—" retorted Tumblehome, before a knock at the door had both pegasi turning to look at the guard stallion who had appeared. “Come in,” she called.

“Admirals?” he voiced, “your presence has been requested by Princess Luna.”

“Finally, now we’ll get things actually moving for once,” nickered Tumblehome. Aviso could only roll her eyes as she followed in turn.

“So, before she was called away,” said human Rarity with an impish smile, “My lovely counterpart said you and she had quite the exquisite time modeling how great the human body is for fashion.”

“Uh, yeah,” muttered Applejack, not willing to look her friend in the eye. “That was certainly a thing. That happened.”

“Well, since we’re waiting for the others, why don’t you tell me all about it?”

“Do Ah have to?”

“If not now, I’ll just have to pry it out of you later,“ the teen fashionista said, her grin seemingly growing at Applejack’s discomfort.

Sunset would normally have cracked a grin at hearing Applejack’s groan of surrender, but the oppressive weight of what had transpired had sullied her mood. She’d virtually teleported herself, Pinkie, and Ushanka back to Canterlot the second she was able to collect herself following receiving the disheartening message from Softwing. Then, after popping a quick teleported note to Twilight—Sunset wasn’t sure if the cellphone she’d given Princess Twilight was configured to work with Sonata’s homebrewed internet just yet—the two alicorns quickly met up before promptly mass-spam teleporting all over Equestria to recollect their friends, who now sat around the table of a private conference room in the castle.

“So, you wanna tell us what’s up, Sunny?” asked Rainbow, as usual having a pretty chill attitude.

“This is about how the triplets saved our friends, right?” asked Fluttershy, who seemed to have a little more insight into what could possibly be the reason they were all recalled from the so-called “charm tour” so quickly.

“They...were successful, right?” said Twilight, looking worriedly at her big sister. “I mean, that’s why they went—they got the job done.”

“The job was done, and Tavi is at least safe,” replied the humanized alicorn. Everybody in the room caught the at least part, as well as the catch in her voice.

“Okay, so what the hell then, Sunset?” Rainbow asked. “Are you trying to say–” but she trailed off the moment she saw the despondent look in her friend’s eyes.

“You don’t mean…” started Rarity, who didn’t finish the sentence. Fluttershy looked completely shell-shocked. The rest of them similarly were forlorn.

“They didn’t make it,” Sunset barely croaked forth. She didn’t need to specify who.

“Wait… all of them?” Applejack asked, and Sunselt nodded solemnly. This set off the first sobs from Fluttershy, and Rarity took her hand, losing a battle with her own tears.

Then there was a knocking at the door. “Come in,” said Sunset, not looking up to see who it was.

“Okay, did I miss an authorized crying party or something while I was gone?”

Instantly, everybody looked up and turned to see none other than Adagio Dazzle and Aria Blaze standing in the doorway, looking perplexed. They themselves looked like ten miles of bad road with debris in their hair and some blood on their combat uniforms, but otherwise nothing a quick shower wouldn’t handle.

“Seriously, who died?” Adagio asked.

“Wha… YOU DID!” Rarity shouted, seeming both relieved and furious.

“Oh, really? Hadn’t noticed.”

“But...but…” stammered Sunset, overjoyed that her cousins were alive. “The report said–”

“Yeah, the report—we’ve already heard about it,” sighed Aria. “There was some...miscommunication, apparently.”

“Wait,” said Twilight, resisting the urge to leap across the desk and tackle the two present cousins in the room. Whether she’d hit them or hug them afterwards she didn’t know, but it wasn’t as important as the question on her mind. “Where’s Soni?”

“And that’s the miscommunication part,” said Dagi. “Believe it or not, Soni was the only actual casualty of the mission and–”

Wait, Sonata died?!” gasped Rarity. “How could you just say that so casually?!

Aria looked at Rarity with a raised eyebrow. “Rares, in military terms, casualty doesn’t automatically mean dead.” She turned to look at the group. “Wait, is this what you were all in here talking about? That you thought we’d all died?”

Slowly, but in unison, the gathered teens around the table nodded.

“Well, sorry to say that reports of our deaths have been greatly exaggerated,” the usually pigtailed teen said, then smirked. “Hey, I finally got to use that line unironically.”

“But what about Sonata?” asked Sunset.

“As I was saying, she was the only casualty—not KIA or even wounded in combat. It was after-action—pure misfortune that she got a leg caught under a rock that was falling when the whole complex caved in,” Adagio explained. “Razz can probably explain it better than me. A girl can blow a fuse trying to wrap her mind around this magic bullshit.”

“Fuck you, too, Dagi.” shot back Sunset good naturedly.

“Yeah, yeah—point is, she’s still in sickbay with a broken leg, but nothing more serious than that. Oh, and we got Corner Shot too, Sonata wants to make sure that you know to make her pay for what she did to Pinkie.”

Sunset, remembering what she almost did to that Covenant fanatic after the coronation attack, said nothing on the matter.

“And what about Tavi?” asked Twilight, involuntarily holding her hands together with worry.

Aria and Adagio shared uneasy glances but didn’t immediately reply.

Sunset narrowed her eyes—this was not usual behavior. “Dagi. Ari. What the fuck are you not telling us?”

Aria reached a hand behind her head. “See, we were kinda under the assumption you already knew, given that when we got back, Tavi said she was going to see Aunt Velvet and Uncle Night.”

“We checked in with Mom and Dad when we got teleported back here,” said Twilight, worry catching in her throat, “and they said they didn’t know what her status was!”

Sunset at this point had gotten up and was slowly walking toward Adagio, fury getting more and more pronounced. “What. Are. You. Not. Telling. Us?

Adagio sighed. “Sunset, as both a sailor dutifully employed in your service as well as a cousin who loves Tavi just as much as you...Tavi is the only one who is at liberty to discuss what happened.”

In her assigned quarters, Tavi simply lay on the bed, arms clutching one of the pillows to her body tightly. Now that the danger was over and she was back in Canterlot, her mind had finally drifted back to focusing on the one thing that she knew, deep down, even her cousin couldn’t fix. After all, Sunset could switch forms at will because she had started life as a unicorn; life amongst humans had forged for her an identity of being both pony and human at the same time.

Now, Tavi was just the same, albeit in a much more grotesque way. Sunset had often claimed to be a child of both worlds, and as it turned out, Tavi had also been so all along. But where Sunset had easily reconciled her two homes, becoming a beautiful and near-perfect woman with the best of both, Tavi was… something else entirely..

