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Choose Your Own Slaveventure Part 3 (Complete) (CYOA)

By Lurkernon
Created: 20th December 2020 04:24:53 AM
22nd October 2021 07:32:43 AM

  1. Originally posted June 2017
  2.  
  3. > ...actually confronting her, interrogating her like some kind of criminal, would do no good.
  4. > At the most you could tell her what you've found - maybe the next time you're sharing a quiet moment together, to make it clear you're not angry with her.
  5. > Because, in truth, you aren't.
  6. > Concerned, perhaps even scared, yes - but not angry.
  7. > She was a mare who'd been quite clear about her desire not to bring a new life into this miserable existence; was it any surprise the resistance would start courting her?
  8. > But that didn't mean you couldn't start gathering the metaphorical clouds so they would be there and ready when it came time to act.
  9. > Leaping from the roof, you glide around to the front entrance of the kitchen.
  10. > It's nothing special, but the moment you step through the front door you're hit by a veritable wall of scents assaulting your nose.
  11. > What little had leaked outside was nothing compared to the veritable hurricane of flavors that hung suspended in the air here.
  12. > Truly, the camp's cooks were miracle workers - providing excellent food even with the modest means Anonymous provided.
  13. > Only second later do you realize you'd paused in the doorway with your nose lifted and nostrils flared, looking like a fool.
  14. > An embarrassed grin plastered to your face, you're only a few steps further in when a familiar voice calls out:
  15. > "Thunderlane, hey!"
  16. "Hey, Vapor!"
  17. > Waving from her position perched over the massive pot she stirs, Vapor Trail beckons you over.
  18. > "I'm sorry; I can't step away from this right now or it'll stick."
  19. "It's fine, it's fine."
  20. > You, instead, move to her - dodging other ponies and sacks of supplies alike to come to her side, peering over the edge of the pot to the bubbling stew within.
  21. "This smells - fantastic."
  22. > "I know!"
  23. > She giggles softly, and your heart softens - this mare...
  24. > "It's not my recipe, but it's fantastic. I just hope I can keep working here when... it gets bigger."
  25. > There's no need for her to even glance to her swollen midsection for you to know what she means.
  26. "Bah, you'll be fine."
  27. > You hope.
  28. > Vapor Trail laughs softly again though, so she apparently doesn't share your concerns.
  29. > "Anyway, what's brought you in here, Thunderlane?"
  30. "Just needed a break from things, you know? I've had a lot on my mind, so I decided I'd come in and steal a little bit of the scent of tonight's dinner."
  31. > A hearty roll of her eyes tells you all that you need to about what Vapor thinks of that response.
  32. > Even so she is still grinning, though.
  33. > "Well, you'd better complete your theft and get out of here before Focacia gets back. He's head in here, and if you're standing around when he spots you then you're going to get conscripted into cooking too. Now, why are you /actually/ here?"
  34. > Was it that transparent?
  35. > Sinking a little bit, you sigh and drop your voice.
  36. "Just... thinking about those ponies I brought in. Some of them are being treated pretty hard still, you know? Especially the young ones like Crescent Moon. And some ponies are saying even more were involved and might get taken down too..."
  37. > Thankfully Vapor's turned her attention back to the stew.
  38. > It lets you watch her reactions carefully when you speak, and the results are revealing.
  39. > There's no sign of a reaction when Crescent Moon is mentioned - not beyond a mild lowering of her ears that you think has more to do with the thought of what had happened to the poor filly.
  40. > But when you mention other ponies being taken down, though...
  41. > Was that flick of her tail just nervousness with the topic, or something more?
  42. > The sudden stiffening of her neck a reaction to the thought of you having to do another raid, or of who might be caught by that...?
  43. > "Will they have to be whipped too...?"
  44. > Her voice is soft and fearful.
  45. "Not unless they fight back. I think - I hope - that we gave that message: Even for running, they won't be flogged."
  46. > "I..."
  47. > Head dipping, Vapor, sets aside the stirrer she'd been using and looks at you.
  48. > "I don't want it to get to that point..."
  49. "Then - then the best thing you can do is ask them not to. Beg them not to. It does help, I think... especially coming from a mare as good as you."
  50. > "Y-Yes. We can't - can't let another raid like that happen. Once was bad, twice..."
  51. > The tremble entering her voice, the lack of a grip on the stirrer... she's scared, you realize.
  52. > Not just for you.
  53. > You'd suffered from seeing the results of your work, but not from the raid itself.
  54. > She's scared of another raid period.
  55. > Why...?
  56. > What - or who - is she worried about?
  57. > If only you could ask her directly...
  58. "It'll be okay, Vapor. We'll all be okay in the end. And-"
  59. > Your muzzle dips towards her belly.
  60. "-I mean all of us."
  61. > And she does smile again, a weak smile but a smile nonetheless.
  62. > "Yes... but you should go, Thunderlane. Before Focacia comes looking."
  63. "Alright. I'll see you later, okay?"
  64. > "Yeah - oh, wait. Here!"
  65. > A spoon is dipped to the stew and presented to you.
  66. > "Thasthe!"
  67. > You do, grinning, and it is indeed delicious.
  68. > Stepping out from the kitchen to resume your patrol, you've barely gotten more than a few blocks when a pony charges around the corner.
  69. > Skidding to a halt, the mare points back from where she came with a hoof and explains between panted breaths:
  70. > "Go - guards - need guards - hurt - go now!"
  71. > You don't wait.
  72. > On pounding hooves you take off following the direction she'd pointed; soon enough the sound of raised voices meet your ears and guide you the rest of the way to a small knot of ponies gathered around the mouth of an alleyway.
  73. > Seismic Shift and another guard were already there, and open a path for you to join them.
  74. > At first you don't even recognize the collapsed, filthy form behind them.
  75. > The maid's uniform is shredded and caked with dirt and blood as to be unrecognizable, and her coat is no better:
  76. > Then she moans gently, and your heart stops.
  77. "Oh, no no NO!"
  78. > Instantly you're at her side, nuzzling her desperately.
  79. "No, no - hey!"
  80. > Lifting your head, you bellow into the crowd:
  81. "Somepony to the clinic, now! Have them bring a stretcher!"
  82. > "Lacquer already went!"
  83. > You barely hear the reaction, leaning back down to tend to the beaten and broken body.
  84. "It's going to be okay, Mocha. Do you understand me? It's going to be okay."
  85.  
  86. > The clinic's room is little silent but for the distant rumbling of central air and regular beep-beep of the heart monitor.
  87. > A nursemare had been in there when your arrived - puttering needlessly around the bed.
  88. > But she had fled the room immediately after confirming the state of the pony within, to fearful to be around her owner in such a temper.
  89. > Not that you blamed her.
  90. > And so you'd sat in the room's sole proper chair, shifted over to be beside the bed, with elbows on your knees and hands cupping your face.
  91. > Mocha had been cleaned, wounds stitched and bandaged, and was now ensconced in her sheets - still but for the slow rise and fall of her chest.
  92. > Two legs were swathed in casts; another held the IV line entering her bloodstream.
  93. > Even after being cleaned, her coat was still mottled with blue-black bruises.
  94. > Why?
  95. > What had she done?
  96. > Fingernails dig in as your hands form tight fists.
  97. > When you found who-
  98. > "Masterr?"
  99. "Mocha?!"
  100. > Voice weak and scratchy, she is still somehow awake and watching you through dim brown eyes half-open.
  101. > "M-Master..."
  102. > One hoof - her one good remaining one - rises to reach for you.
  103. > All remaining defenses fall; you leave your chair to seat yourself on the bed and draw her into your lap.
  104. > Mocha goes limp as you do, snuggling down against you once your grip is certain.
  105. > "I-It hurts, Master..."
  106. "What hurts, Mocha?"
  107. > "Everything..."
  108. > Your eyes squeeze shut, and your arms tenderly encircle her.
  109. "I'm sorry, Mocha... this is my fault."
  110. > "N-No-"
  111. "Yes. This isn't yours. You did exactly what I'd asked of you; I - failed."
  112. > For a few seconds Mocha is still, a bundle of tan coat and brown-and-cream mane in your arms.
  113. > "Th-they kept saying I deserved it. B-Because I was just y-your b-b-bitch taking things away b-because you were too s-scared to come. I t-tried to tell them, I just b-brought it a-all back but they just kept k-kicking..."
  114. > What?!
  115. > The papers!
  116. > They must have seen her take the papers from Cadance...
  117. "Shh. You're safe now, Mocha. Don't talk."
  118. > Shivering, she instead continues:
  119. > "I t-tried s-screaming f-for y-you and they s-stuffed something in m-my mouth and l-l-laughed."
  120. > You're thankful Mocha cannot see the way your hands are balling into fists, so tight you're half expecting blood to run where nails dig into palms.
  121. > But neither do you scold her for disobeying; if she needed to say this, you would be there to hear how you'd failed.
  122. > Instead you remain there, holding her and forcing your hands to uncurl from fists so they could stroke through what parts of her mane were not bandaged over.
  123. > "P-Please don't l-leave, Master... not yet. Everything hurts so much..."
  124. > Tears stream from her eyes as she struggles to speak - from pain both emotional and physical, you guess.
  125. "I'm not going anywhere, Mocha."
  126. > "T-Thank you, Master..."
  127. > Stirring, Mocha Cream laboriously raises her head to look up at you, then aside.
  128. > "M-Master, I..."
  129. "Don't strain yourself. You need to rest now."
  130. > "I lo-lo-"
  131. > Shudders wrack her body.
  132. > "I love y-y-"
  133. "Shh..."
  134. > A finger is place before her lips, and you lean over to place a soft kiss on her forehead just below the base of her horn.
  135. "I know."
  136. > Not that the signs could have been missed.
  137. > You might've not have encouraged them, but the feelings she held for you were unmistakable.
  138. > At your reply Mocha sinks back down, a tiny happy mewling noise replacing any coherent response.
  139. "Rest now, Mocha. You need rest."
  140. > And so she does, eyes falling shut and breathing eventually falling to a softer, lower level.
  141. > Only then do you let your teeth grit to hold back the moisture gathering at the corners of your own eyes.
  142. > You couldn't bring yourself to tell her the full extent of what the nurse had passed on to you.
  143. > The full extent of the damage on her little body, the danger she was still in.
  144. > Instead you just stay there, hands gently stroking and providing the only reassurance you could now.
  145. > This - this was your fault.
  146. > Cadance had been right; you should have been the one engaging with the camp rather than sending emissaries.
  147. > That mistake had now born its bloody fruit.
  148. > And-
  149. > Your head whips up as the door slams open, almost crashing into the wall if not for the doorstopper.
  150. > Unexpectedly, however, your eyes meet a familiar grey colt standing in the portal.
  151. > Rumble's eyes snap between yourself and Mocha for a few moments before he awkwardly speaks:
  152. > "I'll, uh... I'll try later."
  153. "No. Come in..."
  154. > After a second, you think to add:
  155. "...please."
  156. > Rumble flinches, looks between yourself and the filly in your lap, and then does - much more carefully shutting the door behind him and climbing into the seat you'd recently vacated.
  157. > But he does not speak, and the awkwardness of the standoff soon begins to fill the room thick as smoke.
  158. "Rumble, I - I just want to say... I didn't want this. I know you don't like me, but however much that is... I wanted her to be safe. Please believe-"
  159. > "Yeah, I know."
  160. > It sounds like it hurts him to admit it, but Rumble does anyhow.
  161. > "I can tell. You like her, and she likes you."
  162. "I wanted her to have a proper home, with people - or ponies - that would care about her."
  163. > Maybe that was why you hadn't acted on the obvious crush she held for you.
  164. > Immature as she was, a relationship like that would only ever be between a master and slave.
  165. > "Yeah. How is she...?"
  166. > Looking down at the sleeping filly, you speak the words you could not tell her:
  167. "Bad. One leg broken, one leg badly twisted, ribs cracked, and they don't know how bad the damage is inside her. Head trauma, major organ trauma... they're looking for a doctor who has the tech to do a full examination."
  168. > You can feel your fists squeezing again as you speak.
  169. > When you found out who was responsible for this...
  170. > Slipping from his chair, Rumble moves to the side of the bed, nuzzles Mocha's side, and sighs.
  171. > "I didn't want any of this either... I - I don't like you, but Mocha Cream always tried her best..."
  172. "She wanted the best for you, too."
  173. > "Yeah."
  174. > He's quiet a moment longer, then abruptly looks up.
  175. > "She's going to be... out of things for a while, isn't she? No matter how hard it is."
  176. "Yes."
  177. > Seeming to nod in affirmation of his point, Rumble draws a deep breath.
  178. > "Sir-"
  179. > And it's the first time you think he's called you that in recent memory.
  180. > "-somepony has to keep being a messenger between the camp and yourself. Taking the suggestions up, bringing information down... I know you kinda don't trust me, and I don't really like you, but Mocha would want to know it's being taken care of."
  181. "...what's your point?"
  182. > "Let me be the messenger. Let me take over her duties. I - want to do it. For her. Nopony'll question me doing it. And Mocha Cream would want to know that somepony is still doing it."
  183. > For the briefest second the idea that he might have been involved - might have had Mocha beaten by his rebel friends just so he could take over - passes through your mind.
  184. > It is violently thrown aside; the two of them by all reports had become actual friends, and whatever Rumble had done in the passed he deserved too be fairly judged now.
  185. > But Cadance was also right; you should be the one getting involved more directly.
  186. > No more messengers.
  187. > Or maybe it would be good to have a former rebel leader take over this; after all, there wasn't much damage he could do even if he did try.
  188. [Choice]
  189. "Rumble... I'm sorry, but I can't say yes. Not because I don't want you to, or trust you to. Hell, you're the kind of pony I want to hear from. But Cadance has been trying to tell me that I should've been more directly involved; I've been brushing her off, but now..."
  190. > You draw a deep, breath, looking down at the beaten body still curled in your arms.
  191. > Mocha is sleeping soundly now, the bandages covering her little ribs rising and falling regularly.
  192. "...God, I should've listened to her. Then it wouldn't have fucking cost Mocha-"
  193. > You cut off, and Rumble only shrugs.
  194. > "Yes, you should have."
  195. > In another time you might've punished him for that kind of insolence.
  196. > But right now your rage is reserved for others - including yourself, who you figure he is right to criticize.
  197. "Whatever it is, they've damn well got my direct involvement now."
  198. > Another hefty sigh as you stroke Mocha's mane back.
  199. "Thank you, Rumble - and I mean it. You're welcome to continue working with Cadance sorting the responses, and if you want I'll find you something to do - something to give you all a voice, because I can tell that matters to you. But this, now - I'm going to deal with this personally."
  200. > "What do you mean?"
  201. > Looking back up at him, you finally finally let him catch a full look at your face - at the ready rage boiling just behind your eyes, only barely held in check.
  202. > Rumble physically recoils back, his pupils shrinking and ears falling.
  203. "First, I'm going to let everyone know this isn't going to go unavenged. Then - we can see about then."
  204. > That expression is held for a moment, before you return your gaze back down to Mocha.
  205. "Besides, she needs you with her. I know you're close, and she doesn't have many... be there for her, Rumble. I'm asking you, not ordering."
  206. > And you had promised her you would stay.
  207. > A necessary lie, but still a lie.
  208. > "I will."
  209. "Thank you."
  210. > Gently depositing Mocha back on the bed, you brush one last strand of mane back - provoking a little sleepy flick of an ear from her - before turning and striding from the room.
  211. > When you'd entered, it had been in a desperate rush - ponies and the odd human doctor barely having a chance to scatter.
  212. > This time, they preemptively opened a path before you.
  213. > As though your fury had manifested an invisible troop of guards to walk before you, physically driving them out of the way.
  214. > You only just pause at the front desk to point back in the direction you'd come.
  215. "I want someone watching the door to her room at all times. Even if there's no guests in there, someone is watching."
  216. > Barely does the stallion holding the front desk squeak an affirmative reply before you're off again - marching from the clinic back up to your office.
  217. > There you pick up the phone, fingers stabbing down into the keys to dial the correct sequence.
  218. > As soon as the PA system clicks on, you're already speaking.
  219. "I have just come back up from the medical building. As some of you may have heard, a pony - Mocha Cream - was just severely beaten. Some ponies took it upon themselves to 'punish' her for faithfully carrying out my orders - retrieving things I asked her to, an act they felt was theft punishable by savagely clubbing her."
  220. > Your hand starts to ball into a fist again - squeezing the handset in a fierce grip.
  221. "I've been attempting to give you all the space you desired, to let you govern yourselves with minimal interference. I let you manage yourselves - deal with your own troublemakers yourselves - to try and avoid exactly this kind of situation. Apparently, that is no longer possible - if an innocent pony who was giving her time to help you is going to be attacked for 'stealing', then I cannot stand back. From now on, I'm directly involved."
  222. > The grip you hold the headset with is so fierce that is beginning to creak in warning.
  223. "That pony you just beat for 'stealing'? Do you even know what she was doing in the camp? I'll bet you don't, because if you'd even listened to her then you would know she was coming back from returning the very things you said she 'stole'. But now - now it's too late. Now she's floating between life and death because of you. So I hope you're ready to reap what you've sown."
  224. > Voice steadily rising at the tirade had finished, you finish by slamming the handset down into its cradle with a thunderous crack.
  225. > It doesn't take long for there to be a timid knock at the door.
  226. > When Cadance nudges her muzzle around the doorway, you wordlessly beckon her in.
  227. > Only a few paces in, she drops into a deep bow - the kind of thing you'd come to expect from her when she's about to make some massive plea from you.
  228. > "Master-"
  229. "Wait."
  230. > A hand is raised, and after a moment you let out a hefty sigh.
  231. "...first and foremost, I think I owe you an apology - you, and everyone else who's going to be hurt as a result of this. You tried to tell me I should be getting more involved, and I balked. I thought I knew better... knew what was working, and what wasn't."
  232. > Cadance had drawn closer as you spoke, until she stood practically face-to-face with you.
  233. "That was my mistake, not yours. I won't hold you responsible for it.
  234. > Or punish her as a result of what may come.
  235. > Nodding, she murmurs softly:
  236. > "Thank you."
  237. "And like I said: It might be too late to correct my mistake, but not to fix it going forward. From now on, I'm going to be directly involved."
  238. > "That is good, Anonymous, but-"
  239. "For starters, I'll be-"
  240. > "Anonymous!"
  241. > Cadance's bark snaps you out of the babbling you'd been doing.
  242. > "Forgive me, but... how is she?"
  243. "...you didn't see her?"
  244. > "No. I came up here as soon as I heard."
  245. > Images of the bludegoned, broken body float before your eyes.
  246. > Your voice drops to a subdued, hollow whisper.
  247. "Bad. She's still hovering close to the end; we're going to be transferring her out to a more capable facility as soon as one can be found. Even if she pulls through, it'll be a long road back."
  248. > "Oh..."
  249. > Sucking a deep breath, she nods.
  250. > "As soon as things are stable again, I'll go see her."
  251. "Yes. In the meantime - you and Thunderlane are on point now. Find me who did this - press anyone who might know. Make it clear this isn't about slavery or obedience or anything like that; it's about a pony who was beaten half to death for nothing she did herself."
  252. > "I - don't think it needs repeating, but-"
  253. > You've a fair guess at what she's going to say, but you're already waving a hand.
  254. "I know, I know. I need to be involved. And I will be - I'll be down there, telling everyone just what happened, showing them the products of this kind of idiocy. But I can't do it alone, Cadance; I need you and everyone you can muster to help with this."
  255. > "We will. What happens then, though?"
  256. > The furious stare you send in Cadance's direction tells her exactly what you think of that question.
  257. > She should, after all, have a good idea of that answer already.
  258. "Then we show them exactly what happens to a pony that betrays my good will like this."
  259. > Shaking gently, Cadance grits her teeth and glares through narrowed eyes.
  260. > Trying to find a way to disagree with you - but not this time.
  261. "This isn't a question of how bad what they did or didn't do. This isn't them taking responsibility for a group. This isn't - another Corona! This is their fault, and I'm going to damn well show them what happens when they start something like this."
  262. > At some point during this whole thing you'd ended up standing, jabbing a finger down into her face.
  263. > Teeth gritted fiercely, the alicorn bows her head.
  264. > "...I understand your reasons, Anonymous, and I don't deny that the punishment for this will have to be significant. But you taking it upon yourself to torture them..."
  265. "If they didn't want to be subject to my punishments, then maybe they shouldn't have beaten her like that!"
  266. > Cadance growls softly in her throat, but doesn't argue any further.
  267. > "Is there anything else?"
  268. "No. I'll be coming down in - a little while, to get started on this. To help you. Just... go."
  269. > She does, trotting from the room on soft hooves.
  270. > As soon as the last strands of her trail vanish around the door, however, you sink back down - not just into your seat, but against the wall, your knees practically up against your chest - and do the only thing that seems logical.
  271. > You cry.
  272. > Gone was the anger you'd channeled into the lecture over the PA system.
  273. > Gone was even the acceptance of your error that you'd shown to Cadance.
  274. > Now all that was left was red hot fury - at the ponies who'd done this, but also at yourself.
  275. > Cadance was the one who was supposed to know about all these things - why hadn't you listened to her?
  276. > Why did you have to be so damn proud?
  277. > Weren't you supposed to be the smart one, the one in control?
  278. > Yes, you'd admitted to Cadance that you didn't couldn't totally manage everything in the camp - but wasn't that why you'd stayed out of things?!
  279. > ...your vision is blurry, but you can still see your liquor cabinet.
  280. > It's certainly looking tempting right now.
  281. > "Master, I-"
  282. > Your eyes snap for the door.
  283. > Cadance had returned, peering around the door with eyes wide.
  284. "Sometimes I wonder..."
  285. > Your voice is low, but from the way her ears cock forward towards you it's obvious she can still hear.
  286. "...why the hell I bother. Why shouldn't I just it go. Every time we get somewhere, it just turns right back around on us... and this time I can't even blame it on someone else."
  287. > For just a moment your gaze drops down to your lap, and when you look back up she is gone.
  288. > Figures.
  289. > ...but that's really it, isn't it?
  290. > Why you were so keen to find the ones responsible for this.
  291. > To punish them.
  292. > Because then you didn't have to think about how much of this fuckup was your fault.
  293. > How Mocha was close to dying because of your mistake.
  294. > No abusive guards or anyone else who could take the blame.
  295. > This was your mistake.
  296. > ...you don't remember standing up, or walking to the liquor cabinet.
  297. > But you do have to admit the bottles are looking very appealing.
  298. > Their glass is cool and smooth against your palm.
  299. > And-
  300. > "Daddy? What's going on?"
  301. > Cadance was back.
  302. > And she'd brought your daughter - and hers - too.
  303. "Sweetheart?"
  304. > You drop to your knees and extend your arms; both Megan and Flurry Heart run to them.
  305. > Each pulls into an opposite arm, Flurry rearing up to nuzzle into your neck as Megan throws her arms around your shoulders.
  306. > Cadance follows at a more reasonable pace behind them, circling about to place her muzzle against your ear and whispering in:
  307. > "This is why you bother, isn't it? For your daughter's future? For her happiness? It's why I keep going - what I think about when it's too much weighing on my wings. For my little crystal."
  308. > ...yes.
  309. > It is.
  310. > You run a hand through Megan's golden-blond strands.
  311. > "What's going on, daddy? Everyone's looking scared, and nobody'll tell us... I'm scared too."
  312. > Another hand strokes through Flurry Heart's thicker purple-and-blue mane.
  313. > She needs no words to communicate her terror.
  314. > The little tremble, the lowered ears, the one wing is curled protectively around herself while the other reaches for Megan.
  315. > It all says enough.
  316. > And Cadance was right.
  317. > This is your cause.
  318. > Both of them.
  319. > And you could go on.
  320. > But first... you'd have to answer your daughter.
  321. [Choice]
  322. "I made... a very, very bad mistake."
  323. > You drop back to sit down instead of kneeling, then open your arms to let them join you again.
  324. > Both girl and filly do, retaking their places with you.
  325. "Mocha Cream is... she's been hurt. Very, very badly. Some very, very bad ponies here hurt her, and now she's going to have to be away for a while."
  326. > Both of them gasp softly, each squeezing you in turn.
  327. > "H-How-"
  328. "They - they hit her. A lot. Very hard."
  329. > Flurry whimpers softly.
  330. > Of course; she'd never been beaten herself, but she'd probably seen the savagery endured by other ponies.
  331. > A glance up lets you see Cadance watching you all closely.
  332. > You hadn't thought about it before, but seeing her daughter come running to you for comfort in a moment of uncertainty must have been...
  333. > Hard.
  334. > But she brought them in anyhow; you'll have to show her your appreciation for that gesture.
  335. > It takes a few moments before your daughter's voice cracks with the inevitable, yet unanswerable question of children everywhere:
  336. > "Why?"
  337. "Because... because not every pony is a good pony, sweetheart. Some of them... are very bad, and we have to be wary of them because they'll hurt others if they're given the chance."
  338. > You sigh gently, again running your hand through her hair.
  339. "And because I made a mistake - a terrible mistake. I thought I was helping with something, but I wasn't and now Mocha's paid the price for my mistake."
  340. > "No!"
  341. > Flurry Heart squeaks as she realizes what she's done - shrinking back away from you, but finding herself held in place by the arm you'd put around her.
  342. > "I-I mean... I didn't mean to argue, Master. But you're a good Master, and a good father? Y-You couldn't hurt somepony-"
  343. > Oh, how little she knows.
  344. > Would the little alicorn's faith be so ironclad, you wonder, if she's seen Corona broken and pleading on that cell floor?
  345. "Unfortunately, I'm not infallible-"
  346. > "Infalili-"
  347. > Meghan screws up her nose in concentration.
  348. "Infallible. It means I don't make mistakes - but I do sometimes, and I did now. Cadance - tried to give me some advice, to tell me what she thought I should do. I didn't listen to her, though, because - like I said, I thought I knew better."
  349. > "And they hurt Mocha 'cause you didn't listen to her?"
  350. "No - and yes. There will always be some ponies out there who are ready to hurt, even though we're good to them. I thought I would help stop them, but I didn't. So... a two lessons, sweetheart. Lessons you'll have to learn too; first, if anyone, especially Flurry, gives you advice... listen. Really, listen."
  351. > Nodding, Megan reaches out to the alicorn filly; in response an oversized wing again stretches out to cover her back protectively.
  352. "Second - and this applies to you as much to Megan, Flurry - you have to remember just because ponies give themselves labels like 'rebels' or 'resistance', that doesn't mean they're nice and good like what you might see in a book or movie or on TV. They can be hurtful... you can be kind to them, but don't ever forget that."
  353. > Both bury their heads into opposite sides of your neck, and your lean your head in to feel the brush of young hair on the left and silken mane on your right.
  354. > "W-When will Mocha be coming back?"
  355. "I don't know. We have to send her to a hospital for ponies, and then she'll have to heal. It might be..."
  356. > Forever.
  357. "...a while."
  358. > "Oh..."
  359. > Oh indeed.
  360. > What more was there to say?
  361. > It occurs to you that you'd be needing a new maid for the time being.
  362. > Have to find out who else on the house staff has relevant skills.
  363. > "Can we see her?"
  364. "I'll - have to see. Like I said, she's going to going to a real hospital pretty soon."
  365. > And truth be told, it would probably be better for her not to see Mocha.
  366. > Not like this.
  367. > Especially if she doesn't make it.
  368. "But hey - listen -"
  369. > And they do, each cocking an ear in to listen to your lowered voice.
  370. "- you know who I think could also use a hug right now? Cadance. She's feeling down because of this too, and we shouldn't forget about her."
  371. > Barely have you finishes speaking when both of them have torn away from your arms, running with a little squeal to Cadance's side.
  372. > She has just enough time to shoot a thankful look at you before she is overwhelmed in turn by their soft assault:
  373. > Megan throwing her arms up around the alicorn's neck, while Flurry raises her head to nuzzle in to her mother's shoulder.
  374. > Eventually you stand, scattering them from her side.
  375. "Now, why don't both of you run along downstairs. I'll be back after dinner, so I'll see you then, okay?"
  376. > "Okay, daddy."
  377. > "Yes, Master!"
  378. > As they troop off side-by-side, you just manage to catch Megan putting a protective arm around Flurry Heart.
  379. > Cadance moves to your side, dipping her head in a slight gesture you've come to recognize as an expression of gratitude.
  380. > "I wasn't expecting you to do that for me..."
  381. "Neither was I expecting you to bring them here for me. But you knew just what I needed to see, and I appreciate that... especially since I imagine it must be hard for you to send Flurry Heart to me when you see so little of her."
  382. > "True."
  383. > It's such a different exchange from the one you'd had moments ago - Cadance growling angrily then, but now seeming to be quietly pondering the impact of the situation on you as well.
  384. "But you're right. There's hope in what they share - for some kind of a future."
  385. > If Cadance shares your thoughts, she doesn't show it.
  386. > Fair enough; there's certainly plenty on her mind right now.
  387. "Anyhow - what did you come back here for originally?"
  388. > "I was going to warn you: I am going to offer some of the ponies involved in the raid clemency from further punishment if they're willing to assist on this."
  389. "I trust your judgement; anything up to removing their magic limiters. Even my hands are bound by the law on that."
  390. > "I understand..."
  391. "Then get to it. I'll be down to dinner, so I can speak again then."
  392. > What remains of the day passes in a blur - a whirlwind of meeting with fellow slaves and guards.
  393. > Most were public.
  394. > Some were not; only a few of your known and trusted rebels could be contacted on such short notice, but those that you could were and your message made clear:
  395. > This was not to be tolerated.
  396. > Not rebellion, but brutality.
  397. > Anypony who was involved was to be turned over, now.
  398. > And then there was being stopped on the street every five paces by ponies wanting to know what would happen.
  399. > You wish you could tell them with any honesty.
  400. > The speech you'd given at dinner had offered rewards - even amnesty - for ponies who came forward too.
  401. > Anonymous had spoken too, come down to the largest dining hall and spoken from there without guards, as if daring any pony to strike him.
  402. > None had.
  403. > But neither had there been an outpouring of information; a few tidbits given to the guards here and there, but not enough for a breakthrough.
  404. > Seated back at your desk, you are now all too aware of the weight you now bore.
  405. > And the one pony you feared worst was still missing.
  406. > Haute Glamour had not made an appearance to you since the first announcement; given her alleged role as your liason, that carries a message to you.
  407. > When she did emerge again, you are certain she will bring Tirek's own trouble with her.
  408. > The portrait of Shining Armor - having found a place on your desk at some point - seems to mock you.
  409. > 'Is this the safety you were hoping for,' he seems to ask, 'is this what you wanted for your ponies?'
  410. > Shuddering softly, you shake your head and murmur back:
  411. "...I wish you could be here, Shining. I need your strength."
  412. > "Your Highness?"
  413. > Thunderlane sticks his muzzle through the door, peering carefully in.
  414. "Come in, Thunderlane."
  415. > Your voice could not sound more exhausted if you tried.
  416. > The only consolation is that Thunderlane looks just as spent as you feel.
  417. "How is she doing?"
  418. > "Rumble says she was unconscious, even when they took her out to put her in the truck to the hospital. I think it's the drugs."
  419. > Unconscious - but at least alive.
  420. > For now.
  421. > "We're in a tough place, Your Highness."
  422. "You don't need to tell me, Thunderlane."
  423. > Instantly you regret your snapping, but he raises a wing to stop you before an apology can come.
  424. > "It's okay, Your Highness. You're allowed a bit of frustration."
