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My Little Persona: Social Links are Magic - CMC DLC

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Created: 26th December 2020 06:16:05 PM

  1. >in another place, at another time
  2. >there comes a desperate pounding noise amidst the typical cacophony of voices and howling wind
  3. >but the door of an unlit room holds fast
  4. >muffled begging on the other side accompanies the quickly weakening blows
  5. >it is a futile assault, of course
  6. >if they do not meet the conditions for entry, no force will grant them purchase
  7. >their pitiful calls for aid need not be answered
  8. >even if they were so permitted, no action would be required of the inhabitants
  9. >the disturbance outside will soon mend itself
  10. >the roiling ocean of din beyond the door shall presently consume the source, leaving the room silent once more
  11. >if nothing is done to stop its obliteration, that is
  12. >those within are bound by obligation not to interfere
  13. >and those without lack the power to change fate
  14. >if the door is to open, it must be by the choice of another
  15. >but agency carries with it the burden of responsibility
  16. >to permit entry is to welcome a host of other choices for which your input will be integral
  17. >so
  18. >this is a very important decision
  19. >as such, you must choose wisely
  20. >does the door open?
  21.  
  22. >Yes
  23. No
  24.  
  25. >and indeed, with a click, the door opens
  26. >it swings inward slowly, as though pushed by a gentle breeze
  27. >blue cloth spills forward in a flood from the room within, and wraps around the small equine form laying before it
  28. >swaddled in velvet cloth, it gets dragged forward
  29. >(or does the room move to meet it?)
  30. >the door closes, the swirling madness beyond sealed off again
  31. >and from within, a wistful, mysterious melody begins to play
  32. >...
  33. >very well
  34. >the course of events has been altered by your choice
  35. >we ask only that you take full responsibility for those you make from here on out
  36. >after all, thou chooseth this fate of thine own free will
  37.  
  38. [Poem for a Crusader's Soul]
  39.  
  40. >...
  41. >"Hello."
  42. >your eyes creak open like they've been shut for months, a vague indigo blur beginning to seep into your vision from out of the black
  43. >every joint and muscle in your body seems to fight you as you put all your energy into pulling yourself out of a total slump
  44. >you blink a couple times, the fuzzy blue color reluctantly beginning to show some vague definition of shape
  45. >not much, but some
  46. >"Ah, indeed, we received your correspondence recently and have been awaiting further communication."
  47. >you focus on your limbs next, just looking for any response to start with
  48. >once you can feel them shifting, getting upright seems within the realm of possibility
  49. >slowly, you stumble to your hooves, waiting for your vision to give you something other than blue to look at
  50. >a reedy voice, now evolving beyond just a jumble of sounds, drags and chirps syllables like somepony is playing with a record on a turn table
  51. >"Yes, yes, completely understandable."
  52. >the lilting sounds of piano music reach your ears as you shake your head slowly, the voice seeming to echo around the room
  53. >the room?
  54. >you look around, dimly realizing that the reason you can't discern much is that you're awash in a sea of blue curtains
  55. >"That being said, it is policy that all applicants must reach a certain level of notoriety before being reconsidered."
  56. >a short pause, and you hold up a hoof and pull the curtains to one side
  57. >as you do, the piano's melody wavers ever so slightly, the note trembling like a leaf on the wind
  58. >you let the curtain drop, turning in a different direction as your ears perk to a new sound
  59. >the light and airy voice of a singer, their wordless vocalizations stirring a strange feeling in your chest
  60. >not quite happiness, but maybe pride?
  61. >the word escapes you
  62. >it feels like you're half-here
  63. >where is here, anyway?
  64. >"My master of course appreciates your interest in the position, and will keep you in mind going forward."
  65. >you pull at another curtain, and are rewarded with an immediate increase in volume from the piano
  66. >the singer seems invigorated as well, and even the sapphire light that seems to permeate this place brightens a bit
  67. >"Is there more we may assist you with at this time?"
  68. >you take the change to be a good sign, and push a little further through, hooves finding purchase on a deep cerulean rug
  69. >cautiously, you poke your head out
  70. >(it feels like "out", at least)
  71. >and suddenly, revelation
  72. >you can see the back of a hunched figure, sat on an overstuffed couch and bent over a thick oaken roundtable, his head barely peaking over his shoulders
  73. >the suit gives off the unmistakable air of formality, but all you can make of the one wearing it is his bald head, sparkling like a polished gem
  74. >that and the tips of his pointed ears that jut from his head, along with a thin beige-colored rod
  75. >further in, a grand piano sits on a slightly elevated stage, turning almost imperceptibly slow
  76. >on its bench you see a filly with a blue coat, probably close to your age
  77. >er, maybe they're a colt?
  78. >their silver mane is trimmed almost distressingly short and swept back, hidden under a flat fabric cap that's pushed up by their horn
  79. >their eyes are closed as they play their enigmatic movement, using their wings to stabilize as they move along the row of ivory
  80. >nearby, another pony so much like the first you can barely tell them apart, save that this one has a longer mane pulled into a bun, is sat before a microphone
  81. >their voice quavers as they sing, their golden eyes unfocused
  82. >you notice in addition to the cap, she's wearing a pair of blue earmuffs
  83. >you begin to wonder how they can hear themselves sing to keep on pitch--
  84. >"Right. If that is the case,"
  85. >the stilted voice from before, now undeniably the figure in black, interrupts your thoughts
  86. >"I must attend to other matters: I now have a visitor."
  87. >there's a beep, and a white-gloved finger presses the tip of the antenna down below his shoulder, before the entire couch-and-table arrangement rotates smoothly and soundlessly to face you
  88. >wait, no
  89. >the singer and pianist are both much closer now
  90. >did the whole room move?
  91. >did you move?
  92. >the human sitting on the couch looks up to you, his long pointed nose reminding you of a bird of prey
  93. >his wild, bulging eyes seem to take you in from hoof to head in a single glance, a rictus grin spreading across his face
  94. >"Ah, greetings!"
  95. >the slender gloved fingers adjust a pocket square in his breast pocket, before extending a hand to beckon you closer
  96. >"Welcome, visitor; it would seem introductions are in order."
  97. >"My name is Igor. I am most pleased to make your acquaintance."
  98. >he gives as deep a bow as his sitting position allows and then sweeps his arms out
  99. >much to your surprise you spot another young alicorn to his right, their deep gold eyes staring directly into yours
  100. >their expression is unreadable, but something about their gaze is a little off-putting
  101. >his other hand gestures over towards the pair of musicians, who continue their performance
  102. >they seem oblivious to the fact they were mentioned
  103. >"These three are Felix, Safie, and Agatha. Like myself, they reside here in the Velvet Room."
  104. >"It is a place that resides between mind and matter, between dream and reality."
  105. >"However, your presence here is most unexpected. I am afraid that before we continue, we must address the matter of your arrival."
  106. >"Please take a moment, before recollecting to the best of your ability."
  107. >you begin to open your mouth, before you're stricken with a realization
  108. >how exactly did you get here, again?
  109. >the more you probe your memory, the more distressing it gets
  110. >ponies, places, events
  111. >it's like ten details melt away whenever you grasp onto one
  112. >okay
  113. >start with the basics
  114. >your name
  115. >that's easy, your name is...
  116.  
  117. Apple Bloom
  118. >Scootaloo
  119. Sweetie Belle
  120.  
  121. >of course!
  122. >didn't even need to hesitate, your name is
  123.  
  124. -Sweet Apple Acres-
  125. Cutie Mark Crusaders Clubhouse
  126.  
  127. >"Scootaloo!"
  128. "Hey, sorry I'm late!"
  129. >you lay your scooter down on the grass and trot up the ramp to the treehouse, wiping a bead of sweat from your brow
  130. >you'd rushed over as soon as you finished Ms. Cheerilee's homework
  131. >normally you'd think about putting it off, but today's special
  132. >can't let anything interfere
  133. >so you wave up at your friends, Sweetie Belle and Applebloom, still trying to catch your breath a little as you walk into the clubhouse
  134. >the place is still a bit of a mess, but when wasn't it?
  135. >you clear a spot at the table, pushing the tiny brushes, scissors, and tubes of paint to one side
  136. >AB wasn't quite done painting the OZ-00MS yet, so you carefully pick it up and put it on the shelf for her to finish later
  137. >"Alright y'all, let's go ahead'n call this meeting officially to order!"
  138. >Apple Bloom says, banging the gavel on the self-built podium with a serious expression
  139. >it's undercut by the small squeaking noise that comes from the impact
  140. >you're still using the toy mallet Button had given you all after earning those tickets at the arcade
  141. >(Cutie Mark Crusader Operation: Carpenters hadn't turned out so well, and you're still waiting for Whittle Olmy to cool off a bit before asking to use her tools again to make a real one)
  142. >but the three of you still give it all the gravity it deserves
  143. >which means Sweetie Belle stops rearranging the deck of cards you'd been trying to stack into a house yesterday
  144. >you put the caps on the pink paint tube and put your forehooves on the table, now fully ready
  145. >"First order'a business: we're all here, right?"
  146. >you look to Sweetie and nod seriously
  147. >she nods sharply to Apple Bloom
  148. >and for confirmation, Bloom nods over to you
  149. >"Right!"
  150. >"Right!"
  151. "Right!"
  152. >she checks the box on the meeting agenda, smiling proudly
  153. >looking back up, she continues
  154. >"Second thing: Any old business?"
  155. >you think for a few seconds before raising a hoof
  156. "We did that class with Nurse Redheart!"
  157. >"Oh yeah, she said we were really enthusiastic about the CPR part!"
  158. >"Ah'm not sure that's quite what she wanted though..."
  159. >"She couldn'ta thought we did too bad, we got lollipops at the end!"
  160. "And gauze, too."
  161. >"Enough fer a costume, even!"
  162. >Applebloom smiles to herself, clearly thinking of how to fit it into her ensemble for tonight
  163. >speaking of
  164. "Oh yeah, Sweetie, did you get permission from your sister to finish your costume with her sewing machine?"
  165. >"Well, no..."
  166. >she shrugs but doesn't seem too perturbed
  167. >"But she did say she'd help me with it!"
  168. >you give a little hoof pump, so excited for evening to get here that your wings start to flutter
  169. "Awesome! I got mine put together last night."
  170. >"An' Granny said she'd help me puttin' on my spoOoOoOoky makeup 'fore we meet up!"
  171. >you nod appreciatively, but then a sudden thought makes you perk up
  172. "Oh, right! I narrowed down the options some, with Pinkie's help and a little scouting of my own."
  173. >it's tough to completely hide the proud smirk you have as you trot over to the easel
  174. >you flip the paper back, a layout of Ponyville's major streets and neighborhoods already drawn up
  175. >the map is labeled 'Cutie Mark Crusaders Operation: Costumed Candy and Confection Collectors'
  176. >and below it in purple you'd added 'Nightmare Night!!!' and a totally wicked drawing of Nightmare Moon
  177. >(please excuse the crudity of the model, you didn't have time to build it to scale or paint it)
  178. >judging by the impressed looks on Bloom and Belle's faces, it definitely passes muster
  179. "So, first I talked with Pinkie Pie, because duh, who knows better than her what neighborhoods passed out the best candy last year?"
  180. >you point to a blob of houses you colored in green, over near High Horse Hills
  181. "She said the ponies in Triple-H give out the full-sized bars, but the yards are so big you have to run the whole night to get to everyone. Caballo Court, on the other hoof, is way easier to trot and they give out big bunches at each house, so you wind up getting more in the long run."
  182. >"That is all the way 'cross town," Apple Bloom points out, "so we might not have time to stop in some of the other places we were talkin' about goin'. Haven't heard anyone at school talkin' about going there either."
  183. >"Maybe we could go with the Riches or the Spoons? Silver said her mom got a golf kart a couple months ago."
  184. "I thought about that, but they both said their parents are going to 'a big dumb boring party', and Silver's not allowed to borrow it on her own. She said they might be able to get out early and join us, though?"
  185. >all three of you let out a little groan, because you know they'd probably rather be out trick or treating all night
  186. >(also because driving a golf kart would be really cool, and you really want to know how fast those babies can go)
  187. >but you pep up, clearing your throat and calling everyone's attention back to the map
  188. "Second, though, I was talking to Carrot Top, and she said they were planning on going all out at the market this year!"
  189. >you point at the area in purple, that wraps around most of the center of town
  190. "Like, the normal stuff is still there, apple bobbing, spider throws, Zecora's magic show, but she said there were going to be all sorts of new things, too: watergun shooting galleries, ring toss, free snacks, clowns! She said there'd be a lot of clowns!"
  191. >you think back for a second
  192. "She was actually really focused on the clowns. And then she got this really weird look on her face, like-- oh, yeah, like that!"
  193. >you point at Sweetie Belle, who shakes her head quickly
  194. >maybe she was thinking about something?
  195. >"That sounds like a barrel o' fun, like a carnival and Nightmare Night rolled into one!"
  196. >"But we might get less candy if we go there," Sweetie almost squeaks out, "so maybe not...?"
  197. >that's a pretty good point, you'll have to ration the candy way more to make it to Hearthswarming if you go to the stalls
  198. "Hmmmm..."
  199. you gesture again, but this time not to the map
  200. >instead, you point out at the orchard itself, where you can see clothes lines with sheets draped over them tied between the trees
  201. "And there's the maze that Big Mac and some of the other ponies have been putting together, we shouldn't forget about that!"
  202. >normally the Amazing Maize Maze was held over near Hayseed's, but thanks to a recent Ankheg infestation, the maze would've been difficult to set up in the usual spot this year
  203. >the Apples are pitching in to help instead, and even if it's a little haphazard, you've seen how much work they put in over the last couple days
  204. >"That'd be super easy to get to, and if it's anything like the one last year, there's all sorts of candy stations along the way!"
  205. >"Ah dunno, was kinda hopin' to see everyone's costumes and such, and what with everyone plannin' at the house, Ah couldn't help but see or overhear most of 'em," Apple Bloom admits
  206. >"Not that Ah mind, there's bound to be plenty of folk come by in all sorts of get-ups!" she continues
  207. >hmm, decisions decisions
  208.  
  209. >the three of you are bound to have fun no matter where you go
  210. >but you'll have to choose something
  211. >after all, Nightmare Night only comes once a year, right?
  212. >so, where should you plan to meet up?
  213.  
  214. >Caballo Court
  215. The Carnival of Candy
  216. The Applabrynth
  217.  
  218. >"If'n we go ta Caballo Court, we're bound to run into ponies in all sorts of fun costumes, so ya won't hear no complaints from me!"
  219. >Apple Bloom says after a moment's thought
  220. >"Plus if Pinkie says it's a good spot, we can't go wrong," Sweetie agrees
  221. "I'm hoping we can get DT and Silver out of sitting with their parents all night,"
  222. >you admit, not wanting to show too much bias for any one idea
  223. >but the three of you are all on the same page, so it's hard not to sound a little excited
  224. >after all, this is Nightmare Night!
  225. >dressing up, visiting spooky houses, getting candy, and seeing your friends and neighbors go all out in the spirit of the season!
  226. >Apple Bloom raps the squeaky-mallet on the podium a couple times, and puts her serious face back on
  227. >"Right, then Ah think we're all in agreement. Caballo Court, near that big ol' sign at the entrance? Six thirty? All in favor?"
  228. >"Yeah!"
  229. "Yay!"
  230. >"Alright!"
  231. >she hits it again, letting out a little giggle at the 'squeak-a' noise it makes
  232. >maybe you don't need to hurry so much on trying to carve a wooden one to replace it
  233. >"Should we adjourn now? Still got some time 'fore we have to head out,"
  234. >she volunteers, looking up at the clock hung over the door
  235. >you look at it too, doing a couple quick calculations in your head
  236. >20 minutes to get home, another 20 to get dressed, 15 to get to the meet-up spot, plus dinner...
  237. >hmm
  238. >you've got some time, Bloom's right
  239. "I'll hang out for a while, maybe we can try to finish that game of Risk?"
  240. >Sweetie shakes her head a little sadly as she moves towards the door
  241. >"I should get home so me and Rarity can work on my costume, but thanks!"
  242. >"No problem, Scoots an' I'll work on our own stuff for a bit then."
  243. >the two of you wave goodbye to Sweetie, Apple Bloom retrieving the tiny humanoid model from its shelf while you finish what Belle started, shuffling the cards a few times and setting up for a game of solitaire>"If'n we go ta Caballo Court, we're bound to run into ponies in all sorts of fun costumes, so ya won't hear no complaints from me!"
  244. >Apple Bloom says after a moment's thought
  245. >"Plus if Pinkie says it's a good spot, we can't go wrong," Sweetie agrees
  246. "I'm hoping we can get DT and Silver out of sitting with their parents all night,"
  247. >you admit, not wanting to show too much bias for any one idea
  248. >but the three of you are all on the same page, so it's hard not to sound a little excited
  249. >after all, this is Nightmare Night!
  250. >dressing up, visiting spooky houses, getting candy, and seeing your friends and neighbors go all out in the spirit of the season!
  251. >Apple Bloom raps the squeaky-mallet on the podium a couple times, and puts her serious face back on
  252. >"Right, then Ah think we're all in agreement. Caballo Court, near that big ol' sign at the entrance? Six thirty? All in favor?"
  253. >"Yeah!"
  254. "Yay!"
  255. >"Alright!"
  256. >she hits it again, letting out a little giggle at the 'squeak-a' noise it makes
  257. >maybe you don't need to hurry so much on trying to carve a wooden one to replace it
  258. >"Should we adjourn now? Still got some time 'fore we have to head out,"
  259. >she volunteers, looking up at the clock hung over the door
  260. >you look at it too, doing a couple quick calculations in your head
  261. >20 minutes to get home, another 20 to get dressed, 15 to get to the meet-up spot, plus dinner...