She was a monster.

It wasn’t so much the fact her lower torso was now physically inhuman (the plumbing at least seemed to be properly still human) and she had a full blown tail that was maybe three feet long, that was bad enough given she’d never fit in with human society again. No, it was the fact this was the end product of Melody who, despite everything, Tavi believed had always been part of her. She’d been a monster internally, and now she was one externally to match.

What would happen to her when she’d return to the human world? She would never be able to go back to her life as it was, that much was certain. So what then? Become a recluse, never to go out in public again? If she did decide to go out, she would be famous, but not for her talents as a musician like she’d always dreamed. No, she would become a scientific curiosity. That alone was horror beyond imagination in its own right, given how Twilight tended to treat her science pursuits. Failing that, Tavi could easily imagine the term layman would ascribe to her: freak.

A thought then occurred to her in that moment as she looked over at the glass doors leading out to her balcony. Slowly, listlessly, she got up from her bed and walked—painfully—to the balcony doors and opened them. Stepping out into the open air, Tavi leaned forward over the railing and looked down. Her room was on one of the uppermost floors of the castle; sixty or seventy feet up, maybe more.

Enough to bring a swift end to her hellish existence.

With a grunt, Tavi hooked one misshapen leg over the railing, then the other. She sat there for a time, her legs dangling over that vast abyss. It would be very easy. Just one push off from the railing and she wouldn’t have any more problems. It would probably hurt for a moment, but then it would be over. She would be free.

She placed her hands on the railing, ready to give that one last push, when the image of the aftermath came into her mind. She saw herself, a bloody smear on the pavement far below...with a horrified Sunset Shimmer standing over her. With a sobbing Twily clinging to her. With a disconsolate aunt and uncle standing next to them. And the triplets, who’d risked life and limb to save her.

Suddenly Tavi didn’t want to be up there anymore. Her heart raced as she slowly—carefully—tried to turn around and climb back onto the safe side of the balcony. She tried to hook one ungainly equine leg back over the railing when her other leg slipped, and terror washed over her. Tavi desperately pulled herself over the railing and collapsed in a heap when she was back on the balcony. She then crawled back into her room on hands and knees, shaking and crying.

She wasn’t just a freak. She was a freak and a coward.

Carrying herself with proper military bearing, Tumblehome walked right into the room and took her seat, but only after first coming to attention in front of Princess Luna. Proper decorum had to be acknowledged, after all.

“I am pleased to see that you are taking quite a prompt and serious approach to this situation,” said Tumblehome, mindful to show respect with the appropriate edge of disappointment—after all, in her mind, Luna was guilty herself of allowing this embarrassment of the Navy by overriding her veto of the operation.

“Yes, quite—there’s something to be said about that, actually,” said Luna in a flat tone. That immediately set off alarm bells in Tumblehome’s head that maybe this wasn’t exactly about what she thought it was.

She took a quick glance around the room to see who else was in attendance. In addition to herself, Luna, and Aviso, it felt slightly deja vu in how both General Halberd was present representing the Army and, serving once again in place of the ever tardy Archmagus Beryl was Sr. Mage Mystic Essence to represent the Mage Guild. The only real difference was that the Hooves were not represented for whatever reason—not like they ever should, they were merely the maid staff after all—and instead Deputy Director Clandestine Moves from the Agency seemed to have replaced them. Tumblehome had also been confused as to how the Agency got itself involved in the matter, given this fell beneath their intelligence-only modus operandi and yet the director themselves (who Tumblehome annoyingly didn’t even know the identity of) had seen fit to personally participate in Operation: Lost Chord.

“We’re just waiting for one more and then we can begin,” said Luna.

“I’m here, I’m here,” said Arrowswift, “I only just got notified this meeting was happening, so please excuse the delay.”

“The Guard is late as usual, I see,” grumbled Tumblehome.

Arrowswift’s wings flared up in annoyance but she didn’t return the remark, instead just taking her seat.

“I trust this matter is about how the Equestrian armed forces now have to explain to a foreign...dimension... why their people were killed, let alone allegedly why one of them was kidnapped in the first place?” asked Mystic, who looked like he really did not want to be there. “Based on the, erm, testimony, from that one mad pony that Princess Sunset beat up, Her Highness was the one they were targeting and it was a mistake that they took the human instead by whatever means that was accomplished.”

“Point-blank trigger teleportation charms planted on blunt knives,” said Moves, “most likely used by Corner Shot, a confirmed Covenant assassin...or I guess ex-Covenant given the mission was a success despite the heavy human cost.”

“And that is why we are here,” said Luna, turning to look at Aviso. “Because despite the report, I have not gathered us here to discuss the need for a court-martial regarding Vice Adm. Aviso as the preliminary report suggested.” The princess’s gaze then shifted slightly toward Tumblehome, “Instead, we are here to talk about you, Admiral.”

“Me?” gasped Tumblehome, “My liege, what have I done wrong?”

Luna decided to drop all pretense of even accepting the Admiral had acted out of sheer obliviousness of what her actions had done. “This entire report is nothing more than falsehoods regarding the role of humans—somepony of your experience and rank should know better than to produce and then freely distribute a document of that incendiary nature with your name on it, working off minimal information that for all you know could have been inaccurate!”

“I honestly haven’t the foggiest idea of what you are accusing me of,” retorted the Admiral.

“I concur,” said Clandestine. “Plus, is it even fair to the admiral to say she was not within her rights to assume if working off of prior incidents? The human who was kidnapped, a Miss Octavia Melody, escaped another kidnapping attempt earlier this week by griffon mercenaries.”

“I fail to see what that has to do with anything,” said Arrowswift.

“It means the humans are untrustworthy,” said Mystic Essence. “I honestly don’t see any benefit to letting such violent creatures remain part of any force that represents our country.”

Halberd looked at the senior magus and the second-in-command of Equestria’s own intelligence division like they had smooze coming out of their ears. “Are you insinuating Miss Melody is somehow to blame for being the target of a rogue Inari prince?”

“Not at all,” refuted Mystic Essence. “Just that the humans seem to have a penchant for attracting trouble.”

