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Thaumaturgy With Anon [2/?]

By HK-FortySeven
Created: 2nd November 2020 02:09:21 PM

  1. @@@@@@@@
  2. @ Thaumaturgy with Anon, Pt. 2
  3. @ Originally posted to Pastebin on Jun 10, 2017
  4. @@@@@@@@
  5. @ If you haven't read part one yet, you might want to do so before reading this.
  6. @@@@@@@@
  7.  
  8. >THUMP THUMP CRASH
  9. >You're jolted awake.
  10. >THUMP CREAK
  11. >Wh-what the hay is that noise?!
  12. >You float your glasses on, and quickly stumble out of bed.
  13. >Wait, was that a yelp you heard?
  14. >THUMP THUMP
  15. >It's all coming from downstairs, from the foyer!
  16. >Wait, you hear a voice from behind your door!
  17. >"You know the drill. Sweep the place and pacify anypony here."
  18. >Ohh no, oh nononono!
  19. >You've read enough guard drama to know this routine!
  20. >You barricade your door with the dresser as quickly as you can, before getting into your robes.
  21. >KNOCK KNOCK
  22. >Oh horseapples, they're knocking!
  23. >You scan outside the window very quickly.
  24. >Oh no.
  25. >The streets have... evil changelings in them?!
  26. >And there are gryphons?
  27. >Their vestments...
  28. >That symbol on it.
  29. >Oh, no.
  30. >These are Incognito's forces!
  31. >KNOCK THUMP THUMP
  32. >You need to get out of here!
  33. >The rooftop!
  34. >You visualize the layout of the roof, and cast the teleport spell.
  35. >Thank goodness, nothing's up here yet!
  36. >You can see Twilight's castle in the distance, and powerful blasts of lavender and green magic from behind it's windows.
  37. >She's fighting them off!
  38. >Going to her won't be of any use.
  39. >Wait.
  40. >Anon!
  41. >He might be in danger, too!
  42. >Especially since he's met Incognito before!
  43.  
  44. >Before anypony catches you up here, you survey the area between here and Anon's home.
  45. >The path goes off towards the Everfree, and there aren't many enemies in the path.
  46. >You'll still need to disable them the second you get down there.
  47. >Layering a flash spell right after the teleport!
  48. >That could work!
  49. >No time to overthink this, just go!
  50. >You layer the spells.
  51. >First, a teleport as far as you know you're capable of, onto the road.
  52. >Right in the middle of some baddies, unfortunately.
  53. >But that's what the flash spell is for.
  54. >The spells execute.
  55. >You shut your eyes.
  56. >You feel yourself warping to the destination, followed by the flash spell firing off.
  57. >The yelling of the changelings and one gryphon accompanies you finally opening your eyes.
  58. >You run down the path as fast as you possibly can.
  59. >"Hey, stop!"
  60. >RUN!
  61. >You feel the energy of changeling magic bolts zipping past you.
  62. >Whatever you do, don't stop running!
  63. >"Come on, little pony. Don't make this hard for yourself."
  64. >There's Anon's house!
  65. >Almost ther--
  66. >FZZZZPT
  67. >Pain lances through your left hindleg as a changeling bolt hits it.
  68. >You're sent sprawling into a heap, around 12 feet from Anon's door.
  69. >"Finally."
  70. >In a panic, you try to throw some magic bolts their way.
  71. >But they avoid them with barely any effort.
  72. >The changelings then form a shield with their collective power, that blocks any such attack.
  73. >The gryphon with them is holding a crossbow.
  74. >Pointed right at you.
  75. >"Quit casting right now, or I'm gonna put a bolt between your eyes."
  76.  
  77. >You didn't have any shield spells memorized.
  78. >You don't have a choice.
  79. >You stop.
  80. >You didn't want to die.
  81. >Two changelings are approaching.
  82. >No, not like this!
  83. >You didn't get to--
  84. >"AAARGH!"
  85. >Your thoughts were interrupted by a bolt of magical lightning hitting the gryphon.
  86. >The changelings turn around to find the source, only to be pelted by what look like spikes of magically formed ice.
  87. >A constant stream of magical lightning follows soon afterwards, shocking the changelings one by one into unconsciousness.
  88. >The gryphon recovers long enough to whirl around with his crossbow, only to have it knocked out of his talons by another spike of ice.
  89. >He then pulls free some kind of knife to charge at the unknown source of the attacks.
  90. >You feel a lot of magical build-up, followed by the release of a large amount of ice magic.
  91. >A small magical ice storm collides with the gryphon, encasing it in ice.
  92. >The source of the spells finally walks into the scene.
  93. >It's Anon!
  94. >He's holding two staves in his hands, has strange gloves, and seems to have a very faint orange shimmer coming off of him.
  95. >A focus floats to replace another on his right staff, a focus you don't recognize.
  96. >He uses this staff to hit the gryphon in the chest.
  97. >An explosion of fire magic comes from the impact, breaking the ice and sending the gryphon careening off, finally unconscious as well.
  98. >You've never seen him look this angry and serious before.
  99. >"Dirty cocksuckers."
  100. >He turns to you next.
  101. >"You all right, buddy?"
  102.  
  103. @@@@@@@@
  104.  
  105. >Anon mad?
  106. >Anon mad.
  107. >Anon extremely fucking mad.
  108. >You know, this was supposed to be your day off.
  109. >You'd have a chat with Twilight, blow her little mind, have a good time.
  110. >But no.
  111. >Murphy decided that you hadn't been getting your daily recommended amount of getting railed in the ass.
  112. >And now THESE fucking assholes show back up!
  113. >You're just lucky you came back at this moment.
  114. >You'd gotten up super early to test out your new n' improved combat foci in the Everfree, mostly on trees.
  115. >And then that fucking manticore showed back up.
  116. >Except, he wasn't there to fuck with you.
  117. >Now, you thought that was because you were packing some serious arcane heat, and could fry his ass whenever.
  118. >But the thing looked legitimately upset, and was pointing back to Ponyville.
  119. >Hell, it led you out of the forest!
  120. >And that's when you saw the smoke. And the changelings. And the magic lightshow in Twilight's castle.
  121. >And that's also how you saw Sunburst legging it to your place.
  122. >And so, here you are, having doled out your first serving of magical ass-whooping to these punk-ass bitches.
  123. >But the pleasure from being able to finally do that was very much tangential.
  124. >You had other problems.
  125. >Like saving the rest of your friends.
  126. >You will NOT let that piss-swilling faglord get his greasy mitts on them.
  127. >No way, no how.
  128. >You don't care if you have to announce to them that you've been fucking around with very questionable magic.
  129. >"I... I think so. H-holy cow, Anon, what's going on?!"
  130. >Ah, right.
  131. >You help Sunburst back to his hooves.
  132.  
  133. "Looks like our 'friend' came back for more."
  134. >"It looks like it. I only had enough time to leave for here!"
  135. "Can you at least fight?"
  136. >"I-I don't know, I've never f-fought before!"
  137. "Me neither, but we'll make do."
  138. >The two of you start racing down the path back to Ponyville.
  139. >"But you said you got into some fights back home!"
  140. "Drunken brawls and full-on warfare aren't the same thing!"
  141. >The two of you stop behind the side of a building that was presumably guarded by the folks you just dropped.
  142. "All right, what spells do you know that can help us out here?"
  143. >"U-uh, I know some charm spells. They take a lot of prep, though."
  144. "'Charm' spells?"
  145. >"M-mind tricks! Distracts them! W-well, the gryphons, at least..."
  146. "Anything more offensive?"
  147. >"N-no, sorry. I'm trying to remember the shield spells, but..."
  148. "I don't think we'll need them, since I'll be the one heading out into the open here."
  149. >He knows immediately what you mean. Magic resist will make those little bolts they shoot totally ineffective.
  150. >But it's the gryphon crossbows that you're more concerned about.
  151. "Alright, here's the plan. Bit of a work-in-progress, but we'll make do.
  152. "I need you to keep that little charm spell of yours on the back-burner, and use it on any gryphons that show up, all right?
  153. "I'll take care of the rest from there."
  154. >"O-okay, but, w-where are we going?"
  155. "The castle."
  156. >"The castle? But I don't think we--"
  157. "We won't know that until we get there. Now hang back, I'm gonna check this out."
  158.  
  159. >You move to the end of the wall and peer around the corner.
  160. >The middle of the town is full of changelings.
  161. >They look like they've been cocooning a lot of the townponies.
  162. >So not dead. Thank God for that.
  163. >But... hang on, something's different here.
  164. >There's barely any gryphons. Back at Canterlot, it was a pretty even mix. But there's only like five in this group of around two dozen!
  165. >None of the changelings had any crossbows; some of them did back at Canterlot.
  166. >And some of the changelings aren't wearing the tabard thing with the symbol: they're just going commando.
  167. >No way someone that anal about 'his children' would let them slack off on the dress code like that.
  168. >Something's very wrong here.
  169. >But first things first.
  170. >You need to wipe these fuckers before moving on.
  171. >You turn back around to Sunburst.
  172. "There's only five gryphons out there, bud!"
  173. >"What? Only five?"
  174. "I know. Think you can handle five of them?"
  175. >"Y-yeah, I... I think so!"
  176. "Alright, let me know when you're charged up for it. I'm gonna walk out into the crowd once you are, get their attention. Drop them when I do."
  177. >He gives a shaky nod.
  178. >You turn back to the sight. Sunburst's horn can be heard charging behind you.
  179. >A minute later, he taps you on the back.
  180. >You allow yourself a smile for this.
  181. >It's showtime.
  182. >You stow the left-hand staff with the Winterchill focus onto your back.
  183. >Thanks to your new suit jacket, it sticks there like a magnet.
  184. >Okay, maybe 'magnet' was the wrong term...
  185. >Whatever, fuck it.
  186.  
  187. >You cradle your best staff, the one with the Pyrokinesis focus on it, in both hands like a shotgun.
  188. >And then you sashay out from behind the building, towards the crowd.
  189. >The changelings take immediate notice of you once one spots you.
  190. >The gryphons look surprised. The changelings all start to hiss.
  191. >More importantly, they all start to semicircle around your front.
  192. >Man, you couldn't have planned that layout better.
  193. >Oh, one of the gryphons is speaking:
  194. >"Hold it right there, false prophet!"
  195. >F-false prophet?
  196. >Ohhh my fucking god, he's got them wrapped right the fuck around his dick, doesn't he?
  197. >You actually had to stifle a chuckle.
  198. >"Identify yourself!"
  199. "My name is not important."
  200. >You look around at the slowly tightening semicircle for dramatic effect.
  201. "What is important, is what I'm going to do."
  202. >At that precise moment, a haze of magic suddenly envelops the heads of the gryphons.
  203. >Wow, holy shit, they're yelling and thrashing.
  204. >It almost distracted you as much as it did the changelings.
  205. >You signal the staff to pump magic into the Pyrokinesis focus.
  206. >More specifically, the region for a big cone of flame.
  207. >And a cone of flame is exactly what you get.
  208. >With a loud FWOOSH, you sweep the cone along the semicircle like a flamethrower.
  209. >Good thing that old Scarabspeak book also taught you the verbal aspects of the language.
  210. >Because the bug-screeching they're making is definitely pain.
  211. >You move forward and sweep it more, until the sounds stop.
  212. >Then, you observe the carnage.
  213.  
  214. >To be honest, you had your reservations about using fire magic.
  215. >I mean, you've seen burn victims and napalm demos before.
  216. >It's not pretty stuff.
  217. >But that's actual fire.
  218. >Fire magic? Works quite differently, turns out.
  219. >The damn stuff works almost like a phaser, in that it has modes for 'safety': stun and kill, basically.
  220. >When it's 'safe', the fire literally burns away their mana until they drop from exhaustion.
  221. >Raises the temperature to desert-levels, too.
  222. >The warm, slightly steaming bodies of the whole group you dropped is testament to that.
  223. >They ought to be glad you're not of the killing persuasion just yet.
  224. >Because 'kill' fire magic is just like real fire in every-which way, with the mana-burn thrown in as well.
  225. "Alright, I got 'em."
  226. >"Ho-holy mackerel! I didn't know foci could do THAT!"
  227. "No time for the explainer. We've got a princess to back up."
  228. >To the next building you go.
  229. >"But Anon, what will she think when she sees you--"
  230. "I'll deal with that as it comes."
  231. >Another corner to peer around.
  232. >The pathway through town, leading right to the castle.
  233. >It was full of changelings, all moving cocoons with ponies into one building.
  234. >No gryphons, though!
  235. >Seriously, that's not like Incognito at all.
  236. >That's when you notice the castle.
  237. >You hadn't paid attention to the details of the lightshow there before.
  238. >Familiar lavender magic was clashing with... green magic?
  239. >But Incognito uses red magic, right?
  240. >And he's ironblooded like you, so why would they need to trade magic blasts like that, anyways?
  241. >This isn't right.
  242.  
  243. >You're starting to doubt if Incognito is even here at all.
  244. >But you'll find out soon enough.
  245. >The approach wasn't looking very pretty.
  246. >There was too many bugs for any kind of stealth approach, even from the other side of the buildings.
  247. >Time to get your magic akimbo action going on.
  248. >You signal your new gloves to TK open your pouch of foci.
  249. >Let's see...
  250. >You've got your Pegasus's Wrath: also known as lightning, Banshee's Keening, Hurricane, and TK on tap.
  251. >Okay, let's think this over.
  252. >You could try to Rambo your way through it with fire and lightning. Maybe even wind.
  253. >But the brute force method's never worked out for you before.
  254. >So probably not.
  255. >Hmm...
  256. "Hey, Sunburst?"
  257. >"W-what?"
  258. "How sensitive are changeling ears?"
  259. >"Huh? W-well, pretty sensitive, actually. Why?"
  260. "Perfect, thanks."
  261. >"Wait, hang on. What are you planning?"
  262. "All I need for you to do, is to throw up some sound-cancelling magic for yourself."
  263. >You were gonna need a lot of noise for this one.
  264. >You pull the other staff free, and use your gloves to TK away the fire focus, and put the sonic focus on your main staff.
  265. >"Whoa, Anon, how are you doing that?"
  266. "What? Oh, these? Made these a while ago, along with this jacket. First time testing 'em out."
  267. >You'd put a little enchant on the gloves to do some very mild TK.
  268. >It was only strong enough to affect already-magical constructs near them. Couldn't even lift a pebble otherwise.
  269. >But it made them perfect for tactical focus-swapping in combat.
  270. >Well, maybe. Never field-tested and all.
  271. >Better not push your luck.
  272.  
  273. "Alright, here's the plan. We're gonna go right through these fuckers."
  274. >"Wh-what?!"
  275. "I've got a sound focus ready to roll here. We're gonna totally disable them, keep them from even fighting us. Maybe knock them out in the process."
  276. >"A... a sound focus? Oh gosh, are you sure about this?"
  277. "Absolutely not, but the alternative is bombing through their lines with fire and lightning. Rather not try that approach."
  278. >Your staves couldn't maintain that kind of assault, anyway.
  279. >Your best one had a three-minute channel limit. And needed four to charge back from empty.
  280. >Off-hand was two-and-a-half. But with the same charge time.
  281. >You'd run out of magic ammo before you got halfway through them.
  282. >Now, you'd have to keep them from moving after the sonic attack.
  283. >The ice focus can freeze them pretty handily, if they're clumped up enough.
  284. >Now, we just--
  285. >"Anon, wait! I've got another idea!"
  286. "You do? Let's hear it."
  287. >"We might be able to sneak past, after all! That jacket is magical, right?"
  288. "Yeah?"
  289. >He lights his horn up, and casts a spell on himself and your jacket.
  290. >A shimmering field - the kind that obscures things - comes from your jacket, covering you. Sunburst himself shimmers the same, without the field.
  291. >"I forgot I knew an invisibility charm! We can get right past them!"
  292. "Well shit, that's a way better idea. Nice going. How long can you keep it up?"
  293. >"Long enough to get to the castle doors. Think you can handle things from there while I recharge?"
  294. "Absolutely. Let's move."
  295. >And so the sprint begins.
  296.  
  297. >Sunburst can't see you at all, if his not looking anywhere near you while running is any indication.
  298. >But you could still see him.
  299. >You realized pretty quick that footstep sounds would be a problem.
  300. >Although you had the sonic focus, you didn't know if using magic would break the invisibility.
  301. >So no distractions for you.
  302. >The changelings look confused by the step sounds, but they don't move at all from their cocoon-moving duty.
  303. >Maybe it's love collection they're doing?
  304. >Getting some food while they attack the castle?
  305. >Hell, now that you mention it...
  306. >You don't really know the metrics for changeling starvation or anything, but they were all looking pretty skinny.
  307. >The ones from the castle were a good deal thicker than these ones.
  308. >But hang on a sec, why wouldn't Incognito keep his own troops fed?
  309. >This makes less and less sense as time goes on.
  310. >Speaking of going on, you clear the town, and are now on the path straight to the castle.
  311. >Sunburst is looking really winded.
  312. "Hey buddy, pull over at that bush there."
  313. >He complies, and steers to the sizable bush to the left of the road.
  314. >You follow him over just as his magic stops, dropping the charm.
  315. >He's really heaving from exhaustion now.
  316. >You let him rest while you look on over to the castle doors, which were about twenty-odd feet from here.
  317. >Unconscious pony guards lie there, with a couple of gryphons and seven changelings patrolling around the door.
  318. >Shit, Sunburst can't charm the gryphons right now.
  319. >You're gonna have to solo these guys.
  320.  
  321. >You change out some foci: lightning on main, and wind on the other.
  322. >Well, it wasn't just wind.
  323. >It also did some basic cloud manipulation.
  324. >And there were a good few clouds hanging down around here.
  325. >Yeah... that could work really well!
  326. >And if you're spotted, you can quickly break cover and go force lightning on their candy asses.
  327. >Alright, let's set up the 'bomb'...
  328. >You pull some clouds together into one clump, and then send it flying towards the group ahead. You give the lightning a good charge, too.
  329. >Now, a cloud coming right for you is pretty universal for 'pegasus pushing it', so when they notice, they lay into the cloud with magic and crossbows.
  330. >The cloud starts tearing up, but you don't need it together for long.
  331. >It gets just close enough, and then...
  332. >The lightning gets unleashed in a big bolt towards the cloud.
  333. >As you expected, the cloud conducts it, electrocuting the bunch of them.
  334. >Not quite chain-lightning, but cool in it's own way.
  335. >The cloud dissipates after that, allowing you to see the damage.
  336. >The changelings had dropped, but the gryphons were still kicking.
  337. >Fuck. Was really hoping that would drop them.
  338. >And they saw your lightning's source, too.
  339. >Into flight they go, crossbows at the ready.
  340. >Let's see if Avatar was right about this.
  341. >You create a tightly packed ball of turbulent air a few feet in front of you, holding it between you and the gryphons.
  342. >The crossbows fire.
  343. >And the bolts ping off the ball.
  344. >Hahah, looks like that does work!
  345. >You charge a bolt of lightning while this happens, and zap the meaner looking gryphon right outta the sky.
  346.  
  347. >The other one gets wise to your shit, and starts banking around for a good shot.
  348. >Fuck, can't move the air globe fast enough!
  349. >Lightning bolt's still charging, too!
  350. >The sound of a crossbow firing makes you stop channeling into the air globe and try to move.
  351. >It doesn't work out too well.
  352. >THUNK-ZWOOSH
  353. >For him, that is.
  354. >Face full of lightning for you, sucker!
  355. >Man, [spoiler]he was real shocked by that one, eh?[/spoiler]
  356. >You're a terrible person, you know.
  357. >Good thing your jacket kept you safe from that bolt, like you expected!
  358. >A little enchantment for a physical deflector shield never hurt anyone.
  359. >Alright, let's see...
  360. >Nobody else seems to be coming.
  361. >You check up on Sunburst, see how he's doing.
  362. >He's still winded, but looking better. And is surprised.
  363. >"A... a physical shield?"
  364. "God damn right."
  365. >"H-hey, nice!"
  366. "Enough about me, how are you doing?"
  367. >"B-better, but... I don't think I can help you out much here. R-really overextended."
  368. >Damn it.
  369. >"Listen, I didn't get a chance to signal for the Canterlot guards, and I've only got enough magic left for that. You're gonna have to do the rest yourself."
  370. "Shit. How long until they get here?"
  371. >"Ten minutes at the least. Celestia's gone on a diplomatic mission, but Luna's still in Canterlot. We might see her, and the Night Guard assisting us here."
  372. >Shit, really? You know how those guys fight, and it's really well.
  373. "Alright, send that beacon off. And stay hidden, all right? I don't wanna come out of this and find out you got cocooned up."
