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MLP Everyday Life With Guardsmares Part 5

By TheManFromAnotherTime
Created: 2021-07-16 21:31:33
Updated: 2022-12-07 02:46:26
Expiry: Never

  1. "Everyday Life With Guardsmares"
  2. by The Man From Another Time
  5. Written for the Royal Guard Mare thread on /mlp/
  7. FAQ, Locations/Character List, and gag list:
  8. (spoiler warnings apply to both links)
  10. CHAPTER 5
  12. > You are Corporal Honour Bound, and your adrenaline must still be up.
  13. > Ebonshield has just sliced her brother's left eye to shreds, and you know he's screaming, but it's muddled and distant.
  14. > All you can hear is your shallow breathing and your racing heartbeat.
  15. > There's blood spattered across the sand in a jagged line, with more pouring from the gaping wound in Marcos' face, but that doesn't seem to faze you either.
  16. > You're just holding up a foreleg under your barrel, with your javelin tucked dutifully under that shoulder and its lethal tip pointing at the howling batpony who's frantically trying to staunch the flow of his vital essences.
  17. > Lying on the ground, partially wrapped up in his black cloak, hissing and howling, you see only one of the Changelings you skewered during the invasion.
  18. > In place of Marcos' screams, you hear its insectoid shrieking.
  19. > You see it thrashing in its death throws.
  20. > And you perceive the green abdominal fluids oozing from its carapace, stinking of urine and stomach bile.
  21. > They're soaking into the plush Canterlot Palace carpet, turning its royal blue threads a sickly black.
  22. > You remember frantically wrangling over whether you should try to administer a coup-de-grace.
  23. > But that's not here, that's not now.
  24. > You try to raise your weapon back out of striking position.
  25. > It's a struggle.
  26. > You shut your eyes.
  27. > Take deep breaths.
  28. > The lifelike memory of the Changeling attack fades, and you hear a new voice carry over Marcos' moans.
  29. > "¡Ay-ay-ay! What a mess jou all have made in here!"
  30. > It's Ignacio, the Balladeer of Ghosts.
  32. > Waving his forehoof in front of him as if to dispel the remnants of the smoke-bomb cloud, he appears between the curtains of his little wooden pulpit.
  33. > "... My lungs burn from the stink of ash and sulphur! And what is all this groaning and moaning?"
  34. > Brusquely knocking down his ramp with a swift swipe of his crutch, he hobbles his way down to the gallery floor, then sits on his haunches with his support under one foreleg, leering blindly down at your group.
  35. > Surprisingly, it's the injured Marcos who finds the words to answer him first, raising his head up from the sand, both forehooves and a wing covering his horrific wound.
  36. > "¡Balladeero de Phantasmas! Een the name of the Moon, bless me weeth yourr prrobidence, and rrestore me, that ay may leebe to fayght ourr enemies wance more!"
  37. > Ignacio sits up and sniffles, appearing to ponder the words, and Marcos drops his head back down again, looking up at Ebonshield with a bloody one-eyed grin.
  38. > "... Hhwhat a pointless theeng you habe done, my seester. You should habe keeled me! Ay weel emerrge from thees injurry unscathed, to challenge you again."
  39. > But Ignacio shakes his head.
  40. > "No."
  41. > Marcos rises up suddenly, enraged.
  42. > Pausing only briefly to choke up a mouthful of mixed blood, saliva, and snot, he raves at the Balladeer of Ghosts.
  43. > "Hwhat do you mean, 'no'? Ay am a Starr, and ay habe the rayght to healing of eenjuries frrom combat! Thees ees the law!"
  44. > Ignacio shakes his head again, swaying the long red fringe-strips on his black mask to and fro.
  45. > "No, Marcos. I am required to heal those who train in the Grand Hall and those who fight to defend our people..."
  46. > He grumbles.
  47. > "... Anything else, I do at my discretion. So, no, I will not restore jour sight at this time -- not until someone orders me to."
  49. > Marcos struggles to pull one forehoof off of his wound, in order to shake it angrily at Ignacio.
  50. > "*AY* am orderring you to! A seexth of the Meteoros, of the Starrs! And ay am blinded and bleeding to death!"
  51. > The crotchety old Balladeer sniffs and tries to straighten up his back.
  52. > "Jou do not order me, Marcos. And if jour sister had taken my advice, jou would be dead already, instead of merely dying..."
  53. > With a sigh, he slumps back down again.
  54. > "... But, since she has foolishly spared jour life, I suppose I should at least stop the rest of it from running out..."
  55. > Then he turns to look behind him at the musicians who even now were still cowering at the edge of the gallery, holding hoofkerchiefs to their muzzles and rubbing soot from their eyes.
  56. > "... ¡Oye! Fetch me my bridge so that I can get down there and give him what he deserves!"
  57. > In response to his beckoning, a few of the Rock-phase ponies hesitantly step forward, wary of any remaining fumes.
  58. > They make it to the edge in fairly short order, and then hoof-handle down Ignacio's plank to span the gap across the trench, between the raised gallery and the lower sand-pit floor.
  59. > With a huff, the old batpony mage shuffles his way down the bridge, leaning on his crutch.
  60. > Your group parts down the middle to allow him room to get to Marcos, whose breathing has grown shallow and pained.
  61. > You still haven't quite figured out how Ignacio seems to be able to 'see' so much when he's not just blind, but wearing a mask as well.
  62. > The Balladeer of Ghosts manages to come to a stop right in front of Ebonshield's brother, then he clears his throat and begins to mumble out a tune.
  63. > It doesn't sound as gentle as the one he sung to the Sergeant when she was injured last time down here, nor is it as strong as the one he used to heal the batpony who lost the sparring match at a distance, earlier.
  64. > Nonetheless, Marcos relaxes at the sound of it, and within a few moments, the bleeding appears to have stopped.
  66. > The wound still looks appallingly bad, though.
  67. > Just as the victim of Ebonshield's mutilating attack closes his eyes and dozes to sleep, numb to any remaining pain, Ignacio suddenly swats his forehead with the the padded butt of his crutch.
  68. > Marcos starts up, fully awake and consumed by a mixture of shock and fury.
  69. > Ignacio just points the tip of his cane at the now-healed batpony.
  70. > "That was for interrupting my nap with jour nonsense..."
  71. > Then he swiftly swings the device to one side, barely missing Ebonshield's chest as she dodges backwards.
  72. > "... And that was for disregarding my advice, Pureza! Do not come crying to me when Carmen asks me to heal his eye fully, and then when he returns to challenge you again!"
  73. > But the Sergeant only scoffs.
  74. > "If this happens as you suggest, then at least we will know where she stands."
  75. > Ignacio grumbles dismissively, and as you ponder her words -- what did she mean by knowing where Carmen *stood*? Stood on *what*? -- you're interrupted by another voice, this time coming from the entrance to the Grand Hall, and without any discernible batpony accent.
  76. > "By all of the Great Mother's glittering stars, what has happened here?!"
  77. > Standing at the top of the main staircase is a young-looking blueish-grey batpony mare dressed in flowing white robes, flanked by two more ponies dressed like the Reverend Mother Superior's attendants on your last visit, completely covered in white robes with tall, pointed white hoods.
  78. > This new batpony *sounds* almost like she's from Canterlot, but her garb marks her for one of the priestly 'Lunar-phase' caste.
  79. > Ebonshield hisses as she lowers her muzzle.
  80. > "Bow now, everypony but the Great Lord!"
  81. > Doing as she says, you bow your head, and so do Sparkshower and Glamerspear -- the latter with a small grumble.
  82. > Even Marcos struggles to turn over, coming to a rest on his belly with his head down low.
  83. > Ignacio, you note, once again does nothing.
  85. > Anonymous also remains standing, but he looks uncomfortable doing so.
  86. > The Lunar-phase batpony priestess begins to make her way down the stairs, gracefully clip-clopping down them, still flanked by her hooded attendants.
  87. > She must have *flown* in for none of you to have heard her coming down the hall or entering the room in the first place.
  88. > With an ashen face she surveys the Grand Hall.
  89. > "... Forgive my outburst, but this is the scene of a massacre! I see knocked-out Meteors up in the gallery and down in the trenches, and their Sixth lying wounded in the sandpit, itself covered in blood!"
  90. > Pausing halfway down the steps, she looks over at your group.
  91. > "... Stellar Seven, what is the meaning of all this?"
  92. > The Sergeant raises her head up to speak.
  93. > "Reverend Sister, Marcos the Meteoric Six and his battle-siblings attacked our group, threatening us all with death if I did not agree to be executed by them. In the course of the battle which ensued, they were defeated. There are also two more to be found, I suspect, in the chambers of the Stellar initiates."
  94. > As Ebonshield cocks a proud eyebrow at her young students, the batpony's amber eyes go wide, and her jaw hangs open.
  95. > "You defeated all these in a direct confrontation? At more than two-to-one odds?"
  96. > Gaping, she shakes her head.
  97. > "... This fight will long be remembered in the annals of your Temple, Stellar Seven. I'm sure that your Master Draxon would have saluted you, if he were still with us..."
  98. > Wait -- 'still with us'?
  99. > He's dead?
  100. > Who's above Ebonshield in the batpony assassin's guild, then?
  101. > A question for later, you suppose.
  102. > The Reverend Sister composes herself and turns to one of her white-hooded escorts.
  103. > "Brother Louis, you must go immediately and summon a platoon of Righteous Hatcheteers!"
  104. > The hooded colt nods and quickly hustles back up the stairs.
  106. > Once he reaches the entryway, you can hear him start to repeatedly call out something in the batpony tongue.
  107. > "¡Hachadores! ¡Hachadores al Gran Salón!"
  108. > Even with the little you've heard of the batpony tongue, it's not hard to figure out what he's saying.
  109. > Meanwhile, the Reverend Sister flaps her wings and flutters delicately over to the sandpit, accompanied by her remaining escort.
  110. > "This is appalling! O Honourable Balladeer of Ghosts, I trust you have already attended to the medical needs of everyone present?"
  111. > Ignacio glances blindly around the hall.
  112. > "Only Marcos received any open wounds. I have closed the injuries but I have not restored him completely..."
  113. > Sniffing the air, he turns and points with his crutch at the Meteor that the Royal Engineer knocked out with your help.
  114. > "... That one over there will need to rest for some time, I think. And jou must support his neck and be gentle in hauling him away or else his situation will become dire."
  115. > Well, your VIP had administered a pretty forceful pair of blows to the back of the batpony's thin leather helmet.
  116. > Even with armour, that was a potentially lethal strike zone for ordinary ponies; no surprise it was so for these ones as well.
  117. > But, again, how did a blind batpony sorcerer know that just from apparently sniffing the air?
  118. > Maybe you should take a look at Glamerspear's book yourself, see if you can figure anything out.
  119. > The Reverend Sister nods to Ignacio.
  120. > "Thank you, O Balladeer. Great Mother bless you for your diligence..."
  121. > The Reverend Sister next bows towards the Royal Engineer, and you notice that her cloak is more open at the front than the one worn by Sergeant Ebonshield.
  122. > In-between the parted fabric and underneath her neck, you see what looks like a considerable amount of blue-grey tuft.
  124. > "... O Great Lord of Equestria, on behalf of the entire Rookery and all of the Great Mother's Children, I apologize for this intrusion into the safety of Your Lordship's person. I trust that Your Lordship is not seriously harmed?"
  125. > Anonymous hesitantly pulls his helmet up off his face, resting it on his brow.
  126. > "Uhm, thank-you, Reverend Sister. And yes, I'm fine now."
  127. > She lifts her head again, and the ample tuft is now on full display.
  128. > For being a fairly slender mare, she could give Sparkshower a run for her bits with that voluptuous frontal plumage.
  129. > That puts her soothing vocal tone in a different, grating, light.
  130. > "It overjoys me to hear Your Lordship say that..."
  131. > The way she emphasizes 'overjoys' makes you wonder about just what Carmen meant in sending as her representative this twenty-something nubile young mare with a prominent tuft and a honeyed tongue.
  132. > Sighing, the Reverend Sister looks around once more at the scene of carnage.
  133. > "... Please, all of you, be at ease in the warmth of the Great Mother..."
  134. > Ebonshield nods to you, and that's your signal to exit your bow.
  135. > Your neck was almost starting to hurt from having to look up like that.
  136. > "... Great Lord, I have been sent here by the Reverend Mother Superior. Her Reverence has been in conference all evening, but when it became known that you had joined us tonight in the Rookery to practice your martial arts, I was sent here to extend an invitation for you to join Her Reverence for refreshments at your discretion, when your exercise and any other business was complete..."
  137. > Glancing over at Marcos, who eyes her warily back with his mangled face, she sighs.
  138. > "... Now I wish only that the Reverend Mother's meetings had ended earlier, or that I had come here at a less leisurely pace. Great Mother willing, I might have prevented this confrontation."
  140. > There's the sound of hoofsteps from up by the entrance, and more black-cloaked batponies begin to filter in, stepping down the stairs and fanning out around the gallery with purpose.
  141. > Black cloaks for warriors and white cloaks for priests; pretty universally boring outfits.
  142. > Only the 'Rock-phase' tradesponies had any kind of style, along with the 'Dust-phase' labourers to a lesser degree.
  143. > You wondered what the 'Shadow-phase' outcasts have to wear...
  144. > The Reverend Sister points a forehoof out from underneath her cloak at Ebonshield's brother as she calls out to the soldiers behind her.
  145. > "Hatcheteers, place the Meteoric Six and all of these other Meteors under arrest. The charges are breaching the Edict of Blood, violating the Treaty of Canterlot, and disturbing the Mother's Peace."
  146. > As half a dozen Hatcheteers gape at his injury while surrounding him, Marcos doesn't waste the moment.
  147. > "Ay was only carrrying out the hweell of the Motherr!"
  148. > Most of the Hatcheteers level their spears down at him, while two of their number pull out ropes and move in to bind his wings flat against his flanks.
  149. > The Lunar-phase Reverend Sister steps over to the defeated warrior.
  150. > "That's enough, Marcos. Be silent. The Reverend Mother Superior will investigate this incident and decide your fate..."
  151. > She turns and addresses the Hatcheteers with a surprisingly firm authority, for being so young.
  152. > The sense of priestly superiority must be drilled into the Lunars from an early age.
  153. > "... Have caution and bring a stretcher for the one over there, but take the rest to the Catacombs immediately! The training of the Royal Engineer of Equestria must not be disturbed any further!"
  155. > In a matter of minutes, what passes for the ponice among the batponies have the whole scene cleared; those who weren't knocked out have their wings bound and are escorted out, the unconscious ones are hog-tied and hauled away on Hatcheteer backs, and the one your VIP knocked out is carefully strapped into a stretcher strung between two officers.
  156. > In the interim, the white-hooded second Brother sent off to fetch the cops returns to sit at the Reverend Sister's side.
  157. > Appearing relieved when the Stars are all gone, the young mare bows once more to your VIP.
  158. > "... I assure Your Lordship that Marcos will be punished severely for his transgressions. Please, allow me to interrupt these exercises no further...."
  159. > Rolling her shoulders to open the front of her cloak wide, she sticks out her tuft even further.
  160. > "... Would Your Lordship be inconvenienced if we were to retire to the gallery and watch the proceedings?"
  161. > Oh, come on!
  162. > So far, it's pretty obvious that the number-one threat to the Royal Engineer's life is these batponies themselves.
  163. > Why in Equestria would he want one of them *spying* on him while he trains?
  164. > And the Reverend Mother Superior can't possibly expect to influence your VIP just by sending a silly young mare to flash some tuft at him.
  165. > He's not that kind of colt; he's got his head screwed on straight.
  166. > Anonymous shrugs.
  167. > "You can stay and watch, if you'd like..."
  168. > What!?
  169. > Before you can say anything, he continues.
  170. > "... But to be honest, I think we're done here. We were just wrapping up when Marcos and his crew interrupted us."
  171. > The Reverend Sister beams a smile that might've seemed genuine when she first walked in.
  172. > Now it just looks fake to you.
  173. > "Oh, magnificent! Did Your Lordship have any other business to conduct first? Otherwise, I would be happy to escort you to meet the Reverend Mother Superior."
  175. > The Royal Engineer looks around.
  176. > "No other business tonight, no. Since we're down here, I thought about dropping by to say 'hello' to Mister Esautomatico at the Guild of Blacksmiths, but that's just a brief visit we can do on the way out."
  177. > Sergeant Ebonshield nods.
  178. > "Yes, of course, Great Lord. I remembered to bring a small gift to represent your continued friendship."
  179. > The Reverend Sister continues her smile.
  180. > "That sounds excellent. In the Lunar Sanctuary, we can ensure that Your Lordship is suitably freshened after these exercises as well, so as to meet the Honourable Guildmaster with due decorum. Are you ready to leave? Shall I conduct you there presently?"
  181. > Anonymous points up at his equipment in the gallery.
  182. > "Let me collect my things first, and then we'll all follow you out. How about everybody else? The fight was pretty intense, there's no need to rush out if someone needs a moment."
  183. > He looks around to get confirmation from the four of you, but the Sergeant looks warily over at the Reverend Sister.
  184. > Before you can ask Ebonshield what's wrong, the Lunar speaks out, bowing her head.
  185. > "Oh, no, Great Lord. I apologize that this was not made clear earlier, but the Lunar Sanctuary is a hallowed place, unfit for the hooves of unclean ponies. Your retinue will have to await you outside, or elsewhere within the Rookery."
  186. > Seriously?
  187. > The Reverend Sister rises up with an apologetic look on her face, but that sure wasn't much of an apology.
  188. > Especially since there's no way the Royal Engineer would have known about the rule beforehoof.
  189. > Anonymous stiffens, and nopony else seems to want to reply, so you decide to take the lead.
  190. "Reverend Sister?"
  191. > She turns to you, wearing a pleasant smile.
  192. > "Yes, Corporal Bound?"
  193. > So she even knows your names.
  194. > This was definitely not some 'last-minute' invitation.
  195. > Carmen must have been planning to do this the next time you all came down here again.
  197. "You realize that the Royal Engineer was just *attacked* inside the Rookery? Surely you understand that much as His Lordship wishes to accept the Reverend Mother Superior's invitation, His Lordship might also be reluctant to give up his escort so soon after such an assault?"
  198. > Intending to one-up her formal tongue, you stick to Canterlot Palace Military Office VIP section regulation verbiage as well.
  199. > The Reverend Sister licks her lips, then extends her wings to indicate her comrades.
  200. > "Of course, Corporal. That is why we are here present as escort and guides. I assure you that no proper Child of the League would dare attack a true Lunar such as myself or my Brothers. You witnessed how Marcos put up no further resistance to my commands? Quarrelsome stars are not admitted within Lunar Sanctuaries, and a fight on hallowed grounds is absolutely unthinkable."
  201. > Ebonshield clears her throat pipes up with a sly smile.
  202. > "However, such a thing is not *unheard-of*."
  203. > There's a momentary flash of outrage in the Reverend Sister's eyes, and you're left wondering just what the Sergeant meant by that.
  204. > It almost sounded like she'd had a hoof in whatever she was referencing.
  205. > Still, the diplomatic priestess recovers quickly.
  206. > "The Stellar Seven is correct. Despite the ban and the severe consequences for doing so, there have, in our recorded history, been occasions where the peace of a Sanctuary was violated. I must stress that such occurrences are exceedingly rare, the last one being years ago..."
  207. > You glance up at the Royal Engineer, and he doesn't look very enthusiastic.
  209. > The Reverend Sister must have picked up on it, too, because she changes tack.
  210. > "... However, given the circumstances and the fact that three of Your Lordship's retinue are merely *honorary* Stars, perhaps some accommodation could be made. I'm sure the Reverend Mother Superior would understand completely your desire to keep one of your bodyguards with you at all times in the Rookery, particularly in light of this deplorable incident."
  211. > Damn straight he does.
  212. > Anonymous nods.
  213. > "That's very accommodating of you, Reverend Sister. Corporal, why don't you accompany me, then?"
  214. > Oh, buck.
  215. > Well, this *is* what you wanted, isn't it?
  216. > The Royal Engineer fulfils his diplomatic objectives while still being escorted?
  217. > Even though Glamerspear and Sparkshower are, to be honest, both more capable combatants than you are.
  218. > Feeling a bit hoist by your own petard, you nonetheless nod.
  219. "Yes, sir."
  220. > The Royal Engineer turns to the rest of the quaternion.
  221. > "I suppose the three of you should wait here for us to return? Unless there's some other business you wanted to conduct yourself, Sergeant?"
  222. > Ebonshield nods.
  223. > "I should like to have a few moments in private to deal my initiates..."
  224. > She glances over at Carto and Águila.
  225. > "... I believe with this excellent display of skill and resourcefulness they have proven that they are initiates no longer."
  226. > If they looked happy before, when she slyly called them out in front of the Reverend Sister, now the foal and filly are absolutely beaming with pride.
  227. > Ignacio pipes up next.
  228. > "And if jou are going to crawl alone with jour initiates into that maze of tunnels in order to conduct jour strange Stellar ceremonies..."
  229. > He waves one forehoof with what seems like disgust, then licks his lips.
  230. > "... Ehhhh... This means that the unicornio will remain here, and I am eager to hear if she has come up with an answer to the question I posed her earlier."
  232. > The Balladeer grins and, perhaps sensing Glamerspear's hesitation, even chuckles.
  233. > That just left Sparkshower without something to do.
  234. > You nod in her direction.
  235. "Specialist, stick with Glamerspear and keep out of trouble while we're in conference with the Reverend Mother Superior. Stay here in the Grand Hall, understand?"
  236. > Both of them give you a salute in reply.
  237. > "Yes, Corporal!"
  238. > "Yes, Corporal!"
  239. > It's good that they remembered to show some professionalism in front of the batpony priestess.
  240. > Despite having *failed* to take The Watchtower, effectively *losing* to the Royal Guard, you got the sense that most of these 'Children of the League of Stars' really looked down their muzzles at you.
  241. > 'Prisoners of the Sun'
  242. > 'Surface-born'
  243. > And the way they said 'Equestrians' like you were some kind of scum.
  244. > It didn't sit right with you.
  245. > And here was their effective leader, the chief priestess of the religious caste, sending a plumed floozy to try to recruit the Royal Engineer as an ally.
  246. > Maybe Anonymous choosing you as escort wasn't such a bad idea after all.
  247. > If physical attacks really were rare inside the Lunar Sanctuary, then you were probably the best choice to defend your VIP's honour and integrity against what was sure to be a relentless sales pitch from Sergeant Ebonshield's mother, Carmen.
  248. > You look up at Anonymous.
  249. "Ready when you are, sir."
  250. > He gives you a small smile, then turns to the Reverend Sister still wearing it.
  251. > You get the sense that the one you received was genuine, while it was just a front he put on for her.
  252. > "Lead the way, Reverend Sister."
  253. > She bows, and her escorts turn first to make the way clear.
  254. > Time to see what these batpony Lunars were all about.
  259. > You are Specialist Lily Glamerspear, and a blind colt is *staring* at you.
  260. > How he's doing it you don't know, but he just *is*.
  261. > And even though his mouth is closed, you feel like he's grinning at you, too.
  262. > Ignacio Blazon, the old, hunched-over batpony Balladeer of Ghosts, sits idly on his haunches in the sandpit with you, leaning on his crutch.
  263. > Sergeant Ebonshield has already left for her chambers, accompanied by the two initiates that probably saved all your plots with their daring little infiltration and smoke-bomb surprise attack.
  264. > To say nothing of their unseen two-versus-two against the 'Swarming Meteor' goons sent to kill them in their beds.
  265. > Corporal Bound and the Royal Engineer have also gone off with that 'Reverend Sister' who strode in here with her tuft sticking out like a bucking fresh-picked bouquet.
  266. > Heh, maybe those 'refreshments' the Reverend Mother Carmen is supposedly offering will involve your VIP getting himself a little poon-tang with that particular young little piece of flank.
  267. > She did try to serve him up one of her Lunar mares last time, and Celestia knows Anonymous deserved some R-and-R, the big hunk of colt-meat.
  268. > Despite being busy shooting, you saw the way he KO'd that Meteor by diving in and walloping the batpony in the back of the head.
  269. > Even without that slick move, though, you respected your VIP's decision to stand and fight with the rest of you to start with.
  270. > Still coming off your gunner's high, you take a deep breath and look anxiously over at the crippled old batpony next to you.
  271. > It's just you, him, and Sparkshower left in the Grand Hall of Stars, with the musicians up in the gallery having also headed out for what passed for a midnight 'lunch' around here.
  272. > You shoot your fillyfriend a glance and turn towards the batpony who has been blindly eyeing you up.
  273. "So, uh, Mister Blazon..."
  275. > He tilts his head slightly, and you see his long-haired ears twitch subtly.
  276. > But he doesn't say anything; he just waits for you to continue.
  277. "... About your abilities to shape and control sand-creatures..."
  278. > Ignacio sniffs the air, but still remains silent.
  279. > You take another breath.
  280. "... I, uhm, hit the books, spoke to an expert, thought long and hard about the problem..."
  281. > It's more than a bit of a stretch to call Ebonshield's collegiate foal-toy an 'expert', but at least he had some formal training in abstract magical thinking.
  282. > Unlike the heavily practical learning you'd done.
  283. > Still, you really did hammer away at De Magia Unicornis, the definitive magical theory-book, looking for a solution.
  284. > Clearing your throat, you deliver the disappointing conclusion.
  285. "... And I'm afraid I'm still coming up empty..."
  286. > Shrugging, you tilt your head slightly, lowering your ears.
  287. "... Sorry. D'you think you could maybe give me another clue, or maybe another demo?"
  288. > After a moment, Ignacio snorts.
  289. > "Hunh. That is all? The great unicornio, who laughs while she demolishes an entire swarm of the Meteors, whose horn buzzes so loudly even when idle that it wakes me from sleep -- she investigates my magic and yet she finds nothing?"
  290. > You sigh.
  291. "No, sorry. This kind of investigation isn't really my strong suit..."
  292. > You shrug.
  293. "... I'm a guardspony. I shoot stuff, I shield against attacks, I can even do a little healing and a few other useful things. But I'm not exactly trained in deep magical theory."
  294. > "Jou have nothing at all? No proposals, no theories?
  295. > You shake your head, dejected.
  296. "Nothing that fits what I saw you do."
  297. > Ignacio chuckles.
  298. > "¿Oh? Let us double-check this, eh? What do jou think jou saw me do?"
  299. > You frown.
  300. > What's he on about now?
  301. > You already talked about what he did last time, didn't you?
  303. > Shuffling your hooves slightly, you clear your throat, glancing at the sandpit around you.
  304. "You formed the sand up into shapes of ponies, and a dragon, minotaur, and even a human who you'd never met before that morning -- and then you made the shapes fight with Sergeant Ebonshield, just as they would have if they were the real deal."
  305. > Ignacio grins, revealing crooked teeth.
  306. > "Ah... I did this? All of this? Are jou certain?"
  307. > Now it's your turn to chuckle awkwardly.
  308. "Uh, yeah. I'm not blind..."
  309. > Realizing you may have misstepped, you stop yourself.
  310. > But there's no reaction, so you go on.
  311. "... Er, I mean, we were right here. We saw it all, right, Sparkshower?"
  312. > There's an armoured scraping as she nods her head, but Ignacio just mutters dismissively, turning to step away from you.
  313. > "No, no, jou miss the point, unicornio..."
  314. > Grasping his crutch with the crippled foreleg it supports, he taps it in the sand, then bats it left and right, splashing the yellow stuff to and fro.
  315. > "... How do jou know that *I* have made all these things?"
  316. > You shrug, the armoured tassels on your shoulders clinking together.
  317. "I mean, if not you -- then who else?"
  318. > Ignacio turns again to face you, and he's wearing a grin once more.
  319. > "Ah... There she is, the question..."
  320. > Placing his crutch back properly under his shoulder, he hobbles back towards you.
  321. > "... But tell me first of jour studies. Jou say jou are a simple soldier. Among the Children, even the 'simple' Stars are well-taught. Tell me of these books jou consulted."
  322. > You gulp.
  323. > You hated having to show your work.
  324. "It was just one book, I guess -- but it's a really important book, you understand? It's the definitive treatment of magic: a classical text that has yet to be surpassed in the field of magical theory. And it's required reading at any magical university. Even Princess Celestia herself was quoted as saying it's the first and last word when it comes to all things magical."
  326. > He seems to perk up at your description.
  327. > "Ah, jes? And what is he called, this book of the wonders?"
  328. > You straighten your back and head, out of respect for the ancient tome.
  329. "'De Magia Unicornis', by Titus Wealthwisher. In Ancient Equestrian, the title means-"
  330. > Ignacio cuts in before you can translate.
  331. > "'On the magic of unicorns', jes..."
  332. > Nodding his head, he explains as you sit there, jaw open -- and you can hear Sparkshower's visor scrape as she lifts it in shock as well.
  333. > "... We Children also remember the ancient tongue. And our language today is closer to it than jou may think; closer, perhaps, than jours..."
  334. > With a chuckle, he shifts his weight on the crutch.
  335. > "... But it seems to me that a book about the magic of *unicorns* is not going to get jou very far in understanding a magic which was not done by one of them, no? Ehehehe, after all, I am no unicorn... So tell me about this 'expert' jou spoke with -- who were they?"
  336. > Ugh.
  337. > What is this, an inquisition?
  338. > You swallow again.
  339. > You are *not* going to tell him exactly who you consulted about this.
  340. "He was... just a friend. But he's a unicorn in college, the Schola Magia -- that's Equestria's premier arcane university, up in Canterlot. He's had more training in magical theory than I have, ya know? Even though I have more practical experience. We talked about the problem a bit, workshopped the possibilities."
  341. > Ignacio tilts his head back, lifting his tattered tufted ears.
  342. > "Ah, and what possibilities were these?"
  344. > You shift on your hooves again, shrugging.
  345. "We talked about them being some kind of golems, but those usually need time to prepare, whereas we'd barely been in the room for ten minutes before you did it. And you have to be able to examine the subjects being reproduced, but there's nopony like Anonymous in all of Equestria, plus you're blind, and you were asleep when we walked in. *And* you have to get a piece of the target for the golem to be authentic -- but you didn't have the chance to get any part of Anonymous, either."
  346. > After listening attentively, he nods.
  347. > "This was the only theorem?"
  348. > You tilt your head sideways.
  349. > Remembering the blathering of Ebonshield's barely-post-pubescent dweeb gives you a headache, but you manage it.
  350. "No, but the others made even less sense. One of them was that you had seen stuff like that before, and were therefore able to recreate it. Another was that it was enough to simulate, like, the magical 'reflections' of the guardsponies and our fighting VIP. But both of them needed you to have been able to *see*..."
  351. > A thought occurs to you, and you crane your neck forward, eyes narrowing and ears perking up.
  352. "... Which kinda brings up an interesting other question, mister Ignacio. For a blind guy, you sure seem to be able to 'see' a whole lot."
  353. > The batpony cocks an ear.
  354. > "Oh? How so?"
  355. > You look slyly over at Sparkshower, who seems to be just as focused as you are.
  356. "Like how you managed to get down here so fast, without really worrying about tripping or falling. You sure hustled your way over to Marcos pretty quickly, too..."
  357. > Your wingmare chimes in as well.
  358. > "That's right! And you also looked right at one of the injured batponies when you pronounced that his neck needed special attention."
  359. > The Balladeer of Ghosts nods his head.
  360. > "Jes, jes. These things I have done..."
  362. > The nod turns into a shake.
  363. > "... I *am* blind to the world of light and darkness as jou know it. I have been blind in this way since birth; all Eclipse are so..."
  364. > Inhaling, he raises himself up a bit.
  365. > "... But... I do have a sense which allows me to perceive these things, and others."
  366. > Jackpot!
  367. > You *knew* there had to be some trick up this old batpony's sleeves!
  368. > Not that he wore a shirt or anything, but still.
  369. > Grinning at Sparkshower, you relax a bit, glad to receive an explanation for some of this mystery.
  370. "And what 'sense' is that?"
  371. > Ignacio sighs.
  372. > "It is a sense related to the magic, but it is difficult to explain. I am not sure if jou can understand."
  373. > You frown.
  374. "I may not be a college-educated pony, mister Ignacio, but I've got my head on straight, and so does my fellow Specialist Sparkshower. Try us."
  375. > Chuckling, he licks his lips, and you see him smile.
  376. > "I do not mean to insult jour intelligence, unicornio, or jour abilities, or those of jour friend the pegaso. But jou have already demonstrated to me that jou do not have this sense. Imagine if jou were to explain to me what it is to 'see', knowing that I have never seen anything before..."
  377. > Your brow furrows further as he continues.
  378. > "... I have been told before, jou know. That there is light and dark, and there are colours in-between. That the moon is grey, that grass is green, that blood is red, that a mirror shows a copy of whatever is in front of it..."
  379. > He shrugs.
  380. > "... But these descriptions are *meaningless* to me. Could jou explain to me what 'red' looks like? Eh?"
  381. > You're left a bit speechless, and Sparkshower takes a step forward.
  382. > "Well, red is the colour of the setting sun, and of beets and tomatoes, strawberries and cherries..."
  384. > Ignacio turns towards the sound of her voice.
  385. > "But I have never *seen* such things. I have never *seen* anything at all. How can jou describe what it is for something to *look* red, to somepony who has never seen? Jou do not need to understand that a thing is a beet or a tomato to know that it is red, no? It has an intrinsic appearance in jour mind, does it not? That is the nature of the sense, not a catalogue of the properties of the objects."
  386. > As Artemis is also unable to find a reply, he slouches down and continues.
  387. > "... This is why I lie a little when I say that jour horn 'buzzes', unicornio. It does not 'buzz' like a sound in my ears; it is something I perceive with this other-sense. For the sake of communicating it to jou, I describe it as a sound, since it grabs my attention as a sound would, and that at least is a sense which we share in common."