  425. > You check the door is shut and secured, then allow a few more words to slip out.
  426. "...the ponies from my resistance groups are looking. But it'll take time."
  427. > "We could question the ponies from the cell we broke up. Some of them were dedicated, but others... they might see this as different. Different enough they'd turn."
  428. "You're thinking of Crescent Moon."
  429. > "Yes. She was scared, but this was cruelty. She's already wavering."
  430. "Anonymous himself might even want to talk to her. He's serious about taking a more active role."
  431. > "To the ones who weren't flogged, maybe. But the ones who were punished, you're going to have to really convince them."
  432. "Delightful. Negotiating with ponies who I've whipped... if I'm going to do that, I suppose I could go find Bon Bon again-"
  433. > "You haven't already? She isn't part of your resistance?"
  434. > Thunderlane sounds surprised, but you just shake your head.
  435. "She's vanished since - after the escape. I don't think she ever forgave me for separating her from her marefriend."
  436. > "That's... odd. She's spoken to me a couple of times, and I really don't think she likes me. Do you want me to approach her? You were her leader in the first ring."
  437. "I'll think on it. What other options?"
  438. > "Nurse Mellowheart, I suppose. There is still the third pony from her little triad... or we could set a trap."
  439. "How?"
  440. > "Expend a little bit of our preparaions. Use Sunburst's group to try and lure in ponies who're ready to attack, catch evidence in motion."
  441. > It's a tempting thought.
  442. > Especially if Haute Glamour could be persuaded to take part in attempts to undermine you.
  443. "But who would run it?"
  444. > "Damn good question - pardon my language, Your Highness."
  445. [Choice]
  446. "I don't see how we could set up a trap without there being an unreasonable amount of risk to it. If we use Sunburst and what he's really doing is uncovered, it would be the end of us all. Using one of the other house slaves, or somepony else vulnerable... I don't see how we could keep them under watch without exposing our trap as well."
  447. > Besides, Sunburst had other matters to focus on.
  448. > If Haute Glamour really was behind this attack, then you needed to find her vulnerability and take her out now more than ever before.
  449. > And Posey would be the way in to that, if Sunburst could reach her.
  450. > ...the darkest option in your mind, you don't even want to speak of.
  451. > Using Megan as a target would be oh-so-tempting, but she was one of the few you were absolutely loathe to draw into this.
  452. > As innocent as any pony in the camp, far too young to truly understand how cruel and wrong the world she was being brought up in was yet everything you could've hoped for regarding Flurry Heart.
  453. > You could no more use her as a bait in this than you could use your own daughter.
  454. "No - we'll have to lean on what contacts we do have. I'll speak to Bon Bon; she was my subordinate, and it was my mistake to let her go. I have to take direct responsibility for her."
  455. > "In that case, I'd like to go talk to Nurse Mellowheart again. We were already getting somewhere with her before, and she works at the clinic - she might've seen exactly how bad Mocha Cream was when she was brought in."
  456. "Don't take too long. When I'm done with Bon Bon, we should both see Crescent Moon."
  457. > "You think she'll listen to either of us?"
  458. "I don't know. But like Mellowheart, she was wavering before. This might have been the final straw."
  459. > Standing, Thunderlane nods curtly.
  460. > "Got it. I'll be off, then."
  461. "On other thing: If you see Haute Glamour, send her to my office here. Tell your other guards as well."
  462. > "You really think she might be behind this?"
  463. "I don't know. But even if she isn't, I have to start working on her before she draws the wrong lessons from it."
  464. > Or, perhaps, the right lessons:
  465. > That things here were spinning out of your control.
  466. > Just not the lesson you wanted her to see.
  467. > Once Thunderlane shuts the door behind him as he goes, you're once again alone.
  468. > Truly alone.
  469. > Standing from your own seat with a hefty sigh, you open a cabinet and drawn a rolled-up paper from within it.
  470. > One of the ones Mocha had delivered mere minutes before she was so savagely beaten.
  471. > Unrolling it, you stare at the image of your aunt with weary eyes.
  472. > She, of course, gazed back with her typically warm and welcoming expression.
  473. > You could never remember, despite what some rumors said, feeling overshadowed by Celestia's presence.
  474. > Perhaps it was that she had taken you in after your ascension - a mere filly, all gangly legs and a horn you barely understood how to use - and raised you as much as any other pony had.
  475. > Or perhaps it was simply that your domain - love - never collided with hers, unlike that of her sister's.
  476. > ...or worst of all, that the familial intimacy with which you'd been welcomed had also revealed to you how much pain and loneliness her longevity and power had filled her with.
  477. > Regardless, you wished for nothing more right now than to be able to speak with her again.
  478. "Oh, Aunt 'Tia..."
  479. > A hoof rises to brush the image held in your magical grasp, as if beckoning the pony of ink and paper to come to life and fill your tiny office with her presence.
  480. "What would you do? What do I do...? I don't want this to go on, but I don't know how to stop it..."
  481. > The image, of course, neither answers nor provides any sudden bursts of inspiration.
  482. > Shining Armor - whose portrait graced your desk now - was a known factor.
  483. > He would, of course, have filled you with the strength you needed to forge ahead.
  484. > But Celestia, despite all that had been revealed to you, was still an enigma - her choices only fully making sense once the moment was passed.
  485. > You do not have the benefit of whatever foresight it is that she benefited from.
  486. > And so you can only hope - and pray - that your half-blind guesses are the right ones.
  487. > ...
  488. > Bon Bon was despite her cream coat and two-tone mane, a surprisingly adept pony at making herself scarce to observers.
  489. > It was, you suspected, alongside her undying drive one of the reasons she had done so well as a ringleader.
  490. > Now, unfortunately, it means you have to fly over the fields where she works several times before the mare finally makes herself apparent to your airborne eyes.
  491. > Touching down draws modest greetings and the odd bow from a few nearby workers, but Bon Bon simply keeps on heaving at the soil with her rake even when you approach.
  492. "Bon Bon. Are you able to talk? There are things we have to discuss."
  493. > "Oh, I don't know."
  494. > Her voice is a low, angry growl.
  495. > "If I stop working, I might not meet my quota on this shit that I have to finish."
  496. > Sighing gently, you close your eyes.
  497. > This mare...
  498. "I am sure an exception to the quota can be made."
  499. > Seeming to accept you wouldn't be pushed off, Bon Bon finally looks up - kicking aside the rake she'd been breaking up the cold earth with.
  500. > "Alright. Here, or somewhere else?"
  501. > A glance around reveals that there are no other ponies laboring within reasonable earshot.
  502. "Whichever you prefer."
  503. > "...here is fine."
  504. > So it will be.
  505. "I'm sure you've heard what happened. It's gone too far; that wasn't an attack on slavery or an act of resistance, but a brutal assault on a defenseless young mare."
  506. > Dropping to your belly, you lay down in the recently-turned earth - a little dirty, but nothing that could not be fixed later.
  507. "I - also owe you a considerable apology, Bon Bon. After - the ring was broken up, I thought you would hate me. I pushed you away and didn't reach out to you again, which was my mistake. I shouldn't have, and I hope you can forgive me."
  508. > "...you waited until you needed something out of me."
  509. > You don't bother hiding the flinch that runs through you at the bitterness in her words.
  510. > Regret and hurt was, after all, the emotion you wanted her to see.
  511. "Yes. As I said, that was my error. But I know you won't have given up."
  512. > Your voice drops again, despite no one being close enough to hear.
  513. "I know you won't have given up. You're not like that. You want to fight on and you're good at it, and I know you must have connected with some ponies who feel the same. We have to figure out who did this, Bon Bon. For all of us."
  514. > "All of us? Princess-"
  515. > And despite the title there's still an acidic burning in her voice.
  516. > "-you took her away from me. The one pony who meant anything in this camp to me, and you took her away - ordered me not to even see a hair of her. You took me away from my Mark-given talent. What do you mean 'for all of us'? I have nopony!"
  517. > Again you flinch back at the sheer venom in her voice.
  518. "...your time away from her is almost done, Bon Bon."
  519. > "It's almost permanently lost, you mean. While you - you cozy up to /him/ and get to be with your daughter despite what you said."
  520. > This time, you wish you could hold back the signs of your surprise.
  521. > There's no hope of it, though.
  522. > How did Bon Bon know?!
  523. > You'd never been with Flurry outside of the manor.
  524. > A leak, from one of the house ponies?
  525. > Or something else?
  526. > "Didn't think we knew that? Oh, we know alright. Some ponies are willing to forgive you for that, but you took away everything I had and I'm not in such a forgiving mood."
  527. > The bitterness is giving way to something new, now.
  528. > Pain - still raw and fresh as the day you had inflicted it.
  529. "He threatened her, Bon Bon. What was I supposed to do...? Wouldn't you have done the same to me if he'd threatened Lyra?"
  530. > She snorts angrily.
  531. > "Y'know, that's the funny part. I can forgive you for whipping me; you took as many lashes as any of us. Maybe even for taking Lyra away. But I can't forgive you for punishing us while you skipped off and did /his/ bidding in return for getting to play with your daughter."
  532. > To this, you have no immediate answer.
  533. > Your eyes fall to the ground, raw pain reemerging from the scabbed-over wounds you'd thought closed up.
  534. > "So, you want to me to find out who beat up that house-slave? Yeah, I could do that. They might even deserve it. And I could tell the Princess who brought us together to kick back at him too."
  535. > Taking a step forward, Bon Bon leans in so close you can feel her breath rushing on your muzzle - and see the tears held back in her eyes.
  536. > "But you're not that pony anymore. You've become something else now - a pony who whips fillies who were just scared and then run off to comfort the man who's holding us all slaves. And I don't like that pony."
  537. > Abruptly a burst of laughter, still just as bitter, works its way up through her.
  538. > "You want to know the funny thing? Right now I've got more respect for Thunderlane than you. At least he makes it clear whose side he is on. But you - you're something worse."
  539. [Choice]
  540. > You draw in a long, slow, and deep breath - holding it in your chest with eyes closed before blowing it out of your nostrils.
  541. > And then, eyes snapping back open, you let the emotions you'd held back for so long flow.
  542. "Don't you dare get in the way of my keeping this place safe, Bon Bon."
  543. > Instantly the mare seems to realize just how deep the mistake she'd made was, ears folding back and falling to her haunches as you rise from your belly to stand at your full height.
  544. > But by then it is far too late.
  545. "You can say what you wish. You want to hate me, well I can live with that too. I would hope that you could forgive me for spending just a few minutes with the daughter I have not seen in years - have you ever thought about what separation from Lyra for that long would be like? Never knowing if the sacrifices you'd made had kept her alive and free or if she was dead or worse?!"
  546. > Bon Bon's mouth falls open to respond, but you're still advancing - still speaking.
  547. "And I would hope that you - you of all ponies, who know exactly how much hatred for what has happened to us burns in my heart - would understand how much I hate to lift a single hoof to do his bidding. That you would understand I only do it because the alternative now is for everypony here to be sold off to who-knows-where and suffer there instead of here, where I can at least try! No matter how it sickens me I have to take up the whip, I have to let myself be paraded around as Anonymous' whore, I have to play the role of the good little slave."
  548. > You're looming over her now, wings spread to give you an even more imposing appearance.
  549. > Every word drips with the fury and frustration you'd bottled away for so long.
  550. > True, you might not have explicitly banned ponies speaking against you but that did not mean their words and caricatures did not sting.
  551. > Nor that you didn't wish you could snap back at them.
  552. > Now you could, though - now you had reason to fight for yourself.
  553. "Because the alternative is so much worse. Because you know as well as I do that if I don't do anything, someone else will. Haute Glamour will turn this place into her own ant farm, Anonymous will come with shackles and whips to mete out punishment without mercy or discrimination, and both you and Lyra will suffer - you heard his words! Do you think he's forgotten ponies who challenged him before? Do you think you wouldn't be identified as nothing more than troublemakers to be crushed?"
  554. > Head steadily tilting back as you close until you are muzzle-to-muzzle with her, Bon Bon remains locked in place.
  555. "But most of all, I would hope that you could see that this isn't even about me. This is about an innocent filly who is near death because some ponies decided she was a valid target for their anger. So go on - hate me if you want to. But if you can't at least see that this is about justice for her, not for me. Does Mocha cream deserve your grudge, Bon Bon?"
  556. > Still leaning in, your force your muzzle forward and Bon Bon back until she seems to be at risk of toppling over.
  557. > Your voice is little more than a growl now.
  558. "If you can't see that - if you still think Mocha Cream deserved this - then you're so blind that maybe I shouldn't have included you in our planning at all. Because to stand up for everypony here demands that we have to think of the bigger picture, and swallow our pride, our anger, and our bitterness at everything and work. There is no place here for bitter mares who will spite other ponies just to feed their sense of righteous anger."
  559. > At last it finally seems to occur to the earth pony that your rant is over - that the ball has been returned to her court.
  560. > A look up reveals that you are hardly the only one noticing this either.
  561. > Though none were particularly close enough to hear, more than a few ponies working in the surrounding fields have lifted their heads to watch the exchange - nervous gazes peering over the fields of leaves.
  562. > "What I think..."
  563. > Bon Bon's voice is surprisingly shaky.
  564. > Whatever response she'd expected you to give to being insulted, it was clearly not an eruption of that magnitude.
  565. > "...I think you're right. This isn't about you, and that house-pet whore - much as I might not have liked her parading around here like it made her one of us - had not hurt us. Whoever attacked her needs to be found and punished."
  566. "I thank you, Bon Bon-"
  567. > "But you're also wrong."
  568. > She was stabilizing herself in more ways than one - voice becoming more and more confident as she gathered her hooves beneath her and stood more steadily.
  569. > "You've forgotten - by mistake or by choice - that humans, like him? They're our enemies. Always will be. He can't be changed, he can't be helped. Won't have any plans to free us, just to take more and more."
  570. > And those words strike a hard blow, because in the end there is truth in them:
  571. > Never once had Anonymous given any hint of seeing emancipation in the future for ponies.
  572. > Only plans to hold even more beneath him.
  573. > "So you go off and play confidant for him, forgetting that these little things he gives us - these, these crumbs! - that they aren't enough to make some of us forget that we're going to be slaves forever! You said it yourself - Lyra's at risk too, if we don't do something. And she'll be at risk as long as we're slaves here."
  574. "...then what do you plan to do about it, Bon Bon? Will you find out who it is - if not for my sake, then for Lyra and Mocha Cream's?"
  575. > "No. We'll find out who it is on our own, and we'll deal our own justice. Then we can see how much of this is Anonymous actually wanting justice, and how much of it is him just looking for an outlet for his sadism."
  576. > Your jaws grit hard together.
  577. > Normally you'd just leave it there, but she's talking about beating a pony - and however much they might deserve it, you aren't sure you can let that go.
  578. "Bon Bon, if you assault a pony instead of turning them over for judgement-"
  579. > "You'll what? Arrest us? Turn us over as sacrifices to Anonymous instead? We'll do a lot less than that Tirek-spawn will to whoever he gets his hands on!"
  580. > You meet her angry glare without much trouble.
  581. "I will order you detained, but not turned over to Anonymous - because being ponies means we uphold the law, not going out to inflict vigilante justice on our own. That is exactly how we got into this situation in the first place."
  582. > "Oh, we're going to be upholding the law. You're just not a part of it anymore; if you want to be, then you need to remember that Anonymous is your enemy and your daughter is still a hostage."
  583. > A snarl begins to re-form itself on your face.
  584. "I do not think I can forget."
  585. > "Could've fooled me."
  586. "You won't back down, then."
  587. > "If you didn't want us to act without you, you should've thought twice before abandoning us. You should've remembered who your real allies are!"
  588. "And as I've said, everything I've done is what I needed to do to keep Anonymous from inflicting his own punishments."
  589. > "Somethings you've done sure - but everything?"
  590. > Bon Bon snorts.
  591. > "You just keep on believing that, Cadance. See where it gets you. See where it gets us."
  592. > Half of you just wants to detain her right now, before it could get to the point a pony is potentially injured by them.
  593. > It would be... extraordinary, to have a pony taken away by the guards just for claiming they were going to commit a crime.
  594. > The kind of thing you expected more from Anonymous than from yourself.
  595. > And what would you do if you arrested her?
  596. > Just hold her until she changed her mind?
  597. > Bon Bon was nothing if not strong-willed; she wouldn't be convinced so quickly.
  598. > But then, ponies' well-being was very much at risk here.
  599. [Choice]
  600. "...I'm not going to have you taken in or sent to Anonymous, Bon Bon. Not for that."
  601. > You won't be arresting ponies just for what they say; that would make you just the same as Anonymous.
  602. > ...you aren't like him.
  603. > Right?
  604. > Dismissing the shudder that runs down your back takes a small shake of your head.
  605. > You won't be like him - or worse, like Sombra.
  606. "I don't like you making... threats like that, but I won't have you arrested for them. But!"
  607. > Again you interrupt before the mare can snap back.
  608. "But - I have to warn you now, Bon Bon. If you take this into your own hooves, you will be every bit as guilty of the same crime that you're 'punishing'. That isn't how we did it in Equestria, and if you have any love for how things were then you will respect its laws and ways too. That means ending the violence, not just passing it on to a new target."
  609. > "And if I do?"
  610. "Then I will have to hunt you down. I will have to see you punished too, and I hope you understand that with the way things are, that might mean losing Lyra forever."
  611. > For the first time there is a glimmer of fear - real and raw - in Bon Bon's eyes.
  612. "I don't want to send anypony away - not to any place worse than this. That's why I was willing to have a pony who was just lashing out scared sent to the whipping post, even if they were opposed to me. Sending a pony out to their deaths is my absolute last recourse, but if things go on this way..."
  613. > "You wouldn't dare..."
  614. "I have to. If it is a choice between losing you and losing everypony else here when the camp dissolves into chaos, I will. And Lyra will know that it was your choice, too - that taking justice up on your own was more important than staying with her, and you won't see her again until this nightmare of slavery is over."
  615. > There is no 'if at all' added to that, but Bon Bon senses it anyhow.
  616. > "There won't be an 'again', Cadance. There won't be an 'over'. They're never going to let us go unless we fight. Look at Anonymous - even he is raising the next generations to be perfectly obedient ponies who love their masters."
  617. > Vitriol drips from her words - intended for those ponies or for the humans raising them like that, you can't tell.
  618. > It also makes you wonder if her bitter dislike of Mocha Cream was more anger, or fear that more like her were on the way.
  619. "You and I both know that, Bon Bon. That's why I haven't given up on our ideals, even if I made the mistake of not bringing you in yet. The question is, if you push this now - what would Lyra think, knowing that you put this ahead of her? Seeing that being a slave has changed you so much?"
  620. > This finally seems to get though to her; Bon Bon flinches, ears shifting from totally pinned-back to merely a lowered position of uncertainty.
  621. > But she gives no reply, instead simply turning away to pick her rake back up and resuming turning over the earth.
  622. "...there's one last thing. That 'house-whore' is was enslaved when she was nine. She lost her parents, her family, and most memories of what it feels like to be free. So before you condemn little more than a scared filly to being a traitor, I suggest you think about that!"
  623. > Your words land with a snap every bit as forceful as if you'd struck her directly.
  624. > If a reply is coming, you don't wait to hear it.
  625. > A moment later you're off again, wings beating to carry you up and off from the ground.
  626. > Thunderlane is waiting near Crescent Moon's apartment.
  627. > The moment he lays eyes on your expression, his own face sours.
  628. > "That bad?"
  629. "I struggle to understand how somepony could turn that bitter, that fast. Part of it is my error for pushing her away, but she's become so filled with poison that it's clouding her judgement. Why can't she..."
  630. > It takes a minute or two of ranting to realize just how infuriated you were by it.
  631. > Laying a wing on Thunderlane's shoulder, you sigh.
  632. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have subjected you to that."
  633. > "Of all ponies, Your Highness, I do not mind if you vent to me."
  634. "Still. How was Nurse Mellowheart, then?"
  635. > "Considerably more agreeable. Still uncertain, but she thinks the third part of her group will talk to us directly now."
  636. > Your eyebrows rise.
  637. "I wish it had been earlier, but it is the best we could have hoped for now."
  638. > "Yeah. Are you ready for..."
  639. > He motions towards the door.
  640. "As ready as I'll be. Let's go."
  641. > The interior is a space well familiar to you; unicorns sat in rows, carefully working their magic to implant various base enchantments into workpieces set before them.
  642. > Among them was Crescent Moon - her horn lit despite the dull-grey metallic inhibitor circling it.
  643. > Stepping closer, you realize something else was attached to it as well:
  644. > A second wire ran up from the desk to connect to the side of the horn limiter; that must be what was allowing her to use her magic at this station.
  645. > Crescent looks up as you approach, setting aside the amulet that she had been working on.
  646. > "I figured you would be here sooner or later. Even locked up, when something like this happens..."
  647. "Yes. Then you've probably thought about what you are going to say."
  648. > "Yeah."
  649. > With a careful touch, Crescent reaches up and pulls the wire from its slot on the horn limiter.
  650. > The moment it detaches, a shudder runs through her body and she immediately drops to all fours.
  651. > "I'll never get used to that..."
  652. > You can sympathize; the few times you'd had your magic entirely sealed off after being taken prisoner, it had been an utterly miserable experience.
  653. > To have it repeatedly sealed off after being partially given back...
  654. > Crescent Moon glances around, the wire dangling from the horn limiter bumping into her muzzle.
  655. > "Okay...just - not here?"
  656. "I'm sure the forepony will give us her office for a moment."
  657. > They are; Thunderlane seats himself at the door while you face Crescent Moon.
  658. > "So, I'm - I'm still not sure this is right. There's a lot going on here, and..."
  659. > She raises a hoof, taps it once, and sighs.
  660. > "But Mocha Cream... she hadn't done anything against us. I dunno if she was our friend, but what happened to her..."
  661. "I understand it can be hard to make these choice, Crescent. And I understand if you hate me for what I did to you -"
  662. > "I do. I think."
  663. > Crescent lays down on the floor, shivering.
  664. > "It's miserable. Being whipped, my magic taken away, and then chained in place at night... but then I think about what happened to Mocha Cream, and she was only just - she wasn't more than-"
  665. > "She was your age?"
  666. > Thunderlane speaks up at last, and Crescent Moon nods.
  667. > "Yeah. Couldn't have been more than a couple years off..."
  668. > Again you drop to your belly, lowering yourself down to a less imposing height.
  669. > It hadn't worked with Bon Bon, but then Crescent Moon was clearly not as certain of her assumptions as the older mare had been.
  670. "This is more than about me, Crescent. It's about keeping peace and security for everypony here. Already, other ponies are threatening to try and hunt down and attack the ones who beat her themselves, and while justice is a good cause if everypony takes it into their own hooves we all also lose."
  671. > "Yeah, I know. But if Anonymous tortures them, I'll probably get beat myself."
  672. > "We can offer protection, if it matters."
  673. > You aren't sure, in truth, how much weight Thunderlane's offer carries.
  674. > There isn't much room to isolate a pony if they demanded it, and Anonymous wouldn't be pleased with Crescent Moon being taken out of any working groups.
  675. > So you're mildly relieved when she shakes her head, smirking lightly in his direction.
  676. > "I'm not your little brother, Thunderlane. I don't need protection; I can handle myself."
  677. > Must be something between them, since Thunderlane looks understanding.
  678. > "Besides, if he tortures them, I'll deserve it."
  679. "...we need some kind of a hint - a way forward on this."
  680. > "Yeah."
  681. > Silence holds for a few moments, after which Crescent Moon groans.
  682. > "Either of you got a pencil and paper? I'd write, but my mouth-writing ain't too great, and horn writing..."
  683. > Stepping out, you glance at the sheet of paper firmly tucked beneath Thunderlane's wing.
  684. > Six names she'd given you - two of her group who'd been missed in the original raid, and four others who she thought were angry and rash enough to have attacked Mocha Cream.
  685. "What'll you do with them?"
  686. > "That's really up to you, Your Highness. I can grab some guards and bring them in right now, but we might want to wait before we start leaping at our first tips. Wait to see if Mellowheart's friend comes through or not."
  687. "Can you spare the guards to put them under observation?"
  688. > "It'll be - hard. Especially with Anonymous jumping into the thick of things now. He might even make an order if he finds out. But yes, I think we could."
  689. [Choice]
  690. "I just gave Bon Bon the lecturing of her life for taking justice into her own hooves. We can hardly do the same thing now; focus on confirming Crescent's information first, and then actually detain them."
  691. > 'Detain'.
  692. > It's such a... mild word.
  693. > As if it didn't reflect what was really going to happen - that the ponies who were going to be taken would be condemned to a severe punishment at the very least, and excessive torture at the most.
  694. > You hope Crescent Moon will forgive you if you cannot protect them.
  695. > "I understand, Your Highness."
  696. "Don't go to Anonymous yet - he'll find out eventually, but we need a bit of time to work. To show that we can handle this without him leaping headfirst in. Check if any of them have been in trouble with the guards before, or see if they have solid alibis. Wait for Mellowheart's contact to reach out, and-"
  697. > Cutting yourself off, you shake your head with a hefty sigh.
  698. "I'm sorry. You probably know more about how to carry out a proper investigation than I do."
  699. > "Really, I'm as lost as you are... like trying to fly in a thunderstorm on a moonless night: You catch glimpses of the ground in the lightning, but it's not enough to really know where you're going..."
  700. "An excellent way of putting it."
  701. > Stopping in place, you take one last glance back towards Crescent Moon's place of work.
  702. > Once she'd given you the six names, she'd had to go back to working.
  703. > A fact made somewhat more humiliating by that she'd had to ask you to re-connect the magic limiter on her horn to the wire that would disable it.
  704. > Even the shudder of relief that ran through Crescent as her magic was return - her muscles rippling, like a pony who'd just stood up and stretched after being cramped in a tiny space for too long - only drove more pain into your heart.
  705. > Maybe you could see about getting her sentence reduced as a reward for her cooperation on this.
  706. > Crescent's prediction that she herself would be in danger herself rings in your head.
  707. > Maybe it would be better if you could see about getting all of the ponies like her - those who'd lashed out in fear rather than hatred - a slight relief as well to conceal her direct participation.
  708. "Do what you can, Thunderlane. I know you won't slack off on this."
  709. > "Yeah. If you don't mind, I'd like to head back to the security post - bring everypony else up to speed on what happened and set new orders out for tomorrow."
  710. "Of course. I'll look forward to hearing from you, Thunderlane... and, be safe."
  711.  
  712. > Be safe.
  713. > Cadance's final words echo in your ears.
  714. > From the ponies who'd savaged Mocha Cream, you wonder, or from Anonymous?
  715. > You were, after all, playing a most dangerous balancing game.
  716. > Anonymous and Rumble's safety on one side, your pride, Cadance, and the wellbeing of everypony else in the camp on the other.
  717. > What would happen, you wonder, if you fell from that balance - to either side?
  718. > A tremble runs through your wings - and is instantly sensed by the pegasus mare curled at your side.
  719. > "Thunderlane? What's wrong?"
  720. "Nothing, Vapor..."
  721. > For a moment you think you might have gotten away, and then a broad span of creamy feathers settles over your eyes.
  722. > "Now, Thunderlane..."
  723. > Her voice is teasing, breath rushing off one ear.
  724. > "I know what shaky wings like that mean in Pegasi. So, what's wrong?"
  725. > Despite yourself, you still smile.
  726. > This mare...
  727. > She'd immediately seen just how stressed the day had left you, had guided you back to her quarters, and even was staying with you now.
  728. > The one time you'd questioned her on it, Vapor had simply responded that her roomate would understand.
  729. > At the same time, however, a kernel of nervousness had taken hold inside of you.
  730. > Crescent Moon had known Vapor Trail - maybe you should have asked her about that as well today, though now it was far too late.
  731. > Just how far in was she too?
  732. > "Thunderlane-"
  733. "It's just - you know. I've told you about it before. Frustration with - things not happening. Things I should be doing."
  734. > Like the little voice at the back of your head that says you should have been the one to go to talk to Bon Bon.
  735. > She'd been willing to speak frankly with you, at least.
  736. > Though who knows how much that would've helped now.
  737. "We've got some leads into who attacked Mocha Cream, but not enough to act yet. The pony who was supposed to give me more information hasn't shown up yet-"
  738. > And part of you still fears Mellowheart's contact never will.
  739. "-and in the meantime I'm afraid something worse is going to happen, somepony else is going to get hurt, and everything's going to go just completely fall apart, and - and it'll all have been for nothing!"
  740. > At the end of the little tired you collapse back down, breathing heavily.
  741. "...and I'm afraid you'll be caught up in it."
  742. > "Shh..."
  743. > Vapor Trail's wing rises from your eyes, but they remain closed.
  744. > Shortly thereafter her hooves fall on your back, pressing in on the dense knots of muscle that have built up in your back.
  745. > Being a pegasus herself, she knows exactly where to press.
  746. > With distinct, practiced motions her hooves traces down the ridges of muscle that support your wings; a far more pleasurable ripple runs the length of your coat from muzzle-tip to dock.
  747. "Where did you ever learn to do this?"
  748. > Even Vapor Trail cannot help but giggle softly at how mumbled your words come out.
  749. > "What can I say? I like helping ponies. Sometimes that means listening to them, or being there to support them. Sometimes it means giving them a relaxing touch to help them calm down."
  750. "Mmmmrph."
  751. > That was supposed to be a much more coherent statement, but as she was rapidly reducing your entire body to the consistency of jello it didn't quite make it.
  752. > Another soft giggle from Vapor Trail, who continues working down the length of your back and flanks until your wings lay limp and spread across the bed.
  753. > "So... now do you feel better?"
  754. "S'good..."
  755. > Rolling over onto your back, you stretch out considerably - fore- and hindlegs extending ahead and behind you respectively - and smile fondly up at her.
  756. > Vapor smiles back down, though it slowly fades.
  757. > "Something's still troubling you."
  758. "...is it that easy to see?"
  759. > "Yes. In some ways. What is it, Thunderlane?"
  760. > You can't bear to face her like this; head rolling to the side, your eyes instead peer out the window to the darkened sky beyond.
  761. > Within moments her head has been lowered to rest on your chest - breath from her nostrils tickling your chin.
  762. "Vapor, your name..."
  763. > A hoof slides up to circle around her neck on one side; on the other, a wing extends to do the same.
  764. "...when we were interrogating some of the ponies caught in the raid, your name came up. They knew you - were surprised I was asking about you. More than surprised; chocked, even."
  765. > At last you manage to drag your gaze back to focus on the mare above you, there's something inscrutable in her cyan eyes.
  766. "It was more than just familiarity, Vapor. What's going on?"
  767. > Now it is Vapor who is forced to look away.
  768. > "You - didn't know? I - I thought..."
  769. > The feeling of uncertainty and concern in your belly metastasizes into full-on fear.
  770. "I didn't know anything, Vapor."
  771. > "I'm - I'm not going to be staying, Thunderlane. When my foal is old enough to travel and there's a safe plan - Derpy said - I'm helping them to earn myself a spot getting out..."
  772. > Of course.
  773. > The one night you'd seen Cadance and Derpy slipping into the clinic while Vapor was in there, and how fast she'd turned around and agreed to stay after that.
  774. > Derpy must have told her there'd be a way to leave soon after.
  775. > She had a filly of her own still in the camp to look after, so it would make sense that she was more focused on leaving then on fighting back.
  776. > Word must have gotten around that to the cell that Crescent Moon was part of.
  777. > Your first instinct was to be furious that the information had been leaked, but it's soon overwhelmed by horror at what has been just laid on you.