  374. >"S-sure thing, Anon. Watch yourself, okay?"
  375. "I always watch myself."
  376.  
  377. >You turn away from him and make your way to the door. The sound of magic being cast can be heard from behind you.
  378. >Okay, you're working on borrowed time here.
  379. >You need to find the girls, and fast.
  380. >You swap out some foci: fire on main, and sound on other.
  381. >The close quarters are gonna make sound attacks way more effective.
  382. >You file in through the door. Nobody's here, thank God.
  383. >All you've gotta do now is follow the magic blasts.
  384. >...
  385. >Wait.
  386. >There aren't any magic blasts anymore.
  387. >Oh, fuck me.
  388. >You've gotta move.
  389. >You keep your footsteps quiet, but you're definitely speed-walking.
  390. >Right at the closed door for the friendship map chamber, you can hear some mare chuckling. It's a pretty good evil villain-type voice.
  391. >"Hahahah, what a marvelous outcome! Even you couldn't stand against the love I had kept stored for this!"
  392. >Stored love?
  393. >Oh, shit.
  394. >You think you know who this is.
  395. >"Oh, don't bother trying to speak, little dear. It'll all be over soon. You and your precious princesses will feed my hive once again!"
  396. >Yep.
  397. >That is definitely that Chrysalis character.
  398. >Twilight talked about her like she was the fucking antichrist.
  399. >But...
  400. >She hasn't killed them, right?
  401. >She needs them alive to feed on!
  402. >And if she stored up enough love, then...
  403. >Fuck, was that why her bugs were looking thin out there?
  404. >"Let the last thing you see, be a reminder of your new place in my world!"
  405. >Yeah, no. Fuck that to oblivion and back.
  406. >You try pushing the doors, but they won't budge.
  407. >So you charge the fire focus for a contact blast, instead.
  408.  
  409. >BLAM
  410. >Man, this was exactly like pimp-caning. With explosions.
  411. >The door flies inwards, one of which goes off the hinges.
  412. >You take in the sight now available to you.
  413. >...
  414. >Hooooly piss.
  415. >This place looked like a warzone.
  416. >Scorch marks everywhere, furniture tossed around, a total fucking mess.
  417. >The girls were all sprawled out, unconscious, with assorted magic scorches covering them.
  418. >Twilight was the worst case.
  419. >And standing right above her, whirling in her shitheel to face you, was...
  420. >Ohhhh.
  421. >Dear fucking God, someone went ham with the ugly stick.
  422. >Despite being skinny as all hell, she was still twice the height of Twilight. A real big bitch.
  423. >[spoiler]4U[/spoiler]
  424. >And boy, did she look surprised to see you.
  425. >You take advantage of this shock by strolling in.
  426. "Lady, I'm afraid I'm gonna have to ask you to step away from the royalty."
  427. >She recovers from the shock pretty quick.
  428. >And 180's into snarling anger. Fastest switch you've ever seen.
  429. >"Gaaaah! Will I ever be free of these wretched humans?!"
  430. >Humans?
  431. >She must know Incognito!
  432. >Oh, there she goes, into a charge.
  433. >A sustained gout of fire convinces her to stop.
  434. >She... well, kinda teleports away.
  435. >It was more like she opened a black flaming portal underneath her, and then slipped out of another one on the other side of the room.
  436. >She's looking a lot more careful, but still furious.
  437. >"And who dares to interrupt me, queen of all changelings?!"
  438. >You keep your expression neutral while you swap sonic for lightning.
  439. "Name's Anon. Professional ear scratcher."
  440.  
  441. @@@@@@@@
  442.  
  443. >Some of the anger on her face gives way to recognition.
  444. >"Anon? By any chance, do you mean Anonymous?"
  445. "You can figure it out."
  446. >Despite obviously hating your retort, she manages to laugh.
  447. >"Oh, it is true! Mister Anonymous, the only one with the stones to spit in the face of little Nito's offer!"
  448. >'Nito'?
  449. >So she does know him!
  450. >Can't imagine he's too happy with that pet name, though.
  451. >"Now, I must ask: what is an obviously well-accomplished human like you, doing living with these soft little love factories?"
  452. "Interesting way to say 'friends'."
  453. >More laughter.
  454. >She's awfully chatty for someone who hates you.
  455. >Hmm...
  456. >"F-friends?! Ohh, that is precious! You don't even have intrinsic magic, and you still bought that nonsense all the same!"
  457. "Sure doesn't sound like nonsense to me, lady."
  458. >"Pah! You clearly don't know much about ponies, then! I suppose I should have expected that, what with your living here with them."
  459. "And you clearly don't know much about good planning. But hey, I guess I should expect that, when you sit around brooding in a cave all day."
  460. >"Silence! Who do you think you are?!"
  461. >A lot smarter than you, bugbutt.
  462. >Yeah, that confirms it.
  463. >She's a total Bond villain.
  464. >Literally cannot shut the fuck up about her master plan, before she even executes it.
  465. "Professional ear scratcher, I told you. Try listening next time."
  466. >You know, you always wondered how someone who took over Equestria - twice - could fucking lose it all like that.
  467. >Well, here's the answer.
  468. >Clearly, she doesn't make the plans with Incognito around.
  469.  
  470. >"Bark while you can, 'Anon'! Because you'll be the next to fall here today!"
  471. >Although.
  472. >You wonder...
  473. "This assumes you're both strong and competent enough to try it."
  474. >Hm, probably should have let up on the ribbing.
  475. >Now she's charging you again, horn aglow.
  476. >Your fire gout response is blocked by a shield she's put up.
  477. >You just barely manage to move out of the way.
  478. >Right, this was gonna need more than basic sustain spells.
  479. >So you start pouring magic into the foci, charging them up.
  480. >Chrysalis warps away again, horn very brightly glowing this time.
  481. >What comes out of it is a fuckhuge magic missile.
  482. >Your attempt to dodge is thrwarted by it being a seeking missile.
  483. >Fuck.
  484. >ZWBOOMF
  485. "Agh!"
  486. >Okay, magic resist or no, that one hurt. Like a solid punch to the arm.
  487. >Burned a fist-sized hole through your clothes, too.
  488. >Not enough for you to drop your staff, but you could feel the turbulence from the magic blast pulling at it.
  489. >She's ready for another charge, but this time forms two bludgeons from the crystal walls.
  490. >Those are liable to break something if they hit you.
  491. >Your foci have a good amount of charge in them, though.
  492. >You should be able to one-two blast through that.
  493. >But this needed to count. You already dumped nearly a minute into these things already.
  494. >Staves at the ready, you brace for impact.
  495. >She smiles at the display.
  496. >And runs right for you.
  497. >Spinning the bludgeons for good effect.
  498. >Works for you.
  499. >She gets a good three feet in front of you, before you throw out the lightning.
  500.  
  501. >A loud CRACK follows your sweep of the staff, as a ball of lightning fires forth from it.
  502. >She didn't expect to see that, and tries to warp away.
  503. >But she's too slow.
  504. >The ball hits her in the chest, lingering there doing it's electrocution thing before it finally detonates in a big nova of lightning.
  505. >The nova sends her sprawling back, but you're already running forward.
  506. >The off-hand staff is stowed on your back.
  507. >Both hands on the fire staff.
  508. >You wind it up.
  509. >The electrocution frazzled her too much. She only lights up her horn just before you get within striking distance.
  510. >And then you golf-swing the staff right towards her.
  511. >BLAM
  512. >A huge contact explosion goes off at the point of impact.
  513. >She put up a shield, but it was too weak, and shattered upon impact.
  514. >The result was her flying against the wall.
  515. >Just barely enough to crack it.
  516. >You're already pouring more charge into the fire, and pull out the lightning again for another.
  517. >She falls off of the wall and flops onto the ground.
  518. >Huh.
  519. >She looks a lot weaker than she did before.
  520. >You didn't even know changelings could get bags under the eyes.
  521. >She struggles to stand, but manages anyways.
  522. >"You... you're good. Better than I thought."
  523. >That was good?
  524. >Blocking a charge was good in her books?
  525. >Or was she too tired to think right?
  526. >Hell if you know. Or care.
  527. >She tries to lift another hunk of crystal, but her horn fizzles out halfway into it.
  528. >And painfully too, if her grunt was anything to go by.
  529. >Huh.
  530. >That's right.
  531. >You caught her at the tail end of her fight with the girls.
  532.  
  533. >Meaning she's too weak to fight on her own--
  534. >CRACK
  535. >The sound of doors being thrown open draws your attention.
  536. >A pair of fairly big changelings run in through the door.
  537. >One looks more prissy than normal, and scared to boot.
  538. >The other looks as grizzled as that one motherfucker who pledged to remove all kebabs. And pissed, to boot.
  539. >Former bug runs to Chrysalis, latter bug runs right for you.
  540. >And he's floating four bludgeons.
  541. >Because of course he is.
  542. >You've got a thirty second charge going on both staves right now.
  543. >Should be enough to--
  544. >WHOOSH
  545. >OOOORR he could throw a bludgeon at you mid-charge, that works too!
  546. >Another bludgeon sails through the air, missing only by half an inch.
  547. >The third embeds in the floor from the force it's thrown with.
  548. >The bug's almost on you.
  549. >He was keeping you distracted for his charge.
  550. >The other bludgeon comes up for a swing.
  551. >THWACK-ZWOOSH
  552. >Remind yourself to kiss that shield enchant.
  553. >Surprise colours his face a little when he sees this.
  554. >But he charges forth nonetheless.
  555. >No way your shield can hold for this one.
  556. >You hold your right arm out in front of you, to try and defend.
  557. >The shield breaks with little effort.
  558. >Allowing him to chomp down on your arm.
  559. "FUCK!"
  560. >Fangs, right! Fangs!
  561. >Just as quick as he latched on, his eyes bulge open.
  562. >He starts trying to pull away, obviously being hurt by something.
  563. >FUCKING SHIT it's tearing your arm up!
  564. >Up comes your lightning staff, right before he opens his jaw.
  565. >You changed the point of build-up on the focus for this.
  566.  
  567. >You can hear the bug screaming into your arm as you effectively start to taze him with the point of your staff.
  568. >Dumping all thirty seconds of build-up from ball lightning into contact shock.
  569. >Adrenaline's doing a wonderful job of keeping you from screaming out as he convulses.
  570. >Since, you know, he's still fucking biting you and all!
  571. >Seven seconds pass before the charge ends, and he's quite out of action. Glassy eyes don't lie.
  572. >You don't know how you still held onto your fire staff.
  573. >But it's still charging.
  574. >You stow the lightning one immediately, and set to pulling this asshole's jaws off your arm.
  575. >It takes all of five seconds to manage it, a healthy amount of blood leaking as it happens.
  576. >You try to keep as much of your composure as you can. Even through all of this, blood still freaks you out.
  577. >Fuck, right hand's useless like this.
  578. >You grab hold of the fire staff just as your right hand goes limp on you.
  579. >Your gaze settles on Chrysalis.
  580. >She looks to be sucking magic out of that other changeling, who looks thinner than before already.
  581. >Yeah, not happening.
  582. >No fucking mana potions for you.
  583. >You break into a charge of your own.
  584. >Your right arm kind of dangles, blood dripping down as it does.
  585. >Not even gonna look.
  586. >Fire's up to almost a minute of charge.
  587. >Enough for another huge contact blast.
  588. >She sees you coming however, and raises you a bright green shield.
  589. >God damn it, you can't get through that! You don't have the charge for it!
  590. >...
  591. >Wait.
  592. >Maybe you can get through it!
  593.  
  594. >You reel back the fire staff for another swing, and hold out your damaged arm.
  595. >Fuck, Twilight and Fluttershy are going to kill you for the arm thing.
  596. >But if this works...
  597. >You don't slow your pace, and brace your bad arm for impact.
  598. >There's a lot of blood coating your arm right now.
  599. >That would normally be a problem.
  600. >But here...
  601. >Your arm makes first contact with the barrier. A huge amount of pain lances through you as it impacts.
  602. >But the impact barely lasts, since the barrier literally melts at the point of contact before shattering.
  603. >The very surprised face of Chrysalis and her healer bug greet you on the other side.
  604. >A face that's soon greeted by a second golf swing of your fire focus.
  605. >BLAM
  606. >She's way closer to the wall this time. She's sent crashing right through the wall, while her assist is thrown away by the shockwave.
  607. >That's right.
  608. >If iron blood negated magic while inside you...
  609. >Then it stands to reason that it would negate it outside you, too!
  610. >That could have been why that other bug tried to get off when he bit you!
  611. >But speaking of bugs.
  612. >You're not done with her yet.
  613. >You can hear her groans through the hole her body punches through the wall.
  614. >You put away your main staff, letting it charge. Then you pull out the other staff and swap foci for the sonic one.
  615. >Then you pull yourself through the hole.
  616. >She's lying in the middle of some rubble, chitin cracked and seeping small amounts of green in areas.
  617. >The room happens to be a fairly large closet.
  618. >Perfect.
  619.  
  620. "You know."
  621. >When her eyes dart over to you, it's fear you see.
  622. "I was half wrong."
  623. >She's trying to scamper away, but is too beaten up to manage more than a bit of thrashing.
  624. "You were definitely strong enough to beat me. Just not competent enough."
  625. >The adrenaline high was coming down, leaving a lot of pain in your arm.
  626. >By most accounts, this would be where you tap out.
  627. >But you're far too pissed to let it end here.
  628. >You want answers.
  629. "Now, we can do this the easy way, or we can do this the hard way."
  630. >Oh look, she's confused.
  631. "You can fess up to me right now everything I want answers to, and get hauled off to pony jail.
  632. "Or, I can start hurting you until you talk, or until you get hauled off to pony jail."
  633. >Yeah, you'll permit yourself some edge here. You earned it.
  634. >Still enough spite left in her for a retort:
  635. >"You're no interrogator, human! What makes you think I would--"
  636. "Wrong answer."
  637. >Whatever strength she was using to get up was now being used to cover her ears and yell out in pain.
  638. >The sonic focus gave off this really piercing noise when it was channeled into normally.
  639. >To you, it sounded like a much louder version of that high-pitched whine that old tube TV's make.
  640. >More annoying than anything.
  641. >But to a magical being, it's like Freddy Krueger scratching his knives on a chalkboard. Like in that one movie.
  642. >You're not interested in exploding her head, however.
  643. >You might be permitting yourself some edge here, but you're still not going to kill her.
  644. >The sonic focus fires off for about twenty-odd seconds before you stop.
  645.  
  646. >"R-revenge!"
  647. "What?"
  648. >"I came here for revenge!"
  649. >Huh. That didn't take long.
  650. "Tell me something I don't know."
  651. >"Wh-what?"
  652. "Do I look like an idiot to you? Everyone and their mother knows you want revenge.
  653. "I'm more interested in why you came here without your boss's permission."
  654. >Now she's angry.
  655. >"That egomaniac is NOT my leader!"
  656. "Yeah, keep telling yourself that."
  657. >She tried to lunge for you, but failed. A five-second sound treatment discouraged anything further.
  658. "You didn't answer my question."
  659. >"Wh-what makes you think he didn't send me?"
  660. "The lack of gryphons and your bugs ignoring the dress code."
  661. >She's surprised by this? I'm sorry, is she retarded, or something?
  662. "Well, let's hear it."
  663. >"You want to know?"
  664. "Preferably before I die of old age."
  665. >"Fine! I stuck around long enough to regain my strength! I'm not interested in his mad goals of conquest!"
  666. "Conquest?"
  667. >"Of course he wants conquest! Why else is he gathering allies around the world?!"
  668. >Oh hello, that's new.
  669. >Christ, she doesn't last long under pressure.
  670. >Apparently she realizes that just now, if her mouth-covering was enough to go by.
  671. "And where, pray tell, are these allies being gathered?"
  672. >Her defiant snarl didn't last long under another sonic assault.
  673. >What you didn't expect was a screech from behind you as well.
  674. >You turn your head to see that prissy bug from before trying to sneak up on you.
  675. >Well, that didn't work out too well for him, now did it?
  676. >You swap foci to TK, and slam him against the wall with it.
  677.  
  678. >"No! Leave him be!"
  679. >That was a tone change you didn't expect.
  680. >Admittedly, you've only seen her today, which isn't much time to gauge her range of emotion.
  681. >But that was definitely pleading. With a scared face to match.
  682. >And here you thought she was the typical heartless monster.
  683. >...
  684. >You could use this bug to get information out of her.
  685. >But...
  686. >No.
  687. >No, that's the bitch way of doing it.
  688. >The girls wouldn't forgive you for it, either.
  689. >You ease up on the wall shoving, and just hold him in place.
  690. >Chrysalis's expression is a mix of surprise and relief.
  691. >"You... I don't understand. You're... you're part of a savage race of warriors. Why are you showing mercy?"
  692. >Oh Christ, Incognito's a total nihilist, isn't he?
  693. "I don't know what that other guy told you about my species, but he's wrong on the savage part. Besides, I've got standards. Torturing friends and family ain't on my list of things I'd do."
  694. >You don't know why she's surprised by this. After all, you--
  695. >"You don't know how happy I am to hear that, Anonymous."
  696. >...
  697. >Oh, right.
  698. >The backup.
  699. >Kinda forgot about that.
  700. >Stepping through the hole was none other than Luna, with a squad of bat-ponies filing in.
  701. >The guards slapped restraints on Chrysalis, and flew in a gurney for her.
  702. >While Luna walks towards you.
  703. >A look of concern on her the whole time.
  704. >Fuck, right.
  705. >The staff.
  706. >She's probably thinking--
  707. >"Anonymous, you're hurt!"
  708. >Oh.
  709. >Or that.
  710. >...
  711. >Well.
  712. >Now the blood loss decides to set in.
  713. >Last thing you hear before she yells your name, is you falling to the ground.
  714. <...
  715.  
  716. >"Paint the mare, cut the lines. It really is a simple thing to do."
  717. >S-s-simple for him, m-maybe!
  718. >Oh darn it, you should have ducked out of Incognito's dark magic demonstration when you had the chance!
  719. >But no, you just had to be curious!
  720. >At least Ajay had the right idea, leaving like he did!
  721. >And so here you sit, with those bloodthirsty zebras from before, watching Incognito cut up a zebra prisoner with his catalyst!
  722. >You had no idea he even practiced this kind of stuff!
  723. >Was that the deal with the ponies he had in those tubes back at the main hive?
  724. >To use for their blood and souls?
  725. >E-even if ponykind deserved it, that just...
  726. >It just seemed so extreme!
  727. >"Of course, any fool with a paintbrush and a knife can carve a rune into the flesh of a living thing. Actually making them function requires something a little more... powerful. Tell me, did you bring the compound I asked for?"
  728. >One of the zebra witch-doctors brought him a bottle of some kind of yellow glowing liquid.
  729. >He dipped one of his catalyst blades in it before proceeding.
  730. >"Some may prefer carving the rune with the same blade they use to suffuse the symbol with the Animus. I much prefer to carve first, and suffuse second, to avoid any errors in the cutting process."
  731. >He then goes on to paint the liquid into the rune-shaped wounds he just made.
  732. >As soon as he finishes, the liquid, as a whole, seeps into the cuts at once, the veins around the area bulging as it happens.
  733. >It was at this point that the restrained mare, who was silent before, began to scream.
  734.  
  735. >Yellowish magic energy began to spark from the cut area, travelling upwards along with the vein bulges to the general area of her heart.
  736. >Her screams began to devolve into feral grunts of agony when it finished it's journey.
  737. >And the wounds began to close, but not before leaving glowing yellow marks where the cuts would be.
  738. >"You shall know if you did it correctly, when the pain becomes great enough to cause frothing at the mouth, and when the wounds close quickly like so, leaving the final version of your runes behind."
  739. >The mare just sat there, heaving and sobbing, while he pointed out the completed rune.
  740. >"As you can see, it is not altogether a very dissimilar process from your own process of Lifeblood Transmutation. Indeed, the Animus I used was the same one you use to etch the alchemic arrays onto the flesh."
  741. >The head witch-doctor, Zamara, spoke up:
  742. >"What a fascinating coincidence. Perhaps this runesmithing and our alchemy share a common ancestor?"
  743. >"It would not be the first time such a coincidence has occurred."
  744. >"Well, I thank you for your demonstration, Lord Matthias. Is is pleasing to see one be so unafraid of the dark arts, as you are."
  745. >"Your words honour me, cunning Zamara."
  746. >Y-yeah, and they t-terrify you!
  747. >The demonstration tent was halfway through being cleaned up, when a fellow changeling ran into the tent.
  748. >"My Lord, my Lord! Urgent news from the primary hive!"
  749. >Wh-what?