  388. > It takes you a moment to parse what he's saying, but you think you've got the gist of it.
  389. > Like trying to explain colours to a blind pony, he's saying it's going to be tough to explain to you this sense of his since you haven't got it.
  390. > Except you're not *quite* as blind as him in this regards, since as a unicorn you *do* have an affinity for raw magic.
  391. > And there are legends of great unicorns who could shut their eyes and nonetheless see the world around them...
  392. "I see what you mean. But why don't we continue with the 'sound' analogy, then? What is it exactly that you can 'hear'?"
  393. > Ignacio tilts his head back and takes a deep breath.
  394. > "It is not so much what I can 'sense', as what can be recognized..."
  396. > The tassels on his mask jiggle to and fro as he shakes his head.
  397. > "... This sense, it is like being in a very loud and noisy room, and trying to pick out the soft fluttering of wings from far away. There is much which I can 'hear', but the problem is in recognizing the 'sounds'. This is what is difficult -- but great disturbances are easier to find than others, as when jou draw magic through jour horn."
  398. > You narrow your eyes.
  399. "But what is it exactly you're 'hearing'? Spells being cast?"
  400. > Ignacio cocks his head sideways and wiggles the whiskers on his nose.
  401. > "It is the magic, I think..."
  402. > 'The' magic?
  403. > He turns his head slowly to and fro.
  404. > "... It is everywhere, jou know. In the stones, in the sand, in the air, in each of us..."
  405. > Then he looks up towards the ceiling.
  406. > "... Especially on this world. And particularly on the surface, during the day -- it is much quieter at night, and quieter still on the moon."
  407. > Mana, the raw stuff of magic, the source of a unicorn's spellcasting powers, and a force that empowered earth ponies and pegasi in their own ways as well, was generally thought to be spread just about everywhere, in fairly even quantities.
  408. > It seemed to just be a natural part of the universe, an aetherial field that pervaded reality.
  409. > There were some places where it was maybe a little stronger, and some places where it was a little weaker -- the latter, often the result of magic spells gone wrong.
  410. > But underground versus above-ground?
  411. > Daytime and nightime?
  412. > You'd never heard of that being a difference.
  413. > And certainly nopony had ever ventured to sound out the force of magic on the moon -- besides Nightmare Moon, of course, or her batpony 'children', but they weren't exactly an expedition from the Schola.
  414. > What if mana wasn't so evenly spread around as everypony thought?
  415. > As you ponder that question, Ignacio smirks.
  416. > "Have I lost jou already, unicornio? Shall we change the subject?"
  418. > You shake your head, brow still furrowed in thought.
  419. "No, I think I'm getting you. So how does it work -- what do you 'hear' when we're in the room?"
  420. > He shrugs.
  421. > "This I cannot describe. But jou have been here twice now, and the impressions, they start to become familiar. Not as familiar as the walls, the floor, and the ceiling of this Grand Hall, but I can recognize jou more easily..."
  422. > Straightening up, he calls towards the ceiling in a proud voice.
  423. > "... I am a Balladeer of Ghosts; I watch over the Grand Hall of Stars, here in the Rookery of Canterlot today, and before this in the Great House Rima de Serenidad. To call forth such enemies as jou witnessed last time, and to heal the Stars as jou have seen twice now, these are my duties, and I know them well."
  424. > Sparkshower pipes in again.
  425. > "And with this magic-sense, when you identify something, you can tell how far away it is? And what direction?"
  426. > Ignacio nods.
  427. > "Sí, jes, I can. And often I turn to face the direction, for the sake of jou who can see me. This does not change anything for me, however..."
  428. > He grumbles, tilting his head.
  429. > "... Hmmm... On jour first visit, I knew there were three of jou Equestrianos, but I did not know which was the unicorn, which the pegasus, and which the earth pony. Not until the horn was used to cast magic, was one of them made clear..."
  430. > Lifting a forehoof, he scratches at his chin.
  431. > "... Jour 'VIP', however -- he is difficult to perceive. I did not notice him completely at first. Even tonight, he is faint and distant, he blends into the background more readily. I cannot pick him out from the cacophony; not quite yet."
  432. > So the Balladeer was blind to Anonymous?
  433. > Interesting.
  435. > And this revelation also completely demolished all of that college-colt's theories.
  436. "I guess that explains why you can move around the arena here so confidently. But if you have trouble recognizing the Royal Engineer even now, that sure blows away all three theories we had about how you managed to create a sandy replica of him last time."
  437. > The batpony chuckles.
  438. > "Perhaps. But I have given jou a hint already, now, unicornio -- the suggestion that it was not *I* who made these things."
  439. > Not that again!
  440. "Yeah, okay, but I don't see anypony else around here who can do magic stuff. You said it was just your Eclipse Phase who could do any kind of spellcraft among the 'Children'. And neither the sand nor the sandpit seemed to be contributing to the spell in any way, either..."
  441. > You conclude with a dismissive snort.
  442. "... So I gotta ask, again: if *you* didn't do it, then who *did*? 'Cause I'm not seeing any other options."
  443. > Ignacio stays silent.
  444. > Ah, horsefeathers.
  445. > You won't be getting any more out of this colt tonight, will you?
  446. > Or maybe not ever, given how cagey he was about this 'mana-sense' of his.
  447. > To your surprise, the Balladeer of Ghosts opens his mouth.
  448. > "Tell me, both of jou, unicornio and pegaso -- What do jou know of our Great Mother?"
  449. > You exchange confused glances with Sparkshower before answering.
  450. "Who exactly do you mean? Princess Luna? Or Nightmare Moon?"
  451. > He chuckles.
  452. > "Ehehe. What is the difference? Is there a difference?"
  453. > Artemis glumly answers.
  454. > "Ebonshield's brother Marcos sure seemed to think so."
  455. > Ignacio chuckles again, but shakes his head.
  456. > "Nightmare Moon wished to lead her Children in conquering the world, and Princess Luna does not. This is the only difference which matters to Marcos..."
  457. > He grins, exposing his crooked teeth once more.
  458. > "... But I am asking if there is a difference deeper than this -- deeper than what might merely be a decision or a choice."
  459. > Sparkshower looks at you and shrugs her shoulders.
  461. > You have to dig real deep in the back of your head to think of anything relevant.
  462. > That was the trouble with Princess Luna -- the concern many ponies had in the immediate aftermath of her dropping the mantle of 'Nightmare Moon', and the concern many ponies *still* had even two years later.
  463. > Most Equestrian ponies were kinda like Marcos; they only saw what she tried to do before, and what she wasn't trying to do now.
  464. > And they worried it was just a simple 'switch', a choice she'd made that she might just as easily un-make.
  465. > It didn't help that few details had come out of her duel in Ponyville with the wielders of the 'Elements of Harmony'.
  466. > All that was certain is that six ponies in the village had each individually made use of the magical artifacts that Princess Celestia had previously harnessed all on Her own.
  467. > And one of those ponies was a personal protégé of Her Majesty, from her small private tutoring school for unicorns.
  468. > Then a while later that protégé had been knighted or something?
  469. > Ennobled somehow?
  470. > You didn't really pay attention to the goings-on of nobleponies outside of Canterlot, especially if they weren't rich, and doubly so if they weren't colts.
  471. > But when it came to rumours about the fight, hoo foal, did everypony go wild over that.
  472. > Even the newspapers and magazines got in on the action.
  473. > You remember reading one article that said after getting blasted by the Elements a first time, Nightmare Moon transformed into a strange mutant creature, with six smaller wings for legs, and a great big black wing in place of her midnight horn.
  474. > Published in a pro-unicorn and somewhat anti-pegasus rag, the story went on to say that the Elements had to down that second form in order to defeat her once and for all.
  476. > Another tale claimed that before going down for the count, she grew to a giant five hundred hooves high, a titan that burst through the ancient Castle of the Twin Sisters and towered over the forest surrounding it.
  477. > The writers outdid themselves describing that hypothetical battle against a shadowy colossus.
  478. > Yet another big news magazine ran as a cover story the idea that the first shot blew Nightmare Moon's black horn straight off and sent her hurtling to the ground, but then the detached horn itself began to pulsate with a twisted red energy that brought the crumbling ruins of the Castle back to life, sucking the energy from the surrounding forest and animating the dead as twisted masses of flesh and bone to assail the Elements.
  479. > That one was dead serious, too, and the magazine's editors allowed ample space for the horrifying illustrations that accompanied it.
  480. > But in the absence of any details, you had to imagine that those more outlandish theories were probably wrong.
  481. > If she really did grow five hundred hooves tall, for example, she ought to have been visible back in Ponyville.
  482. > Heck, they might've even seen her from the Watchtower -- if they hadn't been busy fighting off the batponies at the time, you suppose.
  483. > The multi-wing metamorphosis idea was just a racist fantasy, and the 'independent horn' idea, while engrossing, was just body-horror fiction.
  484. > There were tons of other, smaller, lesser rumours, but one of them had stuck out to you at the time.
  485. > Witnesses in Ponyville described Nightmare Moon as looking different from Princess Luna, with a black coat instead of blue, and slit batpony-style eyes instead of normal ones.
  486. > They even said the same thing when Her Majesty 'pretended' to show up as Nightmare Moon a year later, too.
  487. > But why would the real deal have gone to the trouble of putting on a glamer like that if she was still the same inside?
  489. > You lick your lips.
  490. "I've heard that... That when Nightmare Moon was defeated by the wielders of the Elements of Harmony, they blasted her with rays of overwhelming magic, and that they didn't just *figuratively* knock the fight out her..."
  491. > Lifting your head, you look at the Balladeer of Ghosts.
  492. "... But that they *literally* knocked something out of her as well. Something dark, and shadowy. Something that was *inside* of her before, and isn't now. And that's why she's different, in attitude and in appearance."
  493. > Ignacio Blazon sits quietly, then inhales deeply through his nose.
  494. > Licking his lips, he starts to nod his head.
  495. > "Jes... Jes..."
  496. > All of a sudden, he picks himself up and starts to hobble forwards, passing right between you and Sparkshower.
  497. > "... Come with me, both of jou. There is a place especial for such discussions. A place where the noise is quiet."
  498. > Artemis shoots you a concerned look.
  499. > "But... Corporal Bound told us to stay right here until she got back."
  500. > The batpony immediately waves a forehoof in dismissal.
  501. > "The Corporal and jour VIP will be occupied for some time by the Reverend Mother Superior, who loves the sound of her own voice. We will return before them, I promise jou. And before Pureza is finished with her initiates, as well."
  502. > Sparkshower doesn't seem convinced.
  503. > "But... We're not supposed to leave, in case we get into any trouble in the Rookery."
  504. > Ignacio stops, and you scowl at the junior Specialist.
  505. "Come on, Sparks. We're going to be *with* the only mage here under the Rookery. And after we just swatted all those 'Swarming Meteors', nopony's going to want to mess with us, right?"
  506. > With a confidence stemming more from your eagerness to find out what was going on than any true feeling of safety, you make a final pronouncement.
  507. "... We'll be safe. A batpony sorcerer, one of Equestria's finest gunners, and an armoured pegasus with a rocket-powered lance that can apparently ping-pong off of walls..."
  509. > You hadn't missed *that* little surprising incident either.
  510. > And anyways what was going on with Sparkshower getting cold hooves all of a sudden?
  511. > With how excited and eager she'd been to try out that 'Bradamante' Lance the other day, you'd think she'd be willing to go on a little excursion with a harmless old batpony!
  512. "... With our firepower, we'll be safe from anything; probably safer than Anonymous and Honour are with the Reverend Mother, I'd bet. And you heard the Balladeer: we won't take too long."
  513. > Reluctantly, she nods.
  514. > "O-Okay."
  515. > Standing at the edge of the ring, Ignacio turns his head to face you.
  516. > "Build me some of jour stairs magical, unicornio, before I fall off the edge of this arena..."
  517. > Then he grins.
  518. > "... And then, when we reach our destination, perhaps I can open jour mind to these sounds which only the Eclipse can hear."
  520. Suggested interlude music: (Eagles - 'Journey of the Sorcerer' [1975])
  525. > You are Corporal Honour Bound, and this isn't at all what you were expecting.
  526. > The 'Grand Hall of Stars' training arena was, aside from a few worn-looking cushions and faded rugs in the viewing gallery, fairly modest.
  527. > Its walls were simply bare rock, as was the floor, and while the pulpit of the Balladeer of Ghosts was crafted with some carved ornamentation, aside from that the only real 'decoration' was the painted night-scape on the ceiling dome.
  528. > Even that basic drawing was striking more for how it had apparently been flawlessly repaired after Ebonshield's duel with the conjured sand apparitions.
  529. > Elsewhere in the Rookery, things were similar.
  530. > The batpony marketplace, which was colourful and vibrant when busy, still felt pretty ordinary.
  531. > Buildings made of regular materials: wood, fabric, paint.
  532. > Eye-catching and bright, but functional.
  533. > You expected that this 'Lunar Sanctuary' you were heading to would, aside from maybe having a bit more white in the colour scheme, be more of the same.
  534. > But it absolutely wasn't.
  536. Suggested background music: (Jami Sieber - 'Maenam')
  538. > You'd just been following behind the 'Reverend Sister' in another one of the Rookery's ordinary, rough-hewn round-walled corridors, and all of a sudden the drab grey rock gave way to a colourful mosaic of tile.
  539. > Then, rounding a corner alongside the Royal Engineer, it opened up into a long, opulently-decorated rectangular foyer that wouldn't be out of place in any noblepony's Canterlot mansion.
  540. > No longer rounded, the walls were straight and flat, and covered with a white plaster or thick paint that made them smooth and even.
  541. > And innumerable tiny tiles covered the walls, arranged in tiers from the smooth marble floor up to the arched ceiling.
  543. > First, there was a thick band of blue and green, arranged in zig-zags, stars, squares, and pyramid shapes, going up two or three hooves.
  544. > Then, there was a blank space of creamy-white wall, followed by another ornate arrangement going up just beneath the ceiling, this time with turquoise and gold forming exotic shapes that resembled fabric or knotted string.
  545. > At the top, the arrangement was crested in miniature buttresses and arches, with depictions of the phases of the moon repeated throughout.
  546. > And that wasn't all.
  547. > Water spilled out from a series of sixteen short copper pipes, eight in a row on each of the left and right sides.
  548. > That water collected in raised trough running along each edge, which then poured out from the near end into a gutter that ran off beneath the walls beside you.
  549. > At the far end of this water-room, the entrance to the depths of the sanctuary was crowned by three horseshoe-shaped arches, as beautifully decorated as the walls around them, with two speckled pillars in support, and tapestries hung like curtains to block the view.
  552. > As you and the Royal Engineer both stop to take in the magnificent sight, the Reverend Sister turns and bows to the two of you.
  553. > "Welcome to the Lunar Sanctuary, honoured guests. This outer room is the Vestibule of Living Waters, beyond which is the Courtyard of the Houses, where all are welcome. However, before entering, I must ask you to leave your hoofwear or footwear here, and to wash your hands, feet, and hooves in the water of the basins..."
  554. > From underneath her white cloak, she gestures wings at the two sets of water-spouts.
  555. > You were so shocked by the luxuriously-decorated room you didn't even notice the racks placed just before the water-troughs, stacked four rows high with all sorts of hoofwear.
  557. > With a nod and a closed-mouth smile, she continues.
  558. > "... For the Sanctuary is a holy place, and all who enter the outer Courtyard must ablute their extremities of impurities, lest they befoul it..."
  559. > She nods at one of the white-hooded, white-cloaked batpony colts behind you, and he clip-clops forward on the tile floor.
  560. > "... Great Lord, Brother Stephen will assist you on the left. Corporal Bound, please come with me to the right."
  561. > With a little hesitation, you step over towards the indicated fountains, as the Royal Engineer heads over to his own.
  562. > Behind you, the other Lunar who had accompanied the Reverend Sister, Louis, steps to the side and takes up a position flanking the entrance.
  563. > As you approach the waters, you suddenly catch a salty, mineral smell.
  564. > And you realize that it's a few degrees warmer in here, compared with the rest of the Rookery.
  565. > Was this water from a hot-spring?
  566. > It would hardly be the only one in Canterlot if so.
  567. > Just before the basin, you remove your four sabots and arrange them with the others, on the second level of the rack.
  568. > The batpony priestess beckons you over to one of the middle spouts.
  569. > "Here, sister Bound. Allow me..."
  570. > Sitting down, she takes your left forehoof in her right and dips it in the water-trough, passing under the water-spout's flow.
  571. > It's warm -- very warm, in fact.
  572. > If it isn't heated glacial meltwater, then it must definitely be from a hot-spring.
  573. > Seizing up one of the small, white-bristled brushes arranged on the back rim of the water-trough, the Reverend Sister begins to scrub at the bottom and sides of your hoof, speaking a prayer.
  574. > "... Bless the Mother and Her Water..."
  575. > Continuing on, she lowers your dripping-wet left forehoof to the floor and you offer her the right, which she cleans in the same manner.
  576. > "... Bless the slumbering and the dreaming of Her..."
  578. > You turn to allow her to scrub your hind hooves as well, and you can see Anonymous receiving similar treatment from the hooded Brother Stephen -- including the intonation.
  579. > "... May Her Waking cleanse the world. May She keep it for Her ponies."
  580. > What a curious invocation to their creator.
  581. > But that seems to have completed your ablution, and the Reverend Sister smiles, leading you towards the triple-arched portal.
  582. > Anonymous joins you moments later, his wet feet slapping noisily along the tiles.
  583. > You note that none of the Lunars seemed to have needed washing; it's obviously a ritual cleaning rather than a physical one.
  584. > After all, on the way over here from the Grand Hall of Stars, their hooves will have stepped in the same things as yours.
  585. > With a small bow to the 'Great Lord', the Reverend Sister turns and leads you on, pushing aside one of the hanging rungs and passing under the central arch and into the 'Courtyard of the Houses' beyond.
  586. > A large room, perhaps two hundred hooves square, opens up before you, and it's a breathtaking sight.
  587. > Bright light -- brighter than anything you've seen elsewhere in the Rookery -- shines out from another one of those iron-caged magical chandeliers, which dangles from four chains that splay out into the ceiling.
  588. > And it's that ceiling that really catches your eye -- literally, for you almost have to throw up a hoof to shield yourself from the brilliance.
  589. > A colossal dome arches over the great room, reflecting the light back down as only something made from a precious metal could.
  590. > It's *silver*, and the metal has been worked and hammered into a dizzying pattern of repeating geometric shapes, all focused on a large central circle that has unmistakably been made to resemble the surface of the moon, as visible from Equestria.
  591. > It's so dazzling that you almost trip over a carpet edge, and you have to catch yourself before you muzzle-plant right into the ground.
  593. > Although there's so much to look at, the Reverend Sister is leading you right through the hall, so you barely have time to take it all in.
  594. > After nearly falling flat on your muzzle, the second thing you notice is that the tile has given way to what seems to be two or three layers of thick, dark, carpets, woven with abstract patterns and designs.
  595. > They're laid out over the floor almost haphazardly, leading to an uneven surface that changes every ten hooves or so.
  596. > But they're also so plush that they cushion your now-bare hooves and effortlessly soak up the remaining water still dripping down your legs.
  597. > As you follow the Reverend Sister inwards, the next thing to catch your eye is the enormous marble fountain that dominates the near side of the Courtyard, at least thirty hooves tall and more than twice that diameter at the base.
  598. > From a single bubbling font at the top, water cascades down its four tiers, whole gallons at a time.
  599. > There's even a few batponies fluttering around it -- and they're not Lunars, you suppose, for they're not wearing all white.
  600. > A black-cloaked mare lands in the top bowl and begins to splash herself.
  601. > It looks like she's mumbling something -- maybe the same mantra as the Reverend Sister recited?
  602. > Beneath her, and on the opposite edge, a colt in colourful wear hovers at the edge of the second-tier rim, dipping his forehooves in, and then throwing water on his muzzle.
  603. > Is each tier reserved for a particular phase, then?
  604. > Black-cloaked Stars at the top, then colourfully-dressed Rocks beneath them?
  605. > And then the Dust, and finally the 'untouchable' Shadows who have to make do with the soiled drippings of their betters?
  606. > One lonely pony seems indeed to be sitting in the lower tier, near the central pillar, shrouded in the shadow cast by the bowl above him.
  607. > That must be a Shadow-phase pony.
  608. > But with only four tiers, where do the Lunars go to splash and pray?
  610. > And what about the Eclipse?
  611. > Ignacio said they were 'outside' of social rules, and showed it by refusing to bow to Reverend Mother Superior Carmen -- or to her big-tufted lackey who is now presently escorting you to another triple-arched gate on the right side of the room.
  612. > There are a few more batponies milling about in the room; Lunars, Stars, Rocks, and others whose castes you can't yet place.
  613. > Most of them seem to just be appreciating the room as you'd like to be, though a few are having conversations or speaking to themselves while staring at the fountain or the roof.
  614. > You note that every actual conversation involves at least one Lunar -- and that while some of the white-clad Lunars are wearing hoods and others aren't, all of the bare-headed Lunars are *mares*.
  615. > Is the hood thing just for colts?
  616. > Another thing to ask later.
  617. > So much has happened lately in the Rookery, and with the otherwise tight-lipped Sergeant Ebonshield, you really need to start writing your questions down before you forget them.
  618. > Beside you, the Royal Engineer looks just as awed as you are by the enormous 'Courtyard of the Houses'.
  619. > But your little group of four soon comes to the triple-arched exit, and as the Reverend Sister pulls aside the colourful tapestry to reveal the entrance, you see another long, rectangular room beyond.
  620. > There's water in there, too, except this time it's not pouring from spouts on the side walls.
  621. > Instead, the floor abruptly ends halfway down the hall, giving way to a rimless pool filled by a curtain waterfall high up on the back wall.
  622. > The carpet has given way again to a tiled white floor, and the walls are all tiled in white as well.
  623. > Now what the heck is this?
  624. > Is the Reverend Mother Superior going to meet you here at this sectioned-off waterfall, like a secret lover's meeting in some silly Harlequin romance novel?
  625. > There's not even another doorway out of here!
  627. > Entering the room ahead of you, your guide stops a few hooves back from the edge of the water, and you can see behind her that the floor actually slopes downwards, forming a kind of ramp deeper into the pool.
  628. > "I apologize for hurrying you through the Courtyard of the Housess, Great Lord, but the Reverend Mother Superior is extraordinarily busy and appreciates that Your Lordship's time is precious as well. She therefore informed me of the gaps in her schedule when she wished to meet, and one is fast approaching. If your Lordship wishes for a more detailed tour, I can happily supply one afterwards."
  629. > Anonymous nods in response.
  630. > "Of course, I understand. And I think I'd like that tour. The 'Courtyard of the Housess' was most impressive."
  631. > The Reverend Sister bows with a smile.
  632. > "Thank-you, Great Lord. Several of the pieces within were moved here from the Moon by the power of the Great Mother herself..."
  633. > If Princess Luna used her magic to help set up this place, it would certainly go a long way to explaining how they managed to build such a huge Rookery and particularly a Sanctuary in just two years.
  634. > Raising up, the fluffy-tufted batpony mare gestures a wing towards the far back wall -- the one completely surrounded by and covered with water.
  635. > "... This room is the Vestibule of Priests, and beyond the Curtain of Life lie the chambers of the Inner Sanctuary..."
  636. > She looks you and the Royal Engineer both up and down.
  637. > "... It is beyond this point that the unclean are absolutely forbidden... except by Her Reverence's special invitation, as has been extended to Your Lordship and Your Lordship's Retinue. To enter the Courtyard of the Housess it was necessary only to make clean the extremities, but to proceed inwards it is necessary to make clean the body whole..."
  639. > She takes a small breath, and you see her lick her lips.
  640. > "... All material dressings, particularly those of a martial nature, must also be shed, as these unclean items will prevent the achievement of a state of purity."
  641. > Wait, what?
  642. > You're supposed to remove your armour now?
  643. > And leave your javelins?
  644. > This fluffy-tufted floozy wants you to just walk into the inner sanctuary of the priests of the batponies, the rulers of the same people who only minutes ago tried to kill all of you, without any way to defend yourselves?
  645. > You look worryingly around, as the Reverend Sister points to Brother Stephen.
  646. > "... Brother Stephen will secure your belongings until you return."
  647. > The brother in question, standing beside one of the long walls, pushes against it and, accompanied by a faint click, you see a section hinge inwards.
  648. > A secret door!
  649. > No doubt with a way around the waterfall and pool as well.
  650. > Anonymous clears his throat.
  651. > "Reverend Sister, when you, uh, say 'all material possessions', does that mean clothing as well?"
  652. > Oh, buck.
  653. > You forgot -- the Royal Engineer's a biped.
  654. > And he isn't covered in fur or hair, either.
  655. > Well, not much, anyways; not enough to be decent without at least some shorts on.
  656. > The Reverend Sister gives another one of her bows -- you're starting to be a bit annoyed at this tufted-up tart's obsequiousness.
  657. > "Yes, Great Lord. But towels are available beyond the Curtain, and you may avail yourself of as many of them as you wish for the duration of your stay."
  658. > "I see..."
  659. > He turns to look down at you.
  660. > "... Well, Corporal? Shall we go?"
  661. > You have a *lot* of objections.
  662. > You even had a lot of objections to this meeting in the first place.
  663. > But if you were being honest, they were both the same set of objections.
  664. > And your armour and your weapons weren't going to avail you anything in here, anyways.
  665. > Neither was the heavier equipment worn by your VIP.
  667. > If the Lunars decided they wanted you dead, with one secret door already revealed, who knows how many white-robed priests could come pouring out of the walls to overwhelm you, armour or no.
  668. > You swallow.
  669. "Yes, sir. Allow me to lead the way."
  670. > You hear the clinking of bronze straps being loosened above you.
  671. > "Alright, Corporal. Can I help you with your armour?"
  672. > Now that's an awkward proposal; has he even *seen* you put on or take off your regulation banded armour?
  673. > The thought was almost embarrassing, somehow, even though for a pony it was hardly indecent.
  674. "No, thank you, sir."
  675. > Trying to keep your composure, you begin to remove your armour while focusing your attention on the Carmen's hussy herald.
  676. > Her and her big flowing white robe good for hiding who-knows-what underneath, but arranged just so to expose her huge fluffy tuft.
  677. > Her and her flawless Canterlot accent, and her brown-nosing manners, and her smug face.
  678. > The only thing you felt for her as you pulled off your helmet and began to attack your chest-straps was seething contempt.
  679. > Sure, she had had Marcos arrested, though she conveniently arrived just *after* his attempt to murder your VIP.
  680. > And sure, she appeared to show your VIP the respect he deserved as a member of the Blue Chamber.
  681. > But it all felt so phony and affected.
  682. > Even the accent was grating; that wasn't her *normal* way of talking, you were sure of it.
  683. > She had to *learn* to talk like a Canterlot courtier.
  684. > And it was all the better to infiltrate and deceive and dissemble -- you were sure of that, too.
  685. > The more time you spent around her, the more you understood Ebonshield's decision to defy her mother, the Reverend Mother Superior, and volunteer to be the Royal Engineer's bodyguard in place of some snake-in-the-grass Lunar.
  686. > The fact that the Sergeant hadn't expressed any real reservations about this meeting was enough reassurance, you suppose, for the idea that nothing bad was likely to happen.
  688. > You still couldn't shake your apprehensions about going in 'naked' like this, but at least that was enough to keep you confident.
  689. > And speaking of 'naked', as you finish with the final belt-buckle holding on the last of your armour set, you hear the quiet 'plop' of something cotton onto the floor beside you.
  690. > You glance up, and-
  691. > Oh, that's Anonymous there, completely naked.
  692. > Instantly, you face forwards again, trying to stop your cheeks from turning red.
  693. > Your gaze falls upon the Reverend Sister.
  694. > And that blueish-grey batpony tramp has got her tuft on maximum power once more.
  695. > How dare she look at your VIP like he's some kind of... freshly-baked pie!
  696. > There's no stopping her but for you to press on and allow your VIP to follow.
  697. > You immediately take a step forward, and then another, and when the Reverend Sister steps aside to allow you to pass, you keep going into the water and don't look back.
  698. > Once again, it's warm -- almost as warm as the hot tub in the Spa Dalecarlia, though that was probably given some supplementary heating.
  699. > As you walk down the submerged ramp, you find the slope is gentle enough that the water will barely be up to your neck by the time you hit the waterfall.
  700. > No doubt that moving water feature is intended to wash away the final 'impurities'.
  701. > You take a deep breath and shut your eyes as you push through the heavy curtain; it thunders down around your, and then a moment later, it's over, and you're in another hallway much the same as the last, except more dimly-lit and arranged in reverse.
  702. > As you tramp up the ramp out of the water, you can see a pile of fluffy white towels arranged on a bench just to the left of another tapestry-covered triple-arch exit.
  703. > Well, at least you won't have to walk around wet after this dunking.
  704. > You quickly head over and snatch one of the towels in your mouth, and, turning around to face the back-side of the waterfall, you begin to dry yourself off.
  706. > You can just make out Anonymous heading into the water, one hand held out in front of him.
  707. > After having taken in his front-face, the Reverend Sister was no doubt getting a long look at his hind quarters as well.
  708. > You're struck with a strange mix of negative feelings about that.
  709. > Contempt for her shameless gaze, indignity on behalf of your VIP whose modesty she was violating...
  710. > As Anonymous' head contacts the waterfall, with the pool-water barely halfway up his chest, he ducks down to immerse himself fully.
  711. > And then a moment later, he appears on your side, wiping the water from his eyes as he emerges from the pool, exactly as naked as when he walked in.
  712. > Right -- you forgot that was going to happen.
  713. > Turning away and swallowing, you finish drying yourself off while facing the triple-arched exit.
  714. > You hear wet feet slap against the tile behind you.
  715. > "Good to see she wasn't kidding about the towels. I'm drenched."
  716. > You don't look back.
  717. "Yes, sir."
  718. > Your VIP props one of his feet up on the bench beside you as he proceeds to towel himself off.
  719. > As if showing up just to watch, the nameless blue-grey Reverend Sister pushes through the central arch's hanging curtain.
  720. > "Welcome, Great Lord Anonymous and Corporal Honour Bound of Equestria, to the Inner Sanctuary. Beyond this archway lies the Holy Place where only those invited may tread..."
  721. > Turning to look at your VIP -- and not right in his eyes, you note -- she continues.
  722. > "... I have just spoken with the Reverend Mother Superior's secretary, who informed me that Her Reverence wishes to do you the honour of receiving you in the Well of Life, the innermost chamber of our Sanctuary, where you may take of the most pure and sacred waters. Please, dry yourselves only to the point of making yourselves comfortable to walk."
  723. > Another bath?
  724. > Just how 'clean' did these batponies need to be?
  725. > Although it sounds like this one isn't so much an ablution as it is some kind of healing water.
  727. > Which was exactly why some ponies travelled far and wide to visit Equestria's various natural water-springs.
  728. > Including the ones in Canterlot -- the famous ones, like the Brythonic Baths and the Sulian Baths, both up against the mountain proper and both fashionable and grand, instead of being out-of-the-way and small like the Spa Dalecarlia.
  729. > "All right, I'm ready."
  730. > You glance back to see your VIP, still dripping wet from the shoulders down, has wrapped a towel around his waist.
  731. > It covers to just above his knees; more than enough to be modest, though his well-featured shoulders and chest were still on display.
  732. > The Reverend Sister gives yet another shallow bow.
  733. > "Excellent, Great Lord. Please, follow me -- and kindly pay no heed to anypony else you may see or hear. You are not the only group enjoying Her Reverence's hospitality tonight."
  734. > What's that supposed to mean?
  735. > What are you going to see down here?
  736. > Unicorns and pegasi?
  737. > Maybe even members of the Royal Undermountain Constabulary, visiting the Rookery against their orders?
  738. > Fat chance.
  739. > Pushing past the tapestry-curtain, you find yourself at a four-way intersection, with the walls tiled as they were in the entryway 'Vestibule of Living Waters', but with carpets laid down over each over just as in the great 'Courtyard of the Houses'.
  740. > Curious mix of aesthetics, but then again, the carpet helped with wet hooves, and wet feet.
  741. > The Reverend Sister, leads you down the straight path, and you remark that you still don't know her name.
  742. > Were all the Reverend Sisters supposed to be interchangeable, maybe?
  743. > Is that why she hadn't given her name when she introduced herself?
  744. > So that Carmen could send some other tufted-up tart in her place without anypony being the wiser?
  745. > You also notice that both of her accompanying hooded colts had been shed.
  747. > Were they simply too junior in the priestly hierarchy to enter here -- or was it something else, like a mareitocratic ban on colts in this most sacred place?
  748. > More question without answers.
  749. > You doubted that the meeting with the Reverend Mother Superior would do anything but raise even more.
  750. > As you pass another four-way intersection, you suddenly hear faint screams coming from down the left corridor.
  751. > Except they're not screams, they're...
  752. > Moans?
  753. > Passing the hallway turns the voices into dull echoes, but you're certain you made out a higher-pitched feminine voice moaning in ecstasy -- and a lower-pitched masculine one grunting with pleasure, too.
  754. > That sets your ears up on point.
  755. > What did Ebonshield say about her relationships?
  756. > She had had to 'mate' with whatever colt her House told her to, up to a certain point in her life.
  757. > It was some sort of batpony breeding program, to make sure the bloodlines of their finest warriors were passed on.
  758. > And then what of the Lunars who sat above them?
  759. > After directing the Stars in one eugenics program, did they also practice their own?
  760. > Or maybe, since they were the diplomats, they used sex for some other reason...
  761. > As you ponder the implications of what had pretty clearly been the sound of two (or more) ponies having loud and unfettered intercourse, you find that the Reverend Sister has brought you to another one of those triple-arched doorways.