  262. >hmm
  263. >you've got some time, Bloom's right
  264. "I'll hang out for a while, maybe we can try to finish that game of Risk?"
  265. >Sweetie shakes her head a little sadly as she moves towards the door
  266. >"I should get home so me and Rarity can work on my costume, but thanks!"
  267. >"No problem, Scoots an' I'll work on our own stuff for a bit then."
  268. >the two of you wave goodbye to Sweetie, Apple Bloom retrieving the tiny humanoid model from its shelf while you finish what Belle started, shuffling the cards a few times and setting up for a game of solitaire
  269. >you pass a few minutes in silence together, the setting sun making it difficult to see the cards
  270. >from the sounds Bloom's making, it's also tough to see the joints of the Tallgeese
  271. >as you put the seven of hearts on the eight of clubs, a thought crosses your mind
  272. >you look up at the clock and then out the window to the apple fields
  273. "Wait, is Babs coming?"
  274. >"Nah, family reunion isn't until spring, why?"
  275. "...Just wondering."
  276. >something about today feels a little off, but you can't quite put your hoof on it
  277. >but you shrug it off
  278. >strange things happen all the time in Ponyville
  279. >can't worry about it too much, right?
  280. >besides, whatever happens, happens
  281. >four of spades to five of diamonds...
  282.  
  283. -Caballo Court-
  284. Sundown
  285.  
  286. >you adjust the cap on your costume, putting on your best vicious grin
  287. >at least, you think it's pretty vicious
  288. >you've only seen like one wolf, and it was a timberwolf, so you're mostly going on instinct here
  289. >but yeah, faux fur and some cloth make a killer outfit, actually
  290. >a couple pointers from Rarity and a little thrifting and you had a good base, and everything else was just polish
  291. >you spot the enormous sign near the subdivision, only a couple years old but painted to look old and weathered, and see Bloom and Belle standing right nearby
  292. >the three of you had talked about it earlier, but you're still surprised by the actual results
  293. >Apple Bloom opted for a Frankenstein's Bride costume, and Granny Smith laid the makeup on thick, because the dark shadows under her eyes, the fake stitches, and the face paint all have that theater-style overdone look
  294. >it does look really good, though, like she just walked out of a black-and-white movie
  295. >Sweetie is killing it too, obviously having borrowed some costume jewelry from her sister in addition to getting some help with the dress
  296. >you can't remember which Prancian princess it was supposed to be, but judging by the red line around her neck, she must not have been one for too long
  297. >the blood effect is pretty realistic, too, less overt but somehow more creepy since you notice more and more details as you approach
  298. >"Heya Scoots!"
  299. >"Scootaloo!"
  300. "Hey girls, awesome costumes!"
  301. >"You too! Hehe, the button eyes look so cute!"
  302. >"An' you really got the walk down, too!"
  303. "Haha..."
  304. >is it a little warmer out just now, or is it you?
  305. "Anyway! You haven't been here too long, right?"
  306. >"Nah, just got here a couple minutes ago."
  307. >"Here's your bag, Scootaloo!"
  308. >Sweetie digs into her own and pulls out an empty sack, handing it over to you
  309. >you rest it over your back, still smirking in a mix of anticipation and pride
  310. "Alright, then! Let's get moving!"
  311. >the three of you put your hooves together for a quick cheer
  312. "Cutie Mark Crusaders, Candy Collectors!"
  313. >and with that the three of you break into a sprint, eager to get in as much trick-or-treating as one night will allow
  314. -Caballo Courts Northern Section-
  315. Evening
  316.  
  317. >"Nightmare Night, such a fright, give me something sweet to bite!"
  318. >you all give the usual rhyme, Ms. Roseluck playing up the tradition more than you'd have expected
  319. >she acts terrified, peeking out from her doorway and letting out an overdone gasp
  320. >"Oh my, a wolf, a ghost, AND a zombie!"
  321. >she rustles around with something behind the door, before giving you all a grin and offering out a bowl of candy
  322. >"I sure hope a treat like this will stave them off long enough for me to get back inside!"
  323. >the three of you giggle before reaching in for a bar of candy each
  324. >oh, nice!
  325. >a Mega-Snap, those are like the second-best ones, after Chuckles bars
  326. >you saw Pinkie zoom by a few minutes ago, and she was definitely on to something coming here
  327. >(you'd have tried to say hi, but 'zoom' is the exact right word for it, you only knew it was her because the streak of motion had a pink hue on it)
  328. "Thank you Ms. Roseluck!"
  329. >"Yeah, thanks!"
  330. >"Thank you very much!"
  331. >she waves you off, going right back to pretend-scared in an instant
  332. >"Don't thank me, silly spirits, just go haunt someone else, now!"
  333. >and with a wink and a smile, she slips back inside
  334. >you toss it in with the rest of your haul so far as you walk back to the road
  335.  
  336. Obtained: Mercury Bar
  337. Obtained: 1-Googolplex Bar
  338. Obtained: Faerie Stix
  339. Obtained: Box of Dweebs
  340. Obtained: Mega-Snap Bar
  341.  
  342. >a pretty sizable collection, you note
  343. >sure, there were a couple of houses with their lights off already, and Mrs. Goldie Delicious gave you something you're not sure counts as food, never mind a treat
  344. >but your bag is almost a quarter full of high-quality sugar-rush material
  345. >suddenly, you feel someone push past you
  346. >maybe "push" isn't quite the right word, as they seem to slip between you and AB like a snake, causing the coat on the back of your neck to stand on end
  347. >"Ah, don't mind me, Medium Nice Wolf, and-- whoop! My apologies, Missus Fronkensteen!"
  348. >you look up slowly, by now knowing to be cautious when even looking at him
  349. >the gems and metal bits of his costume let off a dangerous glint, and his eyes glow with the unmistakable glint of mischief and madness
  350. >and you find yourself face-to-face with the ever impressive, the long-contained, often imitated but never-duplicated...!
  351.  
  352.  
  353. "Discord!"
  354. >"Discord?"
  355. >"Discord."
  356. >each of you have different reactions to him, but when you notice his outfit, you're all in agreement
  357. "Wait, what are you wearing?"
  358. >"Oh, this little old number?"
  359. >the draconequus gives a little spin, you have to assume so you an all admire his handiwork
  360. >"Don't be jealous girls, I've learned the power of friendship and, oh, just couldn't wait to show it off!"
  361. >he wipes a big floppy tear from his eye with one claw, before flicking it to the ground
  362. >it makes a sizzling sound as you watch it eat through a chunk of Roseluck's yard
  363. >"..."
  364. >"Not buying it, huh?"
  365. >his almost painful-looking grin drops after a couple seconds, before giving you his much more typical, predatory smile
  366. >"I just figured it'd be an appropriate outfit, given the date. Maybe not my first choice of activities, but I've been told in no uncertain terms not to disturb the Queen of the Mooninites, or I'll be sent to make mochi with Jerome for the night, if you get what I'm saying."
  367. >he nudges Sweetie in the side with his elbow, waggling his eyebrows
  368. >you all shake your heads slowly
  369. >"Ugh, kids these days... well, I suppose not everybody can be cultured, like yours truly."
  370. >"Yeah, that's usually reserved fer rare diseases," you hear Apple Bloom mutter under her breath
  371. "Aw, come on Apple Bloom, you don't think his humor's a little infectious?"
  372. >you chuckle
  373. >"Scoots..." Sweetie shakes her head, but she's smiling too
  374. >either Discord doesn't hear you, though, or he's chosen to ignore it, because he just arches an eyebrow at your group
  375. >"Well, in ANY case, I suppose it's only friendly to make the offer: care to make a trade?"
  376. >he grips his midsection with his tail and gives it a spin, his entire top half whirling like a top as it screws open and leans back on a pair of hinges
  377. >"I may have visited some 'different' neighborhoods before coming over here, so pick at your own risk."
  378. >he leans back to the point his head's right-side up again and puts the world's least necessary airquotes over 'different' before gesturing at the bowlful of candy nestled in the bottom half of his body
  379.  
  380. >what do you think?
  381. >whether they're good is anyone's guess, but he does have some unique options in there
  382.  
  383. >Trade candy with the chaos god, you know it's going to be an experience
  384. Keep to the stuff you know that lifeforms on this planet can eat
  385.  
  386. >you look over the selection of confections Discord's offering, brushing aside a few of the stranger-looking ones you have no doubt he's looking to unload on you
  387. >no matter what exact flavor "Homework: The Candy" has, you're sure it's not for you
  388. >same with the box of "Bernard Bottomshire's Absolutely Every Flavor Imaginable Beans"
  389. >the fact that there's a note on the packaging that says 'With Returning Long-Time Favorites Cadmium and Schnozzberry' doesn't really sell you on that one
  390. >go figure
  391. >but you do spot something that doesn't sound overly foul
  392. "Huh, where'd you get this one?"
  393. >you hold up a candy with loopy, almost illegibly-fancy labeling called "Never-Ending Mouthblocker"
  394. >the draconequus peeks his head around himself, holding up a magnifying glass to look at what you're holding
  395. >"Ah, keen eye! I found it in a place with lots of terra cotta rooves, what was the name of it...?"
  396. >he strokes his goatee a bit, muttering some weird chant about how 'there's no earthly way of knowing which direction we are going'
  397. >"Oh, don't worry about it, I promise it's as safe as anything local!"
  398. >he waves it off dismissively
  399. >"Well, for that one I'll trade youuu, let's see... no chocolate for me, I'm trying to watch my figure,"
  400. >he says to himself, reaching blindly into your bag and rustling around with one clawed hand
  401. >"No, no, maybe, no, UGH no,... ah, here we go!"
  402. >Discord pulls his paw back, holding a glowing red feather in his fingers
  403. >"Whoops, don't mind that, I meant..." he plunges his hand back in and scrounges around for a second
  404. >"This!"
  405. >looks like he wants the Faerie Stix you got a couple houses back
  406. >you don't mind, the powdery ones like Dunkin' Spoonz and Faerie Stix were never your favorite anyway
  407. >you give him a nod, and the two of you shake on it
  408.  
  409. Obtained: Never-Ending Mouthblocker
  410. Lost: Faerie Stix
  411.  
  412. >you also spot Sweetie poking around the bowl as well
  413. >Apple Bloom seems a little less enthusiastic about trading though
  414. >something that unfortunately Discord picks up on immediately
  415. >"Oh, what's wrong, Apple Blossom? Almost none of it's pear-flavored, if that's what you're worried about."
  416. >"Apple Bloom. An' y'all know Ah don't trust ya as far as I can buck ya."
  417. >"Doh-ho-ho, come now, are we still not over that harmless little--"
  418. >"Don't."
  419. >"Eesh, fine. For the record, you've no idea just how ssssssssnake-like I can be."
  420. >he flicks a serpentine tongue at her as he rasps out the "s", before turning his attention to Sweetie
  421. >looks like she's opted for one of those Flame Orb hard candies
  422. >you see him whisper in her ear, and they go back and forth for a moment before she reluctantly pulls out a green tube wrapped in wax paper
  423. >oh right, they DO still make Panzerschreck Gum
  424. >it always loses its flavor way too fast
  425. >whether that's a good thing is a matter of taste, but... you don't blame Sweetie for trading it off, yourself
  426. >your trades completed, he closes himself up with a creeeeeaaaak and a slam, twirling the lollipop in his hand in place of a wand
  427. >"Well, I won't keep you girls all night, I'm sure you've got places to be and things to do~"
  428. >he strikes a pose, a casade of stars and lights flaring up behind him as he gives you a peace sign
  429. >you're pretty sure that's a little emblem and some Neighponese text you see out of the corner of your eye
  430. >"But just call me, beep me, if you want to reach me!"
  431. >the light fades away along with his theme music as he walks away from you, humming the tune to himself
  432. >you start to say something, but on second thought decide against it
  433. >he's just messing with you all
  434. >and you can't get mad at him for that
  435. >(who are you kidding, you totally can, but getting mad at Discord for being Discord is probably the only thing crazier than the old draconequus himself)
  436. "Are we ready to get back to it?"
  437. >everyone agrees, so you take up leading the charge this time
  438. >"Ah saw a whole bunch'a folks headed toward the neighborhood proper, so if we're lookin' to avoid too many crowds, we could go 'round the outside an' try to get to the south part?"
  439. >Apple Bloom holds a hoof up to her chin as she thinks about the layout
  440. >"But those houses are where most ponies came in from, aren't they going to start running out of candy soon? The ones with the most candy left are going to be the really scary ones..."
  441. >Sweetie brings up a good point too
  442. >you'll probably still be able to get to both areas before the end of the night, but what (and how much) candy you get might change depending on where you go
  443.  
  444. >what do you think?
  445.  
  446. Brave the crowds and head towards the center
  447. >Brave the haunted houses and make your way south
  448.  
  449. >a look of intense determination crosses your face
  450. "Let's go south. If we're right, then there's going to be some awesome houses that are probably looking to unload their candy, right?"
  451. >Apple Bloom takes a second to think it over before agreeing with you, nodding resolutely
  452. >"Well... okay..."
  453. >Sweetie reluctantly agrees, adjusting the wig she's wearing a little
  454. >you trot up and put a foreleg around her comfortingly
  455. "Don't worry, it's just going to be a bunch of music tracks and maybe some silly masks and stuff, it can't be THAT scary."
  456. >you reassure her, and she gives you a smile in thanks
  457. >"Yeah, you're right! Okay, let's go!"
  458. >Apple Bloom gives her a little hug as well, before the three of you trot off together, you and Bloom on either side of Belle
  459. >you take a narrow side street that curves around the central hub of the neighborhood, a light mist beginning to set in now that the sun's been set for a little while
  460. >it certainly sets the ambiance, you can't help but think, as you approach a road that winds through most of the southern part of Caballo Court
  461.  
  462. -Caballo Court, Southern Section-
  463. Night
  464.  
  465. >"Pleeeeeease... have... a seat..."
  466. >you hear who you're pretty sure has to be Savoir Faire, going by the accent alone
  467. >but you don't actually see him, and that does worry you a bit
  468. >the way to his front door is lined with a sloppy dark red stain, and it has the distinct look of something being dragged up the driveway through it
  469. >you can also see in the dim porchlight a long brown burlap sack laying to one side of the door, covered in that same red goo on one side
  470. >and a table, set for fine dining with a silver covered tray taking up most of the center
  471. >lastly, on the other side of the door is a bowl of candy, perched on a tiny second table with an almost comically fancy "Free Candy" sign in front of it
  472. >you lead the way up to the house, both Sweetie and AB hanging back just a little
  473. >staying between the trees that line the path forward, you accidentally step in a bit of the crimson stuff, letting out a shudder as your hoof makes contact with the warm, liquidy puddle
  474. "Eugh..."
  475. >you steady yourself, wiping it off on the grass nearby and continuing the approach
  476. >"Do... come forward... we'd love... to have you... for DINNER."
  477. >he intones, the word bouncing and echoing through the misty air
  478. >you try to keep your breathing slow, but walking up with your eyes glued on the gory-looking sack, it's really a little hard to concentrate on that
  479. >every once in a while, you chance a look at the covered tray, not sure which one the waiter might pop out of to try and startle you
  480. >you just know as soon as you go past there and get close enough to the bowl, he's going to jump out from one of them
  481. >but you take a deep breath and trot past, almost squinting you're so focused on spotting the first sign of movement
  482. >slowly you reach a hoof out for the bowl--
  483. >"Ah, ah, ah..."
  484. >his voice is coming from all around you
  485. >no
  486. >above you, you realize as you look up and notice the cobwebs with decorative spiders where his voice seems to echo from
  487. >"You know... the rules... no dessert..."
  488. >!
  489. >the porch suddenly goes quiet as the grave, as a long shadow falls over the three of you
  490. >you turn to see him drop from the overhang in a chef's apron, covered in blood and holding a butcher's knife in his muzzle
  491. >"...until you finish your meat, my little morsels."
  492. >his howling cackle mixes with your and Apple Bloom's confused screaming as you back away from him, all three of you scrambling for the corner of the porch as he stomps toward you
  493. >"And now... NOW... that I have you RIGHT WHERE I WANT YOU...!"
  494. >his psychotic laughter gives way to a pleasant chuckle and gives a nonchalant nod in the bowl's direction
  495. >"You'd be doing me quite the favor if you'd take some candy off my hooves."
  496. >
  497. >
  498. >
  499. >you, uh
  500. >actually forgot for a second there
  501. >that this was just a jape
  502. >you actually feel a little queasy as you take a hoofful of sweets
  503. >"Oh, no no, come now, you'll want a bit more than that, surely? You know you're only the third group to come up all night!"
  504. >"Ah can't imagine why..."
  505. >you scoop a little more candy into your bag, Sweetie seeming almost serene as she collects her share
  506. >"Thanks Mr. Faire."
  507. >if it weren't for the fact that you can faintly hear her hyperventilating, you wouldn't have believed she was even surprised
  508. >"Tell the others to pop by, when they're ready!"
  509. >he calls after you as you all
  510. >you nod distractedly as you walk back down the driveway
  511.  
  512. Obtained: Full-Size Chuckles Bar
  513. Obtained: Ms. Greatbar
  514. Obtained: Suc-Pop
  515.  
  516. >from behind you, you hear two sounds almost simultaneously
  517. >a squeak of terror
  518. >and a sound that can only be described as a
  519. DOOT-DOOT
  520. >and you see Sweetie blow right past you
  521. >you shoot a glare over your shoulder, and spot a filly dressed as a
  522. >skeleton?