  778. > Vapor clearly sees it, and winces sharply.
  779. > "I - I'm sorry, Thunderlane. I thought - with how close you were to Cadance - I thought you knew."
  780. "No, I - I didn't. I didn't know at you were going to. I - I really did think you were going to stay."
  781. > Your own eyes close and you have to swallow before you can speak again.
  782. "Crescent Moon. Did you know her?"
  783. > "No. Not directly. She was the one who knew me?"
  784. "Yes."
  785. > "I haven't met her, or anypony else from her group. I just carried messages."
  786. > Even as she speaks, it occurs to you just how much trust she is placing in you.
  787. > Vapor Trail knows what your job is; she knows you can have her thrown in a cell right now if you wanted.
  788. > But she hasn't stopped.
  789. > She's trusting you to understand - and that's reason enough for you to believe she genuinely didn't intend to fall in with violent ponies.
  790. > Reason enough to not have her imprisoned.
  791. > Yet, if she's held on to hope of eventual escape this long - even as she's seen what Cadance has been trying to do - she must still feel very strongly about keeping her foal out of slavery.
  792. [Choice]
  793. "Vapor..."
  794. > Your leg and wing are still wrapped around her, but now it feels more like a way to keep a pony pinned in place than a gesture of affection.
  795. "...who - who are you working for? Who's doing this?"
  796. > "I - a few ponies, I think."
  797. > Her voice is cracked and breaking.
  798. > "Not sure how - how many ponies are in it total. I - I just carry messages."
  799. > Just messages.
  800. "Have you looked at them? Tried to see who -"
  801. > "Once. I d-didn't understand it. C-Code, I think."
  802. > So she can't likely tell you about the information, but maybe she'd have something else?
  803. > The other ponies in the cells?
  804. > Is this connected to Sunburst, or something else entirely?
  805. > If his plan was compromised, then you'd have to start looking into - triage.
  806. > Who could be saved, and who... could not.
  807. > If it wasn't, then you had a whole new host of ponies to track down, something that puts an even greater emphasis on needing to know exactly who was involved.
  808. "Okay, who gives-"
  809. > "T-Thunderlane..."
  810. > Her voice is even more unsteady now, trembling and fearful.
  811. > "What h-happens now, Thunderlane? A-Are you going to put me in chains and take me to A-Anonymous? I-I'm a rebellious pony. I confessed - I want to leave; I won't stop trying."
  812. > Pausing, you force yourself to look - really look - at her and think again.
  813. > And you see not a rebel or a fighter or even a resource to be mined for information, but a trembling and scared mare - one hoof clutching her swelling belly, as if it could shield the foal growing there - terrified of what might moves you might make next.
  814. > "I - I won't fight, Thunderlane. I can't, not against you. Not without hurting the foal. But I'm begging you, please don't take me to him. You know what he'll do me."
  815. > In that moment, your heart cracks a little.
  816. > You'd gone too far ahead.
  817. > Jumped too quickly into thinking about the larger picture, forgetting about the mare clutching you like an anchor to prevent her from being swept away.
  818. "No, Vapor. I'm not going to have you thrown in chains."
  819. > After all, wasn't looking after ponies who needed it why you'd taken this position?
  820. > ...aside from protecting Rumble.
  821. > And even as Vapor collapses against you again wetting your coat with quiet tears of relief, you can't help but wonder about that.
  822. > What would you do, if Rumble was caught up in something again?
  823. > Could you bring yourself to turn over Vapor Trail to save him?
  824. > To betray Sunburst and Cadance again?
  825. > Once had been painful enough, to do it to them a second time and this loving mare too...
  826. > A fresh shudder runs through your body, and this time you're thankful Vapor Trail is too distracted to make notice of it.
  827. > It would be hard to explain this one, after all.
  828. > Those thoughts swirl in your head even as you lift your head to press your cheek to hers - both wings circling her barrel now.
  829. > "I-I'm sorry. I was so afraid - I - I thought for sure you were a part of it, and then weren't, and I thought-"
  830. "Shh..."
  831. > A hoof strokes her mane back, and you murmur softly.
  832. "I'm not going to turn you over, Vapor. But I need to understand exactly how far this goes. If who you're working for might be somehow related to the ponies who attacked Mocha Cream."
  833. > She snorts gently.
  834. > "Betray the ponies who're helping me? And then what? Maybe I'll be reward with a fluffy bed and a maid's uniform up in the house? What'll happen to my foal then - a new toy for his daughter to have fun with?"
  835. > Catching sight of the disappointed expression on your face, Vapor shakes her head.
  836. > "I'm sorry."
  837. "It's not your ponies that I care about, Vapor. It's whoever is pushing to fight now."
  838. > "They're - all that you're after? You have to swear-"
  839. "Vapor. They're it. They're the ponies we want to find; anypony else you worked with isn't in our sights unless they're threatening to be violent too. Trust me, please?"
  840. > A moment of consideration is needed, but in the end she nods.
  841. > "I was - it was Derpy who brought me in. Princess Cadance brought her when I was in the medical ward; she convinced me I could get my foal out later..."
  842. "...and then she drew you into the process."
  843. > Vapor Trail simply nods.
  844. > "And I thought - I thought because you were... y'know, with Princess Cadance, you knew too..."
  845. > You did, of course, know about the plan.
  846. > Now.
  847. > But you hadn't then, and neither had Cadance at the time either.
  848. "Have you told anypony else about this, Vapor?"
  849. > "N-No. Nopony I haven't, um, been told to."
  850. > Part of you wonders if that was a statement on the depth of her care for you, that she had considered you worth revealing it to.
  851. > Either way, it was a fair bet that the plan was still pretty airtight.
  852. "Do you know if anypony involved has also been responsible for the attacks? Or if not, if they might be thinking about doing something - ugly in the future?"
  853. > "Not really. We, um - we don't talk to each other too much. Just - just the messages that need to go, or things that have to be gotten."
  854. > Then she hesitates, though, eyes going distant.
  855. "Vapor..."
  856. > "There... is one other group. They, um, don't work with us. Or at least, I only ever brought them a message once. But from the way someponies talk, they're more about /doing/ while I think we're... waiting. Until it's all ready."
  857. > It certainly sounds like she is part of Sunburst's operation, even if Derpy had been the one to invite her in.
  858. > But then who was this other group...?
  859. > Asking Vapor to try and question others about them was just an invitation for reprisal against her, but-
  860. "If you hear anything about them - anything! - I need to know, okay? Not just because I'm a guard, but because if this violence continues it's only a matter of time before Anonymous wraps the whole thing up and then you'll be truly trapped."
  861. > "I know, Thunderlane."
  862. > She sniffles softly, nodding with still-bleary eyes.
  863. > "Just - I don't know how to do all this, okay? I just - do what they tell me to, and if it works out I'll be able to get my foal safely away from all this..."
  864. > Another gentle sniffle.
  865. > "...I'm not a secret agent. I'm just a pony who wants to be free."
  866. "Shh, I know."
  867. > Pulling her back close against you yields a soft sigh from Vapor Trail.
  868. > And, a moment later, information at last:
  869. > "The pony, from that group I met with once - her name was Autumn Frost. She tried to invite me into their group, but I didn't want any part of that I just want to leave."
  870. > You stiffen; that had been one of the names Crescent Moon gave.
  871. "You're doing the right thing, Vapor. I swear, I'm just trying to protect everypony."
  872. > The words almost manage to leave your lips without leaving the bitter taste of lies behind.
  873. > Almost.
  874. > "It's going to make a big mess for you when I leave, isn't it..?"
  875. "Maybe. Not as much as ponies fighting now, though."
  876. > "When it happens, we should all go together, Thunderlane. You, me, my foal, even Rumble! We're all strong fliers - we can hide in the clouds, follow the birds out farther than they can follow us. We'd be - a family! A free family!"
  877. > Laying there, feeling her heart thud against yours, you wish so very, very hard that you could say yes.
  878. > ...
  879. > The early morning air still has the winter's icy chill in it, and your breath steams as you set out on your first patrol of the day.
  880. > Leaving Vapor Trail hadn't been easy - as much on her as on you - but there was a duty to be done.
  881. > Trotting down the street, your eyes and ears both are kept on a swivel.
  882. > Above you, the sky is barely lit - stars only just fading before the oncoming sunrise.
  883. > At this hour, the only ponies who were awake were those who absolutely needed to be, which meant the streets were even more dead than midday when everypony was at their jobs.
  884. > Yet the absence of any other ponies only serves to heighten your fears.
  885. > Who else might be creeping around at this hour of the morning?
  886. > What other plots might be in play?
  887. > A soft shudder runs down your coat; this was two pieces of evidence to point towards one pony, but even if you arrested her now what would happen next?
  888. > If they were any bit as mad as the ones who'd been running the museum - or even an extension of that same group - then 'Galaxy' wouldn't just turn over the rest.
  889. > The thought of what Anonymous might do to make her do so is enough to make your legs weak.
  890. > Putting those thoughts from your mind, you swing back towards the security post, spread your wings, and-
  891. > Wait.
  892. > There.
  893. > A shadow had just moved in the early-morning light, dipping back into an alleyway between two factory buildings.
  894. > Instead of carrying you up, your wings launch you forward.
  895. > Hooves instantly sound on concrete in the chill air - not your own, as they were quite off the ground.
  896. "Hey, you! Stop!"
  897. > The shadow - no, a cloak - slips right around a corner again just as you come into sight.
  898. > Yet when you actually reach the corner, they're nowhere in sight and the hooves have stopped.
  899. > All that greets you is a dimly-lit space lined with a pair of dumpsters and a shipping crate.
  900. > How had they-
  901. > Too late you feel the cold prick at the back of your neck.
  902. > "Don't move either, police-pony."
  903. > They're voice is growled so low it's difficult to tell if a mare or stallion is making it.
  904. > Either way you do stay still, though, even as the blade slides around your neck to press in on your throat and a hoof replaces it on the back of your neck.
  905. "...easy, now. I'm not moving."
  906. > "Good. Don't wanna hurt you, but can't let you see."
  907. "That's fine. I won't try and look, alright?"
  908. > While your words buy time, your eyes sweep the alley for a way out of this.
  909. > They're close - so close that you can see their steaming breath in the corner of your eye.
  910. > But any movement, and that blade would meet your throat.
  911. > Nightmare's Wings, they'd been quiet!
  912. > "Sorry about this. Was going to talk to you even before you asked, didn't mean for it to be like this..."
  913. "Asked...?"
  914. > "Well, not asked me, but-"
  915. > It clicks.
  916. "You're Mellowheart's third pony."
  917. > A soft chuckle.
  918. > "Y'got it."
  919. "Listen, I'm not interested in hunting you. I'm here for whoever beat Mocha Cream."
  920. > "Y'might be, but I'm not trusting Anonymous. And you take his orders."
  921. > Reflexively you swallow, and the blade's edge scrapes on your throat.
  922. "...fine. What do you want?"
  923. > A sheet of paper is shoved across the ground into your vision.
  924. > "Names in there are the ponies who did it. Some of 'em, anyway."
  925. "You're just giving them up?"
  926. > "You think I'm anything like them?"
  927. > The first note of real anger enters the pony's voice.
  928. > "We broke windows, stole paint, made some noise, yeah - but that's a fair bit different than kicking a filly in an alley. We're not like that."
  929. "You were angry."
  930. > "Not like that. Angry at Anonymous for what he did, not whatever poor things he's got locked up in that house with him."
  931. > It's the least-insane thing you've heard out of any rebellious pony lately, and manages to lighten your heart a bit.
  932. > "Check whoever else you're asking. There's names and who to question to prove they weren't in their normal places right when it happened."
  933. "How do you know?"
  934. > "What they did isn't right, but I talked a time before then."
  935. > Sighing heavily, you nod.
  936. "Alright. I'll take a look at them. What now?"
  937. > "I back away. You stay still, don't look back until I'm well away."
  938. > You snort softly.
  939. > How had Vapor Trail put it?
  940. > 'I'm not a secret agent'?
  941. > "Sorry. I was going to pass it from where you couldn't see me, but then you saw me and came charging in before I could set things up right..."
  942. "I understand."
  943. > "Alright. Backing away now."
  944. > And they are - the hoof on the back of your neck relieving pressure first, then the blade at your throat.
  945. > Hooves sound again on concrete, and that split-second is all you have to make a choice.
  946. [Choice]
  947. "Hey, I didn't get to say - thank you."
  948. > Distantly, the pony laughs.
  949. > "I'd prefer I didn't have to, but you're welcome."
  950. "Just - if you hear about something going to happen, something to be aware of... you won't be punished if you let us know."
  951. > There's a long silence, then:
  952. > "I'll think about it."
  953. "It'll be good for everypony."
  954. > "Yeah. Now just stay there a bit longer."
  955. > You do, and moments later their hoofsteps fade around the corner.
  956. > Almost immediately you stagger, having to reach out with a wing to steady yourself against the wall.
  957. > Half of you had given up the moment the blade had touched your neck, concluded that this was it and you'd come up next on the list of ponies to be attacked.
  958. > The other half - the fighting half, the old pegasus warrior blood in your veins - had nearly been ready to turn and chase them down despite the weapon.
  959. > Thankfully whoever it was hadn't had killing you on their agenda, and you'd managed to hold your fighting instincts in check.
  960. > No point in getting yourself killed if they didn't want it either.
  961. > At long last you turn back around and stare down the mess of alleyways the pony had vanished into.
  962. > There'd be no tracking them now, and in a way you're almost glad.
  963. > A pony still willing to fight back against slavery, but not so totally lost to hatred...
  964. > You wish there were more like that.
  965. > Maybe even wish you were more like that pony was.
  966. > Wish you hadn't had to betray so many.
  967. > ...wish you could say for certain you wouldn't betray again in the future.
  968. > With another sigh you scoop up the paper they'd tossed to you.
  969. > A bit stained by dirt, but still perfectly legible - and everything you could have wished for.
  970. > Tucking it beneath a wing, you start back towards the security post.
  971. > A few other guards, ponies and humans alike, nod to you as you enter.
  972. > Gene was there, of course, and is the first to speak up:
  973. > "Thunderlane. Are we going to start questioning some of the ponies you mentioned yesterday? I will have to assign some to help you if we are..."
  974. "Maybe. In fact, almost certainly. But we've got some other things to do first, because you won't believe what just happened to me on the way here..."
  975.  
  976. > Sunburst looks quite surprised when you first step through his doorway.
  977. > It takes him a moment to do anything at all, and then it's a furious rush to sort through the mess occupying his tabletop in order to locate his glasses.
  978. > Pinning them to his face, he blinks owlishly - as if they had been necessary to confirm it actually you - before nervously glancing around the utterly chaotic space he called an 'office'.
  979. > "An- Master, I, uh - I hadn't expected you-"
  980. "I know."
  981. > You chuckle softly.
  982. "Our original meeting was supposed to be up in the mansion, and I think Cadance was supposed to bring you in - but if I'm going to be rather more involved, I thought I'd prefer to start with the matters immediately at hand. If you're not busy with something important?"
  983. > "Y-Yes, Master. I'll, uh - just, just one moment - I'm supposed to be out to set up the young ones' morning magic lessons in a little bit, but I can spare a little while."
  984. > Magic sweeps a stack of books and papers off a seat and heaves it from the corner it had been occupied, but unfortunately it's still a pony-sized seat.
  985. "Relax, Sunburst. I'll be fine standing."
  986. > You might be, but from the nervous bob of his head Sunburst gives you have to suspect he isn't quite fine with this.
  987. > Perhaps something to do with how you stand nearly half again as tall as he does.
  988. "So, I imagine Cadance has talked with you about what I'm considering."
  989. > "Y-Yes, Master. T-That I would be Flurry Heart's tutor."
  990. > Another pause, during which his eyes flick around the room anywhere but on you.
  991. > "If I may speak honestly, Master, I am surprised you would consider me after..."
  992. > Trailing off, he shifts uncertainly.
  993. "Well, I won't deny it was a hard sell. Which really, is why I wanted to come down here and talk to you about it."
  994. > "About w-what I d-did-"
  995. > He's terrified.
  996. > Stricken with fear that you would - what?
  997. > Decide to inflict more punishment on him?
  998. > Now you do sit down, lowering yourself to a more reasonable height compared to the stallion and putting both hands on the table.
  999. "Easy, Sunburst. This isn't an interrogation, and I'm not going to hurt you."
  1000. > At last he seem to settle, realizing you weren't a threat.
  1001. > Or at least not an immediate one.
  1002. "Whoever went after Mocha Cream, I'll deal with them when they're caught-"
  1003. > The grimness in your tone is matched by the expression on your face.
  1004. "-and it not be merciful. But right now, with you, I'm just interested in having a talk."
  1005. > "...yes, Master."
  1006. "Cadance made some good points in arguing on your behalf - you are probably the most knowledgeable pony I own, and you knew Flurry Heart beforehand to boot. If this works out, I'll be very glad. But if it doesn't - I'd rather know now than run into a problem later."
  1007. > You lean even further forward, both elbows coming to sit on the table too.
  1008. > It might have seemed menacing, but the gesture also brought your head down even lower - to a point slightly below Sunburst's.
  1009. "So, tell me, Sunburst - can I trust you to teach her? Do I have to be worried about what you'll be putting into her head?"
  1010. > For several moments, the stallion says nothing - a hoof rising to play with the little tuft of beard that emerges from it.
  1011. > "...I can say yes. But why would you trust me?"
  1012. "I don't know. Tell me why I should."
  1013. > This time, Sunburst answers quickly:
  1014. > "Because they're all I have left."
  1015. > His voice is stronger now too, much more confident.
  1016. > "My life, Master... I didn't really have an easy path. I left my only friend early on to go to the School for Gifted Unicorns. I didn't make too many friends there, and I wasn't good enough with magic to really stand out. I went to the Crystal Empire, but..."
  1017. > A soft sigh.
  1018. > "...I was drifting. Pretending I was someone important while I locked myself away to hide how bad at magic I actually was. If Starlight hadn't come back, I hadn't become closer with P- Cadance, Shining Armor, and Flurry Heart... I'd have turned up as nothing."
  1019. "What happened to 'Starlight'?"
  1020. > "I don't know."
  1021. > His glasses slip off to be set gently on the table top, letting him rub at his eyes with one hoof.
  1022. > "Starlight was further south when it all began. I never saw her again. Went with one of the groups of ponies trying to flee the Crystal Empire instead, and... well, that didn't work. I was alone again. No friends, no one I knew, no path forward... I was drifting."
  1023. "Until Cadance was brought here."
  1024. > "Yes, until then. Even when you first brought me to teach the foals and develop new products to sell... those were jobs. Then suddenly I had somepony I knew again. So when she came and asked me to for help organizing the escape... how couldn't I?"
  1025. > A fierce shudder ran through his body.
  1026. > "When she had to whip me... it hurt worse than anything I'd ever felt. But that wasn't anything to what it hurt me inside."
  1027. > 'Had to' whip him?
  1028. > For a moment you're considering probing if that was a remark on you, but there's no point now.
  1029. "I've no intent to keep you separate from Flurry Heart or Cadance unless I have to. I was even thinking that there might be a chance of having her come down here for her lessons, though I'm not so sure of that now."
  1030. > "And that's why you can trust me, Master. I want - nothing more than to see her here. Safe. I failed being her teacher and adviser once; I can't have it happen again."
  1031. > He gestures out the window, eyes locked on you even without his glasses.
  1032. "And I want the same. If she's to eventually take up the role I want her to, I can't hold her distant forever. She needs to know all of you too."
  1033. > "Not one of us wants to be a slave, Master. But if that is the cost of being with the ponies I care about..."
  1034. > Your fingers steeple together, gaze regarding Sunburst carefully.
  1035. "I wonder, though. What happens if Cadance decides she wants to get ponies out again? What if she decides having her Flurry run away is the 'best thing'?"
  1036. > "Would she do that, Master?"
  1037. > You're surprised by the frankness of Sunburst's question, but quickly recover.
  1038. "I do not think so. She's rapidly opened her eyes to the necessity of us working together. But if she did?"
  1039. > What if Cadance did get it into her head that rebellion or escape were right?
  1040. > It's a thought that leaves a trail of fear through your mind.
  1041. > Once had been bad; twice would be... disastrous.
  1042. > "I... I must speak freely, Master."
  1043. "Do it. I didn't come here for buttering-up or half-truths."
  1044. > "You have become much better as well. We have much less to fear - not looking over our shoulders for whips to be swung at the slightest problem or being subject to the whims of guards who enjoy our suffering."
  1045. "...I thought I said no buttering up."
  1046. > "I'm not!"
  1047. > And for the first time there's real force in his voice too.
  1048. > "I'm not - a few months ago I would have done all I could to get Flurry Heart away if I was asked. Now..."
  1049. > Voice going soft again, he looks away.
  1050. > "None of us want to be slaves, Master. But now that you've improved things... maybe we can live. And it's still my duty as Flurry Heart's adviser to make sure she gets the best she can."
  1051. [Choice]
  1052. "Well..."
  1053. > Reaching out, you take Sunburst's hoof for a moment.
  1054. > He seems surprised, almost fearful at first but it quickly passes.
  1055. "...I think that's a goal we both share. When do you think we can begin her lessons?"
  1056. > "Tomorrow; I can begin at least figuring out how much she knows and where to take her next."
  1057. "Excellent. Report to my house at any time after 10:00; you'll have until 3:30 to do what you need. And if it becomes too much, I'll temporarily pull you off other duties to make sure this gets done."
  1058. > Ears flopping down beneath his riotous burst of crimson mane, Sunburst nods - his smile widening.
  1059. > "I understand."
  1060. > You stand again, stretching.
  1061. "Do you have somewhere to be in particular now?"
  1062. > "I, uh, have to be at the schoolhouse to do a little bit of teaching with the other foals soon. And, um, then have to go back and see about some new products I was researching - but not now."
  1063. "I'll walk with you there. There's a lot I'd like to talk with you about."
  1064. > "Yes, Master. Can I get my things before we go?"
  1065. "Of course, of course. Take your time."
  1066. > It does take Sunburst a few moments to find what he's looking for in the bags, but soon enough the two of you are walking side-by-side through the camp.
  1067. > In addition to his bag, the stallion had thrown on a dark cloak and scarf to ward the morning chill.
  1068. > Other ponies were also still moving about at this early hour - deliveries being made throughout the camp, a few clusters marching on their way to their work with eyes squinted against the late-winter rising sun.
  1069. > They look at you with a variety of expressions:
  1070. > Glimpses of anger and disgust out of the corners of their eyes, sometimes confusion and surprise at you walking alone, but just as often apparent relief.
  1071. > Presumably that you were not showing signs of cruelty to the pony with whom you walked.
  1072. > If anything Sunburst actually seems to fare the worst from their watchful eyes.
  1073. > Wincing and cringing, he slinks along at your side.
  1074. > After a minute of this, you raise an eyebrow questioningly.
  1075. "Embarrassed to be seen out with me?"
  1076. > "Y-Yes... and no. I've never liked being, uh, at the center of attention... and you are attracting a lot of looks."
  1077. > You chuckle softly.
  1078. "Don't worry. I'll be out and around a bit more often now, so you're hardly going to be the only one."
  1079. > No response comes, but he does straighten up and walk a bit more normally.
  1080. > Your route takes you towards the core of the camp, near the still-rising rec center.
  1081. > At this hour no real work was ongoing, but even so the odd pony was hauling in a cart loaded with bags of mortar.
  1082. "You said things have been getting better."
  1083. > "Yes, Master."
  1084. "How?"
  1085. > Much of what he answers is things you've heard before:
  1086. > The guards aren't so tough, ponies have less to be fearful of, even that the food is better.
  1087. > But then his thoughts start to get personal.
  1088. > "...and honestly, I see it reflecting off the colts and fillies I teach too. They see older ponies are less fearful, and they are too."
  1089. "You teach them directly?"
  1090. > "A few. Most of them - the teachers handle basic magic; I check their work, add a few finer touches, and teach a couple of things myself. The most talented ones I take on directly."
  1091. "Well noted. What do you focus on?"
  1092. > "Well, we start with the basics of course. How not to hurt, not to overstress themselves. Then I start showing them how to do more complex workings - moving two or three objects together, basic enchantments, simply more advanced spells..."
  1093. > As he speaks, you can't help but notice the transformation that comes over Sunburst.
  1094. > Now in his element, the stallion's ears perk up, his tail carries more straight, and a spring enters his step.
  1095. > "A lot of documentation I've had to basically rebuild from scratch, since I can only get my hooves on a handful of books on magic. And, um, most of those are actually yours, I think."
  1096. "A fair few are, yes."
  1097. > 'Lending' them from your own library had been the only way to get proper Equestrian literature on the subject into the camp, since ponies weren't allowed to bring much of their own belongings with them.
  1098. > Anything else had been carefully sanitized prior to republishing to remove anything that might be the slightest-bit rebellious or glorifying of old Equestria.
  1099. > And, of course, there was the little detail that what unmodified copies survived were no longer being widely reproduced.
  1100. > "What we can't find... well, I've had to rebuild a lot of it from memory. And experimentation."
  1101. "Yes, I know you're working with a fairly decent laboratory as these things go; is lack of paper resources really hampering you that badly?"
  1102. > After pondering a moment, Sunburst shakes his head.
  1103. > "There's - so much lost. There are things I would love to do - workings I'd absolutely want to recreate. But they're not - they're not something we can do now. Not even if I knew how."
  1104. "Not enough materials?"
  1105. > "Not enough ponies. Or time to train the best of the ones I do have."
  1106. "I'll keep that in mind. Sooner or later the market is going to catch up to us; we'll have to keep taking steps forward if we want to keep ahead of everyone else."
  1107. > "Honestly, with being able to work with Flurry Heart again... well, it'll almost be like being back home again."
  1108. > Sunburst's expression softens, a warm smile overcoming his features; he really does love that filly doesn't he?
  1109. "Do you think she'll be able to help you? With your research, or teaching?"
  1110. > "I really don't know. Even back in Equestria, there was no real documentation on alicorns, especially young ones. It might be several years before she's mentally prepared to take part in anything, though."
  1111. > He's trying to talk you down - make sure you don't put too much pressure on Flurry.
  1112. > That's fine; the opportunity to use her magic wasn't something you'd been betting on anyhow.
  1113. "That's fine. With the expansion coming in a few months there'll be chances for you to pick up some new resources. You won't be the only area expanding - Randall says there's someone up in Pennsylvania with a pure Zap-Apple strain, but not enough ponies to work it - but we can balance something out."
  1114. > Sunburst's mouth opens as if to say something, closes again, and then re-opens as his confidence urges him ahead:
  1115. > "Is it - really still going to happen?"
  1116. "The expansion? If I have anything to say about it, yes."
  1117. > "We weren't sure. With your announcement after Mocha Cream was attacked..."
  1118. "Ponies were afraid?"
  1119. > His head bobs in answer.
  1120. "Mostly we didn't know what to expect. Some were afraid you would come down on the whole camp again if they aren't found. Find another example to be made."
  1121. "The only ponies who need to be afraid of me are the ones responsible. They'll pay the price - no one else."
  1122. > Sunburst stays quiet after this - at least until you prompt him.
  1123. "...you don't think I should be punishing them as harshly as I plan to."
  1124. > "I'm in no position to advise about that sort of thing, Master."
  1125. "So just give me the off the top of your head thoughts."
  1126. > It again takes him several moments to consider the proper words to use.
  1127. > He's actually really thinking about it, which gives you pause too.
  1128. > "Just - remember what's happening here. Remember that ponies are just starting to let go of what happened in the past. If you bring that back-"
  1129. "They'll never let go again, I get it. But this is big, Sunburst. I'm not punishing someone for speaking out of turn, but for savagely beating an innocent mare - and jeopardizing all of you here. I'm surprised you can't see that."
  1130. > "I can."
  1131. > Sighing softly, he stops - looking over with squinted eyes to the rising sun.
  1132. > "Just..."
  1133. "Say it, Sunburst. We're speaking freely."
  1134. > "Princess Celestia would never have had a pony tortured for committing a crime."
  1135. > Despite your reassurances, his muzzle was pointed to the ground and the words were barely mumbled out.
  1136. > "She'd - she'd have found something better. Cadance, too - y'know, when she was..."
  1137. "And what would they have done."
  1138. > Another hefty sigh.
  1139. > "I don't know. I'm not - not a princess. Not even a pony who knows about law. They'd have banished them, maybe? T-There've been a few executions, but they were for much, much worse..."
  1140. "...yes, well, I am not a princess either, this is not Equestria, and banishment... the only places I can 'banish' them to would be a death sentence."
  1141. > Folding your arms against the cold, you let your vision scan out over the street.
  1142. "If there was a better alternative, I'd damn well take it. But I'm not going to let them just walk away from this, Sunburst. They pay for what they've done."
  1143. > "I just keep worrying..."
  1144. > Hesitation for a second - and then he dives in, the words seeming to pour out a mile a minute like the raging torrent from a broken dam.
  1145. > "Like - I'm not saying what they did was right, you know? But the friend I was telling you about, Starlight - she did some very bad things too. Hurt a lot of ponies. But somepony still gave her another chance, you know? And she - she realized what she'd done was wrong, and-"
  1146. > Breaking off, Sunburst shakes his head.
  1147. > "They deserve punishment. It's not my place to think about it, but I can't help but wonder if they'd see what they're doing is wrong too. If somepony gave them a chance..."
  1148. [Choice]
  1149. "Unfortunately, these aren't some misguided or misunderstood ponies looking to find the right path. They had their chance, Sunburst. They threw that chance away and stomped on it when they attacked a not-even-fully-grown filly just carrying out her duties."
  1150. > "I know..."
  1151. > The words are mumbled, and Sunburst looks down to the ground again.
  1152. "I know that a lot of ponies are expecting me to torture them, and of course straight punishment is not a perfect solution. Anything fitting their crime would be close enough to torture already, and I-"
  1153. > This time it is your turn to hesitate for a few moments.
  1154. > How much can you really say to him?
  1155. > Sunburst may seem to have a decent head on his shoulders, but he'd still taken part in a rebellion without a second thought.
  1156. > ...no, you're trying to be open - and in the end, this is a truth you'd been telling for a while now.
  1157. "If these rebels push me too far now... What happened to Corona was wrong. I lost control, I became a monster, and she suffered beyond any reasonable measure for it. I don't want to be that person again."
  1158. > Your hand balls into a fist, nails digging hard into your palm.
  1159. "I'd much rather they repent and turn themselves around, but - like I said, I'm not a princess and this isn't Equestria. And they all chose to be part of what they did, to spit on the olive branch I've been trying to offer... your friend was one situation, but this is another. Tell me, Sunburst - if they'd beaten Flurry Heart, would you still be willing to give them another chance? Can you honestly tell me you wouldn't be calling for their blood too?"
  1160. > He doesn't answer at first, simply turning his head away from you.
  1161. > When he does, it's with a small voice.
  1162. > "I suppose I would only wish there'd be someone there to make sure I don't become a monster too."
  1163. "Mmm."
  1164. > "Master - if I may go - I need to be off for the morning lessons..."
  1165. > It's a cop-out, a fleeing from the real questions you're throwing at him.
  1166. > Even so, you nod.
  1167. "Go ahead, Sunburst. And thank you for listening to me."
  1168. > He nods once before swerving off and galloping into the crowd.
  1169. > You watch Sunburst go, turning his words over in your mind.
  1170. > What had happened to Corona was wrong, yes - but these ponies were no Coronas.