  762. > This time, however, the carpet has abruptly ended, and for the last few steps your hooves have loudly clattered against the floor.
  763. > And instead of three separate hanging carpets covering each of the archways, there's just a single rod across the whole entrance, supporting two sheets of heavy, opaque white fabric curtains.
  764. > They billow slightly, and you can feel hot, wet air rush out in packets from within.
  765. > The Reverend Sister pulls back one of the sheets with a wing-arm, and a blast of warmth hits you full on.
  767. > Beyond the entrance lies a steam-filled room with a squared pool of turquoise-tinted water that bubbles and fizzes like a freshly-poured carbonated soft drink.
  768. > Twelve columns form an inner square within the pool, supporting white-and-black striped arches that come down from the ceiling.
  769. > There are also what look like three square raised pillars in the water, creating platforms just poking up above the surface, about five hooves on each edge.
  770. > And the whole thing is fed by three great trough-spots that jut out from high up on the walls and noisily pour water down just beside those shallow platforms, accompanied by a steady billowing of steam.
  771. > The Reverend Sister sits down in front of you at the water's edge.
  772. > "This is the Well of Life, where the Living Waters first enter into our Rookery and are pure and full of their sacred essences. I invite you to enter the pool and bathe in their revitalizing powers. Make your way over to one of the falls and I will serve you their waters to drink as well. Her Reverence will join us shortly."
  773. > You're not sure what makes this particular hot-spring bath more special than any of the others topside, but Anonymous nods.
  774. > "Thank you, Reverend Sister. We're very honoured by this privilege."
  775. > You suppose you should be.
  776. > She's certainly making this out to be a big deal.
  777. > Stepping to the edge and onto the staircase that descends into the water, your VIP unwraps his towel and tosses it to the side.
  778. > You get the same view that Miss Tuft got earlier as he steps down before you.
  779. > And she's looking at *you* while it happens, too, as if watching for your reaction.
  780. > You stiffen your resolve and make your face impassive.
  781. > She and all her various baths and ablutions can go pound sand back in the Grand Hall for all you care.
  782. > As you enter the pool after your VIP, you find that this water is in fact much warmer than the rest -- and warmer even than the Dalecarlia's hot tub.
  784. > Those small square 'islands' in the pool made a lot of sense, now, as a temporary refuge from the intense temperature.
  785. > The water, however, was a little deeper than the pool in the 'Vestibule of Priests'.
  786. > You're forced to stretch your neck up straight to keep the waterline below your chin, almost on your tippy-hooves, while your VIP just stands easily with his abdominal area barely covered.
  787. > The two of you step over to the spout on the right, where you can see a collection of copper cups and bowls.
  788. > Your guide follows along the outside of the pool and grabs one of the cups in both forehooves, then holds it reverently out towards the descending pillar of water, filling it to the brim.
  789. > Then she lowers it towards your VIP.
  790. > "Drink deeply, Great Lord, and be rejuvenated."
  791. > With appropriate contrition, the Royal Engineer accepts the copper cup in both hands, and steps back before drinking it down.
  792. > The Reverend Sister watches as he empties the cup, then tilts it forward and wipes his mouth.
  793. > "It's fizzy, but there's almost a sweet taste to it."
  794. > She nods.
  795. > "Yes, Lord. The Great Mother has blessed us with this source most pure."
  796. > He hands back the cup, and she places it upside-down behind her, before seizing a fresh one up to fill in the same ritualistic manner.
  797. > This one is destined for you, but it's going to be a bit tricky to grab it with the water so high up already.
  798. > "... Approach the edge, sister, and allow me to help."
  799. > Like a newborn filly suckling from her mother, you walk over to the edge of the pool and crane your muzzle up to where she holds the cup, slowly tilting its contents down your gullet.
  800. > The Royal Engineer wasn't wrong; it was fizzy, and unlike most other bottled waters of similar provenance, it *was* sweet.
  801. > But he neglected to mention just how *hot* it was; you felt as if pure alcohol was being poured down your throat.
  802. > Just as soon as you finish the cup, your neck feeling as if it's on fire, there's a merciful inrush of cool air.
  804. > The Reverend Sister turns and falls to the ground in a kow-tow to a new batpony who has just landed inside the room.
  805. > "Reverend Mother!"
  806. > It's the Reverend Mother Superior herself, standing just inside the white curtains.
  807. > With all the flair of a young Canterlot courtier at home in their own palace, Carmen Ebonshield takes a step forward, dressed in all white and covered in white powder from head to hoof, holding her crescent-tipped staff.
  808. > "Sister Lucretia, thank you for guiding our guests here..."
  809. > She turns towards the two of you in the pool, gesturing widely with a forehoof.
  810. > "... And welcome, O Great Lord of Equestria, to this most Holy of Holies..."
  811. > With a deep sigh, she shakes her head, slumping her shoulders.
  812. > "... I only regret that you have come here with an awful, horrific experience so fresh in your mind. Let us hope that the healing waters of this sacred well may ease your anguish, and repair the rift that has been so foolishly dug by one of our misguided Children..."
  813. > Striding over to the wall with an elegant grace, she places her staff leaning up against it, and then with a single swift motion casts off her robes.
  814. > Yes, that white powder is absolutely everywhere on her, obscuring not only her hair colour but most of her physical features as well.
  815. > "... I do not know what was going through the Sixth of Meteors' mind when he decided to so flagrantly violate our Great Mother's edicts, but, rest assured, with him and his associates locked up in the oubliette, we shall find out the truth behind his misdeeds..."
  816. > With a smile, she steps around the pool's edge, towards you and the VIP, and the still-prone Reverend Sister, who only now rises.
  817. > "... But let us put this awful event out of mind for now. I invited you here, O Great Lord, because I heard that you had come to our Rookery once again to train under the Stellar Seven in the martial arts. Is that true?"
  819. > To a nod from the Reverend Mother, the younger Lunar removes her robe as well, and with that article discarded, you can see she isn't just a pretty face and a big fluffy blue-grey tuft; she's got a trim and athletic blue-grey body to match it, as well.
  820. > Anonymous, standing with one hand on the nearest raised platform, answers Carmen.
  821. > "Yes, Your Reverence. We had just finished before the, as you say, awful experience."
  822. > Carmen smiles again, and dips one of her forehooves into the bubbling water.
  823. > "Then with the fight against the Meteors on top of that training regimen you must be exhausted. The Stellar Seven is an expert in her profession, and has a reputation as a harsh and difficult mistress as well..."
  824. > Drawing back the now powder-free forehoof, you see that she's got a similar purple coat as her daughter the Sergeant does.
  825. > "... It has been a long night for me as well, so far, and with this most recent disaster I dare venture to say that it is far from over yet. But I am not here to saddle you with my burdens, Great Lord; rather, I am here to relieve you of yours. We Lunars have the distinct pleasure of serving as the diplomats for the Children of the Stars, and this is a service which is often physical in nature..."
  826. > Wait a minute...
  827. > Flexing her white-powdered wings, she continues.
  828. > "... I see that you have already drunk of our Waters of Life. I trust you have found them refreshing. It would be my privilege, now, if you would allow me to continue your experience here in the Well with a massage to relieve your aching and tired muscles -- Sister Lucretia will attend to your consort, as well."
  829. > *Consort*?!
  830. > You almost choke, even with your mouth empty.
  831. > Didn't she get the clue from the last meeting?
  832. > The Royal Engineer clears his throat.
  833. > "I'm in no pain, Your Reverence, so please don't trouble yourself. Also I should clarify, Corporal Bound is my *escort*, not my consort."
  835. > The two Reverends exchange a telling glance, before Carmen answers back.
  836. > "Oh, of course, of course. Your Lordship is most gracious; please accept my apologies for the confusion. I'm afraid I have been dealing with obstinate Stars and quarrelsome Rocks all evening, and it has taken a toll on my memory and concentration. But you are too polite to feign contentment; it is no trouble at all. Quite the opposite; I honestly enjoy the act of kneading another's muscles. There's a physicality to it that is most rewarding. And it will certainly be a relief to not have to suffer the pointless bickering of committees..."
  837. > Extending a wing, she dips it in the water, and you see a ring of white powder dissolve off of the leathery black surface.
  838. > "... And it will be most pleasurable to take off my face, if only for a brief moment."
  839. > Without another word, she leaps forward towards the nearest platform, extending her wings and passing directly under the shower of water from the adjacent spout.
  840. > In a single graceful spray of foaming white water, the Reverend Mother Superior is stripped of her makeup.
  841. > On the platform just above you stands a mare who, while quite clearly older, looks by no means elderly.
  842. > If anything, Carmen's extremely trim, dark purple body, shock of short white mane, and delicate black wings put even the young voluptuously-tufted Lucretia's physique to shame.
  843. > Buck, if Ebonshield's mom looks this good at... Fifty-something? Sixty?
  844. > No wonder Ebonshield herself didn't look her own age.
  845. > And no wonder either at how Carmen managed that difficult-looking gliding ballistic descent back in the Grand Hall of Stars.
  846. > Spreading her wings wide, the Reverend Mother Superior waves a forehoof towards the open platform surface before her.
  847. > "If the Great Lord would be so kind as to lay face-down on the platform, I will gladly show him the further powers of this Holy Well, when combined with proper ministrations."
  849. > Anonymous clambers up as indicated, just fitting his head, torso, and most of his legs on, with his shins and feet dangling off the edge into the water.
  850. > Lucretia flutters her way over to the next-nearest platform as well, and waves at it while calling out to you.
  851. > "Corporal Bound, I await to serve you."
  852. > The last thing you really want right now is a back massage from miss megatuft, but you're already here and it would be improper to refuse, so you step over and then clamber somewhat inelegantly up onto it.
  853. > Turning your head so that you can keep your eye on your VIP, you see Carmen begin to work her hooves into his back.
  854. > At least it's not so loud in here that you can't hear her talk ten hooves away.
  855. > Not like the Reverend Mother is trying to be discreet, however.
  856. > "Now, do not hesitate to speak up if anything doesn't feel right. I am well-practiced in this art, but of course, never before on any of your kin."
  857. > You feel a hoof press into your shoulder as Anonymous answers her.
  858. > "Of course, Reverend Mother. I had a masseuse the other day who was in the same situation."
  859. > The hoof on your shoulder begins to make its way down your back, applying pressure the whole way.
  860. > It's okay, you suppose.
  861. > "Oh, really? An Equestrian practitioner?"
  862. > You hear the flapping of leather wings as Lucretia rears back to apply a second hoof to your opposite shoulder.
  863. > Hmff...
  864. > "No, a gryphon actually. She said she normally massages pegasi, specializing in their wings."
  865. > As that second hoof goes down and the first one comes back up for another pass, you start to feel a little less upset with Lucretia McTuftychest here.
  866. > It's still a bit awkward enjoying the pleasures of privilege yourself, but the hot stone under your belly, the aromatic air, the gentle splash of the water, and the meticulous hooves of your attendant are certainly helping you cope with that awkwardness.
  868. > "How delightful! I shall have to seek out this gryphon and learn from her the secrets of that technique. As you may imagine, we have little experience with the feathers of our Equestrian kin, either."
  869. > Lucretia's hooves make their way just past your hips, firmly squeezing the tension out of your muscles.
  870. > Somehow, the apprehension you had about this starts to melt away.
  871. > "Please forgive me if this question offends, Reverend Mother, but do you go often to the surface?"
  872. > The tension snaps back, and you straighten your hind legs with a jolt.
  873. > But the Reverend Mother Carmen only bends down to dip her forehooves in the water before pressing them into the Royal Engineer's shoulders once more.
  874. > "Unfortunately, no. Except when the Great Mother calls us, only the Stars are allowed regular access to Equestria, when they guard the Great Mother's Palace at night..."
  875. > Oh, phew.
  876. > Now your masseuse begins to press on your spine, drawing relief outwards as she moves her hooves to your flanks.
  877. > "... I do so look forward to the day when we Children can all finally rejoin our cousins in Equestria. I worry that it is still some time away, for there is so much work still to be done..."
  878. > You feel a heavy weight on your back, and realize that Lucretia is actually standing on you with all fours.
  879. > A muzzle whispers down at your ear.
  880. > "Please let me know, Sister Bound, if this burden is too great for you to bear."
  881. "I'm all right."
  882. > She nods.
  883. > "Good. We have heard of the great strength of the Earth ponies. You have very powerful muscles, sister. There is much vitality in them, and much tension as well. It is easier for me to work them in this manner."
  884. > With all four of her hooves in the centre of your back and her full weight behind them, she stretches her forehooves up towards your neck and her hind hooves down towards your flanks.
  885. > Ohhh...
  886. > Oh, that's just right.
  888. > Involuntarily, you arch your back slightly, lifting off of the stone before settling back down again.
  889. > You must have made some audible sigh of relief, because Lucretia's muzzle is back whispering at your ear again.
  890. > "You are very tense indeed, sister. Has it been some time since your most recent orgasm?"
  891. > You want to suddenly turn over and throw her off -- but she doesn't let up with her hooves, and you're caught in-between the offensive personal invasiveness of her question, and the utter bliss of her ministrations.
  892. > All you manage to do is sort of grunt noncommittally.
  893. "Mmmff."
  894. > You start to lose focus of the conversation Mother Carmen is having with your VIP.
  895. > It's something about his meetings with the iron-workers, and the formula for steel, and his work on metallurgy, and so on.
  896. > The whole thing starts to blur, and all you can hear instead is the pouring of water, and the fizzing of the pool, the splashing of Lucretia's hooves whenever she dips them in the water, and your own moans and grunts when she applies those heated irons to your back.
  897. > As your breathing slows, your eyes start to droop closed.
  898. > Everything becomes lost in the sea of mist and steam...
  903. > You are Specialist Artemis Sparkshower, and this really doesn't seem like it was a good idea.
  904. > Following the blind Balladeer of Ghosts through the Rookery's dark tunnels was questionable even with your whole quaternion and your VIP with you.
  905. > But you were doing it with just your unicorn comrade Lily, split up from Honour, Anonymous, and most importantly Purity, who at least knew the place -- and could see where she was going in the darkness far better than you could.
  906. > Although, Ignacio appeared to 'see' the path pretty clearly using his 'magic-sense', or whatever it was.
  907. > He did say it was a lot easier with familiar places, and maybe he was taking you to one such familiar place?
  908. > You trot forwards a bit to come up beside him.
  909. "Mister Blazon, sir?"
  910. > The batpony continues to hobble forward, walking his staccato four-hooves-and-one-crutch beat.
  911. > "Jes?"
  912. "I was just wondering, sir: this place you're taking us, does it have a name?"
  913. > You see his brow shift underneath his red-fringed black blindfold.
  914. > "Mi casa."
  915. > Lily pipes up still behind him.
  916. > "What kind of a name for a place is 'mikasa'?"
  917. > Ignacio chuckles.
  918. > "Heh, it is a joke. I am taking jou to my house: mi casa..."
  919. > He sniffles deeply, thrusting his crutch forward in another step.
  920. > "... It has no name, it is simply my home. We of the Eclipse Phase dwell not on the symbolism and the pageantry as do the Lunars. They are the ones who love the names mystical and fantastic, not us."
  921. > There's more than a hint of disdain in his words.
  922. > You think you're starting to understand why Sergeant Ebonshield expected him to be grouchy last time.
  923. > And why she was so surprised when he was pleasant and cordial to all of you instead.
  925. > Lily trots up beside him as well, apparently no longer content to just follow from behind.
  926. > "You're moving along pretty confidently. I guess the route to your home must be pretty familiar to you, in terms of your magic-sense?"
  927. > The Balladeer of Ghosts grins.
  928. > "Jes, it is. But also I have confidence in the two young Equestrians with the eyesight proper and functioning to warn me if I am about to bump into someone or something, no?"
  929. > Lily snorts and shakes her head.
  930. > It may have been a joke, but he's not wrong.
  931. > You'd have spoken up if somepony crossed your paths.
  932. > Yet so far the route has taken you down empty hallways and vacant tunnels, though you can hear voices and activity behind some of the curtained doorways.
  933. > Sounds and smells of cooking, mostly.
  934. > It is almost 'lunchtime' down here, you suppose.
  935. > The current tunnel, already fairly dimly lit by just the occasional hanging lamp, suddenly opens up into a larger chamber with a high ceiling and a bright light.
  936. > Beyond this forty-square-hoof room, the line you were following continues straight ahead, but it looks to be completely unlit.
  937. > And, more importantly, there's a large symbol painted on the floor, here.
  938. > A twenty-hoof black-filled circle with a half-hoof-thick red outline.
  939. > Lily stops to shoot you a concerned glance, and you stop to whisper back.
  940. "Isn't this the symbol of the Eclipse?"
  941. > She nods, and turns forward again as Ignacio toddles right over the circle.
  942. > "Mister Blazon, didn't you just tell us the Eclipse weren't big into symbols and the like?"
  943. > Without so much as breaking his odd-numbered step, he taps his crutch against the drawing and continues on.
  944. > "This painting on the floor is not for my Phase. It is for everypony else, to warn them to keep out."
  945. > That answer results in another exchange of concerned looks between you and Lily.
  946. > Swallowing, you see her take a half-step forward.
  947. > "Why do they need to keep out?"
  949. > Ignacio pauses at the entrance to the pitch-black tunnel.
  950. > Leaning over his shoulder, he whispers.
  951. > "Because past this room, it is a maze confusing, and also there is no light -- only shadows..."
  952. > There's a certain unusual emphasis on that last word which makes your coat stand on end.
  953. > After a momentary pause, he turns forward again, waving his crutch aimlessly in the air before proceeding.
  954. > "... Jou may use a little of jour magic to illuminate the way, unicornio. But not too much, or the buzzing may make me lose my way. Though this is unlikely, since I know the path well. And keep close, both of jou!"
  955. > That was hardly reassuring.
  956. > You feel worse than ever about the whole setup, and you lean over towards your comrade.
  957. "Are you still sure about this, Lily?"
  958. > Sucking in her lips, she inhales through her nose, then nods.
  959. > "I am, yeah..."
  960. > Stepping forward, she surrounds her horn with a teal-tinted white glow, then turns back to you.
  961. > "... Artemis, are you ever afraid to fly?"
  962. > You scrunch up your brow.
  963. "I mean, almost every baby pegasus is afraid the first few times... But if you mean as an adult..."
  964. > You take a deep breath, then look over at the darkness that even now is swallowing up your guide-pony.
  965. "... I guess sometimes, during really bad storms and the like, it can be scary, even terrifying. It's a fear of the unknown, I guess, since we try to avoid flying during awful weather, though AWACS ponies sometimes have to..."
  966. > She takes another couple of steps forward, so that her light keeps Ignacio visible, and you follow along.
  967. "... Or when there's fighting involved. I was afraid of flying against Joker, at the bridge. You remember. The Royal Engineer helped me overcome that fear; I don't think I'd be afraid of him again. But it could happen with somepony else, maybe. Or in a different situation. There's always the danger of falling to the ground."
  969. > Lily nods, continuing forwards.
  970. > "Unicorn magic can be like that, too. Learning your first real spell is dangerous and scary, even if afterwards casting it under normal circumstances is trivial. Learning greater magic after that can be just as harrowing..."
  971. > Sighing, she shakes her head.
  972. > "... I dunno where I was going with this, exactly. I guess all I meant is that I think this is one of those situations? Where it's scary and it feels dangerous, but that's just because it's an unknown, ya know?"
  973. > You nod, and she exhales dismissively.
  974. > "... I mean, creepy blind mage, pitch-black maze, huge 'keep out' sign painted on the floor... Yeah no kidding it's scary at first, right? But it *is* his home, and I bet the next time we come here we'll just stroll right in, laughing about how scared we were the first time."
  975. > You can't help but think of a different alternative.
  976. "*If* we make it out again."
  977. > Glamerspear shoots you a glare, and you force out an insincere chuckle.
  978. "... Heh, I'm just joking, Lily..."
  979. > The faux sincerity quickly dissipates.
  980. "... Mostly."
  981. > Boldly, Lily presses forwards.
  982. > "We can handle this, okay, Sparks? I've got enough power in my horn to light these tunnels up so bright that they'll be able to see them from Cloudsdale. If you want to stay here or head back, I won't blame you. This is more about me than it is about you, after all. But if the Royal Engineer and the Corporal can fearlessly walk right into the 'Lunar Sanctuary', I think we can both follow a blind batpony who doesn't need light -- which, duh, is why they didn't bother installing any in here -- into his home."
  983. > Swallowing, but encouraged by her little pep-talk, you follow along.
  984. "Okay. You're right. We can do this."
  985. > Within moments, you both catch up right behind Ignacio, following him side-by-side in the dim light of Glamerspear's globe of illumination.
  987. > The new tunnel shaft is small, with a low ceiling and rougher walls than elsewhere in the Rookery, but the ground has still been beaten or blasted into a flat path.
  988. > After a while, you look back, and see the circle of light to the entryway grow smaller and fade.
  989. > Then, you follow Ignacio around a corner and it disappears entirely.
  991. Suggested background music: (Jerry Goldsmith - 'The Passage', from 'Alien' [1979])
  993. > Hoofsteps -- your own, presumably -- echo off in the distance as the tunnel walls close in uncomfortably, and force you and Lily to walk muzzle-to-tail behind your guide, with her in the middle so as to maintain the light on his backside.
  994. > The pace is comfortably slow, and you try to keep your focus on your partner-pony in front of you, but with each step, as Lily bobs her head -- and therefore her mane and horn as well -- the light source bounces and weaves, casting shadows that flicker and dance along the walls surrounding you.
  995. > These sensations become routine after a while, and you start to settle down into a rhythm, but then all of a sudden both of the walls beside you disappear to reveal an alternative path, and what were short shadows and shallow echoes instead become voluminous and reverberant, hinting at things unseen in the distance.
  996. > The moment passes, and the walls return, but the hint of terror remains.
  997. > And those walls which at first which were uncomfortably close are now a friendly relief from the terror of an open empty space.
  998. > A space that might hide anything in its darkness.
  999. > That's an unsettling thought.
  1000. > You can't help but look back occasionally, wondering if anything is now behind you.
  1001. > Then, at just one of those rearguard-checking moments, it happens again -- first the left wall, and then the right.
  1002. > That's another two entry points for somepony trying to flank you.
  1003. > Or some-*thing*.
  1005. > Thundershowers, there's a reason most Pegasi don't like tight corridors, and you're one of them.
  1006. > The hallways in the Rookery had been manageable but this was on a whole different level.
  1007. > Wait, was that a hole in the *ceiling* that you just walked past, too?!
  1008. > Stifling a gasp, you turn forwards again, resolving yourself not to look back any more.
  1009. > Just, put one hoof in front of the other and press on.
  1010. > Ignacio knows where he's going.
  1011. > And he'll get you there safe and sound as long as you just follow him.
  1012. > The light in front of you flickers again, and Lily turns her head to glance back at you.
  1013. > "Are you okay, Sparks? You're breathing awful hard on my tail."
  1014. > You nod, your helmet scraping against your gorget.
  1015. "I'm fine. It's just more cramped than I expected, that's all."
  1016. > With cocked eyebrow that makes it unclear if she bought your lie, she turns forward again.
  1017. > "Is it much further, Mister Blazon?"
  1018. > It's so constrained in here that her own body muffles her voice to you.
  1019. > And you hear the echoes come chasing back up behind you...
  1020. > "... much further ... much further ... much further ..."
  1021. > Ignacio's reply sounds even more distant.
  1022. > "No, not much further. Dim jour light more, if jou can. I do not wish to disturb the others."
  1023. > Others??
  1024. > What others??
  1025. > You open your eyes wide in a state of semi-panic, and, defying your earlier pledge, check behind you once more as Lily further dims her globe of illumination.
  1026. > "Is this okay? Artemis, you can still see me, right?"
  1027. > You don't *need* to see *her* -- you push up so close that some of her tail-hairs are poking through your open visor and brushing your cheeks.
  1028. > It's whatever might be *following* that worries you.
  1029. > The formerly bright outline of your own shadow behind you fades into the darkness around it, but even accounting for the existing flicker caused by Lily's head-movements, you can swear that there's *something* out there.
  1030. > Something dark, and evasive.
  1032. > Your stomach starts to turn, and you feel your armour push against your body in strange ways.
  1033. > Pieces of it that should be properly suspended from straps instead begin to resist your normal movements.
  1034. > You even begin to feel uncomfortable with your own steps, like you're going to miss-place a hoof and trip over yourself at any moment.
  1035. > It's all too reminiscent of how you felt during your duel with 'Joker', or your first armed reconnaissance against the Changeling hordes, or your first flight home in a thunderstorm.
  1036. > The butterflies of inexperience.
  1037. > You hear Ignacio speak from up ahead.
  1038. > "Ah, here we are. Hola, cabrones."
  1039. > Still looking back, you plough your right cheek right into Lily's backside as you fail to recognize the halt in time.
  1040. > Receiving nothing more than a silent, incensed scowl, she turns back to face the scene before you.
  1041. > The suffocatingly tight corridor has given way to a large round room with a domed roof and a bowl-shaped floor.
  1042. > And... there's light here?
  1044. Suggested background music: (Mark Morgan - 'Mortuary', from 'Planescape: Torment' [1999])
  1046. > A smokeless fire pulses warmly in the centre of the room, with a bubbling cauldron hanging over it.
  1047. "I thought you said there wasn't supposed to be any light in here."
  1048. > In front, Ignacio turns around, a scowl on his mouth.
  1049. > "Where do jou see light except on the unicornio?"
  1050. > Hesitantly, you step up beside Lily, and point a hoof at the centre of the room.
  1051. "That fire; it's casting orange-red light."
  1052. > He faces the fire himself, appearing confused.
  1053. > "It makes the light? Jou do not joke?"
  1054. > You shake your head.
  1055. "No, it's really making light."
  1056. > Even Lily chimes in.
  1057. > "Yeah, and a lot of it, too. I don't think we need this Globe of Illumination any more."
  1059. > As the light winks out above her head, Ignacio snorts with amusement.
  1060. > "This is funny. That is a small magic which provides heat for cooking. All of us, we are blind, and we never invite anypony in, and we never make this magic outside of the home, so... Nopony has ever seen it to tell us that it makes also the light. Heh, hehe. This alone was worth inviting jou here, ehehehe."
  1061. > From the left, you hear an elderly mare speak up.
  1062. > "Ignacio, ees that jou?"
  1063. > Your guidepony turns in her direction.
  1064. > "Sí, Aldonza. And I have brought with me a pegasus and a unicorn."
  1065. > An old, bearded colt, lying on the floor beside her, cries out in a hoarse and raspy voice.
  1066. > "¿¡Un unicornio!? ¿¡Aquí!? ¡Ándale, ándale, hermanos míos, debemos cargar!"
  1067. > As the owner of that voice tries to struggle to their hooves, you see Aldonza lay a reassuring hoof on his shoulder.
  1068. > "No, no, Rocinante, calm jourself. We are all friends, here. Ignacio has only returned for lunch. Eet is safe. Go back to sleep, jes?"
  1069. > With a series of confused grunts, the shouting batpony goes back down again, and you see his chest heave deeply.
  1070. > Ignacio sighs, and looks over his shoulder to mutter at you and Glamerspear.
  1071. > "This is my family, such as we call it among the Eclipse. We were all born under the same shadowed and red-ringed sky particular, and of the ten children then birthed, there are only we three left. We are the oldest surviving clutch of Eclipse. Aldonza, there crafted most of the lights magical that jou have seen in the Rookery. Rocinante, beside her, he was also a Balladeer of Ghosts as I am, but now he has almost left us..."
  1072. > With a glum expression, he watches Aldonza soothe the sleeping colt, offering him a bowl of something to drink.
  1073. > "... He sleeps all the time, and he sees everywhere unicorns that he must charge and duel..."
  1075. > Taking a deep breath, he sits and gestures his forehooves forwards.
  1076. > "... Well, since jou can see, come in, and sit down. 'Mi casa es su casa', as we say: 'my house is jour house'; make jourselves at home. Are jou hungry? There is soup above the fire, and bowls beside it. Help jourselves to as much as jou please."
  1077. > Still scrutinizing the scene, Lily shakes her head.
  1078. > "I'm not hungry, thanks."
  1079. > You shake yours as well -- maybe unnecessary, since your hosts can't see, but then again, maybe that's something they can make out in the 'magic-sound pattern' that lets them perceive you.
  1080. "Thanks, but I'm just glad to be out of those tunnels."
  1081. > A shiver goes down your spine; just how long was that trip?
  1082. > It was probably just a few minutes, but it sure left an impact.
  1083. > You still feel your stomach is a bit upside-down from the experience.
  1084. > Spying a nice flat cushion on the floor in front of the fire, you take a step forward to sit yourself comfortably down and regain your centre of balance.
  1085. > But as you push off with your hind legs, you gasp as you find yourself floating through the air -- and your wings are still folded tight against your body!
  1086. "Huh!?"
  1087. > While Lily's mouth hangs open, Ignacio looks up at you and grins.
  1088. > "Oh, jes. I suppose also that I should welcome jou to the Moon. Mind jour step; things and ponies are lighter here."
  1093. > You are Corporal Honour Bound, and you can't remember the last time you were ever so completely relaxed.
  1094. > Reverend Sister Lucretia, that big-tufted batpony priestess, was a genuine miracle-worker with her hooves.
  1095. "Unnhhhh."
  1096. > You'd long since closed your eyes and surrendered your consciousness over to her incredible massage.
  1097. > And, mercifully, having recognized your incapacity for conversation, she'd let up on her questions and continued in silence.
  1098. > The same wasn't true of your VIP and his masseuse, the Reverend Mother Superior herself.
  1099. > "How wonderful! I hope one day to see this marvellous device of yours. And how quickly did you say it can go?"
  1100. > "Oh, about sixty kilometres per hour, if the road is smooth and flat. But if I can craft a proper internal combustion engine, we could easily do double that. We could even build a machine that can fly."
  1101. > Carmen leans in, spreading her wings wide for balance as she rocks all four of her hooves back and forth on his shoulders.
  1102. > "A machine for flying? I'm imagining a great metal beast with flapping wings."
  1103. > Anonymous, though obviously enjoying the massage, nonetheless is doing a good job maintaining his presence of mind.
  1104. > Better than you were, at any rate.
  1105. > "Not quite like that. Imagine holding your wings out straight, and then having a powerful fan blow you forwards."
  1106. > Suddenly, you hear several sets of hoofsteps at the door.
  1107. > "Your Reverence, please forgive the interruption."
  1108. > Lucretia doesn't let up with the hoofwork as you turn your head to see who's there.
  1109. > It's another Lunar mare, accompanied by two hooded colts.
  1110. > Huh, so they did let the males in here.
  1111. > Carmen doesn't sound happy to see the group, however.
  1112. > "Oh, really now, what is this? I left specific instructions that I was not to be disturbed for at least an hour."
  1114. > The mare, presumably some other Reverend Sister, bows deeply.
  1115. > "My sincerest apologies, Reverend Mother, but the Eighth of Meteors has arrived at the Sanctuary. He wishes to speak with his imprisoned Six immediately. He has invoked the Privilege of Consultation."
  1116. > Another Lunar who speaks flawless Equestrian with a Canterlot accent.
  1117. > At this point you're sure they all do.
  1118. > Turning your head again, you see Carmen roll her eyes in exasperation.
  1119. > "Of course he does. And of course he has..."
  1120. > Sighing, she steps daintily off of your VIP's back.
  1121. > "... Great Lord, please accept my most regretful apologies. A true Lunar massage takes at least an hour, and I have, to my great disappointment, only been afforded half that meagre time."
  1122. > It's only been half an hour?
  1123. > Seriously?
  1124. > You feel like you've spent the whole night in here.
  1125. > Lucretia keeps going on your back, and you close your eyes in delight again as the muscles that had been worked so hard -- first by the Royal Engineer's demanding training, and then by Marcos' abrupt interruption -- are kneaded back into submission.
  1126. > Well, it was time well-wasted, at least.
  1127. > But you should still pay attention to this.
  1128. > You open your eyes again to see Carmen shaking her head, brow furrowed in frustration as she administers a few final hoof-prods to your VIP.
  1129. > "... And for such a powerfully-built creature as you, my Lord, I think closer to two hours would be required for the massage to fully *penetrate*..."
  1130. > Two whole hours?
  1131. > You've been on the verge of falling blissfully asleep after just thirty minutes.
  1132. > Two hours would probably render you so fluid you'd melt right into the water like a blob of jelly.
  1134. > "... After the outrageous incident earlier tonight, I must attend to this matter personally. But I insist that after your next training session with the Stellar Seven you come to the Sanctuary again. Night or day, and regardless of whatever privileges a Star may be invoking at the time, I will see to it that you experience the Well of Life as our Great Mother intended it."
  1135. > Lifting his head somewhat, he turns to look up at the Reverend Mother.
  1136. > "Of course, Your Reverence. But your excellent massage has been so relaxing so far, I fear that I'd fall asleep halfway through such a lengthy affair."
  1137. > Carmen smiles.
  1138. > "That is the objective, of course; the Sanctuary accepts the Rookery's tired and worn, who later leave here refreshed and well-rested."
  1139. > Spreading her wings again, she flaps them once and hops back to the outer pool deck.
  1140. > Anonymous pushes his chest off of the platform and sits up, curling his legs up in front of him, with his arms held around them.
  1141. > Obviously more to cover himself than to preserve any kind of heat; not in this hot, steamy room.
  1142. > "Your Reverence, before you leave, may I ask another question before you go?"
  1143. > Halfway through one of the hooded colts helping her into her robes, she turns around again and gives a small bow.
  1144. > "Of course, Great Lord. I am yours to command."
  1145. > With his arms wrapped around his legs, your VIP furrows his brow.
  1146. > "This Sanctuary, and this Well of Life... Are there others like it on the Moon as well?"
  1147. > The Reverend Mother Superior grins.
  1148. > "Ahh... You wish to know how we did things before returning here, eh?"