  523. >a clown?
  524. >is "skeleton clown" even a real costume?
  525. >"Er... sorry?" she appologizes, waving sheepishly and picking up the horn she'd dropped cutting across Savoire's yard
  526. >you run to catch up with Sweetie, not that she made it too much further than the road proper
  527. "You alright?"
  528. >you pat her gently on the back and let her take a few wheezing breaths
  529. >she nods but doesn't say anything, sitting down on the curb for a second
  530. >"I think... maybe doing all the really creepy ones at the same time was..."
  531. >she cools herself off with one of the decorative fans Rarity stuck in the dress's folds
  532. >you see Apple Bloom come running up a second later, and all three of you take a small rest together
  533. >"That was... wow."
  534. >she mutters, looking into her bag of treats, giving it a hefty shake as she weighs the options in her mind
  535. >"Ah think Ah'm about done with the spook houses now, Scoots," she admits
  536. >oh thank Celestia
  537. >the first couple were pretty fun, with zombies and fake lightning and stuff, but the deepening fog and the ambiance of the last couple has really been getting to you too
  538. >Lyra's in particular, with its hands groping out the windows at you as you approached the door, really unnerved you just for how realistic some of the digits were
  539. >"Hey there, girls."
  540. >you look up and see a couple bipedal creatures approaching from out of the mist
  541. >each one is dressed up in a dark black suit, but from the neck up, you can see the unmistakable outline of an equine profile
  542. >"Scootaloo!"
  543. >"'Eeeeey, it's our favorite chickun!"
  544. >"She's actually a wolf this year."
  545. >"Wow, that really threw me for a lupe!"
  546. >none of the gentlemen in horse-masks says anything for a second, explicitly NOT laughing
  547. >"Get it? Lupe, like lupine?"
  548. >"Oh yeah, we got it. Didn't want it, but we got it."
  549. >"Hey, don't hound him about it."
  550. >"Emps, I swear to god..."
  551. >"Don't worry, we've already made two puns, 'kay? Nine is the limit."
  552. "Hey guys!"
  553. >you pipe up before one of them gets too far into putting the other in a headlock
  554. "What are you all doing out here?"
  555. >it's tough to hear any one answer over all the others as the Arcanons all pipe up at the same time.
  556. >"Well there was this-"
  557. >"Hermit just got off work-"
  558. >"-thought we'd check out-"
  559. >"--came back from our yearly-"
  560. >"-and then Temperance thought-"
  561. >"-fucking Mary--"
  562. >"-SUPER haunted--"
  563. >"-a little too much to drink--"
  564. >"-Tiara DEMANDED he come with-"
  565. >"--said, 'Oatmeal? Are you crazy?'"
  566. >they all peter out a couple seconds apart
  567. >hmm
  568. >you shake your head, the craziness of their squad already pushing memories of the haunted houses from your head as Sweetie and AB giggle at their antics
  569. "That sounds… fun? Hey, did any of you see Emperor today?"
  570. >they look back and forth at each other, plastic horse masks flopping back and forth as they exchange glances
  571. >and then there's a chorus of flappa-flappa-flappa as they all shake their heads
  572. >"Think he said he was working on something with Hanged Man?"
  573. >"I know he was working on a costume, you girls haven't seen him tonight? I'd figure this would be his jam."
  574. >you shrug, a little worry creeping into your thoughts
  575. >"If we see him, we'll send him your way,"
  576. >one of them gives you a reassuring thumbs up
  577. "Thanks. We're probably going to be out a little longer, but after this I think we're going to reconvene at the clubhouse. Let him know for us?"
  578. >"For sure."
  579. "We appreciate it."
  580. >you trot back and rejoin your friends as the group of men let their attention wander
  581. >"Yo, check out that one!"
  582. >"Dude, that's pretty spoopy for a pony haunted house."
  583. >"Looks like something out of Dark Souls!"
  584. >"It really doesn't, but let's check it out anyway."
  585. >Sweetie seems to be calmed down, and Bloom looks better-rested, as the three of you take to your hooves
  586. >"We still on fer finishin' out the night?"
  587. >Sweetie nods in agreement
  588. >"Yeah, sorry for kind of freaking out. I'm okay now!"
  589. "Nothing to apologize for, we probably shouldn't have tried to do all of them in a row... sorry if we pushed too hard to get through all of them."
  590. >"It's okay, I just needed a quick rest. Let's close this night out right!"
  591. >she smiles and gives a little cheer, all three of you trotting towards the center of the neighborhood
  592. >"Nightmare Night, what a fright, give me something sweet to bite!"
  593. >you can hear some other fillies and colts just ahead as you trot into the dark of night
  594.  
  595. -Caballo Court, Central Section-
  596. Night
  597.  
  598. >Apple Bloom leads the way down another short cul-de-sac, the three of you strolling at a leisurely pace
  599. >you've noticed porch lights slowly beginning to wink out as the night wears on, even as more stars seem to glint through the encroaching fog
  600. >but truth be told?
  601. >this is kind of nice, too
  602. >the candy isn't much to write home about, here, but you've run into a surprising number of colts and fillies from school
  603. >Pip went by a little while ago, dressed up in a blue jump suit with some fancy yellow numbering on the back
  604. >his squirt gun made out of pipe was a neat prop
  605. >you noticed he didn't seem to be out with anyone else, but he reassured you that he enjoys wandering alone on Nightmare Night
  606. >Button's costume was amazing, you had to admit, as was his mom's
  607. >you wonder to yourself how she got those cardboard wings to light up like that, and his skull mask had these lights in the sockets that you're not sure how they glow while he's looking out of them
  608. >but it is looking like you're getting to near the end of the night
  609.  
  610. Obtained: Fruit-by-the-Meter Roll-Up
  611.  
  612. >and that kind of sucks, because you were really hoping to--
  613. >"Hey, what's up girls!"
  614. >you perk up, hearing a familiar voice behind you and the tell-tale patter of hooves touching down
  615. >Rainbow Dash leans down for a second to take off her helmet, brushing her mane back and letting out a sigh
  616. "Rainbow Dash! Hey!"
  617. >you run up and hug the mare, happy you got to see her with all the other stuff she was doing tonight
  618. >she gives your wolf-hat and the mane underneath it a tousle in return, before nuzzling you back
  619. >"Whoa! Where'd you get that stash from?"
  620. >she sounds impressed as she looks at the three of you and your stuffed bags of candy at your sides
  621. >"Well, we kinda took a chance on some of the houses other folks weren't goin' to, and it paid off," Apple Bloom explains
  622. >"Scootaloo was the one that helped us push through some of the tougher ones," Sweetie chimes in, patting you on the back lightly
  623. "It was a group effort, and you two came up with the idea."
  624. >you blush faintly from the praise, but Dash lets out a low whistle
  625. >"Wow, that's awesome though! I think you all might even have more than I do! Might have to check the south side again..."
  626. >she sounds genuinely impressed, and given how Dash could probaly hit any house in town in under 10 seconds, your pride can't help but swell
  627. "Want to join us? We're still going to hit a couple more houses before we call it a night,"
  628. >you offer, nodding towards the other two
  629. "Although, we were going to go by Triple-H and visit Tiara and Spoon, if that changes anything."
  630. >she seems to weigh the options in her mind, before looking at the collection in her saddlebag
  631. >"Mmmmm... sure, let's do it! The Riches are doing that big party on Dreary, so it's--"
  632. >you pick up the sound of something streaking down the street like lightning, and on instinct jump out of the way
  633. >not half a second later, you see Pinkie go flying by, and just barely make out over the sound of her rocketing past
  634. >"Two thirty-five!"
  635. >that doesn't mean anything to you, but you've scarcely managed to process it when Dash shouts to the dust cloud she left
  636. >"Wha- are you serious?!"
  637. >you cock your head to one side, confused
  638. >"Oh, Pinkie challenged me to a candy-collecting contest. Well... kind of. Okay, maybe I challenged her, technically."
  639. >"But she's already at 235?! She wasn't even at 200 the last time!"
  640. >you roll your eyes, but can't help but smile nonetheless
  641. "Well, you aren't going to beat her standing here talking to us, right?"
  642. >she gives you an apologetic look, but you go ahead and wave her off
  643. >you two share another quick hug, and she's already up in the air
  644. >"Say hi to those two for me, I guess,"
  645. >she winks at you as she takes flight, leaving a rainbow trail behind her that cuts through the fog
  646. >you look over at the neighborhood exit that leads to the much more modern and luxurious houses in High Horse Hills
  647. >it really is past time to see if you all can bust Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon out of their Nightmare Night party prison
  648. >so into the night you three go, the sounds of fake lightning and real whistling wind at your backs as you sally forth
  649. >...
  650.  
  651. -High Horse Hills?-
  652. Late Night
  653.  
  654. >...
  655. >it's really weird here, you note to yourself
  656. >not the crazy-elaborate mansions with all sorts of ivory and decorations, mind
  657. >those actually feel pretty comforting, by comparison
  658. >it's more that the moment you crossed the threshold of the wrought-iron fence and brick entryway into the neighborhood, something has felt off
  659. >the fog has gotten so thick you could cut it with a knife, and some of the roads look downright alien
  660. >but the strangest thing is the sound
  661. >you didn't even notice it, at first, with the chatting you and Apple Bloom were doing about Crusader activities for next month
  662. >but when Sweetie pointed it out, you couldn't ignore it anymore
  663. >things seem to echo in this neighborhood, everything from hooffalls to voices
  664. >but none of it sounds like you expect it to
  665. >it's like listening to a recording of yourself saying something
  666. >there aren't that many lights on anymore, and even if you could believe that that's because people are starting to go to bed or just aren't home, it doesn't feel right
  667. "Okay... I'm not crazy, right? This place is messed up?"
  668. >you finally say out loud, the conversation having stifled itself in the strange atmosphere a moment ago
  669. >you look back at Belle and Bloom for confirmation, and they both nod in agreement
  670. >"This don't feel right, Ah've helped my sister deliver here more'n once, but Ah don't think I've seen half of these houses before tonight."
  671. >?
  672. >you look up at the looming mansion you're currently walking by, searching your memory for who lived there
  673. >the building itself is one you can recall clearly
  674. >but then you realize, you don't think you've seen anyone go into this house
  675. >ever
  676. >"It's more than that, haven't we been walking for a while now? Sure, it's late, but... where are all the other ponies?"
  677. >that actually makes you slow down considerably
  678. >wait, when DID you last pass someone in this fog?
  679. >you definitely crossed paths with a couple fillies before you got to this neighborhood, but...
  680. >have you seen anyone since then?
  681. >how did you get this far before you even noticed?
  682.  
  683.  
  684. >...!
  685. >you freeze in place, reaching out and grabbing your two friends before diving for the dirt!
  686. >they start to protest, but you just motion to stay quiet and point upwards
  687. >and a couple seconds later, your instinct proves correct
  688. >the world goes a couple shades darker for a few seconds, and you look up to see the hazy outline of five creatures gliding across the spotlight of the full moon
  689. >they're too far up to make out any definite features through the fog, but you'd swear they have draconic wings
  690. >the three of you stand cautiously once they've faded into the dark of night, whispering to keep from drawing attention
  691. >"What'n the hay was THAT?"
  692. "Dragons? What would they be doing this far west?"
  693. >"They looked small, for dragons..."
  694. >"No, wait, those're Princess Luna's guards!"
  695. >now that Apple Bloom says it out loud, she's right, that has to be who those were
  696. >but a whole flight of them? Nothing that dangerous could be going down right now, could it?
  697. "Wonder if they're looking for someone?"
  698. >you muse out loud, looking around and hoping quietly to yourself that you'll see a landmark to help find your way
  699. >what you don't expect to see, though, is a pair of ponies standing behind you, looking directly at the three of you from behind some goofy masks
  700. >well, at least you're all not totally alone
  701. >it's good to see someone dressed up in costume
  702. >they start walking slowly towards you as you point them out, Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle turning to face them
  703. >"Oh! Thank Celestia, we were getting worried,"
  704. >Sweetie says, pulling the fan from her costume and using it to cool herself under the wig and all that fabric
  705. >"Yeah, it's been more'n a minute since... er..."
  706. >Apple Bloom's voice falters as they trot closer, and you get a closer look at their outfits
  707. >blocky, tough-looking armor coovers large parts of their bodies, and their manes and tails are trimmed short
  708. >but you can't pull your eyes away from the masks they're wearing, completely encasing their heads in plated armor
  709. >cutting through the fog are four bars of green light, all in a row, each burning in one of the masks' eyes as their ragged breaths rasp out
  710. "Um, girls...?"
  711. >you see the lights flash briefly as they stare you down
  712. >simultaneously out of the corner you see a lime line of light slide from the top of Bloom's wig to the bottom of her hoof
  713. >a split-second later, one scans Sweetie as well
  714. >and then the green lights flicker and turn red
  715. >that clinches it
  716. "...RUN!"
  717. >you see the larger of the two lurch forward, and all three of you book it!
  718. >you keep pace with your friends, the three of you putting as much space as you can between you and the lockstep hoffalls of the masked ponies close behind
  719. >you don't know what'll happen if those two masked ponies catch you, but you're not going to wait around and find out
  720. >Bloom takes a hard left, and you follow her closely, Sweetie right on your heels as you sprint!
  721. >after a few minutes of breakneck running, you chance a look behind, and though you can still see the glow of the mask eyes through the fog, they seem to periodically snap to the left, then right, like they're searching
  722. >so you take a chance, and sprint ahead of AB, wordlessly guiding both of them across a long yard to an enormous garden hedge
  723. >and without even hesitating, dash headlong into it, resisting the urge to let out a shout as you feel the branches snap against your weight
  724. >a second later, you feel the enormous plant shake as Apple Bloom jumps in after you, her wig getting knocked off in the process
  725. >and a second after that, a third rustle as Sweetie Belle jumps in too
  726. >everyone waits quietly, pressed in on one another as you hear the thundering stomps of the two ponies stampede by
  727. >you see one pair, then the other, of red lights sweep through the mist, but they don't even slow as they pass your hiding spot
  728. >still, you can't all help but lay still, breathing heavily and giving those creeps plenty of time to get well away from you all
  729. >as you're laying there, though, you feel Sweetie start shifting around, her nervous movements quickly turning into a full-on panic!
  730. >she gets the first part of a yelp out before Bloom slaps a hoof over her mouth
  731. >she freaks out, swatting at her dress while a lump underneath it slips this way and that, before scurrying up her side and to the collar of her outfit!
  732. >out from under the aqua-colored cloth pops a tiny creature, no taller than your forehoof, electric-blue and black and buzzing like a mosquito!
  733. >but you notice after a second's pause that it's actually equine in shape, its sharp legs and curled antennae reminding you of something between a Breezie and a Changeling
  734. >it crawls up the side of Sweetie's face, earning a muffled shriek as it skitters right past her eye, before perching delicately on her horn like a tiny ballerina
  735. >playing idly with her mane, the tiny thing looks down at you, pupil-less black eyes taking you three in with obvious curiosity
  736. >"Welellel, howagaow didjinid youfulunou allavanaral comononmome tovufo thisigirilis hedgejeiaromafanow ogolof mitizikinine?"
  737. >you hear her buzz something in a foreign language to you, the sounds bouncing so quickly along her tongue that you can't make out what she's trying to say
  738. >you just shake your head, trying to pantomime that you're REALLY trying to be quiet here
  739. >she seems to take it as a sort of game, clapping her hooves together softly and chattering at the idea
  740. >"Ohnoropoh, aaah gamalanairaime! Mayakabaeray thisijifilis onamunarunone plaquatasanafay?"
  741. >you shush her in irritation, a bucket of icy fear dumping over you as you faintly hear those stomping hoofsteps approaching again
  742. >you gesture as quietly as you can that she's going to get you caught by whoever they are, and could she PLEASE be quiet? Just for a moment?
  743. >she gets a mischievous smile on her face, which paired with her all-black eyes makes her look terrifyingly malevolent, and begins to glow even brighter
  744. >just then, it occurs to you
  745. >oh no
  746. >those masked ponies can probably see her in here
  747. >you bite your lip for a moment, before making up your mind
  748. >as the stomping gets closer, you whisper under your breath
  749. "When I give the word, run for it!"
  750. >you feel Sweetie and AB shift around above you, which you assume means they agree
  751. >the sounds get closer, they're practically right in front of the bush now
  752. >you can't stand it anymore
  753. "Go!"
  754. >you all bolt from the shrub at top speed, rushing directly between the figures approaching, a high-pitched jibbering causing the bush to rustle and shake!
  755. >you're amazed all three of you make it past, until you see part of the reason why: at the same time you made your break for freedom, something else exploded from the nearby mansion
  756. >something huge, its enormous jaws held open in a piercing roar as it swims through the air, its long fish-like tail propelling it through the sky as its golden scales shine in the pale moonlight
  757. >with that fight in progress, you're able to quickly slip past, the cacophony of noises and the adrenaline crashing through your veins overriding anything other than fight-or-flight
  758. >you break for the road and then run down it, looking desperately around for any way out of this place
  759. >it seems like every place you look, there's some new monster
  760. >a puddle of shadows jetisons a pile of bones out of it, the black goo that threw them crawling towards it
  761. >you hear the deep rumble of a giant's roar as living winds swirl around something fifteen stories tall, with glowing red eyes and hands made of cloud and storm
  762. >"Scootaloo! Where are we going?!"
  763. >you hear Sweetie yell behind you
  764. >she's right
  765. >you need to find a gate, or an exit, or a
  766. >!
  767. >a door!