Stroking his mustache, Halberd thought for a moment before saying, “I find it interesting that you’d bring up the griffon mercenaries without mentioning the incident with Senechal Softwing.” He leaned forward on the table, smiling in the amical way of a chess player finishing their move. “Did the SIRENs not demonstrate their effectiveness by rescuing a recognized citizen of Equestria within moments of realizing she was in danger?”

“Through terrifying force and the near-complete obliteration of the enemy!” pointed out Tumblehome.

“I’m sorry,” piped up Arrowswift, “but have most of you forgotten Equestria can and has done far worse than a few dead enemies of the state, not to mention such a show of force is a good deterrence to any lesser threats from trying their own hand at starting trouble given these tumultuous times we live in?”

“Not to mention that those mercenaries were determined to spirit away Lady Softwing,” Halberd pointed out. “As I may remind you, Rules of Engagement require that while we should allow mercy to enemy combatants when possible, it is not a requirement, especially when lives are at stake—and I would argue that Lady Softwing would state that her life was very much in peril at that time.”

“At what point, then,” Tumblehome seethed, “do we sanction a level of death that makes us no better than–”

“That is enough, Admiral,” chastised Luna. “It is abundantly clear that even though you did give your acceptance for the SIRENs to be merged into the Royal Equestrian Navy, you don’t think too highly of them.”

“Just saying, I’d be more than happy to take ‘em,” said Halberd with a smirk. Tumblehome glared at him.

“Still, we need to get to the matter of just what exactly happened regarding this report, and there is only one individual who I think can reliably give that testimony.” Luna then clapped her hooves together, adding, “And this is where the thoughts of the Commander, Special Initiative comes in.”

The doors behind Luna—which Tumblehome had paid no attention to earlier—opened and much to her shock, Rear Adm. Sable Loam calmly walked out and took a seat to the left of Aviso. “Thank you, Princess.”

“Of course, Admiral. Would you care to tell us what actually happened during Operation: Lost Chord?”

“Yes,” he answered, clearing his throat before going into detail. “With the assistance of the captain and crew of the Super-Electric, the SIRENs, assisted by Agency Asset 1, were able to perform the insertion perfectly and arrived at what I believe was described by Asset 1 as some kind of portal to the actual enemy stronghold—we just followed the line made by Princess Cadence’s spell. After securing entry, we attempted a stealthy insertion and split into three teams of two, but we were unable to maintain covert operations and ultimately had to go weapons free. There were extensive casualties inflicted upon the enemy and it was ultimately discovered that the entire Covenant outfit was in fact a false flag operation being carried out by changelings.”

“Changelings?” remarked Mystic with surprise. “Why would the changelings want anything to do with Sombra? They just launched an attack on Oatmaha around the same time all of this went down!”

“Actually, it would line up with information which Agency assets in the field were reporting,” corrected Clandestine. “Namely, Queen Chrysalis has been steadily losing control over the Changeling hivemind ever since her attempt at conquering Canterlot was repulsed. There already was a splinter hive incident recorded earlier this year that took place in the town of Nightshade—the Super-Electric was involved in cleanup operations for that, too, as I recall.”

“To the fireteam involved, changelings were an unknown party and thus why the initial paperwork lacked any information on the subject. Regardless, we were able to rescue all the hostages as well as capture the enemy leader without any casualties as a result of combat,” Sable continued. “In fact, the only casualty sustained was when Cmdr. Dusk was unlucky enough to be caught under falling debris that pinned her to the ground and broke her leg. We were able to extract her and everyone...er, everypony out safely and rendezvous with the Super-Electric, at which time Capt. Easychord sent a courier pegasus ahead. You all can imagine my surprise when we actually did return to Canterlot only to find everyone seemed to think we were dead, given no such information was carried by the courier.”

“Can we verify that the transit wasn’t compromised?” firmly asked Halberd.

“Yes, the first pony that Ens. Moonray sought out upon reaching Canterlot was me,” answered Aviso, “and following proper protocol, I immediately delivered that information to Adm. Tumblehome.” Her attention then turned to her superior as she added, “There was no breach of information relay and having read the field report myself, I have no idea where the Admiral would have gotten the impression that the successful operation was somehow in fact almost a complete disaster.”

“I also would expect that Capt. Easychord would take offense at the preliminary report distributed by Fleet HQ stating that she was trying to take control of the operation to follow ‘proper’ protocol,” added Sable. “Given that she and her crew performed above and beyond in carrying out an operation they were not normally trained to perform, on a vessel not designed for facilitating airdrop insertion of heavy vehicles. They did not try to interfere with how I led the operation and by leaving it to the SIRENs, the decapitation strike was successful.”

Clandestine Moves, however, didn’t seem satisfied with the oral report. “Adm. Loam, in my tenure with the Agency, I have gained a keen knowledge of how to read when somepony is being honest or not. And while you are not a creature native to this world, I can tell you are exhibiting the mannerisms of somebody telling the truth...but you’re also withholding information.”

Sable couldn’t help but glance over at the self-satisfied smirk on Tumblehome’s face, wondering if the admiral knew how much trouble she was going to be in given what he had to say next. “You are correct, Director: there are...details about what occurred but I have been ordered to leave them off the record.”

“Whose orders?” asked Luna.

“Archmagus Raspberry Beryl, one of the rescued hostages; and Agency Asset 1, a.k.a. The Director of the Agency. They also told me to inform all that they will meet separately with Princess Luna on the subsequent issue.”

“Well, they certainly couldn’t be bothered to show up to tell us that themselves, now could they?” scoffed Tumblehome. “Plus, you serve under me, not them, and I hereby order you to tell—"

“ENOUGH!” shouted Luna, channeling enough of the Royal Canterlot Voice to cause the room to shake a little. She looked at Tumblehome with dissatisfaction in her eyes. “Adm. Tumblehome, in the span of five minutes it has been disclosed that not only did you issue a preliminary report based on incomplete information, but that somehow the facts you were to relay through the chain of command painted a very different picture to what Adm. Loam has disclosed here. After which, you have attempted to throw your immediate subordinate under the proverbial cartwheel to take the blame of foreign nationals dying for Equestria and trying to rope in another subordinate in these falsehoods by giving complete fiction to their actions, in this case the performance of Capt. Easychord and the crew of the Super-Electric. Finally, Adm. Loam has stated that two other service heads, both of which outrank him, have instructed him to not relay information and you presume to have the authority to override them without so much as requesting clarification for the reason?”