  750. >Primary hive?
  751. >What happened?
  752. >"Calm down, my child. Let us take this outside."
  753. >You know this was meant for him, but darn it, you followed anyways!
  754.  
  755. >It sounded like something bad happened to the new hive!
  756. >How could you ignore that?
  757. >And what was with the messenger?
  758. >He looked so thin!
  759. >"Now, tell me what has transpired, my son."
  760. >"P-please forgive me, my Lord! But you have been betrayed!"
  761. >...
  762. >"Betrayed?"
  763. >"M-my queen, she...
  764. >No.
  765. >"She went against your wishes! She rebelled against commander Asuza's garrison!"
  766. >She didn't.
  767. >"She took most of the hive with her, and some gryphon defectors!"
  768. >She couldn't be that stupid.
  769. >You began to shake.
  770. >"Where did she take them, child?"
  771. >Incognito's tone matched your feeling of anger right now.
  772. >But you answered first.
  773. "Ponyville."
  774. >Him and the messenger both turn to face you.
  775. >"How do you know that, Athalia?"
  776. "She always talks about revenge. I didn't think she'd actually..."
  777. >How could she?
  778. >After everything he's done for us?!
  779. >You wanted to scream.
  780. >You wanted to lash out.
  781. >But most of all, you wanted to--
  782. >thump
  783. >Your thoughts were broken by his hand on your withers.
  784. >"How likely is she to succeed?"
  785. "I don't know."
  786. >"Then I wish for you to find out."
  787. "Wh-what?"
  788. >His look, that angry look.
  789. >It didn't scare you like his angry looks from before.
  790. >No, he was angry with you this time.
  791. >"I want you to return to Equestria, Athalia. Find out where she has gone.
  792. >"Whether she has succeeded or not, I want her brought back to our forward base in Zebrica.
  793. >"I must ask you not to kill her, but spare no one in her charge if they get in your way."
  794. >There was only one response to this request.
  795. "It will be done, my Lord."
  796.  
  797. @@@@@@@@
  798.  
  799. >Man, that was a nice dream.
  800. >Something about bugs, fire, and reticulated splines.
  801. >Maybe Raid should market spray can flamethrowers for ants instead.
  802. >Hell, you'd buy twelve. Dozen.
  803. >You know what's also nice, besides flamethrowers?
  804. >This bed.
  805. >This bed is super nice.
  806. >Feels like memory foam.
  807. >Ooh, does it have a slightly raised back?
  808. >Double plus good!
  809. >...
  810. >Hang on.
  811. >Beds don't usually have raised backs.
  812. >Something about that bugs you.
  813. >Heh. Bugs.
  814. >While you're on the subject of bugs.
  815. >Your arm is itchy.
  816. >Goddamn mosquitoes.
  817. >They evolved in order to bite you.
  818. >Let's scratch it.
  819. >...
  820. >I said, let's scratch it.
  821. >...
  822. >Left arm, what are you doing?
  823. >I said, scratch it.
  824. >...
  825. >Yeah, there you go.
  826. >Geez, you're moving slow.
  827. >What, is it your day off or something?
  828. >Well too bad, I need you in the office today.
  829. >Yeeeeeah, there we go.
  830. >Now, let's get the itching out of the way--
  831. "AAGH!"
  832. >FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK
  833. >THAT'S NOT ITCHIES
  834. >THAT'S PAIN
  835. >LOTS OF IT
  836. >MAKE IT STOP
  837. >OH LAWD HAVE MERCY
  838. >HOLYFUCKSOMEONEJUSTSTABBEDTHEARM
  839. >WHATTHEFUCKMANTHATMADEITWORSEYOUFUCKINGNIGGER
  840. >WHENIFINDYOUI'mgonnafuckin...
  841. >Heehee.
  842. >Everything tastes like merry-go-rounds.
  843. >Yeah, and smells like plaid.
  844. >And hears like sleep.
  845. >Whoooooooooo...
  846. >Oh waiter, check please.
  847. <...
  848.  
  849. >You were wrenched from the land of dreams rather roughly.
  850. >You feel like someone just threw a bag of shit into the dryer. Max heat.
  851. >Arm hurts like a bitch. Big, throbbing waves of aching.
  852. >Limbs feel like they weigh a ton.
  853. >But not so for the head.
  854. >So alcohol is innocent once again.
  855. >Your eyelids open fairly easily.
  856. >Though it does take a moment for the whole light-adjust thing.
  857. >Once you're capable of seeing, you observe your immediate environment.
  858. >Yep.
  859. >Another hospital.
  860. >What's with you and hospitals lately?
  861. >Two years of living here, and only now do you end up here all the time.
  862. >Shit's crazy.
  863. >Actually, hang on.
  864. >This room doesn't look like the Ponyville General's one.
  865. >In fact...
  866. >...
  867. >Yeah, the decor is a dead giveaway.
  868. >This is Canterlot again.
  869. >Weird, though.
  870. >You don't remember Canterlot's hospital rooms being painted blue.
  871. >With star patterns.
  872. >Or with painting accessories shoved into the corners, and half-covered with a tarp.
  873. >In fact, the only hospital parts are the monitor, bed, and the white privacy curtains.
  874. >Is...
  875. >Is this a fucking rec room?
  876. >What do they need to convert a rec room for?
  877. >Last you checked, Canterlot castle wasn't wanting for hospital space.
  878. >And hang on.
  879. >That night-sky patterning.
  880. >...
  881. >Only one pony comes to mind with a taste for things night sky.
  882. >The same pony you still needed to send a damn letter to.
  883. >And the same one who--
  884. >Ohhhhhhh fuck.
  885. >That's right.
  886. >The fight.
  887. >She saw that.
  888. >The door can be heard opening.
  889. >Fuck my life.
  890.  
  891. >The hoofsteps sound distinctly armoured.
  892. >Welp, you had a good run, Anon.
  893. >But you doubt you can worm out of 'practicing banned magic'.
  894. >You'll let the royal guard read out the warrant.
  895. >After all, he--
  896. >Hold the fuck up.
  897. >That's a night guard. Of the XY chromosome variety.
  898. >And he looks happy to see you.
  899. >Wait, why would he be--
  900. >"Well, would you look at that! Two day recovery? Geez, what are you humans made out of, anyways?"
  901. >That voice sounds extremely familiar.
  902. >Wait.
  903. >That's...
  904. "Razor Wind?"
  905. >"Hah! And he speaks just fine, too!"
  906. >Holy shit.
  907. >This motherfucker was supposed to be in a hospital for three months.
  908. >Why would...
  909. >Oh.
  910. >Yeah, it has been around three months, hasn't it?
  911. >Whoops.
  912. >Don't remember him being this chummy, though.
  913. >"So, how does our resident alien saviour like his 'quarters' so far?"
  914. >It takes a while of stammering before he changes the subject.
  915. >"Oh yeah, the doc said you might be outta it. Guy gave you the full alchemy treatment. Alicorn healing stuff."
  916. >Did they?
  917. >Weird, you don't feel any different.
  918. "F-feel just fine. Just... caught me by surprise there."
  919. >"Oh yeah, that too."
  920. >And what was this shit about 'saviour'?
  921. >"Well, since you're awake, might as well get to asking. Probably wondering why you're cooped up here, huh?"
  922. "I've got a few guesses."
  923. >"I'll knock them down for you, then. You were brought up here secretly. Nopony outside the night guard and Princess Luna even knows you're here."
  924. >Wait what
  925.  
  926. "Wait, what? Why?"
  927. >All you get in response is a chuckle.
  928. >"Oh, I'll work up to that, don't worry. I've got another question, though."
  929. "Uh, sure?"
  930. >He's really smiling with this one.
  931. >"Did those evil changelings kill your parents, or something?"
  932. "I... What? The hell does that mean?"
  933. >"Last time I saw you, you were helping us spot those bugs in the castle. Now? You end up wiping the floor with their bucking queen!"
  934. >He can't help but laugh heartily.
  935. >"Not just the queen, but two juiced-up consorts! And all by yourself! Not too shabby, Anon!"
  936. >...
  937. >He's... impressed?
  938. >So, not mad?
  939. >Not going to throw you in pony jail?
  940. >Not that you're complaining about the praise, absolutely not.
  941. >It feels amazing, especially coming from this guy.
  942. >But...
  943. "I, uh... I'm sensing a 'but' here."
  944. >"Ah, right. The 'but'."
  945. >His expression falls a bit.
  946. >"When we brought you in at first, you had these... things on you. Magical artifacts of some kind. Don't know what they are, but our experts sure did.
  947. >"And let me tell you, I don't think I've ever seen them shit the bed as fast as they did. Acting like whatever made them killed a newborn foal."
  948. >Fuck my life into pieces
  949. >"Probably overexaggerating, though. Princess Celestia's never been lenient on artifacts, so they're probably getting like that because of her.
  950. >"But Princess Luna wasn't so sure. Said there wasn't a lick of evil in those things. And so here you are, away from prying eyes."
  951. >A sideways smile replaces his neutral one.
  952. >"You're lucky she likes you so much, champ."
  953.  
  954. >You know what, not even gonna complain.
  955. "Y-you and me both, pal..."
  956. >"Hah, lighten up! If the princess says they aren't evil, I'm not gonna judge."
  957. >Thanks for the vote of confidence.
  958. >...
  959. >Another question comes up. A pretty pressing one.
  960. "Hold on. What about the others?"
  961. >"Others? Ohh, you mean the Elements? They're a bit rough, but still kicking."
  962. >Oh thank God for that.
  963. >You actually managed to save them!
  964. >Whatever comes next, that at least makes this worth it.
  965. >"Princess Luna said she'll show them in here once she's talked this over with you."
  966. >The door can be heard opening again.
  967. >"Well, don't I just have the best timing in Equestria?"
  968. >Rounding the corner is, indeed, none other than Luna herself.
  969. >She's got a long box balanced on her back.
  970. >And she brightens right up upon seeing you awake.
  971. >"Anonymous! You are awake!"
  972. >Although she does take a moment to rein herself in.
  973. >"Sergeant, please watch the door for us."
  974. >He throws up a salute and leaves for said door, but not before tossing a wink in your direction.
  975. >Once the door opens and shuts, silence reigns.
  976. >Well, for all of two seconds, anyways.
  977. >"How... How are you feeling?"
  978. "Uh, well... arm still hurts, but fine otherwise. Why?"
  979. >All the response you get is a tactical hug. Conveniently avoiding said arm.
  980. >It's been a while since she's given you one of these.
  981. >Plus, she doesn't look remotely mad at you.
  982. >Just sit back and enjoy it, Anon.
  983. >Your good arm takes a bit of coaxing to move, but you get it into the optimum ear-scratching position.
  984. >The next minute or two is very pleasant, needless to say.
  985.  
  986. >"Seems as if the tables have turned, Anonymous."
  987. "Hmm?"
  988. >She pulls her head back for a smug little smile.
  989. >"It shall be I visiting you during your recovery, this time."
  990. >Oh. Ohh, yeah.
  991. "Looks that way, doesn't it?"
  992. >She goes back to nuzzling.
  993. >...
  994. "Hey, Luna?"
  995. >"Yes?"
  996. "Sorry about the whole 'forgetting to send a letter' thing. I was just... really busy back home."
  997. >"I would imagine so."
  998. >She pulls herself off of you, and floats over that long box into your lap.
  999. >"After all, creating these tools must not have been an easy undertaking."
  1000. >Oh.
  1001. >You know what's in this box.
  1002. >She doesn't stop you from opening it to verify, however.
  1003. >And yeah.
  1004. >Inside a really nice velvet-lined box are your staves, and the foci you brought with you.
  1005. >"I am admittedly quite impressed with the craftsmareship involved, to say nothing of the function. Did you really make these, Anonymous?"
  1006. >Well, so much for the happy moment.
  1007. >Now you're sweating bullets.
  1008. >You really want to lie to her about making these.
  1009. >But... somehow, that just seemed so wrong here.
  1010. >Instead you hang your head while closing the box.
  1011. "Yeah."
  1012. >"Is something the matter?"
  1013. >Geez, this confusion is mutual.
  1014. "I thought you'd be mad at me."
  1015. >"Mad at you? Why?"
  1016. "I thought these things were..."
  1017. >"Ahh, I see. You think they are illicit, correct?"
  1018. >She's giving you a small, mischievous smile.
  1019. >"Technically, yes. But not as much as you would believe."
  1020. >Blink.
  1021. "'Technically' yes?"
  1022. >"Well, allow me explain this in terms I believe you can better understand."
  1023.  
  1024. >"It is true that this is a forbidden magic, but this particular type is quite distinct from the others in that it does not rely on the pain of others.
  1025. >"You see, the reason that we forbid some magic is because of just that: whether it be blood, souls, or dark concoctions, they all trade the life and suffering of other beings for quick grabs at power.
  1026. >"A cowardly means of achieving it, to be sure. But these constructs are distinct, in that they function all unto themselves.
  1027. >"These items are forbidden, yes, but of all forbidden magic you could have chosen, this one is the very least forbidden magic. To my eyes, at least."
  1028. >Oh.
  1029. >So...
  1030. >Of all cancer you could have chosen, you got gall bladder cancer, instead?
  1031. >Still cancer, but definitely survivable.
  1032. >Huh.
  1033. >But...
  1034. "To your eyes?"
  1035. >"Ah, yes... You see, I examined the items thoroughly with some trusted court mages, and we simply could not find a shred of evil in these.
  1036. >"Nor good, for that matter. These are, well, as neutral in alignment as a common hammer is. Little more than arcane tools."
  1037. "Well, that's good to know. But that doesn't explain the whole secret hospital room thing."
  1038. >"Anonymous, despite their unassuming nature, the head mage assured me that these were tools of great evil, created long ago in an ancient conflict!"
  1039. "Created long ago? But they're recent."
  1040. >"Oh, I know. I neglected to mention to them your hand in making them."
  1041. "Ah. But it's funny you bring that up. I got told the same thing a while back."
  1042. >"You did? By whom?"
  1043.  
  1044. "I guess I need some lead-in for this. You remember the whole 'Sol Invictus' business from way back?"
  1045. >"That? My sister never gave me an answer on what they are. Why?"
  1046. >You give her the short version of what you learned about them: being a kind of black-ops prevention crew that also raid ruins.
  1047. >By the time you finish, she doesn't look happy.
  1048. >"What?! She kept this from me?"
  1049. "Just listen for a sec. A couple of weeks ago, one of their squad leader guys accused a friend of mine of having an artifact."
  1050. >"I presume it was similar to these?"
  1051. "Something like that. She told me the same thing, about how it was from some great war from thousands of years ago."
  1052. >That confused scrunch is simultaneously worrying and adorable.
  1053. >"I do not know of any such war. I would have clearly remembered something like that. Are you certain?"
  1054. "Yeah. You know what the deal with that is? Because this is getting confusing."
  1055. >"I share your confusion. I will... investigate this. Later.
  1056. >"But for now... I wish for you to demonstrate those items to me."
  1057. >Hold on, what?
  1058. "What? How come?"
  1059. >"I wish to verify the presence of any evil within them when they are in use. And of course see what they do."
  1060. "Uh, well... I only brought offensive ones with me, you sure about that?"
  1061. >"Offensive? As in, weapons?"
  1062. "Yeah. Well, uh, one of them isn't."
  1063. >"Then I wish for you to show me that one."
  1064. >Okay, deep breaths.
  1065. >You open the case again and pick out the less-powerful staff.
  1066. >You accidentally try levitating the focus with your gloves. You know, the ones you're not wearing?
  1067.  
  1068. >So manhandling the focus into place it is.
  1069. >Luna's horn is lit up the whole time you do this.
  1070. >All right. It's just TK, Anon. Nothing to be worried about.
  1071. >You gingerly fit the TK focus on top of the staff.
  1072. >It gives a little spark as it does this. That only happens when they're left unused for a few hours.
  1073. >Another deep breath.
  1074. "Well, here goes."
  1075. >And the tarp off of the painting stuff floats right off.
  1076. >It's funny, actually.
  1077. >Pony magic always has this aura to it, that matches their colour. Usually it's eye colour, but sometimes not.
  1078. >It's always unique to them, in any case.
  1079. >But your thaumic auras just... don't have any.
  1080. >They just shimmer and sparkle, and there's some lensing around them, but there's no coloured aura where you would normally expect there to be.
  1081. >Like it's got no personality of it's own.
  1082. >Like a tool.
  1083. >Huh.
  1084. >Well, you can float more than one thing, so might as well.
  1085. >Once you see what's under the tarp, you float over an easel and a half-finished painting. Looks like a pony of some kind.
  1086. >And then another easel and painting.
  1087. >And a third set.
  1088. >That makes seven floating objects.
  1089. >After giving them a cursory slow spin in the air, you replace the tarp and set out the paintings to the side, atop the easels.
  1090. >That should be a decent demo.
  1091. >When you look back to Luna, she looks really impressed.
  1092. >"R-remarkable... And still so..."
  1093. >Her horn goes dim, accompanying a shake of her head.
  1094. >"There is nothing remotely evil about that! I do not understand this!"
  1095. "S-so, uh, am I still, uh... Still good?"
  1096.  
  1097. >God, that giggle of hers is fucking magical. Pun absolutely intended.
  1098. >She floats those paintings back underneath the tarp.
  1099. >"For now. You will still be kept here for your recovery, of course."
  1100. "Of course."
  1101. >"And if any indictment does land upon your person, your successful use of these items to defend against Chrysalis will definitely be accounted for."
  1102. >Holy shit how did you forget about that?
  1103. "Wait, Chrysalis! I forgot all about that! Where is she?"
  1104. >"She has been detained. She has much to answer for, particularly given her apparent connections to Incognito."
  1105. >And there goes her good mood at the mention of that name.
  1106. >Do not blame her for one second.
  1107. "She did tell me a few things, back at Ponyville."
  1108. >"Did she? What did she say?"
  1109. "That she teamed up with him only to get power for herself. That her attack wasn't sanctioned by him. And that he was off recruiting allies."
  1110. >Well, at least her majesty doesn't talk under pony pressure. Because that info surprised Luna.
  1111. >"I... I see. Well, as much as I would like to stay longer, I have taken too much time from my court as it is."
  1112. >Oh. Yeah, she kinda heads a country, doesn't she?
  1113. >"My apologies, but I will need to keep hold of those items for the moment."
  1114. >Damn it.
  1115. "Yeah, that's... fine, I guess."
  1116. >"Do not worry. Sergeant Razor Wind has been assigned as your personal guard for your stay here. You will be very safe, I assure you."
  1117. >Well, that's pretty sweet.
  1118. "Thanks, Luna."
  1119. >You put away the staff and focus, after which Luna floats the box back over to her.
  1120.  
  1121. >"Oh, one last thing."
  1122. "What is it?"
  1123. >"Twilight and her friends would like to see you. Only Twilight knows about the artifacts, but not that you made them."
  1124. "You haven't told them?"
  1125. >"She saw you wield them before she lost consciousness. But no, I have not told them yet.
  1126. >"I am waiting until I collect more information on these, until I share the details."
  1127. >Ah, playing it safe.
  1128. "All right, I guess that's fine."
  1129. >You get one last nuzzle from her before she says her farewells.
  1130. >The door she leaves through doesn't stay closed for very long, because a whole bunch of hoofsteps are heard bursting through them.
  1131. >There's all the girls!
  1132. >And they almost look like mummies, with the bandages wrapped here and there.
  1133. >It quickly turns into a hug pile, though not before a warning from Twilight about your arm.
  1134. >Speaking of Twilight, she really wants to ask something, you can tell.
  1135. >And you pretty much know what she wants to ask.
  1136. >But the girls are called away only a few minutes after they arrive.
  1137. >Official business, and doctor's orders, all wrapped into one.
  1138. >That's gotta suck.
  1139. >Twilight is the last to leave, but her look back to you is a silent promise of 'I'll be back'.
  1140. >She looks so... conflicted.
  1141. >That was more numbing than you thought it would have been.
  1142. >Well, shit.
  1143. >One last door open-and-close gets you face-to-face with Razor Wind again.
  1144. >"Looking for something to do, Anon?"
  1145. >Oh yeah, guess it would be kinda boring just waiting here.
  1146. >After your nod, he pulls a card deck out of his armour.
  1147. >"Know how to play poker?"
  1148. <...
  1149.  
  1150. >"All aboard, for Ponyville!"
  1151. >About time.
  1152. >Even after the lift you got via one-passenger chariot, it still took two days to even get to Appleloosa.
  1153. >Ajay was permitted to know about your mission, and immediately offered to fly you out here.
  1154. >He wished you luck before departing back to Incognito's forces.
  1155. >You don't know why that memory stuck.