  1171. > And if you-
  1172. > Thoughts are abruptly cut off by a discordantly upbeat jingle coming from your pocket.
  1173. > A glance at the phone's screen tells you it is Gene; instantly your stomach tightens.
  1174. > This could be either very good, or very bad.
  1175. "Anonymous here. What is it?"
  1176. > "You're going to want to come over to the security post. We just got something big..."
  1177. > Chest tightening as Gene lays out what he has, you spin on a heel and start towards the security post.
  1178. "Does Cadance know?"
  1179. > "Yes, she was told."
  1180. "Okay. I'm on my way over."
  1181.  
  1182. > That it had taken a day for Haute Glamour to reappear within the camp - making her way lazily back down from the manor where you'd asked Anonymous to keep her tied up - was in some ways rather nerve-wracking.
  1183. > If this had been part of her plan, after all, every hour you couldn't manage her was an hour she made headway against you.
  1184. > Not to mention what was looming on the horizon; if even half of what the guard had told you was true, then within a day or two you'd have to decide what would be done with the ponies responsible for Mocha Cream's beating.
  1185. > But even so, facing Haute again was not something you were looking forward to.
  1186. > Nonetheless you steel yourself as the mare saunters in, her cool eyes sweeping over the office.
  1187. > They come to pause on the image of Shining Armor resting on your desk, regarding it for a moment before shifting to settle on you.
  1188. > There's no doubt; she is reevaluating her opinion of you - or perhaps more accurately, taking a step back and truly evaluating you for the first time.
  1189. "Thank you for making some time to come down and see me, Haute Glamour."
  1190. > "Not a problem at all, Cadance."
  1191. > Her 'smile' is sickly sweet and doesn't remotely manage to reach her eyes.
  1192. > Without waiting for a request, Haute slides a seat over to the opposite side of your desk and settles down onto it.
  1193. > "I'm sure you understand, we've been having to reconsider our position over the last couple days..."
  1194. > Despite her use of the word 'we', she doesn't sound nearly as certain as you might expect.
  1195. > ...maybe she is reevaluating her own position as well; after all, she'd come into this apparently expecting an ally (or even a teacher) and now might be finding something quite different.
  1196. > But if so, did that imply Haute wasn't behind what'd happened to Mocha Cream?
  1197. > There'd been no evidence, but she did somewhat stand to gain from it...
  1198. "I hope your reevaluations are taking their due time. I understand things have been turbulent here as of late, but I still think our relationship will be an ongoing one... both our Masters will be interested in seeing this through."
  1199. > "Will they."
  1200. "Yes, they will."
  1201. > Fixing Haute Glamour with your firmest look, you lay both your forehooves on the desk and lean in.
  1202. "This camp is in the midst of its most significant expansion yet, and I am not about to let a few ponies unable to control themselves get in my way threaten what I have here."
  1203. > Enough force had been poured into your voice to hopefully make it sound genuine - because it was.
  1204. > Not only would failing now imperil your daughter, but if you were going to be forced into this role then by Celestia you were going to make it the best place for ponies it could be.
  1205. > Haute Glamour, unfortunately, doesn't seem to quite accept that.
  1206. > "Are you now? Because-"
  1207. > She glances askance, horn lighting to close the door to your office.
  1208. > You have the barest glance of Mayor Mare peering in with a concerned look on her face before the door shuts entirely.
  1209.  
  1210. > "Because at this hour, Cadance, I have to wonder if my estimation of you has really been correct."
  1211. > Your hard, flat look only provokes her to go on:
  1212. > "When I first came here, I really did think I saw something strong in you - a pony who'd managed to make the right conclusion, who was even more successful than I. Whose touch as a ruler was the most subtle and exquisite I had ever seen: So delicate yet controlling that I could barely see it."
  1213. > The portrait of Shining Armor is lifted from your desk and turned, allowing her to examine it closely.
  1214. > "But the more I watch, the more I think you're not so much ruling them as stumbled your way to the top of the heap, and have only held on because Anonymous insists on you being there while you sit pining for everything that you lost."
  1215. > For a second your cheeks draw back in the beginnings of a furious snarl before it is squashed.
  1216. > Squashing the hard, flat tone in your voice, though, proves impossible.
  1217. "I will not deny that I wish very much for many things that were taken from us, my husband most of all. But I do not think that keeps me from carrying out what I have to here."
  1218. > "Hmm."
  1219. > Replacing the portrait, Haute tosses back her crimson mane and regards you with hooded eyes.
  1220. > "Are you? Or is your touch so soft because you're still trying to believe that what we had in Equestria can be clung to? Because you aren't actually accepting that all of those... ponies-"
  1221. > The word is spoken with the same tone one might speak of insects.
  1222. > "-aren't so much cattle to be owned now? Because you do not truly have the willpower to rule them with the force needed?"
  1223. "You saw how I deal with ponies who threaten the stability here."
  1224. > "I saw how you acted when your hoof was forced. I also saw you've taken no preemptive action to squash them when they start to speak against you."
  1225. > Your mouth half-opens to reply, but Haute cuts you off before you can:
  1226. > "Oh, I remember what you told me. Yes, of course, there's no need to be excessive, let them adore you rather than fear you... but they aren't adoring you. They're fighting you. What are you going to do this time to keep more from cropping up, hmm? Or will you be forever dealing with the consequences of this? My ponies may fear me, but at least they fear only me."
  1227. > Now it is Haute Glamour who is leaning forward over the desk, forcing you back towards your seat.
  1228. > "These are the questions I have to ask, and the answers to which I have to find. If you aren't prepared to control them... if you have deceived me..."
  1229. [Choice]
  1230. "...you know, Haute Glamour, I think I'm coming to understand you a bit better."
  1231. > The mare in question blinks, clearly not having expected that reaction.
  1232. > Similarly, your voice is kept low to start. hiding the anger now starting to boil within you.
  1233. "You think that because you control a hooffull of stallions and mares doing a hooffull of simple jobs towards one goal, that you understand exactly how everypony thinks and that this is something which can be extended to everypony, everywhere."
  1234. > It finally occurs to Haute that something isn't quite right - you aren't backing down - but you're still speaking:
  1235. "Maybe you even think that you've figured out your owners, and that because of this you can figure out any owner. Well, let me tell you that you are wrong, Haute."
  1236. > Now it is you who is rising from your seat, standing with your hindlegs on the chair while your forelegs rest on the desk itself.
  1237. > Combined with your already-significant stature, nearly as tall as most stallions, and steadily unfolding wings, your posture is suddenly one of a looming threat.
  1238. > A stormy presence, bearing down on the unfortunate pony on the opposite side of the desk.
  1239. > Despite her confidence and poise, Haute cannot resist the instinctual, base reaction to that sort of body language coming from an alicorn.
  1240. "You are a nopony. A ruler of what, a dozen you hold in line with base fear and threats? I know Fear, Haute Glamour. I faced the Shadow King. I was imprisoned beneath Canterlot by a beast that wore my face. And because I am still here, I know its limits, too."
  1241. > She has leaned back in her seat - ears laying flat and eyes starting to shrink.
  1242. "I know that given a chance, everypony you've stepped on to get where you are will step on you right back. They fear you, yes, but they will turn on you. When you're managing over a thousand ponies, you can't take that risk. I cannot be looking over my shoulder every second for a threat that might come."
  1243. > "And yours are already turning on you! They're not even waiting-"
  1244. "Do you think yours wouldn't if there were a thousand of them? Do you think they will stand by your side if your position becomes shaky? Because I know my ponies will. I know that when I have to deal with the ones who attack me, the rest won't abandon my side."
  1245. > The expression of sheer shock on Haute Glamour's face is a delightful one.
  1246. > How long had it been since another pony had dared talk back to her?
  1247. > Since anypony had the guts to stand up to her cruelty?
  1248. "You've crawled to the top of your pile, and that's your accomplishment... but I have been tested as ruler and leader, as a princess and as a slave. So before you jump to the idea that because I happen to wish for how things were or run this place with a softer hoof than you, I suggest you think about that."
  1249. > From the moment you stood, your voice had been rising.
  1250. > Now it reaches a crescendo, punctuated by thundering hoof-stamps banging on the desk you half stood on.
  1251. "And I suggest you remember your place, stop thinking you somehow know my job better than me, and curb your blindingly obvious ambition to sit in my seat. Even if you somehow unseat me, you will never be a princess to them."
  1252. > And with that, you slam your haunches back down into the seat, glaring death across the desk at her.
  1253. > Haute had begun to breath heavily, her mane swaying.
  1254. > It takes a few swallows before she feels ready to speak.
  1255. > But eventually her old expression does reestablish itself on her face - now marred by a twisted scowl, fury leaking from her narrowed eyes.
  1256. > "You're so keen to lecture me, "Princess", but I think you're as blind as the humans are. They'll never love you either. Ponies like that - the weak, the ruled - to them, we're no friend."
  1257. "More a friend than if they only feared me."
  1258. > Snorting, Haute shakes her head.
  1259. > "No such thing as friends now, Cadance. Only rulers and slaves."
  1260. > Standing, she all but rips the door open to leave.
  1261. > "Tell me then, Cadance, if fear is so weak what is keeping you here? Is Anonymous your 'friend'? Or is it because you fear what will happen to your daughter if you turn on him?"
  1262. > The smile that splits her face barely deserves the description.
  1263. > It is a bitter, hateful thing.
  1264. > "I'll just leave you to think about that."
  1265. > You do think about it, long after she vanishes.
  1266. > Was that a threat against Flurry Heart?
  1267. > If so, it only emphasized the need to get through to Posey.
  1268. > But Sunburst would need time to work; he couldn't just go up to her on his first day there, and it might take a while to convince the timid mare.
  1269. > It might be time to ask some of the house ponies to look after Flurry Heart too...
  1270. > Even that wasn't a sure thing, but what else could you do?
  1271. > The answer comes immediately, and nausea runs through you at even the thought of it:
  1272. > You could use your talent on Haute Glamour's mind.
  1273. > Awaken whatever love she was still even able to feel.
  1274. > But doing that...
  1275. > Another wave of revulsion sweeps you.
  1276. > You'd seen the results of misuse of mind-magic - on the Crystal Ponies, and even your own husband.
  1277. > Merely freeing him from Chrysalis' entrancement had not removed the experience from his memory; recovering from that had been a long and difficult road.
  1278. > No, to misuse your talent to quash a rival - even one as despicable as Haute Glamour - was wrong.
  1279. > Down that path lay the tyrants and horrors of Equestria, and you had walked it to far already.
  1280. > "Miss Cadance?"
  1281. > Mayor Mare's muzzle cautiously peered around the office door.
  1282. > "Is - everything alright? I heard the yelling, and you've been quiet..."
  1283. "I am..."
  1284. > Not fine.
  1285. "...it was not a pleasant meeting."
  1286. > "From the volume involved, I rather gathered this."
  1287. > Unbidden, she slips the rest of the way around the door and steps in - taking the same seat Haute Glamour had so recently vacated.
  1288. > "Tell me."
  1289. > There are a lot of things you could tell her.
  1290. > But first and foremost is what is still sticking in your head from what Haute Glamour had said.
  1291. "...I sometimes wonder, Mayor, how many ponies here are actually my friends."
  1292. > "Friends, Your Highness?"
  1293. > Her use of your title - a title you no longer actually bear and do not feel worthy of - only sends your heart lower.
  1294. "Yes. How many ponies here think of me as - a real friend to them? Thunderlane?"
  1295. > You snort gently.
  1296. "He's a good stallion, don't get me wrong. And I don't think I could have anypony better for his position. But my friend? I think he hates me for giving him that position. My daughter?"
  1297. > A saddened sigh.
  1298. "I'm almost a stranger to her at times. She runs to Anonymous for comfort before me. Mocha? No. Any of the foreponies? No. Even-"
  1299. > The words are stopped before they can come, but Mayor Mare finishes them anyhow.
  1300. > "Even me."
  1301. > You look away, and it is now her turn to sigh.
  1302. > "No, no. You've not wronged me, Your Highness."
  1303. "I have co-workers. Managers. Subjects. But I worry that the only ponies here with strong feelings about me are the ones who hate me."
  1304. > "Do not ever say that."
  1305. > The force in her voice actually makes you jump.
  1306. > A transformation had come over Mayor Mare - the older mare's face creased with a stern expression that was matched by her tone.
  1307. > Yet, it was not fearsome but supportive, almost motherly.
  1308. > "We may not all be your friends, it's true. Your position is a lonely one; I wouldn't wish for it. But you are our Princess, and that means more than you think."
  1309. > She raises a hoof to gesture out the window and to the camp beyond.
  1310. > "Nopony here is blind to what you've brought us. If they are not fawning over you, it's because we all understand how much you'd hate that. But we know. We know, Cadance. Our respect is something you've earned, not taken or been given."
  1311. "Thank you, Mayor..."
  1312. > "Believe me, Your Highness. If there was some way I could be out there helping you deal with her more..."
  1313. > You manage to force a small, if pained smile.
  1314. "...no, I don't think that would be a good idea."
  1315. > "Yes; I'm fairly sure Haute Glamour knows I am your pony through and through."
  1316. "Besides, you are helping. Doing all that you do to keep this place running and stable is every bit as much a blow against her as anything else you do."
  1317. > Now it is Mayor Mare who smiles.
  1318. > "Good of you to say that. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't be looking towards the future... speaking of which, the recreational building is just about done."
  1319. "Is it now? Well, I suppose that's one bit good news."
  1320. > "I'm told it'll be a bit longer until the inside furnishings are actually done, but the building can be opened for use before then."
  1321. "We absolutely should. It might even be good for everypony to see the inside go from barren to decorated by our own hooves."
  1322. > A calendar is detached from a nearby wall by your magic and hovered over to the desk.
  1323. > With a shock you realize the entire desk's top was bowing in somewhat.
  1324. > Earth Pony magic had always come a little bit easier to you than the use of your horn - perhaps a lingering relic of the Earth Ponies who'd raised you - and you must've been exercising a bit of it during your tirade against Haute.
  1325. > ...Mayor Mare must have been politely ignoring it too; your thankfulness for her instantly redoubles.
  1326. "Now, I think it might be good if I came down and said a few words before we properly open. I don't want to be only trotting out as a harbinger of disasters and horror..."
  1327. > Despite the bitterness in your voice, Mayor Mare smiles as well.
  1328. > "I couldn't agree more, Your Highness. Now, the only question is when."
  1329. "Not after work in the evening hour. And I doubt I can convince Anonymous to give us another day off, so that just leaves Sundays."
  1330. > "Well, that's three days from now, and-"
  1331. > Briefly retreating from the office, Mayor Mare returns with her own calendar.
  1332. > "- and the good news is we've nothing else impending then, so the whole day can be ours."
  1333. "Three days it is. See if we can get-"
  1334. > Fresh knocking at the officer door draws your attention.
  1335. > When it opens, another familiar face - one of the workers at the town hall - nervously pokes her muzzle into the office.
  1336. > "Your Highness? There's someone here to see you. I, um, told her you're busy but she's very insistent. Says it's important."
  1337. "Well, let her in of course."
  1338. > The pony that enters is a pegasus stallion you barely remember seeing once or twice.
  1339. > He is, however, obviously extremely nervous - terrified even:
  1340. > Ears laid flat, nostrils flared, and eyes flicking around the room and out the windows to the street behind you, as if he expected something to come screaming through them to carry him away at any moment.
  1341. "...hello, my little pony. Please, come in."
  1342. > With a nod you get the door shut behind him, then rise to circle around the desk and put on your best warm, smiling mask.
  1343. "May I ask your name?"
  1344. > "W-Windy Winters, Miss C-Cadance."
  1345. > Up close, you can not just see but even smell the fear on the stallion:
  1346. > A rank, bitter scent that sets your own nostrils wide.
  1347. "Well, you need not fear anything in here, Windy Winters. What can I-"
  1348. > Barely can you finish when he collapses, sinking to the floor and seizing at one of your forehooves with clinging legs.
  1349. > "Please, Ca- Your Highness! Please, please protect me! I didn't know they'd hurt her like that, but Anonymous is going to kill us now! Please, mercy!"
  1350.  
  1351. > The little motorized cart whines slightly as it travels down the road, occasionally bumping and shuddering at the odd crack or pothole.
  1352. > None of that is enough to distract you from what is going on.
  1353. > Your stare blankly out at the buildings and ponies, mind a million miles away and-
  1354. > "Hey, Thunderlane?"
  1355. > Beside you, Seismic Shift nudges you with a hoof.
  1356.  
  1357. > Also in the cart are two other human security officers in the front seats, leaving the two of you to share the back.
  1358. > "You doing alright?"
  1359. "Just - thinking."
  1360. > Celestia, please don't let them actually fight you...
  1361. > For a moment, Seismic seems ready to speak again.
  1362. > Thankfully he quiets, seeming to realize that you're needing a moment to yourself.
  1363. > Unbothered, your thoughts slip back to the meeting with Anonymous:
  1364. > He'd listened quietly at first as Gene had laid out the details.
  1365. > "...and three of the four ponies accused by the list Thunderlane was given match the names another pony turned over to us."
  1366. > "And the fourth?"
  1367. > "Was not given to us by Crescent Moon. But we have also questioned the other ponies mentioned by the note Thunderlane was given, the ones who knew the accused."
  1368. "They agree. All four ponies accused on the list I was given were away from their work positions for one reason or another when Mocha Cream was attacked, and all have... expressed anger about current camp conditions."
  1369. > "Very diplomatic, Thunderlane."
  1370. > Anonymous is smiling, but it's a thin expression devoid of any real happiness - though still bearing a degree of morbid pleasure.
  1371. > "So they hated my guts, have no alibi, and have been fingered by two different sources."
  1372. > And a third, but you reject even the thought of mentioning Vapor Trail's involvement.
  1373. > "I'd say that's plenty of evidence to go on. Gene, Thunderlane - get these ponies in here fast and quietly. Try not to let them start a scene."
  1374. > And so you found yourself puttering along with Seismic and two other guards.
  1375. > At least until the cart stopped in front of one of the many work buildings.
  1376. > "We're here."
  1377. > Another cart with three more guards would be pulling up on the opposite side of the building as well.
  1378. > That lends you some reassurance as you hop out and start in towards the building.
  1379. > Within is a mess of Pegasi charging back and forth, pushing clouds ahead and carefully breaking them into more manageable pieces for insertion into enchanted mattress frames.
  1380. > Yet the moment you enter a bubble of utter vaccum seems to form around you, however:
  1381. > A glance to either side confirms that the human officers have drawn their tasers; your wings spread as well as you converge on the pony you'd been given sent after.
  1382. "Autumn Frost!"
  1383. > A middle-aged pegasus mare with ivory-white coat and a shock of orange hair jerks
  1384. > If she'd had any hope that you weren't here for her, it was broken the moment you called out her name.
  1385. > There's no howled retort or hurled insult; recognizing the closing jaws of the trap, she quickly examines the four approaching threats and simply throws herself straight into you.
  1386. > Unfortunately, you're more than prepared - having expected a fight from a pony like this, you've braced all four hooves on the ground and manage to catch her charge.
  1387. > Instantly Seismic's grey-black form plows into her side, drawing a grunt from Autumn Frost.
  1388. > Yet she refuses to go down without a fight; you manage to pin her lashing wings and one foreleg as Seismic restrains her powerful hindlegs.
  1389. > In desperation, Autumn Frost's jaws close on your neck and twist, but she's in no position to really get enough leverage to actually harm you.
  1390. > Something whizzes past your ear, the taser's pins burying themselves in Autumn Frost's side.
  1391. > She howls, but goes still and rigid as the current courses through her.
  1392. > Only then are the two officers to able to shackle Autumn and bind her wings.
  1393. > Climbing off of her, you rub at your ear.
  1394. > That had been close; one degree off and it'd have been you catching that shock...
  1395. > Looking around, you meet a sea of wide-eyed pegasi faces.
  1396. "...guard business. Keep a distance and we'll be out of here."
  1397. > They do, the sudden burst of violence and its just as sudden conclusion proving an effective deterrent against any attempts at interference.
  1398. > Even with her legs hogtied by the shackles and wings securely bound, Autumn Frost struggles - and when that doesn't work, unleashes a hail of profanity that has a few in the crowd diving to cover the younger ears and keep them from taking it in.
  1399. > It takes both the human officers to stretch her across Seismic's back and keep her there as you all leave.
  1400. > You take the lead, parting the crowd with a few gestures of your wings.
  1401. > Whatever has happened here, they know not to get involved.
  1402. > As she is deposited in the cart, one of the officers turns to Autumn and threateningly places his weapon directly against her forehead.
  1403. > "If you don't shut up, I'll pull the trigger until you do."
  1404. > Her lips part in a snarl, but she does remain quiet for the rest of the ride back.
  1405. > In truth, you're not feeling particularly charitable towards her either.
  1406. > Had they carried out their threat against her, you're not sure you'd have stopped them.
  1407. > Nor do you go to speak to her when they find a cell to place her in - shackles being securely bolted to the rings in the wall, leaving her unable to move more than a few shuffles in any direction - as you had done with the other ponies you'd arrested.
  1408. > ...which worries you.
  1409. > Enemy or not, hateful or not, Autumn Frost was still a pony.
  1410. > Weren't you supposed to be defending her?
  1411. > Was it right for you to play judge like that?
  1412. > But what were you supposed to say?
  1413. > Suggest they beg for mercy?
  1414. > Ask them why they did it?
  1415. > Those thoughts continue to swirl in your head, at least until you return to the briefing room.
  1416. > The sour looks on Gene and Anonymous' faces promptly rouses a whole new set of concerns.
  1417. "What happened?"
  1418. > "Autumn Frost and Comet Tail have been caught. Windy Winters and Chrysocolla were not anywhere we expected."
  1419. "...great. And they'll probably hear about this, so they're not exactly going to come back."
  1420. > Everyone is silent for a few moments, pondering that.
  1421. > And then, Anonymous stands abruptly and leaves, heading for the cells.
  1422. "Master?"
  1423. > You're after him immediately, breaking into a brief gallop to catch up.
  1424. "Master, what are you doing?"
  1425. > "I'm going to find out where the two of them went. The two we have almost certainly know - or know how else we can find them."
  1426. > His tone is hard and grim.
  1427. > Stomach plunging, you realize he's going to do whatever he feels is needed to get the last two ponies' locations.
  1428. > ...and at the same time, you're not as horrified as you might have otherwise been.
  1429. > "I've ordered a camera system to be installed, but until it arrives and gets set up we can't wait for them."
  1430. > Catching a glimpse at your expression, Anonymous shakes his head.
  1431. > "I'm not going to go overboard on them, Thunderlane. This isn't about punishment - yet. But one way or another, they're giving up those names. Whether I dig them out of those assholes or you do, it doesn't matter. It'll end when they give them up."
  1432. [Choice]
  1433. > Have to be careful now, Thunderlane.
  1434. > Convincing Anonymous when he's in a mood like this is only mildly less dangerous than flying through a thunderstorm at night.
  1435. > One wrong wingbeat, and not only would it get away from you but leave you bruised and aching as well.
  1436. "An- Master, give me a chance to work on them. I know they're not going to be cooperative right to start, but if it's me or the whip... and we've already got their names; it's not like they can go anywhere. What's a day or two more waiting?"
  1437. > The flat look that Anonymous gives you suggests that he doesn't quite believe they're going to give you anything less than bile and fury.
  1438. "Then at least let me be there with you! I - I can offer them an out, when you're -"
  1439. > It takes a moment to find the right words.
  1440. "- pressing them; they'll see it as better than giving in to you. And, I can-"
  1441. > "You can keep me from going berserk on them if they don't give in to me, is what you're really saying."
  1442. > Swallowing hard, you look away.
  1443. > Anonymous had cut to the heart of the matter, saying everything that you'd been dancing around admitting.
  1444. > His hand flexes, curling in and out of a fist several times before he seems to deflate.
  1445. > "Alright. You're in, and if they don't crack you can go talk to them on your own time too."
  1446. "Thank you, Sir."
  1447. > "There's no need for me to let go on them now. This is just an interrogation, after all. There'll be time for a proper sentence to be carried out on them later."
  1448. > The way he says that sends an unwelcome prickling through your coat.
  1449. > "And for that matter, Thunderlane... if I do start going overboard, step in and stop me. That's an order."
  1450. > You hadn't been expecting that command, and it clearly shows in your expression.
  1451. > Anonymous shoots you a bitter smirk.
  1452. > "Hey, maybe it'll make you a more palatable negotiating partner to them. That's what you want, isn't it?"
  1453. > Yes, but not like that.
  1454. > Nonetheless you remain silent as he continues the rest of the way down, pausing collect a plastic bucket along the way, consumed by your own thoughts.
  1455. > Surprisingly, rather than Autumn Frost he instead turns to the other cell.
  1456. > "None of the files say anything about these ponies having family or anyone else close. Maybe that's why they moved together. Either way, we'll heave to break them apart from each other."
  1457. "I understand."
  1458. > Comet Tail turns out to be an older unicorn stallion with a bright yellow coat - that had unfortunately already become smeared with dirt.
  1459. > Compared to your take-down, he must have fought viciously:
  1460. > In addition to the heavy restricter on his horn a harsh, tight bridle, muzzle, and bit had been fastened around his face; you could see the furrows in his coat where their straps dug into his flesh.
  1461. > Furthermore, his shackles had been used not merely to hobble him but had been attached to the wall bolt with a far-too-short chain, leaving Comet Tail sprawled on his back unable to lower his legs.
  1462. > From the moment Anonymous enters Comet Tail keeps his eyes fixed on the man - leaving you relatively unseen.
  1463. > His flicking ears, though, betray his awareness of your presence as well.
  1464. > "Comet Tail..."
  1465. > The bucket Anonymous had collected is set down behind his tail, leaving him unable to see what is in it.
  1466. > You can, though, and your blood runs cold at the collection of implements of misery stacked in that bucket.
  1467. > He'd promised...
  1468. > ...this had to be part of the bluff.
  1469. > You had to believe that.
  1470. > Squatting down by Comet Tail's side, Anonymous reaches out to brush a few strands of his mane back.
  1471. > Comet angrily flicks his muzzle away, but cannot do anything more.
  1472. > "You're in a pretty bad spot, aren't you?"
  1473. > An angry snort, and the stallion pulls on his chains.
  1474. > "You've managed to piss me off in perhaps one of the worst ways possible. Now that you're in here - well, I'm not expecting a sudden rising-up to break you out of here, y'know? After all, it was those ponies who gave you up to me."
  1475. > This does provoke a rather angrier snarl; this time, Comet actually tries to heave himself upright in his chains to face Anonymous directly.
  1476. > Instead he falls back to the cold concrete floor, air driven from his lungs by the boot Anonymous had planted in his chest.
  1477. > You wince, but that wasn't too far... yet.
  1478. > Still holding him down, Anonymous leans in - fury dancing in his eyes.
  1479. > "You've been given up by everyone, Comet. No other pony here cares about you. None of them came to your rescue when the guards came. They've left you out to hang. You might hate me, but I'm literally your only hope right now."
  1480. > For a moment Comet actually seems to be pondering this.
  1481. > Then he turns his head and - around the bit - spits against Anonymous' boot.
  1482. > "Fu' off."
  1483. > Being unable to properly open his mouth distorts his words, but the meaning remains clear.
  1484. > "Y'gonna 'orture me, jus' do i'. No games. 'm done."
  1485. > Despite the brave face being put on, you can smell the rank fear rolling off the stallion - a bitter, stinging scent that betrays just how terrified he is.
  1486. > He knows what happened to Corona.
  1487. > He saw the bucket Anonymous brought in, even if not what was in it.
  1488. > And he's perfectly aware of what lays in the future for him.
  1489. "We don't want to torture you, Comet Tail."
  1490. > Head snapping around, Comet fixes you with an equally hateful glare.
  1491. > "Y'wan' wha'ever 'elps you, traitor."
  1492. > "You should listen to Thunderlane, Comet Tail. He's about the only reason I didn't just walk in here and start in on you."
  1493. > Sorting in both anger and disbelief, the stallion swings his head back around to look at Anonymous.
  1494. > "Why? M'not goin' t'beg."
  1495. > "You should. You think the rest of your little group is going to spare you? If you hold out, you're just going to find yourself at the back of the line."
  1496. > "...liar..."
  1497. > Comet's voice wavers with uncertainty, though.
  1498. "He isn't. You think you're the most popular pony around? Remember that you got sold out to us. I break one of you, the rest of you are sunk. It's a first-or-not-at-all deal."
  1499. > "I..."
  1500. > "Look, Comet."
  1501. > Anonymous' face twists into a very unpleasant grin.
  1502. > "Right now I'd be much, much rather putting a cattle prod into your balls. And we both know you're not staying here."
  1503. > Comet Tail seizes up.
  1504. > "Not - no' stayin'?"
  1505. > Shrugging, Anonymous chuckles.
  1506. > "Of course not. What, did you think I'd have my fun torturing you and then let you back out?"
  1507. > Comet twists in place, and you have to wonder if that was exactly what he'd been expecting.
  1508. > That was, after all, what had happened to Cadance and Corona.
  1509. > "There's three futures for you, Comet Tail: One, you get sold off on the open market tagged as violent and hostile. Two, the same... but with your horn's nerves cut."
  1510. > Both yourself and Comet stiffen at that; a unicorn with no horn would only be wanted for the simplest, hardest labor and have little hope.
  1511. > A pegasus' clipped feathers could grow back, but the horn's nerves...
  1512. > "...three?"
  1513. > "Euthanasia."
  1514. > Comet blanches, his already-pale yellow coat losing even more color.
  1515. > Anonymous only grins wider - an ugly, unpleasant grin.
  1516. > "I have my fun with you, then make the case you're still a completely unsalvageable threat. Too dangerous for any work. Only solution is to have you destroyed."
  1517. > "Y'can' do tha'. Not jus' b'cause I beat your house whore."
  1518. > A smarter stallion would have known not to use those words.
  1519. > Seen the warning signs of barely-held-back fury in Anonymous' posture and expression.
  1520. > Comet did not.
  1521. > Driving a boot into his stomach hard enough to leave the stallion curled and gasping in pain,
  1522. > "Alright, suit yourself. Thunderlane, I'll be right back."
  1523. > The cell door slams shut, leaving alone with the moaning stallion.
  1524. "...Comet Tail, please. He's telling the truth. I can try to hold him back a while, but I can't stop him. You've put him on the warpath. He will have you killed!"
  1525. > Despite the desperation in your voice, the other stallion only laughs - a pained, wheezing sob of a laugh.
  1526. > "Liar. Y'say tha', bu' you've been on 'is side since y'joined th'guards. You jus' want another pat on th'head from him."
  1527. "Damn it, Comet! I'm not lying! I can't save you entirely, but you don't have to get yourself killed or dehorned!"
  1528. > He laughs bitterly still, but there's a new element in it now.
  1529. > Fear, terror, the kind of awesome horror you cannot stand up to but only laugh at or break.
  1530. > "Keep lyin', Thunderlane. Lie t'me, lie t'your brother, lie t'yourself..."
  1531. > Laughter breaks down to real crying.
  1532. > In the distance, you can hear water running.
  1533. > "...maybe we shoulda gone after y'runt brother as well as tha' house whore."
  1534. > Your mind immediately snaps to the two missing ponies.
  1535. "You wouldn't dare."
  1536. > "Why wouldn' we? He was a good pony once. Helped us, then turned tail after y'got flogged. Woul' send a message t'all you traitors. We were watchin' him."
  1537. > Before you can answer, Anonymous returns - now struggling with a full bucket, water spilling over the sides.