  1149. > With a small chuckle, she licks her lips and continues.
  1150. > "... Yes, each House -- each city-state, in our terminology -- has a Sanctuary for its Lunars, which services both the House-members and any visitors as well. Though this is by far the grandest of all Lunar Sanctuaries, the others follow a similar layout and have similar features..."
  1152. > Fastening the clasp to her cloak with her wing-fingers, she points a forehoof at one of the cascades of steaming-hot water.
  1153. > "... This particular Sanctuary is unique not just by its presence here in Equestria, but also in that the Great Mother has blessed us with a supply of fresh, pure, hot water straight from the heart of the Earth. On the Moon, provisions are not so abundant..."
  1154. > She lowers her hoof, and turns to seize her crescent-topped staff, tucking it under one elbow as she continues with a more serious expression.
  1155. > "... The Moon is a harsh mistress. Her depths are cold, and most of the available water is frozen in vast underground glaciers. It is around these that the Lunar Sanctuaries, and indeed, the Houses themselves are built, for without water there can be no life."
  1156. > Anonymous nods.
  1157. > "And so the Lunars control the defrosting and distribution of that water?"
  1158. > The Reverend Mother Superior returns a thin smile.
  1159. > "Yes, Great Lord, we are entrusted with that privilege. It is why we must hold ourselves to the highest standards, and why I must leave now to keep the trust of the Stars. Not so much for life here in the Rookery, but for the rest of my Phase and my people still living on that other world. For whoever controls the ice, controls the Moon."
  1160. > The threat of denying somepony access to water sure sounds like it would result in obedience.
  1161. > Then again, following through on that threat against somepony powerful -- like, say, one of the 'Eighths' of a Star temple -- would probably result in an armed uprising.
  1162. > Better to give 'basic' water away for free, no matter who asks, but promote upstream, 'special' waters as reserved for the elite.
  1163. > The better to get those elite to agree to whatever the Lunars required.
  1164. > Things are starting to make sense to you now.
  1165. > So much sense that you actually forget about Lucretia still working away on your back.
  1167. > Carmen hasn't, however.
  1168. > "Lucretia, come along now. We can't have you servicing the Great Lord's concubine -- my apologies, his escort, rather -- when he himself is unattended. As for you, Great Lord, I invite you to stay in the Well of Life as long as it pleases you..."
  1169. > You're too mellow to complain even internally about that little slip.
  1170. > Lucretia steps off of you and then flutters gracefully over as Carmen keeps her gaze upon the junior Lunar.
  1171. > "... Go and see to it that an ample supply of towels are placed here at the entrance for the use of the Great Lord and his escort."
  1172. > With a nod, Lucretia brushes through the curtains, allowing another blast of refreshingly cool air to come rushing in.
  1173. > The Reverend Mother Superior, properly attired with her staff in the crook of her left forehoof, looks down at your VIP still sitting on the further 'massage island'.
  1174. > "... As for you plan to enlist the aid of the Guild of Blacksmiths in establishing a new foundry in Canterlot, know that it has my full and unequivocal support. I wholeheartedly endorse it, as I would endorse any plan like it which promises to peacefully bring we Children into contact with our Equestrian cousins. For only through such contact can we mend the rift that has survived for a thousand years. With your permission, I will inform the Great Mother and convey my feelings to the Rocks as well."
  1175. > Anonymous glances over at you.
  1176. > "I haven't actually informed Her Majesty of my plans quite yet; I was hoping to first impress both of Equestria's rulers with a demonstration of that steam-car first. If you would be so kind as to wait, I will send word once I have made the proposition myself."
  1177. > Carmen bows gracefully.
  1178. > "Of course, Great Lord. I would not wish to upstage you in this matter..."
  1180. > Smiling gently, she raises her right forehoof and the three newcomers exit the room behind her.
  1181. > "... Now, spend as long as you wish in here, and leave at your pleasure. Lucretia will be back soon with towels for when you are ready to depart, and will check in regularly to see that you are still enjoying yourselves. You have water to drink, but would you prefer something else? Or are you hungry? Shall I send for refreshments?"
  1182. > The Royal Engineer shakes his head.
  1183. > "No, thank-you, Reverence."
  1184. > With a final elegant flap of her wings, she lifts off into the air.
  1185. > "Then until we meet again, O Great Lord."
  1186. > Holding her wings steady, she floats mysteriously back out through the curtains, coasting on the stream of hot air that follows her.
  1187. > There she goes again, showing off her physical abilities with a fancy trick like a backwards coast.
  1188. > You just barely hear her hooves contact the tile floor outside, before she's on the carpet again and the room is silent.
  1189. > Turning your head back towards your VIP, you see Anonymous deep in thought.
  1190. "Is everything all right, sir?"
  1191. > He nods.
  1192. > "Yes. It's just been a busy day -- a busy night, rather."
  1193. > Unfolding his arms, he turns sideways away from you and scoots towards the edge of his little massage-island.
  1194. > "... First the training, then an actual fight..."
  1195. > Leaning back, he slips into the water, then turns around to rest his arms on the platform.
  1196. > "... And then half an hour being massaged by the leader of the batponies in Equestria, while she pumped me for information about my activities."
  1197. > You *had* noticed that.
  1198. > You weren't going to say anything about it just yet, but since he's brought it up...
  1199. "You knew, sir, and you went along with it anyways?"
  1200. > The Royal Engineer shrugs.
  1201. > "Why not? I don't have any secrets. Plenty of ponies have already seen the carriage. I serve the Equestrian public. The whole point of my position is to develop science and engineering for Equestria as a whole."
  1203. "I suppose that's true."
  1204. > There's another rush of cool air, and you see Lucretia returning with a hooded colt who's flapping away behind her, his forehooves clutching a tall pile of neatly-folded white towels.
  1205. > "Great Lord, here are towels for you when you have finished. If there is nothing else, I shall retire for now to leave you to your bathing. If you require the restroom, there is one just outside on the right. I will return again in a quarter of an hour."
  1206. > The Royal Engineer nods in acknowledgement, the colt places the towels down on a small bench nearby, and then the two Lunars exit the room once again.
  1207. > Your VIP looks deep in thought.
  1208. > "I'd like to rest here for another half an hour so, if that's all right with you, Corporal."
  1209. "Of course, sir. Are you still sore from the exercise?"
  1210. > He shakes his head.
  1211. > "Not really. It's a mental exhaustion, I think. That was the first real fight I've actually been in."
  1212. > You hadn't considered that.
  1213. > Despite his imposing stature and considerable physique, he himself claimed not to be a soldier or fighter.
  1214. > Out of concern that he'd be defeated, he'd refused to fight in the pas-de-sabots at Newstirrup Bridge, although he'd wound up helping Glamerspear later anyways.
  1215. > To say nothing of his precision inspirational speech to Sparkshower beforehoof.
  1216. > And then there was the way he refuted your own arguments, later, about whether the fight was a good idea to begin with.
  1217. > The point was, for a colt who wasn't a soldier, he sure did a good job of faking it.
  1218. > But still, there was a difference between behaving soldierly outside of a fight, and behaving that way *in* one.
  1219. > The batpony Meteor he'd help knock out had been trying to kill him, after all.
  1221. "You did well, sir. In the Royal Guard they teach us to fight in teams, whether ranks of Earth Pony javelin-throwers, pairs of Pegasus wing-mates, or even groups of anti-aircraft gunners and shield-casters. I was holding off an enemy, and you took advantage of his disorientation and an open field to flank him. It was a textbook 'hook' manoeuvre."
  1222. > He takes a deep breath.
  1223. > "Just before I grabbed his foreleg, I remembered I was only in bronze armour while he was wielding steel blades. That made my heart skip a beat."
  1224. > You still didn't quite understand this whole steel-versus-bronze distinction, especially since your bronze-equipped crew easily beat their opponents, but if the Royal Engineer was concerned about the difference then you took it as serious.
  1225. "You kept your nerves, though. And he wasn't expecting that straight punch to the brisket you gave him, or else he would have tried to make it a glancing blow."
  1226. > "I think his failure to react was more down the menace of your spear in his face, Corporal."
  1227. > You chuckle.
  1228. "As we say in the Royal Guard, sir: A kill's a kill. If we're counting, you'd get the credit with the assist to me. Although as the officer in charge, technically you'd be credited for the fight as a whole."
  1229. > He grunts noncommittally, but doesn't reply.
  1230. > You see him take a few deep breaths, and then he runs one hand across his brow, brushing away the sweat and condensation.
  1231. > Another deep breath, slower this time, and he glances down, almost avoiding your gaze.
  1232. > "Corporal, there's something I wanted to ask you about. From before the fight, during our training together."
  1233. > Is he looking for some feedback?
  1234. > Sergeant Ebonshield had been barking instructions and advice the whole time, but you didn't have the chance to say your piece about it.
  1235. > "... The, ah, brief incident with Specialists Sparkshower and Glamerspear, before Marcos arrived..."
  1236. > Oh, that.
  1238. > You take a breath as you remember the 'incident' in question.
  1239. > Of all times for those two bucking 'shoes to get aroused...
  1240. > "... Is that, uh, common? In the Royal Guard?"
  1241. > He wanted to say 'normal', you're sure of it.
  1242. > You clear your throat.
  1243. "Ahem. No, sir, it isn't typical of the Guard. I apologize for their interruption, and I will speak to them about it afterwards..."
  1244. > That's just the formal response of a senior non-commissioned bodyguard to their VIP.
  1245. > Anonymous is more than just an ordinary VIP, though, and you owe him a little more.
  1246. "... However, among Equestrians, Pegasi have the greatest reputation for being 'rough-and-tumble' and ready for battle. Although Specialist Sparkshower is young and has yet to discover the full extent of her combat capabilities, I think that fighting spirit is strong within her. As for Specialist Glamerspear, she has in the past vocally expressed a certain enthusiasm for battle."
  1247. > That was a polite way of saying that Sparkshower was a desperately lovelorn young mare, while Glamerspear's enthusiasm for violence bordered on depravity.
  1248. > Though that depravity was shockingly effective, particularly when combined with an incapacitating smoke-bomb.
  1249. > You wonder if Ebonshield herself packed a few of those under her big black cloak.
  1250. > However, Anonymous doesn't seem entirely convinced by your explanation, and actually looks a little worried.
  1251. > "I see. And I wasn't doing -- I wasn't doing anything inappropriate? During our training? Grabbing at, uh, the wrong parts, or, uh..."
  1252. > Really?
  1253. > He's worried about propriety during a combat exercise?
  1254. > The gentlecolt who politely sat with heartbroken Sparkshower for three hours and talked about relationships without even thinking of making a move on her?
  1255. > The colt who turned down Ebonshield's offer of free sex, no strings attached?
  1256. > To say nothing of the Reverend Mother's offer as well?
  1258. > And without even mentioning the make-up flowers he sent to you after you started an argument with him?
  1259. > At this point it was almost inconceivable that he would even be capable of crossing that sort of line.
  1260. > You furrow your brow and shake your head.
  1261. "No, sir. You didn't do anything inappropriate. You can trust that I would have spoken up if something was wrong. And I *do* have armour down there, sir."
  1262. > You chuckle awkwardly.
  1263. > This isn't the kind of thing guards ordinarily talk about with their VIPs.
  1264. > But really, what *was* ordinary about this assignment?
  1265. > Smiling to yourself, still lying on your belly, with your hind legs stretched out behind you and your fore legs out in front, you watch your Very Important Pony, who wasn't at all pony, look wistfully up at the ceiling.
  1266. > He licks his lips, then spreads his arms wide, planting his hands on the platform before him.
  1267. > "Corporal, I have another question, and please don't hold anything back in your answer..."
  1268. > He stares at you with a mixed look of confusion and concern.
  1269. > "... Am I physically attractive? To ponies, I mean?"
  1270. > What?
  1271. > Where's this coming from all of a sudden?
  1272. > Oh, of course.
  1273. > Sparkshower spilled literally all of her saddlebag-spaghetti in front of him after Ignacio called out Glamerspear's horn-anteglow.
  1274. > You look the Royal Engineer up and down -- well, his top quarter, at least, since the rest of him is either underwater or covered behind the large raised platform.
  1275. > No hot-blooded colt with a shred of self-confidence would ever ask that question in this manner, and you'd never felt Anonymous was lacking in that quality.
  1276. > It was tough to understand just where he thought he stood, though.
  1277. > You decide to turn the question around on him before answering.
  1278. "You don't think that you are, sir?"
  1279. > Anonymous sighs, and shrugs his shoulders.
  1280. > "Well, to be honest, no, I don't. Or rather, I didn't..."
  1282. > He nonchalantly flips his hands up, then rubs them together aimlessly.
  1283. > "... When I arrived here by accident, I was still struggling to finally get over my disaster of an engagement. I wasn't really looking -- I wasn't actively 'dating' or anything like that. Obviously my first thoughts upon arriving here were on trying to get back, but when that turned out to be basically impossible, I had to find something worth doing, some purpose to my presence here..."
  1284. > Folding his arms over each other, he leans forwards.
  1285. > "... Engineering is what I came up with; it's what I did back on my world, after all. And after throwing myself into this role, eventually, my thoughts turned again to companionship, but looking at the facts, I had to face that it was probably unlikely..."
  1286. > He holds up a hand and begins to count off on his fingers.
  1287. > "... I'm a biped, whereas you're all quadrupeds. I'm mostly hairless, whereas you're all completely covered. I've got hands and feet, whereas you've all got hooves. I have to wear clothes all the time, whereas a naked pony is generally not indecent. And I'm drably coloured, whereas Equestrian ponies span the whole rainbow..."
  1288. > Lowering the hand, he continues.
  1289. > "... The physical differences seemed to present a real barrier to physical attractiveness, no matter my wardrobe, and I never got any sense otherwise from the ponies I met..."
  1290. > Anonymous shrugs.
  1291. > "... Not that Equestrians have been anything less than open, friendly, and accommodating. But I didn't think any pony would ever think of me as a possible romantic partner, so I resigned myself to eternal bachelorhood..."
  1292. > He tips his head sideways and lifts his eyebrows.
  1293. > "... And there I probably would have stayed, if not for Specialist Sparkshower's outburst earlier. It made me reconsider my conclusion."
  1294. > There was a lot of sense in what he was saying.
  1296. > But the crucial piece he'd left out is that really, until you and the rest of the quaternion came along, he probably wasn't seeing any mares on any kind of regular, friendly basis at all.
  1297. > That kind of frequent, extended contact could change ponies' attitudes, as it certainly had in this case.
  1298. > If you'd just spent all your time standing silently at the door, it wouldn't have turned out this way.
  1299. > You wondered about his thoughts the other way around, however.
  1300. "I see. But what about yourself, sir? Do you find ponies attractive -- physically?"
  1301. > Your VIP looks you over, and you suddenly feel very self-conscious about your position.
  1302. > You may just be lying down, but with your hind legs stretched out, your plot is a little raised up in the air.
  1303. > The kind of pose a colt might find in a magazine, the kind they read for the 'articles'.
  1304. > Maybe you could have phrased that question better.
  1305. > Anonymous hesitates in answering.
  1306. > "I... I think I'd sort of... unconsciously forced myself not to see ponies that way, to save myself from despair..."
  1307. > Turning aside, he smiles and laughs.
  1308. > "... Hah, you know, humans have a reputation even amongst ourselves for 'overactive' imaginations when it comes to sexual partners. I mean, you should see some of the fiction my people wrote, about falling in love with all sorts of creatures..."
  1309. > Anonymous looks down to compose himself, then swallows before meeting your gaze once more.
  1310. > "... But you're right, it's not simple for me, either. Some things don't bother me much, like say the four-hooves or the coats. But others are harder to get over. For example, on my world, we're the only ones who can talk! Equines over there are just simple, fairly dumb animals. That's a tough preconception to ignore..."
  1312. > He laughs again, with more abandon.
  1313. > "... Heh, though I suppose the riotous colours help. Ponies here are coloured almost nothing like ponies on my world. Pink! Green! Blue! Bright red! And the manes and tails, too! Why, the skin and hair colours of my people are pretty much just different saturations and brightnesses of basic ordinary *brown*, ranging from almost-totally-black to nearly-completely-white..."
  1314. > Anonymous gestures towards you, tears of laughter in his eyes.
  1315. > "... *You're* almost the only pony I've ever met with anything approaching a 'normal' colour scheme for a human..."
  1316. > The uncomfortable spotlight you felt grows more uncomfortable still.
  1317. > Lying on the platform, you actually feel *naked* and *exposed*, which is absurd considering your VIP is ultimately far more undressed than you are.
  1318. > And in the last hour you've seen both his front and back, completely uncovered!
  1319. > The Royal Engineer calms himself down, still smiling warmly.
  1320. > "... But my people do dye their hair from time to time. And having been here for almost a year, now, I think I've grown accustomed to the new colour palette, so that's not really a problem either..."
  1321. > He gestures at his upper chest.
  1322. > "... There are other differences of course. Female humans don't have flat chests like males do; there's fatty-tissue breasts here that are a secondary sex characteristic. Sort of like Minotaurs, I guess. Mares don't have those, but, uh..."
  1323. > Swallowing awkwardly, he looks away once more.
  1324. > "... Some of the, uh, things ponies *do* have are actually, er... intriguing, I guess you could say."
  1325. > You're tempted to ask for details, but this conversation is awkward enough already.
  1326. > Concluding, Anonymous nods as he looks you in the eyes.
  1327. > "... So, yes, I could find a pony attractive -- and I would, if I had any thought that the attraction might be mutual."
  1329. > He really is uncomfortable talking about this; more than you are about being on a literal platform before him, spread out like a buffet dish.
  1330. > You really don't have the energy to stand up right now -- and jumping into the water would be another exercise in standing on your tippy-hooves.
  1331. > To be fair to your VIP, love was rarely an easy thing to discuss.
  1332. > You suppose you should just be happy he's discussing it with you, in the relative privacy of this Well of Life.
  1333. > Rather than, say, asking Sparkshower or Glamerspear -- or, Celestia forbid, Ebonshield.
  1334. > The Sergeant would probably not only tell him he was a certifiable stud, she'd insist on teaching him the proper sexual procedures to please any mare he ever met.
  1335. > Putting that thought out of your mind, you return to the Royal Engineer, who's still awaiting your answer to his question from a couple of minutes ago.
  1336. "Sir, to answer your question honestly, and without holding anything back..."
  1337. > You tilt your head and glance aside for a moment, uncomfortable with even the idea of disappointing your VIP.
  1338. "... No, I don't think you are generally attractive to ponies."
  1339. > His face doesn't betray any reaction.
  1340. > "Oh."
  1341. > Now that the harsh truth has set in, you take a deep breath.
  1342. "But let me emphasize that this as an *initial* impression, sir. Attitudes can change when somepony knows you well. As you said, it's hard to overcome the physical differences, but it's easier when they're familiar, and no longer so foreign. And I think you do have a charming personality, sir..."
  1343. > You clear your throat.
  1344. "... Since you deserve my full honesty, and since I think by now Specialist Glamerspear has more than proven her worth as a member of your quaternion, I might mention that three weeks ago, in the first few days of our assignment, she privately expressed a certain... distaste... for your physique."
  1345. > Anonymous raises his eyebrows.
  1346. > "She said I was ugly?"
  1348. > Technically, 'hairless monkey with ratty old jogging shorts', was not the same as 'ugly'.
  1349. > But really, that's what she meant.
  1350. "Not quite with that blunt word, sir, and I won't repeat what she did say, but her meaning was clear..."
  1351. > Lifting your eyebrows, you gesture with the bottom of one forehoof.
  1352. "... Yet, here she was, earlier today, nursing an ante-glow from watching you trying to grapple me. And a day before, again in private, she expressed sexual attraction for you, sir."
  1353. > The Royal Engineer's eyebrows go even higher.
  1354. > "She did?"
  1355. > Last night's ruminations may have been by a half-drunk mare who'd gotten bucked and then discarded by a worthless noblepony colt only interested in the next cheap whorse, but there was a grain of truth in them.
  1356. > To the point that if Anonymous started seriously coming on to Glamerspear, you don't think she would put up more than a token resistance, probably out of some fillyish desire to make things 'interesting' or to 'play hard to get'.
  1357. "Yes, sir. And as for Specialist Sparkshower, well..."
  1358. > You chuckle, biting your lip.
  1359. "... I think her emotions are still in a strange place from her recent break-up. But I also think that she was being genuine earlier tonight, and there's no denying her, ah, physical display."
  1360. > That was a pretty weak euphemism for an enormous ten-hoof-wide wing-boner.
  1361. > Anonymous furrows his brow.
  1362. > "I understand about her emotional position. We had a good talk about relationships last night, though at the time I didn't consider it anything other than friendly chat. I don't think I'd be comfortable beginning a relationship with her at this point, given what's just happened to her. But you bring up an interesting point about physical displays. I had no idea that outstretched wings could signify attraction, for example. Or a horn... ante-glow, you called it?"
  1363. > You nod.
  1364. "Yes, sir. As in the glow that comes before. A sign of arousal in unicorns, just as outstretched wings are for pegasi."
  1366. > Anonymous just nods.
  1367. > "I see. And is there anything else I should be aware of? Any other secondary sexual characteristics, for example? Besides words or physical contact, how would I know if a mare was flirting with me -- is flirting even a thing, here?"
  1368. > Okay, that's a kind of... adorable question to ask.
  1369. > The Royal Engineer was not some fresh-faced young buck, he was an accomplished professional and someone who had already had his first love on his own world.
  1370. > But because he's a stranger in a strange land, he's asking the kind of questions foals and fillies ask when they start to hit puberty.
  1371. "Flirting is a thing, yes, sir. Besides words and physical contact, as you said, sir, probably the most visible sign a mare is being provocatively sexual is when they stick out their tuft."
  1372. > "Their what?"
  1373. > Of course he doesn't know that either, just as you told Sparkshower last night.
  1374. > You collect your legs and push yourself up, turning to face him before sitting down on your haunches.
  1375. > It's hard to fluff out your tuft when it's all wet like this, but you still give it a try, brushing your forehooves over it to quickly make it look as plush as possible.
  1376. > When you reach what you consider a passing score, though it's nothing compared to Lucretia's front-stage shrubbery, you look back up at your VIP.
  1377. "Their tuft, sir -- the little bit of extra-long coat-hair here at the front. It's, uhm..."
  1378. > Feeling a bit flush in the cheeks, you look away momentarily.
  1379. "... It's more impressive when it's not matted and wet, sir."
  1380. > Anonymous looks more confused than anything.
  1381. > "Is it... sexual? Like, to touch?"
  1382. > Your cheeks go even redder at the thought of your VIP running his fingers through your fluff, but you keep things professional.
  1383. "Not really, sir. Not any more than touching anywhere else. There's just the implications of, uhm, having a colt snuggle your fluff, and what it'll lead to, that sort of thing."
  1385. > The Royal Engineer just stands there, staring at your tuft.
  1386. > You don't think anypony's really done that in a long while.
  1387. > Even Castlerook had the propriety to only occasionally sneak a glance -- sort of a little game he played with you, where he wanted you to catch him in the act.
  1388. > A way of letting you know he was serious about being interested in you as more than just a friend.
  1389. > But here was your VIP, appearing to pore over every single hair.
  1390. > It'd be flattering if you thought he understood what he was looking at.
  1391. > You didn't have a monster tuft like Sparkshower, but you'd never had any complaints from those few colts who had had the opportunity to enjoy it.
  1392. > Anonymous finally averts his gaze from your tuft, looking you in the eyes.
  1393. > Then he starts to speak, slowly, as the truth dawns on him.
  1394. > "Corporal, am I mistaken or did Reverend Sister Lucretia--"
  1395. > You interrupt before he can finish that thought.
  1396. "Yes, sir, she had an enormous fluffy tuft, and it was out front and centre from almost the moment she arrived in the Grand Hall."
  1397. > The Royal Engineer cocks an eyebrow.
  1398. > "I guess that makes things quite clear as to what Carmen had in mind for the second half of this 'massage' session."
  1399. > You start to smile.
  1400. "Yes, sir, it does."
  1401. > He answers your smile with one of his own.
  1402. > "Alright, Corporal, I think I'm getting the idea..."
  1403. > Stepping out from behind the platform, he moves through the water towards the staircase.
  1404. > "... If there's nothing else you think I need to know right now, then I think I'm done for tonight. Let's gather everybody up and head back to the surface."
  1405. > Sounds like a good idea to you.
  1406. "Yes, sir."
  1408. Suggested interlude music: (Huey Lewis and the News - 'Do You Believe in Love' [1982])
  1413. > You are Specialist Lily Glamerspear, and this is completely nuts!
  1414. > After stumbling *into the bucking air* with that first step down the bowl-shaped floor of the room, Sparkshower quickly scrambled her three other legs to try to recover.
  1415. > It didn't work, though -- she just tripped even harder, and her armoured muzzle was half a hoof away from striking the ground when she extended her wings and gave a quick flap to pick herself up.
  1416. > But that one push was enough to send her right up to the low ceiling, crashing into it with a loud metallic *KLANG*.
  1417. > Shell-shocked, she ricocheted back down to the ground, landing hard enough that her limbs splayed out.
  1418. > With another small metallic bounce off the ground, she settled down on her belly.
  1419. > Panting, her eyes wide, she looks up at you in confusion now that the tormenting movement is over.
  1420. "You okay, Sparks?"
  1421. > When a slow, semi-stunned nod from her weakly confirms it, you turn towards your blind guide.
  1422. "... Whaddya mean, 'Welcome to the Moon'? *THE* Moon?"
  1423. > The armoured pegasus struggles, slowly, to get back to her hooves.
  1424. > It doesn't look easy, but you're worried any help you give will just make things go sideways all over again.
  1425. > Ignacio Blazon, the batpony sorcerer, answers your question with a shrug.
  1426. > "Jes, *the* Moon. Is there some other?"
  1427. > Wise-ass.
  1428. > Grumbling, you try to restrain your frustration.
  1429. "How did we even get here?"
  1430. > He nods at the doorway.
  1431. > "Through the passage. How else do jou think?"
  1432. > That doesn't answer anything either!
  1433. > Yeah, okay, it's obviously a *magic* passage, but still -- how come you didn't notice the change in gravity sooner?
  1434. > Your pegasus comrade, now standing up properly, looks back towards the entrance tunnel.
  1435. > "You know, Lily, I *was* starting to feel a bit funny a while back. Something felt strange, but I put it down to nerves."
  1437. > Huh.
  1438. > Were you really paying so little attention to your surroundings that you didn't notice everything getting lighter?
  1439. > You suppose you *had* been pretty excited to learn what Ignacio had to teach.
  1440. > And you were also walking slowly enough that it might not have come up, plus it had been a flat passageway.
  1441. > Here, with the shallow drop of the bowl-shaped floor, walking was trickier.
  1442. > The Balladeer of Ghosts steps over towards the entrance and removes the crutch from underneath his shoulder, then leans it against the wall.
  1443. > Standing up solidly on all fours, he begins to shuffle slowly towards the central magical cooking-flame, beckoning you with one of his deformed wing-stumps.
  1444. > "Come, come, enter. Sit by the fire, and have some soup. Jou will adjust to the change easily; it is not so great as it first appears. Even I have learned how to switch, and I am not a young athlete. Be thankful jou are here in this place underground with the rock solid and firm, and not outside on the Moon itself..."
  1445. > You and Sparkshower both watch in disbelief as the cripple moves unsupported, reaching one of several worn-looking small rugs, then sitting down on his haunches with a tired sigh.
  1446. > "... For the surface above is covered with a kind of coarse sand, rough and irritating, and when jou come back indoors it gets absolutely everywhere. ¡Fu!"
  1447. > This is just too much!
  1448. "You don't need your *crutch*?!"
  1449. > He whinnies.
  1450. > "Not on the Moon, no. I told jou, things are not so heavy here. Now, come, and sit on one of the rugs, since jou can see them, and eat. There is a ladle in the soup-pot, and there are bowls beside it. It is lunch-time, after all."
  1451. > Unbelievable!
  1452. > Here you are, having casually walked through a tunnel under Canterlot mountain and been teleported to the Moon, in order to sit around a magical flame to eat soup with a blind batpony sorcerer.
  1454. > Sparkshower takes a hesitant step towards the central fire-pit, and manages not to trip herself into the air again.
  1455. > You give walking a try, too, and are relieved when you are also able to keep your balance, provided you move slowly enough.
  1456. > Especially since you don't have wings to try to fix things if your hooves fail you!
  1457. > Not that those proved super helpful in getting Sparkshower back on her hooves.
  1458. > Walking in this low-gravity environment *is* pretty weird, however.
  1459. > A little like being underwater, sort of, except without anything holding back your movements.
  1460. > And with the feeling that even just an ordinary trot would send you careening up into the air.
  1461. > Maybe that friction-boosting spell you use in the water-slick Cave of Pillars could be of use to counter it?
  1462. > Something to keep in mind if you feel the need to get out of here in a hurry.
  1464. Suggested background music: (Mark Morgan - 'Smoldering Corpse Bar', from 'Planescape: Torment' [1999])
  1466. > After a delicate slow sauntering, you join Ignacio, the other two batponies, and your pegasus comrade in a close semi-circle around the room's light and heat source.
  1467. > Above a solid pillar of what looks like slowly-roiling molten lava, the soup is bubbling away before you.
  1468. > It smells pretty good, and there's a hint of spice in the air, too.
  1469. > On your right, Sparkshower licks her lips and looks over expectantly towards you.
  1470. > You wonder if you should use your telekinesis to serve the soup, or--
  1471. > "... Use jour horn, unicornio. Aldonza has never witnessed the magic of jour kind. And I will have a bowl also, if jou please."
  1472. > The elderly batpony mare to the right of Ignacio is sitting up straight, wearing the same black mask with red fringes as he is.
  1473. > Guh, it's creepy seeing the two decrepit old masked figures staring at you side-by-side.
  1474. > It'd be worse if those blindfolds had eyes drawn on them, though.
  1475. > Now that's a terrifying thought.
  1477. > With some trepidation, you seize up one of the plain red clay bowls from a little stack of six, enveloping it in your teal glow.
  1478. > Neither Ignacio nor Aldonza reacts.
  1479. > And the sleeping batpony sorcerer who cried out earlier doesn't wake up again, either.
  1480. > You grab the ladle in your telekinetic aura as well, and fill the bowl with two hearty scoops of the pot's dense ragout, then float it over to Ignacio, who taps a forehoof on the ground to indicate that you should place it before him.
  1481. > That you do, and still no reaction from the batponies, though you have the distinct impression that you're once again being stared at.
  1482. > You take another bowl and fill it again, passing it over to Sparkshower, who takes it in her forehooves and sniffs it before starting to blow repeatedly to cool it down.
  1483. > Finally, you serve yourself and, still holding the ladle to one side, take a quick sip from your bowl.
  1484. > It's a thick and heavy broth, full of beans, and with a sweet taste accompanied by a hint of hay.
  1485. > You're not really sure what that is.
  1486. > Some kind of batpony Moon-spice, you suppose.
  1487. > The soup tastes good, but it's still a bit too hot, so after panting a bit to take the heat off your tongue, you release the ladle back into the pot and lower your bowl down to the floor to cool off for a moment.
  1488. > Ignacio turns his head slightly towards his comrade.
  1489. > "Well, Aldonza, what do jou think?"
  1490. > The old mare just sits there, her mouth hanging open.
  1491. > "Eencredible. All that magic just to serbe tree bowls of the fabada..."
  1492. > Again with the remarks about how much magic you spend to do stuff!
  1493. > Yeah, maybe you aren't the most efficient TK-wielder in the Royal Guard, but come on!
  1494. > These Eclipse Phase really don't have a lot of power at all, do they?
  1496. > Which made it all the more perplexing how they managed to accomplish magical feats -- like animating the sand-creatures, or healing deep wounds, or even creating those balls of permanent illumination in the Rookery, as Ignacio said Aldonza had done.
  1497. > Lifting the bowl up with your hooves, you blow and take another crack at the thick stew, leaving the batponies to chatter over their own bowls.
  1498. > "... Oh, Gonçal was over heerrre earlier, Ignacio. He came to bisit with Rocinante for a while."
  1499. > Ignacio nods and gently wraps two hooves around his own meal, holding it close to his chest.
  1500. > "That was good of him. I will go and return the visit later today. How is Ermessenda?"
  1501. > Aldonza shakes her head.
  1502. > "She ees almost gone, he said. She does not want to eat. And he cannot force her."
  1503. > The Balladeer of Ghosts just grumbles knowingly.
  1504. > "She and Rocinante will both leave us soon."
  1505. > Lowering her bowl, your comrade Sparkshower speaks up.
  1506. > "Gonçal and Ermessenda are other Children of the Eclipse?"
  1507. > How in the buck does she pronounce foreign names so well after she's only heard them just the once?
  1508. > Mare oughtta be in the diplomatic corps.
  1509. > The elderly Aldonza nods her head.
  1510. > "Jes, pegaso. They were born een the same jear as us, but under a different eclipse, seberal months later. Only two of that brood remain. Coming from the Rookery, jou will habe passed the entrance to their home only just before arribing here."
  1511. > So those other passageways actually went places?
  1512. "Are these *tunnels* where the Eclipse live? Like, all, of them?"
  1513. > She nods.
  1514. > "Jes. We do not libe with our Houses, as the other Phases do. Eenstead, we habe our homes together, and the tunnels connect us to where we may serbe."
  1515. > So it's a whole *web* of portals?
  1516. > One wrong turn might've landed you straight in the middle of some batpony city!
  1517. > A couple of Equestrian Royal Guards instantly appearing probably would've caused quite a ruckus.
  1519. > Sparkshower frowns.
  1520. > "You don't live with your houses, but does this place have a name? I know the Houses have names; you said you were from the House 'Rima de Serenidad', didn't you, Mister Blazon?"