“My princess,” said Halberd, clearing his throat. “If I am not mistaken, the implication here is that Tumblehome is trying to actively sabotage the Navy itself, simply to spite the fact the SIRENs became part of its ranks, and does not care about the fallout such actions may have, despite the fact SIREN has proven itself to be a formidable and powerful asset for Equestria.”

Tumblehome, scandalized, glared at Halberd, “I would kindly ask you to mind your own affairs, General.”

“He’s certainly doing a better job of handling the affairs of the Army than you are of the Navy,” commented Arrowswift, “After all, you’re the one whining about how the Fleet gets shortchanged all the time, but here you get one of the strongest additions to Equestria’s armed services delivered right on your doorstep—effectively the only personal guard regiment of a princess not of the main Guard or the Army—and you’re trying to actively discredit them! Furthermore, unlike the Army’s ambassadorial guard or the Guard protective units, the SIRENs are a fully-operational combat unit and have proven themselves in a way that no other Equestrian military unit has!”

“I do not understand what the fuss is all about,” said Mystic dismissively, “since last I checked, this is the land of Equestria, not Human...est..ria…

“Didn’t really think that one through, did you?”

“...Not really, no…”

“I for one believe Tumblehome is justified in her actions,” said Clandestine, “since all of you only seem concerned with the raw devastation humans can output and have no respect for the ramifications on the intelligence community!”

“Which would be…” asked Luna, eyebrow raised.

“Well, we don’t know yet!”

“That is not a reason to support actively sabotaging one’s own command structure, given that regardless of who carried out the operation, the Admiral has openly falsified a report and is trying to manipulate the image of others for her own ends. Quite unfitting for the High Lord of the Fleet.”

“I think a review is in order,” said Halberd. “I recommend an investigation into barratry.”

“As the Guard representative, I second that,” Arrowswift added. The other two opened their mouths to speak, but a glare from Luna immediately shut them up.

“Yes, I believe you are both right.” Luna said before she gave Tumblehome a baleful glare. The pegasus in question looked fit to molt all her feathers right then and there. “Do you have anything else to say, Admiral?”

“I did it for Equestria!” she snarled. “I refuse to let such...such...monsters, whose capacity it is to outdo Tirek himself in wanton destruction, to even be considered part of the Fleet! And if Princess Sunset wants them so badly, she is no better, especially since she comports herself like one of them!”

Luna’s eyes glowed briefly and for a split second those present thought they saw her coat turn black, but then she took a breath to calm herself down. “First barratry and now lese majeste,” the princess stated. “You certainly are on a roll today. Adm. Tumblehome, in my capacity as head of Equestria’s armed forces, I hereby temporarily relieve you of command, subject to an internal review of your actions to see if court-martial is warranted.” She then turned to Aviso, adding “And thus you will be acting First Lord of the Fleet, Vice Adm. Aviso.”

“This is an outrage!” screamed Tumblehome, “You can’t–”

“Are you defying your princess?” asked Luna calmly.

Gritting her teeth, Tumblehome knew she had to submit. “No...my liege…” she managed to seethe, before angrily trotting out the door.

“I guess that adds insubordination to the potential charges,” Arrowswift said to no one in particular.

Taking the opportunity, Halberd leaned over toward Aviso and whispered “You know, if you just want to get rid of SIREN and wash the Navy’s hooves of this whole affair, the Army is willing to–”

“Nope!” grinned Aviso, who leaned away from Halberd and, much to Sable’s confusion, had the human’s left arm in a deathgrip hug, “They’re mine now!”

Sable looked at the others. “Well, I did have some ideas for training equivalent forces for the other services….”

Halberd thought about it for a second. “I find that acceptable,” he said with a wide smile.

Meanwhile, in the dungeons of Canterlot, three of the four Scions had a meeting, though one decidedly was less pleased than the others.

“So, is this what happens to ponies who put their faith in you, Archmagus?” spat Corner Shot. She currently was sitting on the standard issue prison cot, her wings secured flat against her barrel by a special straightjacket woven from Star Spider silk—unbreakable—and her fore and rear legs shackled together in hobbles to ensure she didn’t pull another stunt like she had with the exploding train incident. “We had a deal and it seems you didn’t hold up your end of the bargain!”

Razz took a deep breath, while off to the side, Lockbox just rolled her eyes and Heliodor—perched on a bench on the back wall—simply glared death in Corner’s direction. “Look, Corner,” said Razz, trying to be reasonable, “You’ve done nothing but have a nice nap—I’ve been trying to scare up every last connection I can possibly call on to get the Justice Ministry to drop charges. Do you have any idea how many legal ponies have laughed at that idea when I had to bring up your rap sheet?” She then began listing, “Three counts of kidnapping—one a high-ranking government official, one a member of the royal family—conspiracy to commit high treason, and more counts of murder that can fit on a single page. Not even an insanity plea will make all of that go away.”

“They usually stop us before we can go through the whole list,” added Lock.

“Go on, lie to me some more,” said Corner dismissively. “After all, I should have figured that much when we first met back in Ponyville, given you go around wearing a big fat lie because you scare children otherwise simply by existing!”

“Not helping your case,” sighed Razz, facehoofing.

“She could have been acting under the guidance of Queen Faust herself, wouldn’t do her any good,” said a new voice, and both Razz and Lock turned to see none other than Princess Twilight Sparkle arrive.

“What are you doing here, Twi?”

“I’ve been looking for you two ever since I got everypony back from that charm tour. Evidently there’s some trouble going down regarding the report that made it sound like all the humans died.”

Getting over the shock of the Princess of Friendship being in favor of harsh punishment, Corner couldn’t help but be herself in the moment. “I can think of one human who I want dead,” she grunted, thoughts going toward one of her now-confiscated knives running its edge along the neck of the SIREN that had captured her.

“See, my point exactly,” said Twilight without missing a beat, turning to face Corner. “For the record, what Razz and Lock said is true, but as much as they might want to—for whatever Celestia-forsaken reason—let you go, that’s not going to happen. You’ve caused nothing but death and suffering in your wake and you are going to spend the rest of your days rotting in Tartarus if there is any justice to be done.” Twilight then charged her horn with magic, adding as she turned to Lockbox and Razz, “Don’t bother trying to talk with her further; you’re just wasting your breath.” Then she instantly teleported away, which from Corner’s point of view seemed to have taken Razz and Lockbox with her as well as Razz’s bird.