  1156. >...
  1157. >Well.
  1158. >It doesn't matter.
  1159. >These Apples were too closely-knit to properly infiltrate so quickly upon arrival.
  1160. >Your invisibility magic came to the rescue, however.
  1161. >Not only for feeding off the love they had, but for stowing away aboard this train, inside of the cargo hold.
  1162. >These Apples were many things, and slow was thankfully one of them.
  1163. >Something must have been wrong with their love, however.
  1164. >No matter how much you took in, and how much it fueled you, it just... didn't seem nearly as satisfying as other feedings.
  1165. >Like your body knew it was good, but still needed more.
  1166. >And you don't really know for what purpose.
  1167. >That should have been worrying.
  1168. >But somehow, deep down, it didn't seem very concerning.
  1169. >KSSSHHHHHHHH
  1170. >Gah!
  1171. >Right, trains!
  1172. >Steam engines!
  1173. >At least the train is starting to move now.
  1174. >You'd be arriving at Ponyville in a few hours.
  1175. >Might as well try to get some rest.
  1176. >The only bad part about the cargo hold was how close it was to the engines.
  1177. >But some muffling spells fixed that for you.
  1178. >And some alarms for the door.
  1179. >You doze off fairly quickly afterwards.
  1180. <...
  1181.  
  1182. >"Next stop, Ponyville!"
  1183. >Oh good, you woke up just in time!
  1184. >Weird dream you had, though.
  1185. >Something about a flower growing.
  1186. >You start to stretch out just as the train can be felt stopping.
  1187. >Once it stops completely, you dispel your alarms and wait behind a crate.
  1188. >When a pony comes in to take the goods off, you recast your invisibility, and sneak off in short order.
  1189. >Alright...
  1190. >You knew the town must be in somewhat good order, if the train still ran to it.
  1191. >The buildings looked a little rough, with repairponies working at them.
  1192. >Which means it was attacked recently.
  1193. >At least in Ponyville, you can sneak in the regular way easily enough.
  1194. >Disguises are so much less taxing than invisibility.
  1195. >After finding a bathroom, you take the opportunity to disguise yourself.
  1196. >An orange pegasus mare with a yellow mane. And a mark in gliding. Slow Descent.
  1197. >It's strange how the gryphons have such trouble coming up with good characterizations like that.
  1198. >It just comes so naturally to you.
  1199. >Must be a changeling thing.
  1200. >Anyways.
  1201. >First stop, the jailhouse.
  1202. >A little charming magic later, and the guards let you walk right into the holding cells, down in the basement.
  1203. >You'd have to be fast, before anypony notices the look in their eyes.
  1204. >The cells are full of...
  1205. >What...
  1206. >Those changelings...
  1207. >They look so...
  1208. >Starved!
  1209. >Your first destination is a cell full of your fellow changelings.
  1210. >Well, maybe not fellow.
  1211. >They did leave with your que-- Chrysalis, after all.
  1212.  
  1213. >A tap on the bars gets their attention.
  1214. >The look in their eyes was hungry and half-crazed.
  1215. >"H... heeeelp..."
  1216. >You almost feel sorry for them.
  1217. >Your quee-- Chrysalis must have taken their love for herself.
  1218. >And they still came along with her.
  1219. >"My... my queen? Is... is that you?"
  1220. >Wait, what?
  1221. >"Oh, my queen, you've returned! You escaped from Canterlot after all!"
  1222. >Canterlot?
  1223. >Oh, great.
  1224. >For some reason, these lings seem to think you're the quee-- Chrysalis.
  1225. >And here you thought you'd have to shake her location from them.
  1226. >But it sounds like she was beaten. And taken to Canterlot.
  1227. >That makes things more complicated.
  1228. >Maybe the gryphon will be more help.
  1229. >"Wa-wait, my queen! Don't leave!"
  1230. >You don't have time to deal with those crazy lings.
  1231. >A tap on these other bars gets the gryphon's attention.
  1232. >"And just who are you, little pony?"
  1233. >Your disguise drops for this gryphon.
  1234. >"Oh finally, our rescue. Do me a favour and get these ope-- HAGHK!"
  1235. >You levitated him up and slammed him against the bars, keeping him there with an outstretched hoof on his throat.
  1236. "If you think I'm letting you out of here, you're wrong."
  1237. >"Aagh! Crazy bug, let me go!"
  1238. "Tell me why you decided to come here."
  1239. >"What are yo-- GAAAH!"
  1240. >A shock spell to the hindlegs.
  1241. "Tell me why you decided to betray your fellow gryphons."
  1242. >The levitation on the gryphon pressed him against the bars.
  1243. >Your hoof hadn't moved, resulting in him starting to choke.
  1244. "Tell me why you decided to betray our Lord."
  1245. >Now he was properly afraid.
  1246. >This one was a coward, you could tell.
  1247. >He'd be easy to... persuade.
  1248. <...
  1249.  
  1250. @@@@@@@@
  1251.  
  1252. >Well, another day, another recovery.
  1253. >And honestly? You're not really that upset about it.
  1254. >Saving your friends from the big n' bad was still worth the recovery time.
  1255. >If anything, it showed how far you'd come in all these months.
  1256. >Before that?
  1257. >You'd have been running away like a total bitch.
  1258. >But with your new arsenal, you totally kicked her ass, even with her assists.
  1259. >Well, that and it's still an open question as to whether or not you'll get tossed in pony jail for the whole arsenal part.
  1260. >So if nothing else, best enjoy the freedom while it lasts.
  1261. >And you've been spending it playing card games.
  1262. >It was with Razor Wind only at first, but he invited two other Night Guards to play as well.
  1263. >You weren't really terrible at poker and the like, but it did get pretty grating after a while.
  1264. >Turns out that was basically the extent of their card game knowledge: poker and variants of it.
  1265. >So you got to teach them to play things like solitaire, switch, freecell, stuff like that.
  1266. >Even asked them for some blank cards, so you could draw up an Uno deck.
  1267. >The guards really seemed to dig that one.
  1268. >But now your time-wasting talents of yore were fully awakened by this whole ordeal.
  1269. >Needless to say, they were pretty hyped when you asked them for shitloads of small wooden tiles.
  1270. >Because guess who's bringing mahjong to Equestria?
  1271. >That's right, Anon is.
  1272. >And the best part?
  1273. >You get to make the tile art up all on your own.
  1274. >Plenty of space to squeeze yourself into the game somehow.
  1275. >You're sure the Night Guard would love it.
  1276.  
  1277. >You really didn't expect those crazy bat-horses to miss you that much.
  1278. >Much less that they'd love you this much for beating Chrysalis.
  1279. >You have to wonder if this is some bat-pony thing.
  1280. >Revenge-by-proxy, hero worship, something like that.
  1281. >Maybe you'll ask Luna later.
  1282. >All you know is, they're fucking great game pals.
  1283. >You're definitely finding them for game nights when you're in Canterlot next.
  1284. >Well, IF you're in Canterlot next.
  1285. >But for now, while you wait on the wooden tiles, you're explaining battleship to them.
  1286. >Since you didn't have any cool plastic sets to lay out the game, you had to do it all with paper.
  1287. >Just like the olden days.
  1288. >Luckily, they knew enough about naval warfare to get the references.
  1289. >So that's a plus.
  1290. >You're currently overseeing the trial run of the game, played by the other two guards.
  1291. >Razor keeps bringing in new guards to play, so their names really don't stick too well.
  1292. >They're all universally hyped to meet you, needless to say.
  1293. >Playing alien games might also factor into it, as well.
  1294. >"So tell me, Anon. What exactly is a 'carrier', anyways?"
  1295. "Ah, the carrier? Only the single best warship humanity ever created."
  1296. >"But the thing doesn't have any cannons! How does it attack things?"
  1297. "It's not cannons it uses to attack with, it's the airplanes aboard it."
  1298. >"Airplanes?"
  1299. "Oh right, you guys wouldn't know what those are. Well, basically it's--"
  1300. >KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK
  1301. >Damn it, and here you were about to explain fighter jets to Razor.
  1302. >He takes a moment to answer the door.
  1303.  
  1304. >"Oh, princess! Didn't expect you here today. Come on in!"
  1305. >Princess?
  1306. >The pony who rounds the corner with Razor is...
  1307. >Twilight.
  1308. >Oh boy.
  1309. >Her expression when seeing you is totally unreadable.
  1310. >And you're all but certain you know what she wants to ask.
  1311. >"Hi, Anon."
  1312. "Hey, Twilight."
  1313. >"Captain, could you give the two of us some privacy?"
  1314. >Ah fuck, no backup for you.
  1315. >All he does is salute, herd the other guards out, and leaves the two of you in peace.
  1316. >...
  1317. >Well, maybe 'peace' is the wrong word.
  1318. >Awkward silence was beginning to build.
  1319. >"So. How's your arm doing?"
  1320. "Oh, right, the arm. It's getting there. Still can't really move it, though."
  1321. >"The tissues were torn pretty bad. It'll be a few more days before you can move it again."
  1322. "That... That right? How'd you figure that?"
  1323. >"I read the medical report."
  1324. "Right..."
  1325. >...
  1326. >She's dancing around the subject.
  1327. >Trying to work up the nerve to ask you.
  1328. >Sigh.
  1329. >You'll just pre-empt her, get it over with.
  1330. "Alright, just ask."
  1331. >"Huh?"
  1332. "Twilight, I know you saw me in the map room before you were knocked out."
  1333. >Now it's her turn to look a bit nervous.
  1334. "So, please, whatever you came here to ask, just ask it."
  1335. >Her expression changes from nervous to angry over the course of ten-ish seconds.
  1336. >When she finally does speak, it's whisper-shouting:
  1337. >"What were you thinking?"
  1338. "Huh?"
  1339. >And now it turns to actual shouting:
  1340. >"Anon, what in all Tartarus were you thinking?!"
  1341. >Whoah shit, pissed Twilight is a new one.
  1342. >At least, directed to you.
  1343. >Not gonna lie, kinda scary.
  1344.  
  1345. >"Do you even understand what kind of danger you put yourself in?!"
  1346. "Uhh..."
  1347. >"Do you have any idea who you just had a fight with?!"
  1348. "Y-yeah, Chrysalis, right?"
  1349. >"Yes, Chrysalis! Only one of the most dangerous villians at large throughout all of Equestria!
  1350. >"She almost conquered Equestria twice! And managed to beat all six of us three times now!
  1351. >"Anon, you... You could have been hurt worse than you are now! You could have died!"
  1352. >...
  1353. >The whole time she yelled like that, she's been getting closer to your bed.
  1354. >And now, she up and jumped on it, looming down at you.
  1355. >"Why? Why, Anon? What were you thinking?! You should have just... Just--"
  1356. "What? Ran away?"
  1357. >The instant you recognized where this thread of hers was going, any pretense of not arguing with her sailed off into the sunset.
  1358. >"Yes! You should have--"
  1359. "Never would have happened."
  1360. >"But you--"
  1361. "I don't care what you think about it, there's no way I was going to leave you all there."
  1362. >"We would have been fine! Celestia and Luna would have come to--"
  1363. "It's not about someone else coming to save you!"
  1364. >Whoa, ease back there, Anon.
  1365. >Your little outburst got her to reel back a bit.
  1366. >A sigh to collect yourself.
  1367. "Twilight, listen. Picture for a second what would happen if she went after me, instead of you.
  1368. "Would you have ran to my rescue, even though you 'knew' that the princesses would come for me?"
  1369. >Her mouth opens for an immediate 'yes', but no sound escapes.
  1370. >The realization dawns on her pretty squarely.
  1371. "Probably would have gone for me anyways, eh?"
  1372.  
  1373. >"B-but, you're not as strong as we are! You... You should have regrouped with the others instea--"
  1374. "Not as strong?"
  1375. >That came out more terse than you really wanted it to.
  1376. >"I... I'm sorry, I-I didn't mean to--"
  1377. "Twilight, who do you think kicked her ass hard enough to crack her shell up like that?"
  1378. >"H-huh? Well, the Night Guard, of course. They--"
  1379. "Didn't do it. And neither did Luna."
  1380. >She really doesn't know.
  1381. >"B-but that's not possible! If they didn't, who did?"
  1382. "I did."
  1383. >All she does is give you a surprised little blink.
  1384. >"A-Anon, that's not funny. I know you brought those clubs, but that wouldn't have been enough to--"
  1385. "Stop."
  1386. >And stop she does.
  1387. "How soon is Luna free, Twilight?"
  1388. >"What's that got to do with anything?"
  1389. "She's got the 'clubs' I used."
  1390. >"Anon, seriously, I know you like your jokes, but this--"
  1391. "Isn't a joke, Twilight. I'm dead serious."
  1392. >Your tone was getting harsher, despite your attempts to reel back.
  1393. >"I... I don't get it, Anon. You..."
  1394. >Well, she's at a loss for words.
  1395. >"L... Luna's coming over in a few minutes. She scheduled a few minutes ahead of time to talk. I just... thought we could have had some time alone, so we..."
  1396. >She doesn't really know what she's saying anymore.
  1397. >She just looks so... distraught.
  1398. >The sight was honestly a bit heartbreaking.
  1399. >Where her eyes were previously tearfully angry, were instead now just tearfully sad and confused.
  1400. >That face does not belong on this pony.
  1401. "Twilight, come here."
  1402. >Since she's already on the bed, she walks further up.
  1403.  
  1404. >And thus, the ear scratches commence.
  1405. >Which soon transitions to a full-on hug.
  1406. >She's sniffling the whole time.
  1407. >"A-Anon?"
  1408. "Mm?"
  1409. >"I just... I don't want to see you hurt like this. Not again."
  1410. >She squeezes a bit tighter. You could take it.
  1411. "I know."
  1412. >You get the part just behind the ear that she really likes.
  1413. "But I don't want to see you hurt, either."
  1414. >Another sigh.
  1415. "Not after what happened with the princesses."
  1416. >A short little gasp comes from her.
  1417. >As if she just put something together.
  1418. >And right as it happens, the door's heard opening again.
  1419. >Twilight tries to get up, but you keep her down.
  1420. >"Anonymous, how are you... doing?"
  1421. >Well, Luna sure walked into a bit of a scene.
  1422. >You hugging it out with princess purple here.
  1423. >"Is... is this a bad time, Anonymous?"
  1424. "Not at all. We just... had a little fight."
  1425. >Luckily, she catches your drift.
  1426. "Although, I do have to ask. Do you have that box with you?"
  1427. >"Ah, that? I do. I wished to have you demonstrate the other... 'features' of the items, in a more controlled environment."
  1428. "Before you do that, I need to show them to Twilight."
  1429. >"You do? But... why?"
  1430. "Oh, you know, she thought I beat Chrysalis with two spindly looking clubs, is all."
  1431. >She blinks a few times, before beginning to giggle.
  1432. >You were too busy listening to the giggle to keep Twilight down any longer.
  1433. >"L-Luna, I don't understand! Did he... really beat her?"
  1434. >"He most certainly did, though I did miss most of the fight, tragically."
  1435. >"Then how? How did he beat her?"
  1436. >"I think he would prefer to show you."
  1437.  
  1438. >And boy would you ever prefer that.
  1439. >Now, you were a bit mixed on how Twilight would react to this.
  1440. >Being a big fan of Celestia, probably badly.
  1441. >But you wanted one more observer.
  1442. "Actually, Luna, would you mind bringing in Razor Wind as well, for the demo?"
  1443. >"The good sergeant? Why is that?"
  1444. "Well, he's gonna be guarding me while I'm here, right? Shouldn't he know what my stuff can do, to get a better sense of what I'm capable of?"
  1445. >She seems to consider this for a moment.
  1446. >"Very well."
  1447. >A flash of her horn later, and the door opens and shuts again.
  1448. >And there's the guard of the hour.
  1449. >"At ease, sergeant. Anonymous wishes for you to attend this demonstration."
  1450. >"D... demonstration, your highness?"
  1451. "I'm about to show off how I beat ol' bugbutt back there, buddy."
  1452. >Seeing his expression light up like that was fucking incredible. Luna's returning giggle only made it better.
  1453. >Luna floats the case of staves and foci over to you.
  1454. >"Twilight, sergeant? The items in that case are matters of the utmost secrecy. Please do not discuss them with anypony else."
  1455. >Razor salutes, while Twilight just gets increasingly concerned.
  1456. >"Anon? What did you use back there?"
  1457. "You'll see."
  1458. >"Fear not, Twilight. I have verified their safety."
  1459. >You unlock the case and hinge it open.
  1460. >Twilight immediately retreats a little bit.
  1461. >"Wh-what is that magic...?"
  1462. >You reach for the weaker staff and TK focus.
  1463. >"Ah, yes. I suppose you would not know much about true neutral magic presences."
  1464. >"T-true neutral? What's in that case, Luna?!"
  1465. "This."
  1466.  
  1467. >You put the staff on full display, with the focus in the palm of your other hand.
  1468. >Your second-best staff, and the quickest charger of the bunch.
  1469. >This one was a little experiment in trading off pure mana capacity for quick charge times.
  1470. >It worked pretty well: it charges as fast as it channels, though obviously it can't do both at once.
  1471. >Though getting the five infused brass bands near the top glyphed right for it was a big pain.
  1472. >Twilight's reaction was immediate backpedalling to the other end of the bed, ears splayed back.
  1473. >Razor, meanwhile, gave a low whistle.
  1474. >"Geez, that sucker's got some presence to it!"
  1475. >"And have you noticed the presence's intent, Razor?"
  1476. >"I... well, no, your highness."
  1477. >"Precisely."
  1478. >Twilight, meanwhile, looks afraid.
  1479. >"What is that? Anon, what is that?!"
  1480. "Hey, easy. It's just a staff."
  1481. >"That's not 'just' a staff! That's a construct! And very illegal, too! Where did you get that?!"
  1482. >"A construct it may be, Twilight, but I would not be so sure of 'illegal' just yet."
  1483. >"What are you talking about?! All constructs like that are illegal by Celestia's decree! You know that!"
  1484. >"Constructs made to gain power through the pain of others, Twilight."
  1485. >"And this one isn't?!"
  1486. >"No, it isn't."
  1487. >"Wh-what?"
  1488. >"Surely you can sense it? Scan it. Sense it for yourself."
  1489. >A few beats of fearful silence on her part pass before her horn lights up, a similar glow covering the staff.
  1490. >Her expression of fear slowly changes to one of confusion, then eventually wonderment.
  1491. >"Yes, precisely. It works all unto itself."
  1492.  
  1493. "You mind if I start off with the demo from last time?"
  1494. >"Of course, Anonymous."
  1495. >After Twilight stops channeling magic, you take the focus and plop it on top of the staff.
  1496. >The familiar sparking occurs.
  1497. >Twilight's eyes were as wide as dinner plates.
  1498. >That soon transitioned to a full-on jaw drop once you started floating the painting stuff again.
  1499. >Same way as you did last time.
  1500. >Once it was over, Razor broke the silence first:
  1501. >"Ho-ly horseapples. That's gotta be the coolest thing I've ever seen."
  1502. >Twilight zoomed up into your face right away, yanking the staff away with magic.
  1503. >"That's impossible. There's no way. That shouldn't have worked! How could that have worked? Where's the caster's intent? It can't think, so how is it forming the arrays? How is it--"
  1504. "Twilight."
  1505. >"--even creating the proper mana flow? And what are these glyphs? I've never seen glyphs like this before! Are they human glyphs? But no, humans don't have magic, so what glyphs--"
  1506. "Uh, Twilight?"
  1507. >"--are these? I don't recognize the script, and where's the sacred symmetry in them? How are these even manipulating the mana currents to-- EEP!"
  1508. >Her little ramble was interrupted by Luna wrenching the staff away with her own magic.
  1509. >You know, it's been a long while since you've seen her geek out over magic like this.
  1510. >It was just as adorable as you remember.
  1511. >You feel the staff returning to your hand.
  1512. >Luna's face is a good resemblance of what you currently feel: very amused despite the interruption.
  1513. >You pull the focus out of the staff and put them both back.
  1514.  
  1515. >Then, you pull out your current best staff.
  1516. >Despite the same zap apple wood body, you gave this one a lacquer job in cherry red.
  1517. >Specially infused lacquer, of course. Enchanted to provide some extra mana storage.
  1518. >Well, what else were you going to use that liquid enchanting knowledge on?
  1519. >Besides, how would you even store the magic equivalent of xenomorph blood, anyway?
  1520. >But yeah, the staff.
  1521. >Three copper rings with heavy glyphwork for extra absorption adorn the top.
  1522. >They stop right below a well-glyphed solid copper staff cap, which you affix the foci to.
  1523. >This one lets you kind of focus the flow of mana, basically focusing it to a hose outlet's worth instead of a drain pipe's.