  1521. > The Balladeer of Ghosts nods.
  1522. > "That is my House, jes. It means the 'Rille of Serenity'; it is the name of a trench from which the city, or house, takes its name. As for this place..."
  1523. > He turns his head as if glancing around.
  1524. > "... We Eclipse call it simply 'home', but the other Phases, they have another name for it."
  1525. > Tilting up his head, he pauses for emphasis.
  1526. > "... They call these the Halls of the Blind."
  1527. > Creepy.
  1528. > Ignacio just chuckles, though.
  1529. > "... A title most appropriate, no?"
  1530. > He tilts his head as if looking around the place.
  1531. > "... This room particular has been home to Eclipse since the matter of the Phases was first settled. For seven hundred jears, Children have lived here. It is where the eldest of us dwell, and we are those eldest."
  1532. > Damn, that's a long time for one hole in the ground to have ponies living in it.
  1533. > Sparkshower speaks up in a whisper.
  1534. > "Seven hundred years..."
  1535. > You can see the wheels turning in the pegasus' head, just behind her eyes.
  1536. > "... You said there were originally ten born under your Eclipse? And now there's just you three? And with on average one-and-a-half lunar eclipses per year -- does it have to be a total eclipse?"
  1537. > Aldonza leans in slightly towards Ignacio.
  1538. > "The one who asks this, it is ees the pegaso large weeth all the armour?"
  1539. > The Balladeer of Ghosts chuckles.
  1540. > "Heh, jes. And do jou hear...?"
  1541. > After a moment, the mare nods.
  1542. > "Her spear... jes. It is faint, and deeficult to noteece, beside the unicornio. But there is power hidden within it."
  1543. > She's talking about the Bradamante Lance!
  1544. > Huh, so these batponies weren't just able to perceive your spells, they could even hear magic items, as well.
  1546. > Ignacio nods, pointing at the weapon still strapped to Sparkshower's back.
  1547. > "Jou should have witnessed it in action. She used it to flatten one of the Quintos de los Meteoros into a tortita, earlier, hehe..."
  1548. > Then he raises his voice to address you and Sparkshower.
  1549. > "... To answer jour question, pegaso: jes, it does have to be an eclipse total. The eclipse partial may sometimes bring sick Children, but never with any abilities magical."
  1550. > Interesting distinction.
  1551. > The wheels in Sparkshower's head start to turn again.
  1552. > "So if your sample was typical, does that mean there are something like fifteen Eclipse born each year? Is that right?"
  1553. > Aldonza nods.
  1554. > "That ees not far from the truth, I theenk."
  1555. > Sparkshower continues.
  1556. > "But of that year, there are only five of you left? And you're the oldest Eclipse, you said?"
  1557. > Her batpony counterpart nods.
  1558. > "Jes..."
  1559. > Showing a crooked-tooth smile, she grins.
  1560. > "... How old do jou think we arre, pegaso?"
  1561. > As Sparkshower examines the pair, you think on the question yourself.
  1562. > You can't see their eyes to get a sense of the wrinkles on their faces, but they're so feeble and crippled it makes you want to guess an ancient number like eighty or even ninety.
  1563. > Yet something tells you that's not going to be right.
  1564. > You caught a playful hint in Aldonza's voice, almost as if the question itself was a trap...
  1565. > Sparkshower makes her guess.
  1566. > "Are you seventy?"
  1567. > Aldonza and Ignacio turn to each other and chuckle.
  1568. > "Sebenty! ¡Jajaja!"
  1569. > "¡Oho! Seventy! ¡Oye! Would that we could see that number..."
  1570. > With a sigh, the Balladeer collects himself and lifts up his bowl of soup.
  1571. > "... Sterility, blindness, and crippled limbs are not the only price we pay for these abilities, pegaso. The aging premature is another. Tonight, we three are not even fifty-eight..."
  1572. > Not even fifty-eight!
  1573. > Even Sparkshower's healthy underestimate was off by more than a decade!
  1575. > Buck, there were still fighting Sergeant-Majors in the Royal Guard older than that.
  1576. > After taking a sip from his bowl, Igacnio continues.
  1577. > "... And for a thousand years, no Eclipse has survived past sixty."
  1578. > What?!
  1579. > That means they have less than four years left!
  1580. > Celestia, this conversation's sure taken a morbid turn.
  1581. > Way to pick a good topic, Sparks.
  1582. > "Oh. I'm sorry."
  1583. > Ignacio shrugs off her apology.
  1584. > "There is no need for regrets; it was Aldonza who chose to play this little game with jou. So do not be sorry, pegaso. Be happy, as we are; happy that there will be no more."
  1585. > Huh?
  1586. "Whaddya mean 'no more'? No more Eclipse Phase?"
  1587. > The Balladeer of Ghosts fixes you in his eyeless, masked gaze.
  1588. > "Jes, no more fase de Eclipse..."
  1589. > He takes a deep breath.
  1590. > "... Jou understand, when the red ring shows around the black homeworld, there is an energy powerful which strikes the Moon, and penetrates deep enough even to reach these 'Halls of the Blind'. And every one of us can hear it; it is loud enough to wake us no matter how deep our sleep. Even Rocinante, in his state, would awaken for it..."
  1591. > Turning his head up towards the ceiling, he continues.
  1592. > "... In the thrall of this energy, all Eclipse are consumed with a sensation of the dread -- a terror horrible for what follows inevitably."
  1593. > His voice cracks at the end, and he sits, silently, still staring up.
  1594. > Aldonza looks down towards the cooking pot, and completes his thoughts.
  1595. > "Screams, which only we Eclipse can heerre. The howling of the Children who enter the world during this ebent sinister. ¡Ay!... Too many times habe we hearrd that sound infernal."
  1596. > Ignacio straightens his head again.
  1597. > "And accompanied always, by the wailing of the mothers unfortunate whose accursed children are fated to join us in these Halls."
  1598. > Yikes.
  1599. > You exchange glances with Sparkshower, who looks absolutely horrified.
  1601. > But when you turn back towards the batponies, Ignacio and Aldonza are both smiling, and the Balladeer chuckles happily.
  1602. > "Haha, but no more, jou see? Three eclipses have passed without these terrors. And what a relief it is."
  1603. > You furrow your brow.
  1604. "Why? What's different now?"
  1605. > His crooked-toothed grin grows even wider.
  1606. > "Because now we Children are welcome on the home-world, in Equestria, at least to visit. Any pregnant mare who is at risk of giving birth during an eclipse is sent away to the Rookery under Canterlot, safe from the threat lunar..."
  1607. > The Balladeer throws his head back in laughter, and even Aldonza titters happily beside him.
  1608. > "... In less than sixty jears, there will be no more of our kind! And we are glad to see the end of it."
  1609. > His insane statement is no less crazy than everything else that's happened since you got here.
  1610. > Buck, even getting here was nuts!
  1611. > But something doesn't add up.
  1612. > Shaking your head, you clear your throat.
  1613. "Wait, Mister Blazon. Weren't you the one trying to tell me last time about how everything in life is a trade-off? How your blindness and crippled limbs was just the price you paid for being able to do magic?"
  1614. > He nods, still smiling.
  1615. > "Jes, I said this. And I think still that the price is fair, jou know. But what I did not say is this..."
  1616. > Ignacio leans in conspiratorially.
  1617. > "... This price for the magic? Even if it is fair, I wish that I had not paid it, and I wish for that nopony should pay it ever again..."
  1618. > Rearing back, he holds his head high.
  1619. > "... And jou will find an attitude similar among all those Eclipse who survive their birth, and their training, to reach adulthood."
  1620. > 'Survive'?
  1621. > You don't like the sound of that word.
  1623. "The odds are really that bad?"
  1624. > The elder batpony curls his lips up into what feels like a sneer, inhaling sharply through his nostrils.
  1625. > "The art of sorcery does not agree with us, unicornio, as it does with jour kind. This is why a heavy price is paid with our bodies. Ten are born under the eclipse: five die before they have been weaned from the milk of their mothers, and then two more are lost to the Shadows while trying to learn to harness the magic. Aldonza, Rocinante, Ignacio -- these three names have stood together, with no others, since we reached the age of twelve..."
  1626. > With a knowing nod, he picks up his soup-bowl.
  1627. > "... This is why I am curious to know what jou can learn, unicornio. For, as much as I wish the end of the Eclipse, it would be good to preserve at least something of what we were, and what we could do..."
  1628. > Sniffing at his meal, he takes a small sip, exhaling loudly.
  1629. > "... Ahhh... But enough talk. It is the time to rest and to eat. Take jour time and enjoy the fabada; today, she is very good. The House Cráter Tarucio has been generous in their supply of the saffron which gives it the taste sweet and fresh. Eat, and enjoy."
  1630. > Saffron?
  1631. > That's a pricey ingredient to splurge on a soup for three blind old batponies.
  1632. > And just why exactly is this other random House supplying the Eclipse with fancy spices?
  1633. > To say nothing of 'how', if non-Eclispe weren't allowed into the Halls of the Blind.
  1634. > Something to ask later, since Ignacio has all but told you to shut up and just eat the stew.
  1635. > Well, if he wants a break, the fifty-seven-year-old-colt-who-looks-eighty-years-old deserves it.
  1636. > At least Sparkshower didn't have to be told twice, as the pegasus quickly slurps down the bean-soup in her bowl and then reaches forward to grab the ladle to serve herself more.
  1637. > Ignacio starts humming aimlessly to himself, but says nothing when, while he's still on his first bowl, Sparks goes for her third.
  1639. > Aldonza, sitting still beside him, seems to be lost in quiet contemplation as well.
  1640. > In the quiet and relative darkness of the cave, you find yourself feeling a bit over-relaxed.
  1641. > It's late, and even though you'd pre-napped earlier in the afternoon to avoid being too tired tonight, you're still starting to get groggy.
  1642. > You *did* just fight off a squad of 'Swarming Meteors' after all.
  1643. > In regular Guard, and outside of an actual war, a skirmish like that would've earned you at least a day or two off to recover.
  1644. > But in the VIP service?
  1645. > Nada, unless your VIP dismissed you.
  1646. > And that bucker probably wasn't tired at all.
  1647. > Even if he was, he was probably off having his 'steam-piston' operated by a big-tufted young batpony Lunar.
  1648. > Well, who knows?
  1649. > Maybe then there'd finally be something that would wear him out!
  1650. > You smile to yourself, imagining the Royal Engineer turning out to be just a two-pump chump in the hooves of a pretty mare.
  1651. > Oh, and Ebonshield's mom was supposed to be there too!
  1652. > Buck, what if he got personal treatment from the Reverend Mother Superior herself?
  1653. > He could literally be bucking Ebonshield's mom right now!
  1654. > Talk about making things awkward for his bodyguards...
  1655. > As your mind wanders, you notice Sparkshower glancing around the room, her ears sticking straight up.
  1656. > There's another sound of scraping metal on metal, and she twists her head around the other way, scanning the walls for something.
  1657. > You nod at her.
  1658. "What's up, Sparks? You're enjoying the soup, ain't ya?"
  1659. > The cream-coloured mare furrows her brow.
  1660. > "Nothing... I just..."
  1661. > She turns sharply again, eyes darting between the entrance hole and Ignacio's shadow on the wall behind him.
  1662. > "... I thought I saw something."
  1663. > You look around.
  1664. > Besides five shadows cast by the steady light of the magical 'lava' lamp, plus one admittedly kinda creepy dark entranceway, you don't see anything interesting.
  1666. > You grin.
  1667. "I think the gravity's getting to you again, Sparks. You shouldn't have chugged down the stew so fast."
  1668. > "But..."
  1669. > Grumbling, she faces the fire, flattens her ears, and tries to sit still for a moment.
  1670. > But moments later you see her eyes and head swivel to track something on your left.
  1671. > "... There!"
  1672. > You turn and look as well, half-believing you'll see something.
  1673. > All you see is your own shadow staring back at you.
  1674. > With a sceptical glance back at Sparkshower, you raise a forehoof and wave it around, watching as the dark spot on the wall waves along with you.
  1675. "It's just our shadows, Sparks. They only move when we do. I was probably just lifting my bowl to drink, or something."
  1676. > That doesn't seem to placate your pegasus comrade.
  1677. > Shrugging, you take another sip from your bowl.
  1678. > Neither Aldonza nor Ignacio appear to have paid any attention to your conversation, nor to the constant twitching of the paranoid pegasus.
  1679. > The Balladeer of Ghosts is still just sipping from his soup-bowl, quietly humming the notes of some half-forgotten tune.
  1680. > Tilting your head back, you drain the last dregs from your bowl.
  1681. > You lift a forehoof to wipe your muzzle, and consider whether you should have a second.
  1682. > Hmm...
  1683. > It was pretty good, and you're hungry for more, but you *do* have a dress to fit into next weekend.
  1684. > There were a *lot* of beans in the stew.
  1685. > Probably not worth the risk -- to your plotline or to your ponut.
  1686. > "Lily, I *hear* something."
  1687. > You nod.
  1688. "Yeah, probably my own stomach growling. But I'm thinking about the Gala, ya know? That Louis Valise dress doesn't have a lot of stretch to it."
  1689. > There's an exasperated sigh accompanied by angry metal protestations as Sparkshower gets to her hooves.
  1690. > "Come on, Lily, I'm being serious. Something is *in here* with us, I'm sure of it."
  1691. > Okay, fine.
  1692. > Dropping your bowl to the ground, you light your horn up and stand up yourself.
  1694. > You see shadows cast by the central light, now half-faded thanks to your own illumination.
  1695. > And, what a surprise, rock walls.
  1696. > Rock walls to the left of you, rock walls to the right of you, rocky ceiling above you, rocky floor beneath you.
  1697. "See, Artemis? Nothing here, just rock, rock, rock."
  1698. > Turning off your light, you sit back down.
  1699. "... Now come on, get a gr-"
  1700. > *sssss*
  1701. > You twist your hips and slowly pivot your head to look behind you at the source of that hissing noise.
  1702. > But you don't see anything out of the ordinary.
  1703. "Okay, I heard that."
  1704. > Beside you, Sparkshower is panting heavily.
  1705. > "You mean you can't *see* it!?"
  1706. > Scrunching up your snout, you narrow your eyes.
  1707. "See wh-"
  1708. > Twenty hooves away from you, there's an extra shadow on the wall that doesn't belong to anypony in the room.
  1709. > A dark blob, mostly formless.
  1710. > Your eyes go wide and you light up your horn, but the darkness doesn't disappear.
  1711. > To your horror, in the presence of your magical illumination, the flat black shape seems to take on volume, slowly emerging from the wall like a drop collecting at the tip of a stalactite.
  1712. > Sparkshower stands mute as, in seconds, the black wall-shadow pours itself out of the wall into the shape of a pony.
  1713. > Not just any pony -- the bucking thing looks like a unicorn!
  1714. > It twists its 'head' back and forth, and you see it's got *your* mane-cut!
  1715. "... What in-"
  1716. > *SSSSS*
  1717. > The shadow-creature opens its mouth, and with an incredible speed it rushes straight at you!
  1718. "-BUCK!"
  1719. > Acting on pure instinct, you instantly materialize a DPICM spear above your head and immediately send it flying at the creature, all while flinging yourself sideways to avoid the charge.
  1720. > "¡Ayaaaaa!"
  1721. > "¡Ohhhhhh!
  1722. > You pay no attention to the pained wailing batponies as you scramble back to your hooves, loading a fresh round and scanning the room for threats while Sparkshower's equipped her lance as well.
  1723. "Where is it? Where'd it go? Did I hit it?!"
  1725. > Artemis shakes her head.
  1726. > "It disappeared as soon as you shot at it, Lily."
  1727. > You hear an angry grumble from behind you.
  1728. > "¡Ay! That is because jour damnable spear has almost deafened me! Gran Madre, that was loud!"
  1729. > Turning, you see Ignacio panting forcefully, his forehooves clasped to his head in pain.
  1730. > Aldonza, meanwhile, is rolling back and forth on the ground, moaning in pain, holding her ears in her forehooves as well.
  1731. > Ignacio shakes his head.
  1732. > "... Why did I not think that it would be louder in this small and quiet place? What an idiot I am to have thought of such a plan estúpido..."
  1733. > Lowering one forehoof, he moves the other to rub his forehead.
  1734. > The other batpony struggles to sit up, her mask half fallen off of her face.
  1735. > "... Are jou alright, Aldonza?"
  1736. > She nods, raising a forehoof to adjust her blindfold, and similarly panting while rubbing her temples.
  1737. > "I think so, Ignacio, but Gran Madre, my third ear is deafened! Please, stop the noise this instant."
  1738. > Ignacio turns to you, waving a forehoof dismissively.
  1739. > "Turn off jour horn, unicornio, and put away that weapon, pegaso. There is no danger. Let us have the quiet for a moment."
  1740. > Nuh-huh, you don't think so.
  1741. "Not until you tell us what that was."
  1743. Suggested background music: (Christopher Young - 'Something to Think About', from 'Hellbound: Hellraiser 2' [1988])
  1745. > Sighing heavily, Ignacio tries to settle himself back onto the small rug.
  1746. > "That was one of the Ombras Malditas, the Accursed Shadows."
  1747. > Oh yeah, that's real reassuring.
  1748. > You exchange a glance with Sparkshower, who's furrowed her brow.
  1749. > She looks confused and upset, but determined.
  1750. > Right back at ya, mare.
  1751. > Your pegasus comrade clears her throat, still wielding her lance.
  1752. > "I thought the Shadows were just one of the batpony castes?"
  1754. > Ignacio grunts angrily.
  1755. > "Jes. They are the undertakers, the dust-sweepers and garbage-collectors, the diggers of latrines and the pits septic. But I did not say *Shadows*, I said *Accursed Shadows*. That is a difference important."
  1756. > You still haven't turned off your horn; there's still a spear loaded and ready to fire right above your head.
  1757. "Okay. And what the buck is an Accursed Shadow?"
  1758. > Curling his lip up into an annoyed sneer, the Balladeer of Ghosts struggles to his hooves.
  1759. > "Jou wanted to know how I make puppets of the sand? How I heal wounds? How Aldonza makes the chandeliers of light?"
  1760. > Weakly, he steps towards you.
  1761. > "... This is how, unicornio. This is the power of the Eclipse. We cannot draw on magic so easily as jou do, but we can sense it intuitively, and with that ability there is one thing which we can do very well..."
  1762. > Getting right up in your muzzle, he continues on.
  1763. > "... This existence -- this reality, that we live in -- she has a shadow dark and sinister. Another world; a location far away elsewhere, and jet also close by..."
  1764. > He sniffs deeply, face still pressed up against yours.
  1765. > "... And the creatures which dwell there are *powerful*, unicornio. Power the likes of which not even jou have at jour disposal. Nor even jour Princess Celestia, at least not directly..."
  1766. > Ignacio sits down on his haunches in front of you, turning his head as if looking around the room.
  1767. > "... Always, these shadows seek ways into our world. Always, they hunger to inhabit the bodies of the living, and sometimes even the dead. They are powerful, but evil, and irredeemably so..."
  1768. > Licking his lips, he takes a deep breath.
  1769. > "... We cannot make the magic as jou can, but we can draw back the veil, and allow those shadows to enter, while binding them to our will. For at the moment of entering, they are at their weakest, and easily overcome. It is by doing this that we can accomplish our feats."
  1770. > Summoners!
  1771. > They're *summoners*!
  1773. > The whole lot of them, every single Eclipse!
  1774. > All they know how to do is pluck bucking demons out of another bucking dimension!
  1775. > Ignacio wasn't puppeteering the sand, he'd somehow bound demon-shadows into it!
  1776. > Nor did he heal injuries -- he summoned up shadows to do that for him!
  1777. > No wonder the Grand Hall of Stars had gone so dark when he healed that injured batpony at a distance from his pulpit.
  1778. > And he did it all... with *music*?
  1779. > A glimmering spear still floating above your head, you recoil in horror.
  1780. "You brought that 'Accursed Shadow' here just by humming?"
  1781. > The Balladeer of Ghosts nods.
  1782. > "Jes, that is my technique, though there are others also. And I brought not just any Accursed Shadow, either..."
  1783. > He raises a forehoof and points it at you.
  1784. > "... That was *jour* Accursed Shadow, unicornio. Jour own dark reflection personal."
  1785. > What the buck?!
  1786. "Mine?! Whaddya mean, mine?"
  1787. > Before he can answer, another voice speaks out from behind him.
  1788. > "Your shadow follows you wherever you go, unicorn. Even here, on the Moon."
  1789. > Rocinante, the sick batpony Eclipse who had gotten so agitated when you first were introduced but has been sleeping all this time, is sitting up beside Aldonza.
  1790. > He's not wearing his mask, though, and all you can see when you look at his dark face are a pair of milky-white eyes and wrinkled lips concealing jagged teeth.
  1791. > Speaking with a hoarse and raspy voice, he continues in a surprisingly mild accent.
  1792. > "... Ignacio found her, and he pulled her through, but he held her true power at bay..."
  1793. > The unmasked Eclipse turns towards Ignacio.
  1794. > "... This is the initiation that all Eclipse receive. That is why he brought you here. Even the surface of the Moon is too noisy. Only here, deep underground, are things quiet enough to spy into the other realm, and hear the hissing of an individual particular. Only here, could he draw forth and show you your own Accursed Shadow."
  1796. > You glance over at Ignacio.
  1797. "Is that true?"
  1798. > He nods.
  1799. > "Jes..."
  1800. > Turning back towards his sick-family member, he watches as Aldonza helps Rocinante lie back down, then whispers under his breath.
  1801. > "... When he is lucid, Rocinante is still the greatest of us all. He was a Balladeer of Ghosts as well, a puppeteer of the sand for the Stars, and a better one than I will ever be..."
  1802. > Shaking his head regretfully as the sick batpony returns to sleep, he returns to face you.
  1803. > "... This is the initiation rite of the Eclipse, unicornio. The journey into the deepest part of the Halls of the Blind, the meal with the elders, and then the revelation. I have performed it many times already before..."
  1804. > The Balladeer of Ghosts extends a hoof towards you, and you consider drawing back away from him, but then decide to allow the contact.
  1805. > He presses his forehoof on your left shoulder, and then the right, then plants it against your pectoral armour, holding it there for a while, as if sensing something.
  1806. > After a few moments, he speaks.
  1807. > "... Jou have faced jour Accursed Shadow and survived intact. Jou have not succumbed to the possession and become an abominación..."
  1808. > POSSESSION was a bucking possibility here?!
  1809. > Why the buck didn't he say so in the first place!
  1810. > Lowering his forehoof, he inhales deeply, his nostrils flaring.
  1811. > "... This was the lesson for today. The next time, we will see if jou also can open the veil, and do so safely..."
  1812. > He grins that sly little grin of his.
  1813. > "... I think that you can, for we know that this power is not restricted to the Children, although safety is another matter..."
  1815. > With a hard chuckle, he begins to slowly shuffle up the bowl-shaped cave floor towards the dark entranceway, and his crutch leaning beside it.
  1816. > "... After all, it was the Princess Luna who first breached the other realm a thousand jears ago and drew out her own dark reflection, binding it within herself to become our Gran Madre, the Nightmare Moon."
  1817. > WHAT?!
  1822. > You are València Fierropezuña, Fourth rank of the Temple of the Righteous Hatchets, and this turns your stomach upside-down.
  1823. > As if everything else that has happened recently wasn't enough, now Marcos, a Sixth rank of the Temple of the Swarming Meteors, has been imprisoned for violating the Great Mother's Edict of Blood, a law which forbids Child-upon-Child bloodshed except in supervised training situations.
  1824. > In doing so he also disobeyed his own mother, Carmen, to whom until now he had appeared fervently loyal, but who recently ordered that the Royal Engineer and his group be allowed unmolested access to the Rookery.
  1825. > A group which included her own daughter Pureza, that treacherous cave-viper, apparently now restored to Her Reverence's good grace.
  1826. > Nothing makes sense.
  1827. > Well, maybe not nothing.
  1828. > Marcos' violation, at least, was a little understandable.
  1829. > After all, wasn't it the Reverend Mother Superior herself who ordered that the Rookery be kept absolutely closed to Equestrians?
  1830. > And who, after Pureza disobeyed orders to go in service for that surface-Lord, demanded also that her comings and goings be strictly controlled?
  1831. > *And* who was widely believed to have secretly instructed Marcos to slander her name and call for her ostracism, if not her blood?
  1832. > Well...
  1833. > Maybe rumours were just rumours.
  1834. > You hear a number of hoofsteps growing closer; and one of them has five 'hooves'.
  1835. > Hmm...
  1836. > Perhaps you'll learn the truth of it soon enough.
  1837. > From behind your desk, you witness the entrance.
  1838. > Carmen Ébanoscudo, Reverend Mother Superior of the Children of the League of Stars, enters the foyer of the Hatcheteers' Oubliette, flanked by half-a-dozen hooded Lunar acolytes.
  1839. > Immediately, you and your squad all stand up to bow in respect.
  1840. > It's a bit surprising to see her here already; you would have thought she'd let Marcos stew for a day or two before coming to call on him in prison.
  1842. > But maybe this little visit has to with the Meteors who came looking for their comrades, earlier.
  1843. > Clutching her tall crescent-topped staff, she stares at you from behind her white-powdered face.
  1844. > «I will see Marcos, Sixth of Meteors, immediately.»
  1845. > With all those Equestrians running around everywhere in the Rookery tonight, it was a relief to be in the exclusive presence of Children again, liberated from the Edict of Tongues, and able to converse in your native tongue.
  1846. > Exchanging glances with your two Thirds, you raise your head and then bow it again.
  1847. «Yes, Your Reverence. This way, please.»
  1848. > After you unlock the iron gate which bars access further in, one of your Thirds pulls it open, and you wait for Her Reverence to enter.
  1849. > Then you enter after her, turning to wait while the door is locked behind you.
  1850. > You wave a wing in the direction of Marcos' cell, and Carmen gives you the slightest of nods.
  1851. > «I will follow thee, Fourth of Hatcheteers. Lead the way.»
  1852. «Yes, Reverence.»
  1853. > Moving on, you can't read anything in her impassive face.
  1854. > Which means she must be absolutely furious.
  1855. > No doubt then that this visit was prompted by the Meteors, who must have interrupted Carmen's precious schedule.
  1856. > Once you lead her to her son, will she order you back to the foyer?
  1857. > If she doesn't you may have the chance to listen in on what could be some very juicy gossip.
  1858. > Travelling down the wide corridor, you pass cell after cell.
  1859. > Most of them were empty; there wasn't a lot of crime in the Rookery worth imprisoning ponies over.
  1860. > Far easier to hold them just long enough to have them shipped back to the Moon, where they could be dealt with properly.
  1861. > There was much less stringent enforcement of the Great Mother's edicts up there.
  1862. > As a result of that, the Hatcheteers' Oubliette here on the home-world, under the mountain of Canterlot, hardly saw much use at all.
  1864. > Which was why your Sixth had to pull you and your squad off of its regular market duty rotation to take up station here.
  1865. > Nonetheless, for as fearsome a Star as the Sixth of Meteors, procedures still had to be followed.
  1866. > Not for him the plain benches in the open holding area, as used for drunkards spending the day sleeping off their liquor, or quarrelsome Rocks who took to their hooves over some petty incident.
  1867. > Nor a simple bed in an ordinary cell, as for thieves who would serve out their weeks or months.
  1868. > The Righteous Hatcheeters had something special for dangerous offenders who committed equally dangerous crimes.
  1869. > At the end of the corridor, a hinged, heavy steel grate in the floor is held in place by a thick metal rod.
  1870. > A chain, wound on a windlass, hangs through a gap in the grate and down into the pit beneath, while an ordinary rope on another winch loops up through a pulley in the ceiling before tying up between the bars of the grate.
  1871. «He is in there, Reverence. Shall I open up the cell?»
  1872. > Carmen looks down her muzzle at the hole in the ground.
  1873. > «Yes. And bar the door behind me.»
  1874. > That was standard procedure, but the Reverend Mother could have asked for something different, if she wanted to.
  1875. > And you would have granted it; after all, Marcos was in no condition to cause any trouble, let alone escape.
  1876. > It takes you a moment to push the heavy iron rod out of its receivers, unlocking the door.
  1877. > Then you begin to work away at the rope-windlass, raising the floor-hatch up slowly.
  1878. > Once it's open wide enough to enter, Carmen approaches the edge, then opens her wings and steps right off into the darkness.
  1879. > With an enviable grace, she floats almost straight down to the bottom of the pit, still clutching her ceremonial staff.
  1880. > You peer over into the black hole, and watch her step up to her son, who is suspended upside-down, wrapped in and strung up by the chain supplied by the second winch.
  1882. > After confirming her arrival, you pull a lever to switch the ratchet mechanism the other way, then work the windlass with your hooves in reverse.
  1883. > The metal grate settles back into place with a deep *clung*.
  1884. > Still not having heard a word from the pit, you push the iron locking bar back into place.
  1885. > Well?
  1886. > Are they going to speak at all?
  1887. > You take up a position beside the door, facing sideways and away.
  1888. > Maybe Carmen is going to order you back to the foyer before she scolds her son.
  1889. > «Wake up, Marcos.»
  1890. > Or maybe not...
  1892. Suggested background music: (Hans Zimmer - 'Progeny', from 'Gladiator' [2000])
  1894. > You hear a groan, and the chains rattle as Marcos struggles awake.
  1895. > «Mother. You have come for me.»
  1896. > You hear the Reverend Mother sniff.
  1897. > «I have not come here as thy mother, Sixth of Meteors. Thou shalt address me properly.»
  1898. > There's a delay while Marcos considers what that means.
  1899. > He replies calmly, with an understandable weariness to his voice.
  1900. > «Reverend Mother Superior, to what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?»
  1901. > You sneak a glance sideways back down, and see Carmen circling her suspended progeny, slowly pacing with her staff in hoof.
  1902. > «Stars are supposed to bow to Lunars, Sixth of Meteors, but I suppose an exception can be made, given the circumstances.»
  1903. > Marcos closes his eyes.
  1904. > «If Your Reverence wishes for me to bow, then she needs only command the Hatcheeters, and I can be made free to do so.»
  1905. > Carmen returns to meet Marcos face-to-face.
  1906. > «No, I do not think I will be doing that...»
  1907. > She inhales through her nose, her nostrils flaring.
  1908. > «... Thou hast not yet learned thy lesson, Marcos.»
  1909. > That riles up her son's notorious temper.
  1910. > «I was carrying out YOUR orders!»
  1911. > But his outburst doesn't faze her at all, and she gets right up in his upside-down muzzle.
  1912. > «Old orders, Marcos. Old orders when thou hadst new ones to follow instead.»
  1914. > Ah, so the rumours were true.
  1915. > It wasn't just hatred which fuelled the calumnies he had been spouting.
  1916. > Or maybe it was, and he just needed her permission.
  1917. > She steps away, and the Sixth calls out after her.
  1918. > «Am I a spinning top, to turn immediately in whichever direction your Reverence orders?»
  1919. > Carmen noisily taps the base of her staff against the floor, silencing him.
  1920. > «Thou art a Star, Marcos. Thy purpose is to obey and to enforce the laws; the laws set by the Lunars.»
  1921. > That is true.
  1922. > It was something drilled into every Star from the moment they were chosen to enter that Phase.
  1923. > But he's not done arguing with her.
  1924. > «Even when the laws make no sense?! First you order me to hate my sister, then you order me to embrace her?»
  1925. > The Reverend Mother Superior looks coolly over her shoulder at the ranting, dangling Star.
  1926. > «... And *LOOK* at what she has done to me!»
  1927. > You'd witnessed that for yourself already.
  1928. > As nasty a piece of amputation as you'd ever heard of, ripping his eye out like that.
  1929. > Not that you hadn't seen worse in the Grand Hall, but injuries from training didn't last long.
  1930. > Marcos had still been moaning in pain when they dragged him in, and those initial jail-keepers had taken unusual care to lower him slowly down into the pit, instead of just punting him off the edge on a slack chain, as was tradition.
  1931. > Nopony wanted to be the one responsible for telling Carmen that the Great Mother must have willed his death, if his neck had somehow snapped -- as often happened -- or if his head had cracked open from swinging against the walls -- as also often happened.
  1932. > Nor did anypony have any illusions about how long Marcos would stay down there, given his lineage.
  1933. > But from where you sat right now, that lineage was not looking like much of an asset.
  1934. > Carmen steps forward to examine her daughter's blade-work, leaning her staff against her shoulder and grabbing Marcos' head in her forehooves, turning him left and right.
  1936. > Then she lets him go, the chain swinging slightly now thanks to the force she imparted.
  1937. > «Thou shouldst be grateful, Marcos. Given her profession, it is a wonder that she left thee alive.»
  1938. > You remember your own brush with the Stellar Seventh.
  1939. > She hadn't backed down when you confronted her at Carmen's orders.
  1940. > Instead, she'd shoved back, and called your bluff.
  1941. > Having now seen the results of what should have been an even more lopsided fight in favour of the Meteors, you're secretly glad to have lost your nerve that day.
  1942. > Pureza with her three Equestrians and an alien monkey-biped, plus two Stellar initiates, utterly destroying fourteen Meteors?
  1943. > For you to have challenged them with your smaller squad of hatcheteers would have indeed been a complete massacre, as Pureza had claimed.
  1944. > However, Carmen's pithy statement doesn't put a stop to Marcos' complaints.
  1945. > «Grateful!? For this? And that renegade Eclipse, Ignacio, refused to heal me! I tell you, he is in *league* with her, mother.»
  1946. > *WHAP*
  1947. > With a blinding speed, Carmen slaps his head using one of her wings-arms, her cloak billowing outwards on one side from the sudden rush of air.
  1948. > You can't resist turning even further back to get a good look at the expression on his face.
  1949. > It's shock, with more than a hint of indignant rage.