“I’m not scared of that shithole!” shouted Corner in reply despite nopony listening. Then thinking, once again, of what she’d done in that sunflower garden what felt like so long ago, added quietly, “I belong there anyway.”

In a flash of purple, Twilight, Lockbox, and Heliodor appeared in Twilight’s personal office within the castle...but only them.

“Hey, wait,” said Twilight, confused, “where’d Razz go?”

Lock snickered. “I think Razz decided she had somewhere else to be—she probably cast a teleport spell on herself right before you finished yours.”

Twilight sighed. “Ugh, I hope she isn’t going to waste her breath on that murderer any more, it just isn’t worth it.”

“You know,” said Shining Armor through magically enchanted reinforced cell bars, “when I heard you had finally been captured, I will admit I wasn’t expecting this.”

“Well, boo hoo you don’t get your glorious revenge because your wedding day was nearly ruined,” scoffed Chrysalis. She then added, “I suppose we can also count the sacking of Canterlot, but I guess that isn’t as much of a priority in your memory, is it?”

In truth, Shining Armor wasn’t sure why he had come down to the dungeons when he heard Chrysalis was being held there. Given she was a critical level threat, once the Super-Electric had come into port, Blueblood had quickly arranged for Agency personnel to spirit the species-split girl away to the most secure locations possible. Unfortunately, due to the self-investigation ongoing with the Agency in light of traitors having been found even within its own ranks, all of the Agency’s holding cells were full and so the best they could do was stick Chrysalis in a magically reinforced dungeon cell in Canterlot Castle. Obviously, there was extreme concern this was not enough, but Chrysalis didn’t attempt to resist at any point, leaving the puzzled Agency ponies wondering what exactly had happened to “Chrysalis” given some of them still didn’t even believe this human-esque thing was her in the first place.

Indeed, looking at her now, Shining felt no satisfaction seeing the once mighty changeling queen laid so low. Revenge was something that simply hadn’t crossed his mind after the events of his wedding. But still, Shining had suffered many sleepless nights and near mental breakdowns at the thought of what had happened to him while under her thrall. He wasn’t interested in revenge, but maybe he needed...closure. However, even that didn’t seem to be forthcoming.

“At least I know that I don’t need popperweed supplements to...get going,” Chrysalis sniped, clearly hoping to get rid of him.

Wincing briefly, Shining was unmoved for the most part. “Is that really the best the great Queen Chrysalis can come up with to try and agitate me?” Of course, the thing in front of him hardly looked like Chrysalis any more. Shining was looking at a twisted child rather than a terrifying queen.

However, Shining was taken a bit aback when the response to that question was Chrysalis laughing, though it was a hollow, humorless laugh. “No, but Queen Chrysalis is dead, gone—she’s really been dead since the time of Sombra, existing as nothing more than the essence of the hivemind that’s been in my head for a thousand years.”

Shining Armor, naturally, had no clue what the creature in front of him was talking about—but maybe his sister would be able to make more sense of it so for that sake, he decided to keep the conversation going. “So you’re...not Queen Chrysalis except you are her, too?”

Almost not even paying attention to Shining, Chrysalis answered, “No, I was Crisalide della Lucca…. Now? I don’t know what I am now. I have lost everything. A thousand-plus years of pain here, centuries of absence in the world of humans...I am a creature that belongs nowhere. And yet…” she then turned and looked judgmentally at Shining, “...I am certain I understand mercy more than you damn ponies ever did.”

Excuse me?” said Shining, offended, then got a second startle when the girl lunged up to the bars, seemingly ignoring the painful magic sensation that should have been delivered to her hand and hoof gripping them to the point her hand’s knuckles turned white.

Look at me! You think I want to live like this?! I have suffered and caused suffering across entire generations, this damned thing that is not allowed to die by her own choice because of the whims of the long dead fused into my being! Forced to endure the sensation of forever needing love, something I never truly had even when I was whole and pure! Only by mistake have I been set free of the shackles of the hivemind and yet I still am not free! I can feel it, like tendrils reaching for my mind to reassert control! I am not Queen Chrysalis now, but I could become her again—or worse! A plaything of the hivemind in disarray!” She finally fell back, letting go of the bars, as the pain became enough for her to feel in her maddened state.

“Well, that sounds...bad…” said Shining, at a loss of words of how to exactly interpret this line of ranting and raving. He was regretting still talking to this thing, and he was realizing he should have just left this task for his sister to deal with personally. “But you say the queen is dead...but you could become her again...I take it there is a way to stop it?”

“Yes, you fucking idiot!” Crisalide screeched, “If I die, then she will finally have a true death herself! But there is still enough of the hivemind in my mind that I can’t die by my own hand!”

“So what, you want we ponies to kill you?”

Crisalide rolled her eyes in exasperation. “Did it really take Equestria’s top guardspony this long to figure that out?”

Shining shook his head. “No, that’s not how Equestria does things.”

“Of course it doesn’t,” she spat. “Because despite the constant threats you horrible little ponies have had to endure in these past few years, you’re afraid to take another life! This is why you don’t know mercy!” She grinned maliciously, her quartet of small fangs looking ever so slightly out of place on an otherwise human looking jawline. “Maybe that’s why you have humans in your ranks now—you need to learn something from us.”

“I’ve had enough,” declared Shining, and trotted off in an annoyed mood.

Five minutes passed, with Crisalide sitting forlornly in the middle of her cell, before she spoke again. “You know,” she said, looking at the empty wall which only bore shadows from the magically eternal flame in the sole lamppost, “I was really talking to you this whole time. I know you’ve been there listening ever since you teleported down here.”

The shadows on the wall started to move like some kind of rorschach illustration, pooling on the floor only for the figure of Raspberry Beryl to emerge, in her true appearance instead of her usual illusory guise.

Crisalide smirked. “I spent too fucking long around your cruel ancestor; he loved using that shadow trick to spy on those he deemed untrustworthy.” She then fully looked up at Razz, adding, “Did I answer all your questions, at least?”

To the apparent surprise of the hybrid girl, Razz took on the form of shadow once again, passing through the enchanted bars of her prison and rematerializing in her cell next to her. “To be honest, I still don’t understand how you survived. Sombra seemed pretty certain you were dead,” Razz said. “I know better than most what an unreliable narrator he was, but still. Even an alicorn wouldn’t survive being run through with a magical sword and thrown into a vat of molten metal.”