  1538. > This bucket is set beside Comet Tail's head.
  1539. > Comet stares up at Anonymous from his spot inverted on the floor as the man kneels, a knee to either side of his head locking it in place and a black cloth spread out over the stallion's face.
  1540. > Barely a squeal emerges from the stallion before the bucket is tipped, water splashing out onto his face and rendering it a muted, gurgling scream instead.
  1541. > He twitches and writhes, suspended hooves heaving and pulling as his chest spasms.
  1542. But his head is firmly locked between Anonymous' knees, and there's no escape from the stream of water pouring over his covered face.
  1543. > ...you should stop this.
  1544. > It was what you'd come here to do - even what Anonymous had asked you to do.
  1545. > But he'd threatened Rumble.
  1546. > And you had to keep your little brother safe too.
  1547. > If those ponies weren't found, if they hurt him...
  1548. [Choice]
  1549. > You stare at Comet Tail, ears laid flat against your skull as if to block out the gurgling screams even having petered out, reduced to gurgling, retching heaves.
  1550. "He's drowning!"
  1551. > "No."
  1552. > Anonymous' tone is bizarrely flat given the struggling stallion trapped beneath him.
  1553. > "He just feels like he is because of the cloth. It'll be fine as soon as I let him up."
  1554. > That depends very much, you think, on the definition of 'fine'.
  1555. > But still you don't move, limbs frozen by Comet Tail's words echoing around your ears.
  1556. > Would they attack Rumble - or worse, threaten him to try and escape?
  1557. > It wouldn't end well, but they would be just desperate enough...
  1558. > Unbidden, your eyes stray from the spectacle to the other bucket Anonymous had brought in.
  1559. > Its nightmarish contents are enough to make your stomach twist:
  1560. > The thick, heavy whip laid coiled against one wall was the least of it; next to it rested an upright cattle prod, while a small gas torch and several metal handles leaned on the opposite side.
  1561. > A powerful shears, its long and heavy arms hinting at the great force that would be used to close its hooked jaws, hung half-over a third side.
  1562. > In between them all sat a pair of metal contraptions you didn't even recognize - or particularly want to - but whose spiked arms and screw-tightened hinges were enough to plant plenty of suggestions.
  1563. > At last Anonymous sets the bucket down, ripping the rag away and letting a gasping and spluttering Comet Tail catch his breath.
  1564. > It takes him a few moments - his eyes initially rolling in wild fear until the sensations of drowning fade.
  1565. "Celestia help me..."
  1566. > Your muttered oath goes unnoticed.
  1567. > You should stop this.
  1568. > But...
  1569. > Was it any different than when you'd turned over the ringleaders?
  1570. > You knew what would happen to them.
  1571. > Wasn't your soul already damned by that?
  1572. > Protecting Rumble had been enough reason then; wasn't it now?
  1573. > "That was fifteen seconds at most, pony. I've heard of this going for two, three hours... and we're not exactly going to run out of water."
  1574. > Comet Tail's breath catches again at the threat.
  1575. > Yet it still is not enough to move him to speak.
  1576. > "Well, suit yourself. After we're done with this we can try something else."
  1577. > For a moment Comet Tail looks pleadingly to you, but you cannot muster up a response in time.
  1578. > The rag is thrown down over his face again, masking the desperate expression.
  1579. > Even with the knowledge of what is coming, the stallion is soon screaming, then gurgling, then simply writhing again.
  1580. > ...you can't watch this.
  1581. > Despite promising - it's just too much.
  1582. > To just know about it in a distant, abstract way is one thing; to be right there as it happens is another.
  1583. > It's all you can do to keep from galloping from the room.
  1584. > Instead you go to the next cell down.
  1585. > Autumn Frost looks up as you open the door, having shifted herself over just far enough to rest on the cell's thin, hard mattress.
  1586. > Initially she says nothing, meeting you with the same wordless resignation that she had when you'd arrested her.
  1587. > Instead you begin the exchange.
  1588. "Chrysocolla and Windy Winters."
  1589. > Her face tightens; clearly Autumn had been hoping that she was the only one known.
  1590. "They managed to avoid us. We need to know where they are."
  1591. > "Go rut yourself."
  1592. > The three words are spoken in a surprisingly soft tone - cool, distant rage rather than hot and immediate.
  1593. "We have to know, Autumn, or Anonymous is only going to get worse."
  1594. > Nothing comes but a small shake of her head.
  1595. > In contrast, your anger only rises.
  1596. "Damn you, Autumn - he's going to get all of you anyhow! He'll break one of you - or just turn the entire camp upside-down to find them. You heard how angry he is!"
  1597. > This finally seems to shock her into actually speaking:
  1598. > "What do you mean, one of-"
  1599. > Her ear cocks, head twisting on the mattress at a half-heard distant gasp.
  1600. > When it is immediately followed up by another muted scream, Autumn's expression tightens.
  1601. > "Who is that?"
  1602. > From her tone she has guessed already anyhow, but you confirm it:
  1603. "Comet Tail."
  1604. > Autumn's ears go flat as well, she lays her head back down on mattress.
  1605. "How are you so calm?! Do you have any idea what he's doing to Comet?"
  1606. > "No."
  1607. > After a second's thought, she adds:
  1608. > "Expect I'll find out soon, though."
  1609. "You'll find out-"
  1610. > For several moments, you remain glaring at her - the silence occasionally broken by Comet Tail's distant struggles.
  1611. > "He wants us to grovel. No grovelling, he beats us until we do. I don't grovel."
  1612. > It's the most words you've gotten out of her yet.
  1613. > And enough to make your exasperation boil over; stepping forward, you reach out with your teeth to grab her mane in a twisted reversal of how she'd tried to attack you.
  1614. > Unlike then, however, you have plenty of leverage to lift her up.
  1615. > Spitting out her mane, you growl softly:
  1616. "This doesn't have to happen. He's not just taking his anger out on Comet, he's looking for something. You give him that something, it /will/ stop."
  1617. > Staring soundlessly at you, Autumn simply shakes her head.
  1618. > "Nothing. I say nothing."
  1619. > In the distance, Comet Tail's voice raises to an open scream - a howl of pain.
  1620. > Anonymous had, apparently, moved on.
  1621. "He's not just going to hurt him, Autumn! He's talking about having Comet's horn cut if those two aren't found. He might cut your wing tendons too!"
  1622. > This finally earns a real reaction from the mare, her stoicism breaking under the thought of that.
  1623. > As she thinks it over, another agonized scream issues from Comet Tail's cell.
  1624. > Swearing furiously, you spin and gallop from the cell.
  1625. > Pausing only to kick the door shut with an earsplitting bang, you charge back into the first cell - and shrink back at what you see.
  1626. > Two clearly-recognizable boot marks were already imprinted in Comet Tail's belly, black dirt marring his light yellow coat.
  1627. > The soaked rag had been left in place over his muzzle - barely enough to muffle his yells.
  1628. > Even as you watch, Anonymous - a hand pulling one of Comet's hindlegs apart - draws his foot back and lets it slam forward squarely in between-
  1629. > Comet Tail spasms, back arching wildly as he screams.
  1630. > Flinching in sympathy as your own hindlegs instinctively close protectively, you snap your wings open and take a hard step forward.
  1631. "Anonymous, that's enough!"
  1632. > His head snaps up to glare at you.
  1633. > Gone is his cool and dispassionate anger from before, replaced with a hot-burning fury ready to be unleashed.
  1634. > But you meet your owner's gaze head on and refuse to back down.
  1635. "You ordered me."
  1636. > "...yeah. Right. I'll - be outside."
  1637. > Letting him go isn't what you have planned though; instead you follow him out, only speaking when out of earshot.
  1638. "What happened."
  1639. > "He opened his fucking mouth, that's what happened."
  1640. > One hand rising to rub his forhead, Anonymous sighs.
  1641. > "Maybe even deliberately provoked me. I don't know."
  1642. "You need to go and calm down somewhere."
  1643. > "Yeah. I do..."
  1644. > He sounds so... drained.
  1645. > Lost, maybe.
  1646. "There's no need to rush. We can get the names. A day or two, and it'll mean you won't do... this."
  1647. > "You're right. Thanks, Thunderlane."
  1648. > Surprisingly, he doesn't sound too sorry to admit you're right.
  1649. > Had he actually been expecting you to control him...?
  1650. > You wait until Anonymous is entirely out of sight - just to be sure - before turning back into the cell.
  1651. > Comet Tail is still moaning and curled into as tight a ball as his shackles will allow - twin fresh lines of wetness trailing from his eyes.
  1652. > It's quite a while from when you pull the soaked rag from his face that he is coherent enough to speak.
  1653. > And even then only with a breathless, pained voice.
  1654. > "You... you made him stop."
  1655. "I shouldn't have left in the first place."
  1656. > Dropping onto your haunches, you belatedly remember the filthy floor was still soaked - not nearly all of the water having gone down the drain.
  1657. > "Why?"
  1658. "Because I told you the Tartarus-damned truth, Comet Tail! I don't - I don't want you to suffer! Even after you threatened my brother, I really don't!"
  1659. > "Why should I-"
  1660. > Comet tries to shift, but gives up a second later - gasping in sudden pain at a misjudged movement.
  1661. > Instead he settles for rolling his head over to stare at you with bloodshot eyes.
  1662. > "-should I care what you want?"
  1663. "Because I'm a pony trying to help you!"
  1664. > "You're a traitor, just like that whore we kicked up. Just trying to make yourself look good. Save your sorry own rear..."
  1665. "...then if you don't think about me, think about the others! Autumn Frost is in the cell right next to yours; do you want her to be tortured too?"
  1666. > Comet Tail's reaction is quite unlike hers.
  1667. > In contrast to her quiet look of anger, a look of horror and despair creeps over his face.
  1668. > "...she'll never talk. She barely talked to us. I, I talk to much. She won't say a word."
  1669. "He'll go even harder on her. You think this is bad? I can't be around to stop him forever, Comet. He'll break her. If he's willing to take your horn, he might take her flight! You have to talk - for her sake, if not for yours or mine!"
  1670. > Leaping up onto your hooves, you circle around him and kick over the bucket filled with hideous implements of torment - letting them scatter across the floor in full view of the other stallion.
  1671. > "All of these - he'll go through every one on her!"
  1672. > "If I talk, he'll spare me and cripple her."
  1673. "No. You can negotiate. I can negotiate!"
  1674. > Laughing an agonized, wheezing noise, Comet Tail shakes his head.
  1675. > "You can't force him, and you can't force me."
  1676. > A second later, he has stopped laughing - staring with eyes wide at the electrical prod gripped in your jaws.
  1677. > "...you're bluffing. You said you don't want me to be tortured. You wouldn't."
  1678. > All the certainty and cockyness that he's spoken with a moment earlier was gone, though.
  1679. > Speaking around the handle gripped in your jaws is hard, but you're still mostly understandable.
  1680. > And even if not, your growled tone says plenty.
  1681. "You have no idea what I would do to protect my brother."
  1682. > "...c'mon, Thunderlane, it's not me that's putting him in danger. You doing - this! That's what it is!"
  1683. "You threatened him. Before, I didn't - but I've got a reason to want you to talk now too."
  1684. > "N-No way. I don't believe you!"
  1685. > With the control switch where it was, finding it with your tongue was relatively easy.
  1686. > ...but is this right?
  1687. > It's one thing to let Anonymous do the torturing.
  1688. > Even to turn other ponies over to him for it.
  1689. > To actually hold the implement of torture in your own jaws, make use of it yourself...
  1690. [Choice]
  1691. > Slowly you approach Comet Tail, the prod still grasped in your mouth.
  1692. > His eyes are locked onto the two-pronged tip as it drifts closer - real fear, even fear that you hadn't seen before, now filling them.
  1693. > Breath hitching they pass over the tender location of Anonymous' blow.
  1694. > Even with your fortitude the thought of torturing a stallion there is enough to make you shudder - but not so much it shows.
  1695. > Comet Tail jumps as you squeeze on the trigger - sharp, snapping pops coming from the prod's contacts.
  1696. > "No..."
  1697. > He's scared - really, truly scared now.
  1698. > Still pressing forward, you advance until those twin metal pins are digging into his throat.
  1699. > Eyes rolling wildly in fear and body shaking, Comet desperately tries to wriggle back away from you.
  1700. > But there's only so far he can go, and it's not nearly enough.
  1701. "I want you to remember this moment, Comet Tail."
  1702. > Lips working soundlessly, the stallion shakes his head - horn scraping against the concrete floor.
  1703. > The bit in his mouth clicks as he struggles to bite through it and free his jaw.
  1704. "Focus, Comet! Focus on me, and remember that between the two of us, wher we both held a completely defenseless pony at our mercy..."
  1705. > Your head twists aside and you spit the prod from your mouth, leaving it to clatter on the floor.
  1706. > Then you spit again, just to get its foul taste - literal and metaphorical - out of your mouth.
  1707. "...and it was the 'traitor' who refused to harm another pony."
  1708. > Though it's impossible to be certain, you think some of the drops of liquid that run down Comet's side are sweat.
  1709. > He is sucking deep, heaving breaths - taking time to come to terms with what you said.
  1710. > While he does, you go to work:
  1711. > Dragging the bucket from where you'd tipped it over fills the room with an ear-splitting scraping, but you have to bring it around into Comet Tail's field of view.
  1712. > As he watches, you pick up every tool that had spilled out.
  1713. > The gas torch, and the brands it would heat.
  1714. > The powerful shears, with its gleaming jaws.
  1715. > Devices whose bladed and spiked edges hold the alarming tinge of old blood.
  1716. > When the last is out of sight, you step over to Comet Tail himself.
  1717. > Trembling still racks his body, but he remains still as you reach down and - taking the straps carefully in your teeth - undo the muzzle around his head.
  1718. > Comet gasps when you pull it free, spitting the bit clear of his jaws.
  1719. > As soon as it is gone he gasps out:
  1720. > "Why...?"
  1721. "Why should I torture you? I told you, Comet. I'm trying to protect you."
  1722. > Again you drop to your haunches, ignoring the cold wetness seeping up from the floor.
  1723. > A moment later you give in altogether, dropping down to your belly and letting your head rest on crossed legs.
  1724. "I've been called a lot of things, Comet. Traitor, coward, Anonymous' attack dog... I'm not, though. All of this... when I started it, I swore that I would be doing it to keep us all safe. To keep him from doing... this to even more ponies."
  1725. > "So you won't torture me."
  1726. "I won't."
  1727. > Laying his head back down against the floor, Comet eyes you from his upside-down position.
  1728. > "It's a noble ideal, Thunderlane. But you're wrong. He takes from us in more ways than whips and torture. Every time a pony follows an order without question, it's another defeat."
  1729. "That doesn't make it right to beat an innocent filly half to death."
  1730. > "She was a casualty. We're at war, even if there isn't an Equestria anymore."
  1731. "I don't want to be at war, Comet. I don't want to call innocent fillies 'casualties'. And I think the camp agrees with me more than you."
  1732. > "That's just the problem."
  1733. > Twisting his head over, the stallion manages to look at you with both eyes.
  1734. > "Nopony wants to be at war. It isn't nice. So they obey, because Anonymous promises to let us have a little bit to ourselves and it feels like a win... and they forget everything humans like him have taken from us."
  1735. "If it's between having a little and having nothing..."
  1736. > "But do we really have anything?"
  1737. "Yes. It's exactly that kind of little independence that let me kick him out of this room, refuse to torture you, even take that muzzle off. It's exactly what lets me look at myself in the mirror and swear I'm still the same stallion I was. That I could stand in front of Celestia herself tomorrow and swear I did the best I could."
  1738. > This finally seems to break through to Comet Tail, and he spends several long minutes staring off into the distance.
  1739. > You are patient, though, and eventually he does speak up again:
  1740. > "I guess... I kind of envy you. That you can make that peace with what you do."
  1741. > Again he twists around to look at you, squirming on the floor and heaving on his chains.
  1742. > "You know what I see? I see us being obedient. Being turned into livestock for them, for the rest of the future."
  1743. "That won't happen."
  1744. > "Won't it? He's talking about bringing a lot more ponies here. Everypony will see this being better, and the humans will see us being good, hardworking little ponies, they'll see an alicorn-"
  1745. > The word is spat as an insult, and you don't think he could bring himself to use her name.
  1746. > "-following him around like a filly in her first heat... and both'll forget everything they took from us."
  1747. "I..."
  1748. > You turn away now, shuffling your wings and trying to ignore the insult against Cadance.
  1749. "I'm not ignoring that. I want to fly freely again too! I want to sleep in a real cloud for once! But I've also seen his daughter. She's a good, innocent soul. I think we can show her how we really feel, and in time... something might pass."
  1750. > "Yeah, well..."
  1751. > Comet Tail sighs again, adjusting his head to try and keep his horn from scraping the floor.
  1752. > "...like I said, I wish I had your confidence."
  1753. > You nod, then stand.
  1754. > Detaching the chains that held Comet Tail's shackled hooves in mid-air isn't as easy as removing his muzzle had been, but you manage.
  1755. > The moment they detach he all but collapses onto his side, legs curling defensively over his belly.
  1756. > "What're you doing?"
  1757. "Letting you down. You'll have time to think this over, but I can't keep Anonymous off of you either. Sooner or later, he'll be back. He'll use everything in that bucket against you and more, and you will break."
  1758. > "I know. I thought if I pushed both of you, he'd just get it started and over with faster."
  1759. "He won't, if you talk."
  1760. > "Yeah, but I can't be a good, obedient pony either."
  1761. "Well... I tried, Comet. I'm sorry."
  1762. > The cell door slams shut behind you, leaving you alone in the hallway beyond.
  1763. > Immediately you sink to your belly again - an unbidden trembling now running through your own body.
  1764. > You'd... resisted.
  1765. > Somehow, despite his angry words, you'd held back and refused to use the prod.
  1766. > Where the strength to do that had come from, you aren't quite sure, but you're glad it was there nonetheless.
  1767. > Anonymous is just outside, resting in a chair with his elbows on his knees and a pensive expression on his face.
  1768. "Sir?"
  1769. > "Thunderlane... any luck?"
  1770. "I got him thinking, but it'll take some time."
  1771. > "I sort of figured. I know what you were hoping would happen, Thunderlane, but they're beyond rational argument."
  1772. > Anonymous stands, stretching.
  1773. > Glancing about, you find no one else close nearby.
  1774. "...sir, how are you holding up?"
  1775. > The glance he shoots you is enough to make you reconsider having asked that.
  1776. > But then his expression softens.
  1777. > "If it weren't for how you pulled me out of there before, I might think you're getting a bit full of yourself... but fair question. I'm not okay, and I have to thank you for getting me out."
  1778. "You're... welcome. You told me to."
  1779. > "I did, didn't I?"
  1780. > His expression barely fits the description of a smile, but it is one still.
  1781. > "And you carried out your duty. Thank you, Thunderlane."
  1782. "What will happen to them now?"
  1783. > Anonymous looks down at his hand and lets it clench.
  1784. > "...I can't be dealing with them while the anger is so fresh. There'll be time for that later. I'll put Eric on it, have him box them up for a day or two."
  1785. > Catching your questioning look, he adds:
  1786. > "It's not nearly as harsh as I was going to be in there."
  1787. "If you say so. If there's nothing else, I'd - like to go see Rumble."
  1788. > "Sure, sure. Go ahead, Thunderlane."
  1789.  
  1790. > For a few seconds after the stallion's tearful admission, you're frozen by shock.
  1791. > He-
  1792. > One of the ponies who had-
  1793. > Taking your silence to be coldness against his offer, Windy Winters throws himself around your leg and squeezes tightly.
  1794. > "Please, Your Highness! Your Majesty! It's - you have to protect him! Don't let him take me!"
  1795. "Windy - please, calm yourself. You will not be harmed in this room. But please, tell me everything you can."
  1796. > Rubbing his nose on one hoof, he nods - speaking in a halting, broken voice:
  1797. > "Autumn and Ch- the others, th'said - said we were just going to give her a little scare. Just - k-knock her about a little, you know? Push her over, yell a bit, give a few kicks..."
  1798. > Mayor Mare looks questioning to you, then the door, but you shake your head.
  1799. > It'd be good to have another pony in here to corroborate your claim.
  1800. "This was Mocha Cream, yes?"
  1801. > "Y-Yes, her. W-We knew sh-she'd taken the stuff from our cache. S-So we were going to just... spook her a little, show A-A-Anonymous we weren't afraid to a-act."
  1802. > The irony of that point being given by the terrified, teary-eyed stallion in front of you is not lost.
  1803. "What happened, Windy?"
  1804. > His jaw clams up, though, teeth jammed together, and Windy gives a little shake of his head.
  1805. > Despite the first tendrils of anger creeping up to grasp your heart, despite the voice that tells you to avenge the little filly's savage treatment, you force them down.
  1806. > A wing stretches out, laying across Windy Winters' trembling back.
  1807. > "C-Can't tell y-you. You'll get angry, and tell Anonymous, and he'll-"
  1808. "I have to know everything that happened, Windy. Please, tell me the rest. I swear I will do nothing until you've finished your story."
  1809. > It takes a few moments, but eventually your gentle, soothing tone works its magic.
  1810. > "W-Well they c-called her over into th-the alley, to f-far to be seen... and then we started p-pushing her around. A-Autumn took her b-bags, and we shoved her down-"
  1811. "Did you kick her, Windy Winters?"
  1812. > He swallows, but nods.
  1813. > "Once. Twice. M-maybe more. Not too hard - we were just trying to s-scare her."
  1814. "What happened then?"
  1815. > He takes a ragged, gasping breath before continuing.
  1816. > "M-Mocha? Mocha kept trying to talk, tell u-us we were wrong, and that made Autumn real pissed. Told me to watch the entrance of the alley. Lookout if anypony was coming."
  1817. "And then they really hurt her."
  1818. > Nodding shakily again, Windy Winters lays his head back down against your leg like a fearful colt confessing to his mother:
  1819. > "I guess I r-realized something was wrong when Co- they g-gagged her. And then they just started kicking and she was screaming but nopony could hear her. I t-told Autumn it was to much, but she told me to sh-shut up and just kept kicking, and I looked and there was blood, and..."
  1820. > Another pause.
  1821. > Mayor Mare is looking distraught, a hoof to her chest.
  1822. > "They already took Comet and Autumn, and they tried to take me and Chrysocolla but we got away. She's hiding, I think. He's going to k-kill them, Your Highness! Please, you have to protect me!"
  1823. "Shhh..."
  1824. > Leaning down, you brush the top of his head with your muzzle.
  1825. > Windy Winters reeks of fear and sweat; he must've come galloping right to you.
  1826. "...Windy, I will do all I can to see that you do not suffer, or - Celestia forbid - are killed. But... you must understand. I may not be able to protect you entirely. I may have to tell Anonymous... some of this."
  1827. > "No!"
  1828. > His howl is accompanied by a new round of grovelling before you.
  1829. > "He won't listen. He wants blood now. He'll break us! Make examples of us!"
  1830. > Those last four words send a shiver though you, and Windy can see the tremble in your feathers.
  1831. > "Please, Your Highness. Please, I know we've - attacked you. But you have to see, I'm a pony too... you have to protect me."
  1832. "I.. need to go think this over. But I will swear this to you: You can stay here, and so long as you are in this room no one will harm you. Do you understand? No one."
  1833. > Sniffling, he tilts his head.
  1834. > "...swear by your aunt's memory."
  1835. > A chill runs down your neck, but you do so anyhow.
  1836. "I do swear, by the memories of Celestia my aunt, what I say is the truth."
  1837. > That seems to be enough to mollify Windy Winters.
  1838. > Circling around to the far side of your desk, he hunkers down beneath the window - as if the mere act of daring to reveal himself in it would be to expose himself to Anonymous' wrath.
  1839. > Stepping out of the office, you're followed by Mayor Mare who quickly turns to face you.
  1840. > "Well?"
  1841. "Well, what?"
  1842. > "What'll you do?"
  1843. "Do you believe him?"
  1844. > "I do."
  1845. > Her blue eyes regard you questioningly - perhaps with just a touch of accusation as well.
  1846. > "Do you?"
  1847. "I do. I've seen true terror. He really does believe I am his only hope... and I believe him in that, too."
  1848. [Choice]
  1849. > "Do you have any idea what you're going to do about this?"
  1850. "Something incredibly foolish, but I really think it's the only one that can be done. Windy Winters trusted me; now I must pass on that trust to another."
  1851. > "...you aren't going to-"
  1852. > Silencing Mayor Mare with a sharp look, you gesture towards the closed door to your office.
  1853. > Even shut, it wasn't quite enough to stop a raised voice.
  1854. > In a lower tone, you respond:
  1855. "Yes, I am. He'll need to know, and the faster we can find the last of them the sooner this can all be resolved."
  1856. > "Windy Winters won't like it."
  1857. "He doesn't have to."
  1858. > "That's a dangerous path for you too, Your Highness. What if Anonymous disagrees? What if he orders you to turn him over?"
  1859. "Then he will find out just how much of a Princess I truly still am."
  1860. > Re-opening the door makes the stallion in question nearly leap for cover - from his already hidden spot.
  1861. > Poor thing truly was terrified.
  1862. "Windy?"
  1863. > "Y-Yes, Your Highness?"
  1864. > He speaks the title with more reverence than you'd heard most ponies who honestly approved of you.
  1865. > Nearing him, you drop down onto your belly - how often had you been doing this lately? - to reduce your size.
  1866. "First, I want you to understand something. I am not upset about the things you said about me."
  1867. > His mouth snaps open, but you raise a hoof to stop him.
  1868. "Or, perhaps it's better to say that I am - but what is said about me does not change my duty as a princess to protect you. Whatever you've said, however you've characterized me, I will still do the best I can for you."
  1869. > "Yes, Your Highness."
  1870. > It's obvious from his expression that he does not believe you.
  1871. > Agreeing is simply the best choice to avoid further pain.
  1872. "What happened to Mocha Cream, however, isn't so easy. I need you to do something for me too, if you're going to stay here."
  1873. > A little whimper escapes Windy's throat, but he bobs his head and a terrified nod.
  1874. > "What do I have to do?"
  1875. "You have to own up to what you did. I won't let Anonymous torture you, but you must accept I cannot save you from having any punishment at all."
  1876. > "I..."
  1877. > Windy pauses, glassy eyes staring into oblivion.
  1878. > Clearly contemplating just what "a little" punishment would involve.
  1879. > "What if I can't...?"
  1880. "I can't say. But I won't let you become another Corona, Windy."
  1881. > Reaching out with a wing to gently brush the tip across his withers, you stand again.
  1882. "There are things I must take care of regarding all of this, but you're safe as long as you stay in here. I'll put a magic seal in place over the door so no one else can enter without me."
  1883. > Halfway to the door, he catches you with an unexpected question:
  1884. > "What'll happen to the others?"
  1885. "I do not know. I will do all I can, but that depends a lot, on what they do too."
  1886. > Then you leave him behind; as promised, you seal the door with a flicker of your horn.
  1887. > It was, you consider, as good as locking him in as anyone else out.
  1888. > A prisoner in the cell of his own choosing.
  1889. > Ignoring Mayor Mare's gaze - unseen but definitely felt - you strut from the rest of the office.
  1890. > Surprisingly, Anonymous isn't in his manor as you'd expected but in the camp itself - standing near the gateway and surveying things with a pensive expression on his face.
  1891. > In the late winter air he must be freezing - the thin jacket he wears is not nearly enough to completely ward off the cold but even so he stands still in the cold.
  1892. > His expression is haunted, you notice.
  1893. > Had something already happened with the two that had been captured?
  1894. "Anonymous. We need to talk."
  1895. > "Coming to scold me too?"
  1896. > You come up short; the bitterness in his voice hadn't been what you expected.
  1897. > Seeing your reaction, he laughs and shakes his head.
  1898. > "I'm doing plenty of that myself, so you can just fuck right off if that's what you wanted."
  1899. "...it wasn't. What happened?"
  1900. > Now it is Anonymous' turn to be surprised; studying your expression for evidence of a lie, he finally nods and goes to lean against the nearest building.
  1901. > "I went in to try and dig the location of the last two our of the ones we grabbed."
  1902. > Your breath catches.
  1903. "Did you-"
  1904. > "No. But only because Thunderlane was there to stop me - have to find a way to thank that stallion. One of those assholes, Comet Tail, was goading me into snapping at him. It was working, too."
  1905. "...you were stopped, though."
  1906. > "Only just."
  1907. > He grimaces again, shaking his head.
  1908. > "What I did to Corona was my anger getting the better of me. So was this. Having someone else there isn't enough; I have to master it myself. Even if the bastards deserve the worst I can do."
  1909. "Still."
  1910. > "But, if you're not here to lecture me, why are you?"
  1911. "The third of those ponies - Windy Winters - has been found."
  1912. > Eyebrows shooting up, Anonymous cocks his head.
  1913. > "That fast? I wasn't expecting..."
  1914. "He turned himself in."
  1915. > Once again Anonymous is thrown for a loop, his lips working silently over the words.
  1916. > "...turned himself in? Why? How?"
  1917. > And so you tell him what Windy Winters had told you.
  1918. > Emotions work their way over Anonymous' face in waves, most the incestuous children of rage and fury but also sometimes accompanied by sheer shock, surprise, and incredulity.
  1919. > At the end of it, you draw a deep breath and make your case:
  1920. "Windy Winters placed his trust in me, Anonymous, and I believe him. I cannot let you have him if you intend to torture him. No matter what you do to me, you will not see him until I have that from you. If you torture him-"
  1921. > "It'd be disastrous, I know."
  1922. > He sighs softly, scuffing a shoe against the pavement and wrapping his arms around himself to ward the chill.
  1923. > "For me and for you. I'm not an idiot, Cadance; I understand the carrot and stick. He turned himself in, stayed when you told him it'd mean facing a punishment... if I treated him like the others, no other pony would dare do the same."
  1924. > Looking back over at you, Anonymous' mouth twists itself into a bitter grin.
  1925. > "What, didn't expect me to see that?"
  1926. "...in truth, no."
  1927. > You bow your head in admission.
  1928. "I've wronged you in that, I see."
  1929. > A moment later, his hand comes down to brush against your cheek.
  1930. > "You're willing to admit it, though. That's enough for me."
  1931. "So will you give me your word?"
  1932. > "I want to make a phone call first. Then you'll have my response."
  1933. > ...
  1934. > Windy Winters is still there when you unseal your office door and step through.
  1935. > He looks up, expectation shining bright in his eyes.
  1936. > "Y-Your Highness! What happened? Is-"
  1937. > That light dies as Anonymous appears just beyond the doorway behind you.
  1938. > In an instant Windy is cowering back, wings raised defensively and retreating into the wall.
  1939. > "No! NO! You promised!"
  1940. > "Cadance, do it, like we talked about!"
  1941. > Your horn flashes bright enough to cast the room in flare and shadow, and an iridescent cerulean field springs into existence - sealing the doorway again and locking Anonymous out.
  1942. "Windy! Look, Windy - he can't hurt you. He can't come in; my shield won't let him touch you. You're safe, Windy!"
  1943. > Several more repetitions pass before Windy Winters really does look, though.
  1944. > Only then does Anonymous talk:
  1945. > "I'm not coming after you now, Windy. Just want to talk. Can we just talk?"
  1946. > Still shaking, the stallion looks between yourself and the man who owns both of you - and then nods.
  1947. > "B-But when y-you're done, you have t-to get out."
  1948. > "If you want me to, I will."