  1950. > And there's a white line where the powder from her wing-tip was deposited on his cheek.
  1951. > She even slapped him on his injured side.
  1952. > That has to sting.
  1953. > If he wasn't covered in chains right now, who knows what he'd try to do.
  1954. > The Reverend Mother Superior keeps her own expression calm.
  1955. > «Do not address me casually again. Thou hast greatly inconvenienced me this evening, and I may humour thy questions, but I will not tolerate thy disrespect.»
  1956. > Seething, Marcos struggles to keep his emotions under control.
  1958. > Even in the shadows cast by the bars of the grate, you can see his nostrils flare repeatedly, and he speaks through clenched teeth.
  1959. > «Your Reverence has come here only to scold and taunt me, then?»
  1960. > She looks idly up at the crescent moon topping her staff.
  1961. > «No, as a matter of fact that is not my purpose here...»
  1962. > Then she fixes her son in her gaze once more.
  1963. > «... Thy Eighth seeks an audience with thee. He has invoked the privilege of Consultation. Doubtless he will wish to invoke the privilege of Judgement as well.»
  1964. > Not much of a surprise there.
  1965. > Criminal Stars who were still in good standing with their Schools would often be removed from the Hacheteer's Oubliette, to be punished by their own masters, usually more gently.
  1966. > But likewise would those embarrassments to the Stars also be removed, only to be treated more harshly by their peers than they would have been under Lunar judgement.
  1967. > It was a system that generally kept the Stars in line, ensuring that the Hatcheteers' Oubliette was host only to Rocks, Dust, and Shadows instead.
  1968. > Yet if he wasn't chained up, you're sure Marcos would have shrugged at Carmen's suggestion.
  1969. > «So? Let him come. I have no secrets from my Eighth. And I trust he will judge me fairly.»
  1970. > At that, his mother laughs.
  1971. > «And let my word be made a mockery of in the Rookery here? Thou assaultest one of my honoured guests, only to be released into the custody of thy Temple a day later? No, I will not be embarrassed thusly.»
  1972. > The Meteor grins weakly.
  1973. > «Your Reverence does not appear to have much choice in the matter.»
  1974. > Surprisingly, the Reverend Mother Superior smiles back at him.
  1975. > Sitting down on her haunches, she leans forward and strokes his cheek with a forehoof.
  1976. > «Indeed I do not, my dear son...»
  1977. > The smile turns sinister.
  1978. > «... But thou dost...»
  1980. > A firm pat turns into a forceful push, and now the Sixth of Meteors is swinging back and forth in front of her, a pendulum between the walls of the pit.
  1981. > «... Thou hast a very important choice to make, Marcos. An easygoing trial by thy own peers is a right that thy Eighth may grant thee...»
  1982. > With a pained grunt, he goes whooshing past in front of her again.
  1983. > «... But regaining thy second eye -- now, that is a privilege which only *I* may grant.»
  1984. > She extends a forehoof in front of her, and he swings right into it, slamming into her hoof with his injured cheek, and causing the chains to jingle angrily at this abrupt halt.
  1985. > «Agh!»
  1986. > Yeah, she's pissed, all right.
  1987. > But Marcos should have known better than to go against her standing orders, whatever she may have told him before.
  1988. > While her immobilized son groans in agony, Carmen runs her forehoof all over his face.
  1989. > «Where did we go wrong, Marcos? Thou wert always such an obedient young colt, even though thou belongest to another House. Was it my mistake to unleash thee against thy sister, not knowing that thou wouldst refuse the collar anew?»
  1990. > Oh, now it's getting spicy!
  1991. > Thrashing furiously against his restraints, Marcos almost snarls out at her.
  1992. > «She is a black stain upon our family! And upon all our kind!»
  1993. > Casually, Carmen places a hoof up on his chest and pushes him away, starting another swinging motion, fore-and-aft this time.
  1994. > «Truly thou hatest her, Marcos? I cannot fathom the honour-bound minds of the Stars, but the reason for thy contempt escapes me...»
  1995. > As he passes her by, she calls inquisitively after him.
  1996. > «... Surely it cannot merely because of her singular betrayal of my orders last month, though I certainly would appreciate such sympathetic disappointment...»
  1998. > Marcos swings by again, and she folds one foreleg over the other, tapping her chin in reflection.
  1999. > «... Is it because she chose the School of the Shining Stellar Dance? A Star-school which is unlike any of the others, and which follows its own code, different from thy own?»
  2000. > That right there accounted for a lot of your own disgust for Pureza and her ilk.
  2001. > A bunch of scheming, mercenary assassins had no place among the honourable Stars who fought for House, School, and the Children as a whole.
  2002. > Not to mention their near-heretical, but tolerated, view on what it meant to serve the Great Mother.
  2003. > Carmen lowers her hooves, continuing.
  2004. > «... But that hardly seems enough to provoke such murderous impulses as thou hast displayed. Could it be instead because of her proclivities, having been liberated by virtue of age from the demands of her House? The self-consciousness of a concerned brother?»
  2005. > Carmen shakes her head to nopony in particular.
  2006. > «... Yet this seems absurd as well, though perhaps understandable if thou wert a follower of a puritanical creed...»
  2007. > She turns away from her swinging son, nodding her head.
  2008. > «... Ahh... And Reverend Mother Teresa espoused puritanism, did she not?»
  2009. > That was an understatement.
  2010. > Reverend Mother Teresa was not of your House, but everypony knew of her legendary conservatism.
  2011. > In her mind the Reconquista was to be a war of extermination, with the Equestrians not merely crushed underhoof, but wiped out or reduced to chattel.
  2012. > If she was the one in charge down here, Pureza would have already been burned at the stake for miscegenation.
  2013. > Which was why it was hard to imagine the Canterlot Rookery existing at all, under the rule of Teresa.
  2014. > Carmen, on the other hoof, was that rare breed of Lunar with militant determination, but an adaptive agenda.
  2016. > Once more, the Reverend Mother Superior extends a hoof to stop Marcos' motion, but this time she does so gently, bringing him to a halt just in front of her, muzzle to muzzle.
  2017. > The singular eye of the Sixth of Meteors is open wide, filled to the brim with contempt.
  2018. > «... Is this why thou detestest thy sister, son of my womb? Not because of what Pureza has done to you, but because of what she did for me? And because of what that meant for thy own beloved Reverend Mother Teresa, and the Great House of thy father?»
  2019. > He remains completely silent, and she leans in even closer, lowering her head to see him eyes-to-eye, and forehead-to-muzzle.
  2020. > «... Thy hatred for her is merely thy hatred for me, Marcos, projected and transferred by the fact that thou art sworn to serve me by virtue of my rank...»
  2021. > Hunching down further, she pushes forward, speaking into his left ear, cheek-to-cheek.
  2022. > «... But know this, Marcos. When the Great Mother returned to us two years ago, there could be only one House of Houses, one Reverence of Reverences. And the others would never bow down to that majordomo willingly...»
  2023. > She turns and kisses him gently on the cheek, just below (well, above, given that he was upside-down) his ruined eye.
  2024. > «... For the suffering it has caused thee, I regret that my deal with thy father sent thee to his House instead of mine. But if it had not been House Cadena de Vapores which triumphed over the others and elevated me to Reverend Mother Superior, it would have been another. The blood spilled on the Day of the Dancing Blades was always fated to be sacrificed in the name of the Great Mother, regardless of the precise victims or victors. In thy heart of hearts, Marcos, thou knowest that this was our destiny.»
  2025. > That much was probably true.
  2026. > Under her leadership, House Cadena de Vapores had become the wealthiest of all the Great Houses.
  2028. > She was cunning in her deal-making, unusually gentle in her treatment of the Rocks and lower Phases, and ruthless when it came time to rely upon the Stars.
  2029. > It was said that she was also liberal in the personal application of Lunar delights when it came to diplomatic problems.
  2030. > Everypony knew that it was by her will that a considerable portion of her House's great wealth had been transferred to the School of the Shining Stellar Dance, as payment to have them write the name of every other Great House's Reverend Mother in their bloody little 'guest-book'.
  2031. > And she had also correctly calculated the date of the Great Mother's awakening, striking just when the iron was hot.
  2032. > The night after the bloodbath, your Goddess found only a single House not headless and in disarray.
  2033. > A single house, and a single Reverend Mother, worthy of carrying the Moon-and-Star banner to Equestria.
  2034. > You can only imagine how that epic meeting must have played out...
  2035. > Did Carmen Ébanoscudo show contrition for once in her life, bowing before the Goddess of the Children, or did she revel proudly in her victory, even under the blinding gaze of the Great Mother Herself?
  2036. > Regardless, it had been a stunning coup, and whatever hatred you had for Pureza Ébanoscudo and her band of treacherous assassins, there was no denying their efficacy.
  2037. > At last, Marcos finds the words to answer his mother.
  2038. > «Yes, Reverence. That was our destiny. And our destiny it was also to rule over the home-world, above all the Equestrians...»
  2039. > He sneers.
  2040. > «... Yet now Your Reverence would have us grovel before them, and worship their Gods and Lords as our own.»
  2041. > Carmen sighs.
  2042. > «Marcos, Marcos. How little thou understandest. Dost thy Eight inform thee whenever he eats or drinks? Dost thou have his full schedule of comings and goings? Dost he apprise thee even of his urinations and defecations?»
  2044. > The Meteor only furrows his brow in response, so she continues.
  2045. > «... No? Then do not presume to be privy to my plans, Sixth of Meteors. I am not compelled to speak them to thy ears.»
  2046. > Marcos scoffs.
  2047. > «Plans? What plans? I see only idle Stars who grow feeble and weary, longing to attack the surface-born but denied every opportunity.»
  2048. > Now it's Carmen's turn to scoff -- to laugh, even, throwing her head back in riotous amusement.
  2049. > «To attack? Hahaha! Oh really, Marcos, art thou so dense?»
  2050. > Still chuckling, she raises a modest forehoof to conceal her titters.
  2051. > «... Attack Equestrians, with not one, but two immortal Princesses to guard them? Attack them now, when even without their Princess Celestia, and with our Great Mother at our side, you Stars could not take just one fortified tower?»
  2052. > The laughter turns to rage.
  2053. > «... That was all the Great Mother asked, and yet the Stars nonetheless disappointed her! One tiny tower that would have become a dagger in the heart of our enemies! What might have been if thy ilk had not so bungled this task? Perhaps we might even still have our Great Mother to lead us...»
  2054. > Loudly, she taps the butt of her staff on the ground.
  2055. > «... Go and take a horchata in the marketplace if thou truly believest in such fantasies as this. Ask Alcazar how the assault ground to a stalemate, and then again how that stalemate became a rout, once our Great Mother was defeated and the Equestrians had the backing of their Princess once more.»
  2056. > She turns away in disgust, and Marcos reflects on her words a moment before answering.
  2057. > «Better to fight and die a glorious death, than to live on in ignominy.»
  2059. > Carmen turns and snaps back at him, nodding sarcastically.
  2060. > «Thou canst ask this of Alcazar as well, Marcos, and learn of his opinion in the matter. I have kept him around as a reminder to troublemakers such as thee; clearly, I must order him to be more proactive in his efforts. Perhaps I should have him un-muzzled so that the lessons will be received loudly and clearly, even at the cost of morale...»
  2061. > Exhaling loudly through her nostrils, she transfers her staff from one shoulder to the other and steps over to him once more.
  2062. > «... The position we find ourselves in is not conducive to a military victory, Marcos. A Star should understand this. A Star should know when it is wise to retreat, to submit, or to disperse. A Star should know to wait for the correct opportunity to strike.»
  2063. > Marcos thrashes his head back and forth with a surprising violence, struggling against the chains.
  2064. > «Wait and grow weaker? And what opportunity will we ever get again?»
  2065. > Carmen raises one of her wing arms as if to strike him again, but only shakes her head angrily.
  2066. > «None, if thou continuest to thwart my plans.»
  2067. > With a healthy disdain for the threatened swipe, Marcos looks away.
  2068. > «Again, the talk of plans. What plans? Your Reverence has no plans.»
  2069. > The Reverend Mother Superior sighs.
  2070. > «Thou hast been Sixth for five years now, Marcos, and yet still thou hast not risen to Seventh. I used to be disappointed in Pureza for having foolishly allowed her own Master to survive when she was already his better, and then again when he died yet she did not claim the position of Eighth, but at least she rules her Temple with none above her! While thou festerest in in thy own 'ignominy'...»
  2071. > That painful verbal sting gets Marcos to pay attention again, and Carmen lowers her staff, levelling the pointed tips of the crescent moon with his face, supporting it with one extended forehoof, and slowly extending it forward towards his one remaining eye.
  2073. > «... Listen well, flesh of my womb, and repeat not a word unless thou wishest to join the ranks of the Shadows. The solution to our predicament is not to be found here, in our Rookery under the mountain, nor is it to be found on the Moon. If there is a means to rid ourselves of the Princess of the Sun, and another to restore our Great Mother, and another to waylay the Elements of Harmony, then those means are to be found on the *surface world*, in Equestria, the land of magic itself...»
  2074. > Gritting her teeth, she continues, the crescent only a hair's width away from poking one of its sharp tips into his good eye.
  2075. > «... We have precious little access to the surface, and yet there much to be done without exposing ourselves. This is why I barred the Rookery to outsiders, to keep our secrets our own. But the Royal Engineer, previously a unwelcome pest, now presents an opportunity that we cannot ignore...»
  2076. > She smiles.
  2077. > «... He confers with our Rocks, and asks them for help in building an iron-foundry on the surface world. He needs their help up there; their advice and assistance. Think of it, Marcos -- Children coming and going from the Rookery at all hours of the day and night. A doubling, tripling, or more, of opportunities to escape the prying eyes of our watchers and handlers in the Royal Undermountain Constabulary. A wealth of time to seek out the tools and information we require.»
  2078. > Marcos doesn't look convinced.
  2079. > «Your Reverence truly believes this scheme will work?»
  2080. > Her smile goes wider, and she raises up her staff up and away.
  2081. > «I know that it will. Even with our limited access, we have already made contact with one group that shows great promise.»
  2082. > Really?
  2083. > Who?
  2084. > Marcos echoes your questions.
  2085. > «Who are these would-be allies?»
  2087. > Carmen shrugs.
  2088. > «Equestrians of limited morals, who chafe under the benign and benevolent dictatorship of the Sun. They will be easily swayed to our side with a few baubles now and the promise of greater rewards and freedoms later. And they have great magical powers that will prove most useful to us.»
  2089. > Typical plan coming from Carmen.
  2090. > Buy yourself some powerful allies, then strike from the shadows when nopony expects it.
  2091. > Not very honourable, but why screw with a winning formula?
  2092. > It's why she's in the position she's in, after all.
  2093. > The Reverend Mother Superior lowers her forehooves back down to the ground, idly brushing some unseen spec of dust off of her white cloak.
  2094. > «... I am not asking thee to embrace thy sister, Marcos. Only to leave her and her entourage alone, for now.»
  2095. > He narrows his eyes.
  2096. > «And Your Reverence also wishes me to refuse my Eighth?»
  2097. > She purses her lips and furrows her brow.
  2098. > «Refuse? No, no, Marcos. Thou shalt express to him thy contrition for thy deeds, and beg to be subjected to the justice of the Lunars. Thou shalt be remorseful and apologetic. And then, at my bidding, thou shalt spend a few days here in the oubliette, before being released on thy own recognisance.»
  2099. > «What of my eye? When will Your Reverence order it restored?»
  2100. > She shrugs.
  2101. > «Perhaps a week or two after thy parole. Enough time to prove thy humility and thy obedience in the opinion of the Rookery...»
  2102. > She inhales deeply, looking around the black cell.
  2103. > «... Oh, and I suppose I may also involve thee in some aspect of the plan, now that thou knowest of it. I do dislike to leave a thread loose and hanging...»
  2105. > Stepping forward, she meets the Sixth of Meteors muzzle-to-muzzle again.
  2106. > «... Thou needst not make thy choice this instant, Marcos. Think on my offer, and make thy choice when thy Eighth comes to see thee. Speakest thou to him as I have instructed, and thy future is assured. Or goest thou with him, and take thy chances remaining a cyclops...»
  2107. > Chuckling, she grins.
  2108. > «... Or tellest thou him my plan, if it pleases thee, and make thyself mine enemy, instead of merely mine disappointment...»
  2109. > Carmen leans in further, placing her lips against his left ear.
  2110. > «... But knowest thou this, Marcos, my son. Thy Eighth may trust thee and honour thee, and thou likewise him, but he does not *love* thee as I do. He can never love thee, not truly, in the manner that only a mother can love her child...»
  2111. > Pulling away from his ear, she rises up and slowly, gently kisses him on his closed lips.
  2112. > Once, twice...
  2113. > He stares back at her, wide-eyed and tight-lipped.
  2114. > You're terrified of being caught spying on Her Reverence, but you can't look away.
  2115. > The third time she presses forwards, Marcos closes his eyes, opening his mouth to receive hers, and that kiss lasts longest of all, with several after-thoughts.
  2116. > Finally, she pulls back her muzzle, and you can see white powder-marks on Marcos' face from where their muzzles met; the dim overhead lighting catches the glint of moisture nearby as well.
  2117. > «... Thou wilt make the correct choice, my son. Suffer a little now, for greatness awaits thee in the future...»
  2118. > Stepping back, she inhales deeply before calling up to you.
  2119. > «... Open the cell, Hatcheteer. I am finished here.»
  2120. > You diligently step over to the windlass and begin cranking it with your forehooves, raising the grate.
  2121. > As soon as it's wide enough, the Reverend Mother Superior comes fluttering up out of Marcos' cell like a delicate white-robed moth.
  2122. > You flip the ratchet-lever and work to lower the grate once more.
  2124. > Finally, with Marcos sealed in his cell and Carmen out of it, you begin to escort Her Reverence back to the foyer.
  2125. > The unquestioned ruler of your people speaks as you walk together.
  2126. > «The Hatcheteers are said to see all and hear all, but to never repeat what they observe except by lawful command.»
  2127. > You nod your head.
  2128. > Of course she's going to give you this talk.
  2129. > Despite your attempt to appear ignorant, they hadn't exactly been quiet.
  2130. > She knew full well you witnessed everything that happened in the cell.
  2131. «Yes, Your Reverence.»
  2132. > Carmen turns her head up slightly.
  2133. > «It would be a terrible shame if this most vaunted and honourable reputation was lost.»
  2134. > You're only a few hoofsteps away from the entrance to the Oubliette.
  2135. > Pausing before the iron gate which is still locked from your earlier entrance, you bow to the Reverend Mother.
  2136. «I understand completely, Your Reverence.»
  2137. > She smiles.
  2138. > «Good. When the day comes that the Moon triumphs over the Sun, I will have need of such loyal and diligent Stars to ensure the continued submission of our surface-born cousins. And at that moment I will think back to thy service, València Fierropezuña.»
  2139. > Well, at least she's not just threatening you, but also promising you rewards for keeping your muzzle shut.
  2140. > You give a quick nod to one of your Thirds, who begins to unlock the door.
  2141. > Then you bow again in acknowledgement to Carmen.
  2142. «Yes, Your Reverence.»
  2143. > As the metal portcullis creaks open on its heavy hinges, the Reverend Mother Superior rejoins her entourage of white-robed Lunar acolytes, speaking over her shoulder as she departs.
  2144. > «The Eighth of Meteors will arrive here soon. You will allow him to speak with his Sixth, but he is not to enter the cell.»
  2145. > Interesting tactic.
  2146. > What, is she afraid the Eighth will passionately kiss her son as she herself just did?
  2147. > Or maybe she just doesn't want him to notice her makeup on Marcos' lips.
  2148. «Yes, Your Reverence.»
  2150. > With a tiny nod of acknowledgement, the Lunars depart.
  2151. > Moments later, your Thirds, Seconds, and junior Firsts crowd around you.
  2152. > «What happened, Val?»
  2153. > «Yeah, what did they talk about?»
  2154. > «Did she give him a real tongue-lashing?»
  2155. > «Or did she rip out his other eye?»
  2156. > You shake your head.
  2157. «I cannot speak of it, at least not yet...»
  2158. > Sighing, you return to your seat in front of the watch-officer's desk.
  2159. «... All I know is that nothing makes sense anymore.»
  2164. > You are Specialist Artemis Sparkshower, and you are tired.
  2165. > Not quite 'flying all night to scout possible Changeling hive locations' tired, as you were around this time last year, but this day and evening have worn you out.
  2166. > And even during that challenging mission during the Invasion, the one which garnered you an early promotion to Specialist, you hadn't been subjected to quite such an exhausting variety of experiences.
  2167. > Penetrating into territory conclusively known to be inhabited by hostile aliens!
  2168. > Defending yourself and your VIP against an underground ambush!
  2169. > Confronting shadow-demons from another dimension!
  2170. > Going to the *Moon*!
  2171. > Trying a delicious new kind of bean stew!
  2172. > It was a lot to deal with.
  2173. > To say nothing of the work you'd done earlier in the day, more practice-firing sessions of the Royal Engineer's Self Propelled Air Defence carriage.
  2174. > But in spite of how worn out you felt, you get the feeling that the rest of your four-pony-and-one-very-important-pony-who-isn't-actually-a-pony group is feeling it even more.
  2175. > Which was saying something, considering that Sergeant Ebonshield was operating in native terrain among her own kind, and Corporal Bound was an Earth Pony with magical stamina, while the Royal Engineer had so far been indefatigable.
  2176. > Glamerspear's complete exhaustion, at least, you understood.
  2177. > In addition to performing earlier in the day, your unicorn comrade had energetically contributed the most to the fight against Eb's brother Marcos, and without the aid of a powerful and ancient magical artifact as you possessed.
  2178. > Then after that harrowing encounter, she'd been dealt repeated shocks by the batpony sorcerer Ignacio's revelations.
  2179. > Though to be fair, what he'd said had been shocking to you, too.
  2180. > To think that just a few steps down in the Rookery could take you to another planet!
  2182. > Not to mention his throwaway comment about what happened a thousand years ago -- which he'd flatly refused to elaborate on further today, much to your comrade's frustration.
  2183. > But when Lily's expression turned to abject horror as the Balladeer of Ghosts explained the inner workings of the 'Eclipse Phase' magic powers, you knew that that particular piece of information hit her a lot harder than it did you.
  2184. > With her understanding of magic, his talk of 'accursed shadows' from another realm must've meant something more.
  2185. > As terrifying as the encounter with one of those shadows had been -- especially after learning it was your comrade's own extradimensional dark cousin -- you weren't quite sure you saw the difference between summoning shadows and whatever it was unicorns did with their magic.
  2186. > But Lily did.
  2187. > And she wasn't happy.
  2188. > You could see her trying to come to grips with the problem, plodding along with her head hung low, her ears folded back, her hooves heavy and slow.
  2189. > She hadn't even had the energy to put on those magical grip-slippers while traversing the mist-slick tiles of the Rookery's 'Cave of Pillars'.
  2190. > Leaving Lily to her thoughts, you look ahead at Sergeant Ebonshield, still leading the group.
  2191. > Unlike the unicorn, the batpony was holding her head up high, striding confidently, and on your way out of the Rookery chatted amiably with the Royal Undermountain Constabulary's duty officer at the orchard checkpoint.
  2192. > But you could spot a lethargy in her eyes, a slowness to react to new visual sensations that pointed to her wrestling with her own frustrations.
  2193. > As friendly as the Sergeant could be, she didn't often volunteer information about herself, so you weren't sure what exactly was weighing on her mind, but you thought you had a pretty good guess.
  2194. > The fight with her brother, Marcos.
  2195. > It was clear that Purity had wanted to avoid the confrontation by any means possible.
  2197. > When Marcos made it clear there were no such means, other than what was effectively suicide, she refused to knuckle under, threatening him back instead.
  2198. > His subsequent declaration that he'd had her two adolescent students killed in their sleep had shaken her up even more.
  2199. > You'd never seen her truly furious before then -- not even when accosted by the seething València Fierropezuña, the Hatcheteer border-guard who hassled your group the first time you'd tried to enter the Rookery.
  2200. > That anger at Marcos continued to boil even when it was revealed that her students had survived their ambush to come and help you defeat yours.
  2201. > She took no pleasure in overcoming her brother's trap.
  2202. > And as for what she did to him...
  2203. > The way Marcos goaded her beforehoof and Ignacio chided her afterwards, it was either mutilate or kill him, and it had been clear that she relished neither option.
  2204. > Strange.
  2205. > Despite what she'd said about family structure among the batponies -- that they were so disconnected to the point that what an Equestrian would think of as a 'family' didn't seem to exist in their culture at all -- her brother must really mean something to her.
  2206. > Thats was the best explanation you could come up with for her behaviour, outside of the even stranger suggestion that somepony from a school of mercenary assassins didn't like killing.
  2207. > Which you imagine would certainly be inconvenient, given her profession!
  2208. > Though maybe that was true, too.
  2209. > Your eyes turn towards the brown pony walking alongside your VIP.
  2210. > If Glamerspear's exhaustion was clear to you, and you felt you had a good hypothesis about what was going through Ebonshield's mind, the way Honour slowly but resolutely slogged her way up the shadowy, winding passageway from the Cave of Pillars left you completely in the dark.
  2211. > It was hard to distinguish her current behaviour from her usual laconic attitude.
  2212. > But there was a difference.
  2214. > Like Ebonshield, Honour also kept her chin up, though unlike Ebonshield she seemed to still be fully alert and awake.
  2215. > Yet you constantly caught her glancing down, or up at the Royal Engineer, or back at you and Lily, like she had something on her mind beyond just vacating the Rookery with all due haste.
  2216. > That was what Anonymous had asked for, anyways, when you'd all been joined back together again.
  2217. > No more training, no visit with the iron-workers tonight.
  2218. > Just back to the palace, and sleep.
  2219. > Everypony had agreed.
  2220. > So what was on Honour's mind so much, then?
  2221. > It felt like it had to be something more specific than just a general unease about being in the Rookery.
  2222. > Especially when she didn't seem to relax at all after passing through the R.U.C. checkpoint.
  2223. > Something to do with what happened to her and the Royal Engineer in the 'Lunar Sanctuary', maybe?
  2224. > Nopony had yet spoken up about their experiences while your group of five was split in three, but now that you're out of danger and back on the surface, amongst the blooming trees of Her Majesty's Royal Apple Orchard with their flowers' sweet fragrance still in the air in spite being closed up for the night, maybe that could change.
  2225. > You clear your throat.
  2226. "Corporal, what was it like in the Lunar Sanctuary? How did it compare to the Grand Hall of Stars?"
  2227. > Honour breathes in and out before answering, but before she opens her mouth, the Sergeant speaks up.
  2228. > "We should not discuss such things outside at present. He is not yet three hours of the morning, and the Night Guard still patrols outdoors. Until we enter the palace proper, we may be overheard."
  2229. > Oh...
  2230. > You hadn't even thought about that.
  2231. > Despite having twice entered into the home of the batponies who formed Canterlot's Night Guard, you hadn't really drawn a mental association between the Rookery's black-cloaked Star-Phase warriors and the Palace's dusky and dark-armoured nocturnal guardians.
  2233. > Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell had had a hoof in that mental disjunction, for sure.
  2234. > You wonder if there was a particular 'School' of Star-Phase batponies that provided most of the members for the overnight shift on the castle's defensive walls and gates, as well as night-fighting barrier combat air patrol above...
  2235. > From Ebonshield's accusation towards her brother, it seemed that a few of your attackers might have been drawn from the ranks of soldiers who were supposed to be on duty this very night.
  2236. > Either they'd abandoned their posts halfway through the shift, or else they'd failed to report in at the start of it, so as to participate in his murderous ambush.
  2237. > The thought of members of the Night Guard committing either of those treasonous derelictions of duty really eroded your trust in what was supposed to just be the Royal Guard's nocturnal equivalent.
  2238. > Which was not to say that Royal Guardsponies didn't *also* commit their own sins, but the ponies of the Household Division were held to the highest standards!
  2239. > A couple of crimes like that would get anypony bumped out or hauled before a military tribunal, for sure.
  2240. > Then again, that Lunar-Phase priestess had ordered every one of Marcos' fallen 'Swarming Meteors' hauled off to prisons, as well as the ringleader himself.
  2241. > Maybe they'll be kicked off the rotation for the Night Guard as well.
  2242. > They ought to be.
  2243. > Or maybe she'll even send them back to the Moon!
  2244. > That might be for the best.
  2245. > With a heavy sigh, more from the suppressed conversation than from these newfound concerns about Canterlot Palace's night-time defenders, you look up towards your VIP.
  2246. > In appearance, he much more matched Glamerspear, wearing his exhaustion on his sleeve, with slouched shoulders and a ponderous gait.
  2247. > But he took it a step further.
  2248. > He wore his helmet up off his head, as he usually did outside of battle, but his armour plate was loosened, straps dangling and metal clattering with nearly every step.
  2250. > With his shield slung on his back, he lazily balanced his mace across one of his shoulders, trying to hold it level with a minimum of effort, but even so finding a constant need to shift it from one side to the other as the weight became too much to bear.
  2251. > You ought to offer to carry it for him, if he was that tired.
  2252. > It was your duty, after all.
  2253. > But the Corporal hadn't said anything, and it really was her role to take the lead in this sort of matter.
  2254. > The real question was, what had drained him so much?
  2255. > Was it just because it was his first combat experience?
  2256. > You remember how you felt after your first real encounter.
  2257. > The adrenaline had taken a while to wear off, and you were hyper-alert for hours afterwards, but once the crash came, it was sudden.
  2258. > Was he going through the same kind of emotional roller-coaster?
  2259. > Yet even though he had energetically answered Marcos' challenge, the Royal Engineer didn't seem to have gotten particularly emotional during the fight.
  2260. > Instead, he'd kept his cool and treated the fight as mechanically as he treated his duties, ordering a non-lethal approach at the critical moment.
  2261. > It still couldn't have been easy for him, but if he didn't have a hormone-fuelled 'high', how could this be the corresponding 'low'?
  2262. > Was it, again, something that happened in the Sanctuary?
  2263. > Maybe the same thing that was affecting Honour?
  2264. > Just what did those Lunars say or do to them?
  2265. > Passing between a pair of pegasi Royal Guards, who stand to attention when they spot the Royal Engineer behind her, Ebonshield pulls open one of the Palace's exterior doors and admits you all inside.
  2266. > Despite now being safe from the Night Guard's prying ears, still nopony speaks up.
  2267. > You decide not to force the issue, and continue to escort the Royal Engineer to his chambers, in silence.
  2268. > Hmm...
  2269. > Wondering about what was distracting all of your comrades was probably distracting you, too.
  2270. > You put their concerns out of your head so that at least one member of your quaternion is ready in case anything happens.
  2272. > But nothing does.
  2273. > Not that it was likely to -- nothing much at all ever happens inside of Canterlot Palace at almost three o'clock in the morning, you supposed.
  2274. > Except maybe during the Grand Galloping Gala -- which was less than a week away!
  2275. > Anyways even if there was a threat from the Rookery, the only batpony supposed to be in the palace was with you right now.
  2276. > The others were all flying or on guard duty outside, and from the stern expressions that the guardsponies at the RUC checkpoint gave your Sergeant, you got the impression that the Night Guard wasn't trusted to operate without RUC supervision either.
  2277. > In short order, Ebonshield and Honour push open the Royal Engineer's chamber doors, and your VIP slowly saunters in.
  2278. > After scratching his chin, he pulls off his helmet and sets it down on one of his work-benches.
  2279. > A moment later, his mace joins it with a dull thud.
  2280. > Anonymous turns to look back at his quaternion.
  2281. > "Let's call it a night. We can discuss this evening's events tomorrow. And whoever's on the morning shift, don't bother showing up until ten or eleven at the earliest. If there's no answer to your knock, go back to bed. I think I might easily sleep until noon."
  2282. > Corporal Bound nods.
  2283. > "Yes, sir. Would you like any help removing your armour?"
  2284. > Managing a weak smile, he grins.
  2285. > "I would, but you've all got your own to remove, and frankly I think we're all too exhausted for cooperation to yield any gains in efficiency. I'll manage to undress myself on my own, and then I'm going to literally fall onto my pillow. I recommend you all do the same. Good-night."
  2286. > With a dismissive wave of the hand, he turns and saunters towards the small chicane in the partition wall which blocks off his bedroom area from the rest of his chambers.
  2287. > Honour gives a nod, and you all exit the room, heading towards the staircase leading to the servants' rooms.
  2288. > Falling into your pillow does sound pretty appealing right now...
  2289. > But, as the Corporal picks up the pace slightly, you get the impression that you're going to be denied that pleasant feeling a while longer.
  2290. > As soon as the Sergeant opens the door to your quarters, Honour points her towards the washroom door.
  2291. > "Sarge, why don't you take first dibs on cleaning up?"
  2293. > Then she looks back at you and Glamerspear.
  2294. > "... I want to talk to these two before we all get settled in."
  2295. > You glance over at Lily, but she seems too tired to be concerned about the nature of this impending conversation. -- instead, she's already busy undoing her helmet-straps.
  2296. > Honour points a forehoof at the ground.
  2297. > "... Sit down. This will only take a moment, but I want to get the record clear right now, okay?"
  2298. > At first the Corporal had your attention; now she has your curiosity.
  2299. > You lower your hindquarters onto your haunches and Lily does the same.
  2300. > With a sigh, Honour fixes the two of you in her gaze.
  2301. > "... Look, here's the deal, okay? The Royal Engineer and I had a chat in the sanctuary, when we were alone for a bit. Sparkshower--"
  2302. > She points her right forehoof at you.
  2303. > "... What I told you last night about Anonymous not knowing about a mare's tuft was true. He also didn't know about wing-boners, or horn anteglows, or any of that kind of stuff..."
  2304. > Honour lifts that forehoof menacingly.