  768. >you see the mist stop like a solid wall a few feet from the door to one of the mansions, and something in your mind just knows
  769. >that ornate blue door is your ticket out
  770. >you don't have time to wonder why you know that, you just do
  771. "This way! Follow me!"
  772. >you charge, lungs on fire and muscles full of battery acid
  773. >you can practically feel the claws of something vicious on your neck, but one last push, and--
  774. >the moment your hoof sets foot beyond the fog, two things happen
  775. >you hear a dismayed shriek from whatever was chasing you
  776. >and you see an eye
  777. >well
  778. >to say you "see" it isn't quite right
  779. >you comprehend it
  780. >set against the black, an eye with a golden iris stares at you
  781. >no, truly it stares through you
  782. >and as it does, you feel something you know you shouldn't
  783. >a wave of disinterest washes over you, like you've just sat through a thousand years of boring lectures
  784. you should probably turn around and go back wherever you came from, really
  785. >but you know, logically, if you do that, there's no way you'll make it back
  786. but you understand that really, there's nothing there, so it's best to turn away
  787. >nothing but a blue door
  788. that isn't there, you must have mistaken it for something else
  789. >it's your only way out of
  790. you can't, though
  791. >you blink a few times, your heart pounding out of your chest even as you fight the impulse to turn around and walk away
  792. >the eye, the eye in your mind, continues to stare
  793. you continue to realize that exploring in this direction is utterly pointless
  794. >but you need to get to safety, and bring Belle and Bloom with you
  795. you understand, however, that you are
  796. 「unwelcome」
  797. in this place
  798. >something warm runs down the side of your head from the ear
  799. >but you take another step forward
  800. >you're distantly aware of the sound of something hitting the ground to your left
  801. it would be wise to check on them and turn away from the nothing you're so intent on seeing
  802. >and you simultaneously know that doing that would just seal your fate
  803. >you can't run forever, and now one of your friends is unconscious
  804. and so you know that you must tend to them, if they are to have any hope of surviving
  805. >no, you NEED to--
  806. Y̶̢̛̻̋͌͐́͑̉̈͆̀̈̈́̌͑̃̃̃̈́̚͘Ǫ̶̩̣̟͈̬̉̒́̇̽͑͆̈̀͌͂͋̏̿̀Ų̵̪̺̼̳̦̦͉̼̈̓͒̽̈́̒̿̋́̐̊̆̔̔̃͒̈͘̕͠͠ͅ ̵̛̦̮̜̜͉̼̠̖̤͇̦̽͂̾̏̈́͗́̍̆̋̎̍̉̔͐̉̈́̏͝D̴̢̖̃̾̊̄͊̓̈́͌̔̔͐̄́̃͝Ơ̷̰̱̌̀̉̒͂͋̔̚ ̷̨̨̛̫̝͈̮̝͍͈̦͚͕͍̣̫̜̟̜̼̱̔̿̈̓̑͛̉͗͋͊͒̔̚͜͠ͅṈ̴̨̡͕̗̞͍̹͔̤̪͈͗̒̀́͌̃̈̈́̔̇͘̚̚O̶̡͉̗̱͖͚͈͖̫͋͌̈́̆͛͒̀̏̓̕Ť̶͍̼̹̝̖̭̱̮̳̻̟̥̣̔̇͛̈́̎͛̀̈̉̄͌̀́̔̇͋̚͘͘͜͝͠>
  807. >
  808. >
  809. >you comprehend the eye focusing itself fully on you, and whatever you were thinking stops
  810. >faintly, you wonder why the world is tilting
  811. >it's like watching someone drop a film camera
  812. >your vision gets fuzzy, and a little red at the bottom
  813. >if you could just get inside, you know that you could save yourself, and save your friends
  814. >the eye is burned into your perception
  815. >or your memory of your perception
  816. >it stares you down, even as your thoughts fade away into nothing
  817. >the world is just color and noise now
  818. >
  819. >
  820. >
  821. >
  822. >...
  823. >the last thing you remember is the sound of blasting wind and a flash of blue rushing at you
  824.  
  825.  
  826.  
  827. >!
  828. >"Ah, good. It would appear you have a strong recollection of preceding events."
  829. >the tuxedoed man before you tents his fingers, looking pleased
  830. >at least, you think he looks pleased, so far you've really only seen one expression on his face
  831. >"However, as I said, your presence here is most unexpected:"
  832. >"The Velvet Room exists between dream and reality. Between mind and matter."
  833. >his grin widens even more, and you notice that the pianist has finished their performance, as has the singer
  834. >"Make no mistake, however. Your current condition in no way straddles these lines. You are very truly here. How interesting."
  835. >"Further, you are neither under contract, nor was one forged in accordance with your immanent arrival."
  836. >you look down at the young alicorn sitting next to him, and get a slight shock
  837. >their eyes glow with a golden hue that looks all too familiar, with the benefit of hindsight
  838. >"For fate to guide you to this moment, your destiny must be truly extraordinary!"
  839. >the long-nosed old man gives a wheezing laugh, waving his hand over the table
  840. >where his hand moves, you see a set of cards fan out, all sorts of colors and designs, like they were built from the remains of several different decks
  841. >"By way of compensation, may we offer you an examination of your journey?"
  842. >"Since you have already so vividly examined your past, perhaps a glimpse of what may await you is prudent."
  843. >he holds his hands out to you, offering for you to select a card
  844. >hesitantly, you reach out and draw one from the left edge of the deck, embossed with a blue back
  845. >with a flick of his gloved wrist, Igor bids the card to turn over
  846. >you see...
  847. >a tree, its boughs wrapped around each other to form a heart
  848. >standing beneath it on either side are a man and a woman
  849. >the sun shines down on both of them, and fruit dangles from the tree within reach of both
  850. >"Ah, the Lovers!"
  851. >"This card, the most immediate in your future, alludes to unions and partnerships, as well as a resolute commitment. It is a card fraught with import, and the choices it portends should not be taken lightly!"
  852. >he nonetheless gives a gentle laugh, looking expectantly up to you to choose again
  853. >this time, you opt for something a little to the right of center, your hoof drawing out a card with a red back this time
  854. >Igor again gestures, and the card obediently rotates around one side, flipping over to reveal...
  855. >?
  856. >you see a thin, gaunt man with a skull mask, beheading a cartoonish man in a crown with a scythe
  857. >the scene is painted in reds, blacks, and grays
  858. >between the strange art style and the fact that it's upside down, it takes you a second to fully understand what you're looking at
  859. >"Hmm, Death!"
  860. >!
  861. >"Ah, worry not, young visitor, the card known as Death is not so dreary as the name might imply."
  862. >"Death is a card of endings, but not of the end. It instead calls to mind deep and profound change, as well as acceptance of what may come."
  863. >"Reversal, then, is denial of such things, and resistance to them."
  864. >"Further in your future, you may wish to ask yourself whether this Death beckons you, and whether you will answer its call."
  865. >it seems he still expects you to draw again
  866. >you reach forward for one of the middle-most cards, and your hoof taps one with a dark ebony border
  867. >when the wizened old man gestures, though, the card lays limply upon the table
  868. >tilting his head to one side, he reaches forward to touch it, picking it up between two fingers to examine it before looking from the card to you
  869. >"Well now... this is most peculiar indeed!"
  870. >he sounds delighted, but as you've seen, that doesn't necessarily mean much
  871. >handing the card to you, he drums his fingertips on the edge of the blue covered table, apparently thinking hard about how to respond
  872. >when you get the card, you immediately see the problem
  873. >the card depicts a silhouette of a woman, surrounded at several angles by the heads of lions
  874. >but from the stylized nature of the card, and the ambiguous outline of the woman, you can't determine if the lines from woman to lion are chains binding her, or arms reaching out to them
  875. >you can't tell if the lions' heads are bowed towards her, or reaching for her
  876. >"Hunger and Strength: Two cards, intertwined, which deal with savage impulse and use of power. While closely related, to describe them as either alike or opposite would be an error. For a card to be so unclear as not to resolve itself to a single depiction, your fate must be truly remarkable!"
  877. >he pauses for a moment, long slender fingers stroking his chin pensively
  878. >"As you continue on your journey, you may find yourself beset by choices, which will bring about a radical change, thus creating a precarious position wherein your use of strength is tested. You may find it prudent to be mindful of such events, and your handling thereof!"
  879. >"Well, with that, I do believe your business in this room has been concluded."
  880. >the pony sitting beside him clears their throat and speaks for the first time
  881. >"If there is nothing further to address, I would be happy to escort you to the exit."
  882. >the sharp tone of their voice leaves little doubt in your mind that they're less than amused with you and your visit here
  883. >!
  884. >you suddenly get a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach as the distance between you and the table grows before your eyes
  885. >you look backwards and see the door sliding toward you, like gravity had shifted and your body is just now catching up
  886. >you turn your head back towards the inhabitants, something welling up within you as thoughts run unbidden through your mind
  887. >memories of a dream you almost forgot, of the moon looming closer to your home
  888. >memories of a dark cage and a grating, spiteful laugh
  889. >without thinking, you open your mouth...
  890.  
  891. I'll leave when I have some answers.
  892. >What about my friends?
  893. You can't just throw me out!
  894.  
  895. "What about my friends?"
  896. >you meet the attendant's eyes with a frigid glare in return, feeling your hooves dig into the blue carpet beneath them
  897. >their eyebrows raise practically into their cap, and you start walking toward the table, crossing the distance that had grown without your traversing it
  898. "I don't remember them coming in, they aren't here now, and I'm sure as hay not leaving without them."
  899. >you continue, approaching the pair and then planting yourself firmly in front of it
  900. >rearing up, you place your forehooves on the cloth-covered surface of the table, now at eye level with Igor
  901. "So, what happened to them?"
  902. >Agatha actually takes a small step backwards, looking incredibly embarassed
  903. >your gaze switches from the attendant to their master
  904. >who of course gives you that same unchanging smile in response
  905. >"Please, excuse Agatha's impertinance; she is, perhaps, a bit overzealous in her protectiveness."
  906. >"However, if your concern is with your companions, you need not worry."
  907. >"Their safety has already been guaranteed by your actions thus far; you may rest assured that upon your successful return to your home, they will accompany you."
  908. >"In order to preserve their well-being, we have precluded them from any further activity for the time being."
  909. >"Please understand: We are acting in the best interest of all involved."
  910. >you... guess that'll work?
  911. >you don't get the impression that he's lying, in any case
  912. >"Moreover, you have exhibited both an astounding penchant for self-assertion, and a delightfully unique destiny."
  913. >"Were a catastrophe to threaten your existence, I have no doubt you would rise to the occasion masterfully, don't you agree?"
  914. >he addresses his question to the alicorn, who nods once after a moment's contemplation
  915. >"Of course, it is just as well that no such danger is present for your world."
  916. >the well-dressed proprietor of the Velvet Room clarifies
  917. >"And yet, it is perhaps regrettable that there is no armageddon against which you might clash."
  918. >Agatha remarks, looking a bit worried
  919. "What's that supposed to mean?"
  920. >you'd just as soon nothing terrible happen, all things being equal
  921. >the two share a look that you can't really interpret
  922. >"Allow me to speak plainly,"
  923. >the elderly man declares, leaning forward and tenting his fingers almost conspiratorially
  924. >"Your arrival in this room, from an entrance through which you should not have been able to pass, presents a conundrum."
  925. >"It is the role of the Velvet Room to assist those who have or will enter into a contract with us, and yet there is no basis on which we may form such a bargain."
  926. >Agatha lets out a small 'ahem' to draw your attention
  927. >"And while you have all the markings of one who is to be helped, there is no threat with which you require assistance."
  928. >Igor nods and continues her thought for her
  929. >"As it stands now, we can offer you no aid in returning home, as doing so would directly interfere with the decisions which guide your fate. This would be considered a grave violation of a standing agreement, and would have deleterious consequences."
  930. >they're both silent for a moment, deep in thought
  931. >"However,"
  932. >Agatha begins
  933. >"However."
  934. >Igor agrees
  935. "However?"
  936. >you ask, not picking up at all on what they're thinking
  937. >"There is a way that a contract can be made."
  938. >"Because you arrived through the Sea of Dreams, you are not by necessity tethered to only your world."
  939. >?
  940. >you arch your eyebrow at that
  941. >"The swirling abyss of infinite possibilities by which you came."
  942. >"Set amidst it are islands of existence, might-have-beens, what-ifs, and never-weres."
  943. >Agatha interjects, before allowing Igor to continue
  944. >"Were you to assist some these differing realities, you would then yourself be in need of aid, which we could provide."
  945. >"However, this would carry with it a 「burden」, which you would need to assume in order to grant you agency in these worlds."
  946. >Agatha's harsh expression softens slightly as she speaks up again
  947. >"Your compatriots will remain safe regardless, and their choices are of course their own."
  948. >Igor nods appreciatively at her, before turning to you again
  949. >"And so, we must ask you:"
  950. >"Do you agree to these terms?"
  951. >"Will you help these alternate worlds in exchange for what aid we can offer you?"
  952.  
  953. >This is a very important decision
  954. >you must choose wisely
  955.  
  956. Yes
  957. No
  958. >I have some questions...
  959.  
  960. "Hold on a sec, you didn't even tell me what 'helping alternate worlds' means!"
  961. >you hold up a hoof to stop Igor, who leans back slightly in response
  962. >"Ah, of course, a fair question. Consider: your world is safe, but it was not always so."
  963. >"In times of crisis, those with sufficient will have stepped forward to dissuade the nihilistic tendencies of those in power."
  964. >"Let us refer to them as heroes."
  965. >Agatha's smile is just a little proud as she speaks up
  966. >"It's within our power to assist, when the threat of self-destruction is immanent, and a hero answers the call."
  967. >but as quickly as her smile grew, it fades
  968. >"But in order to help, they must first answer."
  969. >Igor leans back in, ever-grinning and ever-proper
  970. >"If you were to agree, then, you would do well to search for those who are restrained by their own trepidation."
  971. >"If you liberate them from the illusions plaguing them, we may in turn answer their desire to affect change."
  972. >you think about this for a second, looking around the silent Velvet Room at its inhabitants
  973. >your gaze gets drawn back to the large blue door at your back, and you feel a tightening in your chest
  974.  
  975. "...If I say yes, would I have to start right now?"
  976. >Igor gives a chuckle at your question
  977. >"If that is your wish, I suppose arrangements could be made."
  978. >he laughs again, before shaking his head
  979. >"However, it ill behooves you to charge in headlong. Both you and your companions would be better served by a period of recuperation."
  980. >Agatha nods along, but seems to have less to comment about on this matter
  981. >"I regret to say there is little more that may be revealed to one without a formal agreement."
  982. >"It is, after all, not yet officially your place to know."
  983.  
  984. >It seems there is a limit to what you can learn from Igor and the others without accepting a contract and the accompanying burden
  985. >do you accept the terms of the agreement?
  986. >this is a very important decision
  987. >you must choose wisely
  988.  
  989. >Yes
  990. No
  991. I still have more questions!
  992.  
  993. "...Okay."
  994. >you take a steadying breath, steel yourself, and hold a hoof out for Igor to shake
  995. "These ponies sound like they need help, at least as much as I do. So if it'll get me and my friends home, and help them?"
  996. >you smile, ready for whatever comes next
  997. "I accept."
  998. >Igor gives a single clap, the most animated you've seen him since you first came to in his Room
  999. >"Excellent, truly excellent!"
  1000. >he reaches a hand out and takes your hoof almost daintily, giving it the most delicate of shakes
  1001. >as he does, you feel something in his hand, which when you draw back, you realize is a small badge
  1002. >just as he's moving his hand away, you hear the other two young alicorns begin their respective performances again
  1003.  
  1004.  
  1005. >the badge looks startlingly familiar, just like the emblem on your Crusader capes
  1006. >a young pony in a cape set in a heraldic shield emblem
  1007. >this one, however, is smaller, and mostly gold with black highlights
  1008. "Um... what's this?"
  1009. >Agatha floats it up with her magic and presses it against your chest
  1010. >?
  1011. >you feel a strange warmth coming from the place where it nestles in your coat
  1012. >"This is the aid we can offer, which is a necessary part of your task."
  1013. >"So long as you are a guest of the Velvet Room in this capacity, you shall have the Complex of Ego."
  1014. >"You may think of it as a badge of recognition of one's true self."
  1015. >you feel it pulse against you every couple of seconds, not to the point of distracting you, but simply reminding you it's there
  1016. >with each pulse, you feel that eerie sensation of someone's eyes on you
  1017.  
  1018. Obtained: Ego Complex
  1019.  
  1020. >you're shaken from your reverie by a small noise of something dragging on cloth
  1021. >Agatha is the one to present you with the other item, placing her hoof on the table and then lifting it away
  1022. >you see a rectangular card depicting a tri-colored shield in red, pink, and purple that exactly mirrors your cutie mark
  1023. >Igor picks it up between two fingers and offers it to you
  1024. >before he lets go of it, he tells you in his strange, meandering cadence
  1025. >"This, then, is the 「burden」 which is inextricable from your task."
  1026. >"If you are to enact meaningful change in the other existences to which you travel, you must endure the weight of responsibility which is indivisible from choice."
  1027. >"So long as the world in which you reside lacks a hero able to forge a contract, you will be obliged to stand in their place, with all of the rewards and consequences thereof."
  1028. >he holds out his free hand as if presenting his idea in physical form, his eyes narrowing due to the constant grin he wears
  1029. >"Once conferred to a resident of that existence, you will be relieved of said burden, and thus able to move freely between realities."