  1524. >Since you had to pipe mana to specific focus parts, it amped up efficiency.
  1525. >Making this one the endurance king, at three minutes of channel time. And four to recharge from empty.
  1526. >You break away from the staff to look at Luna.
  1527. "So, uh, what kind of 'controlled' environment did you have in mind, Luna?"
  1528. >"I am glad you asked."
  1529. >With a flash of her horn, she created a magical target ring off to your side, surrounded by a series of floating glyphs that you don't recognize flanking it from there to here, kind of like runway lights.
  1530. >"This will contain the magical energy quite effectively."
  1531. >Well, it sure looked like it.
  1532. >That would make everything but the sonic focus really safe to use.
  1533. >Better leave that one last.
  1534. >You scan your focus collection for a good start.
  1535. >Fire, ice, lightning, and wind...
  1536. >Hmm...
  1537. >Wind's a good starter, right?
  1538. >Yeah, let's do that.
  1539.  
  1540. >You take the focus out and show it to the crowd.
  1541. "This one's called Hurricane. It messes with wind, and does a little cloud manipulation on the side."
  1542. >You slap it onto the staff, more sparks flying.
  1543. >And then you start off with basic channeled wind.
  1544. >Pretty soon, you're demonstrating the charged air blasts.
  1545. >And finally, the tightly packed air orb.
  1546. >No clouds to demonstrate on, sadly.
  1547. >The starting demonstration seemed to go really well with the crowd so far.
  1548. "Yeah, it's pretty much just defensive.
  1549. "Next up is Winterchill. Now things get a bit more serious."
  1550. >You change foci during the talk.
  1551. >The basic channel is a blast of freezing wind, complete with snow.
  1552. >The short build-up shoots spikes of ice.
  1553. >And finally, the twenty-second range unleashes that beautiful ice-storm attack.
  1554. >That one left a trail of ice in it's wake, and you could feel the cold from over here.
  1555. >You take a moment to gauge their reactions.
  1556. >Luna and Razor are pretty impressed, while Twilight is starting to look worried.
  1557. >Better change things up...
  1558. "This one is Pegasus's Wrath. You'll see why."
  1559. >After the focus change, you open up with the channeled lightning.
  1560. >You're 100% sure this isn't actual electron-flowing electricity, but something that acts very similar with magic.
  1561. >The short charge move is a strong bolt of lightning.
  1562. >And finally, the long charge is that lightning orb.
  1563. >Once it hits the target, it does the lingering thing before exploding into that nova.
  1564. >Luna catches the backblast with a quick shield spell.
  1565.  
  1566. >"I-Impressive. But perhaps some warning before you use such... explosive magic?"
  1567. "Oh yeah. Heh, sorry about that. Might as well warn you about the next one, then.
  1568. "This guy is Pyrokinesis, the second-to-last. And my favourite."
  1569. >It also happened to be the most complicated, topping even the sonic one.
  1570. >After all, 'stun' fire doesn't come from nowhere.
  1571. >You open up with the gout of continuous flame.
  1572. >The short charge is a small firebolt, but you can't demo the small contact blast, for obvious reasons.
  1573. >And the big charge is a huge firebolt, that detonates quite impressively upon impact.
  1574. >It also makes the best contact blast. Same one used to whoop Chrysalis, in fact.
  1575. >Well, time to observe the audience reaction.
  1576. >Razor looks hyped as all fuck.
  1577. >Luna remains impressed.
  1578. >And Twilight...
  1579. >Oh.
  1580. >Probably should have seen that coming.
  1581. >She looks... horrified, in the classical sense.
  1582. >Luna speaks up next:
  1583. >"Well, certainly an impressive array. But what is the last one?"
  1584. "Right, the last one is Banshee's Keening. But as you probably guessed, it uses sound."
  1585. >"A sound attack? Hm, very well, I do not think you need to demonstrate that one."
  1586. "Luna, it's almost like you don't want the guards to come in here!"
  1587. >Your joke may work on her, but not Twilight.
  1588. >And here comes Razor with his input:
  1589. >"Anon, that was flippin' amazing! No wonder you beat that bug down so bad!"
  1590. >Geez, lay it on thicker, why don't 'ya?
  1591. >God, you're loving that horse more and more.
  1592. >"A... Anon..."
  1593. >Oh God, Twilight's tearing up.
  1594. >"Why?"
  1595.  
  1596. @@@@@@@@
  1597.  
  1598. >Why?
  1599. >Why what?
  1600. >"You found a way to use magic..."
  1601. >Twilight's tearing up was getting worse.
  1602. >"A-and you... you use it for this?"
  1603. >...
  1604. >Oh.
  1605. >That's what she meant.
  1606. >"W-weapons?"
  1607. "I told you already. I don't want to see any of you hurt."
  1608. >"So you hurt them instead?"
  1609. "You say that like I attacked first."
  1610. >"Them attacking first has nothing to do with this!"
  1611. "It has everything to do with this."
  1612. >"Anon, I... Not once, outside the changeling attacks and Tirek, did I need magic as offensive as this!"
  1613. >You have to pinch your nose's bridge for this.
  1614. "So what do you suggest I do?"
  1615. >"Well, I..."
  1616. >She stutters for a moment, before sniffling again and responding:
  1617. >"Y-you're doing this to stop Incognito, I know. But there's better ways! You could stop his followers! Show them the evil things he does! That would--"
  1618. "Never work."
  1619. >"What do you mean, it would never work?"
  1620. "You weren't there. You didn't hear what his minions said. You didn't hear what he said.
  1621. "The people who follow him? They don't look to him like the minotaur chancellor's citizens do.
  1622. "No, they look to him just like most ponies do to Celestia. A god figure who is always just in what he does.
  1623. "And he knows it, too. Hell, he probably made that image on purpose."
  1624. >"B-but--"
  1625. "I asked a bit about the Canterlot attack. There were fatalities on both sides. Fatalities! I thought Equestria was too peaceful for that!
  1626. "And some of the folks captured in the attack? When they were drawn up for interrogation, they chose to kill themselves rather than talk."
  1627.  
  1628. >You're still not sure whether or not to thank or curse Razor Wind for that particular conversation.
  1629. >It looked like he wanted it off his chest, so you of course listened like a good friend would.
  1630. >You didn't know about the suicides, though.
  1631. >Even though in hindsight, it should have been obvious.
  1632. >Fluttershy's chariot driver from that Discord fiasco offed himself as well.
  1633. >The whole thing hit you pretty hard. You didn't realize just how devoted they were to him until you heard that.
  1634. >Fucking cocksucker.
  1635. >But the information looked to be hitting Twilight even harder.
  1636. >Like, that whole scenario was just completely outside of her scope.
  1637. >Luna decides to contribute to this talk, as well:
  1638. >"It is true. I have not seen devotion like that in millenia."
  1639. >You just sit there for a moment, looking at Twilight's distraught expression, before starting again:
  1640. "Look, I know that you've fought your share of villians. But this guy isn't like anything you've fought with before.
  1641. "I know his type. Promises all kinds of virtuous shit, just to grab at power himself.
  1642. "And evidently, he's of the any-means-necessary persuasion, too."
  1643. >She shakes herself out of that stupor for a response:
  1644. >"H-he can't just do whatever he pleases to get what he wants!"
  1645. "Can't he? You heard what the doc said when I was in the hospital after the attack.
  1646. "He was binding souls and carving up runes. And when he fought, he used those dark magic attacks like they were going out of style.
  1647. "But not before first sword-fighting with them. He wanted a fight, and badly."
  1648.  
  1649. >"He's right, princess."
  1650. >Twilight turns her head to Razor.
  1651. >"I was there, and I have to tell you. I've fought a lot in my time, and I've never seen any... THING with that kind of desire for violence before.
  1652. >"Honestly, the only thing keeping him from killing everypony there, was whatever he planned for them later down the line."
  1653. >He shakes his head.
  1654. >"His followers? They know. They didn't even flinch when the fight happened, they just kept looting the vault. They know what he's all about."
  1655. >You can't help but really feel for Twilight here.
  1656. >She looks like someone just stabbed her.
  1657. >The quiet sobs weren't helping, either.
  1658. >Luna decides to speak up:
  1659. >"I fear that Anonymous has the right idea here, Twilight. This foe is destructive in ways unfathomable to us.
  1660. >"There may be no way for this to end in anything but bloodshed."
  1661. >Twilight couldn't take anymore.
  1662. >She ran out of the room, crying the whole time.
  1663. >...
  1664. >That's rough. Really rough.
  1665. >"I... I am sorry, Anon, but I should see to her as soon as I can."
  1666. >A sigh escapes you.
  1667. "Yeah. That's probably a good idea."
  1668. >You put away your magic stuff, which Luna promptly floats back away.
  1669. >"Please forgive me, I know we--"
  1670. "It's fine, really. Go on ahead."
  1671. >It wasn't fine at all.
  1672. >But she needed her more than you did.
  1673. >A solemn nod from her is what you get before she leaves.
  1674. >Leaving you alone with Razor Wind again.
  1675. >"Anon? I know this isn't the best time, but I've gotta know."
  1676. "What is it?"
  1677. >"That Incognito knows a lot about hurting and killing. And it sounds like you do, too. How... how common is it back home for you?"
  1678.  
  1679. >The tone he used wasn't accusatory. It was more sympathetic, and genuinely curious.
  1680. >Well.
  1681. >If anyone's gonna react to the seedier parts of human nature, might as well be the experienced soldier.
  1682. "More than I care to admit. How much do you want to know?"
  1683. >You hear him move up next to your bed.
  1684. >"Everything, if possible. But start with the wars."
  1685. "All right. But first, what's the worst war you guys have had?"
  1686. >"Can't really tell you. The worst ones were all thousands of years ago. Worst we get now, is skirmishes at the borders."
  1687. "So probably a few thousand fatalities way back when?"
  1688. >"Probably. But I'm guessing you guys had it worse?"
  1689. "Way worse."
  1690. >You start off with some old wars; Alexander the Great's accolades, the Mongolians, the crusades, stuff like that.
  1691. >Sieging an island by bridging it was impressive to him. The Mongols spreading the plague on purpose? Not so much.
  1692. >And then of course, you get to the first world war, and the kill count of eighteen million.
  1693. >And then the second one, with seventy-five million deaths.
  1694. >The other wars got some honourable mentions, but you just don't remember the fatalities for them.
  1695. >By the time you're done, Razor is completely floored.
  1696. >"Ho... How?"
  1697. "How what?"
  1698. >"How did any of you even survive? Why wasn't there any more huge wars?"
  1699. "At the end of the second war, those nukes I mentioned?"
  1700. >"Y-yeah?"
  1701. "Everyone made their own version after that. And that's the only reason there aren't any huge wars anymore."
  1702. >"You'd all destroy each other if you tried."
  1703. "Exactly."
  1704. >"Anon?"
  1705. "Yeah?"
  1706. >"I need a drink."
  1707. "Bring me one, too."
  1708. <...
  1709.  
  1710. >THUNK
  1711. >The couple's bodies drop to the ground, eyes glassy and unfocused.
  1712. >That tends to happen when you drain them of almost all their love.
  1713. >Damn nobles.
  1714. >Of all the ponies that caused the world problems, they were probably some of the worst offenders.
  1715. >You really should have killed them.
  1716. >But you don't want too many questions asked right now.
  1717. >You float them both underneath a discarded blanket in this alleyway.
  1718. >And up comes their small concealed saddlebags.
  1719. >At least the mare of the two carried identification.
  1720. >Using some magic, you change the details and picture to that of your chosen disguise: Slow Descent.
  1721. >They chose a bad time to leave Canterlot through the mountain path.
  1722. >But it works for you.
  1723. >Now you had a way to sneak into the city.
  1724. >Forged identity in hoof, you hoist the other item you stole onto you: some cloud-patterned saddlebags.
  1725. >Inside them was cloth tarps haphazardly stitched to telescoping metal rods.
  1726. >All to lend more credibility to the disguise.
  1727. >Once the identification was secure in the bags, you finally assume the disguise.
  1728. >This disguise had some extra magic of your own applied, however: it actively deceives their changeling detection spells.
  1729. >Far less taxing than constant invisibility.
  1730. >Even though it feels like you could maintain it.
  1731. >Your constant hunger for love had gotten worse, ever since draining that gryphon captive.
  1732. >Before you jumped off the train bound for Canterlot, you had to hide in the bathroom to actively drain it from the passengers.
  1733. >But at least it left you brimming with power.
  1734.  
  1735. >Is this what your qu-- Chrysalis felt?
  1736. >This kind of overwhelming magical might?
  1737. >She fed off a very smitten prince, of course, so she had more available to her.
  1738. >But even with this haphazard collection of love you had taken in, it felt like you could do almost anything!
  1739. >You might need to consume more once you're in the city.
  1740. >If you were discovered, and it came to blows with a princess, you would need all the magical advantages you could get.
  1741. >That, and Chrysalis would be a hassle to take back with you.
  1742. >But what worried you more was the circumstances of her defeat.
  1743. >Nopony in Ponyville knew what had happened, but some did see her carried out of the town.
  1744. >She had to be carried out on a gurney, and her chitin had cracked. Some even said with blood oozing out.
  1745. >You might not know much about the Elements, but you do know that they'd never resort to that kind of force.
  1746. >Not even when on the cusp of defeat.
  1747. >Which means something other than the Elements did that to her.
  1748. >And while getting through her lings, too!
  1749. >The lings were too delirious to tell you anything other than droning on about thinking you were Chrysalis.
  1750. >The gryphon knew nothing about whatever had beaten her, either.
  1751. >He returned from a bathroom break, of all things, to find a huge pile of gryphons and lings suffering from mana burn.
  1752. >And that was before the guards descended, too.
  1753. >So what, then?
  1754. >What could have done that to a squad, and went on to hurt Chrysalis like that?
  1755. >And why did they ally with the ponies, of all things?!
  1756.  
  1757. >No matter how you slice it, none of this makes sense.
  1758. >Ponies hate anything that violent.
  1759. >And yet, whatever did that was clearly helping them!
  1760. >...
  1761. >Thinking this over wasn't getting you anywhere.
  1762. >The only way you'd get any answers was by asking her yourself.
  1763. >And oh, did you have things to ask her.
  1764. >Like why she betrayed Incognito like this.
  1765. >Aaagh, you wanted to hurt her!
  1766. >You wanted to hurt her a lot!
  1767. >But Incognito needs her alive.
  1768. >And you wouldn't dream of going against his wishes.
  1769. >Oh look, there's the guards.
  1770. >"Halt!"
  1771. >You fight the urge to roll your eyes.
  1772. >They rifle through your bags and scan you with that familiar spell.
  1773. >They're satisfied with what they find, to nopony's surprise.
  1774. >After apologizing to you for the inconvenience, you're let in.
  1775. >Ah, Canterlot city.
  1776. >To a normal eye, it seems like a wonderful and idyllic pinnacle of pony civilization.
  1777. >But to you, who can sense emotions?
  1778. >It feels as rotten as some of the more seedy cities throughout Equestria.
  1779. >It really is like Incognito said.
  1780. >They dress themselves in the high life to cover the rot underneath.
  1781. >At least the seedy cities are honest about their conditions.
  1782. >Well, if nothing else, it would provide you an easy source of love to feed off of.
  1783. >And if a conflict with the princesses was in the cards, you were going to need it.
  1784. >It would help pass the time until night fell, in any case.
  1785. >You trot through the shining streets of the city, noting any inns and nightclubs.
  1786. >Just like you were taught by the other love collectors.
  1787. <...
  1788.  
  1789. >Twenty-seven.
  1790. >You just drained twenty-seven ponies before night fell.
  1791. >What the hay.
  1792. >Your personal best was four before needing to stop.
  1793. >Something is definitely wrong with you.
  1794. >And despite all of this strangeness, this somehow still comforts you!
  1795. >You mean, yeah, you knocked down almost thirty ponies at once, great!
  1796. >But on the other hoof, you just drained almost thirty ponies!
  1797. >That's not normal!
  1798. >That's not normal at all!
  1799. >So why does it feel so normal?!
  1800. >...
  1801. >Oh, to Tartarus with it.
  1802. >At least you were finally satisfied.
  1803. >And you've got plenty of energy to survive any conflicts in the castle, at any rate.
  1804. >Speaking of which, that's your current destination now.
  1805. >The gate to the castle is right in front of you, complete with a quartet of guards.
  1806. >They scan you and usher you through, without suspecting a thing.
  1807. >That's another nice benefit to love drain, too.
  1808. >Ponies can't detect it like most other forms of magic saturation.
  1809. >Heh.
  1810. >There's something funny about them letting in somepony with enough power to challenge an alicorn, without them even noticing it.
  1811. >All right.
  1812. >Now that you're in, time to find the prison.
  1813. >A few laps around the castle later, and you're on the right track.
  1814. >Flanked by more guards is the gated entranceway to the prison.
  1815. >Except the gate happens to be open.
  1816. >Idiots.
  1817. >Up comes your invisibility, and you slip past them without any incident.
  1818. >The few locked gates in your way are picked easily enough with your magic.
  1819. >And finally, you reach the main floor full of gated cells.
  1820.  
  1821. >The cells are full of various kinds of criminal elements.
  1822. >Mostly thieves, but a few murderers are here, too.
  1823. >But all of them are ponies.
  1824. >This wasn't going to help.
  1825. >Scouring the other floors turned out to be a waste of time.
  1826. >Still only ponies in here.
  1827. >Looks like this cell block is a bust.
  1828. >So, off to another block you go.
  1829. >...
  1830. >Huh.
  1831. >The second block is way more guarded than the other one.
  1832. >Good thing you're still invisible.
  1833. >You worm your way into the cell block, and...
  1834. >...
  1835. >Oh.
  1836. >Yeah.
  1837. >You've found the traitors, all right.
  1838. >More starved changelings were packed into cells, as many as six in one.
  1839. >The few gryphons that were here, all got their own cells.
  1840. >Not many gryphons left with Chrysalis, it seems.
  1841. >At least they were a lot more loyal to Incognito than your fellow lings.
  1842. >...
  1843. >Okay, maybe that's not fair.
  1844. >They were loyal, all right.
  1845. >Just to Chrysalis.
  1846. >Not Incognito.
  1847. >Gah, this line of thought was getting you nowhere!
  1848. >You need to find Chrysali--
  1849. >"Shh, don't talk. It's all right..."
  1850. >That voice.
  1851. >It wasn't hers.
  1852. >"Y-you're gonna be fine, brother. J-just fine..."
  1853. >But it did belong to someling close to her.
  1854. >It was coming from the floor above you.
  1855. >"Sh-she'll come though for us. Y-you'll see..."
  1856. >Ascending the stairs, you see the ling of the hour, in a large medical cell.
  1857. >Hollowfang.
  1858. >Of course he would be here with her.
  1859. >And he was--
  1860. >Hooooooly mackerel, is that...?!
  1861. >Venomfang?!
  1862. >But... what happened to him?
  1863. >He looked like he was on death's door!
  1864. >Tubes were stuck into his body, and his breathing was shallow.
  1865.  
  1866. >Hollowfang held a love crystal in his hooves.
  1867. >But he was giving it to him, instead of keeping it for himself!
  1868. >Getting closer to the cell, you could see the extent of the damage even more.
  1869. >There was clear lightning damage, likely from a pegasus.
  1870. >But you don't know any pegasus who could coax that much lightning from a stormcloud like that!
  1871. >And Venomfang wasn't the type to sit still and take a strike like that, either!
  1872. >Just...
  1873. >It was hard to believe how severe the damage was!
  1874. >But that doesn't explain the other kinds of damage.
  1875. >His eyes were barely focused, and there was a lot of bandaging around his mouth, of all things.
  1876. >Biting was one of his stronger attacks.
  1877. >Clearly, he bit something he shouldn't have.
  1878. >But what?
  1879. >These two never leave Chrysalis's side!
  1880. >So they must have seen whatever beat her, right?
  1881. >If Venomfang's injuries were anything to go by, it seems like they were part of the fight, too!
  1882. >Her chitin was cracked through force, and her guard was dying from lightning damage and something else.
  1883. >What in the world could have done all of that?
  1884. >You needed to find out.
  1885. >And you knew that Hollowfang was a total coward.
  1886. >Getting him to talk would be easy enough.
  1887. >Your magic lit up again, and the door swung open underneath a silence spell.
  1888. >He didn't even notice the door open.
  1889. >Once the door shut, you moved out of the sight range of the door, into a corner.
  1890. >Your silence spell expanded to the whole room, and your invisibility dropped, revealing your true form.
  1891. >Still, he was focused on Venomfang.