  2305. > "... But he does *now*. Which means the next time you, Sparkshower, spread your wings for him, or you, Glamerspear, put on a light show, he may notice. I told him what they meant, and I told him both of you found him attractive."
  2306. > Lily chokes on her own spit.
  2307. > "*KKKFFG* Celestia, Corporal! What the buck'd you do that for?"
  2308. > Your squad's commander fixes the unicorn in her gaze.
  2309. > "Because it's true. Because he deserves to know the truth. Because I don't want him to become the butt end of jokes about his obliviousness to female signals. And because he honestly didn't think he was attractive to mares at all."
  2310. > Her helmet removed and floating in the air beside her, held in a teal telekinetic glow, Glamerspear glances sideways.
  2311. > "Well, he *isn't*... Not at first, anyways."
  2313. > Honour nods.
  2314. > "Yes, and I told him *that*, too. But the takeaway for *you two* is that the next time either of you 'shoes subtly hits on our friggin' VIP, he might actually pick up on it and flirt back."
  2315. > Glamerspear snorts.
  2316. > "So?"
  2317. > Exasperated, Honour forcefully prods her armoured forehoof into the unicorn's peytral.
  2318. > "So, you'd better be bucking serious about it, because playtime is over."
  2319. > Despite the saboted jostling, Glamerspear snorts even harder, grinning and furrowing her brow.
  2320. > "Sounds to me like playtime is just beginning. But if you're going to warn us against the consequences of promiscuity, why the buck did you send Ebonshield into the washroom beforehoof? *She's* the one who buckin' propositioned Anonymous flat-out."
  2321. > Honour lowers her forehoof back down to the ground.
  2322. > "Yes, she did, but she made her intentions *clear*. Knowing those intentions, he turned her down. But just because he now knows what *signs* a mare can give him, it doesn't mean he knows what her *intentions* are. That means he's now in a more dangerous position, and I don't want him to get hurt by one of his own bucking guardsmares playing games with his heart, understand?"
  2323. > After a moment, Glamerspear's grin disappears, and she nods.
  2324. > "Yeah, okay. Fair enough. No games without actually making sure he's game for 'em."
  2325. > Honour turns to you, raising an eyebrow.
  2326. > "Sparkshower, the Royal Engineer knows and appreciates the situation you're in. Even if he had recognized your flirting, he would have deliberately tried to avoid scooping you up on the rebound from your break-up. So stop taking out your current frustrations by hitting on him, okay?"
  2327. > You nod, remorseful.
  2328. > It really had been an impulsive move to try sticking your tuft out at him, hadn't it?
  2329. > And after such a caring, tender conversation where he'd been so sympathetic and tried to offer so much help...
  2330. "Yes, Corporal... I understand."
  2332. > You look glumly down at the ground, and after a moment Honour sighs and gently grabs your muzzle in two hooves, raising it up to look her in the eyes.
  2333. > "Look, I don't think it's a good idea while you're his bodyguard, but you are your own mare and you can make your own decisions. I'm just saying you've got to get yourself sorted out before he treats any attention from you as serious. He's a proper gentlecolt, and he's been through a bad break-up himself. He knows what it's like."
  2334. > You nod again.
  2335. "I know, Corporal. We talked about that. And I do think he's a fine colt..."
  2336. > Shrugging, you extend your wings to the floor, and awkwardly rub your left forehoof against the opposite shoulder.
  2337. "... But you're right, I was really only sticking my tuft out at Anonymous because I was lonely, and he was available..."
  2338. > You sigh, shaking your head.
  2339. > If Anonymous *had* noticed your tuft and said or done something about it, that sure could have gone awfully wrong -- just like when you stomped on the Bradamante Lance's stirrup without pointing it in a safe direction first.
  2340. > There are still a few tender spots on your body from that battering the ground gave you.
  2341. "... You don't have to worry about me doing it again. I won't until I'm good and over my last relationship, and even then not unless I'm sure about what I'm doing."
  2342. > Honour lowers her forehooves and nods.
  2343. > "That's all I'm asking for."
  2344. > Good to know that that's settled.
  2345. > After an awkward moment in silence, the washroom door opens and Ebonshield emerges, having splashed some water on her muzzle.
  2346. > "Specialist Glamerspear, I think you should go next. I wish to speak a moment with the Caporal before we go to bed."
  2347. > Does that mean she wants you to leave, or...?
  2348. > Stepping over as Lily enters the washroom and shuts the door, the Sergeant continues.
  2349. > "... Specialist Sparkshower, you may remain if you wish. This is not a conversation private."
  2351. > Honour furrows her brow.
  2352. > "It might be. I have a couple of questions I want to ask you, too, Sergeant. I noticed a few things in the Rookery tonight, and I think you owe me some answers. Maybe they'll be uncomfortable."
  2353. > Huh?
  2354. > What did Corporal Bound notice that you didn't?
  2356. Suggested background music: (Brian Eno - 'Prophecy Theme', from 'Dune' [1984])
  2358. > Ebonshield takes a deep breath, but smiles as she sits down on her haunches near you, facing Honour.
  2359. > "Ah? You are the senior soldier, so please, go first. And I will have no discomfort."
  2360. > The Corporal licks her lips, fixing the batpony in her gaze.
  2361. > "You said you were the Seventh, the second-from-the-top rank in your 'Temple' or 'School' of assassins, beneath only your Eighth, 'Draxon'."
  2362. > Ebonshield bows her head.
  2363. > "Yes, this is correct."
  2364. > Honour glances away, flexing her jaw, then returns to stare at the Sergeant.
  2365. > "Reverend Sister Lucrezia let it slip tonight that Master Draxon is dead."
  2366. > You see the batpony's vertical slit eyes momentarily pulse open wide.
  2367. > "She did?"
  2368. > Honour nods.
  2369. > "Yes. Right after you told her what had happened in the Grand Hall. Maybe you were still a bit distracted from what was going on, but I noticed."
  2370. > That's true!
  2371. > You remember it now, as well.
  2372. > Ebonshield glances over towards you, as if seeking confirmation.
  2373. "Yes, that's correct. The Lunar priestess said that Master Draxon would have 'saluted you, if he were still with us'."
  2374. > You see a bulge behind Ebonshield's mouth as she runs her tongue over her teeth.
  2375. > The confirmation wasn't what she wanted; she wanted the denial.
  2377. > Finally, she shrugs her shoulders.
  2378. > "I suppose in the end this is no grand secret. Yes, Master Draxon is dead -- he died almost three years ago, long before the Great Mother returned to us. He was very old, and had been ill for some time; his passing was not unexpected. And as a result, I am the leader effective of the Temple of the Shining Stellar Dance."
  2379. > You're not sure how her specific rank really matters at this point, but Honour stays focused.
  2380. > "So how come you're still Seventh?"
  2381. > Ebonshield grins, tilting her head and stretching her wings playfully.
  2382. > "This concerns the matter I wished to speak to you about, actually. By the rules of the Stars, I could claim the title of Eighth: 'When the master dies, the strongest apprentice takes their place'..."
  2383. > Inhaling deeply, she folds her wings up again.
  2384. > "... But these are not the rules particular of the Temple of the Shining Stellar Dance -- they are not the rules which Master Girolamo Draxon instilled in me..."
  2385. > She turns her head, as if looking straight through the walls at some indeterminate point a great distance away.
  2386. > "... He told me, 'To be the Seventh is to be the finest of all the Stellar Dancers, the most skilled and the most accomplished. Whenever we spar, Pureza, you emerge victorious. This is why you are the Seventh. But even when I lose, do you not in winning learn feel as if you have learned something new as well?'"
  2387. > Her expression softens.
  2388. > "... I said that I did, for my master was always inventive and original in our duels, and he explained: 'That is why I am the Eighth. Because to be the Eighth is not to be the finest of all Stellar Dancers: to be the Eighth is to be the finest *teacher* of the Stellar Dance. When I am gone and you have taught one of your students how to defeat you with consistency, then you too shall be the Eighth.'"
  2389. > Purity Ebonshield sighs.
  2390. > "... For three years he has been gone. But I have not taken his position because, in truth, I am a poor teacher."
  2392. > You can't help interjecting.
  2393. "What? Sergeant, that's not true. You've done a great job with the Royal Engineer so far! He fought his first fight, just now, and he didn't even flinch!"
  2394. > Honour turns towards you as Ebonshield shrugs, smiling.
  2395. > "I think you are generous and attribute too much to my schooling. We have had only two lessons; I am still teaching only the most basic things. And our VIP is a learner most eager. This is not an evaluation honest..."
  2396. > She turns back to the Corporal.
  2397. > "... There are beneath me five Sixths, and I am unable to teach any of them well enough to beat me. But this is my problem, not yours, so do not concern yourselves. And, despite the unfortunate behaviour that you have seen from the Stars of the other Schools, the Stellars are above suspicion. Though they have remained on the Moon, my Sixths are as loyal to the Princess Luna as I am. As are all those beneath them, as well."
  2398. > Honour nods her head.
  2399. > "Okay. I do wish you'd come clean with this for us earlier. It would have made things a little clearer, and maybe a little less stressful."
  2400. > You're not sure if knowing that your new quaternion member was *the* batpony master of assassins would have made things any less stressful twelve days ago.
  2401. > Probably just the opposite.
  2402. > At the time you met her, you didn't even know she was an assassin at all!
  2403. > Still, it puts some things in perspective -- like why the Hatcheteers took Ebonshield's threat seriously on that first trip down.
  2404. > A few other memories spring to mind.
  2405. "Is this why the Reverend Mother Superior asked if you were still 'only Seven'?"
  2407. > Ebonshield nods.
  2408. > "Yes. Carmen does not understand why I cling to the rules of my dead master. To her, rules which are an inconvenience on the path to power are to be simply stepped over. And she thinks that her children, like her, should be in the highest positions possible. She knows that there is no difference within my school, whether I am Seventh or Eighth, but my number means that the Eighths of other Schools do not treat me as a true equal, which diminishes my power. Though this is also because of my School; Girolamo Draxon the Stellar Eight was often treated with disrespect as well..."
  2409. > Taking a deep breath, she bows her head and clasps her forehooves and wing-tips together in front of her.
  2410. > "... And this is why I need your help, Corporal Honour Bound. I am not confident that I am teaching the Engineer Royal properly. Even though the venue for his training belongs to my people, I need the experience of an Equestrian if his instruction is to be proper."
  2411. > Honour raises her eyebrows, her ears flattening behind her head.
  2412. > "Me?? What am I supposed to do? I can barely avoid him lunging at me. And even that was your idea."
  2413. > Ebonshield's reply is instantaneous.
  2414. > "Only because during the first training, he managed to grab me in spite of my suggestion that this would be impossible. And both he, and his Ghost whom the Balladeer Ignacio summoned for me to fight, were ultimately more dangerous with my daggers than with their maces..."
  2416. > She shakes her head, sighing again.
  2417. > "... Do you not see? I have already let our VIP down by allowing the minotaur Bronzehorn to fashion for him arms and armour as if he were a minotaur, instead understanding the creature which he is. And I have let him down again by suggesting that he would never be able to grapple with me or any Equestrian, even though this was proven false. I am trying to correct my mistakes, but the consequences for my errors come too fast, and I worry that more will come faster still! My failings as a teacher could become my failure as his bodyguard..."
  2418. > Ebonshield clasps her hooves and wings together again.
  2419. > "... Please, Caporal. With Carmen having decided that we are to be permitted in the Rookery, I believe there will no further threats from my people for the moment, though I will tell you whatever you require to ensure he is defended from them. The threats here on the surface concern me -- for was the Engineer Royal not challenged to a duel before he had even thought to train as a warrior? This is why I am here; if there had not been a request urgent for a fourth member of this quaternion, Carmen may have had the time to persuade the Great Mother to take for him a Lunar instead of a Star. So, will you help me?"
  2420. > The Corporal looks completely lost.
  2421. > You can understand that.
  2422. > Eventually Honour whinnies out through her mouth.
  2423. > "I... I guess? I don't know what you want me to do. I *have* been in a few fights, but honestly, Earth Ponies like me aren't the true stars of the Royal Guard -- the Pegasi and Unicorns are."
  2425. > Ebonshield raises up, grinning.
  2426. > "You do not need to be a 'star', Corporal. I am a 'Star', and as you say, we have already a pegasus and a unicorn as well to defend the Engineer Royal. I want for you to be more proactive in our training. I want that you will suggest and recommend exercises particular which seem to you appropriate. If you wish, I will still present myself as 'in charge', but I require your expertise and insight..."
  2427. > She shrugs, still smiling.
  2428. > "... These qualities you must have, otherwise I think you would not have noticed such a trivial thing as what Lucretia mentioned. And if you were not also dedicated already to the proper defence and instruction of the Engineer Royal, I think you would not have confronted me about this either, yes?"
  2429. > Honour nods, slowly, though you see her shoulders and forelegs tense up a bit.
  2430. > "Okay. I'll try to take a more active role during the sessions."
  2431. > Ebonshield waggles her left forehoof disapprovingly, reaching out with her right forehoof to touch the Corporal's withers.
  2432. > "Master Draxon taught me: 'A good Dancer does not become tense, but ready.'..."
  2433. > Withdrawing her hoof, you see Honour relax a bit.
  2434. > "... Though for right now, I think, we would do best to become *asleep*. And since I have already finished, if there are no further questions for tonight, I will retire."
  2435. > Both you and the Corporal acknowledge her polite bow, and as the batpony leaves for her room, Glamerspear emerges from the washroom, a towel wrapped around her head.
  2436. > She really managed to have a whole shower just now?
  2437. > You must be tired not to have noticed that.
  2438. > Honour looks in your direction, suddenly appearing exhausted, and you nod, politely acknowledging that order of precedence means she goes next.
  2439. > Anyways, you need to take your armour off before you can do anything in the washroom.
  2440. > But there *is* one other thing you need to take care of.
  2441. "Hey, Lily, can I ask you one thing before you go to bed?"
  2443. > Looking considerably refreshed, though still sleepy, your unicorn comrade sits down in her doorway, drowsily looking over her back.
  2444. > "What's that?"
  2445. > You step over to your own door, adjacent hers.
  2446. "Those... photos... you were suggesting that we take. Do you think we could look into that a bit more? Maybe do them this week?"
  2447. > You haven't forgotten her suggestion for how to patch things up with Huckleberry -- before the whole situation blew up in your muzzle and he angrily confronted the Royal Engineer.
  2448. > Glamerspear cocks an eyebrow.
  2449. > "Uhh... No offence, Sparks, but it's a bit late on that front, dontcha think?"
  2450. > You shake your head.
  2451. "I don't want the photos for *him*, Lily..."
  2452. > Licking your lips, you take a deep breath.
  2453. "... I want them for *me*."
  2454. > Trying to flirt with the Royal Engineer last night had put you in a real depression, when you'd thought that he wasn't paying any attention to your tuft.
  2455. > You felt big and awkward and ugly again, like you did before... before Huckleberry.
  2456. > Well, it turned out Anonymous really *wasn't* paying attention, though only because he didn't know what he was supposed to be paying attention *to*.
  2457. > But still, the lingering question remained.
  2458. > Were you a pretty pony?
  2459. > Could you be?
  2460. > Like the ones in those colts' magazines?
  2461. > Not that you'd probably ever show such photos of yourself to anypony...
  2462. > But how else were you supposed to know what you really looked like?
  2463. > As if having heard all of your internal conversation, Glamerspear nods knowingly.
  2464. > "Okay. Yeah, sure. Ya know, I've got lotsa, like, jewellery and accessories and stuff if you want to go through it beforehoof. I know I said we should do them 'au naturel', with maybe your armour, but a few trinkets never hurt. I guess this means you'll have to teach me how to properly use your camera, though."
  2465. > You smile back.
  2466. "It's easy, Lily. You won't have any trouble."
  2468. > She yawns at you.
  2469. > "Okay. Let's talk about it more tomorrow, alright? I gotta get my beauty sleep -- and you do too, fillyfriend."
  2470. > Alright!
  2471. > With eager hopes for tomorrow, you head into your room and begin to remove your armour pieces before bed.
  2476. > You are Specialist Lily Glamerspear, and this is a hoot.
  2477. > Your pegasister comrade, Artemis Sparkshower, master of heavy armour and wielder of what can only be described as a rocket-powered lance, seems to be terrified of a curtain.
  2478. > Or rather, what's beyond it.
  2479. > Standing still as a statue just ahead of you, stopped in front of the thin black strip of fabric which blocks off a particular out-of-the-way section of the Canterlot barracks commissary, Sparks' eyes are as wide as dinner plates.
  2480. > She turns her head towards you.
  2481. > "Lily, are you sure that's not, uhm, an employees-only area or-"
  2482. > Before she can finish the thought, you shoulder into her plot -- a risky manoeuvre, considering she's probably got almost ten kilos on you.
  2483. > The odds are even worse when she's got her armour on, but as of right now you're both off-duty and therefore out of uniform, so despite the weight difference you manage to hustle her flanks forward and past the textile privacy screen hung in an open doorway between the back-aisle shelves of 'reproductive health products'.
  2484. "C'mon, mare, no turning back now. Get in there!"
  2485. > In response to your shoving, she takes a few steps forwards, but as soon as she's fully inside the small room, she comes to a dead stop again, standing awe as she bears witness to its four short walls, each amply stocked with all manner of Equestrian *pornography*.
  2486. > Three of those walls are stacked with dozens and dozens of glossy full-colour prints and magazines, while the door-frame fourth presents two small bookshelves full of 'pocket novelettes'.
  2487. > There's a brown paper bag dispenser just inside the doorway, too, labelled 'For Your Discretion While Shopping'.
  2488. > Sparkshower just whispers breathlessly.
  2489. > "Oh, hurricanes."
  2490. > Spoken like a true, innocent, one-coltfriend-since-high-school filly.
  2492. > You smirk as she gapes at the room.
  2493. "Listen, Sparks, you said you want to take some racy photos? Well, I'm no prize-winning photographer and you're no experienced supermodel -- so if you're serious about this, we're going to need a little 'reference material', if you know what I mean."
  2494. > Her mouth just hangs open, as if she'd just accidentally walked into one of the Princess' bedrooms, finding a colt sheath-deep inside Their Majesty's Royal Plot.
  2495. > Sparkshower's baby blues slowly pan across the room.
  2496. > "There's... there's so much of it."
  2497. > You shake your head, rolling your eyes up towards the ceiling.
  2498. "Come on, mare, don't tell me you never caught ol'farm-hoof Huckleberry churning his own butter to a magazine behind the barn?"
  2499. > Leaning your shoulder into hers, you continue as she stays silent.
  2500. "... Ya know? Waxing his carrot? Beating his baloney? Milking his lizard? Varnishing his flagpole?"
  2501. > Watching her try to understand this adults-only room is like watching a squirrel in the park stare at a large coconut, struggling to figure out how to eat it.
  2502. > "I... uh... er..."
  2503. > She swallows.
  2504. > "... Maybe?"
  2505. > You snort.
  2506. "You pick any colt out of the barracks and it's guaranteed they've got something from here under their pillow or in their nightstands, whether it's bought from the store or maybe borrowed from a bunkmate. Either that, or a photo of their sweetheart..."
  2507. > Stepping past her, you turn around and wave a hoof at the room.
  2508. "... And why not? When they don't have a mare, or they're forced away from 'em, or even when their mare's just not in the mood, what we have here are cheap tickets to a little personal rest & relaxation..."
  2509. > You chuckle.
  2510. "... And probably soiled sheets, too, unless they use an old sock. Your foal Huckleberry had one of those, and I bet he never washed it, either."
  2511. > The struck-by-lightning stare she gives you tells you he did, and that she didn't know what he used it for.
  2512. > Until now, anyways.
  2514. > Averting her gaze, she paws a hoof at the floor, then sighs as she looks back up.
  2515. > "O... okay. So what do we get? How do we pick?"
  2516. > Seizing one of the brown paper bags in your telekinetic grip, you step right into the centre of the commissary's little hall of wonders.
  2517. "It's easy, Sparks. Everything's all sorted out for you, look..."
  2518. > You point a forehoof the bookshelves flanking the door.
  2519. "... Those are the 'novelettes', ya know? Harness-rippers. Stories about sweet, innocent mares discovered as buds by charming colts who then teach them how to blossom. No pictures -- at least, nothing more than the cover art and maybe an illustrated plate or two inside -- but steamy stories to warm you up on a cold night. More popular with the mares than with the colts. I guess us gals really need a good narrative to get the juices flowing..."
  2520. > That same pointing forehoof shakes dismissively.
  2521. "... You can browse 'em if you want, but they're no good to us right now. We need the photo refs, so that's these three racks here..."
  2522. > Turning around, you extend your forelegs out.
  2523. "... On my left, you've got the raunchy but regular stuff -- just ponies baring what they've got or enjoying each others' company. Mares, colts, mares & colts, colts & colts, mares & mares, et cetera. On my right, it's the 'special interest' mags..."
  2524. > You shrug one shoulder, tilting your head down to meet it.
  2525. "... Maybe you can find something there to scratch your little 'tack-play' itch, since the Royal Engineer's not available to play with right now..."
  2526. > Although she seems interested, that closing remark gets you a scowl.
  2527. > Whatever, marefriend.
  2528. > Don't hate on the game just because the Corporal put you in the penalty box for not knowing the rules!
  2530. > Bringing your forehooves back in front of you, you gesture to beckon her forward, then turn and step over to the wall behind you.
  2531. "... And then we have this rack. The 'classy stuff'. It's not just pornography, it's art, it's literature, it's *reading material*..."
  2532. > Sparkshower steps up beside you, and you pluck one magazine up into the air.
  2533. > Underneath the title there's a photo of a mare facing the camera, her forelegs clutched together to force her tuft out as far as it can go.
  2534. > It's no forest like your pegasus comrade has got going on, but the coverfilly is hardly lacking in the foliage department.
  2535. "... Here's 'Rustler', the lowest-brow mag still considered to be a cut above your ordinary tuft-and-plots pub. There's actual sex depicted in here, sometimes with more than just two ponies involved..."
  2536. > She goes red, either from the thought of a multi-pony sexual romp or from the racy cover itself.
  2537. > You drop the magazine into your bag and pick up the next one on your shopping list.
  2538. > This one's cover has got a mare sitting sideways on a bench, wearing a negligee with one hind leg dangling down seductively, and the other tucked up against her chest.
  2539. "... This is 'Hayloft'. Now we're getting into the denser stuff. There's no photos of sex in here -- just tantalizing titillation with scandalous poses. If you look past the images, though, there's often some good, actual, interesting reading material in here. Famous writers and reporters often contribute, and those contributions can be a lot less tame than when they publish elsewhere..."
  2540. > Sending it down to join 'Rustler' in the shopping bag, you take a step sideways and lift up a third.
  2541. > You don't even have time to look over the cover yourself before Sparkshower furrows her brow and gasps out in shock.
  2542. > "Hey, that's Countess Coloratura!"
  2543. > It sure is: in full makeup and costume, minus her habitual veil.
  2544. > And of course the subtitle reads, 'The Countess, Unmasked'.
  2546. > You nod your head.
  2547. "Uh-huh. 'Playfoal' is the classiest of the classy porno mags, and more often than not their coverfilly is someone with not just a neat tuft and a firm plot, but something intellectual to offer, too."
  2548. > Sparkshower extends a cautious forehoof towards the publication in question.
  2549. > "Are... Are you telling me that there's... uh... pictures... of Coloratura in there?"
  2550. > You flatten your expression.
  2551. "Yes, Sparks. There's pictures of 'Countess Coloratura' in here."
  2552. > She scrunches up her brow and swallows.
  2553. > "Yeah, but I mean... I mean... She's a celebrity! An artist, a singer! And there's *pictures*, you know? Like... *picture* pictures?"
  2554. > You shake your head impassively.
  2555. "What do you mean, 'picture pictures'?"
  2556. > As the poor pegasus struggles to find the words, you lean in conspiratorially.
  2557. "... Like, pictures of her tuft?"
  2558. > Sparks freezes again, and you lean in harder.
  2559. "... A shot of her flank?"
  2560. > Your muzzle's almost up against her ears.
  2561. "... Close-up of her plot?"
  2562. > You lower your voice to a whisper.
  2563. "... Maybe even a glimpse of what's *in-between* her cheeks?"
  2564. > Instantly, Sparkshower clasps both forehooves to her mouth.
  2565. > "No! No, she wouldn't! Would she!?"
  2566. > Regaining your upright posture, you chuckle.
  2567. "No, she probably wouldn't. At the least, I bet her publicist sure wouldn't want her to. But the rest, probably, yeah. 'Playfoal' doesn't like to short-change its readers, but they respect an artist's limits. You might be surprised, though -- otherwise wholesome artists have shown up in 'Playfoal' pages, baring more than enough to inspire a teenage colt's wet dream..."
  2569. > You drop the issue into the bag.
  2570. "... And the writing's top-notch, too. I bet the interview with the 'Countess' goes on for at least three or four pages, and digs deep into stuff she hasn't revealed elsewhere. Though who knows how much of it is made up. Honestly, considering you're reading 'Canterlot Match', I'm surprised you've never read 'Playfoal'. At least the photo subjects in this magazine consented and got paid to be photographed, instead of being flashed on the spot by Canterlot's paparazzi."
  2571. > 'Canterlot Match' was barely a step above 'Playfoal' or 'Hayloft' in terms of content -- some would consider it a step down, even.
  2572. > Yet that rag got put out next to all the other magazines, instead of stashed away here in the adults-only section.
  2573. > Artemis looks down at the brown paper bag, almost in shock.
  2574. > Did you blow through things too quickly for her virginal little mind?
  2575. > "Okay... Is that all? Just those three?"
  2576. > You shrug.
  2577. "That's up to you, Sparkshower. There should be some good ideas for poses and lighting and stuff in all three of these. We won't have all the tools and scenery they've got, of course, but it's still your photoshoot. You said you wanted to do this for *you*, so it should be *about* you. Why don't you look over some of the other mags, see if there's anything that catches your eye? It's my treat."
  2578. > At that, she instantly starts pleading, forehooves clutched in front of her.
  2579. > "Oh, no Lily, you shouldn't! I wanted to take the photos, after all; there's no reason for you to pay."
  2580. > You shake your head.
  2581. "Hey, I'm getting something out of this, too -- a free lesson in photography, with an attentive subject..."
  2582. > Snickering, you shrug and continue.
  2583. "... But this is mostly payback for me dragging you through dark-as-buck tunnels to the bucking Moon last night, to say nothing of facing a freaking 'Accursed Shadow' monster..."
  2585. > Placing your forehooves on her shoulders, you gently indicate the other racks of magazines.
  2586. "... So, come on. Take a peek around. I think we're done with this one behind me. Besides the racy calendars and the magazines aimed at *mares* -- which means they'll all only have photos of *colts* -- the only other stuff in here is either too text-heavy to be interesting or else too tame to be worthwhile..."
  2587. > You casually lift one of the items up as an example.
  2588. "... I mean, come on, 'Athletics Photography Bi-Weekly, the Swimsuit Edition'? I'm surprised they even bother to put that in here, considering the closest a young colt's going to get to anything interesting is a fabric-covered outline just barely revealing a cutie mark. They'd be better off just going outside and looking at actual mares on the street..."
  2589. > Lowering it back onto its shelf, you point her at the rack of halfwit-harlot porno mags & pinup art.
  2590. "... Take a look over there to start. Come on."
  2591. > With trepidation, she steps over to the other set of shelves.
  2592. > You watch as her eyes scan the rows of publications, only the title and the top couple of inches visible behind the magazine in the staggered row in front of them, or the solid white wooden panel holding everything in.
  2593. > Some of them catch your attention, and you take a peek at the full cover by levitating them up.
  2594. > 'FLOOF', in fat lettering.
  2595. > Sure enough, it's two mares with veritable jungles growing off their fronts, hugging each other seductively, tuft-hair pouring out from between them.
  2596. > Do colts really like mares that plush?
  2597. > Not even Sparkshower can compare to these two, but there's a good reason for that.
  2598. > Snorting, you lower it back down.
  2599. "Those are totally fake. Extension weaves on both of 'em for sure."
  2600. > 'Mustangs Wild', says a masculine but artistic font.
  2601. > There's a chipper looking earth pony stud with a friendly smile on the cover.
  2602. > Not bad.
  2603. > Not what you need right now, but not bad.
  2605. > Maybe you'll come back for him later.
  2606. > 'THICK Plots', with the word 'THICK' seeming to crush the 'Plots' underneath it.
  2607. > And there's exactly what the title claims on the front page; three mares facing away from the viewer, their burgeoning behinds filling the frame.
  2608. > Sparkshower clears her throat.
  2609. > "It looks like they used a wide-angle lens up close to make those mares' plots look bigger than they really are. It's called perspective distortion."
  2610. > You nod and put it back.
  2611. "Sure. I bet these magazines use all kinds of tricks..."
  2612. > Glancing over at your nervous comrade, you try to reassure her.
  2613. "... Look, I'm not saying we're going to be able to replicate what you see on display here, it's just that I thought you might want to see the kind of pictures I was talking about -- and for my part, if I'm going to be standing behind the lens, I'd like to have a reference for what I'm doing, too."
  2614. > She nods.
  2615. > "No, I understand now, Lily. You're absolutely right. It's a good idea to do research beforehoof..."
  2616. > Turning her lips up a bit, she shakes her head gently.
  2617. > "... But I don't know if any of these are really appealing to me. Let's take a look at the other rack."
  2618. > Oh, miss kinky-horseshoes is tired of the ordinary stuff already, are we?
  2619. > Well, that's all right.
  2620. > The photos in the 'regular' stuff on this side are probably faker than most, considering how they've got to compete against each other.
  2621. > After a couple of steps, the two of you arrive side-by side, staring at the 'special interest' rack.
  2622. > And what an especially interesting rack it is.
  2623. > 'S|T|R|I|P|E|D'
  2624. > Yep, it's a magazine about zebras.
  2625. > The mare on the cover has got a grass skirt around her waist, and bracelets made of shells and semi-precious stones on each of her four legs.
  2626. > Really pushing the 'mare of the jungle' angle here.
  2628. > The text on the cover even proclaims, 'In the wilds I beat the drums, what colt here can make me come?'
  2629. > But you wouldn't be at all surprised if the 'wilds' in question where this filly grew up were nothing more than the brick-and-cobblestone urban 'forest' of midtown Manehattan.
  2630. > Shaking your head dismissively, you put it back and pick up another.
  2631. > 'NO HOOVES', stylized as the word 'HOOVES' in black at an angle, with a red circle-backslash prohibition symbol stamped on top of it.
  2632. > And on the cover are a griffon hen, a young dragoness with her wings outstretched, and... a diamond dog bitch?
  2633. > You really can't tell if that third one's a mare or not, but all three are looking seductively towards the reader, so you guess so.
  2634. > The subtitle reads: 'PREMIERE ISSUE! Zero hooves, all action.'
  2635. > Well, Celestia knows there's colts out there pining for who knows what.
  2636. > And not just colts, either -- another extra-species mag catches your eye.
  2637. > 'Taurus'
  2638. > A huge-looking minotaur with a smoldering glare has his enormous beefy arms crossed on the front, standing sideways with another one in the distance behind him flexing impressively.
  2639. > An inset photo shows an earth pony mare with her eyes rolled back into her head, a bull standing behind her, the area of contact obscured by a tacky yellow star-burst that reads 'Big Bulls with BIG BA**S'.
  2640. > You can't even begin to imagine the kind of mare that would *want* to be mounted by one of those enormous bipeds.
  2641. > They couldn't pay you enough to get reamed out by a beast four or more times your size.
  2642. > Two times bigger, maybe, sure.
  2643. > You catch Sparkshower eyeing the minotaur magazine with awe, and slowly lower it back down, as if to tell her 'no'.
  2644. > Come on, there's got to be something in here both more reasonable and more relevant.
  2645. > 'PLUMB WEIGHT'
  2646. > Weird title.
  2648. > The front boasts a detailed drawing of a scarred-up mare with a funky-looking metal mask and a bandolier of knives around her waist and back.
  2649. > And all around her are ruins of buildings and strange-looking monsters.
  2650. > 'TARNA, WARRIOR-MARE OF ARZACH' says the text beneath her, while the mag's motto claims to be 'Equestria's Greatest Illustrated Magazine'.
  2651. > Sparkshower brightens up upon seeing it.
  2652. > "Oh, that looks pretty interesting! I like fantasy pulp fiction. But maybe that's not useful for the photoshoot."
  2653. > You smile and nod.
  2654. "Hey, if you want it for your own sake, it's yours."
  2655. > Dropping it in the bag, you continue to scan the rack of magazines with your marefriend.
  2656. > 'PUFFY ONES'
  2657. > Puffy whats, now?
  2658. > You scrunch up your muzzle trying to understand the cover.
  2659. > There's a mare with her plot towards the reader, but she's wearing some kind of underwear that hangs low under her with a weird pair of bulg-- oh, those are her *teats*.
  2660. > The buck?
  2661. > This has to be fake, there's no way they could be that big.
  2663. > Overflowing *what*?
  2664. > The buck is a 'bra'?
  2665. > Is that what they're calling that weird underwear?
  2666. > Shaking your head, you lower it back down.
  2667. > That one must be for the real deviants.
  2668. > You glance over and see Sparkshower flipping through a magazine in her hooves.
  2669. > She swallows as she turns another page.
  2670. > "You know, it's a good thing there's nopony else in here."
  2671. > You chuckle.
  2672. "It's a Sunday afternoon on base. The commissary's always empty around now. Anypony who has weekend liberty is using it; and anybody who doesn't, is either on duty now or sleeping 'cause they're going on duty later..."
  2673. > Nodding towards the black strip of cloth that separates this room from the main shopping aisles, you continue.
  2674. "... Besides, that's why the curtain doesn't go all the way to the floor -- so you can tell if somepony's already in here, in case you'd rather wait to do your browsing solo..."