  1949. > When no disagreement is given, he goes on.
  1950. > "Truth is, I don't know if I can believe you alone. But I do know who I can believe - so I called the hospital Mocha Cream is at, got to talk to her a little bit."
  1951. > You and Windy both start; though he'd accepted your terms for seeing the stallion, Anonymous had kept the nature of the phone call he'd made from you as well.
  1952. > "Yeah, she's awake sometimes now. They're having to do a bit more surgery, but I got lucky and she was lucid enough to talk. I asked her about your story... and she confirmed it."
  1953. > "She - did?"
  1954. > "Yes. Said she didn't remember you really hurting her, that the other three did the worst of it. That's... enough corroboration for me, I guess."
  1955. > "You believe me..."
  1956. > The words are whispered in half-prayer, half-shock.
  1957. > "I do, and you stuck around while Cadance went out and got me so I can't just let that go either. I'm not going to have you tortured, Windy Winters. You - did the right thing, I guess, and even if I want blood... I can't have it from you."
  1958. > Even you are surprised; once again Anonymous' rejection of what he'd done once and nearly repeated again ran deeper than you'd expected.
  1959. > Lifting himself from the corner he'd crawled into, Windy Winters rises and approaches Anonymous on shaky legs.
  1960. > "You - you swear it?"
  1961. > "I do."
  1962. > Your ears twitch; there'd been the barest amount of anger in his voice, but Anonymous had quashed it admirably.
  1963. > Looking to you, he gestures to the force field.
  1964. > "May I?"
  1965. > Carefully you retract a portion of it, just enough to let him stick a hand through.
  1966. > Windy retreats again, eyes locked fearfully on it, but then forces himself forward and wings back down again.
  1967. > He pauses in the doorway, then at last stretches a hoof through and touches it to skin.
  1968. > "Cadance said I'd still have to face some p-punishment..."
  1969. > Anonymous nods and holds his own tone low and soft.
  1970. > "You will. I can't pardon you entirely."
  1971. > Mouth opening again, Windy hesitates - unable to bring himself to ask.
  1972. > Instead a single, whispered plea squeaks out:
  1973. > "Mercy..."
  1974. > You step in to ask what Windy cannot force himself to.
  1975. "What will happen to him?"
  1976. > "You'll be sold off, Windy; I'm sorry, but there's no place in the camp for a pony who can do this. But if you help me do this, you'll be sold off as - just a pony. Not marked as dangerous or disobedient. I'm willing to believe you were lead astray by the others, but you have to show me that."
  1977. > "Not - dangerous? Not sent to a glue camp?"
  1978. > The slang term - for the sort of worst places ponies could be sent - is enough to make you wince, but Anonymous weathers it.
  1979. > "Definitely not that, whether you help me or not. You'll have a new, fresh chance to prove that this isn't you. If you somehow ever end up back here again and I don't see any more trouble on your file, I'll even give you another chance here."
  1980. > "What about the others?"
  1981. > "Unless they suddenly show some sign of regret for what they did, they'll be permanently marked as dangerous and sold off as such. After that, they will have a chance to fix their own lives - if they care to."
  1982. > Both you and Windy cringe; no pony sold as dangerous and disobedient would be going anywhere good.
  1983. [Choice]
  1984.  
  1985. "Windy. Can you tell us where Chrysocolla might be hiding? Where we might be able to find her, or anypony else who might do something like this again?"
  1986. > "I... I dunno much. I wasn't really... in, y'know? I never really got to talk to anypony else."
  1987. > Of course, they would have adapted the same compartmentalized-cell structure you'd ordered Sunburst to use.
  1988. > Whether they were even part of the same network or had just come to similar conclusions you don't know, but it was a good enough guess.
  1989. > "You have to have some idea about where Chrysocolla might be, though."
  1990. > "I..."
  1991. > Windy's head hangs dejectedly, mane falling around his neck.
  1992. > "I have to do this if I'm going to make up for what happened to Mocha..."
  1993. > Despite it not really being a question, you step close enough to lay a wing on his back; Windy's own feathers shuffle under your touch.
  1994. "Yes. You may not have done the worst of it, but you were still a part... and a large part of showing you are truly sorry for what happened is making sure that those who really are responsible face punishment."
  1995. > "Yeah."
  1996. "And remember what Anonymous said: If they show remorse, he'll consider improving their sentence as well. You aren't automatically condemning them; this is something they have a choice in."
  1997. > "Agreed. If they do - really do - I can... water down the descriptions of exactly what happened, make them sound less dangerous."
  1998. > And, implicitly, spare them from going to a place where their remaining lives would be measured in mere months and not years.
  1999. > Somehow Windy's head manages to droop even further, but he does talk:
  2000. > "You know the underground storm drain vault near 4th and H streets?"
  2001. "We can find it."
  2002. > "Those hatches are padlocked, though."
  2003. > Anonymous frowns, head tilted.
  2004. > "I don't see how she could have gotten in there, especially without being seen."
  2005. > "Back around the loading dock for the good near it, there's a storm drain with a loose cover. It's pretty hidden, and Chrysocolla is a smaller mare. She can get in there and squirm down the larger pipes into the main vault-"
  2006. > Here Windy Winters shudders, and your coat prickles in sympathy.
  2007. > An earth pony may have felt safe down there, but to a pegasus the thought of crawling through a tiny pipe you could get stuck in at any moment was tantamount to torture.
  2008. > "Anyway, she put most of our stuff in there after the guards raided everything. I bet she'll be there now."
  2009. > "Going to be fun for the guards, trying to dig an earth pony out of the ground..."
  2010. > Anonymous' mutter provokes another shake of Windy's head.
  2011. > "It's worse than you know. She broke through the walls a while back and into the utility vault next to that for more room."
  2012. > Groaning, your owner drives both his hands into his forhead and rubs them there; even you have to boggle at how busy they had been.
  2013. > "Great. So now we're going to have to check on all of the manholes and vaults here next."
  2014. > "...I'm sorry, sir..."
  2015. "I think right now we need to focus on wrapping this up as quickly as possible. Everything else follows."
  2016. > "Right. I'll get the guards moving on digging her out of that vault."
  2017. "Better get one to accompany Windy Winters as well."
  2018. > After a moment your unspoken implication of what might occur should somepony realize he had turned clicks with Anonymous.
  2019. > "...right, yeah."
  2020. > "Where am I going?"
  2021. "A cell, Windy Winters. You will be kept there until this is done with."
  2022. > Through the windows of his eyes you can clearly see the moment of panic that flashes through.
  2023. > It passes, though, replaced with a softer look of understanding.
  2024. > "...yes, Your Highness. Can I - get a few of my things?"
  2025. > Despite the question being directed at you, Anonymous nods.
  2026. > "We'll have a guard go to your quarters and pull everything out."
  2027. > "Thank you, Master. If at all possible, I'd like a pencil and paper. I... want to write a letter to Mocha Cream."
  2028. "I'm sure that can be arranged."
  2029. > "Cadance, if you have a moment we've got a few other things to discuss."
  2030. "I'll be right there."
  2031. > Anonymous steps back from the shimmer shield still half-blocking the doorway and closes the proper, wooden door - leaving you alone to brush your nose down Windy Winters' neck.
  2032. > He shivers gently, but bows his head.
  2033. > "Thank you, Your Highness. I... did wrong, but you listened to me."
  2034. "But all I did is listen; you proved yourself. This was the right thing to do, not for reward or pardon but because it is simply right. That Mocha Cream was willing to stand up for you shows how much this is worth."
  2035. > "I..."
  2036. > Fresh tears trace familiar paths down his cheeks.
  2037. > "I'm ready. Send the guard when you want, I won't fight. And... if I don't get the chance to speak to you again, Your Highness-"
  2038. > For the first time, the title is not laden with dread.
  2039. > "-you're a better leader then we said."
  2040. > ...
  2041. > Anonymous had grabbed an empty seat while he waited, the pony-sized accommodation leaving him with knees tucked up to his chest.
  2042. > Everypony else had evacuated the office - nopony knowing what was really going on, but all having enough sense to realize it was something they did not want to be part of.
  2043. > As you arrive, though, he doesn't rise - or, indeed, even bother looking in your direction.
  2044. "Something on your mind?"
  2045. > "A bit. But you've obviously got some thoughts too; you go first."
  2046. "Is it truly necessary to sell off Windy Winters? I understand he did a terrible thing, but he's not just turned himself in to protect his own skin. He's truly remorseful."
  2047. > Anonymous produces a sigh that suggests you aren't the only one to have considered that.
  2048. > "I know. And he's put a lot of trust into both of us too."
  2049. > The unspoken 'but' hovers leaden in the air between the two of you.
  2050. "You won't, though."
  2051. > "Recognizing what he did is as much as I can really do. There's still a fair part of me that wants to shackle him up and give him the same treatment I'll give those two assholes up in the cells already."
  2052. > Finally turning his head to look at you, Anonymous (mostly) manages to keep his face calm.
  2053. > "I'm not going to, though. But neither can I keep him there. There's a place for a pardon, but not now."
  2054. > Your own ears fall, but you nod - this was not a place to argue with him.
  2055. > "I'm sorry, Cadance, but there has to be a red line for this place overall - after which you're out."
  2056. "Very well, Master. At the very least, then, can I suggest lightening the sentence on Crescent Moon and the others with her? She gave us much the same information too, and without even a threat of punishment."
  2057. > "...yeah, I guess that could be done. And just because I'm not going to pardon Windy Winters doesn't mean I won't do anything for him: He won't be permanently marked like the others, and I know which market circles the better buyers circulate in. A couple tweaks to his file, play down what happened while emphasizing his clear remorse, and he'll be okay."
  2058. "Now, on your end."
  2059. > "On my end... well, for starters I ought to tell you - there's going to be a camera system put in. It'll hold a bit of video, so we won't have to go around digging for information in the future."
  2060. > Scratching his chin, Anonymous stares off into the distance for a moment.
  2061. > "Otherwise - when the sentencing is carried out, I'm going to speak too."
  2062. "I understand."
  2063. > In a way, you wish there was something else he could do as well.
  2064. > He was - trying.
  2065. > And even if he was still very much your enemy, in some ways you felt sorry he couldn't be more than a harbinger of punishment and distress.
  2066. > ...of course, there was the rec center opening soon.
  2067. > This weekend, even - though on second thought, perhaps you'd better tell Mayor Mare to hold it back a week.
  2068. > "Recognizing what he did is as much as I can really do. There's still a fair part of me that wants to shackle him up and give him the same treatment I'll give those two assholes up in the cells already."
  2069. > Finally turning his head to look at you, Anonymous (mostly) manages to keep his face calm.
  2070. > "I'm not going to, though. But neither can I keep him there. There's a place for a pardon, but not now."
  2071. > Your own ears fall, but you nod - this was not a place to argue with him.
  2072. > "I'm sorry, Cadance, but there has to be a red line for this place overall - after which you're out."
  2073. "Very well, Master. At the very least, then, can I suggest lightening the sentence on Crescent Moon and the others with her? She gave us much the same information too, and without even a threat of punishment."
  2074. > "...yeah, I guess that could be done. And just because I'm not going to pardon Windy Winters doesn't mean I won't do anything for him: He won't be permanently marked like the others, and I know which market circles the better buyers circulate in. A couple tweaks to his file, play down what happened while emphasizing his clear remorse, and he'll be okay."
  2075. "Now, on your end."
  2076. > "On my end... well, for starters I ought to tell you - there's going to be a camera system put in. It'll hold a bit of video, so we won't have to go around digging for information in the future."
  2077. > Scratching his chin, Anonymous stares off into the distance for a moment.
  2078. > "Otherwise - when the sentencing is carried out, I'm going to speak too."
  2079. "I understand."
  2080. > In a way, you wish there was something else he could do as well.
  2081. "The rec center will be opening soon as well. This weekend, even - though, hrm. Perhaps I should tell Mayor Mare to put that one off for a week... but if you wished to, you could speak then as well. There's no need for you to be only a harbinger of punishment and domination."
  2082. > Part of the offer was a purely mercenary, self-serving one.
  2083. > Rebellion would never cease, if ponies only ever saw him as appearing at times of woe.
  2084. > Yet part of it was honest; he was trying to be a better man than the one you'd stood in shackles before so many months before.
  2085. > Now he was promising to be more involved, and even if he was your captor perhaps you could open his eyes too.
  2086. > But Anonymous himself looks conflicted, and it's not hard to guess why:
  2087. > The rec building had always been a 'by the ponies, for the ponies' development... he knows he might not be welcome.
  2088. [Choice]
  2089. > "Alright, Cadance, I'll make a show. You're still headlining, though. That place is rightly your achievement, and you should be proud of that."
  2090. "Don't tell me. Tell everypony there when it happens."
  2091. > "Yeah, I guess I should."
  2092. > He scratches you around the ears.
  2093. > "I'm going to head back to the house, then."
  2094. "What for?"
  2095. > "Sunburst is going to be coming in for his first lesson with Flurry Heart, and I have to be there. Not only did I tell him I would be, but I could use something to get my mind off of this."
  2096. > A pang shoots through your heart at the thought of missing their first new lesson together - let alone the reunion.
  2097. > Anonymous notices it too, and cocks his head.
  2098. > "...I guess you'd like to be there too."
  2099. "Yes, but - I can manage. There will be other lessons, and much has to be done right now."
  2100. > "True enough."
  2101. > Reaching out, Anonymous strokes his fingers along your cheek one last time.
  2102. > "There'll find a chance. You deserve that much, with all you've been doing."
  2103.  
  2104. > The orange-coated stallion stirs nervously as you lead him through the manor.
  2105. > He was obviously quite apprehensive at being welcomes in, yet his curiosity was getting the better of him:
  2106. > Sunburst's head was kept on a swivel, peering at nearly everything that he passed - taking in the relative opulence of your home.
  2107. > Saddlebags, swollen with books and a few magical testing apparatus, turned his normally slender and lanky figure into a swollen one that almost seemed unlikely to fit through doorways.
  2108. "The rest of the staff have been using Megan's room while she is at school for Flurry's lessons, but you can take the living room if you need more space."
  2109. > "I, um. I don't think that'd be a good idea. Not at first. Foals can have surges of magic..."
  2110. "I know, but she's far past the age when that normally happens. Though, I suppose those aren't exactly known for alicorn fillies..."
  2111. > Head bobbing in agreement, Sunburst puts on a little speed to keep up with you.
  2112. > "Exactly my thinking, Master. And, um, she's not used her magic in so long I don't know what could happen. It might be weaker, or it might be like opening a dam."
  2113. "A fair point."
  2114. > "Outside of the house would be better, if anythi-"
  2115. "Out of the question, at least until we wrap up these rebels, deal an appropriate punishment, and see that things have calmed."
  2116. > Practically jumping back at your grim tone, Sunburst's head droops back down.
  2117. > "O-Of course, Master."
  2118. "...sorry. Those matters are still sore for me."
  2119. > Arriving at the door to Megan's room, you pause with a hand on the door handle.
  2120. "Ready for this?"
  2121. > "As ready as I'll be, I think."
  2122. > Grinning, you open the door and stroll in.
  2123. "Flurry Heart! There's someone here to see you, a new tutor to help you with your magic."
  2124. > The alicorn filly was in the midst of cleaning up toys left scattered from the previous night's play - you'd have to talk to Megan about cleaning them up at night instead, and at least helping herself.
  2125. > She is running to you the moment you call, though, and seats herself just in front of you.
  2126. > "Magic lessons, Master?"
  2127. "Mmm-hmm. Here..."
  2128. > You'd deliberately left the actual introduction to Sunburst, and now you step aside to let him enter.
  2129. > Barely has he made it two steps in before he freezes, eyes wide and a leg raised in shock.
  2130. > "F-Flurry... ittle gem..."
  2131. > Taking the initiative to march the rest of the way up to him, Flurry Heart knits her brows - an expression which makes you work hard to silence a delighted 'dawww' - and studies him hard.
  2132. > "...Flurry?"
  2133. > "I - I know you. I remember you. But.. I can't..."
  2134. > Sunburst's expression cracks from awe to despair, and even you feel a pang of sympathy.
  2135. > By everything Cadance had told you, they'd been only just short of family in Equestria.
  2136. > For Flurry to have forgotten him...
  2137. > "Little gem, it's - I'm - I'm Sunburst, Flurry..."
  2138. > Now it is her turn for the shock to hit - though only for a moment.
  2139. > In a second Flurry Heart has flown forward - literally flown, her massive wings spreading and beating once with enough force to send a few toys scattering on the floor - to plow into Sunburst.
  2140. > "Uncle Sunburst! It is you, it is-"
  2141. > Any further coherent words are preempted by Flurry wrapping both her wings around him - a veritable shell of pink feathers - and Sunburst lighting his horn to pin the filly to his chest and safely hold her there.
  2142. > A few tears run from his eyes as they reconnect, but his magic brushes them away before he lets her; you alone see them.
  2143. > "I missed you so much, little gem..."
  2144. > Flurry is still far to incoherent to properly respond, and it takes her a minute or two before she did.
  2145. > "...I heard you were here. Wanted to see you..."
  2146. > "Shh..."
  2147. > Sunburst brushes his muzzle through her mane.
  2148. > "I wanted to see you very badly too, Flurry Heart. But I have a lot of things to do here, and I wasn't allowed..."
  2149. > Screwing her face up into another frustrated expression, she shakes it angrily.
  2150. > "I wish you had!"
  2151. > "Yeah..."
  2152. > Laughing softly, Sunburst turns his head and releases the saddlebags to fall tot he floor with a solid thump.
  2153. > Unfortunately they took his near-omnipresent cloak with him, and Flurry Heart gasps softly as the scars of his flogging are revealed.
  2154. > "What - what're - why-?"
  2155. > Though you hadn't planned it, you couldn't have hoped for a better test of Sunburst's loyalty.
  2156. > And the results are as much as you could have expected:
  2157. > Head falling, Sunburst turns his head around to start at the faded welts.
  2158. > "Flurry, one of the reasons I couldn't come see you... I did something I shouldn't have. I was part of helping some ponies try to esca- try to run away from here."
  2159. > Her mouth opens in a little raw gasp.
  2160. > All that emerges, though, is a single-syllable word that nonetheless managed to carry all the weight needed:
  2161. > "Why?"
  2162. > "Because..."
  2163. > Abruptly he hesitates, and you realize he wasn't aware she knew Cadance had been punished too.
  2164. "Flurry, do you remember how your mother told you she'd been a bad pony?"
  2165. > "Yeah...?"
  2166. "Well, because she was mistaken, Sunburst thought she was right and he followed what he told her to do."
  2167. > Sunburst himself looks mildly shocked - not that you'd characterized him as merely following, but at your use of 'bad pony' in reference to Cadance.
  2168. > "Oh..."
  2169. > Looking between the two of you and face showing equal degrees of concentration and questioning, Flurry Heart finally asks:
  2170. > "But... why'd they go?"
  2171. "Well, when ponies get angry they can... do foolish things. Some of them were angry because they'd been hurt like you, but some of them were just... angry."
  2172. > "You're a good master, though..."
  2173. > Flurry turns to stare at you with an uncertain, wondering expression.
  2174. > "A-Are the angry ponies, like the ones who hurt Mocha Cream?"
  2175. "...yes, they're some of the same, I think."
  2176. > Immediately she rounds back again on Sunburst, who backpedals at the furious expression on her face.
  2177. > "Why'd you help them?! They're bad ponies! They hurt Mocha Cream!"
  2178. > "I-"
  2179. "Flurry Heart!"
  2180. > She leaps in surprise at the sharp bark.
  2181. > Immediately the filly is at your feet, in a deep both with wings spread.
  2182. > "I'm sorry, Master. I didn't mean to..."
  2183. > Dropping to sit on the carpet, you reach out and pull her into your lap.
  2184. "No, Flurry, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have snapped like that."
  2185. > It takes a moment, but Flurry Cuddles into your lap - a protective measure, both seeming to seek shelter there and to show you she wasn't holding back from you.
  2186. > "Little gem, I - I was a bad pony, though. I did try and help some of them, and that was wrong. That's why I was punished... if I'd been able to see what they would do, I wouldn't have done any of that."
  2187. > "Oh..."
  2188. > Flurry manages to sound mildly apologetic, clearly having not thought about how Sunburst might have already been feeling.
  2189. "Now, Sunburst, both of you have a job to do here. Flurry, he's going to go through a few tests first to see how powerful your magic is right now, okay?"
  2190. > "Yes, Master."
  2191. "Then he'll start teaching you what's missing."
  2192. > ...
  2193. > In all truth, you didn't understand most of what Sunburst did.
  2194. > Unicorn magic is something you know how to leverage for a benefit, but the clear inner workings of it?
  2195. > Whatever it was, the stallion clearly understood what he was doing and quickly moved from test to test.
  2196. > When he was done, he asked for a few moments alone in your study to consult the books he'd brought.
  2197. > That left you waiting, though.
  2198. > As you paced about, however, you gradually became aware of other footsteps - or rather, footsteps and the tap-tapping of a cane - approaching.
  2199. "Hello, Mister Cooper."
  2200. > "Ah, good morning Mr. Anonymous. Something bothering you? I heard you pacing."
  2201. "Just... thinking about things. Posey isn't with you?"
  2202. > "No, one of your ponies - though I didn't recognize the voice, a younger stallion - asked for help for a moment and honestly I can get around inside here will enough on my own now that I know the layout."
  2203. > A younger stallion?
  2204. > Sunburst?
  2205. > What would he need Posey for?
  2206. "Ah, well. In the interim, is there anything I can get you."
  2207. > "Get me? No, not get me, but I do have things that I think we need to discuss."
  2208. "...of course. If you're not busy now...?"
  2209. > "Not at all."
  2210. > Folding his hands on the cane, Randall regards you through sightless eyes - a surprisingly eerie experience - and frowns slightly.
  2211. > "In truth, I'm starting to become a little concerned. I realize you've safely managed to expand your processes with a considerable improvement in profit until now, but I am beginning to wonder if things are getting too large for your current control mechanism."
  2212. > Your face hardens, and for once you're thankful he could not see.
  2213. > Though the tone of your voice probably told him all he needed to know.
  2214. "And what, may I ask, is driving you to these conclusions? The... difficulties we are experiencing now are if anything much smaller in scale than the ones I had before you arrived."
  2215. > "Be that as it may, they're not being resolved either. And there is more."
  2216. "More?"
  2217. > "Haute Glamour, is expressing concern over Cadance's ability to lead. It isn't any call against your decisions, mind you, and your recent choice to become directly involved may very well be one that much improves things here."
  2218. > Haute was whispering in his ear, was she?
  2219. > Cadance had warned you about her.
  2220. > But then again... Cadance had been the one responsible for
  2221. "Is that so."
  2222. > "She feels that Cadance may be taking too light a touch with the camp - placing too much faith in the methods of leadership she used back in Equestria."
  2223. "I doubt my alicorn could forget this isn't her original home."
  2224. > "I doubt she has, but she may be trying to make it like her original home instead."
  2225. > Arms folding, Randall sighs and shakes his head.
  2226. > "Please, Anonymous. I do not want to push you too much, but ultimately I am responsible to your investors as well as you. And if they do not see something being done, they may get worried. Give them something to settle their minds."
  2227. [Choice]
  2228. "Well, I understand your concerns-"
  2229. > "My concerns? No, they are not my concerns. I'm merely passing them on."
  2230. > An excellent way, you think, to deflect responsibility from himself.
  2231. "Regardless of whose they are, I have to rebuff them entirely. The entire objective of this operation is to allow Cadance to function with less need for strongarming her into things she doesn't want. Yes, there are ponies here who will act out and rebel - but so would there be in any other facility of this size, and I'm not paying a small army of guards to look after them all."
  2232. > You've been wandering in circles waiting for Sunburst for too long, and a chair is looking particularly restful at this moment.
  2233. > Dropping into it, you note that Randall's head follows you with some fair accuracy on noise alone.
  2234. "Maybe she is working with a lighter touch than they are used to, but that's the risk they're investing in: The idea that if we let things be a little bit more like Equestria, we can skip all that costly oversight. If they don't like that, they can always invest in T-bonds and get an assured return."
  2235. > "Yet you yourself are promising to get more personally involved now. They might argue that's a contradiction."
  2236. > You chuckle to yourself - again with that 'they'.
  2237. "I am moving to become more directly involved with the operation - but in cooperation with Cadance, not against her. The details may be changing, but the broad theory remains the same. Their money - your money - remains in good hands."
  2238. > "You'd be willing to bet your livelihood on that promise?"
  2239. "I'm betting my daughter's future on this, Mr. Cooper. If it falls apart, she has nothing."
  2240. > Cocking your head, you raise an eyebrow before forgetting the gesture is wasted on him.
  2241. "What about you? Would you bet your future on Haute Glamour's word?"
  2242. > "She is, in my opinion, unparalleled in her ability to get inside the minds of other ponies and discerning how best to manage them..."
  2243. > Now it is your turn to push back, sensing that he isn't quite sure of something:
  2244. "I hear a 'but' there."
  2245. > A little smile creeps across Randall's lips.
  2246. > "You do. She's an excellent judge of character, but I do not think she has ever managed a situation on this scale before."
  2247. "That might be part of it, I think it has much less to do with scale and much more to do with preference."
  2248. > Shrugging lightly - again, out of sheer habit - you add:
  2249. "Haute may be used to taking a more absolute management style, and so she is simply reporting what she sees as out-of-the-norm. But the entire point of my endeavor is to put Cadance in a position of limited power within my facilities, and that may include letting her run things in a more typically Equestrian style."
  2250. > "Perhaps. I do admit I've never considered giving her this kind of power to direct my business. She simply does not have those skills."
  2251. "Regardless of her skillset, Cadance's decisions are netting me results."
  2252. > Glancing aside to make sure there are no other four-legged listeners, you go on:
  2253. "Of the four responsible for attacking my maid, the pony security guards have already recovered two. The third surrendered to Cadance voluntarily, and she's pried the location of the last from him."
  2254. > Though he normally held an admirable poker face when dealing with business matters, Randall is completely unable to hide his shock.
  2255. > "Really, now? What will you be doing with them?"
  2256. "The three we're having to drag in - they're going to have to be doing a damn good bit of begging to earn even a drop of mercy from me. The one who surrendered... I'm not mindlessly cruel. If you want to report to your shareholders that I'm taking a stronger hand, tell them that."
  2257. > Grinning sharply, Randall nods an affirmative.
  2258. > "You know, in a way I'm glad you chose to stand your ground on this."
  2259. "Really? You were the one who brought it up to me."
  2260. > "Yes, but that doesn't mean I thought they were the greatest problem you had. If you'd gone back on your grand scheme, that'd be more worrying to me than anything else."
  2261. "I won't be. Cadance and I may not always see eye to eye, but I brought her here for a reason and I intend to stick with that. If she-"
  2262. > You're interrupted by your study door swinging open.
  2263. > Posey emerges - the guide handle strapped to her saddle waving in the air like some sort of bizarre antenna.
  2264. > Behind her, you can just barely hear Sunburst's voice:
  2265. > "...and thank you again!"
  2266. > So, they had been talking.
  2267. > You'd have to see what that was about.
  2268. "Well, here comes Posey. I suppose this means you're going to be heading off now?"
  2269. > "Unfortunately so. Thank you for the time, though."
  2270. "Always, always."
  2271. > As soon as she is out of earshot, though, you march back into the study.
  2272. > Sunburst is still on the floor, packing books back into his saddlebags.
  2273. > He starts when you speak, nearly tumbling over:
  2274. "So, needed to borrow Posey for a bit?"
  2275. > "Yes, Master."
  2276. > Head dipped in an obviously deferential position, Sunburst is offput by you presence.
  2277. > "I needed a - a baseline, so to speak, to compare Flurry Heart to."
  2278. "Ah. Non-unicorn, I assume, since otherwise you'd use yourself."
  2279. > "Yes... although I'm not a very good example. My magic isn't that strong at all."
  2280. > Even as he speaks, though, you can tell there is something else running through his head.
  2281. > Something other than mere baselines and comparisons is weighing on Sunburst's mind.
  2282. "...you know, Sunburst, if there's something you're concerned about, you can tell me directly."
  2283. > "I..."
  2284. > Again there is hesitation, but this time he manages to pull his eyes up to look at you directly.
  2285. > "Will I be coming back tomorrow? To continue her lessons?"
  2286. > You blink in surprise.
  2287. "Is that it? That's what you were worried about?"
  2288. > "You hadn't said anything about it before now, Master..."
  2289. > Chuckling gently, you reach out and ruffle Sunburst's already-messy mane.
  2290. "If I was going to throw you out, I'd have done it already. You'll be back here, Sunburst."
  2291. > Though he cringes back from the touch, the relief felt at your words is immediate and obvious.
  2292. > "Thank you, Master!"
  2293. "You really were worried about that, huh?"
  2294. > "I..."
  2295. > This time his hesitation is different - personal, rather than out of fear for you.
  2296. > "Master, I've told you... Flurry Heart is the closest thing I have to family left. Aside from my marefriend, she was the closest thing to family I had even before. If I lost her again..."
  2297. > It is slowly dawning on you just how much that filly means to this stallion.
  2298. > Perhaps even as much as Flurry meant to Cadance.
  2299. > If he ever turned rebellious again - though you doubted that - Flurry could possibly be leveraged against Sunburst as much as against her own mother.
  2300. > A useful note to be filed away.
  2301. "Do I really worry you that much?"
  2302. > "In some ways, Master. I thought you would hate me. Because I helped lead the escape."
  2303. > With just those words, Sunburst manages to crack the smile that had been sitting on your face.
  2304. > He sees it too, and flinches in anticipation of what is to come.
  2305. "...I admit, I'm - not happy about that. To say the least. But you took a pretty harsh whipping for it, and you've given me no trouble since. That's enough reason to put aside my anger."
  2306. > No words are given in reaction to that, but you can practically see the stress and apprehension leaving him.
  2307. > "I'll be sure to do the best I can for Flurry Heart."
  2308. "I know you will. That's why I agreed to this."
  2309.  
  2310. > In the end, nine guards had been assigned to this.
  2311. > Six human, and three ponies.
  2312. > No chance had been taken; Chrysocolla wasn't going to be escaping this.
  2313. > Similarly, the raid was being done in broad daylight - both for speed, and because it wasn't as likely she'd have slipped away.
  2314. > The grate Windy Winters claimed she had been slipping in and out through was circled first; true enough, it was very loose.
  2315. > You glance up to Gene with a nod.
  2316. "We'll go for the storm drain vault. If she isn't there somehow, close it all back up and wait her out."
  2317. > "Agreed."
  2318. > Leaving three guards behind - two humans and a pony - the rest of you circle around.
  2319. > The vault itself has little to show on the surface except for a round metal plate set into the ground - a 'manhole' (how typical of humans to name something arbitrarily after them).
  2320. > Next to it, though, is the far larger double sheet metal doors belonging to the utility vault.
  2321. > Gene motions to the that second vault:
  2322. > "Radio it in - have them shut off the electricity in there."
  2323. > Moments later the entire street goes dark, a bizarre silence falling as everypony who had been working comes to a halt.
  2324. > "Good. Unlock the storm vault; we'll open that one first.
  2325. > One guard kneels to undo the padlock holding it shut while another fits a lever to one of several small holes.
  2326. > Then Seismic Shift steps up, taking the lever in his mouth and quickly dragging the entire plate aside with a flick of his neck in a prodigious display of Earth Pony strength.
  2327. > Immediately you are at the side of the hole, peering down into it.