  1892. >Not for long.
  1893.  
  1894. "Hello, Hollowfang."
  1895. >You always liked it when he jumped like that.
  1896. >"Wh-what? Who's there?!"
  1897. >His gaze settles on you.
  1898. >Familiarity and confusion light up his expression.
  1899. >"Yo-you? What are you doing here?"
  1900. "Looking for information."
  1901. >"Are... are you here to save our queen?"
  1902. "If by save, you mean bring to my Lord to answer for all she's done?"
  1903. >"Yo-- Ohh no, no! You can't be serious!"
  1904. "Very."
  1905. >"But why? She's your queen! Why would you turn your back on her like this?"
  1906. "And why would she turn her back on him, hmm? After all he did for us?"
  1907. >"He was always a means to an end, you know that!"
  1908. "No, I didn't. Even if I did, I wouldn't have accepted that."
  1909. >"What? How could you have NOT known about that?!"
  1910. "Chrysalis isn't fond of telling her drones about her plans."
  1911. >Okay, what's with the confused look on his face?
  1912. >"D-drone? But you're no drone."
  1913. >You're... wait, what?
  1914. >"Wait, are you...?"
  1915. >Whatever confusion he had was now replaced with more fear than you thought possible.
  1916. >"No. No, that's not possible. She... she removed the memory! You shouldn't be doing this!"
  1917. >Removed the memory?
  1918. >What was he going on about?
  1919. >"O-oh, sweet goddess, and you've already absorbed all the... Oh no, no no!"
  1920. >Your mission might still have been retrieving Chrysalis.
  1921. >But whatever he was rambling about now had your attention.
  1922. "Removed what memory, Hollowfang?"
  1923. >"I... No. No, I can't tell you! It'll only make things worse!"
  1924. "Oh, I don't think so. You don't just mention removing memories without me asking about it!"
  1925.  
  1926. >You approach the cowering ling slowly.
  1927. "Now, you're going to tell me about this memory business."
  1928. >"Please, I can't say anything!"
  1929. "No, you just don't want to say anything."
  1930. >"I'm serious!"
  1931. "And so am I."
  1932. >Damn it, even as scared as he is now, he still isn't talking.
  1933. >He's usually never that resilient.
  1934. >...
  1935. >But maybe he'll answer for another.
  1936. >You walk over to Venomfang's bed, resting a hoof on his neck.
  1937. >"H-hey, stop! What are you--"
  1938. "Tell me what I want to know, or I'll hurt your precious brother."
  1939. >Immediately, he shoots to his knees, tears flowing freely.
  1940. >"NO! He's hanging on by a thread! You'll kill him!"
  1941. "That's the idea."
  1942. >"Please! Please, I can't say anything! He needs me!"
  1943. "Not for long, he won't."
  1944. >You begin applying pressure to his neck.
  1945. >The reaction is immediate.
  1946. >"THE VAULT! THE QUEEN IS IN THE VAULT, UNDER HEAVY GUARD!"
  1947. >That's the loudest and most desperate you've ever heard him.
  1948. "Good start. Now tell me about the memory thing."
  1949. >"I can't! The queen put a spell on me! If I say anything about it, I'll die before I finish!"
  1950. >She did?
  1951. >Of course she did.
  1952. "A geas, then? That's too bad."
  1953. >No point in threatening Venomfang anymore, then.
  1954. >Off comes the hoof, to the sibling's immense relief.
  1955. >First she takes your name, then she geases her own consorts to keep the information from leaking?
  1956. >What was she hiding?
  1957. >"Thank you! Oh goddess above, thank you so much!"
  1958. "Don't thank me just yet."
  1959. >And the fear comes right back.
  1960. "If you don't want me to kill him, you'll tell me who defeated her, too."
  1961.  
  1962. >A more solemn expression colours his face.
  1963. >"She defeated the Elements. Everything was set for her return to power.
  1964. >"But then, a... A..."
  1965. >Oh for the love of--
  1966. >You don't have time for this!
  1967. >You have a mission to accomplish!
  1968. "A what?"
  1969. >Your tone was enough to speed his conversation along.
  1970. >"A-A human! Another human defeated her!"
  1971. >...
  1972. >What.
  1973. "What?"
  1974. >"A-another human forced his way into the castle, just as she won!
  1975. >"He was armed with strange magical sticks! And the queen was exhausted!
  1976. >"The human was more cunning than she thought, and beat her easily!
  1977. >"We... We tried to intervene, and Venomfang managed to hurt him, but..."
  1978. >No.
  1979. >Bucking.
  1980. >Way.
  1981. >A human did that?
  1982. >But what human?
  1983. >There's only two humans you know about, and the other one is definitely not the fighting type, let alone has access to 'magical sticks'!
  1984. >Well, that answers why Venomfang is so weak.
  1985. >The bucking idiot bit an ironblood.
  1986. >He's lucky to still be alive.
  1987. "And just what was the name of this human?"
  1988. >"A-Anonymous!"
  1989. "Liar."
  1990. >"I'm not lying! That's what the queen called him!"
  1991. >He's not lying, you can tell.
  1992. >But that doesn't make any sense.
  1993. >Anonymous is a coward. Incognito even told you so himself.
  1994. >How did he manage to beat Chrysalis like that?
  1995. >"He... he almost killed the queen! He would have killed me, too!
  1996. >"But he... he spared us both!"
  1997. >Okay, you need more information.
  1998. "Where is Anonymous now?"
  1999. >"I-I don't know!"
  2000. >Damn it.
  2001. >You turn to leave.
  2002. "We're done here."
  2003. >You still don't believe him, about Anonymous.
  2004. >But maybe Chrysalis could give you a better answer.
  2005.  
  2006. @@@@@@@@
  2007.  
  2008. "So, where are we going, again?"
  2009. >"The range, Anon!"
  2010. "Wait, the range?"
  2011. >"Damn right."
  2012. "As in, shooting range?"
  2013. >"What else would 'range' mean?"
  2014. "Fair point."
  2015. >A day after the whole magic reveal to Twilight, you'd gotten better enough to actually walk around properly.
  2016. >To keep up appearances, you were snuck back out of the castle, only to come back in via the mountain path.
  2017. >Razor Wind never left your side the whole time.
  2018. >Real dedicated to the whole guard duty thing, isn't he?
  2019. >Helps that you two were pretty big pals at this point.
  2020. >Even after the whole story about Earth wars, he didn't really seem that bothered by it.
  2021. >He brought some drinks, you two got buzzed, you shot the shit, had a good time.
  2022. >And now here you were, being brought into the castle the 'right' way.
  2023. >And the first place he's taking you?
  2024. >The fucking shooting range.
  2025. >You'd be lying if you said that didn't get your ass hyped up.
  2026. >Even if it was just crossbows.
  2027. >...
  2028. >Huh, actually...
  2029. "So, what do you shoot over there?"
  2030. >"What do you mean?"
  2031. "I mean, you got anything but crossbows over there?"
  2032. >"Not really, why?"
  2033. "Just wondering."
  2034. >"What, you were hoping for one of those crazy human weapons?"
  2035. "Maybe a little bit."
  2036. >God, that hearty laugh of his was something you never thought you'd hear outside of Earth.
  2037. >"Sorry to disappoint you, Anon, but we don't have any alien weapons in stock today."
  2038. "Eh, worth a shot."
  2039. >"Maybe when we get down there, you can tell me a little about them."
  2040. "You sure? Pretty brutal stuff."
  2041.  
  2042. >"Pretty sure you hit the brutal limit with last night's stories."
  2043. "Buddy, I just gave you the overview."
  2044. >Whatever he was going to say was interrupted by a certain voice from behind:
  2045. >"A-Anon?"
  2046. >The two of you turned around to the source of the voice.
  2047. >You're met with--
  2048. >Hooooooly shit it's Sunburst!
  2049. >Head lightly bandaged, but otherwise fine!
  2050. >He made it through that shitstorm in one piece!
  2051. >Christ, you can't get this smile off your face.
  2052. >"ANON!"
  2053. >And there he goes into a run towards you.
  2054. >Is Razor the only horse here that isn't liberal with their hugging?
  2055. >...
  2056. >Wait shit he doesn't know about your arm
  2057. >No no no stay back there little buddy--
  2058. >thunk
  2059. >And there's Razor, interjecting for a moment.
  2060. >Right in front of Sunburst, hoof on his chest.
  2061. >"Slooooow down there, pal. He's not healed yet."
  2062. >And then he 180's into ear-drooping sadness.
  2063. >"H-healed? Oh no, he got hurt?!"
  2064. >"Let's stop for a second, shall we? Why don't you tell me who you are?"
  2065. >He just now seems to realize that Razor's a guard.
  2066. >And then begins to panic a little.
  2067. >Time to step in.
  2068. "Don't worry, he's a good friend of mine."
  2069. >"And not a bug?"
  2070. "If he was, I'd have told you a minute ago."
  2071. >"Fair enough."
  2072. >You took enough pressure off of Sunburst for him to compose himself:
  2073. >"I-I'm Sunburst, the uh, crystaller of princess Flurry Heart."
  2074. >"Cool. Name's-- Wait wait holy shit, you're the new princess's foalsitter?"
  2075. >"W-well, it's not really the same thing--"
  2076. >"Geez, Anon makes friends with princesses by proxy now?"
  2077. "Apparently."
  2078.  
  2079. >"Hah! Ain't that something? But yeah, Sergeant Razor Wind, Night Guard. Anon's official foalsitter."
  2080. >"H-his what?"
  2081. >"I keep his tall monkey flank safe and sound around here. And get him into his jammies for eight."
  2082. "Sings a mean lullaby, too."
  2083. >An exchange of chuckles.
  2084. >You swear, this horse is your fucking spirit animal.
  2085. >Sunburst meanwhile just looks confused.
  2086. "Say, Razor? Any chance we can take him along?"
  2087. >"Depends. You any good with crossbows, son?"
  2088. >"C-crossbows? W-well, I mean--"
  2089. >"So, no then."
  2090. >"B-but--"
  2091. >"Sure, you can come along."
  2092. >"H-huh?"
  2093. "Ah, lay off the poor guy, bud. He's unused to the art of the bant."
  2094. >"I noticed."
  2095. >"I-I'm so confused..."
  2096. "Just stick close, alright?"
  2097. >And so the three of you are off, Razor leading the way.
  2098. >"S-so, uh, where are we going?"
  2099. "Oh, just the shooting range."
  2100. >"The... what?"
  2101. >"Archery range, Anon."
  2102. "Same thing."
  2103. >"Not really."
  2104. >"A-archery range? What are we going there for?"
  2105. "To have a little fun, of course!"
  2106. >"But shouldn't you be heading back to Ponyville, Anon? I mean, you're well enough to get back there, aren't you?"
  2107. "I decided to stick around a bit longer. Wait until the arm's all better."
  2108. >"U-uh, all right, if you say so..."
  2109. >You can't really tell him about your magic habits being found out yet.
  2110. >For all you know, he's still not suspected of anything.
  2111. >And if you do still end up in pony jail, you're not gonna drag him there with you.
  2112. >Luna might be cool with it, but you've got no idea about the other princesses.
  2113.  
  2114. >Twilight's still an open question.
  2115. >You just don't know after that little tearful departure of hers.
  2116. >Don't know if Cadance even applies here. But maybe.
  2117. >Celestia's the law-maker around here, and doesn't really like these construct things at all.
  2118. >And heads a 'forbidden' magic destroying gestapo crew.
  2119. >That she kept hidden even from her sister.
  2120. >So, she'll probably want your ass in pony jail.
  2121. >Since the princesses kind of edict things into action around here, that's a stalemate so far.
  2122. >...
  2123. >Man, this blows.
  2124. >You don't want there to be this huge fight over you.
  2125. >But what the hell can you do?
  2126. >At least Celestia's still off doing her... whatever it was she was doing.
  2127. >Diplomacy, you think?
  2128. >Yeah, that was it.
  2129. >Christ, what if she found you at Ponyville, instead of Luna?
  2130. >You'd probably be getting the medical jail cell instead.
  2131. >Shit's fractally crazy.
  2132. >You ponder this, and other life questions, until you reach what looks like the Night Guard barracks in the castle.
  2133. >As your posse filters through, it gets the attention of literally every bat-pony in your path.
  2134. >And the ones off-duty start excitedly following along.
  2135. >They're asking for hoof-bumps, card games, and fucking autographs.
  2136. "Razor?"
  2137. >"Yeah, boss?"
  2138. "You took this route on purpose, didn't you?"
  2139. >"Damn skippy."
  2140. "I don't know whether to love or hate you right now."
  2141. >"Story of my life."
  2142. >After that little serpentine through the barracks, you finally arrive at an archery range.
  2143. >Pony-shaped targets and hay bullseyes dot one end of the field, with the shooting station at the other.
  2144.  
  2145. >You still had a following of bat-horses trailing behind.
  2146. >Razor finally speaks up:
  2147. >"Alright, fillies, give the guy some space."
  2148. >And sure enough, they do.
  2149. >"Alright, Anon, I actually did have something to show you here."
  2150. "Wait, really?"
  2151. >"Now, it isn't exactly 'alien weapon of pure destruction', but I get the feeling it's at least something familiar."
  2152. >Well, aren't you just intrigued by this turn of events?
  2153. >Razor heads over to a tall metal locker, plastered with locks.
  2154. >Fishing a keyring from his armour, he starts unlocking them, one by one.
  2155. >It takes a good minute for him to finish.
  2156. >The locker is full of things covered in thick, black tarps.
  2157. >Makes it impossible to tell what is what.
  2158. >He rifles through it for a little bit, before pulling out a somewhat long item.
  2159. >Once he tosses it to the ground, he closes and relocks the locker before even getting to what he pulled out of it.
  2160. >Geez, high security enough for you?
  2161. >Hoisting the item onto his back, he walks back over to you.
  2162. >The whole time, your bat-like following were all chattering to themselves.
  2163. >They seemed... cautiously excited.
  2164. >"All right, Anon, ready for the big reveal?"
  2165. "As long as it doesn't kill me, or anything."
  2166. >"Oh, where's your sense of adventure?"
  2167. "Currently on vacation after a big fight with a bug queen."
  2168. >A snort and an eyeroll later, and he flies the mystery item on top of a table.
  2169. >Alright, well, clearly he wants you to open it.
  2170. >Well.
  2171. >Something presumably dangerous, kept in a high-security locker?
  2172. >Sounds safe.
  2173.  
  2174. >...
  2175. >You know what, you read a book that tells you how to make magic devices to Sith Lord your enemies with lightning.
  2176. >You've got no right to question the safety of it all.
  2177. >Finding the corners, you lift them up and pull off one layer.
  2178. >You say one, since the thing's wrapped many times over.
  2179. >Well, whatever's in this package, it's fairly long.
  2180. >Like, a good three-and-a-half feet long.
  2181. >Stopping to give it a lift, it was kinda light, too.
  2182. >So it's definitely not a gun.
  2183. >You pull free another three layers until...
  2184. >Huwhat?
  2185. >This is a...
  2186. >"Well?"
  2187. >It's... a bow.
  2188. >An old-timey looking longbow.
  2189. >The fuck?
  2190. "Uh, Razor?"
  2191. >"What's up?"
  2192. "What exactly do you keep in that locker?"
  2193. >"All kinds of dangerous and exotic weapons."
  2194. "Well... This, uh, doesn't seem that exotic to me."
  2195. >"So you've seen it before?"
  2196. "Well, yeah?"
  2197. >"And where, exactly, did you see this?"
  2198. "Well, not this exactly, but back hom--"
  2199. >Boom.
  2200. >Then it hits you.
  2201. >"Hah, he gets it! See, Anon, that there's a super-short longbow. Minotaur weapon of choice for range."
  2202. >Minotaur?
  2203. "Wait hold up, minotaur weapons are huge. This isn't huge."
  2204. >"Right on. That's an old piece, made for some old bandit lord's son.
  2205. >"Wasn't around for that particular raid, but I figured since you and those guys do the whole hand thing..."
  2206. "That it would be kinda equivalent?"
  2207. >"You got it. Sounds like they had those back at your home, too."
  2208. "Y-yeah. Yeah, we did. We still do."
  2209. >"So, what do you say? Wanna give it a whirl?"
  2210. >Well, it's no shotgun.
  2211. >But it's as close to an Earth weapon as you're gonna get right now.
  2212.  
  2213. "Yeah. I'll give it a shot."
  2214. >"Down range, I hope."
  2215. "Shut your hole."
  2216. >"Which one?"
  2217. >Pff, this fucking horse.
  2218. >You fold out the rest of the bow's package, and find an oversize waist quiver, complete with around a dozen arrows.
  2219. >The quiver was made out of plant fibers; it and the arrows had seen better days, looking pretty worn.
  2220. >Someone used this a lot, it seems.
  2221. >You pull the items free, and set them down at one of the range booth things.
  2222. >Man, how long has it been?
  2223. >You grab the bow itself in your left hand, as you remember it.
  2224. >That fucking aunt of yours, bless her little black heart, was packing all kinds of weapons.
  2225. >The grip's clearly meant for less fingers. It's a little cramped.
  2226. >After showing you how to fire off some guns, she decided to demo her awesome composite bow to you.
  2227. >Despite your right hand's aching, you give the string a little twang.
  2228. >Seeing that projectile punch through those targets like that, blew your little mind.
  2229. >The string's not bad for something this old. Even had a marked nocking point, too.
  2230. >Too bad the thing was hell on your spindly bitch arms. But man, did you keep trying.
  2231. >You know, for their age, the arrows are pretty well-built. Some of them have metal heads.
  2232. >Hell, you kept coming back to that bow. Went and worked the arms out just to finally shoot the damn thing.
  2233. >You take one of the wood-headed arrows, and nock it into place.
  2234. >It was totally worth it to see the arrow punch a hole through her targets.
  2235. >Now, let's see if there are any targets good for this...
  2236.  
  2237. >Every time you visited her, you'd come back to that bow. Hell, she didn't mind. Even taught you the right form and everything.
  2238. >Oh good, there's a hay target circle right up there.
  2239. >Don't know what it was, but somehow, it was more satisfying to fire some arrows off, than it was some buckshot.
  2240. >Man, despite everything, you still drop into the right form without trouble.
  2241. >Great. Now you miss home more than ever now.
  2242. >...
  2243. >Wait, hold on.
  2244. >Bad arm, right.
  2245. >Not good to shoot with bad arm.
  2246. >Need a brace.
  2247. "Hey, Razor?"
  2248. >"Geez, wear my name out more, will ya?"
  2249. "Kinda just occured to me that my shooting arm's bad. Got something to brace it with?"
  2250. >An audible 'hmm' from the personal guard camp.
  2251. >"Think I do. Hang tight a minute."
  2252. >You hear him trot back off to that locker. The whole key-jingling gave that one away without needing to look.
  2253. >Sunburst decides to contribute a little bit, at last.
  2254. >"That's... such an interesting weapon! I-it uses the features of the wielder for tension, instead of a locking system!"
  2255. >Heh, still mechanically minded, that one.
  2256. "Something like that. All I know is that crossbows came a lot later in human history."
  2257. >"I'll bet! With such a simple design, it must have been common for decades!"
  2258. "Nah, try centuries. Shit, how about millenia?"
  2259. >Impressing Sunburst never ceased to amuse you.
  2260. >"S-so, humans used this design for millenia?"
  2261. "Yep."
  2262. >"A-and you said they still use it today?"
  2263. "Pretty much just for sport now."
  2264. >"Oh. They've gone to crossbows, then?"
  2265. "Way better. We haven't used them for war for almost five hundred years."
  2266.  
  2267. >"Well shit, and here I thought they were the pinnacle of ranged combat."
  2268. >Oh, there's Razor.
  2269. >He's got some kind of metal arm covering thing with him.
  2270. "Not even close, buddy."
  2271. >"You'll have to tell me all about it later. But let's get you set up, eh?"
  2272. >You grab the... arm thing, and see the immediate problem with it.
  2273. >Obviously meant for minotaurs, and full-size ones.
  2274. >Which means three huge fingers, THICC as shit, and it's a whole cubit longer than it should be.
  2275. >"A-Anon? Can I see that?"
  2276. "Sure, go ahead."
  2277. >Sunburst floats the thing over to him.
  2278. >He seems to study your arm for a good long time, before casting some kind of spell.
  2279. >The arm-thing quickly deforms under... whatever he's casting.
  2280. >Metal and cloth repositioned and reformed until...
  2281. >Well damn, that's actually pretty slick.
  2282. >He turned the damn thing into something that looks like it'll fit you just fine.
  2283. >Apparently Razor's impressed as well, if the whistle's anything to go by.
  2284. >"Nice going there, son."