  2676. > You shrug and turn back to the shelves.
  2677. "... I don't think most colts care, though there's an unspoken rule about not making eye contact. And Celestia help the mare who trots in here when it's full of colts."
  2678. > Sparkshower looks up from the magazine.
  2679. > "Does... does anything happen?"
  2680. > You smirk.
  2681. "No, but it can be pretty awkward for everypony all around..."
  2682. > Shaking your head, you sigh.
  2683. "... Val sent me in here one time to grab him some 'reading material', early in our relationship. I don't think he really cared about the magazines -- he just wanted to put me in a small room with five random colts shopping for pornography..."
  2684. > You snort dismissively.
  2685. "... He liked doing that; 'testing' his friends and his mares by creating awkward or dangerous scenarios. It was all a big game to him."
  2686. > Her brow furrowed, Lily looks up sympathetically.
  2687. > "It's not like that for you with Captain Mailedhoof, is it?"
  2688. > Another snort escapes your nostrils.
  2689. "No, but his charm is starting to wear off, too. Or maybe it's just because his family's in town, 'cause the Gala is so close. I guess the Officer's Club is about as far as he's willing to take me -- which is still a nice place to be, sure, but I was kinda hoping we'd get out into the city a bit, too, ya know?"
  2690. > You guffaw.
  2691. "... It's not like he's got a reputation for discretion. He got snapped a few months ago in 'Canterlot Match' with another mare, sitting at a window table in a fancy restaurant. I guess that exposure finally drove a wedge in-between him and his wife, so now he's being careful. Which means we're going nowhere the press can get to, I suppose."
  2692. > Sparkshower puts the magazine she's been flipping through back on the shelf, and tentatively takes another.
  2693. > "From where I'm sitting, Lily, neither seems like a particularly healthy relationship."
  2694. > That's quite a statement.
  2695. "Healthy? Well, maybe. I mean, you gotta factor in that I went into each with different objectives..."
  2697. > Looking up at the ceiling you paw a forehoof at your chin.
  2698. "... All I want from Mailedhoof is a little fun and glamour for a few months, or maybe even a year or two. Same as with any of my salt-licks. It's not like I'm holding out hopes he'll divorce his wife and take my hoof, though that sort of thing does happen -- and causes a scandal in the gossip pages, heh. But Mailedhoof will almost certainly get bored of me, eventually. With Valiant, though..."
  2699. > You bob your head sideways as the uncomfortable memories surface.
  2700. "... I really thought we had something together. Despite everything despicable he's done, he actually is pretty brave, and really smart, and he can be awfully charming, too..."
  2701. > Lifting your eyebrows, you click your tongue on the side of your mouth.
  2702. "... *tch* I think the hardest part about dealing with him is that although I despise him as a colt, I still gotta respect him as a pegasus and as a Royal Guard, ya know? I went into our duel all cocky, looking for some payback, but deep down I knew it was going to be a hard fight..."
  2703. > Sighing, you look sideways at your pegasus comrade.
  2704. "... You know, Sparks, I tease you for it, but on some level I did kinda admire what you had going on with your hometown sweetheart. I know you had your problems even before Friday's explosive break-up, but there was something touching about the way you seemed to be so happy with him..."
  2705. > Glancing down at the lower shelves, you sniff in through your nostrils.
  2706. "... I don't think I'd be quite as content in your place, but it was nice to see somepony else in that situation..."
  2707. > You pick yourself back up again, grimacing awkwardly.
  2708. "... Sorry. I'm babbling a bit, aren't I? I shouldn't be rubbing salt in fresh wounds like this."
  2709. > The pegasus stretches her forehooves up to shuffle through the magazines again, but doesn't seem phased.
  2710. > "It's okay, Lily. Losing Huckleberry still hurts, but I think I'm past breaking down in tears now, at least..."
  2712. > Lifting her eyebrows, she turns to briefly look around the room.
  2713. > "... I think I understand what you're saying. You think Huckleberry and I had the kind of relationship you can't find in these magazines."
  2714. > You lift your own eyebrows and follow her gaze.
  2715. "Yeah. That's a good way of putting it..."
  2716. > Then you point at the pocket-novelettes.
  2717. "... I wouldn't be surprised if a bunch of those books were trying to sell something like it, though. That's their appeal."
  2718. > Sparkshower just shakes her head.
  2719. > "It's still just a fantasy, though. I'm sure they leave out all the hard work."
  2720. > An astute observation, and you nod.
  2721. "True."
  2722. > The pegasus looks wistfully down at the pages between her hooves.
  2723. > "When I think about Huckleberry today, all I can remember is how much I put in, trying to make us both happy. That's what hurts right now; the feeling of all that effort going to waste."
  2724. > She really seems upset, so you put a hoof on her shoulder.
  2725. "Hey. Fighting the good fight is never a waste, Sparks. Sometimes things are just out of your hooves."
  2726. > The pegasus nods, looking down at the magazine.
  2727. > "Yeah."
  2728. > You glance down as well and see a two-page colour advertisement for some kind of tackle supplier.
  2729. > It's surprisingly classy, with a range of saddles, bits, and bridles all presented on a black background and described in flowery prose.
  2730. > 'Sellerie Chevalier de Colbért. Finest quality tackle by craftspony masters. Prench designs for an intimate feel. Trust your ride or rider with nothing less.'
  2731. > Before you can get into the details, she closes the magazine and holds it up.
  2732. > "I think I'd like to get this one."
  2733. > The title reads simply, 'Dressage'.
  2734. > And on the cover there's a full body shot of a white earth pony mare with a blonde mane, sitting innocently on her haunches, wearing a dark black leather saddle, bit, bridle, and even a pair of matching black blinders.
  2735. > In her mouth, she's holding a coiled-up whip.
  2737. > The absence of any other text on the cover, besides the price and a 'Vol 3, Issue 2' in small print, is usually a good sign that this is a magazine for connoisseurs.
  2738. > You lift your eyebrows.
  2739. "Seems nice. Okay. You want to look for another?"
  2740. > She shakes her head.
  2741. > "No, I think this'll do for now. Let's grab a few rolls of film from the photo desk before we leave, too. Some developer and fixer, if they have any, too -- it'll be cheaper and faster if I develop the images myself. Not to mention, it'll be more private..."
  2742. > As she slips 'Dressage' into the brown paper bag, where it joins 'Plumb Weight', 'Rustler', 'Hayloft', and 'Playfoal', she grimaces.
  2743. > "... I really don't want anypony else seeing these photographs until I'm comfortable with them, after all. I'm not even going to print them unless I'm really sure about it. They can stay as negatives; I've got a loupe, and looking at them with inversed light doesn't bother me."
  2744. > You chuckle.
  2745. "Ah, mare. You're all timid and soft-hoofing it now, but I know you ain't gonna keep playing like that. I still remember how you blasted Joker out of the sky. And you're a good-looking pegasus, so just you wait -- when you're ready, print 'em up and show 'em to the right ponies, and one of these pics we snap will wind up making you a centrefold."
  2746. > That suggestion makes her eyes go wide, and you snort with amusement as you lead her out of the little room of wonders.
  2748. Suggested interlude music: (J. Geils Band - 'Centerfold' [1981])
  2753. > You are the Stellar Seven, Purity Ebonshield, and you are hanging as silently and as still as the stalactite to which you are strapped.
  2754. > Wrapped in a tight-fitting cloak which is dyed to match those same stones, and whose extremities are fixed to your limbs, with a matching cowl over your head and a full set of leggings underneath, you should be indistinguishable from your surroundings but for your eyes, which you shut the instant anypony so much as glanced in your direction, lest the reflection of light give you away.
  2755. > Clinging to the upper end of the rock head-down and tail-up, with a wide canvas belt holding you fast, you silently watch the goings-on below in the dimly-lit natural cave which hosts the storehouse of the Rookery of Canterlot.
  2756. > Beneath you lies a room full of barrels, crates, and sacks, with shelves full of mostly-imperishable items, arranged unevenly and with barely sufficient organization to get by.
  2757. > Spices from the Moon.
  2758. > Salt, sugar, and lime-powder.
  2759. > Grain and dried fruit.
  2760. > Beer, wine, oil, and other liquids in kegs.
  2761. > Bars of iron, copper, and lead, sitting on racks.
  2762. > Manufactured things, too.
  2763. > Cloth, hardware, and tools of all sorts.
  2764. > In the centre of the scarcely-organized chaos, with narrow aisles radiating outwards towards the edges of the room, sits a lonesome but heavy wooden desk piled high with ledgers, attended by a tired-looking Rock-mare of the Guild of Stockers, Keepers and Clerks.
  2765. > The papers at her hooves map each piece of property here to their owners; her job is to ensure that nothing is removed or replaced without being recorded.
  2766. > And her job is also to direct her assistant, a young colt, who corrals and orders the half-dozen Dustpony labourers responsible for the actual physical work of storing and retrieving the objects brought or demanded by the customers of the storehouse.
  2768. > If the poor Rocks only knew what lurked not far above their heads, they would be shouting for the Stars.
  2769. > But tonight these mundane things in the main stores were of no interest to you.
  2770. > At the far side of the room from the entranceway into the warehouse, past the manager's desk, and down one of the tight passages which winds between crates and barrels, a section of the room is blocked off with thick iron bars, a small swinging gate at the base, with a Star sitting idly in front.
  2771. > And that Star, a young-looking Second- or perhaps even First-rank Hatcheteer, has sitting under their shoulder a long staff, the butt of the shaft braced against the floor, and the tip armed with a heavy iron-caged magic lantern, dangling from a short chain.
  2772. > Behind the colt, and behind that barred fence, lies the true objective of this early-morning activity.
  2773. > The communal armoury and depot of the Canterlot Rookery.
  2774. > A curious repository, since the Temples of the Stars kept their weapons and equipment to themselves.
  2775. > But here were kept artifacts which belonged to the Lunars, or to the Houses -- and in particular House Cadena de Vapores, the House of the Reverend Mother Superior Carmen, your House.
  2776. > After all, in the thousand years leading up to the Great Mother's return, the Stars had fought almost exclusively with each other, and so they kept only that which was useful for such warfare.
  2777. > Tools and special devices which would be needed for the eventual war against Equestria had been the province of the Lunars and the Houses which they led.
  2778. > Such a tool or special device as you now required...
  2779. > Reflexively, you press your left foreleg up against your chest even more tightly, feeling the reassuring bulge of the dagger strapped to its end.
  2780. > You would not let things come to violence, not even if you were to be discovered, but the armament was a relief mental.
  2782. > The Edicts of the Great Mother were difficult to follow, particularly when they went against decades of training, but for you, Her word superseded all other rules.
  2783. > In any case, if all went according to plan, neither the watchcolt nor any of the other ponies in the storehouse would ever know what had transpired at all.
  2784. > You would not even need to leave this stony perch to which you have snuck almost an hour ago, until after everything was all but finished.
  2785. > And that is because tonight, you were not playing the role of a thief.
  2786. > Not entirely, at least.
  2787. > Your eyes shoot to a large wooden pallet covered with a multitude of small barrels.
  2788. > Four of those, labelled as different varieties of vermouth, were brought in today, by Dusts working for a merchant Rock of the Guild of Vintners, Distillers, and Brewers, who herself was paid a tidy sum to have them hauled here by a Rock of the Guild of Orchardists, under the conceit that they were not laden with wine, but actually full of almonds and pistachios, the higher taxes and tariffs on which the Orchardist merchant wished to avoid.
  2789. > And you'd paid that Orchardist a hefty fee to have stored what he thought was some of your own smuggled-down Equestrian liquor, to be resold at a profit on the Rookery's black market at a later date.
  2790. > Bluff, upon bluff, payoff upon payoff.
  2791. > How easy this was, since you were known already to be a smuggler of Equestrian goods: tobacco, avocados, and yes, even some of the liquors of the surface.
  2792. > Unlike the Night Guard, you had unfettered access to the palace, including the surface storehouse, cellar, and pantry.
  2793. > As for your deception, the Rocks would find their interests best served by keeping their muzzles shut and the keg lids sealed.
  2795. > But if anypony should actually look into the barrels, tomorrow or even later, they would find nothing more than exactly what was stencilled on the outside: red vermouth, from the distilleries of the House Cadena de Vapores, bought on the Moon and imported to the Rookery's Temple of the Shining Stellar Dance a week ago.
  2796. > Since the 'Maestro Cazador' had been so appreciated by your battle-siblings in the quaternion, you had thought that some joyous occasion might merit the imbibing of the speciality of your own House, and decided to keep a ready supply of that liquor -- as well as a few more cases of Maestro Cazador, also stashed in the Equestrian outpost of your Temple.
  2797. > And now you found yourself using some of that liquor on behalf of your patron, as well as some of your own funds for the bribes.
  2798. > Yet overall this experience was still a net gain, what with your generous bodyguard salary and on top of this your profits as a smuggler.
  2799. > As a result of all that preparation, whether intended for this operation or not, you had four barrels of vermouth to store.
  2800. > But any would-be inspectors would also find that, curiously, none of the four were full past half-way, perhaps a sign that somepony was being dishonest about the volume of a liquor sale -- a serious offence.
  2801. > An extraordinarily close inspection might perhaps find that two of the barrels had a little *hair* in them...
  2803. Suggested background music: (Russell Shaw - 'Greatwood', from 'Fable' [2005])
  2805. > ... The same two barrels whose lids are presently *moving*.
  2806. > With your chest squeezed tightly against the stalactite by the strap, making breathing difficult, you watch with apprehension as the wooden tops slowly lift upwards, their occupants surveying the situation around them before emerging from their hiding places.
  2808. > The storehouse's primary Rock is at her table, scribbling away as she describes what she does to the apprentice-assistant, while the group of Dust gather on a nearby stoop, glad to have a moment's rest after what must have been a busy day.
  2809. > That means the coast is clear for your two initiates, whose kegs were far out of sight from both the central bureau and the Star in front of the gate.
  2810. > Slowly, but steadily, they rise up and out of the two barrels, naked, but covered in dirt and grime.
  2811. > You cannot help but grin as you watch them execute your plan, while thinking of the schemes which they themselves had proposed.
  2812. > After all, they were now Firsts of the School of the Shining Stellar Dance; only proper that they now have the opportunity to come up with ideas of their own on how to burgle the armoury.
  2813. > And if those ideas had been any good, you might have used them.
  2814. > But Carto had thought to sneak in through the ceiling, as you yourself have done, then swooped down after the storehosue was closed for the morning, slitting the Hatcheteers' throats.
  2815. > That was certainly 'clean', but the intrusion would be too obvious.
  2816. > You wished for a more subtle infiltration that would not be noticed until some time later -- if, indeed, at all.
  2817. > Furthermore, the task of sneaking in across the ceiling had been slow and laborious, and all four of your legs still ached from the exertion of slowly picking your way from stalactite to stalactite.
  2818. > Even now, resting on this perch was hardly much rest at all, upside-down as you were and with your breathing constrained by the buckle that allowed your legs to recovery.
  2819. > And you had to stay here for some time yet more, only then to sneak back out the way you came.
  2821. > Yes, you had tools such as the padded horseshoes you now wore to silence your hooves, or the special brushes affixed to your leading wing-arms to muffle their noise, and these did help, but, as gymnastic as they were, this manoeuvre was still well beyond the physical capabilities of your young students.
  2822. > Águila, for her part, had proposed to start a fire -- or at least create the appearance of one using smoke-bombs -- and thereby ensure that the storehouse would be evacuated while the heist was completed.
  2823. > This, at least, offered some semblance of legitimacy, but you were certain that any sudden fire would be treated as suspicious, and the place would be searched.
  2824. > The loss would be discovered probably, and there would be doubts that the item had simply been misplaced or otherwise accidentally unaccounted-for.
  2825. > You had pointed out the flaws in these two paths, the path of the assassin and the path of the arsonist, and how these were not generally appropriate to merely steal a thing.
  2826. > No, for tonight, the path of the conspirator, and of the *thief*, are those which the two must tread.
  2827. > For your part, after setting up the conspiracy, you would now be the watchful teacher, who inspects the work of her students, who tidies up any mess which they may have made, and who collects the spoils of their victory.
  2828. > Beneath you, Carto has already silently opened up one of the other four casks by slowly jimmying off its deliberately-loose top hoop using a thin prybar, and Águila has begun to syphon vermouth from the vessels into her former hiding place using a black rubber hose.
  2829. > You can barely make out the sound of the trickling liquor as he sneakily attacks the other one.
  2830. > Once their point of entry has been secured, only then will they move on their objective.
  2831. > Motion at the entrance catches your eye, and another Hatcheteer enters the storehouse, while the two at the entrance trade places with their own replacements.
  2833. > The timing is good; a shift change after your students escaped their barrels is exactly what you hoped for.
  2834. > There will be noise and motion that will distract from the activities of your Firsts.
  2835. > With some energy, the newcomer heads up to the central desk, where the Rock in charge gives a knowing but respectful nod of her head, and the Dust-colts all bow deeply and obsequiously to the Star.
  2836. > After briefly acknowledging their motions, he heads over to the iron-barred armoury, and the fellow he has come to replace.
  2837. > «Good morning, Rafael.»
  2838. > The current watchcolt waves a tired hoof, sighing.
  2839. > «Morning, Samuel.»
  2840. > Samuel glances around.
  2841. > «Is anything happening?»
  2842. > Tired Rafael just shakes his head.
  2843. > «Not really. Just the usual traffic of Rocks and Dust in and out. And a couple of 'special orders' from here at the start of the night. Thou knowest the kind. I guess since thou'rt showing up now, they should be coming back down here soon.»
  2844. > Oh?
  2845. > Somepony in the Night Guard has loaned something out of the armoury?
  2846. > That is interesting; you had thought that these were being saved for some future operation.
  2847. > «So they're trying another round of that, are they? I thought they gave up last week. How many are out?»
  2848. > Not only is something being used, but the something has been used before?
  2849. > This is a rumour which you have not yet heard.
  2850. > As far as you knew, the communal armoury had gone almost untouched since the Rookery's founding; storage for what had been used in the assault, rather than anything required for future work as the Great Mother's Night Guard.
  2851. > Beneath his black Star-cloak, the retiring guard pulls out his keyring and hoofs the jingling tool over to his replacement, who duly accepts the responsibility.
  2852. > «Just two.»
  2853. > As he fixes the keys to his own waist-belt, the new guard opens his eyes wide in shock.
  2854. > «Two? Hardly seems worth the bother. What are just two Stars going to accomplish?»
  2856. > A yawn and a shrug accompany the response.
  2857. > «Not much, I suppose, but I gather that there's been a few close calls with some of the juniors. I guess someone decided to restrict the suits to senior Stars only...»
  2858. > Suits!
  2859. > They couldn't be talking about the very kind of item you were here to pilfer, could they?
  2860. > If there really were two of them being used right now, and if they had been used a week ago as well, this could mean that they were being inventoried more frequently, and that the theft would consequently be noticed...
  2861. > ... But on the other hoof, by your count there were well over thirty of them, and far easier to put down a loss to carelessness and a failure to account for all of them earlier.
  2862. > Hmm.
  2863. > This would probably work out to your advantage, though the risks were now elevated certainly.
  2864. > As the two Hatcheteers trade places, Rafael hoofs over his light-pole.
  2865. > «... Anyways, thanks. May the Great Mother protect thee, and all that. Anything going on outside of here I should know about?»
  2866. > At that, Samuel beams a grin.
  2867. > «Anything going on? Thou hast not heard? I would have thought for sure the underphases would be blathering by now.»
  2868. > «Nopony's come in here for over an hour, and anyways when somepony does come in, the only things they ever want to chat about is the whereabouts of their stuff. Why, did something happen?»
  2869. > The on-duty Star snorts.
  2870. > «Something happened, all right. That fool Marcos pulled over a dozen Meteors, including some who were topside with the Night Guard, and made a move on his sister just after midnight.»
  2871. > That gets a rise out of the otherwise sleepy-looking Rafael.
  2872. > «You're joking. He actually had the balls to follow through on all of his banter, that shadow-spawn?»
  2873. > Samuel just grins even harder, shaking his head.
  2874. > «I swear on my House I speak true. And here's the kicker: he bloody lost.»
  2876. > Rafael emits a confused chuckle.
  2877. > «Now I know thou pullest my wing. Marcos and a dozen Meteors? Against a lone Stellar? Granted she's the Seventh; Eighth in all but title. I mean I certainly wouldn't want to be one of the dozen standing up against that cunt, and I imagine she wrote out a few names for her Temple's little book, but thou canst expect me to believe they didn't down her in the end.»
  2878. > His partner snorts, still grinning.
  2879. > «No joke, they really lost. Fuck a goat, that Meteoric Six is strung up in the oubliette right now, that little banjo-shitter. Although I should say that they weren't up against just the Stellar alone. She was down here with that biped-monkey bloke and his little menagerie of Equestrian guardsmares -- which includes a unicorn. They all joined in, and from what I hear they swatted down the Meteors like they were a pack of flies, all without a scratch in return...»
  2880. > He leans in, chuckling.
  2881. > «... And I wouldn't let the Stellar Seven find out thou callest her words like that, not when thou hearest what she did to her brother after the fight: she took one of his bloody eyes right out; just sliced the thing off like a rotten fig about to spoil the bunch. This was in the Grand Hall itself, if thou canst believe me -- and the Balladeer was even right there, but as soon as Marcos asks can he please get his eyeball back, the Eclipse starts talking rules and reg, 'Oh, well, this wasn't an official duel or training exercise, so I cannot heal thine eye, thou fucker. Sorry.' He's got some lip to him, he does. But like every Eclipse, he knows how to lick the right arses.»
  2883. > Incredulous, the off-duty colt just shakes his head.
  2884. > «Unbelievable. Better his eyeball than one of his sausage-balls, I guess. But we're just shitting all over the Great Mother down here with this nonsense, aren't we? Edict of Blood, Her Holy arse. She's going to have to knock a few heads about if She wants that one to stand up. I'd better get some sleep, and just pray to the Great Mother's Almighty cunt that his whole mess blows over by the time I wake up.»
  2885. > Still chuckling, the energetic new guard waves a hoof.
  2886. > «Sure thing. Have a good day, Rafael.»
  2887. > «Yeah, thou as well. Don't work too hard, Samuel. Great Mother, this place doesn't deserve that.»
  2888. > By the time the two guards' conversation has finished, Carto and Águila have finished syphoning half of the two full barrels into their hiding places, completing the deception of their ingress.
  2889. > If anypony questions those four barrels, then even if the importer on paper admits the bribe he took, his story won't match the facts: he will admit to having smuggled in nuts, but the barrels are just underloaded with wine.
  2890. > With their tools hidden away in a sack, this is now the time for your two young apprentices to actually acquire the item of your desire.
  2891. > The method is very simple: they are young, and small, and well-trained in contortions.
  2892. > And the bars have been made to block the bulky frames of rebellious Shadows, Dust, or Rocks, not the lithe figures of two outstanding Stellar Dancers.
  2893. > Picking their way past the storehouse contents, the two Stellar Ones soon arrive at the edge of the iron fence, along the cave wall.
  2894. > With the new guard, Samuel, snickering to himself as he surveys the warehouse and settles in to his post, blissfully unaware of the thievery going on not forty hooves away from him, your apprentices quickly sneak in, twisting to fit just so between the bars.
  2896. > In this capacity, they exceed even you, and stepping on padded hooves, they easily make their way to the armour rack and silently lift up a single white suit of linen armour underlay, concealing their prize in a burlap sack before escaping the same way they came.
  2897. > Seconds later, they pass through the fence once more, along with their bundled-up haul.
  2898. > This they leave for you, piled with a group of otherwise indistinguishable bags not far from the armoury itself.
  2899. > And now they retreat back to the barrels to collect their tools, sneaking off to the shelves to hide the used ones while they assemble the final pieces of this trick.
  2900. > After a few more minutes pass, the Rock at the desk puts down her quill, gives a final to-and-fore rock with a blotter to set the fresh ink, and declares the paperwork up-to-date, and the warehouse closed for the morning.
  2901. > As if in defiance of that order, a pair of Stars dressed as the Great Mother's Night Guard appear at the entrance to the warehouse.
  2902. > These two aren't here for the main storage room, however, and they proceed directly to the armoury, without a word to the Rocks or Dust.
  2903. > Even the guard at the fence, Samuel, does little more than nod and watch as the two Stars remove their outer armour plate and then the special linen underlay, before taking the items, opening the gate, and depositing them inside the armoury itself.
  2904. > The whole return of the armour pieces is done in a matter of a minute or two, and the two Night Guard Stars evacuate the area just as a group of a dozen Shadows have begun to slowly filter into the warehouse, their bare coats caked with dirt and dust, carrying brooms and bags, and watched menacingly by the two new door-guards, as well as the armoury watchpony.
  2905. > Heckled, teased, and even mildly abused by the retiring Dust, they fan out and begin to sweep up and bag up the dust of the store-room floor.
  2907. > And Carto and Águila are among them, with the brooms and dust-pans they smuggled in as part of their toolkit.
  2908. > Excellent!
  2909. > The wonderful thing about Shadows is that nopony ever bothers to count them.
  2910. > Nopony, certainly not the Rocks or Stars, nor even the Dust luggage-haulers, will be bothered in the slightest if there are a few more or a few less than when the morning cleaning started.
  2911. > One of the Dust labourers, a bulky-looking Colt, even gives a quick swat of the wing at the backside of Águila's head when she passes the lane he's monitoring.
  2912. > «Missed a spot, you miscreant. By the Great Mother, you're so disgusting, you're dragging more filth in here than you're cleaning up.»
  2913. > As the grimy Shadow she pretends to be, instead of the proud Star she actually is, your student dutifully takes the Dust-colt's blow and insults, bows her head, and re-sweeps the area in question, her hoofstep-silencing hoof-pads resembling the scrubbing swabs of a cleaner just closely enough as for any distinction to be moot.
  2914. > The other Dusts similarly abuse the Shadows as the cleaning proceeds, taking out their frustrations at being the second-darkest Phase of the Moon upon those a shade darker than them.
  2915. > «We've worked all night, you lazy fuckers, and we want to go home! Get the job done right, and done quick, or we'll beat the work out of you!»
  2916. > A quarter of an hour of cajoling and wing-swats sees the end of the Shadows and their dirty work, and then comes the lineup at the exit.
  2917. > While the Rock and her apprentice watch, the two Stars at the gate search each member of the dimmer Phases for theft and then allow them to leave, getting the Dust done relatively quickly before subjecting the Shadows to a much more thorough shakedown.
  2918. > Of course, your two apprentices have absolutely nothing on them of value.
  2919. > No weapons, no tools beyond those required to maintain their present appearances, and certainly nothing stolen from the storehouse or armoury.
  2921. > As predicted, neither the guards nor the Rocks notice that there were twelve coming in and now fourteen heading out.
  2922. > The other Shadows know, of course, but they were forbidden to speak in the presence of their betters, except to answer a question.
  2923. > And nopony was about to ask them anything.
  2924. > Not that the Shadows would have spoken up if they were permitted.
  2925. > Their bribe for silence was the cheapest of all; even the negotiation had been trivial, requiring no more than a whisper in a passing street-sweeper's ear and a few paper-padded coins tossed into their garbage-bag, quickly shuffled to the bottom, out of sight and notice.
  2926. > A welcome relief from the complicated arrangements for privacy with the Rocks, for the Shadows were often the friends to the Stellar Dancers.
  2927. > They were useful allies for entering places unnoticed, and despite the efforts of the Hatcheteers, they had learned to smuggle things through even the most thorough examinations.
  2928. > More than once you had passed some of your Temple's payment into their hooves, along with your weapons and your body whole, and you had yet to see them fail to deliver either you or those blades to whatever Mother-forsaken place your mission required you to be conveyed.
  2929. > But for them, you knew, such deeds were not just about the money.
  2930. > There was the feeling that they were taking advantage of their social betters -- by sneaking things under their muzzles, and being disobedient where they were supposed to obey.
  2931. > They had a kind of kinship with you and your Stellar Dancers as well, being outcasts of a sort just as they were -- privileged and wealthy outcasts of a high social rank, to be sure, but outcasts nonetheless.
  2932. > And even though to be a Shadow is to either have been utterly disgraced in real life, or else to have performed so badly in the mental and physical examinations of the crèche that no other Phase wished to bid for them, many of the Shadows were by no means dim-witted or lame.
  2934. > Inevitably, the strongest and cleverest of them established a hierarchy, and these creatures understood the value of a clandestine alliance with a group of Stars.
  2935. > You watch as Carto and Águila are at last allowed out of the storehouse, along with the rest of the Shadows.
  2936. > They will sneak away on their own, when the time is right.
  2937. > The Dust have already gone, the Rocks leave now as well, and the three Stars settle in for the long, boring shift of the morning.
  2938. > The two at the entryway call out to their comrade at the armoury.
  2939. > «Alright, Samuel, things are all clear. Let's have a trot around the hallway, shall we?»
  2940. > «Right! On my way.»
  2941. > The armoury-guard leaves his post inside the storehouse to join his mates outside.
  2942. > Good.
  2943. > As they set off on a brief patrol of the exit corridor, you move a forehoof and unbuckle the strap, falling from the ceiling and gliding down to the ground on silent wings.
  2944. > Moments later, you retrieve the prize-sack hidden in plain sight, strapping the package tightly to your back, underneath your camouflaged cloak.
  2945. > Now, while the guards are on patrol, you hustle forwards on your padded hooves, leaving the storehouse, jumping up into the air and climbing for the ceiling only when you hear the sound of their hoofsteps approaching.
  2946. > As you yet again cling to a stalactite, the three Hatcheteers pass back beneath you, but you're only twenty hooves down the storehouse hallway, and still within sight of the two Stars who take up positions flanking the entrance.
  2947. > Slowly, laboriously, whenever the opportunity arises, you pick your way from hanging rock to hanging rock, just how as you came in.
  2948. > Waiting for moments when the guards are lost in conversation, or when their backs are turned to you in another patrol.
  2950. > Things will be harder now that there are no visiting Rocks and Dust with cargo to store or retrieve, and the guards look up at the ceiling, of course, but only occasionally, and always they miss your form, hidden in the busy ceiling above.
  2951. > Because of this, nearly a full hour passes until at last you round the final corner and are completely out of sight.
  2952. > Even so, you carefully pick your way through the ceiling for another hundred hooves, not wanting to make any noise or leave any hoofprints.
  2953. > That eats up another half-hour before you are at last free to go about the Rookery as a proper inhabitant, instead of as a thief.
  2954. > But before that, while still clinging to the ceiling, you first remove all of your tools of thievery.
  2955. > The camouflaged clothing, the hoof-pads, the wing-silencers.
  2956. > When at last your hooves touch the ground, you are a black-cloaked Star like any other, with a nondescript load on your back, and in short order, you exit the Rookery and make your way back to the palace.
  2957. > Exhausted from the long night, you arrive at the door to your quarters.
  2958. > "Okay, now give me pouty! POUTY!"
  2959. > Furrowing your brow, you push open the door.
  2960. > There is nopony in the common area; the sounds are coming from the bedroom of the Specialist Sparkshower.
  2961. > "... COME ON SPARKS, I said POUT!"
  2962. > What exactly is going on in there?
  2963. > You step up to the door and lean an ear up.
  2964. > "I'm trying!"
  2965. > "Well, try harder! Look, it's simple, okay? Just imagine you got uninvited to the Gala. Anonymous isn't taking you any more -- you have to stay here all by yourself."
  2966. > "What?! That's... That's not fair!"
  2967. > Unable to restrain your curiosity, you silently twist the doorknob and push open a sliver.
  2968. > The Specialist Sparkshower is lying on the bed, wearing her cuirass but with her helmet on the covers beside her, looking upset.
  2969. > "Right! And the reason he's uninvited you is because you stuck your tuft out at him."
  2971. > From behind a camera floating in the air, the Specialist Glamerspear is waving a hoof and barking orders.
  2972. > "But I didn't mean anything wrong by it! And anyways what's wrong with sticking my tuft out? Lots of mares stick theirs out! I should be allowed to stick mine out if I want to!"
  2973. > At this new expression of indignant disappointment, the unicorn smiles and you hear a click from the camera.
  2974. > "Perfect! Hold it just like that!"
  2975. > The camera whirrrs and clicks, held aloft by the unicorn's telekinesis, as Glamerspear shuffles side to side, the pegasus following her with her pouty gaze.
  2976. > "... Okay! That's enough with the armour on, all right? Let's try something else next."
  2977. > She heads over to the desk where there are spread out all sorts of magazines with photos of mares in very seductive poses...
  2978. > Oho...
  2979. > Perhaps you could consider staying awake for a little while longer.
  2980. > You smile and open the door enough to push your head through.
  2981. "I apologize for the interruption, but do you need any assistance?"
  2982. > Instantly, the eyes of both Specialists go very wide, and they look at you in shock.
  2983. > Sparkshower quickly dismounts the bed.
  2984. > "Uhm, Sergeant, this isn't what it looks like."
  2985. "Oh? Specialist Glamerspear is not taking the pictures scandalous and erotic of you?"
  2986. > They exchange glances, and she changes her tune.
  2987. > "Uh, maybe, a little, yeah."
  2988. > You smile even more widely.
  2989. "Excellent. If you wish for privacy, then I will leave you. But otherwise, if I can be of any help, then I am here."
  2990. > Sparkshower sighs.
  2991. > "Well, actually..."
  2992. > Yes...?
  2993. > "... Do you think we could use your room in about an hour? You've got those super sun-blocking curtains, and I need a dark room to develop the photos afterwards. I promise we won't make a mess"
  2994. > Ah.
  2995. > Not wanting to show your disappointment, you keep up your smile.
  2996. "Of course. I will simply put a few things away first, then I will sleep on the sofa while you work."
  2998. > She smiles amiably.
  2999. > "Gosh, thanks! I'll make sure to open the window afterwards so there's no smell either."