  1030. >at that, he finally lets go of the small rectangular object, and you take it in your hoof
  1031. >as soon as you do, though, it seems to vanish into thin air
  1032. >but although the card isn't physically on your person, a figure grows more prominent in your mind
  1033. >a form of sleek, beautiful black steel accentuated with streamlined engines and compact missile silos
  1034. >its surface crisscrossed with joints that hide a mechanical giant inside the avian shell
  1035.  
  1036. Obtained: Hero Complex
  1037.  
  1038. >"Now, with that taken care of...?"
  1039. >Agatha looks to her master cautiously
  1040. >he simply nods to show approval
  1041. >"If you don't have any further objections, it would be wise to return you to your world of origin, sooner rather than later."
  1042. >"After all, the Velvet Room wasn't built with prolonged accommodation in mind, even for its guests."
  1043. >you still sense a certain urgency to her voice, but this time tempered with... dare you call it concern?
  1044. >she trots around the table to you, walking with you to the door
  1045. "And my friends--"
  1046. >you start, but she stretches a wing out and pats your back with it gently
  1047. >"When you step outside, they will be placed in the location most reasonable for them to have been. Like yourself."
  1048. >as if on cue, the door starts to open, and you can clearly see the outline of your dresser and bed through the space between door and frame
  1049. "And what if I need to come back here?"
  1050. >she admonishes the idea, waving it away
  1051. >"Now that you are welcome, you will find your way here in times of need."
  1052. >"But truly, you should rest and recover from your escapades this night."
  1053. >as you step through the door, you feel a dull 'th-thump' against your chest
  1054. >"Rest well, and we await your next visit, honored guest."
  1055. >you turn to bid farewell to the navy-blue alicorn, but when you look back, your closet door shows no signs of supernatural activity
  1056. >as suddenly as you arrive, you feel exhaustion soak into every muscle in your body
  1057. >like you just ran a marathon
  1058. >(or at least hiked an entire neighborhood and then fled for your life from literal monsters)
  1059. >and without any further deliberation, you climb into bed
  1060. >you're practically out before your head hits the pillow, a dreamless and restful sleep overtaking you
  1061.  
  1062. -Palomino Apartments-
  1063. Morning
  1064.  
  1065. >...
  1066. >urgh
  1067. >you grumble a little, pulling your covers up further and curling up underneath them
  1068. >but between that and your costume, it's getting too warm to sleep much longer
  1069. >you start to pull down the felted wolf cap to see if you can keep the light out long enough for another five minutes of rest
  1070. >but you know you should probably just bite the bullet and get up
  1071. >"Hey."
  1072. >you hear Al's gruff voice from the other side of your bedroom door
  1073. >he knocks once, and you can actually hear him scratch his stubbled face
  1074. >"You up yet? I got work soon."
  1075. "Nnn."
  1076. >you groan, grudgingly acknowledging you're conscious
  1077. >"Wouldn't be so tired if you weren't out so late, sleepyhead..."
  1078. >you hear him mutter
  1079. >"Anyway, breakfast is on the table, don't let it get too cold."
  1080. >you hear him start to walk out before pausing and turning back around
  1081. >"Oh, and don't just eat candy for breakfast either."
  1082. >and with that, you hear him walk across the apartment, and a moment later the door opens and closes
  1083. >part of you wants to say that after last night, you have bigger things to worry about than breakfast
  1084. >but another part of you (specifically your stomach) argues that there's nothing more important than breakfast at the moment
  1085. >so you climb out of bed and then remove your costume, hanging it up in the closet you walked in from at the end of last night
  1086.  
  1087.  
  1088. >when you open the bedroom door, you're greeted with the unmistakable scent of greasy fast food
  1089. >Al must've run to Hayburgers and grabbed something off the breakfast menu
  1090. >a Junior Number 3 with OJ is admittedly one of life's simple pleasures
  1091. >so you take his advice and walk over to the kitchen table, take a seat, and chow down, enjoying the savory taste of fried hay and Breakfast Sauce
  1092. >(you're pretty sure it's just a combination of two of their other sauces)
  1093. >their OJ isn't as good as fresh stuff, but it's perfectly passable
  1094. >as you munch, you can't help but remember the events of last night
  1095. >the panicked run from those ponies in the robotic looking masks
  1096. >the mantis-like miniature pony in the bush
  1097. >that giant made of clouds that was stomping around
  1098. >and now you're going to be seeing stuff like that again, soon?
  1099. >it feels like a bit much
  1100. >you put your hoof to your chest, recalling the medal that was placed there
  1101. >you can't feel the metal surface of it now, but you do feel a faint ba-bump against your chest as you remember it
  1102. >definitely not just a dream, then
  1103. >so, you can't help but wonder, when does it start?
  1104. >Igor and Agatha said when you were "recuperated", but how do you judge that?
  1105. >...
  1106. "Oh!"
  1107. >before anything else, you need to fill the girls in on what happened!
  1108. >you run over to the wall phone, picking it up and dialing Sweet Apple Acres
  1109. >you know the Apples are early risers, so odds are good they're already out and working
  1110. >but it's worth a shot...
  1111. >"Whazzat? Who's callin'?"
  1112. >you breathe a sigh of relief as Granny Smith finally picks up
  1113. "Granny! Is Apple Bloom awake? Can I talk to her?"
  1114. >"Eh? No, no, our apple room's one hundred per-cent real, who's this?"
  1115. "It's Scootaloo!"
  1116. >"No, I'M asking YOU who!"
  1117. "Scootaloo!"
  1118. >"Eh? Fruit loops? we only sell those in spring, sorry!"
  1119. >wait
  1120. >she sounds kind of far away, for being on the phone
  1121. >is she holding the phone upside down?
  1122. >"Granny, turn the phone over!"
  1123. >"Turnovers? Well, we can make a special order of 'em, but we'll need to talk to th'Cakes first!"
  1124. >she's killing you here
  1125. >ugh
  1126. >okay, uh
  1127. >maybe if you...
  1128. "Fancy, burn a cone for Rover!"
  1129. >"Wha?... Oh! Heheh, sorry 'bout that!"
  1130. >her volume spikes, and you have to hold the receiver a bit away from your ear
  1131. >but hey, progress!
  1132. "Granny, can you hear me now?"
  1133. >"Sure can li'l filly, sorry 'bout all that! Now, what was it you was lookin' fer?"
  1134. "Is Apple Bloom around?"
  1135. >"Can't imagine where else she'd be! But that filly's been tucked in 'er bed tighter'n all git out this mornin'."
  1136. >hm
  1137. >it might be better to let her rest, all things considered
  1138. >but you really need to call a meeting
  1139. "...Could you tell her when she wakes up that we're holding a meeting? Tell her it's a code blue?"
  1140. >"Sure as shootin'! Code blue, got it! Now, how many turnovers did ya want, again?"
  1141. "We'll, um, talk about it when we get there?"
  1142. >"Alrighty, be sein' ya!"
  1143. >you hang up the phone and let out a sigh of relief
  1144. >okay, at least that's--
  1145. >"SCOOTALOO!"
  1146. >you hear a frantic knocking on your door and walk over to see what all the commotion's about
  1147. "Sweetie?"
  1148. >opening it, you get tackled back inside immediately in a hug
  1149. >"Scoots! Oh thank Celestia, when I woke up I was so worried! There was that big fish monster thing, and those creepy ponies, and then we were running towards a house and I must've tripped or something, and I thought... I thought..."
  1150. >Sweetie Belle squeezes you tighter, and you give her a hug in return
  1151. >she sniffles a bit, before looking up at you
  1152. >"Are you alright? Did you hear from Apple Bloom yet? How did we get back home? Where did we--"
  1153. >you hold up a hoof, and she calms down, as the two of you get back to your hooves and trot inside
  1154. "I'm fine, and I think Apple Bloom is too. I just called, and Granny said she was still asleep, so she probably just needs some rest."
  1155. >you sit back down at the table, thinking how best to phrase the answer to her next question
  1156. "How we got back is... kind of a long story. I think we need to talk about it with AB, too, so we're going to meet up at the clubhouse. After that, we can go from there."
  1157. >she nods, seeming to calm down a touch when she realizes you have a plan
  1158. >well, the beginnings of one, at least
  1159. >anything that involves "make the rest of the plan" as one of the steps is a pretty weak plan
  1160. >but anything's better than nothing, you think
  1161. "Are you okay, though? You don't feel weird or anything, right?"
  1162. >Sweetie shakes her head, patting herself down to double-check
  1163. >"Just confused..."
  1164. >you can't blame her
  1165. >you are too, to be honest
  1166. "Don't worry, we'll figure it out. Did you eat before you came over?"
  1167. >she thinks about it for a second before shaking her head
  1168. >makes sense, she had other things on her mind
  1169. >you walk over to the pantry, opening it up and looking through it for something she can snack on
  1170. >lots of junk food, of course, but you do eventually find a quick-cook packet of oatmeal
  1171. >this one has little chunks of dehydrated apple and brown sugar dust mixed in
  1172. "Is this okay?"
  1173. >you hold the bag out for her to look at, and she gives you a thankful smile and a nod
  1174. >you dump them into a small pan and pour some water over top of them, setting them on the stove over low heat
  1175. >maybe not gourmet cuisine, but it'll do in a pinch
  1176. >as you wait for that to heat up, you take another few bites out of your rapidly cooling fast-food breakfast
  1177. >the quality goes downhill fast when it's not fresh out of the fryer
  1178. >your eyes land on the paper Al brought in this morning
  1179. "Hey... wonder if anything got published about last night?"
  1180. >you open the first section up, flipping through it searching for possible mention of property damage and strange visitors
  1181. >but the headline doesn't read "INVADERS AND MONSTERS DESTROY NEIGHBORHOOD, MANSION IN RUINS"
  1182. >it doesn't even talk about "SPOOKY FOG ENVELOPS TOWN, CREEPY MASKED PONIES ROAM THE STREETS"
  1183. >...wait, that's just Nightmare Night
  1184. >still, surely someone else saw something, right?
  1185. >"Scootaloo...?"
  1186. >the worried tone in Sweetie's voice is enough for you to immediately drop the paper
  1187. >"Where'd you get this?"
  1188. >she holds up a second paper, much thinner, but with an all-too-recognizable title: "Foal Free Press"
  1189. >but what sends your heart plummeting into your stomach is the front-page article, and a byline you were sure you'd never see again
  1190.  
  1191. Exposé: Treasonous Teacher Poisoning Young Minds at the Source!
  1192.  
  1193. Gabby Gums
  1194.  
  1195. Gentle breezes, blinking stars and a vibrant moon bless our town of Hypnos with a singularly beautiful view of the night we residents too often take for granted. But though there are no threats of rain in the weekly forecast according to our favorite meteorologist Winter Sky, there ARE dark storm clouds brewing on the horizon. For the source of this cold front, one need look no further than the humble schoolhouse P.S. 107, administrated and taught by one Cheers Liqueur. No simple band of lightning and thunder, this haggard mare and rumored liquor bootlegger is brewing up a storm of insurrection as baffling as it is dangerous.
  1196.  
  1197. According to sources close to the educator, she has been growing increasingly outspoken in her presentation of biased misinformation far out of line with both the state-approved curriculum and basic common sense. Her insistence on spreading and attempting to legitimize the spurious rumors of food shortage in the Appaloosa and Manehattan regions has long made her an easy target for ridicule, but in recent lessons, her focus seems to have turned completely from education to doom-saying:
  1198.  
  1199. "[They] cannot survive on less than 4 hours of sunlight, regardless of what anyone wants to tell you. It is [...] killing ponies because of the-- the SELFISHNESS of-- that is to say, I mean, the ill advisement of[...] our leaders."
  1200.  
  1201. Numerous studies sponsored by the Agricultural Council have repeatedly disproven the widely-spread rumor regarding plant nutrition, of course. It is this reporter's personal experience that several species of plant grow and even thrive in low-sunlight conditions, and one can't help but wonder what kind of fruits Ms. Licquer might be attempting to cultivate. (Certainly not the Vitis Vinifera, used in the manufacture of illegal substances which a close relative of hers was recently jailed for producing and selling, though curiously this particular strain DOES require the extended sunlight exposure our subject was pressing for.) However strongly she wishes they were true, Cheers' alternate facts simply don't hold water, and this reporter in particular sincerely hopes she has the good sense to quit while she's ahead.
  1202. >you let the paper flop onto the table
  1203. >hooooo boy
  1204. >"Scoots?"
  1205. >Sweetie asks nervously
  1206. >you hold up a hoof, your mind going a mile a minute as you try to make this fit with what you know
  1207. >Gabby Gums was just a pseudonym you and your friends used to... well, you aren't really proud of what you did
  1208. >there was a lot of rumor mongering, and it got you in a lot of hot water
  1209. >but you haven't used that name in forever
  1210. >heck, you haven't even written an article for the paper in years
  1211. >when was the last time the Foal Free Press even put out an issue?
  1212. >Featherweight took a break at the end of that semester, and you can't remember anyone starting a new run when the next school year started
  1213. >but the paper has today's publication date
  1214. >so someone's publishing a story under your old name
  1215. >even so, Featherweight would have had to okay the publication, right?
  1216. >that colt would never okay something this tawdry: not that anypony has much bad to say about Cheerilee anyway, but he has more integrity than to run a story about her like this
  1217. >something doesn't quite add up
  1218. >actually, a lot of things don't add up
  1219. "Hey Sweetie, could you call the Apples? If you get ahold of someone, have them tell Apple Bloom it's a Code Red now."
  1220. >"Sure! Um, but where are you going?"
  1221. >you walk to the front door, opening it and peaking out
  1222. "Damage assessment."
  1223. >you look down the street a ways, and spot what you're looking for:
  1224. >Ms. Raintree hasn't gotten her paper yet this morning, it's still sitting on the stoop in front of her apartment
  1225. >neither have a couple of your other neighbors
  1226. >you hope they won't mind just this once
  1227. >you make a break for it, running over and grabbing a couple papers from off the nearby doorsteps before sprinting back to your place
  1228. >with the door closed behind you, you flip one of the papers open, poring over each page
  1229. >sure enough, folded in at the very back of the paper is a small copy of the same Foal Free Press with the same headline
  1230. >knowing where to look now, you rifle through the others as well
  1231. >in each one, a crisp, freshy printed issue of Foal Free Press
  1232. >okay... this has to be a prank of some kind, right?
  1233. >like, the worst prank ever, but maybe
  1234. >but then how did they make enough copies for the whole town?
  1235. >"Nopony picked up, I let it ring for almost a minute."
  1236. >Sweetie informs you in a concerned tone, hovering her cooked bowl of oatmeal in front of her as she takes another bite
  1237. >you must have gotten lucky, catching Granny Smith when you did
  1238. >at least it's early enough that most people haven't gotten their paper yet
  1239. >but that's liable to change the later it gets
  1240. >a thought lingers in the back of your mind
  1241. >you don't know anypony who calls Ms. Cheerilee "Cheers" that you can think of
  1242. >maybe this is tied to that "alternate worlds" thing from last night?
  1243. >you can't decide if it'd make this better or worse if it is
  1244. >but you need to focus on getting everyone together and forming a plan, first
  1245. "Then we should go. We need to get over to Apple Bloom, check on her, and talk about how we're going to deal with this!"
  1246. >you give Sweetie a confident smile you wish you were more sincere about
  1247. >she smiles back, and you get the impression she might be faking it a little too
  1248. >but you'll fake it together, you decide, trashing your thoroughly chilled breakfast burger
  1249. >you give Sweetie a second to finish her breakfast while you grab your saddlebags from your room
  1250. >then, once you're both ready, the two of you sneak out as quietly as you can, you leading the way along the quieter streets as you head for the Apple Family Farm
  1251.  
  1252. -Sweet Apple Acres-
  1253. Morning
  1254.  
  1255. >you and Sweetie keep to a decent trot, your hurry tempered by the fact that Sweet Apple Acres is, well
  1256. >acres and acres of farmland
  1257. >as you come jogging up, you see a rustle in one of the upstairs windows of the farmhouse
  1258. >and before you actually get to the porch, Apple Bloom is already outside, running to meet you
  1259. >"Girls!"
  1260. >"Apple Bloom!"
  1261. "Apple Bloom!"
  1262. >you catch her as she grabs onto the both of you in a hug that's just a little too tight
  1263. >you can't help but feel happy just being reunited with your friends
  1264. >even so, you have to concentrate on fixing this newspaper issue!
  1265. "C'mon inside girls, Ah got a good idea what this might be about..."
  1266. >she gestures to follow her, and you and Sweetie join her in the walk to the clubhouse
  1267. >"It's the paper, right?"
  1268. >she asks in a lower voice, looking around to make sure none of her family is in earshot
  1269. >you both nod in response
  1270. "There's no way Featherweight would've published that article. He turned down one of Ruby's articles because she didn't have her citation in the right style once, there's no way he'd let someone write under that pseudonym."
  1271. >you whisper, trotting side by side with Apple Bloom
  1272. >"It ain't right."
  1273. >Apple Bloom agrees
  1274. >"And besides, how'd they get it to every house in Ponyville? That takes a whole team of ponies to do for the regular paper!"
  1275. >"No, Ah mean, it ain't right."
  1276. >the three of you trot up to the door of the clubhouse together, slipping inside as quickly as possible
  1277. >you walk in, only to see most of the benches and tables cleared off, with a couple books opened to various pages
  1278. >Apple Bloom walks over to the copy of the newspaper she has, the individual pages laid out over the table she had previously been painting her model on
  1279. >you can see a few different phrases highlighted
  1280. >"Ah had to check t'be sure, but this whole article's just wrong. Factually, Ah mean."