“To be honest, I don’t know how I survived that either. My memories of the last millennium are foggy.” Crisalide paused to think, and Razz could tell what she was recalling now was painful. “I remember awakening inside a metal cocoon, my wounds burned shut. I’m not sure how long I spent in that darkness, waiting to die, before I first sensed it: the changeling hivemind. It led the survivors of my…of her…of our hive to where I was buried deep beneath the snowy plains.”

Razz nodded, following along as she tried to make sense of it. She knew all about how a unicorn with her life threatened could instinctively call upon magic they hardly knew to save themselves. It was how she came to be as she is now, after all. Perhaps the same was true of Crisalide?

If that was true, then the “metal cocoon” Crisalide had awoken in could only have been the very same molten metal Sombra had thrown her in, cooled to a solid form with her magic. According to Razz’s research, Sombra’s metallurgy was the only place in the Crystal Empire to show the weathering of one thousand years. Likely it was deep enough beneath the Crystal Empire to have avoided the spell that displaced it from time.

“When I emerged from that cocoon I was reborn; not as Crisalide, but Chrysalis, and that’s who I’ve been ever since…at least, until now.”

“What changed?” Razz asked.

“I’m not entirely sure, but I think it happened after I tried to go through the mirror portal,” Crisalide said, again pausing to think. “I remember briefly being in that space between spaces—outside of both the world of Equestria and the world of humans. In that moment of pure chaos, what struck me the most was the tranquility within my own mind. For the first time in a millenium, I could not hear the hivemind.”

It made sense to Razz. Crisalide had left the rest of the hivemind in Equestria when she went through the portal in Sombra’s mirror. The only place the hivemind wouldn’t be able to reach her would be another world...or the space between worlds.

“And you don’t hear it now? Even though you’re back in Equestria?” Razz asked, realizing that by the time Crisalide had reemerged from the mirror portal, the changelings of her hive had already left her. Perhaps seeing Crisalide for what she really was before she disappeared through the mirror portal caused the changelings of her hive to unanimously break off from it.

“No, but…I can feel it. It’s hard to explain to someone who isn’t a part of it, but it’s always there.” Crisalide’s expression wasn’t exactly cheerful before, but somehow she looked even more grim as she said, “You heard what I said before. Queen Chrysalis isn’t just any changeling queen. She is the changeling queen. It’s only a matter of time before the hivemind returns to her...to me.

She then lunged closer to Razz, and unlike with Shining, there were no bars between them. Yet Razz held fast; a wall of stone that the ruined girl clung feebly to as she said, “That’s why you must kill me. I can’t go back to living like that!”

Razz gently but firmly removed Crisalide’s grip on her coat. “Sorry, can’t do that.”

A feral growl escaped Crisalide’s lips then, and she did something that shouldn’t have surprised Razz, but did all the same. With her human hand, Crisalide swiped at Razz, her gnarled, twisted nails raking her across the cheek, drawing blood. “Why?! What do you have to lose, except another enemy?

“My soul,” Razz answered, and Crisalide struck again, this time with her hoof arm. The blow was powerful, and Razz was shocked to find herself knocked off her hooves. Crisalide was deceptively strong.

Razz started to get up, but Crisalide kicked her hard in the stomach, and Razz felt a rib break. Then Crisalide backed off, giving Razz a moment to stand.

“C’mon, Scion of Sombra! Fight back!” Crisalide lunged forward with an open palm strike toward Razz’s barrel.

It was obviously telegraphed. Even one as ill-trained for physical combat as Razz could see it coming a mile away. But she made no move to block or dodge. She just stood there and took it, coughing as the wind was knocked out of her.

Fight back, damn you!” Crisalide cried, bringing both her hand and her hoof down onto Razz’s back, shattering her spine and crumpling her to the ground.

Razz could have avoided that one too. Could have dodged, kicked, or even cast a spell to ward off her assailant. Instead she just took it all as Crisalide stomped on her body, crushing bone and organ alike. The pain was incredible; worse than getting impaled on a spear in Lonesome Dove, or getting her throat torn out by a werewolf. But she had survived both of those experiences, and she would survive this one.

So she lay there and took back all of the pain and rage that her ancestor had given to the poor, unfortunate human girl.

Fight back!” Crisalide screamed. “Kill me!

Eventually the guards, drawn over by the sound of the commotion, piled into the cell and pulled Crisalide, kicking and screaming, off of Razz. Crisalide bit hard into the ear of one of them and ended up on the wrong side of their nightsticks for her trouble. Just like Razz, she made no attempt to fight back after that, perhaps hoping one of them would get overzealous and finally give her the death she wanted.

STOP!” Razz wasn’t going to allow it.

The guards and Crisalide all looked to Razz as she rose to her feet, her bones snapping back into place and her open wounds sealing themselves shut. In mere moments, Razz was as good as new.

“Leave us,” Razz ordered calmly.

“But, ma’am…” one of the guards started.

Go!” Razz snarled, giving them a good look at her Sombra-esque fangs. “And don’t disturb us again!”

Exchanging uncertain looks amongst themselves, the guards shuffled out of the cell. When they were gone, Razz turned to Crisalide with a deadpan expression. “Would you like to continue? Or did you get that all out of your system?”

Crisalide just gave a defeated sigh and leaned back against the wall. It was enough of an answer for Razz.

“Good, because believe it or not, I didn’t come here to be your punching bag.”

“Why did you come here, anyway?” Crisalide asked, her voice quiet and broken again. “To interrogate me? Torment me?”

“No, you’ve endured enough of both,” Razz said. “I came to answer your question.”

Crisalide furrowed her brow in confusion, so Razz reminded her. “When we were escaping the cave. You asked me ‘why are you saving me?’” Razz took a step forward and sat down across from Crisalide. “And while we’re on the subject, I can’t help but notice how peculiar your word choice was then. It’s not what you’d expect to hear from someone who wants to die.”

Crisalide said nothing, her gaze fixed on the floor, so Razz continued. “But to answer your question, I saved you because I believe you’re wrong.”

Now, Crisalide looked at her. “About?”

With a thoughtful sigh, Razz said, “We really are two of a kind, aren’t we? Me, the legacy of Sombra. And you, the legacy of Chrysalis. I can understand why you’d think we’re both damned.” Razz leaned towards her. “But here’s the thing: We don’t have to inherit their sins. We can fight fate!”

“What makes you so sure?”