  2285. >"I-it's nothing, really."
  2286. >Meanwhile, you strap the thing on.
  2287. >Not really sure how this is gonna brace the impact, but oh well.
  2288. >It makes you feel safer, at least.
  2289. >Finally, you get back into shooting position.
  2290. >You nock the arrow into place.
  2291. >And pull it baaaAAAAACK
  2292. >[spoiler]i fell into a burning ring of fire[/spoiler]
  2293. >[spoiler]i pulled back back back and the pain got even higher[/spoiler]
  2294. >[spoiler]and it burns burns burns[/spoiler]
  2295. >A flash of familiar magic later, and the FUCKING SHIT EVERYTHING IS SUFFERING pain ceases.
  2296. >Without you ever letting go.
  2297.  
  2298. >"Anon, are you all right?!"
  2299. "Ffffffffine."
  2300. >"I-I'm sorry, I misjudged the placement of the strain relief!"
  2301. >Christ in a stripclub, that stung.
  2302. >Still gritting the teeth at the after-effects.
  2303. >Looking over at the culprit arm, the metal's wrapped in his magic.
  2304. >Must be negating the force himself.
  2305. >"Hey Anon, you good there?"
  2306. "Fine. Just..."
  2307. >"Yeah, I know. Been there, done that."
  2308. >"Shouldn't... shouldn't we stop so I can fix it?"
  2309. "After this shot."
  2310. >Well, the shot was extended, and you weren't the one keeping it held, so...
  2311. >You line the target up, and...
  2312. >THWANG
  2313. >thunk
  2314. >Okay, that was way off.
  2315. >But fuck you, it's been years.
  2316. >Immediately, Sunburst set to work rearranging some metal on the arm-thing.
  2317. >Then, you experimentally pull the string back.
  2318. >It stung at first, but the forearm part was somehow hooking into the upper arm and shoulder, making it take the strain instead.
  2319. >Meaning your bad forearm wasn't being stressed here.
  2320. >Huh.
  2321. >That's pretty spiffy.
  2322. >After figuring out how to disengage it, you nock up another shot.
  2323. >THWANG
  2324. >Much better.
  2325. >But the different draw point meant it threw your aim off.
  2326. >Gonna have to tweak that.
  2327. >...
  2328. >THWANG
  2329. >thunk
  2330. >Pull another one on, line it up, loose it.
  2331. >THWANG
  2332. >thunk
  2333. >Pull another one on, line it up, loose it.
  2334. >THWANG
  2335. >thunk
  2336. >Pull another one on-- Oh wait, you're outta arrows.
  2337. >Wow, not a bad grouping.
  2338. >All within the first three circles. A couple of bullseyes, too.
  2339. >Not bad for the third round of shots.
  2340. >Just like before, the arrows are floated back over by Sunburst.
  2341.  
  2342. >"Wow, that's really good. You've done this before, haven't you?"
  2343. "Yeah, used to do this a lot."
  2344. >"I can tell."
  2345. >By this point, the previous little crowd of off-duty night guards were all gathered around, watching the spectacle unfold.
  2346. >Sounds like they're enjoying the show.
  2347. >So let's mix things up a bit, shall we?
  2348. >Yeah, you've gotten used to this arm thing enough. Should be doable.
  2349. "Hey, Sunburst? See that pony target over there?"
  2350. >"Y-yeah?"
  2351. "Float it up a few feet, move it around a little."
  2352. >He hesitates a few moments before the target in question does just that, lazily drifting around.
  2353. >You line up the next shot.
  2354. >THWANG
  2355. >thunk
  2356. >...
  2357. >Didn't even notice the shots go by.
  2358. >Just totally in the zone.
  2359. >Shot after shot, pelting the dummy's head.
  2360. >The only 'miss' was straight in the chest.
  2361. >Not quite Legolas levels, but definitely mediocre Robin Hood.
  2362. >Definitely good enough in your book.
  2363. >Meanwhile, your crowd is cheering on.
  2364. >"Hooooooly shit, Anon. Wish I knew about this little talent when the attack happened."
  2365. "Wish I remembered it at the time."
  2366. >"Heh, I might just let you cover my tail in a bowfight."
  2367. "Let's hope I don't need to."
  2368. >"Amen to that."
  2369. >Man, this felt great.
  2370. >You'd forgotten what it was like.
  2371. >All your troubles just... melting away, in a hail of projectiles.
  2372. >Nothing but you, the weapon, and the target.
  2373. >Being totally in the zone like that.
  2374. >Funny how that works.
  2375. >Well.
  2376. >You guess you've got time for another round.
  2377. >Wouldn't mind hearing those cheers some more...
  2378. <...
  2379.  
  2380. >Hollowfang wasn't joking about heavy guard.
  2381. >It didn't take long to find the 'vault' where Chrysalis was being kept.
  2382. >But getting in without incident was a whole lot tougher.
  2383. >The guards rotated constantly on the hour, and there were at least two dozen of them, all protecting a small hallway leading to a metal door.
  2384. >And there was a lot of enchantment for magic detection, coupled with a healthy amount of actively scanning unicorn guards.
  2385. >It put a serious dent in your progress, since you couldn't even slip by with invisibility.
  2386. >And so you've been sitting here, up in the rafters, studying the guard movements constantly.
  2387. >You couldn't stay permanently, though. This took another day.
  2388. >So you stayed in the city, and fueled up on more love, before coming back.
  2389. >You were starting to lose hope in being able to sneak by, however.
  2390. >Their patterns were too good, their movements too shaken up between rotations.
  2391. >You might just have to bomb through them.
  2392. >You really wished you didn't need to--
  2393. >Hey, what are they all saluting for?
  2394. >...
  2395. >Well, well. What's this?
  2396. >The princess of friendship herself?
  2397. >She's looking worse for wear.
  2398. >You could almost taste the internal turmoil coming off of her.
  2399. >And the anger.
  2400. >Wait, is she...
  2401. >Yes, she's looking to get in!
  2402. >Trying to speak with Chrysalis, no doubt!
  2403. >Yes!
  2404. >This was your chance!
  2405. >Making sure your invisibility was fired back up, you position yourself just right for this.
  2406. >She passes a certain threshold, and you break into a silent glide.
  2407. >You pass through the doorway just as it closes.
  2408. >You'll have to thank Ajay for the gliding lessons.
  2409.  
  2410. @@@@@@@@
  2411.  
  2412. >This room was clearly intended to be a treasure vault, and it seems to have been cleared recently.
  2413. >The occasional gold bit and a stray gem littering the floor is testament to that.
  2414. >That, and the dusty shadows left on the ground, where treasure piles clearly were.
  2415. >Now, the large amount of space was repurposed for something else.
  2416. >The room was stacked with arcane medical equipment, enough to keep a company of soldiers healthy for many months.
  2417. >Or, in this case, to nurse a wounded changeling queen back to health.
  2418. >What struck you was the lack of any outside magic.
  2419. >Everything in here was self-contained.
  2420. >Indeed, where you could previously sense the presence of magic outside the castle, you cannot while in the vault.
  2421. >Either there is some very powerful warding going on here, or Celestia decided to build a layer of a certain metal into the walls.
  2422. >...
  2423. >Wow, that was a train of thought and a half.
  2424. >Guess Incognito rubbed off on you more than you thought.
  2425. >He'll certainly love it when you bring Chrysalis to her on a silver platter.
  2426. >But.
  2427. >Back to the matter at hoof.
  2428. >Princess Twilight, still emotionally compromised, was making her way up to the privacy curtained bed.
  2429. >Why they even bothered with a curtain for Chrysalis while in this secure vault, you don't know.
  2430. >It's not like they kept guards in here, so what's the purpose?
  2431. >Ponies really don't make sense a lot of the time, do they?
  2432. >...
  2433. >Speaking of making sense, you should probably stay concealed while Twilight's here.
  2434. >You're sure you could take her by surprise, but you have enough trouble ahead, escaping with Chrysalis.
  2435.  
  2436. >Although...
  2437. >Whatever they might talk about here, could prove to be valuable to Incognito.
  2438. >Yeah.
  2439. >Yeah, as long as you stay hidden, you should be able to observe their talk.
  2440. >You've got enough love to power invisibility for hours.
  2441. >And you doubt they'll talk even up to half an hour.
  2442. >Gosh, this takes you back to...
  2443. >...
  2444. >Well, you were going to say, it took you back to your days of... something.
  2445. >This scenario was familiar, but you couldn't recall.
  2446. >Oh, yeah, that's right.
  2447. >Chrysalis took more than your name, if Hollowfang was telling the truth.
  2448. >So it looks like you've got questions of your own to ask.
  2449. >But hey, enough thinking to yourself!
  2450. >Keeping your hoofsteps quiet, you shadow Twilight as she moves towards the curtain.
  2451. >"Who's there?"
  2452. >That voice...
  2453. >That definitely belonged to Chrysalis.
  2454. >But it sounded really pained.
  2455. >Like, the most pained you've heard from a changeling.
  2456. >What happened to her?
  2457. >...
  2458. >You still don't believe Hollowfang about that part.
  2459. >About that Anonymous character doing that kind of damage to her.
  2460. >Just, come on!
  2461. >'Magic sticks'?
  2462. >You thought he made one of those catalyst things that Incognito had, at first.
  2463. >That would have been worrying.
  2464. >But no, 'magic sticks'.
  2465. >"Not going to answer? Fine, keep me in suspense, then."
  2466. >Still belligerent after everything?
  2467. >Typical Chrysalis.
  2468. >You could sense Twilight's emotions flaring towards anger when she said that.
  2469. >Apparently, she really doesn't like her sass.
  2470. >Granted, neither do you, but not to that extent.
  2471. >...
  2472. >Okay, maybe a lot, especially after how she talked to Incognito.
  2473.  
  2474. >Finally, she reaches the curtains and pulls them back with her magic.
  2475. >Her body is blocking the view of Chrysalis, however.
  2476. >She only made the opening big enough for her.
  2477. >As soon as she trots past the curtain line, she closes it back behind her.
  2478. >Damn it.
  2479. >Her and her obsessive compulsive tendencies.
  2480. >Well, guess you're scaling some obstacles.
  2481. >Finding a stack of healing crystals in boxes, you start climbing them slowly, one by one.
  2482. >All the while, keeping an ear peeled:
  2483. >"Ah. It's you. Twilight Sparkle herself. Really should have seen that one coming."
  2484. >She's met with silence, but her emotions speak volumes.
  2485. >Serious cold-wither going on there. Probably a death glare to match.
  2486. >Well, you're up one box without any noise.
  2487. >Thank goodness for cardboard.
  2488. >Now for the next...
  2489. >"Did you come here to ask me something, or did you just come here to glare at me?"
  2490. >Strange. Chrysalis's emotions are totally silent.
  2491. >Normally they're broadcast all over from her horn.
  2492. >"There's a lot of things I should be asking you right now."
  2493. >She's trying to sound icy, but it comes off more as neutral.
  2494. >"Oh, I'm sure you do."
  2495. >"But I want to know one thing first."
  2496. >"Just one?"
  2497. >"Who did this to you?"
  2498. >Her laugh sounded really out of place with that pained voice.
  2499. >"Who did this to me? Oh, little Twilight, you already know the answer."
  2500. >"No. He couldn't have. He wouldn't."
  2501. >"He wouldn't have, would he? That's not what me or my children saw there. And that's not even counting what we felt there."
  2502. >"I don't believe you. You're lying."
  2503.  
  2504. >You know, you're with Twilight on this one.
  2505. >Even if she didn't sound - or feel - sure of herself, you just couldn't see how Anonymous could do...
  2506. >Well, whatever he did to Chrysalis. You couldn't see yet.
  2507. >You just scaled the third box, and you can only see the top railing of the other side of the curtains from here.
  2508. >"What's the matter? Can't believe he'd nearly kill me to save you and your friends?"
  2509. >"No, I don't."
  2510. >"Sounds to me like you've been told who did this already. What did you think my answer was going to be?"
  2511. >"They weren't there. And he could just be lying."
  2512. >"Ahh, getting it from the changeling's mouth itself, then?"
  2513. >"Just tell me what happened."
  2514. >Finally, scaled this box!
  2515. >Now you can see the two of theeeeeeeeeeee--
  2516. >Ho-hoooooly horseSHIT!
  2517. >What...
  2518. >What happened to Chrysalis?!
  2519. >Wings torn, clear signs of severe mana burn, and the most chitin cracking you've ever seen in your life!
  2520. >How could...?!
  2521. >Who...?!
  2522. >No way a pony could have done that!
  2523. >E-even Luna, old-fashioned as she is, wouldn't do that!
  2524. >The only one who comes to mind is Incognito!
  2525. >But he couldn't have done this!
  2526. >So...
  2527. >Did he really?
  2528. >That just... how?!
  2529. >That can't be right, it just can't be!
  2530. >And...
  2531. >Oh, her wings and horn are bound with iron suppressors.
  2532. >Well, that explains her lack of emotional presence.
  2533. >She probably can't even use her own empath abilities, either.
  2534. >...
  2535. >That means she couldn't have sensed you, either.
  2536. >You didn't even consider her sensory powers.
  2537. >Damn it, that was stupid on your part.
  2538. >Remember for next time, Athalia!
  2539.  
  2540. >"So, you want to hear the exact details on how he so completely defeated me?
  2541. >"I didn't think you, of all ponies, would love to hear such... debasing details."
  2542. >"I'll humour your lying."
  2543. >She laughs again.
  2544. >"Ohh, denial suits you so well! Very well then, let's start after I defeated you."
  2545. >And she began to explain, in very lurid detail, what happened at Ponyville.
  2546. >And you mean, super lurid.
  2547. >From the description she gave, Anonymous didn't carry 'sticks' at all.
  2548. >Should have known Hollowfang would oversimplify things.
  2549. >No, they sounded like powerful magic artifacts; magic staves, she called them.
  2550. >Apparently, he used fire and lightning attacks from these staves, and used them in close range a lot.
  2551. >Given how much Chrysalis loved to charge in that fight, it makes sense.
  2552. >You can't evade a point-blank attack very well.
  2553. >She described every attack he made, and how it felt to her.
  2554. >How she felt was in very explicit detail.
  2555. >None of it pleasant.
  2556. >It seems like the Fang brothers intervened after she was drained from that charge gone wrong.
  2557. >Hollowfang gave her his stored love, and Venomfang charged Anonymous.
  2558. >She could feel his pain when he bit his arm, as well as his magic dipping the longer he stayed latched on.
  2559. >But he kept Venomfang clamped to his arm with an electric shock attack.
  2560. >That's... surprisingly cruel.
  2561. >But also very out-of-character.
  2562. >Buck, this whole thing was out-of-character!
  2563. >Then, after freeing himself from the ill-fated bite, he charged her, despite her shield.
  2564. >And used the blood from his wound to shatter her shield, and deliver the final blow!
  2565.  
  2566. >Sorry, is this a description of a real fight, or a Daring Do fight scene?
  2567. >Because there's no way he'd have the stones to actually try something like that!
  2568. >Let alone come up with it on the spot like that!
  2569. >Nothing is that crazy, or quick-thinking!
  2570. >The end of the fight was a more prolonged affair.
  2571. >Anonymous had access to sonic magic as well, it seemed.
  2572. >You've heard Incognito's own sonic attack by mistake once.
  2573. >If it was anything like that experience...
  2574. >But the strange part came when he caught Hollowfang trying to sneak up on him.
  2575. >Not a difficult feat, since he couldn't sneak to save his life.
  2576. >He had him in a position where he could have just...
  2577. >You don't know, torture him?
  2578. >But he's too cowardly for that.
  2579. >He's too cowardly for all of this!
  2580. >Even more unbelievable, was him deciding to spare all of them!
  2581. >That was when Luna and her guard arrived.
  2582. >And when Anonymous succumbed to blood loss, and passed out.
  2583. >Luna seemed particularly distraught at that turn of events.
  2584. >...
  2585. >Well, a good story.
  2586. >She could probably write a book about it.
  2587. >Not that she'll get a chance to.
  2588. >Twilight, meanwhile, looked flabbergasted.
  2589. >And seemed to...
  2590. >Wait, don't tell me she's starting to believe this?!
  2591. >Pff, bucking ponies!
  2592. >Sprinkle some emotional platitudes in a story, and they'll believe anything!
  2593. >Well, even without her power to apply emotional pressure, Chrysalis can still spin a good story.
  2594. >Almost had you believing it yourself.
  2595. >Too bad you're smarter than that.
  2596. >But there's still no way Anonymous could have done that.
  2597.  
  2598. >"Honestly, by the end of it all, I was more surprised by the lunar princess's obvious infatuation with him, more than anything else!"
  2599. >"It can't be..."
  2600. >"Yes, yes, you're in denial. Wouldn't kill you to make it less obvious, you know."
  2601. >"He... he couldn't have. There's no way."
  2602. >"Oh, spare me. Like you didn't know what he was capable of."
  2603. >"I do know what he's capable of! And it's not that!"
  2604. >"You don't think a race like his, with that kind of history, wouldn't be capable of that kind of violence on some level?"
  2605. >He--
  2606. >...
  2607. >Uh.
  2608. >You...
  2609. >You didn't actually consider that.
  2610. >Twilight, meanwhile, is obviously confused.
  2611. "H-huh? What history?"
  2612. >...
  2613. >What.
  2614. >"What?"
  2615. >How does she not know about human history?
  2616. >Unless...
  2617. >"Ohhhh, don't tell me. He didn't even tell you about human history?"
  2618. >Now she's back to laughing.
  2619. >Did Anonymous really not tell them about that?
  2620. >Well...
  2621. >Considering how anti-violence ponies are, that's... actually probably a really smart thing to do.
  2622. >Dishonest, but smart.
  2623. >Huh.
  2624. >Maybe he's smarter than you thought...
  2625. >"Oh, you poor little dove. You don't even know about the horrible things his people have done, do you?"
  2626. >"M-more horrible than your leader performing runesmithing?"
  2627. >You didn't need to sense Chrysalis's emotions to see her mood drop with that line.
  2628. >"Let me make one thing crystal clear to you, filly. That bloodthirsty sociopath is NOT my leader."
  2629. >MOTHERB--
  2630. >No!
  2631. >No, stay focused!
  2632. >Even Twilight was taken aback by her mood and tone shift.
  2633. >"B-but I thought you two were allies!"
  2634.  
  2635. >"We were never allies. I used to think of him as a tool, a means to recover my lost power and forces."
  2636. >Twilight managed to derail Chrysalis completely.
  2637. >You know how she gets when she's angered.
  2638. >But this subject was a lot more interesting.
  2639. >And by 'interesting', you mean anger-inducing.
  2640. >"B-but he did help you, didn't he?"
  2641. >"In a sense. But I realized too late that his 'help' cost me far more than I ever could have imagined.
  2642. >"More, in fact, than this defeat at your precious human's hands."
  2643. >"What? B-but you're our prisoner!"
  2644. >"And you'll try in vain to reform me, I will recover enough to find a chink in your defenses, and be free once again.
  2645. >"This isn't my first encounter with capture, 'princess'. I know how you hero types operate."
  2646. >Twilight seems to have found her spine with that line.
  2647. >"I won't be reforming you. But I'm certain somepony else will.
  2648. >"And we'll put a stop to Incognito as well."
  2649. >You expected her to laugh at this.
  2650. >Instead, she got this... really eerie calm response, instead.
  2651. >That's not like her at all.
  2652. >"Were this any other time, Twilight Sparkle, and if this was any other Equestrian villain, I honestly would have believed you.
  2653. >"But this new, alien enemy you face? No, he is terrible in ways you don't have the concepts to even describe.
  2654. >"Even as he is, he could defeat you all easily. In fact, he would do worse than just defeat you."
  2655. >You don't like this for two reasons.
  2656. >Obviously, she's badmouthing Incognito.
  2657. >But this... somber tone and expression she's wearing?
  2658. >This is totally unlike her.
  2659.  
  2660. >"He defeated the princesses, and practices multiple kinds of forbidden magics. What else could he do that would be worse?!"
  2661. >"I made the mistake of sneaking into his private laboratory once, Twilight.
  2662. >"I was determined to get a straight answer from him, for a now-unimportant issue.
  2663. >"I came across his 'storage' rooms. And then his 'empowerment' chambers."
  2664. >What, those?
  2665. >Incognito said you wouldn't like what was in those, and warned you away.
  2666. >"Storage? Empowerment?"
  2667. >"About as terrible and cynical a choice in terminology as I've ever seen, and I've seen a lot over the years.
  2668. >"His 'storage'? It contains hundreds and hundreds of 'stock'. Glass cells, full of liquid kalomite.