  2328. > Stretching your neck out over the hole reveals an expansive, shadowed space falls away to three sides of the manhole.
  2329. > On the fourth sits the ladder used to enter the storm drain.
  2330. > Despite the very limited light falling into the space, you can clearly see small stacks of supplies and materials to either side of the channel meant to carry the water.
  2331. "Chrysocolla!"
  2332. > And there's the movement you'd expected - a sudden scrambling of a half-seen shape as the mare realizes she's been found.
  2333. "Give it up, Chrysocolla. We have your entrance covered and there's nine of us up here. You've got one chance to come up, then we flush you out."
  2334. > "Go to Tartarus, I'm not just giving up!"
  2335. > Her voice is equal parts rage and fear.
  2336. > "You know what he'll do to me if I come up there. I'd kiss Nightmare Moon's hooves before I turn myself in to that!"
  2337. "No! He's reasonable, Chrysocolla! Windy Winters surrendered to us, and he hasn't been mistreated!"
  2338. > "Really? Really?! That's what I'm supposed to believe? He ripped my hiding spot out of that stallion with-"
  2339. "Windy told us! He turned you over, without anyone laying hand or hoof on him. Do you understand? It doesn't have to be this-"
  2340. > Something goes whizzing by your head up into the air to clatter back down onto the pavement.
  2341. > A fragment of concrete - probably rubble from her efforts to break a path into the utility vault.
  2342. > Chrysocolla's voice follows, shrill and now rich with terror:
  2343. > "Liar! He's going to torture me to death the same way he did Corona, and you're going to lie about that too!"
  2344. > You'd instinctively yanked your head back the moment the first projectile appeared, and now sigh.
  2345. "...I don't think she's coming up. Flush her out."
  2346. > A small, innocuous-looking cylinder is dropped in, but moments later you can hear a soft pop-hiss and the mare's pained shriek.
  2347. > As you wait to see the results of it, one of the human guards fits a wet rag and large pair of goggles over your head rendering your vision blurry and distorted.
  2348. > It was the result of an oversight discovered early in planning this:
  2349. > While the human guards had masks suitable for protecting them from the irritating sprays they used, no such provision had been made for pony guards.
  2350. > Something that might be rectified in the future, but for now a simple pair of pegasi goggles and soaked cloth tied over you nose and mouth hopefully providing enough.
  2351. > When the latter didn't make it feel like you were choking already, that is.
  2352. > Wearing the rag had given you fresh sympathy for Comet Tail and his experience.
  2353. > Not that you'd be going into the storm-drain manhole in the first place; ponies made terrible climbers in general, and pegasi in particular were ill-suited to such underground warrens.
  2354. > Even the thought of being trapped in a tiny, enclosed space surrounded by hundreds of pounds of concrete - some of it already damaged by her excavations - is enough to send prickles down your spine.
  2355. > The humans, on the other hand, have no such problems; already purpose-made protective masks are being pulled on.
  2356. > "We'll go in through the utility vault. Open it up!"
  2357. > Again Seismic Shift heaves his head back - this time throwing open the utility vault doors with a mighty clang that echoes down the street.
  2358. > Immediately it is clear that Windy Winters had been had been absolutely right about her using this as a place to store any leftover contraband.
  2359. > The floor was littered with it; a neat circle had been punched in one of the concrete walls opposite the thick electrical conduits to connect it to the storm drain.
  2360. > But the most important factor - Chrysocolla herself - is nowhere to be seen.
  2361. > Two guards drop down into the space, tasers drawn, and make their way to the hole.
  2362. > "She's not in there!"
  2363. > You swear under your breath - made even more muffled by the kludged-together mask - but Gene just snorts.
  2364. > "Must be trying to go for her exit. They'll be waiting for her there."
  2365. > Yet, as you wait, no report comes and your worries only grow.
  2366. "Gene, where this storm drain goes - are there any other vaults she could have gotten to? Any other she could escape from, that Windy might not have known about?"
  2367. > "No. The next closest to it - we looked for them on a map, you know? It is through twenty feet of earth and concrete. And we checked it - no tunnels."
  2368. > "Not then."
  2369. > Seismic steps up, his own voice distorted by the bizarre 'mask' he wore.
  2370. > "But she's an earth pony with a talent for rock. She'll have an affinity for it. She could dig that."
  2371. "Like you, Seismic Shift?"
  2372. > He bobs his head in affirmative.
  2373. > "Might even have started digging before. Who knows how long they were working on this place?"
  2374. > Muttering some swear under his breath in his native language, Gene points to two more of the guards.
  2375. > "You, and you! Stay here! You two, and you two - go check any other manholes! Thunderlane, with me!"
  2376. > And then he takes off; for his apparent age, Gene is surprisingly sprightly and you're forced into a gallop to keep up with him.
  2377. > Sprinting the distance to the next utility vault, he arrives panting but not completely winded; considering the body armor
  2378. > There's no need to even check the vault; the crunching and cracking of concrete audible from within already told plenty the moment you had arrived.
  2379. > Chrysocolla lifts a hoof to shield her eyes as the Gene throws the covering doors open, sun suddenly streaming in and finally giving you a solid look at the mare.
  2380. > Her face is young, but lined with early age; her coat, originally the same rich blue-green of her namesake stone, now filthy with accumulated muck and dirt from the tunnel walls.
  2381. > Eyes, red and watery from the effects of the gas they'd used.
  2382. > But not enough to hide the fear in them.
  2383. > The hole she'd opened in the wall in desperation wasn't even complete; though she'd managed to get her head, shoulders, and forelegs through, the rest of her was still in the tunnel.
  2384. > It had been poorly-positioned, breaking through directly in back of a pair of gently-humming transformers in the vault and forcing her to duck beneath their cabling.
  2385. > Evidently this one was not on the same circuit as the first, and had not been shut off.
  2386. > She'd clearly been trying to widen the aperture enough to get the rest of the way out when you arrived.
  2387. "Wait!"
  2388. > You lift a hoof, keeping Gene from advancing.
  2389. "I'm not lying to you, Chrysocolla. You will be punished, but he won't torture you just to see you break. Cadance won't allow it."
  2390. > Spitting furiously onto the ground, she shakes her head - voice laden with unimaginable panic.
  2391. > "She'll 'allow' whatever her Master wishes. I'll just be another example to break everypony's spirit. A tool for him. Just like Comet and Autumn and Windy-"
  2392. "Windy gave himself up! And where else are you going to go?! You can't turn around now. I will go down there and drag you out if I have to."
  2393. > "I'll bite! I'll tear your throat out!"
  2394. > "No, you won't."
  2395. > Stepping up, Gene levels another can of spray-gas at her.
  2396. > "You make a move for Thunderlane, I'll spray this right into your eyes."
  2397. "It's over, Chrysocolla. Time to give up."
  2398. > "No, no, no!"
  2399. > Her eyes are rolling in wild fear; you can even smell the rank desperation wafting off of her.
  2400. > "You won't take me to him, you won't!"
  2401. "Yes, I will. Gene, if she moves, dose her-"
  2402. > Abruptly Chrysocolla's eyes straighten and focus on you.
  2403. > Face splitting in a wild, maddened smile, she laughs a shrill, broken laugh that makes your coat stand on end.
  2404. > "You. Won't. Take. Me."
  2405. > With no warning she raises her head to a rubber-coated cable above her-
  2406. "NO!"
  2407. > -and bites.
  2408. > There's a flash, bright enough to fill your vision with spots.
  2409. > A noise, like a million angry bees.
  2410. > Some great force lifts you and hurls you back, but when you rise it does not hurt.
  2411. > Not physically.
  2412. > The eerie silence, the stillness that has come, though - that hurts.
  2413. > When the other guards come running, they find you sitting at the edge of the vault - staring with dull eyes at the corpse of a mare frozen in eternal spasm by her own choice.
  2414. > By her own fear.
  2415. [Choice]
  2416. > "Thunderlane?"
  2417. > Someone is shaking you.
  2418. > "Thunderlane, are you okay? Are you hurt?"
  2419. > No, somepony.
  2420. > That's a hoof on your withers.
  2421. > Seismic Shift?
  2422. > No.
  2423. > Somepony else.
  2424. > "Thunderlane!"
  2425. "I..."
  2426. > "Let him be."
  2427. > This time it is a hand sitting on your back.
  2428. > Gene - he has gotten back up as well, and is standing at your side.
  2429. > This is finally enough to snap you back to your senses; everything seems to come screeching back into motion.
  2430. "No, I'm - I'm okay."
  2431. > You swallow, hard, and look back at the corpse-
  2432. > No.
  2433. > You can't think of her like that - 'the corpse'.
  2434. > Chrysocolla was a pony; not always a good pony, but still a pony.
  2435. "We... we need to get her body out of here. Before anypony sees. Before this can turn into a riot."
  2436. > "We will close this street. I've already called for more guards; they'll bring a cart to move her."
  2437. "Okay. I'll wait here, until this runs out-"
  2438. > "No. Thunderlane, you have done your part. It's okay. You can go now. Tell Cadance and Anonymous what happened; they need to know."
  2439. "...Sir, I realize I am just a pony - a slave - so I'm only asking - please. Please don't. I have to see this to the end-"
  2440. > "You will."
  2441. > Kneeling down, Gene keeps his hand steady on your shoulder.
  2442. > "She will not be going anywhere. But you - you are hurting, Thunderlane. You can go."
  2443. > He wasn't trying to push you away, but to spare you.
  2444. > Mouth opening once, then again, you at last just settle for a nod when no words come.
  2445. "Alright. I'll - go. But please."
  2446. > So many thoughts running through your head, so much to still be said.
  2447. > And not nearly enough time to say it.
  2448. "Don't - don't take her to the medical clinic. They see this there, it'll just make things worse. And check for any other tunnels down there; remember what Seismic Shift said-"
  2449. > "Thunderlane -"
  2450. > Gene pats your shoulder.
  2451. > "-go. Telling them as important as any other part of this."
  2452. > True enough.
  2453. "O-Okay. Radio Anonymous, tell him that I will meet him down here."
  2454. > You turn away and retreat on hoof, not quite trusting yourself to take to wing right now.
  2455. > It's a miracle you're able to trot straight; every time you blink the specter of Chrysocolla's body, twisted in its final agony.
  2456. > ...
  2457. "Chrysocolla is dead."
  2458. > Anonymous had taken a few minutes to arrive, and in that time you had decided that there would be no mincing words here.
  2459. > Beside him, Cadance hangs her head - eyes squeezed shut.
  2460. > "Celestia help us all..."
  2461. > "How did it happen?"
  2462. "We set up on the hideout Windy Winters told us about, and started flushing her out. Unfortunately, she had another nearly-complete tunnel to a different utility vault Windy Winters didn't know about. We didn't know to shut the electricity there off-"
  2463. > Anonymous actually goes pale, sweat turning his bare skin shiny.
  2464. > "That noise I heard-"
  2465. "Yes. We cornered her and she was - terrified. Of being captured."
  2466. > "Of being tortured."
  2467. "Yes, Master. Both Gene and I tried to bring her in safely, but - there was a power cable to one of the transformers above her head. She bit it."
  2468. > Anonymous drops his head into his hands and simply remains that way, curled over in a position of such abject unhappiness that you can't help but feel a pang of sympathy.
  2469. > He may have had little mercy for the ponies who'd beaten Mocha Cream, but this clearly had not been something he wanted.
  2470. > Cadance, however, has no such sympathy.
  2471. > "Anonymous, you need to do something about this - now. Right now this - this is a condemnation from many ponies' point of view. A pony is dead after being chased by the guards, and rumors about what happened to Corona-"
  2472. > "I know what the rumors say I did!"
  2473. > Both you and Cadance take steps back; Anonymous' voice had risen to an unexpected roar.
  2474. > A second later, it is back down to its normal low tone.
  2475. > "No, I'm - I'm sorry. God, I just..."
  2476. > He sucks a hard, shaking breath.
  2477. > "...okay. This is bad. I get it - really, really bad. Ponies are going to think you and I did kill her-"
  2478. "...may I speak honestly?"
  2479. > "I'd hope you were already."
  2480. "You and I are responsible - you especially. I chased her down, cornered her, left her no option to flee - but you also set the expectation she had of being tortured to the point of breaking. Cadance has been telling you to get more directly involved, be more open with us - but you hadn't yet, or have to late. She committed suicide, but we - specifically you - brought her to that point."
  2481. > Anonymous' chair scrapes across the floor as he suddenly stands, hands balling into fists, but Cadance yells first:
  2482. > "Thunderlane! This isn't the time-"
  2483. "Yes! Yes it is! Because damn near every other pony in this camp is going to be thinking the same thing. And if we don't, there's going to be a real rebellion. Not broken windows and painted messages, not a pony being attacked here and there - a real fight. We have to confront that!"
  2484. > Turning wordlessly, Anonymous walks straight away from you to a window.
  2485. > There he stops, hands tightly clasped behind his back and staring it into the street beyond.
  2486. > Cadance looks between the two of you, for once seeming at a loss for what to do.
  2487. > Because she knows you are right.
  2488. > Anonymous does too.
  2489. > Swallowing hard, you wrench your tone back down to a more reasonable one.
  2490. "...I know this wasn't what you were aiming for, Anonymous. But if you don't accept some of the blame, them ponies are going to lose faith in you."
  2491. > More softly:
  2492. "I'm going to lose faith in you. I didn't take this job to see ponies fry themselves - to have to stare at her corpse, all twisted up and hard like that. I joined to keep ponies safe. If I can't do that because of you... what am I doing?"
  2493. > "If I don't admit that I was responsible for a pony that full of hate deciding to off herself."
  2494. "You are responsible, in some ways."
  2495. > Lifting a hoof, you jab it angrily in his direction.
  2496. "Her hate was her own, but you are responsible for her fear."
  2497. > "Cadance."
  2498. > "Yes?"
  2499. > "Crescent Moon. We were going to do something for her benefit, yes?"
  2500. "And the others. So she isn't suspected of telling. After this, if word gets out she gave us names-"
  2501. > "I get it, Thunderlane."
  2502. > He sighs softly.
  2503. > "I'm going to have a hell of a time rationalizing it, but I'm going to have to."
  2504. "You'll do it then?"
  2505. > "Not tonight. Wait until tomorrow, at least. I know rumors can spread, but we'll gain nothing by rushing in to things. A day to organize, and I'll address this."
  2506. > That, you suppose, is as much as you could have hoped for.
  2507. "In that case, may I ask - am I dismissed?"
  2508. > "Yeah. Go ahead, Thunderlane. I'm guessing you need some time to yourself too."
  2509. "Yes. Your Highness, if I may?"
  2510. > "Of course, Thunderlane..."
  2511. > You're only half a block from the town hall when your legs fail you again.
  2512. > Collapsing onto your belly, you stay there a moment - drawing the odd look from a passing pony - and try to force the image of Chrysocolla's final moment back down from your eyes.
  2513. > Somehow you eventually get up to your hooves again, lurching the rest of the way back to a common shower area and firmly planting your body beneath its icy spray.
  2514. > You'd been afraid that she would find you again hunched over the toilet, vomit coating your muzzle, but surprisingly there's little of the nausea that had come with Crescent Moon's whipping.
  2515. > Instead a cold deadness fills you, a hungry void which saps your energy and leaves you shivering even when you turn the water up to hot.
  2516. > Eventually you shut it off, and half-walk, half-stumble in a daze to Vapor Trail's quarters.
  2517. > Later you would think back that opening the door with your guard's key was a terrible abuse of power, but at this moment you needed to be there.
  2518. > Climbing up onto her bed, though, feels like an unforgivable sin.
  2519. > So you wait there, huddled in place and sometimes dozing, until the sun creeps away and the door cracks open.
  2520. > "Oh, Thunderlane..."
  2521. > Her hooves approach, muzzle brushing over your withers between your wings.
  2522. > "What happened...?"
  2523.  
  2524. > Anonymous had retreated back to his own home soon after Thunderlane left, and it is there - predictably ensconced in the fortress of his bedroom - that you find him come evening.
  2525. > Tapping lightly at the door, you do not wait for him to answer before sweeping in.
  2526. "I notified Crescent Moon and the other ponies, like you asked."
  2527. > "Thank you, Cadance."
  2528. > Anonymous was seated in one of his typical large chairs, staring out the window as he often did when perturbed.
  2529. > "I'll announce my... whatever come tomorrow."
  2530. > Also as he often did, there was an empty glass in his hand.
  2531. > Even before you approach you know you'll smell the remnants of alcohol in it.
  2532. "What do you plan to do?"
  2533. > "Hell if I know. Throw myself at their mercy, find out if Equestria has a capital punishment..."
  2534. "This isn't a joke, Anonymous!"
  2535. > "I'm not joking!"
  2536. > His hand slams down on the chair's arm, the three words roared out.
  2537. > "I don't know, Cadance. I don't know - this is running away from me as much as you. I knew there'd be some ponies pissed at my punishment for them, but I never expected a pony to be DEAD!"
  2538. > Finish, he slumps forward - free hand clutching his face.
  2539. > "God, I'm at my own wits' end. Get more directly involved, you say - but that's not much help if I barely know how to do it!"
  2540. > Carefully you creep around the chair, and realize to your shock that there are actually tears running down between his cheeks and hand.
  2541. > "Punish them - fuck, sure I wanted to punish them. Give them ten times what they gave Mocha Cream. But a pony dead..."
  2542. "Master..."
  2543. > He snorts gently.
  2544. > "Yeah. Some master I am. God fucking damn it all..."
  2545. "That you are this upset about it alone proves that you care, though!"
  2546. > "I care, but I don't think that ponies are going to accept my heartfelt apologies just because I care!"
  2547. > Rocking back into the chair, Anonymous tilts his head up until his eyes stare into the ceiling.
  2548. > "Thunderlane is right. It is my fault that this is happening anyway, and they are going to see that. Fuck if I know how we're going to get around this..."
  2549. "You're going to have Crescent Moon's sentence shortened already. That's a good start. And you have started listening to our suggestions-"
  2550. > "Yeah, well that doesn't fucking help much if I'm already the boogeyman who goes out and snuffs ponies I don't like, does it?!"
  2551. > For the briefest moment you consider snapping back that none of this would have happened if he hadn't owned slaves.
  2552. > He couldn't have tortured Corona, wouldn't have had ponies looking to flee from him in the first place...
  2553. > But that isn't the time for this; if this tipping point falls the wrong way, you will lose the camp - and with it, Flurry Heart.
  2554. > To say nothing of the violence that would be visited on ponies and humans alike
  2555. "You are responsible, Anonymous, and you need to own up to that. But that does not mean you cannot do something."
  2556. > "Yes, yes, I always have to do this, have to do that, have to do - just who the fuck is the actual slave here?!"
  2557. > You duck as the glass goes whizzing past your head to explode against the wall, shattering into a million glittering fragments.
  2558. > Staring a the little pool of gem-like slivers glittering in the sunlight, Anonymous sighs and waves a hand dismissively.
  2559. > "Don't worry about it. I'll just ask Mocha to get rid of it; she'll-"
  2560. > The hand falls to the chair's arm again, his head slumping back forward.
  2561. > "She's been gone for so long, and I still sometimes forget she isn't here..."
  2562. > He laughs bitterly, head shaking.
  2563. > "You know, it's funny. I lived well over ninety percent of my life without a servant in sight, but the second she's gone I feel something's - missing."
  2564. > A mere spark of your horn is enough to gather up the glass and compact it into a ball to be set aside.
  2565. "You're not missing a servant. You're missing her. You're missing somepony."
  2566. > "Yeah... somepony who actually saw me as something real."
  2567. "For right now, though, you need rest. And to sleep this alcohol off; this isn't good for you, Anonymous."
  2568. > "What are you, my mother now? You want a son too?"
  2569. > Standing is an effort for him, but he manages.
  2570. > "Fuck... I don't want to be isolated up here away from the camp. But every time I do try to connect, something like this happens..."
  2571. > With great, lurching steps he manages to make his way to the bed.
  2572. > At the very edge he trips and falls face-first into it, but manages to right himself and sit on the edge.
  2573. "...I'll be back in the morning. And then we can discuss exactly what you will do."
  2574. > "Cadance?"
  2575. > His voice is weak and plaintive.
  2576. > "Stay with me. Tonight."
  2577. > You're stalled with one hoof lifted, mind racing.
  2578. "I..."
  2579. > "Please. Stay."
  2580. > It's not an order, but a request.
  2581. [Choice]
  2582. "...I will stay."
  2583. > Anonymous seems to sink in place, releasing a breath and nodding.
  2584. > "Thank you..."
  2585. "Can you get yourself ready for bed, or do you need help?"
  2586. > "I can manage. I think."
  2587. > Though his efforts to heave himself upright do not entirely reassure you on that point.
  2588. > Two tries are needed to even stand up, and his passage to the bathroom is staggering and unsteady.
  2589. > You remain waiting at a distance until the door shuts and even a few moments thereafter, ears focused forward and half-expecting to hear him tumbling to the floor at any moment.
  2590. > When that does not come, you turn to other tasks.
  2591. > A fresh glass is brought, and with a little searching a bottle of water to fill it from as well.
  2592. > "Cadance? Are you there?"
  2593. > Anonymous' muffled voice carries a note of uncertainty.
  2594. "Yes?"
  2595. > "...my sleep clothes aren't in here."
  2596. > You groan gently, resisting the urge to find a nearby object to rest your forehead against.
  2597. > He was drunk, you remind yourself.
  2598. > Not thinking straight.
  2599. > You couldn't hold him responsible for this.
  2600. > Seeming to sense your frustration, he adds:
  2601. > "...I'm sorry. Normally Mocha Cream would have laid them out in here before I came in. I forget a lot, but then I can come out and get them-"
  2602. "Are they somewhere out here?"
  2603. > "Yes. Dresser on, um... left, I think. Left of the big window with my chair."
  2604. > Yes, there they are.
  2605. "Open the door a touch, and I will pass them through on my magic."
  2606. > The door does indeed open - how far you cannot see; in expectation that "a touch" might be difficult for him, you'd stood off to one side to avoid any unwanted views.
  2607. > It is, however, plenty open enough for the bundle of clothes to be floated in.
  2608. > "I have them. Thanks."
  2609. "You are welcome."
  2610. > Something Anonymous said is nagging on you, and when he does emerge - now dressed in a much more loosely-fitting sweatshirt - you ask:
  2611. "You've didn't choose another pony to take care of these things while Mocha Cream is... gone?"
  2612. > "No, I..."
  2613. > Running a hand through his hair, Anonymous shakes his head.
  2614. > "...never got around to it."
  2615. > There's more he isn't saying, you suspect.
  2616. > How many other ponies, even in the house staff, would be that close with him?
  2617. > The naked adoration with which Mocha regarded him alarmed you at times for it certainly could not have been healthy, but perhaps she had been able to reach out to him in a way another could not have.
  2618. "Here. Drink, our you will regret it in the morning."
  2619. > "Thank you..."
  2620. > Anonymous re-seats himself on the bed when the glass is drained, and you snap the light off leaving the room lit only by the diffuse glow of distant lights coming in through the curtained windows.
  2621. > You turn to the bed, and are struck by a sudden moment of hesitation.
  2622. > Getting in bed with your owner, quite literally...
  2623. > It was something that had happened before, yes, but you had been drunk then too - having no memory of deciding to join him.
  2624. > Willingly joining your captor was quite another decision.
  2625. > Why are you even doing this?
  2626. > Anonymous was clearly no friend of yours.
  2627. > Why even bother?
  2628. > Your first instinct is to dismiss it as a purely mercenary choice:
  2629. > If Anonymous could not control this situation, you would lose your daughter; this was a small cost to be spared that misery.
  2630. > You had to curry favor with him.
  2631. > But the truth is, it wasn't that.
  2632. > He'd shown you that somewhere buried beneath that unsympathetic, even violent shell was a real heart that still cared.
  2633. > Celestia had always taught you that until the very end, any soul could be redeemed by friendship.
  2634. > If you were to be half the leader your aunt had been, you would have to hold to that.
  2635. > Especially with the number of other lives he held in his grasp, anger and alcohol were no excuse for pushing Anonymous away.
  2636. > Besides, at this point you were little better.
  2637. > No longer could you pretend that you hadn't become a collaborator.
  2638. > "Cadance?"
  2639. > Anonymous' voice cuts through your chain of thought.
  2640. > "You're staring. You okay?"
  2641. "Yes, I... I'm sorry. My thoughts got lost."
  2642. > With a little hop you bring yourself up onto the bed.
  2643. > On the opposite side, Anonymous brings down the covers and - with a few tries - manages to get himself mostly buried beneath them.
  2644. > You...
  2645. > ...aren't sure what you are going to do.
  2646. > Did Anonymous mean for you to join him beneath the covers as well?
  2647. > Whatever your reason for choosing this, that degree of intimacy was... a bit much.
  2648. > Instead you settle for sprawling out on your side over the covers, facing him with your hooves drawn close to your belly.
  2649. > Anonymous watches you a moment - his eyes glittering points in the dark.
  2650. > Slowly a hand reaches out to brush your cheek.
  2651. > Despite the touch not being expected, perhaps not wanted, you do not pull away.
  2652. > His hand lingers there, fingers tracing the side of your face.
  2653. > Up, up around your eyes to your ear, then down through the fall of your mane to where it pooled on the bed.
  2654. > "I... thank you doesn't seem enough."
  2655. "You needed this."
  2656. > Your tone is low, soft, soothing.
  2657. > "But I didn't order it."
  2658. "No."
  2659. > Deciding to change the subject, you tilt your head to allow him to continue brushing you.
  2660. "Why haven't you selected another pony from another among your staff here to serve you, though?"
  2661. > "I don't know, honestly. Maybe I'm trying to prove something to myself... maybe it just feels like Mocha Cream's place."
  2662. "She will be coming back, then?"
  2663. > The long silence that follows tells you otherwise.
  2664. > "They're doing some testing. She's - having some trouble. Fine motor control, magic control, that sort of thing. It might clear up eventually..."
  2665. > No wonder he feels alone now.
  2666. > To select another in Mocha's place undoubtedly feels like an admission she would not be able to recover from her ordeal.
  2667. "What happened there was not your fault."
  2668. > "I know. Those damn cunts who beat her-"
  2669. > You feel the covers shift as he tenses up, and quickly reach out with your magic to press him back down into bed.
  2670. "Shh. This isn't the time for that, Anonymous. We can think about those things in the morning."
  2671. > "Yeah, yeah..."
  2672. > He does, though, and after a moment you release your magic.
  2673. > It is only after it that you realize how disastrously that could have gone.
  2674. > Most slaveowners would not have tolerated any pony holding them down with magic.
  2675. > Yet all Anonymous does is, after a moment, reach out and let his hand brush down along your neck and over your chest.
  2676. > "Maybe I should have you fill that position."
  2677. > Your heart quickens a little, ready to head him off.
  2678. "I am - not sure if that is the best choice, given the current demands on my time and how it would look-"
  2679. > "Don't be silly; you'd look magnificent. A nice little maid's dress, a proper collar on your throat, some cute little frilly socks for you..."
  2680. > Your cheeks heat, at the same moment you realize he was teasing about the idea.
  2681. > A spark of anger flashes at how he so easily thought to reduce you to an object for his enjoyment, before it too is squashed.
  2682. > But not before his hand had felt the thudding of your heart.
  2683. > "I'm joking, Cadance. I know you're best where you are... better than I am."
  2684. > He chuckles gently.
  2685. > "Though I don't think you'd be so bad at being a maid either. You manage to keep yourself dignified, no matter what..."
  2686. > There are some times you remember that make you question that assertion, moments when you'd had to grovel shamelessly before him for some goal.
  2687. "...I..."
  2688. > "Even when they brought you in to me, the first time - they had you in hobbles and a huge fucking steel collar, but even then I could see the grace you had. You were magnificent."
  2689. > It is not a moment you care to remember, being one indignity in a long line of them.
  2690. "That is because I fight, Anonymous. Because I refuse to let this break me."
  2691. > "Mmm."
  2692. > After a moment's pondering, you lay your head down across your forehooves and let it rest there facing him.
  2693. "And you should not give in to your own anger, your own despair so quickly either.
  2694. > "Hah."
  2695. > His hand comes up, though to rest on your cheek again, though.
  2696. > Only a moment's warning is given, Anonymous' elbow bracing to support his shoulders.
  2697. > And then his arms are wrapped around your neck, head nestled in against your ear with breath tickling against it.
  2698. > "You tell me 'thank you' often enough, Cadance, but I don't ever get to really say it to you."
  2699. > Awkwardly you lift a hoof, then think better of it and extend a wing around him instead - an unexpected soft nicker being drawn from your throat as he strokes down your neck.
  2700. "Words are good, Anonymous. But actions, from both of us, will show more."
  2701. > "True, true."
  2702. > Anonymous falls back into bed, half-pulling you with him.
  2703. > You end up resting a hoof on his chest, peering down at him as he looks up.
  2704. "Rest now, Master. You will need it."
  2705. > "I will, I will."
  2706. > Once more, though, a hand rises to cup your cheek.
  2707. > His voice drops to a whisper, forcing you to turn both ears fully forward to hear:
  2708. > "You truly are magnificent..."
  2709. > With that, he lets his hands fall back down - eyes closing and resting on his belly.
  2710. > Backing away too, you retake your place sprawled on the far side of the bed.
  2711. > Soon Anonymous' breathing slows, and you know he has found rest at last.
  2712. > You, though, do not do so quickly.
  2713. > Instead you remain watching his passive form in the darkness, wondering.
  2714. > How did the same mind that was capable of torturing Corona, unhesitatingly holding Flurry Heart's well-being over your head, and threatening ponies with even worse inhabit the same man who you'd seen just now?
  2715. > A shiver runs through your coat.
  2716. > Not entirely on account of your thoughts; though the room was warmer than even your quarters and you of course had your own coat, it was still winter and Anonymous seemed to prefer cooler temperatures.
  2717. > Regarding the blankets you lay on, you ponder a time before concluding that it would not be disaster to crawl beneath them and avoid shivering the night away.
  2718. > After all, you had done so once before - in far less controlled circumstances - and Anonymous had not done anything untoward then.
  2719. > With a deft touch of magic and minimum of wriggling you slip under the covers, taking a position pointedly on the far side of the bed from him.
  2720. > Even then sleep does not come easily.
  2721. > I takes several rounds of the careful breathing exercises Celestia had taught you before unconsciousness arrives at last.
  2722.  
  2723. > Morning.
  2724. > It comes with furious, stabbing lances of light that penetrate the windowshades and pour into the room, dragging you back to consciousness.
  2725. > Yet it is not quite as miserable as you'd somehow expected, given the alcohol consumed the previous night.
  2726. > ...of course, it had been much less than the last time, and Cadance had given you -
  2727. > Cadance.
  2728. > Who had stayed with you afterward.
  2729. > In your bed.
  2730. > And at some point during the night chosen not merely to make use of the covers, but shift over against you as well.
  2731. > Her back is pressed to your side, and you can feel the bulge of one wing against your belly.
  2732. > That weight on your shoulder - that must be her head.
  2733. > ...yes, if your twist your own head a bit you can feel her mane brushing against your cheek.
  2734. > She smells - sweet.
  2735. > Not the sickly sweetness of perfume, but a sort of genuine, more natural scent.
  2736. "Cadance?"
  2737. > Your voice is low and soft.
  2738. > But it is enough to draw her awake, and the alicorn stirs a bit before freezing under your touch.
  2739. > "A-Anonymous - Master - I, ah -"
  2740. "It's okay, Cadance. Nothing, ah, happened..."