“Because I’ve been doing it my whole life,” Razz said with a smile, thinking of Twilight, her friends, and her family back home at the Traveler’s Retreat. “It’s not that hard when you have friends at your side.”

With a bitter laugh, Crisalide said, “I’ve never exactly had any friends.”

“I think, if they were alive, Cocoa Bean and Musica Allegra would disagree.”

Crisalide’s breath hitched at hearing the names she likely hadn’t heard in a long time. With a shrug, Razz turned to the cell door, adding, “Just saying, it’s not too late.”

“Isn’t it, though?” Crisalide asked as Razz approached the exit. “I’ve done so much evil over so many years, killed so many innocents. I don’t think it’s possible to go all the way back to good.”

“Maybe not,” Razz said, exiting the cell. “But it’s never too late to start being better.”

“And that covers the expenditures for the northern irrigation project,” said Tealine, taking the documents off of Highfalutin'’s desk, tapping them along the edge so they all were nice and neat, then putting them back in their folder.

Nodding, Highfalutin' smiled. “Good work, Tealine, this should definitely help improve the agricultural yield and Perchron’s economy.” Internally, she added in her thoughts and the poor saps paying the raised taxes to pay for their stupid little river will gladly hand the money over!

Just then, the strange brass object on the side of the desk started to vibrate. “Oh! The, uh, device thingy is doing something.”

‘’Ah, yes, the astralpresence device I had brought in last week, I thought I told you about it,” the elder unicorn lied. “The crown mandated that all important ponies get one so that it’s easier to communicate—flamefax is going the way of the ponysaur.”

“I must have forgotten, my lady.”

“It’s quite alright,” comforted Highfalutin' as she got up from her desk and walked around to stand in front of Tealine. “Anyway, it’s probably some boring news from Canterlot, nothing you need to worry about, so be a dear and get those papers sent to the right ponies?”

“Right away, my liege!” Tealine chirped, letting out a playful eep! As Highfalutin' slapped her flank as she walked out.

The young and sexually inexperienced are so easy to manipulate, thought Highfalutin', who promptly closed and locked the main door to her office, then subsequently shut all the blinds so the room was dark. Finally, she pressed the activation button on the astralpresence machine.

Instantly the machine whirred into life and did some kind of mechanical dance of light, magic, and crystal, the end result being the form of Tumblehome appearing in Highfalutin'’s office.

“Glad to see you’re doing well, Admiral,” said Highfalutin', magically moving a chair so she could sit and not be bothered with having to stand when addressing a servant of the crown. It had been the admiral who had arranged for this device, supposedly only reserved for military units deployed in the field, and they had been working together thanks to their little ‘arrangement’ of which the details were kept tight-lipped for good reason.

“Well, there’s good news and bad news—and all I can say about the good news is that whatever the Covenant had been planning didn’t come to fruition. Unfortunately, despite being in charge of the Navy, the organization those damn humans begged me to let them into, a lot of the actual details of what happened are being kept secret.”

“All you have to do is grease a few wheels, some bits in specific hooves, and secrets can be spilled, my good Admiral.”

“Not when Raspberry Beryl and the head of the Agency are the ones ordering a need-to-know information lockdown. I’m completely shut out!”

That got Highfalutin'’s attention, as she narrowed her eyes in annoyance. “Oh, that is going to be difficult.”

Raspberry Beryl, despite being the walking example of dark magic corruption under her well-known-to-be-fake illusory charm, was one of the most morally incorruptible ponies Highfalutin' and her associates had ever encountered. Made worse by the fact her heritage tied back to Sombra, a member of the original houses and overrode the rights of a good number of nobles that were in lock-step with Highfalutin'’s goals. And whoever the Agency Director was, Highfalutin' was of the opinion the individual didn’t even exist simply to confuse the other countries of Equus, as she hadn’t been able to glean any information about them and not for a lack of trying.

“Still, I trust you can throw enough subordinates at the problem and you’ll get answers, just more ammunition to dethrone that ‘dear’ aunt of mine,” Highfalutin’ mused

“I can’t do that either—thanks to your other aunt,” groaned Tumblehome. “My attempt at stirring up trouble with the humans by saying they nearly botched the operation got exposed because they didn’t actually die like they should have, so now Luna has temporarily relieved me of duties and given acting overall command to Aviso, who at this point may or may not be literally in bed with at least one of them for how much she favors their...their...disregard of established naval doctrine!” Clearly growing more agitated, Tumblehome pawed at the floor with a hoof—a sign of challenge from a more primitive age and completely unbecoming for a pony of her station, in Highfalutin’s own opinion. “I’ve worked too hard to keep the Navy fit and functional and to have all that work dismantled in front of me like this...ARGH!”

You keeping the Navy as backdated as possible was why you were valuable to me in the first place, internally corrected Highfalutin', wondering what would happen to the lucrative money siphoning racket she’d arranged with some of the more... capitalistic shipwrights contracted to maintain the Navy’s ships. “An inconvenience but I’m sure things can work out.”

“I wish! I know Halberd’s been trying to get rid of me for years and now I’ve lost the support of the crew of the Super-Electric, one of the Fleet’s ‘superstars’ given how often their insane captain goes along with non-doctrine plans and tends to succeed! That is not how things should operate! This is supposedly only temporary but I very well could be forced to retire or worse and that would be bad for both of us.”

“More you than me, since my job isn’t on the line here, but point made. What are you going to do about it?”

“Me? I can’t do anything! But that’s why you are going to do something about it.”

“Oh, really? And what makes you say that?”

“Because nothing goes on in my fleet that I’m not aware of,” Tumblehome said, giving Highfalutin’ a meaningful look through the astralpresence machine. “Nothing.”

Highfalutin’ raised an eyebrow. This was the first time in their entire working history that the simple admiral had ever said something that surprised her. “Is that so?”

Tumblehome nodded. “It is. What’s more, I know other things about you. Your closet is just reeking of skeletons, so if you don’t uphold your end of our agreement, maybe I can’t be helped but air it out a little.”

Highfalutin' did not reply for several minutes. She genuinely didn’t think the admiral had it in her to blackmail her so overtly. She must be desperate indeed. “Alright, fine, you’ve convinced me—let me speak to some of my contacts and I’ll let you know what I can get going. I suppose you want Aviso to, ah, have an ‘accident’?”

“I wouldn’t be opposed to it.”