  1281. >she points at the book nearest you, and you look at the entry in the "Junior Farmer's Kid Dictionary" near the back that it's opened to
  1282. >huh
  1283. >"Vitis Vinifera is just grapes. Ah double-checked with my sister just t'be sure, but there ain't no laws on what ya can or can't grow, so long as it ain't on a blacklist. Which, o' course, grapes aren't."
  1284. >she points at a note next to the paper she scribled out next
  1285. >"Ain't no schools around here that use numbers fer their names, either. Ah thought it sounded kinda familiar though, so I called Babs. She said there ain't none in Manehattan that use that number."
  1286. >Apple Bloom winces slightly at that
  1287. >"Then she said Ah should probably not call 'til after 7, since her dad woke up 'cause of it."
  1288. >but she brushes it aside and continues
  1289. >"And have y'all ever heard of Hypnos? Sweetie, your sister ever ship anything there? 'Cause Ah can't remember ever hearin' of it 'fore now..."
  1290. >Sweetie thinks for a minute before confirming
  1291. >"Nope. Not that that means anything for sure."
  1292. >"So, it looks like this whole paper's a big ol' fake, if you ask me!"
  1293. >AB declares
  1294. "So... what do we do about it, though?"
  1295. >you think out loud, pondering your predicament
  1296. >"I mean, we can just tell everyone that we didn't write it, right?"
  1297. Sweetie suggests hopefully
  1298. >"But if'n they keep publishin' stories in our name, Ah dunno how long folks'll stand for it."
  1299. >Apple Bloom points out
  1300. "Yeah. I more meant, how are we going to make them stop? Because we can't let them hurt anypony with a bunch of rumors, right?"
  1301. >you chime in
  1302. >"Yeah," Apple Bloom agrees
  1303. >"Yeah!" Sweetie affirms
  1304. "Alright then. So let's..."
  1305. >you've agreed to find the author of the most recent Foal Free Press edition
  1306. >but where should you start looking?
  1307. >well, given what you know so far...
  1308.  
  1309. Let's find out who delivered today's papers and see if they know anything
  1310. Let's see if we can find out more about this Hypnos place
  1311. >Let's go to the school's journalism club room
  1312.  
  1313. "Let's go over to the school, and check the journalism club."
  1314. >you look to the girls for approval, and they both nod in agreement
  1315. >"Yeah, if they pushed out this many papers, there's no way they didn't leave some evidence behind!"
  1316. >Sweetie Belle reasons
  1317. >"And if'n nothin' else, it'll be a good place to plan our next move."
  1318. >Apple Bloom agrees
  1319. "Sounds good. Do we need anything before we head out?"
  1320. >Apple Bloom shakes her head and looks around at the mess
  1321. >"Ah imagine we're better off travelin' light anyhow, but Ah can't think of much we'd need. Ah'll grab m'saddle bags from the house and we'll go."
  1322. >you and Sweetie follow her down and over to the farmhouse
  1323. >you're kind of surprised how into this Bloom is, but it's great to have somepony who can keep a cool head when things are hectic like this
  1324. >so when she gets back downstairs, you let her take the lead as you all head towards town
  1325. >the three of you doing your best to stay out of the spotlight the whole way there
  1326.  
  1327. -Ponyville Schoolhouse-
  1328. Morning
  1329.  
  1330.  
  1331. >when you arrive at the large red schoolhouse, you say a silent thanks that it's not crowded with people who had the same idea as you
  1332. >looks like nopony decided to come to school on a Saturday, luckily
  1333. >but as you approach the building itself, something immediately strikes you as odd
  1334. >the door is left ajar
  1335. >even if Ms. Cheerilee leaves the door unlocked for ponies to come in and study, she'd never just leave the door hanging open
  1336. >you start to say something, but Bloom hushes you and motions to stay low
  1337. >you nod, creeping up to the door just behind her as you all infiltrate
  1338. >on the edge of your hearing is a knocking noise and a rhythmic cranking sound, like gears
  1339. >as you make it into the building proper, your ears perk up
  1340. >the sound's definitely coming from in the building
  1341. >other than that though, there's nothing immediately out of place that you can see
  1342. >Belle is already searching between the rows of desks for clues, and Bloom sticks by the door, keeping watch
  1343. >so you head towards door at the back of the classroom where different rooms are cordoned off for various club activities
  1344. >as you get closer, you can tell:
  1345. >that sound's definitely coming from somewhere beyond that door
  1346. >but as you pass Ms. Cheerilee's desk, the sound starts to slow, the rhythmic whirring winding down
  1347. >is there someone back there?
  1348. >you silently motion to your friends, who trot over as quietly as they can
  1349. >when they're with you, the three of you huddle near the teacher's desk
  1350. "Okay, I think we might have the culprit cornered. If we all go in at the same time--"
  1351. >"Wait, where?"
  1352. >Apple Bloom interrupts, looking around for something she might have missed
  1353. >"Wait, do you think somepony's actually here?"
  1354. >huh?
  1355. "Did you all not hear that noise?"
  1356. >they both shake their heads, giving you a worried look
  1357. "There was this chugging sound, like... like the printing press! Of course!"
  1358. >you realize suddenly
  1359. >that has to be what it was
  1360. >now that you think about it, that's definitely what the hand-cranked one sounded like
  1361. >you hop up, running over to the door
  1362. >throwing it open, you look wildly around the room
  1363. >when you do, though, all you're greeted by is a mess of papers
  1364. >you see two tightly wrapped bundles of news script next to the door, and a small pile of loose ones laying at the foot of the machine
  1365. >but nopony is in the room, unless they managed to slip between two sheets of paper somehow
  1366. >the place is just too small to hide anypony, even the desk that Diamond Tiara had moved in here wasn't large enough to conceal anypony
  1367. >and Featherweight and Shady Days helped move that out after she got ousted from the position of editor-in-chief
  1368. >Sweetie and AB poke their heads around the door frame too, as you walk inside
  1369. >you had to have just missed them, right?
  1370. >"Scootaloo... you sure you heard somethin'?"
  1371. "Pretty sure, yeah!"
  1372. >you respond back, rifling through some of the materials on the table
  1373. >all the developed photos and drafts are for the final issue of last run, though, you recognize the group picture of all the students that Shady Days snapped for the end-of-school-year party
  1374. >"Just sayin', there weren't--"
  1375. >"Girls? Found a clue!"
  1376. >Sweetie holds up a hoof, showing you a black smear on it
  1377. >she points at where she'd smudged the top paper on the loose stack in front of the machine
  1378. >which must mean it's still fresh
  1379. >a-ha!
  1380. >you look around the room for more clues, but there doesn't seem to be much else
  1381. >there's a fine layer of dust on most everything in the room
  1382. >but while you're looking through a collection of archived papers, you hear Apple Bloom remark
  1383. >"Huh... What do y'all reckon this means?"
  1384. >Apple Bloom points to a sheet of paper, its faint golden glow seeming to set it apart from so much of the other material in the room:
  1385.  
  1386. Editorial Club
  1387. Class of '19
  1388.  
  1389. Do you wish to see the world from a different perspective? Do you relish in assisting others to be the best possible version of themselves? Do you wish to expose a new and amazing side of yourself to the world? Then join this year's Editorial Club! For new and experienced members alike, the exciting hobby of revisionism is within your grasp! Sign up now to receive a badge of membership and access to the Darkroom where further developments will take place!
  1390.  
  1391. >there are several lines underneath it, presumably sign-up spots for the club
  1392. >but looking more closely, one student is already on the club roster
  1393. >!
  1394. >your name, in your own hoofwriting, is scrawled out
  1395. >in a short second, a few ideas click together
  1396. >this paper must have something to do with your responsibility to Igor and Agatha
  1397. >you remember them saying that your friends were free to choose their own path
  1398. >but you also remember Igor mentioning the burden you'd have to carry
  1399. >and you're sure they'd have to carry it too, if they join you in doing this
  1400. >you can't let them do that, not without knowing the consequences
  1401. >so you give a little cough
  1402. "Um, girls... I think I've got a theory about what's going on here..."
  1403. >they both turn around, surprised at that news and possibly at your name being signed to the paper
  1404. >you begin to explain your time in the Velvet Room...
  1405.  
  1406. "...so, yeah. I think if you sign your name, it'll be just like with me. You'll have to do whatever this 'helping other worlds' stuff consists of."
  1407. >you finish, giving a hard stare at the list
  1408. >Sweetie is standing there a little slack-jawed, and AB looks a little annoyed
  1409. >"And why didn't y'all tell us 'fore now about this?"
  1410. >she asks, sounding a little hurt
  1411. >"Yeah! We should've been there to-- I don't know, to do SOMETHING!"
  1412. >Sweetie Belle cuts in
  1413. "I didn't remember it until just now! And..."
  1414. >you hesitate a little
  1415. "I didn't want you all to worry about it, if it was something I could do myself."
  1416. >you answer, suddenly feeling a touch guilty
  1417. >Apple Bloom shakes her head to herself, giving you a little noogie before pulling you into a hug
  1418. >"C'mon Scoots, how long have we all been friends? And we ain't never let each other struggle through somethin' alone if'n we could help it."
  1419. >"Yeah, that's what the Cutie Mark Crusaders are all about!"
  1420. >they both look back at the sign-up sheet for the Editorial Club
  1421. >"You said those two asked you to do this because ponies in these 'other worlds' need help, right?"
  1422. >Sweetie asks, to be sure
  1423. >you nod in affirmation
  1424. >"Then they never shoulda bothered askin'. Like you told 'em, we help anyone that'd need it, even if they ain't from 'round here."
  1425. >Bloom smiles, reaching over and picking up a quill from the nearby table
  1426. >she scrawls her name as best she can underneath yours, before looking to Belle
  1427. >a mint green sheen covers the feather and writes out her name in loopy, cursive script
  1428. >?
  1429. >the moment she lifts the quill from the last "e", you hear a noise behind you, as the handle on the printing machine starts to turn on its own
  1430. >it makes a sputtering, clanking noise, before you see two black blobs fire out from under the roller, ricocheting off the ceiling with a metallic twang!
  1431. >Apple Bloom manages to duck just in time as one zings over her head, and Sweetie jumps back on instinct when the other clacks off the floor
  1432. >they lose their momentum on the second bounce, each clattering to the floor loudly
  1433. >your suspicions are confirmed, as the black ink covering them sloughs away to reveal a pair of gold badges
  1434. >your friends look over to you, and you just nod solemnly
  1435. >so they pick up the two chunks of metal, looking them over before pressing them over their hearts
  1436. >as they do, you feel a resonating 'th-thump' from your own
  1437. >and memories of a dark castle come flooding back, a cold and lifeless land that you all were trapped in
  1438. >the forms of a masked bandito and a powerful magician standing against a fearsome foe
  1439. >you remember black, formless creatures approaching you, bursting into strange and impossible shapes
  1440. >from the looks on their faces, your friends remember too
  1441. >but as soon as the rush of memories occurred, it's over and done again
  1442. >"Whoa..."
  1443. >"What in tarnation...?"
  1444. "...Yeah."
  1445. >a newfound understanding is formed between the three of you
  1446. >of what was, and what is
  1447. >creeeeeaaaaak...
  1448. >you hear the sound of rusted hinges, and look over to where it came from
  1449. >the paper on the wall is now affixed to a door, carved so cleanly out of the wooden wall that you can hardly believe it's real
  1450. >the overhead light stops suddenly at the outline of the door, creating an almost-black rectangular hole beyond
  1451. >faintly, you can see a red light illuminating a couple indistinguishable shapes further in
  1452. >but what you take most immediate notice of is a small photo that flutters out of the doorway and onto the floor in front of it
  1453. >the same picture of Cheerilee as was used in the article from the other world, a hastily scrawled "G.G." and today's date written in the corner of the developed photo
  1454. >it almost feels like it's taunting you at this point
  1455. >so you take point, walking forward towards the darkness as your friends walk in just behind you
  1456. >as soon as you step in, the air feels noticeably cooler, and almost damp
  1457. >everything is bathed in a crimson hue, and now that your eyes have adjusted to the lower light, you can clearly see pans and lines of string with clothespins on them
  1458. >no mistaking it, this is a darkroom for processing photos
  1459. >you can see a few still resting in the developer liquid, which are still too new to make out
  1460. >others have been hung up on the string to dry, and you can see a couple of the subjects
  1461. >a darkened street with a decorative fountain at a three-way stop
  1462. >some far-off shots of a group of ponies who appear to be camping
  1463. >a castle set against a full moon
  1464. >"Think this is more of 'Gabby Gums' work?"
  1465. >Sweetie asks, unclipping one picture delicately and floating it over to you
  1466. >you see a picture of a building with a sign over the door, depicting a mug overflowing with frothy bubbles
  1467. "I don't know... it has to be, right? If they're the ones that made the paper, this would have to be them too, I think."
  1468. >you reason
  1469. >Apple Bloom is looking at some of the pictures set in the enlargers
  1470. >she hits a button on one of them and it emits a quick snap sound
  1471. >!
  1472. >a picture begins to develop on the paper that the enlarger is pointed at, one that shows a heavily armored pony wearing sharp plate mail in profile
  1473. >unfortunately, it looks like it was bleached in places, the face, one hoof, and a large chunk of the upper left-hand corner coming out completely white
  1474. >you reach over to the next one and hit the same button, eliciting another snap
  1475. >this one develops faster than the last, but even as it starts to show up, it's impossible to tell what it is
  1476. >it's a swirl of black and red, set amidst floating chaos
  1477. >but the longer you stare at it, the more detail seems to come in, small spikes and little feathers of color that reveal themselves on closer inspection
  1478. >it even looks like the center is moving, whirling in on itself
  1479. >you get a familiar sensation in the pit of your stomach, like you're dreaming that you're falling
  1480. >and the painting grows before your eyes, drawing closer with every second
  1481. >or are you the one drawing closer to it?
  1482.  
  1483.  
  1484. -???-
  1485. ???
  1486.  
  1487. >you are alone
  1488. >your friends have been scattered from you, and for a time, you will need to fend for yourself
  1489. >please select the boon which you will use to reunite:
  1490.  
  1491. >Strength of mind
  1492. Strength of heart
  1493.  
  1494. >you feel a dissociation as you fall into the image on the screen, reaching backwards to try and grab your friends' hooves
  1495. >but the whorl of black and red takes you before you can even speak, throwing you into a veritable hurricane
  1496. >reds and golds and blacks spin around you, a cold clamminess seeping into your skin
  1497. >a cacophony of sound assaults your ears, drowning out your confused cry as you fall through the ether
  1498. >the colors begin to shift, reds and golds giving way to blues and purples and grays as you feel the tumbling sensation begin to even out
  1499. >your vision starts to cloud over, and you suddenly see a section of black growing larger as you approach it
  1500. >you brace for impact, and just barely manage to ready yourself in time as your hooves slam into the stone floor
  1501. >your knees buckle from the impact, letting out a wince as you come down hard
  1502. >but as your vision begins to recede into the fog, you feel a
  1503. >th-thump
  1504. >and a pulse radiates out from your chest
  1505. >it surges through your legs, filling them with strength
  1506. >your head clears like a fresh breeze blew in, and your body has a surge of warmth that brings you back from the brink
  1507. >and just like that
  1508. >you've arrived
  1509. -????????-
  1510. Jail Cell
  1511.  
  1512. >...not in the coziest of places, though, you note
  1513. >you're standing outside of a jail cell, a pair of rusty looking manacles bolted to the far wall
  1514. >the only life inside is a small patch of moss
  1515. >all the other cells in either direction are similarly empty
  1516. >but something about the decrepit cell, walls in disrepair, with only a tiny window to see the outside world through
  1517. >it puts you on edge
  1518. >like you snuck into someplace you shouldn't have
  1519. >you can see a set of stairs at one end of the hall, the rounded doorway left open and a bit of torchlight glowing into the room you're in
  1520. >so you follow them upwards, careful not to make any noise as you do so
  1521. >you look both ways as you come up the stairs, not entirely sure what to expect of this "new world"
  1522. >so far, from what you can tell, it's colder than what you're used to
  1523. >everything has a kind of clamminess to it, but you mostly chalk that up to being in some kind of stone building
  1524. >but you haven't seen any ponies yet, so you don't know if that's the only difference
  1525. >a sudden thought hits you:
  1526. >can you understand ponies from another world?
  1527. >are there even ponies here?
  1528. >what if you wound up in a world where everyone is a cat instead, would you get turned into a cat?
  1529. >what if--
  1530. >"Ugh, 'Hoof, I swear, if I hear you talk about her ONE more time...!"
  1531. >what if you get caught by somepony in someplace you're not supposed to be?
  1532. >you duck back into the stairwell, hiding behind the door and listening as best you can from your place in the shadows
  1533. >you can hear, amidst their talking, the rattle of metal on metal as they walk
  1534. >"C'mon, Wane, you're telling me you seriously don't think she's even kind of cute?"
  1535. >"I think you're solidly not in her wheelhouse, for a number of reasons."
  1536. >oh great, adult gossip
  1537. >you roll your eyes
  1538. >"She's in the MC, you're not going to make much headway hitting on her at the pub."
  1539. >"Yeah, well... it doesn't hurt to try, though. Worst thing she'll say is no."
  1540. >"She's already said no. Emphatically. And repeatedly."
  1541. >"Buuuuut, she's going to say yes this time. I've got a plan. And I'm headed down to the pub to put it in action."
  1542. >...
  1543. >"Want to join me?"
  1544. >"I shouldn't, and neither should you. Curfew, remember?"