  2741. > "N-No, Master. Your hand..."
  2742. "Hrm?"
  2743. > One of your hands - the one on her side - was resting on her back, slightly further down than her wings.
  2744. "It's okay, Cadance. You don't have to be afraid of my touch."
  2745. > "M-Master... it's just that it'skindofonmycutiemark."
  2746. > The last few words are babbled out so fast you take a moment to process them.
  2747. > ...oh.
  2748. > OH.
  2749. > Cadance's hips must bet twisted in a way you hadn't realized.
  2750. > That was a rather more intimate gesture for them, wasn't it?
  2751. > Immediately you draw your hand up until you can feel her ribs beneath your fingers instead.
  2752. > And just as quickly you can feel Cadance relax - rolling back onto her belly and into a safer position.
  2753. "My error. I hadn't meant... anything of it."
  2754. > "I - understand."
  2755. > Rolling onto your side, you slip both arms around her and squeeze; the alicorn makes a surprised squeak as she finds herself trapped in another hug.
  2756. > This time your hands fall a little bit lower, settling on the base of her wings, and Cadance's whinny ends with a quiet nicker.
  2757. "...honestly, though, you don't have to be afraid of my touching you."
  2758. > "I-I know."
  2759. > And to her merit, she does relax - wings half-spreading and head settling on your shoulder.
  2760. > "You've shown me you aren't only a monster."
  2761. "Good girl."
  2762. > Releasing her, you push yourself upright in bed.
  2763. "Well. Time to face the music, I guess, and make are calls on exactly what we're going to announce."
  2764. > "And what happens to the other two rebels that were captured."
  2765. > You grimace, nodding.
  2766. "Suffice to say I don't think I'll be going through with all my threats I made..."
  2767. > "What did you say?"
  2768. "I threatened to have Comet Tail euthanized. And to have his horn taken or Autumn Frost's wing tendons cut."
  2769. > To her credit, Cadance does not show a hint of revulsion or hatred.
  2770. > She does not even pull back from where her hoof touches you, only regards you with sad eyes.
  2771. > "Would you have?"
  2772. "If Windy Winters had not come forward, if Chrysocolla hadn't been found or had tried to strike back... I don't know what I'd have considered."
  2773. > You sigh heavily.
  2774. "I was not thinking right. Anger... consumes you sometimes."
  2775. > "But you will not."
  2776. "No. I will not."
  2777. > "And the others-"
  2778. > You raise a single finger to silence her.
  2779. "First, I think we both need to freshen up. Second, I think it might be better if we actually discussed this all in the camp, not sealed away up here, no?"
  2780. > Understanding dawns on Cadance's face, followed quickly by approval.
  2781. > "Very much so. My office again, then?"
  2782. "Yes, that sounds good. I'll see you there... one hour."
  2783. [Choice]
  2784. >...
  2785. > The afternoon is unseasonably warm, as if a portent of the end of winter and the coming spring.
  2786. > Or, perhaps, of the embers of discontent burning in the camp - ready to burst into flame at any moment.
  2787. > Though rapidly falling towards the horizon, the sun was not yet set.
  2788. > You'd ended the work day hours early and called this gathering while the sky was still light.
  2789. > The ponies - your ponies - needed to see this with their own eyes, all of them.
  2790. > Merely listening to a PA system speak was not enough.
  2791. > And so every single pony was crowded into an open field on the edge of the camp, their collective body warmth combined to form a blanket of heat over the equine mass - enough to stave off the falling temperature even once the sun vanished.
  2792. > "Are you ready for this, Master?"
  2793. > Tearing your eyes from the murmuring horde of four-legged shapes, you glance down to the alicorn at your side and shake your head.
  2794. "No. Not ready. Not in the least. But time waits for no man - or pony. Come."
  2795. > There is no need to call for quiet as you step out onto the stage.
  2796. > From the moment you are in sight, a wave of silence sweeps through the crowd.
  2797. > Rumors, as you expected, have been spreading.
  2798. > A few guards linger just out of sight behind you; Gene had made the correct call in assuming that trying to surround you with a wall of men and arms would only make you seem standoffish and vulnerable.
  2799. > Instead, the only ones that accompanied you out on to the speaking platform were three ponies:
  2800. > Cadance, and two of the ponies who had elected to take up positions as guards.
  2801. > Neither was Thunderlane.
  2802. > You weren't clear exactly where he was, but you had some guesses.
  2803. > When questioned, Gene had simply shaken his head and said the stallion would not be there.
  2804. > You hadn't pushed it.
  2805. > Halting in front of the podium that had been set up, you pause and wait for the last whispers to die away.
  2806. "There is no easy way to say this."
  2807. > Voice alone was incapable of reaching all the crowd's ears, and so your words echoed from a handful of mobile speakers hastily arranged for the purpose.
  2808. "Over the last week, we have all been rocked by a series of events - a pony savagely beaten by her own kin, a hunt for those responsible - and yes, a death."
  2809. > A gentle ripple runs through the crowd, but for the moment you still hold their attention.
  2810. "No doubt a great many of you have heard a great many things at this point, so let me start by addressing the greatest issue at hand: Chrysocolla is indeed dead. She was one of four ponies who had beaten Mocha Cream, and was being hunted for this. Having been cornered in a hideout she constructed in an electrical vault, she chose to take her own life rather than face capture. She chose to do this because she feared torture at my hands - because she believed that death was a preferable alternative to being at my mercy-"
  2811. > "She was right!"
  2812. > The lone speaker is close, but is quickly drowned out by a hubbub of others responding.
  2813. > You wait for it to die some before raising your voice again:
  2814. "The truth is, actually, that I am not innocent in this and will not pretend to be. I am in many ways responsible for her fate even though I did not lay a hand on her. I was the one who terrified her with a hasty message - given in anger when I heard of what had happened to Mocha Cream, and indeed I bear responsibility for it."
  2815. > Once again you solidly have the crowd's attention; they had not been expecting that at all.
  2816. "When I said that I was becoming personally involved now, Chrysocolla had only my past examples to consider. She examined, and came to the conclusion that to be in my power was something to be feared - to be avoided at any cost. Because she remembered what happened to Corona."
  2817. > All at once the crowd flinches in unison, as if struck.
  2818. > They clearly had not expected you to utter that name - thought you would refuse to acknowledge the mare had ever existed, let alone that she had been tortured at your hands.
  2819. > Voices rising in a confused rabble, a million little arguments break out among them.
  2820. > And you let it happen - let them discuss.
  2821. > A unified crowd would be the worst possible thing at this moment - it might go with you, but it might just as well go against you.
  2822. > So for several long minutes you simply stand, allowing discussion, before silencing the crowd with a few short blows to the podium.
  2823. "...this, I think, is a topic that has festered too long in the darkness without being addressed. Now, we have to rip off the bandage and face this matter directly."
  2824. > No chance is given for discussion this time; you jump straight into it.
  2825. "Some time ago, a particular mare was chosen to be an example of punishment deserved for an escape. What followed after that, however, was a thuggish piece of brutality the blame for which rests solely on my shoulders. I allowed my anger to take hold of me, and rather than a mere punishment I acted with intend to break her. She suffered - worse, I would say, than the actual punishment given to those who had planned and lead the escape. I allowed myself to vent my anger against someone who had no cause for it, and it was this mistake - this catastrophic failure by me and me alone - that Chrysocolla thought of when she was cornered."
  2826. > As the words poured out, you could feel your voice becoming shakier.
  2827. > Emotions, being drawn up - the memories of the fury you'd unleashed on Corona, the deep and driving anger you'd in turn focused upon yourself when you'd come to your senses afterward.
  2828. > The endless regret for what it had set in motion.
  2829. > Letting them hear those feelings, and know your words were not empty.
  2830. "I compounded this by cutting myself off in the aftermath, leading Chrysocolla to the entirely rational assumption that if I were to 'get directly involved' again, it would be for her to suffer a similar fate."
  2831. "There is, of course, no way to undo the damage that I have done, and I will continue to bear the blame for that. I do not expect the consequences of it to go away, nor do I expect their memories to simply vanish away. But, that does not mean I cannot look forward to the future."
  2832. > Leaning in now, you let your voice begin to rise:
  2833. "No reason that we - together - cannot fix the lapses now and keep this from happening in the future. Keep any lives from being needlessly lost. Keep hatred from festering into violence. And the first step of this is to show that no pony has to fear torture and brutality at my hands."
  2834. > A single hand motion sets the signal.
  2835. > Five guards - five pony guards - lead the remaining three responsible ponies up onto the stage.
  2836. > The crowd's eyes immediately snap to them, seeing the shackles, hobbling chains, and heavy muzzles Autumn Frost and Comet Tail bore; seeing the way two guards walked with each pony leading them at the end of chains to their collars and muzzles.
  2837. > Taking in the deep fury with which they continued to glare at you.
  2838. > But it is when Windy Winters ascends the stage from the opposite side, unbound and with only a rope linked to his collar, that a true murmur of surprise runs through all the assembled ponies.
  2839. "...the other three ponies responsible for Mocha Cream's savage beating. Not chosen at random, not by whim or by opinion, but turned in by a handful of others among you who understood what would come of violence like that."
  2840. > Though you had not said anything about Windy Winters being included in that category, the other two had evidently guessed his participation in it.
  2841. > If Autumn Frost's glare at you had seemed to be enough to melt flesh, now she skewered him with expressions so fearsome it seemed as if he might burst into flame at any moment.
  2842. > Comet Tail takes a more direct route - rearing up and heaving at his chains as he tries to charge the other stallion, held only in place by the guards accompanying him.
  2843. > Were it not for the muzzles, both would surely be unleashing their exact feelings for their one-time compatriot.
  2844. "And, perhaps more importantly, not been victim to some parade of horrific tortures. Not broken. Not brutalized. They will face the consequences of what they did, and nothing more - and that will not be torturous either. There is no place in this camp for those who would choose to remorselessly beat innocent fillies simply for carrying out their given orders, and so their sentence is simple: They will be removed. Sold off, not to return."
  2845. > A fresh hubbub breaks out, the shock being too much.
  2846. > Not surprising; never before had you used expulsion from the camp as an actual punishment.
  2847. > Flagrant floggings and worse, yes - but never altogether expulsion.
  2848. > You're forced to raise your voice, speaking over the crowd to be heard:
  2849. "Windy Winters: You alone turned yourself in, knowing full well what you would face. You alone were apologetic, understanding that what you had taken part in was wrong. On account of this you will face no other punishment, and I will endeavor to ensure that you are purchased by a safe; should you find your way back here again with no more trouble, you will be allowed to return. I also extend the same to Comet Tail and Autumn Frost: Should you show due repentance for your actions, you too can receive the same."
  2850. > Their response is immediate and clear.
  2851. > Autumn Frost simply turns her head away, while Comet Tail looks you straight in the eye and manages to open his lips far enough to spit on the stage.
  2852. > Well, given the muzzle it's more like 'drool on the stage', but the point is made.
  2853. > Always the provocateur, right until the end.
  2854. "...very well. You will, both of you, be marked to indicate your unrepentant violence. Your feathers will be clipped, and an inhibitor implant put in as you cannot be trusted with your natural talents. Cadance, I turn them over to you to carry the sentence is carried out."
  2855. > Anger from the first two is expected, but Windy Winters simply bows his head in passive recognition of his fate.
  2856. > As they are being lead away, however, once again a single voice cries up from the crowd:
  2857. > "How in Tartarus do we trust you? How do we know they haven't been tortured, or that you would give them any chance-"
  2858. > "I will watch him."
  2859. > Cadance steps up beside you, her voice echoing without any need for microphone or speakers.
  2860. > "I am guilty for what happened to Corona too; I have that weight on my soul too. I cannot let it happen to another."
  2861. "...and if you will not trust her - Mellowheart! Nurse Mellowheart, come forward would you please?"
  2862. > At first, nothing happens.
  2863. > The ripple begins somewhere in the back of the crowd, slowly pushing forward.
  2864. > By the time she reaches the front, ponies are already moving out of Mellowheart's way.
  2865. > She strides a few paces forward from the edge of the crowd and stops there, staring defiantly up at you.
  2866. > "What?"
  2867. "...you have made it abundantly clear that you have no tolerance for torture, that you are even willing to put yourself at risk to make it known what you thought is wrong. Will you examine Windy Winters, to see if I have tortured him into submission? Will you examine Chrysocolla's remains, and verify the truth of how she died?"
  2868. > The mare stands still for several long moments, seeming to turn that over in her mind.
  2869. > "Is this an order or a request?"
  2870. "It... is an order. I order you examine them, and find the truth. I order you to tell nothing but the truth. Even if I am lying, then to tell the truth will let all of you know what I am. If I am honest, then the truth will show that I am no monster and that I only meet violence with violence."
  2871. > Mellowheart's face splits into an angry grin.
  2872. > "You don't need to tell me. If I find so much as a hint you're trying to pull the wool over our eyes-"
  2873. "Then I will deserve every bit of hell that will descend on my head."
  2874. > With that you spin and leave the stage entirely, your point made.
  2875. > Everything you could do now was done; it all depended on what Cadance and Mellowheart choose to say.
  2876. > While the nurse would have to wait before giving her verdict, the alicorn immediately takes the center stage.
  2877. > "As I said before, I too bear responsibility for this tragedy. However, what happened to Mocha Cream was a choice made by those four - a choice to, rather than directing their anger at the state of bondage we live in towards some useful task, vent it upon a mare who had equally little choice in the duty she was given."
  2878. > She is quickly getting into the flow of her speech, leaning forward with wings spreading.
  2879. > "Furthermore, this is no longer just about slavery and obedience or rebellion. It was a blow against the common bond of friendship Equestria was built upon and we still survive on amid this bondage. It was a blow against our ability to live side by side as ponies, against our efforts to preserve anything of our ways here."
  2880. > Pausing, Cadance turns her head away - not just from the crowd, but from you as well.
  2881. > Perhaps to hide her pained expression as the next words are given.
  2882. > "...because of this, I have to concur that this punishment does fit the crime. There is no place for them here. No matter how much anger might fill our hearts at the injustice we face, we cannot tolerate violence against each other. Friendship and camaraderie sustain us in these dark times, and we cannot afford to lose it."
  2883. > Gaze returning to the crowd - driven and fierce - she sweeps it across the assembled ponies, and then to you.
  2884. > "I, as your leader, will give my every breath before I admit defeat and allow us to be mindlessly brutalized, no matter who is responsible. To those of you who still rail against the bondage we live in - I urge you not to let that spirit die, for if it does I say we are no longer even ponies."
  2885. > Another pause, during which she seems to struggle for words before simply giving up.
  2886. > "...that is all."
  2887. > With that Cadance dismounts the stage eyes locked ramrod straight ahead and face covered with what you know by now to be a practiced mask.
  2888. > As you march away together, she murmurs:
  2889. > "That was a good touch with Mellowheart. Do you trust her, though? It could go badly if she lies."
  2890. "Gene's report indicated she was cooperative with Thunderlane. It's needless brutality that angers her, not me blindly. I think she will speak the truth."
  2891. > Cadance nods and says no more on the topic.
  2892. > At least not until you are far from the assembled ponies; only then does her mask break.
  2893. > Her everything - tail, ears, wings, head, everything - falling as the energy and fire seems to desert her.
  2894. > Reaching out, you rest a gentle hand on her withers.
  2895. > Not the teasing or possessive touch you had used this morning, but one of soft reassurance.
  2896. "You did well, Cadance."
  2897. > "I am sending ponies to their deaths, Anonymous. This weighs on my heart, even if they deserve it and have had every chance to apologize."
  2898. "They are not going straight to euthanasia, and they can even avoid the worst work camps if they turn around their behavior-"
  2899. > "Do not pretend that there is a real question about this, Anonymous. Neither of them will change."
  2900. > Her tone is unusually snappy, and Cadance glares up at you through narrowed eyes that are beginning to water.
  2901. > "Hatred has a firm grip on them - trust me that I know what is in their hearts - and being placed in a harder camp will not release that grip. They will only lash out more, a vicious spiral..."
  2902. > Halting in place, Cadance's eyes fall once more to the ground as her legs begin to tremble.
  2903. > "Doing it by proxy makes it no less certain. We have executed them. Their blood is on your hands - and my hooves."
  2904. [Choice]
  2905. "You might be right about that, Cadance, but they didn't give us much of a choice. This went well beyond anything that could be handle with any lesser punishment, not a whipping or anything. You said as much yourself."
  2906. > Shrugging lightly, you resume trudging forward.
  2907. "They chose to do this. They chose to target a filly. They chose to refuse every way out I gave them. They chose to be completely unrepentant. That isn't on your hooves. And if they manage to turn themselves around, they might survive still."
  2908. > "Yes. But it still tears at me."
  2909. > Cadance had managed to start herself moving again too, keeping pace at your side.
  2910. "It is hard, I'm not arguing that. But is there any choice at all here? If we didn't crush this now, violence would only have spread. A pony might even have been killed here."
  2911. > "A pony was killed here."
  2912. > You fix her with a hard look.
  2913. "You know what I mean. The points I'm trying to make are, they gave us zero choice and made their own decisions. None of that can be blamed on you."
  2914. > "Easy to say, but..."
  2915. > The alicorn had stopped again, the trembling of her legs becoming too much to easily walk straight.
  2916. > Instead she falls to her haunches and stares into the distance.
  2917. > "...truly, I have never been a part of condemning a pony like this. Not even when I ruled."
  2918. "Really?"
  2919. > "To death? Never."
  2920. > A hesitating pause, and then:
  2921. > "Once. A stallion so dark and terrible he was destroyed by the forces of love and hope united. And even then I did not... choose. Merely was a part of putting it in action."
  2922. > You can't hold back the slight snort.
  2923. > That does sound like something that would come out of Equestria.
  2924. "And what did he do, that stallion?"
  2925. > "King Sombra, who enslaved a nation to his will and broke their minds with his dark powers. There was nothing left to be spared in his dark heart."
  2926. > Again, a reflexive action - this time, flinching at her words.
  2927. > Was she saying she would execute you, if she could?
  2928. > But her tone was not the least hateful or threatening.
  2929. > Stepping around in front of her, you drop to one knee and rest a hand on her cheek.
  2930. "You know what the alternative was here, Cadance? To ensure that we don't have to face this again? The alternative was that I took those two in and had them broken until they would bow at Mocha's hooves and beg forgiveness."
  2931. > This time it is her turn to flinch, knowing full well the kind of torment that would be required to drive Comet Tail or Autumn Frost to such actions.
  2932. > "No. That - would be a living death."
  2933. "Agreed. But hand - or hoof, whatever - has been forced. Their decision to change - or not - once they're sold is theirs alone; you shouldn't bear it."
  2934. > Sighing, Cadance leans her head lightly into your hand.
  2935. > "I know. Objectively, I know."
  2936. "Then you don't have to worry about me turning into Sombra or something."
  2937. > "It's not you I'm worried about, Anonymous. You don't have the magic to do that, so ponies will always resist you."
  2938. > Her eyes rise up to lock on you, still riven with pain.
  2939. > "It's me. I'm afraid of what I'm becoming, finding excuses of a 'need' to hand out punishments that I'll move down that road."
  2940. "...trust me, Cadance, if half the things I've heard about him are true you're nowhere near him. You're too attached to the memory of your aunt."
  2941. > "Maybe."
  2942. "I mean this, Cadance. Being a ruler means to be hard choices, but nothing I've seen from you - despite how much it might frustrate me sometimes - makes me think you're in danger of that. The degree you're tearing yourself apart over this, even..."
  2943. > This time she just nods, eyes closing again.
  2944. > "Sometimes, I wish I could just throw this position down and walk away from it. Go back to being a simple pony."
  2945. > You aren't quite sure how to respond to that, so you settle for just giving her cheek a little rub.
  2946. "If it gives you any hope... if at any point before they're marked and sold off you can get through to Comet Tail or Autumn Frost, I'll hold my option open."
  2947. > "They won't listen to me. They hate me."
  2948. "But then you can tell yourself you tried everything, and they still chose."
  2949. > To this, Cadance nods again.
  2950. > "I suppose so. I suppose that is all I can do..."
  2951.  
  2952. > In the end, Vapor Trail had stayed the whole night with you.
  2953. > At first she had sat and listened while you told your story in halting bursts, scooting ever closer each time until she was huddled to your side.
  2954. > Even when her roommate appeared, Vapor had simply urged you up and retreated back to your own quarters where she stayed until morning.
  2955. > Dinner was long since over - the dining hall having closed while you were curled on the floor of her quarters.
  2956. > But between yours and her the rations handed out for off-hours meals, Vapor had been able to scrap together something of a dinner which she fed into you practically under threat.
  2957. > You'd eaten, but numbly - mechanically chewing and swallowing as your mind was still somewhere far away.
  2958. > After that Vapor had allowed you to curl against her on the bed, your head resting on her ribs and listening to her heart beat.
  2959. > One wing was extended over your head, cloaking you in a white blanket that took the world away as her muzzle brushed at your mane.
  2960. > Unfortunately, all of that could not keep away what was already inside of you.
  2961. > How long had you stayed like that, still in her hooves as the tears intermittently came?
  2962. > Why was this loss even weighing so hard on you?
  2963. > You'd hardened your heart to betray Cadance and five more ponies for your brother's safety.
  2964. > You'd known there would be no mercy for them.
  2965. > And again done the same for Crescent Moon.
  2966. > Chrysocolla's death, though...
  2967. > Maybe it was that it was more than a whipping - that she was gone now forever.
  2968. > Or maybe it was seeing it happen right there before you.
  2969. > Watching her raise her head - that mad glint in her eye - and squeeze the cable between her teeth.
  2970. > The awful flash and buzz, leaving only-
  2971. > A fresh spasm runs through your body, new tears leaking from your eyes.
  2972. > "Shhh..."
  2973. > Above you, Vapor Trail's muzzle again brushes across your forehead.
  2974. > This mare...
  2975. "I don't deserve you..."
  2976. > "Yes, you do."
  2977. "No, I don't. I couldn't stop her. Wasn't able to keep her alive. A pony is dead because of me..."
  2978. > "No. A pony is dead because she was a slave. Because she was driven by the suffering heaped on us every day to snap and attack one of our own, and then had no reasonable authority to turn to who she couldn't-"
  2979. > Vapor breaks off, shaking her head.
  2980. > "I'm sorry. I shouldn't be laying this on you... my point is, it's your fault least of all."
  2981. "I was chasing her. I should have checked, thought about another option, been able to keep her from grabbing the cable-"
  2982. > "No. This is not your fault. At all."
  2983. > You can feel the breath of each word brushing over your coat.
  2984. > "It's Chrysocolla's fault for snapping and hurting another pony who wasn't doing anything wrong. And it's the slavers' fault for putting us into this situation. But it is not your fault."
  2985. "Why are you even supporting me...? You should hate me. I'm helping them. I'm-"
  2986. > Her only response is to wrap two legs around you - around neck and barrel - and hug tight.
  2987. > After a few moments you relax, a few more tears flowing freely out.
  2988. > Rather than run onto the already-damp bed, however, their path is interrupted by Vapor's muzzle.
  2989. > Brushing them away, she lays a soft kiss on your forehead.
  2990. > "Remember her, Thunderlane. Remember a pony driven mad by all of this, and when we're free - then we can still make sure she isn't forgotten."
  2991. > When morning comes, Vapor Trail slips away.
  2992. > You understand.
  2993. > She has her shift duties to get to, and 'caring for a wreck of a stallion not fit to be a guard' wasn't a viable excuse for missing them.
  2994. > By the time you manage to heave yourself out of bed, there wasn't any time left to grab any breakfast either.
  2995. > Instead you find yourself going through the typical morning motions in a sort of stumbling daze:
  2996. > Showering alone, every other pony having long since departed.
  2997. > Pulling on your uniform, wings and legs operating on their own.
  2998. > As if you half expected to walk into the security post an find that the hunt hadn't even begun yet.
  2999. > But there is no such luck.
  3000. > If anything. Gene looks shocked to see you walk in.
  3001. > "Thunderlane. I told you not to come back!"
  3002. "I'm sorry. I need to be here."
  3003. > "You need time to recover."
  3004. > Standing, Gene walks around from his desk to stare down at you with a concerned look.
  3005. > "I mean it, Thunderlane."
  3006. "So do I. I can't be sitting in one place doing nothing; it all just swirls around in my head. Given me something to do, even if it's just mopping floors."
  3007. > A glimmer of understanding appears in his eyes.
  3008. > "...okay. I will get you something. We have paperwork waiting always."
  3009. > Paperwork is fine.
  3010. > More than fine.
  3011. > It's not truly challenging, as you do sometimes find yourself wracked by subtle shaking.
  3012. > But not so mindless that your thoughts can sweep away to nothingness and find their way back to the memories.
  3013. > So you throw yourself into it, filling out paperwork, inventory, and more until your jaw aches and hooves are stained with ink.
  3014. > Evening approaches, and Gene leans in to the office he'd parked you in.
  3015. > "So you know, Thunderlane, Anonymous is going to be giving a speech on all this."
  3016. "I..."
  3017. > "Will be skipping it. Stay here."
  3018. > You settle back into the seat, obvious relief exuding from your posture.
  3019. > Facing Cadance - facing everypony else - right now wasn't something you could handle.
  3020. > So you remain there, filling out paperwork, even when the guards return from the speech and then head back out again.
  3021. > It is in the midst of these things, while stepping away to find more envelopes, you pause amid the hallways of the guard post - an ear cocked.
  3022. > Something had pulled your attention, a noise that was decidedly out of place in the guard post.
  3023. > A moment passes, and it comes again.
  3024. > "...down this way, okay?"
  3025. > "Thanks, Mister guard! I promise we'll stay away from them like you said!"
  3026. > The voices are relatively easy to follow.
  3027. > Turning a corner, you spot the bearers further up ahead.
  3028. > One of them you know very well - Milestone was one of your guards, a reliable unicorn.
  3029. > The other, though...
  3030. > You'd only ever seen Flurry Heart and Megan at a distance, but both of them were of course instantly recognizable.
  3031. "Mi-"
  3032. > Your voice cracks from disuse, forcing you to clear your throat.
  3033. "Milestone, what's going on here?"
  3034. > Jumping at your call, the unicorn turns - eyes wide with surprise.
  3035. > "Oh! Thunderlane, I'm - I'm sorry, I didn't know you were..."
  3036. "S'fine."
  3037. > You nod to the other two, and Milestone looks to them a moment before jumping.
  3038. > "Oh! Them! Uh, they came down with one of the servants from the house. Apparently she is supposed to be speaking to the three prisoners before they're sent off."
  3039. > "I promise we'll be safe, Mister Thunderlane!"
  3040. > Megan's tone is eager and hopeful, and she looks at you with expectant eyes.
  3041. > ...they might try to be, but one guard against three prisoners - if something did happen...
  3042. "Anyone else around to help you with this, Milestone?"
  3043. > "No; other guards are out on patrol right now."
  3044. > Damn.
  3045. "I'll go with you."
  3046. > "Thunderlane, I..."
  3047. > Stepping in closer, Milestone leans in and reduces his voice to a whisper.
  3048. > "...are you going to be okay with them?"
  3049. "I can manage."
  3050. [Choice]
  3051. "...Milestone..."
  3052. > You lift a hoof to rub your eyes, trying to clear the cobwebs from your mind.
  3053. "...you were going to let her in a cell with three rebels, two of whom are still very dangerous? How did she even get down here? Who came with her?"
  3054. > "It was Canele. And they're shackled in place, Thunderlane - it's not like she'll actually be able to get close to them. I wouldn't let her."
  3055. > One of the manor's chefs had brought Mocha down?
  3056. > Why-
  3057. > No, nevermind why.
  3058. > He was a tough cookie, but that wasn't any excuse for what had happened here.
  3059. "Miss Megan - did Master Anonymous really tell you to come here and speak to them?"
  3060. > "Uh-huh!"
  3061. > Her nod is enthusiastic and immediate, golden curls bouncing around her head.
  3062. > Flurry Heart, however...
  3063. > Well, the first word that you would use to describe the poor filly is "uncertain".
  3064. > She's clearly well out of her depth here, no doubt in part due to not having ever entered the camp before.
  3065. > But more importantly there's a moment of uncertainty when Megan responds so clearly.
  3066. "...right. So, he sent you down here, through the camp, without a single guard? Without calling in advance, or coming back here after the big speech he just gave that had everypony else away?"
  3067. > You're so skeptical, you even forget that Anonymous' official term for this place was 'facility', not 'camp'.
  3068. > "Uh... huh."
  3069. > This time, Megan does not sound nearly as certain either.
  3070. > Nor does Milestone, for whom it seems to be dawning just what he may have gotten himself into.
  3071. > Flurry...
  3072. > Poor Flurry Heart looks downright terrified.
  3073. "...so, if I went to a phone and called Master Anonymous' number right now, he'd agree that he really ordered this too?"
  3074. > "Yeeeeeah?"
  3075. > No certainty at all.
  3076. "Good. Because that's what I'm going to do. Milestone, keep her here."
  3077. > "NO!"
  3078. > Megan scurries around with surprising speed, putting herself directly in your way.
  3079. > Flurry Heart follows at a much more uncertain pace.
  3080. > "No, you shouldn't, he doesn't need to-"
  3081. "Miss Megan, what you are suggesting is not only very dangerous, but I think you are lying to me."
  3082. > "I'm... I'm not! And you have to let me speak to them!"
  3083. > "Mistress Megan-"
  3084. > Flurry Heart's interruption goes unnoticed by the little girl, but you can't miss it - it's the first time you'd actually heard the alicorn filly speak, and those two words speak volumes.
  3085. > She's worried, but not terrified.
  3086. > Along with her body language - those outsized wings make her very easy to read - you get the feeling she is scared for Megan, not scared of her.
  3087. "I do not have to do that. I have to keep you safe. That is my job as a guard."
  3088. > "Yes, you do!"
  3089. > Her shoulders bunch up, fists balling and pout forming.
  3090. > "Because - because I have to know! And because - because you're a slave and you have to do what I say!"
  3091. > The second the words leave Megan's lips it hits her exactly what she said.
  3092. > Before you can even begin to formulate a response, her face goes pale and hand slaps up to cover her mouth.
  3093. > "I... I didn't-"
  3094. "...Milestone, would you keep her here? I have a call to place."
  3095. > "Yeah, go ahead, Thunderlane."
  3096. > Just as you turn to walk away, however, Flurry Heart abruptly breaks from Megan's side to stand in your path.
  3097. > "M-Mister Thunderlane?"
  3098. > Despite her young age, the filly manages an imposing figure on account of her wings and determined expression on her face.
  3099. > Not sure what to do, you settle for simply cocking your head.
  3100. > "Please... Mistress Megan didn't mean it. You... don't have to call him-"
  3101. "Flurry Heart... I imagine you have to follow Miss Megan's orders, yes?"
  3102. > "Uh-huh."
  3103. "I have to follow Anonymous' orders. And his orders are clear: If I think there's anyone is at risk, I have to stop it. Whether or not they mean what they say."
  3104. > "I-I know. B-But she wants this very much, and... maybe you could call him after? If she is going to be in trouble any way..."
  3105. > Despite yourself, you can't help but soften your expression some.
  3106. > What had happened between this filly and the girl, to make her willing to stand up for her 'Mistress' when there was no need to?
  3107. > Seeing your uncertainty, Flurry Heart adopts an even more heartachingly hopeful expression.
  3108. > "A-And Mister Milestone said the bad ponies won't even be able to touch us. It'll be safe, right?"