“Then I guess an admiral will be going down with the ship, or whatever naval expression would be most appropriate here.” She then turned the device off, Tumblehome’s image vanishing.

“Are you really going to take that sitting down?” asked a voice from the shadows. From behind Highfalutin'’s chair emerged Redeye, having let herself in during the conversation. She knew that Highfalutin' knew she’d been there the whole time and, really, while she’d never admit it, Redeye rather enjoyed the few chances she could be a stereotypical shadowy henchpony. It was one of her vices.

“Of course not. She’s failed, to put it bluntly, so you are not to do anything to this Aviso character. If anything, the Equestrian navy needs serious updating, if only so I can, ah, borrow some ships to deal with this damn griffon raider problem we can’t seem to squash in full.”

“Do you want me to have the actual Admiral go down with her ship, as you put it?”

“No, this needs to be handled...delicately. We need a patsy to do the deed and subsequently take the fall for us. Fortunately, I’ve been keeping up with the situation in Canterlot and know that there is just such an individual suited to the task currently sitting in their dungeons.”

Redeye frowned. “I’m not sure I like the sound of that, to be honest.”

“Oh, stop worrying,” said Highfalutin' with a grin, “all you need is a little...faith.”

Chapter 21 - Transition

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Chapter 21—Transition

“It felt like springtime on this February morning…”

Immediately, Celestia’s hand shot to her side and yanked her phone out of her pocket—that was “As I Lay Me Down” and she had that tune selected specifically for one individual.

“In the courtyard birds were singing your prais—"

Luna could tell it had been a text and evidently from Sable himself, given the way her sister seemed to instantly relax as she read the message. “I’m guessing that Sable is alive?”

“Yes,” said Celestia with a satisfied smile, though it didn’t last long. “Apparently, the whole thing was intentional bullshit on the part of that damn admiral. From the sounds of things, she’s been relieved of duty temporarily pending an investigation, but the true story is that everybody made it out of whatever hellhole they’d gone to.”

The look on the younger sister was one of mild surprise. “That’s good to know, but I can’t believe that a senior officer would lie about such a thing.”

“I didn’t either, but apparently this Tumblehome mare has a propensity for sabotaging anything that doesn’t fit her needs.” The elder sister’s scowl only deepened as she added, “Additionally, due to that fallout, Sable apparently has to travel to the Navy Yards at Port Aquasteed and he’ll be tied up for at least another day.” She sighed. “I was really hoping I’d get to see him, even for a few minutes.”

“Oh, dear, whatever is a woman in love to do?” teased Luna, but the hard look Celestia gave back was not of a mercilessly teased sister, but of a woman about to go to war.

Celestia’s face hardened in a look that gave Luna uncomfortable flashbacks to the moment her rebellious “Nightmare Moon” phase ended. “I’m gonna give that little pony whore a piece of my mind, that’s what.”

“Tia, are you sure that’s really the best thing to do?”

“Lu, that bitch would’ve told me point blank to my face that the man I love and three girls that are practically family to us that they died painfully, horribly and pointlessly—and she would have done so without so much as blinking an eye! You should know that’s not leadership material anywhere!”

“True, but what about the blowback? This world is still wary about humans, and news is getting out about Sunset’s near-beating-to-death of one of the captured terrorists, as justifiable as it was.”

Celestia laughed coldly and that seemed to scare her sister—it didn’t seem natural for her at all. “And what is she going to do if I get in her face? She’s under investigation, she’s been disgraced and even aside from that, from what I get the other service heads don’t really trust her. Maybe it’s about time that someone gave her a little perspective.”

“Tia, perspective does not involve giving idiots contusions, no matter how much they deserve it,” Luna cautioned.

Celestia walked way, calling back, “No promises.”.”

It was close to the time the sun would need to set, but the sisters of day and night were not preparing themselves for their usual roles. Instead, they were at the parade grounds

“Why am I doing this again?” asked Luna.

“Because we always did guard inspection together, sister,” replied Celestia. “You should know how to do this, and eventually you will have to do it alone.”

“No thanks; I’ve been stuck doing your job all day. And no, it hasn’t been nothing but cake eating, though I certainly now understand why that’s your vice above all other vices.”

“A high attempt at jocularity,” drolled the elder alicorn.

“It serves my needs. But seriously, sister, —some of the things required of the monarchy are antiquated and flat out absurd. And that’s coming from the mare who originally showed up out of history talking like some well-to-do noblemare from modern day foal’s ponytales!”

Celestia nodded glumly. “Yes, there does need to be some reform. And I’m afraid you might be the one to do it.”

“Why, because you’re off getting a spa day? I mean, your disguise might fool others but I know I saw you going around with Fleur yesterday.”

“She was acting on behalf of Fancy Pants, mainly just to try and get me to relax since you’re being forced to shoulder everything.”

“It’s only temporary until the nobility stop being idiots with this whole impeachment nonsense.”

But Celestia shook her head. “I’m afraid there is a very real chance they’ll ride this one to the end, sister.” Weirdly, Luna then laughed. “What’s so funny, Lulu?”

“If there was any remaining doubt that you were Sunset’s true mother, even if not biologically, you’ve just obliterated it. After all, she and Twilight couldn’t have learned to stress out so much from Cadance and I’ve only just come back from my millenia long imprisonment on the moon.”

Celestia couldn’t help but smile. “I suppose you’re right.” She then sighed, adding “But stressing is all I can really do, here. After all, most of my life I’ve been the one having to lead Equestria, if I am forced to abdicate...what’s left for me? Maybe the time has come for me to join Mother in the final ascension and—"

“Oh for your sake, it’s not the end of the world if you get impeached. We already know the end of the world is when you get all depressed and nearly freeze everypony death because Sunset died and last I checked she resurrected alive and well so you don’t even have that excuse this time.” Stepping down from the dais, Luna put a hoof on her elder sister’s wither. “Plus, even if I have to take over, it gives you the chance to be somepony that neither of us ever really got to be: Ourselves. Or, rather, yourself, since as you said almost your entire life you’ve been in charge of this country. And if you have to step down, would you rather be able to finally live life or end up having to live at Silver Shoals Retirement Home for the rest of eternity?”

In a command operations room at Agency HQ, Bon-Bon angrily adjusted her shirt collar. “I don’t believe this,” she spat. “I remember Candyshoppe from when she was just a wet-behind-the-ears rookie, and now