  1545. >you hear a scratching noise that you would guess is pen on paper, and more rattling as they start to trot away
  1546. >as they wander off, you chance a peak from your hiding spot
  1547. >you can't see much, other than thick, dark plates and a shock of gold mane on one guard as they exit
  1548. >but at least you've confirmed they are equine
  1549. >and whether you wanted to or not, you've learned some are kind of obsessive?
  1550. >yeah, no thanks
  1551. >with the way clear, you step out of the shadows, hopping up on one of the chairs to look at what they were writing
  1552. >looks like a log book?
  1553. >you peruse through a few pages, and see a lot of different ponies' names and times scribbled out
  1554. "Wait..."
  1555. >you flip back a page, reading the list again
  1556. >in doing so, you spot a familiar name amongst several you don't
  1557. "Why is Zecora's name on this?"
  1558. >you flip the book back to its original page and set it back where it was
  1559. >is Zecora a part of this guard group, maybe?
  1560. >you must be someplace close to where she lives, if her name is written down here
  1561. >is this some spooky version of Twilight's castle, then?
  1562. >and this is her version of a visitor's book?
  1563. >you ponder this as you sneak closer to the door you saw those two ponies go through
  1564. >it leads to a much steeper, narrower, and longer staircase than the one you came up through...
  1565. >you hope this is a good idea
  1566. >how are you supposed to find these ponies with "trepidation"?
  1567. >...
  1568. >you guess hiding from ponies is probably kind of counter to your goal, now that you think about it
  1569. >?
  1570. >you pause, ear twitching as you detect somepony coming up the stairs
  1571. >somepony, you determine, wearing that same platemail
  1572. >okay, so you said you were going to not just hide from everyone
  1573. >but this is still kind of an uncomfortable place to get confronted by a bunch of guards
  1574. >you spot an orange glow as you hurry down the staircase, deciding at the last second to slip out onto that landing
  1575. >hopefully they're not paying too close attention...
  1576. >you plaster yourself against the wall that's only visible going downstairs, holding your breath
  1577. >three black-armored guards trot in perfect unison up the stairs past the landing, not even bothering with a sidelong glance
  1578. >phew
  1579. >you step away from the side of the wall you're pressed against, looking around for the first time
  1580. >it kind of looks like... a storage room, you'd guess?
  1581. >there are a few larger crates stacked in one corner of the room, as well as a few long rods you can't really tell the function of
  1582. >most of the room, however, is taken up with a trio of huge windows to the night sky, all three reaching down to the floor like a door into nothingness
  1583. "Wow..."
  1584. >you trot over hesitantly to the leftmost window, peeking over the edge cautiously...
  1585. >below you, stretching out in every direction, is a sea of trees, running right up to a sturdy stone wall
  1586. >you're easily several stories up, judging from the roofs of the buildings below
  1587. >you must be in some sort of castle, secluded in the woods...
  1588. >you can just barely spot some ponies milling about in the town within the castle walls
  1589. >further up, you spy the full moon peeking through the clouds
  1590. >the craters and shadows on its surface give it a forboding appearance, like a unicorn looking sidelong at you
  1591. >"It's a heck of a view, huh, squirt?"
  1592. "Yeah..."
  1593. >!
  1594. >a pair of magenta eyes glint from underneath you, pouncing up the wall beneath the window as you scramble backwards!
  1595. >you see, almost soundlessly, a black helmet draws itself up and over the point where floor and wall connect
  1596. >a pony with a blue coat and covered in dark plate crawls inside, a teal eye inset in her chestplate
  1597. >her leathery wings spread so wide they touch either side of the portal
  1598. >wait, that voice, those eyes--
  1599. "...Rainbow Dash?!"
  1600. >your voice cracks with relief, as you see your honorary big sister pull herself to standing position
  1601. >she gives you one of those proud grins you've gotten so used to seeing, dusting off a hoof against a section of plate in a silent gesture of
  1602. >yeah, I AM that cool
  1603. >"Surprised you decided to come up here, of all places,"
  1604. >she shrugs casually, looking around with one eyebrow raised
  1605. >"you get a little lost?"
  1606. >you chuckle nervously, scratching the back of your head
  1607. "I... I guess you could say that, yeah."
  1608. >you're not sure how you'd explain what really happened, but that's certainly one way of putting it
  1609. >she gives a kind of disappointed sigh, approaching you with her wings out and raised
  1610. >oh, right!
  1611. "Wait, what happened to your wings?"
  1612. >the question actually stops her in her tracks, blinking in disbelief for a second before letting out a snort of barely-contained amusement
  1613. >"Pfft... Hahaha! Are you serious?"
  1614. >she giggles, giving them a single flap that brings her back on her hind hooves, the wind actually strong enough to scoot you a couple inches back
  1615. >"Well, you must be out of it, so let's take care of you, huh? Last thing we'd want is for you just walking around the Princess' castle."
  1616. >the princess?
  1617. >you've only gone the once on a field trip, but you know for certain this isn't Canterlot
  1618. >her new look is really cool, but...
  1619. >you're not so sure you like it
  1620. >and when you meet her eyes, you see a predatory shine in them, the slit pupils focused on you almost hungrily
  1621. >it all sets the coat on the back of your neck on end
  1622. >but when you start backing away as she approaches, all of her joy evaporates like a drop of water on the surface of the sun
  1623. >"Look... just stop. If you step out of this room without a set of manacles, you're not looking at a slap on the wrist like last time."
  1624. >she sneers as she closes in on you
  1625. "Rainbow Dash...?"
  1626. >"They'll throw the book at you, and I'll personally be there to watch it happen."
  1627. >!
  1628. >she strikes a pose that splays her wings and puts her athletic form on display, forgoing any sense of subtlety as she circles to position herself between you and the exit
  1629. >"Now, intruder, lay down and surrender. You're officially under arrest,"
  1630. >'again', she mutters under her breath
  1631. >"by order of the Elite Lunar Guard!"
  1632. >and with that, she pounces at you, flying just slightly to your left in anticipation of your dash for the door!
  1633. >you duck under the diving strike, more on instinct than thanks to any formal training
  1634. >but Rainbow Dash lets her limbs absorb the force of her attack as she lands against the wall, before springing back and releasing it in a concentrated kick!
  1635. "Agh!"
  1636. >you feel a hoof plant itself in between your shoulder blades, and let out an involuntary cry of pain as it connects, driving the air from your lungs!
  1637. >the sheer force sends you sprawling, rolling over yourself from the strike as you struggle to pull yourself upright
  1638. >"Did you not hear me, you insolent little shit?! Lay! down!"
  1639. >she barks, leaping into the air before using the force of her wings' downbeat to try and press you flat against the floor
  1640. >but as you're trying to stand back up, the assault instead sends you scrambling for purchase, grasping futilely at the smooth stonework under your hooves as you feel yourself scooting ever closer towards the edge of one of the huge doorways into the void
  1641. >you manage to just barely bring yourself back to standing as the bat-ified version of your honorary big sis steps closer
  1642. "Rainbow Dash, please... don't do this! This isn't who you are!"
  1643. >your vision blurs a little as you stand against her, mind racing for a way to fix this problem before it spirals even further out of hand
  1644. >but before you can come up with the words, something lurking over her shoulder catches your attention
  1645. >th-thump
  1646. >the pulse of the medal against your chest seems to strengthen the presence of two pin-pricks set against the flickering torchlight
  1647. >and when Rainbow Dash speaks, you can hear overlaid on top of it a gruff voice, feminine but unmistakably hardened
  1648.  
  1649.  
  1650. >"What? Don't you know who I am? What world are you living in, that you think I'd betray an order from the Princess?"
  1651. >a grey fog settles in the room, seeming to sap the oranges and blues and purples from the scene
  1652. >but as it does, the black outline of a figure astride RD's back grows more prominent, like a clear silhouette cut out of the surrounding atmosphere with a knife
  1653. >the longer she talks, the stronger the voice becomes, Rainbow Dash's own voice almost seeming to fade into the background as it speaks over her
  1654. >no... through her
  1655. >"The Elite Royal Guard exists for one purpose: to fulfill the will of our all-powerful ruler, Nightmare Moon! Who do you think you are, whelp? Defying me is to defy her!"
  1656. >another gust slams against you as you skid backwards another couple feet, your hooves only half-perched on solid ground anymore
  1657. >but something about what she said
  1658. >no, what IT said
  1659. >sparks a fire in you
  1660. >and when you look up, it's no longer with hope or despair in your eyes, but determination
  1661. "Really...?"
  1662. >you huff, some illogical part of your brain latching onto her boast about her loyalty
  1663. >it makes your blood boil, even thinking about it:
  1664. "That's what you think of yourself-- no, what you think of HER?!"
  1665. >you shout back at the thing attached to her, the humanoid figure over her shoulder actually bracing for a split-second as a pulse of some mysterious energy radiates out from you
  1666. >you can see it more clearly, now, even as the haze seems to obscure Rainbow Dash herself, some sort of armored figure sitting so heavily upon RD's back that she seems to struggle underneath it
  1667. >the constant pulsing beat of your heart as you take a step back toward you is rushing in your ears
  1668. >each beat seems to distort the very world around you, overlaying two different scenes
  1669. >in one, you see Rainbow Bat, confident in her strength and position, leering down at you from above
  1670. >in the other, you see your Rainbow Dash, the one you remember, a sister and a friend, not even trying to hide her proud grin
  1671. >in your mind's eye, you see the two of them overlaid on top of each other, like two films intercut on the same reel
  1672. >but they both, in your heart, ring true
  1673. >as she comes closer, you feel hope clashing with fear inside you
  1674. >feelings you recognize and those you don't
  1675. >something Igor said echoes in your memory...
  1676. >"So long as the world in which you reside lacks a hero able to forge a contract..."
  1677. >"You will be obliged to stand in their place, with all the rewards and consequences thereof."
  1678. >could that mean what you think it does?
  1679.  
  1680. >...
  1681. >an anchor of your 「true self」 has been called into question:
  1682. >which is the truer Rainbow Dash?
  1683. >the one before you?
  1684. >or the one you remember?
  1685. >...put another way
  1686. >do you cling to the vestiges of your past?
  1687. >or accept the gravity of your current situation?
  1688. >this is an important decision
  1689. >you must choose wisely
  1690.  
  1691. >The Rainbow Dash I know wouldn't just blindly follow what someone tells her!
  1692. If this Rainbow Dash just follows strength... I'll show her what real strength is!
  1693.  
  1694. "The Rainbow Dash I know wouldn't just follow someone because they're strong... she wouldn't just grovel before someone she doesn't believe in!"
  1695. >you rage at the dark figure as it approaches
  1696. "I'll remind you what it's like to be the real Rainbow Dash!"
  1697. >you spy something in the corner of your vision
  1698. >a blue card floats gently down from the sky, twirling in a graceful spin as it descends
  1699. >perfect, this is your chance!
  1700. "Per... SONA!"
  1701. >your wings buzz as you leap up, delivering a spinning kick to the card that shatters it into blue dust!
  1702.  
  1703. >!!!
  1704.  
  1705. >the moment the card shatters, you feel a searing pain light your skull on fire!
  1706. "Aaagh!"
  1707. >you can't contain a shout of agony as you land roughly, forelegs collapsing and sending you sprawling to the floor!
  1708. >there's an echoed cry as a form coalesces in front of you
  1709. >like the scream of an engine through the sky, but far too close, and far too loud
  1710. >a pitch-black jet appears in front of you, its engine smoldering as you take in the extent of its damage from your prone position on the floor
  1711. >it lets out a cry that reminds you of metal grinding against metal, a jagged hole torn in one wing, exposing a damaged mechanical arm underneath
  1712. >you wince, barely able to keep your sight focused, as the black figure lets out a grunt
  1713. >"So this is the strength of self-determination, is it?"
  1714. >it rasps, climbing off of Rainbow Dash
  1715. >the moment its feet touch ground, you see everything freeze solid in the gray haze, even RD's breathing
  1716. >the fire from the torches on the wall hold like they were painted there
  1717. >"Do you imagine yourself to be a savior? Such insolence... this world already has one of those. And I serve her with loyalty in response!"
  1718. >it steps methodically towards you, closing the distance at a leisurely pace, even as its stance suggests a battle-hardened readiness
  1719. >"This is what an obedient soldier looks like..."
  1720. >it practically spits, before halting and flexing an arm
  1721. >as it does, the dark sheen over its skin bubbles and writhes, before layered segments of armor burst out of it from within!
  1722. >the effect ripples across its humanoid body, random sections of its skin erupting violently as metal plates explode outward, forming a crude skeleton of red-and-gold samurai armor that shifts and slides, interwoven with its unworldly black flesh
  1723. >its glowing eyes narrow, as it flexes the muscles in its hand, a bent metal rod extending from either side of its wrist with a sickening spurt of ichor
  1724. >it's followed a second later with a pair of tendons that whip around the rods, pulling them taut into a bow-like shape as the thing resumes its stride towards you
  1725. >the other hand snaps and splinters, before melding into one long, thick piece of metal, a sword half as tall as the thing weilding it
  1726. "Nngh..."
  1727. >you wince, tears streaming from your eyes, stumbling and failing to get back upright as the thing approaches, each finger of its bowed hand elongating and growing into a vicious-looking arrow
  1728. >are you seriously going to let this thing take you out?
  1729. >the engines on your persona sputter and rev weakly
  1730. >it's all you can just to stand
  1731. >'You'll never beat her like this,'
  1732. >a voice in your head rumbles, sounding almost disappointed
  1733. >but what exactly does it want you to do?
  1734. >what even CAN you do, right now?
  1735. >'Hmph. To think this is what you see of yourself. A mere imitation of the genuine article.'
  1736. >your persona crumbles as the dark samurai watches on, and you're able to sense it smirking malevolently despite its lack of any real facial features
  1737. >'Very well, then... if this is all you can muster, then it seems you'll die exactly as you lived:'
  1738. >'In the shadow of another's greatness.'
  1739. >the last bits of your persona wither away into the sky, leaving only a handful of steps between you and the weaponized shadow-creature
  1740. "No... I won't...!"
  1741. >you cough weakly, feeling something warm run down your muzzle
  1742. >"Oh, I'm afraid so, betrayer. This is where you die. For the Crown!"
  1743. >it raises its sword overhead, before slashing straight down for your skull!
  1744. "I wasn't talking to you."
  1745. >you growl hoarsely, meeting the shadow creature's glowing eyes with your own half-lidded ones
  1746. >a rectangle of blue light glints back into existence above your head, flashes, and shatters once more
  1747. >and the moment it does, a fist nearly as huge as the the samurai itself swings in from the misty ceiling, connecting with the monster and sending it flying horizontally!
  1748. >it smashes against the far wall, the force of the blow flattening it for a second
  1749. >no... you feel the tempest of wind against your back as it hammers into the thing, a flurry of blows popping against the thing's armor as it's embedded deep into the stone by a jackhammer of consecutive strikes!
  1750. >you feel the pain recede, like someone had been squeezing you and building the pressure in your skull and they'd finally let go
  1751. >and when you look up, you see a statuesque man towering over you, bronze skin contrasting with the long orange feathers sprouting from his wrists
  1752. >they form sharp, angular gauntlets that extend well past the elbow, his bare chest covered only with a brown tunic and some downy purple feathers at the collar
  1753. >from the legs down he resembles a bird, great clawed feet hanging in the air as he floats, arms outstretched, behind you
  1754. >you spy a single pale eye glint at you as you hear the rumbling voice in your head
  1755. >'So, you accept that you will never be the one you hold so dear?'
  1756. >you nod slowly
  1757. >'And that I shall in turn be no pale shade of another.'
  1758. >you hear the shadow clatter noisily to the ground and turn your attention back to it
  1759. "...Yeah. I'm not Rainbow Dash. This version of her, or any other."
  1760. "I'm me. And you're me, too."
  1761. >you square up, a little worse for the wear but ready to fight for your life as the shadow before you snarls and springs to its feet
  1762. "Let's show this thing what we can do... Hraesvelgr Ego!"
  1763.  
  1764. >"Such blatant disregard..."
  1765. >the shadow seethes, it's muscles coiling in on it as it tenses and then throws itself to it's feet
  1766. >"What right do you have to defy Her will?!"
  1767. >it bellows, pointing its gruesome bow hand at you before its index finger launches forward!
  1768. >you hold up your foreleg in defense and the gigantic arm of your persona follows suit, the feathers on his arm splaying out to cushion the blow
  1769. >you feel the phantom pain of the strike sting in your skin, but it's dulled by your persona's guard
  1770. >you shake your arm a bit and manage to dislodge the iron bolt from Hraesvelgr's arm, the black metal piece clattering to the floor
  1771. "Why are you so gung-ho to follow everything she says?"
  1772. >you ask back, as the thing knocks another finger-arrow and pulls the sinewy strip of flesh taut to fire a second round
  1773. >"She is the wisest, the strongest, and the greatest! The weak were made to obey the strong... so obey my order to lay down, and I'll reward you with the mercy of a swift death!"
  1774. >you swipe out in front of you as the second bolt launches, and your hoof smashes through the card
  1775. >the giant eagle-man hybrid appears above you and swings both arms down and forward in a calamitous clap!
  1776. >the force sends a surge of wind over your shoulder, knocking the bolt aside easily and continuing through to hammer against the shadow thing's armor
  1777. >its heels drag against the floor until they're nearly back in the indent formed from your first strike
  1778. >but before it gets wedged back into place, you hear it roar, a surge of strength seemingly rippling through its muscles as it grabs onto either side of the wall!
  1779. >"RAAAAAGH! You will STOP THAT this instant!"
  1780. >you see its glowing eyes turn red, before a crimson mask appears, the demonic features materializing like paper burning in reverse
  1781. >the samurai swings wildly at the air with its enormous sword, before letting out a more feral snarl and hunching forward as it circles you...
  1782.  
  1783.  
  1784. Scootaloo:
  1785. HP - Full
  1786. SP - High
  1787.  
  1788. >the shadow samurai writhes in its skin, leading you into a counterclockwise circle as you aim to keep it in front of you
  1789. >it halts, then lunges forward at you
  1790. >but rather than an attack, it lets out a primal roar, the weapons on its arms taking on a dangerous golden sheen!
  1791. >it's just instinct, but you feel a deadly potential emanating from its weaponry now
  1792. >best to keep your distance, then...
  1793. >you smash your card with another forward swipe, and your muscled protector points a hand at the samurai
  1794. >tensing his wrist, you see a single feather turn from orange to deep purple on his forearm
  1795. >he plucks it with his other hand, and throws it forward, the size of the feather growing as it flies!
  1796. >the feather crunches against the shadow's armor, embedding itself in its shoulder like an oversized javelin!
  1797. >but as the deep purple coloration starts to drain from the top of the feather, the creature's gilded sword hacks it off at the base, leaving only a small broken nub sticking out from where arm meets body
  1798. >you see it let out ragged breath as its masked face glows with warmth, a puff of black smoke with burning embers jetting from its mouth as it debates its next move...
  1799.  
  1800. Scootaloo:
  1801. HP - High
  1802. SP - High
  1803.  
  1804. >if that thing's attacks are more dangerous, you reason, it's best to keep yourself in good condition in case it manages a solid hit
  1805. >you notice that since its mask went on, it hasn't said a word
  1806. >maybe it can't speak the way it is now?
  1807. >or maybe it's just too focused on the fight to try and flaunt its supposed superiority over you...
  1808. >you reach forward to use your persona again, but in a sudden burst, it leaps forward and fires an arrow at the ground behind it!
  1809. >the golden bolt pierces deep into the floor below, the force propelling the samurai forward suddenly with its sword angled at eye level!
  1810. >you jump back and left as your wings buzz, trying to put enough distance between you and it
  1811. >but the slash connects, and you let out a hiss as you feel your shoulder blossom with the pain of a long, thin cut
  1812. >it surprises you that it doesn't hurt more, though, with the shimmering gold sheen on the surface of the blade
  1813. >you land well enough that you can immediately spin and break your card in another hoofstrike without losing momentum
  1814. "Hraesvelgr Ego! Help me out!"
  1815. >you implore your persona
  1816. >but the battlefield seems eerily quiet in the wake of your cry
  1817. >even the savage shadow seems a bit confused, looking around warily for some sign of your persona
  1818. >when it can't detect any, it lets out a series of short hacking noises you might mistake for a laugh, before charging forward--
  1819. >WAAARK!
  1820. >before it can reach you, a huge avian head breeches the ground between you and it, beak crunching down and consuming the thing whole as it dives back beneath the earth!
  1821. >you hear some muffled grunts of exertion, and the sound of a beak snapping open and shut...
  1822. >with each clicking noise, you feel some of your strength returning, the cut on your foreleg not quite healing completely before you hear a final-sounding
  1823. >KAWH!
  1824. >and the samurai shoots out of the hole the bird's head had cleaved, covered in some translucent liquid, the floor reforming of its own accord
  1825. >it puffs with rage for a second time, the glow on its mask now casting its own red-orange light as the spittle on its face sizzles and evaporates in the heat, a large black plume of ember-filled smoke now rolling out of its mouth
  1826. >it's hard to tell by its posture, but you seem to be whittling it down...
  1827.  
  1828. Scootaloo:
  1829. HP - High
  1830. SP - Medium High
  1831.  
  1832. >this thing just doesn't want to give up...!
  1833. >you see it notch another finger-bolt, the single smooth motion of loading and firing at you so casually that you barely register it's happening
  1834. >you try to jump aside, but the attack flies faster than your eyes can track it, the pain dulled once again by Hraesvelgr Ego's quick guard and reflected on your own body
  1835. >but this is just the opening you were looking for!
  1836. >you rear up on your back hooves and smash your card to the ground, your enormous bird-person persona not even fading from his block before he rematerializes to grab a deep purple feather from his arm
  1837. >the javelin-sized feather jams into the samurai figure's thigh, but the toxin within works faster this time, the color leaking out of it in an instant and turning the feather bone white!
  1838. >you see the dark samurai struggle to remove the missile, its pulls getting more and more desperate until eventually the feather goes flying from its hands, clattering across the room!
  1839. >you can see its eyes jittering behind its mask as it takes strained breaths, but it seems in control of itself enough to stagger forward...
  1840. >the jaws of its mask creak more open and it lets out a scream, equal parts rage and fear, that flings searing embers all over you!
  1841. >you brace for an incoming blow, but the black smoke and red ashes flow over you and then...
  1842. >dissipate?
  1843. >you were expecting some impact, or damage, or something
  1844. >it isn't until you resume your vigilant circling that you notice every movement stings and leaves your skin feeling raw...
  1845.  
  1846. Scootaloo (Burned):
  1847. HP - High Medium
  1848. SP - Medium High
  1849.  
  1850. >you see it stagger slightly as it charges at you, the panic clear in its actions as it starts to move in for a sword slash
  1851. >but the withering glare you give it, even as your skin lights up with pain, makes it halt in its tracks!
  1852. >it makes to charge in again, but that hesitation was the moment you needed, and you take out your frustration on it in a pique of anger
  1853. "Come on! Why won't you just, go, DOWN?!"
  1854. >you grit your teeth and muscle through the pain, smashing your card into tiny pieces
  1855. >the blow comes from above this time, Hraesvelgr's fist crashing through the ceiling with his index finger outstretched, swathed in green twisting wind as it pins the rampaging samurai face-down to the ground!
  1856. >the cacophony of armor rattling against itself rings through the room as the multitude of blows from the wind press against its back, until the cyclone slowly dissipates and the gargantuan bronze finger makes contact
  1857. >at the moment it does, you hear a sharp CRACK as the mask it wears shatters and falls away, revealing a craven and cowardly pair of eyes brimming with tears
  1858. >"Please... please, I beg you, show me mercy! I surrender, I am your willing slave, your word is my command! Spare me, and I swear my complete fealty...!"
  1859. >you suck down a few well-earned breaths of fresh air, the color starting to fade in on the edges of the room as the shadow grovels before you
  1860. >it wouldn't take more than a thought to put an end to this thing, and it caused you more than a little trouble
  1861. >but on the other hand... it came from this world's Rainbow Dash
  1862. >it's something that seems tied to her, that influences her
  1863. >what will happen to her if you destroy it?
  1864. >is it safe to let it remain a part of her, driving her like this?
  1865. >it appears you have a choice to make...
  1866.  
  1867. >Show it mercy
  1868. Destroy it
  1869.  
  1870. >you scowl at the thing pinned under your persona's finger, walking right up to it and staring down at it from above
  1871. >you reel back, and it flinches as your hoof comes rushing down--
  1872. >WAP
  1873. >you swat it lightly on the back of the skull, shaking your head with a bit of disdain
  1874. "Jeez, just... stop, alright?"
  1875. >you let the pressure up just slightly, and the black-skinned creature scrambles to a prostrate position before you
  1876. >"Ma'am...?"
  1877. >you let out a dry chuckle as you gesture to your own body, a few puncture wounds and more than a couple singed patches of coat still lingering from your fight
  1878. "What're you bowing for? Just because you couldn't beat me doesn't mean you're not strong..."
  1879. >you explain, wincing slightly as you sit next to it and point over at the stone-still Rainbow Dash
  1880. "That's what I was saying before: I know, uh... well, I know MY Rainbow Dash, and she'd never just sell out."
  1881. "But that's not because she's stronger, or smarter, or faster, or better than anyone."
  1882. >you think for a second on how best to phrase it
  1883. "It's because she's courageous enough to stand on the side of right, even if the whole world is standing against her."
  1884. "So... don't just be loyal to whoever's in charge, okay? Be loyal to yourself, too."
  1885. >"..."
  1886. >the shadow sits in stunned silence as the flames from the torches start to slowly start dancing again
  1887. >it seems like reality is starting to set in and encroach on this weird extra-temporal space, as the shadow-like creature rises to its feet
  1888. >"Loyal to oneself... hm. Maybe..."
  1889. >as it approaches Rainbow Dash, the hardened metal of its armor gives way to a more elegant robe, its beautifully painted face seeming to peek through the pool of black that covered it as it looks back at you
  1890. >"I suppose I'll have to try that."
  1891. >it says in a more feminine voice, giving you a wry smile before turning back to the batlike pony and disappearing in a flash of light that sends the whole world back into motion
  1892. >"Urgh... why do I..."
  1893. >you see the grizzled pony put a hoof up to her head, massaging her temple in confusion
  1894. >"!"
  1895. >when she spots you, her eyes immediately narrow, and she opens her mouth to say something
  1896. >but as she does, you notice a glint in her eyes as she takes you in, as if for the first time
  1897. >appraising you not like an opponent, but like a pony
  1898. >you hear her mutter something under her breath, but can't make out most of it
  1899. >she still wears the hardened gaze of a guardspony, but something about it is softer now
  1900. >and she looks cautiously at the exit to the night sky as well as the staircase before trotting stoically over to the boxes in one corner, shifting them aside with a sort of rigid motion
  1901. >it actually kind of weirds you out, the way she seems to be pointedly keeping you out of her field of vision
  1902. >"Huh,"
  1903. >she says out loud, not once looking in your direction as she pushes the same box in a couple different directions
  1904. >"I would've sworn I saw somepony in here when I was coming in."
  1905. >...oh
  1906. >you cautiously back up towards the stairway, looking down the narrow passage before casting one more glance at her
  1907. >well, at some version of your honorary sister, anyway
  1908. >as you slip into the darker stairwell, you hear her say just a bit too loudly
  1909. >"Well, if they were here, I just hope they don't escape through the West Corridor, we don't have enough guards patrolling there to keep a close watch on those exits."
  1910. >she never moves from her space even as you sneak away, but you'd swear she was watching you just out of the periphery
  1911. >ears listening for the sounds of your fading footsteps
  1912.  
  1913.  
  1914. Meanwhile...
  1915.  
  1916. >...
  1917. >oooooh, that hurts
  1918. >you wince as you close your eyes tighter, the throbbing pain in your head making you want to slip back into unconsciousness to avoid it altogether
  1919. >but even as you pull the rich black covers around you, you recognize something isn't right
  1920. >you open one eye just a crack, taking in the various blobs and dark forms of the room you're in
  1921. >...wait a minute...
  1922. >you fling the covers off of you in a panic, scrambling out of the enormous bed and to your hooves
  1923. >where
  1924. >wait, what
  1925. >no, who
  1926. >you look around, trying to pinpoint where you are
  1927. >this isn't the clubroom, it's nowhere in the school, and it's DEFINITELY not home!
  1928. >you try to shake the confusion out of your head and nearly topple over, a sudden rush of nausea washing over you as your horn throbs with pain
  1929. >urgh...
  1930. >okay, okay, you can handle this, you just have to take a deep breath, and think...
  1931. >there was the schoolhouse, where you and your friends were investigating, that much makes sense
  1932. >and then there was the... the newspaper?
  1933. >but you also remember a summons
  1934. >which, you shouldn't have gotten, that doesn't track at all
  1935. >you remember being scared to press on, but if you didn't, you'd definitely have been in hot water
  1936. >it was your responsibility to make sure it got fixed
  1937. >so this was the only choice, right?
  1938. >ugh, but none of this is making sense!
  1939. >you resolve to forget about it for now, looking around the room first
  1940. >it seems like a pretty normal bedroom, with a vanity and a dry sink, a small closet, a bedside table with some faintly glowing blue flowers in a vase
  1941. >nothing particularly bizarre
  1942. >well, except when you look up the vaulted ceilings are ridiculously high
  1943. >so, you have to be inside some sort of huge structure then?
  1944. >unless it's like the Boutique where it's just one tall building, but even then your sister keeps old designs and dress forms she's not using up there
  1945. >no, this is some kind of castle or something, you're sure
  1946. >alright, well, no matter what, you know you need to meet up with your friends, and unless you fell unconscious in the middle of a game of hide-and-seek, they're not going to be here
  1947. >so you push the door open and trot down the hallway, the eerie blue light glowing from the sconces in the wall casting a kind of sickly pallor over the wall hangings
  1948. >looking them over, the tapestries themselves aren't much better, beautifully made but with dark and oppressive colors broken up only by small accents of pearly white depictions of the phases of the moon
  1949. >the far wall has long thin windows that let slivers of moonlight in, and as you pass by them you can see the top half of the moon peeking over the trees that sway and flow like water in an ever-changing wind
  1950. >...how did you get to this place?
  1951. >and why were you invited as an "honored guest"?
  1952. >for some reason, that phrase echoes like a chime in your head
  1953. >it sounds absolutely right, and yet uncomfortably wrong at the same time
  1954. >as you make it to the end of the hall, you can hear what sounds like a low, rhythmic, rumbling pulsing from one of the doorways
  1955. >the very last doorway, actually, raised slightly above the others by a short series of steps
  1956. >one of the two large oaken doors is cracked ever so slightly, making just the barest allowance for that noise to escape
  1957. >it seems to be the middle of the night, so you can't imagine too many other ponies are around
  1958. >and nopony could fault you for being just a bit concerned, it almost sounds like a lion or some other creature growling
  1959. >...
  1960. >your curiosity fights with your prudence as you debate whether or not to take a peek...
  1961.  
  1962. >See what you can see through the crack in the door
  1963. Mind your own business, there's more important things to deal with now
  1964.  
  1965. >...a small peek couldn't hurt, you tell yourself
  1966. >tactically, it's the smart decision, so you know what potential threats might come after you!
  1967. >the curiosity is killing you, too, but that's purely secondary of course
  1968. >you walk up the thin section of fabric covering the stairs, careful to tread lightly on each step
  1969. >you even hold your breath slightly as you approach the blackened entryway
  1970. >carefully, you lean your head against the fully closed door, peeking in and waiting for your vision to adjust to the darker room within
  1971. >the first thing you spot is a large, arched window, much wider than the ones you passed in the hall, mostly obscured by a purple drapery
  1972. >it lets the faintest amount of moonlight in, so you can spy some of the other things in the room, at least in silhouette
  1973. >it's a spacious area, but almost brutal in its simplicity
  1974. >there aren't much in the way of decorations, a small table with wrought-iron legs sitting in one corner, unused
  1975. >you can see a spot where a painting used to hang, the discoloration of the wall a dead giveaway dispite the lack of any other evidence
  1976. >there are shards of something glittery on the humongous rug that most of the room is laid out on top of
  1977. >the ceiling seems domed, much like the room you woke up in but on a larger scale
  1978. >and you can spy four thick posts that hold a canopy over the focal point of the room:
  1979. >a huge bed overflowing with pillows in navy and black, curtained on all sides with a sheer purple fabric
  1980. >as another rumbling noise rolls out of the room, though, you see something flicker
  1981. >not in the sort of ephemeral way that candles flicker, or the torches just behind you
  1982. >but like somepony playing with the light switch
  1983. >except, instead of light, it's a sort of gray filter, paradoxically lighting up the room as it strains to maintain itself
  1984. >and every time the world flashes gray, you get a glimpse of something enormous jutting from the center of the bed
  1985. >like a gnarled black tree, it arcs and twists back and forth as it rises and its trunk thickens
  1986. >you can see branches bunched roughly against the night sky painting on the ceiling
  1987. >but despite its old and withered state, the thing that catches your eye when the world flashes next time is a trio of misshapen, rotting fruit, one each in aqua, orange, and red
  1988. >they hang low enough to bend the canopy of the bed, for the split-second before they disappear back into nothingness as the world returns to color
  1989. >what exactly are you looking at, here?
  1990. >maybe the next time it flashes you'll get a clearer look?
  1991. >you try to nudge a tiny bit more of your head through the gap, your curiosity driving you to investigate just a little further
  1992. >when the color drops out again, sure enough, you can make out the shapes of three more withered fruit higher up
  1993. >you lean your head in further to get a better vantage point--
  1994. >crrrrrreak...
  1995. >the hinge on the door complains ever so slightly as the opening widens to accomodate you, and you barely hold back a shriek as the tree you're looking at ignites in bright golden flame!
  1996. >it consumes the entire room in an instant, yellow tongues of fire leaping along the branches and consuming the bed in a blaze that seems almost too bright to look at
  1997. >then just as quickly, the world plunges back into darkness, the pale glow of the moon revealing only still, shadowy forms once more
  1998. >no, wait, that's not quite true
  1999. >you notice the sound of fabric shuffling, before a pony raises their head above the pile of bedding
  2000. >their silhouette revealing a long, spiralling horn
  2001. >and you can see a thin blue line of color as their eye opens ever so slightly
  2002. >you feel your breath catch in your chest, like you'd just been dunked in ice water--
  2003. >and a hoof wraps around your mouth before you're dragged out of the doorway, the entire door coated in a pale blue light as it slides silently closed
  2004. >"Ahem."
  2005. >the noise from behind you is muted, deliberately barely above a whisper, but carrying with it all the stern consequence of a parent who caught their foal with a hoof in the cookie jar
  2006. >or, you realize as you turn your head to reveal your discoverer and accidental savior
  2007. >a sister catching their sibling snooping around
  2008. >she stays completely silent, but her expression says it plain as day:
  2009. >'Just what do you have to say for yourself, missy?'
  2010.  
  2011. >...
  2012. >well?
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