  2669. >"And in the liquid, kept awake, sustained, and afraid? Ponies. Even some zebras and gryphons."
  2670. >What?
  2671. >"K-kalomite? But that's--"
  2672. >"Forbidden? Oh, that's not the beginning of it, Twilight.
  2673. >"His 'empowerment' chambers? They contain tens of specially designed tables, designed for one purpose.
  2674. >"His 'stock' is strapped to them, where blades in the table will dig into their legs. They then bleed, the blood collecting in a vessel underneath.
  2675. >"They are constantly force-fed alchemic mixtures, to keep them bleeding for as long as possible.
  2676. >"All the while, they are kept in a constant state of fear, saturating their blood with something called 'vitae'.
  2677. >"They stay like that for hours, until their bodies simply cannot produce more blood.
  2678. >"And once that happens, the table stabs them through the heart, extracting their soul into a gem placed in the table."
  2679.  
  2680. >Wh...
  2681. >What?
  2682. >That's...
  2683. >T-that's another tall tale of hers, r-right?
  2684. >...
  2685. >She's not lying this time, isn't she?
  2686. >That table you saw, the first time you went to Incognito's office.
  2687. >It had blades in it.
  2688. >And the painful moans...
  2689. >Oh, no.
  2690. >You almost didn't notice Twilight's horror.
  2691. >"The only reason I knew they did that? Because I stood there for minutes, in disbelief at what I was seeing.
  2692. >"When I first met that human, and his band of vagabond gryphons, I took him for an impulsive braggart with delusions of massive grandeur.
  2693. >"He even swayed many of my own changelings to his side, including ones very... precious to me.
  2694. >"But as his speeches became more visceral, after he demonstrated that gauntlet, and after seeing those... 'chambers'?
  2695. >"I misjudged him. I did not fool him, Twilight. He had fooled me.
  2696. >"He had used me instead, to gain greater strength for whatever mad, dark quest he had embarked on.
  2697. >"And from then on, behind those eyes, I saw something that for once, made me truly afraid.
  2698. >"A cold, unfeeling and malevolent intelligence. Something both ambitious and determined, but for reasons too dark for me to even imagine."
  2699. >Her speech had gotten increasingly detached and depressed.
  2700. >She looked so... vulnerable. Afraid.
  2701. >"I had to do terrible things to my changelings, to try and release some of his newfound grip on them.
  2702. >"I hurt them in ways that still haunt me, and that I doubt they would ever forgive me for.
  2703. >"Even then, I could not save them all. I had to cut my losses."
  2704.  
  2705. >...
  2706. >Numb.
  2707. >That's what you feel right now.
  2708. >Not angry. Not anymore.
  2709. >Just... numb.
  2710. >Twilight shared your numbness, but in her case, it was eclipsed by sheer existential horror.
  2711. >"What little I could gather from his base, while he travelled abroad? I used it to come after you.
  2712. >"I had to take their strength to take you down. So that I could begin recovering my forces.
  2713. >"Instead, Anonymous showed up, and completely dashed those plans."
  2714. >...
  2715. >Silence reigned for a moment, before she began to chuckle.
  2716. >It wasn't a nice chuckle, or even an evil chuckle.
  2717. >No, it was a painful one.
  2718. >"I suppose you should consider yourself very lucky, Twilight Sparkle.
  2719. >"You're lucky, that you have a human friend who would engage in such violence, to keep you safe.
  2720. >"I can tell that you hate what he did. And I can certainly see your reservations.
  2721. >"But I can tell you this: after what he did to me? He may be the only one to stand up to him."
  2722. >KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK
  2723. >Whatever numbness you felt was quickly replaced with alertness.
  2724. >The vault door's loud knocking gave way to a small crack in the door opening up.
  2725. >"Your highness? There are some guests who wish to see the prisoner."
  2726. >Guests?
  2727. >Twilight isn't responding. But her face is beginning to contort to sadness.
  2728. >"P-princess? Are you all right--"
  2729. >"Oh sweet Epona's teats, just get out of the way!"
  2730. >That voice was different.
  2731. >"Epona's teats? Well, I'll admit, that's different."
  2732. >So was that one.
  2733. >"A-and a little crude, don't you think?"
  2734. >Three voices?
  2735. >Who are these ponies?
  2736.  
  2737. >"B-but you can't go in there--"
  2738. >"My license as a Night Guard says otherwise, buddy."
  2739. >The doors were pushed wide open, revealing...
  2740. >Well, there's a Night Guard thestral, obviously higher ranked.
  2741. >Must be, to dare push through heavy guard like that.
  2742. >Next to him was a bookish looking unicorn, visibly uncomfortable but still tagging alo--
  2743. >Hey, wait!
  2744. >That's Sunburst, the Crystaller your hive almost captured!
  2745. >What's he doing here?!
  2746. >And trailing behind was--
  2747. >...
  2748. >Oh sweet merciful goddess, you have to be joking!
  2749. >It's...
  2750. >"You better be grateful for me muscling past the royal guard like that."
  2751. >"I am, really. I just really needed to find her, after, well..."
  2752. >"Say no more, pal."
  2753. >The mystery human of the moment, of course!
  2754. >And why did he have a strange metal covering on his right arm?
  2755. >"Twilight? You in here?"
  2756. >The emotional shift you felt from the mare in question was actually kind of jarring.
  2757. >From a simmering mess of horror to a storm of sadness, regret, even a tinge of hope.
  2758. >She came running out from behind the curtain, barreling straight for Anonymous.
  2759. >"Twilight, I just wanted to-- Whoa!"
  2760. >Whatever he was going to say was cut off by Twilight tackling him to the floor, hooves wrapped around his chest.
  2761. >And now the tears were starting.
  2762. >"Whoa, hey, what's wrong?"
  2763. >Her next words were unintelligible, mostly a mixture of sobs, and the occasional 'I'm sorry'.
  2764. >Anonymous, for his part, said nothing, instead holding her tight and... petting her?
  2765. >Well, it sure looked like it!
  2766. >Scratching her ears like that!
  2767.  
  2768. >"Hey, it's all right. It's okay. Shh. You're fine."
  2769. >This placating went on for a good few minutes, before she went slack in his arms.
  2770. >Geez, unconscious already?
  2771. >"Hey, Razor?"
  2772. >"Need me to take her?"
  2773. >"Yeah."
  2774. >"All right, just one thing."
  2775. >The thestral pulled free his moonstone sword, the signature deep blue colour catching your eye right away.
  2776. >"Keep this handy, in case any funny business goes down here."
  2777. >"I doubt ol' bugbutt here can do much to me in her current state."
  2778. >B-bugbutt?!
  2779. >F-for somehuman you hate, that was... actually pretty good.
  2780. >"I wouldn't tempt fate too much, pal."
  2781. >"You know what, you're right. Thanks, bud."
  2782. >"I'll be a few minutes. Try not to punch her while I'm gone."
  2783. >"Beating up the disabled isn't really my thing."
  2784. >"Wuss. Hey, 'Burst?"
  2785. >"Yes! I-I mean, yes?"
  2786. >"Keep Anon safe while I take the princess away, all right?"
  2787. >He nods his agreement.
  2788. >Meanwhile, Anonymous gently places the fitfully sleeping princess onto the thestral's back.
  2789. >Who then proceeds to trot off down the hallway.
  2790. >The vault doors finally close again, leaving Anonymous and Sunburst there.
  2791. >He straightens out the collared shirt he's wearing, picks up the sword, and walks over to the curtains.
  2792. >Looking over to Chrysalis, her face is a mix of fear and resignation.
  2793. >Anonymous, meanwhile, wears an angry expression.
  2794. >He wasn't poised to strike, however.
  2795. >Gah, if only his emotions weren't unreadable!
  2796. >A trait you wished he didn't share with Incognito.
  2797. >No, stay focused!
  2798. >You need to act fast, if this turns ugly!
  2799.  
  2800. @@@@@@@@
  2801.  
  2802. >Anonymous slows his pace as he walks to the curtains, eventually coming to a stop halfway there.
  2803. >He's looking around the room, as if searching for something.
  2804. >He...
  2805. >He doesn't look like a coward.
  2806. >Admittedly, you only know about him from Incognito.
  2807. >But he didn't carry himself like you'd expect a coward to.
  2808. >He had this... look to him.
  2809. >You don't really know how to describe it.
  2810. >It was like he was determined, cautious, and careful, while somehow blending in a tinge of laid-back and casual.
  2811. >Well, his speaking habits so far were laid-back and casual, anyway.
  2812. >It's a weird combo.
  2813. >But somehow, it was very... attention-grabbing.
  2814. >Agh, you don't know!
  2815. >You thought you knew what to expect!
  2816. >But this is something totally different!
  2817. >"Sunburst?"
  2818. >"Y-yes, Anon?"
  2819. >"It might be a good idea if you hang back while I... have a little chat."
  2820. >"What? Why?"
  2821. >"She can't do anything to me like she is now. I just need you to keep a lookout for me."
  2822. >"B-but there's nopony in here to look out for!"
  2823. >"Just humour me, all right?"
  2824. >Obviously, he's trying to get some privacy during his 'talk'.
  2825. >"A-all right, Anon. Just... if anything goes wrong..."
  2826. >"I know. I'll be fine, trust me."
  2827. >He resumes moving to the curtain, but stops short of pulling it back.
  2828. >"Oh, one other thing."
  2829. >"What is it?"
  2830. >"What kind of light gems are these?"
  2831. >"Huh? W-well, they look like sungems, not luxcryst."
  2832. >"Sungems, eh? You sure?"
  2833. >"Yeah. The structure's a dead giveaway."
  2834. >"Thanks."
  2835. >Uh...
  2836. >What was the point of that?
  2837. >That's a bit... random!
  2838.  
  2839. >Finally, he pulls back the curtains and steps through.
  2840. >You can see Chrysalis's ears pin back upon finally seeing him.
  2841. >Not even a smart remark before he came in.
  2842. >She's really afraid of him, isn't she?
  2843. >Anonymous, for his part, doesn't change his expression.
  2844. >"Chrysalis."
  2845. >"A-Anonymo--"
  2846. >"You look like shit."
  2847. >"W-wha--"
  2848. >"Like, 'dog shit baking in the sun for a week' shit."
  2849. >...
  2850. >Uhhhhhhhhh...?
  2851. >"Wh... What?"
  2852. >"Well, don't you?"
  2853. >"I... What are you doing here?"
  2854. >"Breaking your concentration, mostly. But more to ask you just what in the fuck that was all about."
  2855. >"Wha... What?"
  2856. >"You want to tell me why the first thing I saw coming in here, was Twilight breaking down into a crying mess?"
  2857. >There was some real venom behind his words there.
  2858. >"I... I simply told her about what you did! And what Incognito was doing!"
  2859. >"That right?"
  2860. >"Yes!"
  2861. >"Then give me the recap."
  2862. >"Gi-- What?"
  2863. >"I said, give me the recap."
  2864. >"Wh-what do you mean?"
  2865. >"Recap: a verb, shorthand for 'recapitulate', meaning 'repeat what you just fucking said to her, you roach-looking shitbird'."
  2866. >He...
  2867. >That...
  2868. >His lines are somehow both the most obscene and creative things you've ever heard.
  2869. >And the most confusing...
  2870. >She looks confused, too, but seems to get the message.
  2871. >And thus, begins telling him what they talked about.
  2872. >She skips some details in what she told Twilight, especially about their fight.
  2873. >But she more or less tells him exactly what she said before.
  2874. >Guess she's too scared of him to try lying.
  2875.  
  2876. >His angry expression just smoulders further when she mentions the... 'empowerment'.
  2877. >That retelling's gonna haunt your nightmares for days...
  2878. >"Oh, that's just peachy."
  2879. >"Wh-what?"
  2880. >"I didn't just get the edgemaster, I got the fucking lovechild of Stalin and Manson. Fantastic."
  2881. >Even if you didn't know who those were, they were clearly insults.
  2882. >And him insulting Incognito like that, just...
  2883. >It was somehow even worse when he did it!
  2884. >"Now, since we're here and 'talking', I've got another couple of things to ask.
  2885. >"First off. You said he was off somewhere, getting allies. Where did he go?"
  2886. >Oh, damn it! She knows where he went!
  2887. >"H-he's gone to Zebrica. To enlist the aid of an evil tribe, 'Bloedige Plaag'."
  2888. >"See, that wasn't hard, was it?"
  2889. >Her expression soured, in spite of the fear she felt.
  2890. >Not going to lie, that was kind of funny.
  2891. >"Now, last thing. Just how many of your bugs does that guy have in his posse?"
  2892. >"They're not 'bugs'!"
  2893. >"Ask me if I give a shit."
  2894. >She snorts angrily before answering him.
  2895. >"Lots of them. Over half."
  2896. >"So, statistically speaking, there's a fifty-fifty chance of any given bug being one of his toadies?"
  2897. >"Oh for-- What does this have to do with anything?!"
  2898. >"Christ, you really haven't noticed?"
  2899. >"Noticed what?!"
  2900. >"I'll show you."
  2901. >Anonymous places his sword into his left hand, and grabs a hanging light gem with his other.
  2902. >And then--
  2903. >SMASH
  2904. >Breaks the gem with the sword?!
  2905. >His arm winds back to throw it.
  2906. >His eyes lock with yours.
  2907. >He...
  2908. >He knew you were here?!
  2909. >The gem flies towards you.
  2910. >Ohh shi--
  2911. >BANG
  2912. <...
  2913.  
  2914. >You know, you're honestly surprised that Celestia and co still use sungems.
  2915. >The damn things are ridiculously unstable if you break them.
  2916. >Lucky for you, that made them real nice as impromptu flash grenades.
  2917. >Okay, maybe a little incendiary, too.
  2918. >But it works for you.
  2919. >Bugbutt's weasel face contorts to shock and surprise.
  2920. >How did she not know one of her 'kids' was here?
  2921. >Don't these guys have some kinda sense for each other's whereabouts?
  2922. >Maybe those rings suppressed it.
  2923. >Don't know.
  2924. >Good thing you can still see through invisibility.
  2925. >Regardless, you've got a little spy problem to take care of.
  2926. >You immediately move back through the curtains, changing sword hands again.
  2927. >"Anon! What's going on?!"
  2928. "We got a bug hiding out in here."
  2929. >"Wh-what?!"
  2930. "Get the guards, then go get Luna."
  2931. >"B-but what are you--"
  2932. "Sometime this week would be good!"
  2933. >He stops trying to ask questions and runs off to the door.
  2934. >Meanwhile, you circle around to those boxes you saw the cloaked bug on.
  2935. >They've toppled over, and the cardboard's caught fire.
  2936. >The doors can be heard opening behind you, followed by armoured hoofsteps.
  2937. >"Sir Anonymous!"
  2938. "Over here, fellas."
  2939. >The royal guard all form up around you.
  2940. >You keep some semblance of a fighting stance, expecting this bug to jump ou--
  2941. >FWOOSH
  2942. >Ah, there he is.
  2943. >A burst of green magic blew off a box that had buried the changeling in question.
  2944. >And boy, he looked pissed.
  2945. >Surprised, but pissed.
  2946. >"Everypony, close in and--"
  2947. >FWMPHH
  2948. >Hooooly fuck!
  2949. >Your turn to be surprised!
  2950. >This bug just let loose a big wave of green magic force.
  2951.  
  2952. >You were fine, but the guards were thrown way the hell back, most of them knocked out by the blast.
  2953. >You don't remember changelings outside the queens having that kind of power at their disposal.
  2954. >Shouldn't they just shoot green bolts and shapeshift?
  2955. >Apparently not this one!
  2956. >This particular bug was giving you... as much of a death glare as you can give with pupil-less eyes.
  2957. >And his horn was crackling with green magic.
  2958. >He's not even bothering to talk with you, he just breaks into a dead sprint towards you.
  2959. >What's with these pony-esque things and their love of charging?
  2960. >Regardless, you brace yourself for a sidestep.
  2961. >Near the end of the charge, the bug plants his forehooves in the ground, and uses the momentum to whirl his hindlegs around for a sweep kick.
  2962. >Right as you feint your sidestep into a slash.
  2963. >CLANG
  2964. >"Gah!"
  2965. >Okay, there should have been a lot more knockback than there actually was.
  2966. >This sword must have an enchant on it, or something.
  2967. >Regardless, the two blows wound up cancelling each other out.
  2968. >The blade managed to nick the bug's back leg through the chitin.
  2969. >The bug was thrown way off balance by this as well, and he stumbled for a moment.
  2970. >Enough time for you to wind up your leg for a good old fashioned punt.
  2971. >He recovered fast enough to try buzzing away, but your foot still connected with a solid
  2972. >SMACK
  2973. >And he was sent careening off a good three feet.
  2974. >He managed to land on his legs, however.
  2975. >Looks like he's figured out charging isn't a good idea, and is now circling you instead.
  2976. >A move you decide to mirror.
  2977.  
  2978. >There's a lot of things about this particular changeling that's firing off some red flags.
  2979. >First off, their shells aren't usually so tough that they can take a sword slash like that.
  2980. >Much less with that kind of collision.
  2981. >You've already covered the freakishly high amount of magic.
  2982. >And he had access to a whole lot more spells already than normal bugs.
  2983. >Normal bugs don't know invisibility, or big fuckoff magic wave attacks.
  2984. >Topping it off, he seemed... smart. Real smart.
  2985. >He hasn't hissed at you once, and only charged the one time.
  2986. >Even with the whole no-pupil thing going on, you still noticed the look he's giving you.
  2987. >He was studying you, trying to figure you out.
  2988. >Kinda like you were to him.
  2989. >All things considered, that pretty much ruled him out as one of Chrysalis's bugs.
  2990. >She's clearly not the type to teach them shit like that.
  2991. >...
  2992. >Change of strat.
  2993. "You know, I've gotta hand it to you."
  2994. >No reponse, but he clearly didn't expect you to start talking.
  2995. "I don't even know who the hell you are, but you fight way better than that queen of yours."
  2996. >The expression you get starts off surprised and gracious, but quickly reverts to anger.
  2997. >"That's not exactly difficult to accomplish."
  2998. >He--
  2999. >Wait a sec.
  3000. >That voice is not man-like in any way, shape or form.
  3001. >And being surrounded by mostly mares, you'd know.
  3002. "Well shit, a ladybug, too?"
  3003. >"What's that got to do with anything?"
  3004. "Nothing. Just thought queeny back there was the only ladybug, is all."
  3005. >"We're not bugs."
  3006. "And I'm not an ape, but that doesn't stop others saying so, now does it?"
  3007.  
  3008. >For all her obviously well-trained fighting skills, she doesn't seem much better than Chrysalis in the distracted-by-talking department.
  3009. >Well, you're stalling for time, anyway.
  3010. >Let's see what kind of buttons we can push.
  3011. >You move to charge yourself, but stop and fake it out pretty quick after.
  3012. >Judging from the wing flaring and the jump, you'd say that worked.
  3013. >Looks like someone's a bit jumpy.
  3014. "There's one thing I don't get, though.
  3015. "I get that your queen's an imcompetent mirror-worshipper and all, but why'd you sign up with the other guy, of all things?"
  3016. >She's smiling.
  3017. >"You know already. He's smarter, more powerful, and more humble than Chrysalis."
  3018. >Methinks we've found a trigger.
  3019. "Smarter, sure. Powerful? Totally. Humble? Fuck right off."
  3020. >And there goes the smile.
  3021. >"He isn't? I don't remember Lord Matthias demanding praise for his accomplishments. Or preening over his appearance to his followers!"
  3022. "No, you're right. He just built himself up as a living god, and got you all to call him 'Lord'. Totally different."
  3023. >This breaks the changeling.
  3024. >"Shut up!"
  3025. >There's the angry charge you were looking for.
  3026. >No real finesse, just an angry bullrush.
  3027. >A swipe before she gets close causes her to stop and back up.
  3028. >And she looks absolutely fucking pissed.
  3029. >Oh, yeah.
  3030. >You were gonna have some fun with this.
  3031. >It's at this point, that she floats over a sword from one of the guards.
  3032. >"I was going to bring you back with me, as a gift for him. But I'll settle with killing you, instead!"
  3033. "Oh, don't settle for less on my account. I'm sure his sex dungeon could use a good gimp."
  3034.  
  3035. >Oh, yeah.
  3036. >That was a good angry screech you got from her.
  3037. >Her sword swing was similarly big and forceful.
  3038. >And about as easy to block as you'd expect.
  3039. >"He does NOT have anything like that!"
  3040. "Sure he doesn't."
  3041. >Man, are you glad for whatever's dampening the sword knockback.
  3042. >And for some of that old bayonet practice.
  3043. >Have you mentioned that you love your aunt yet?
  3044. "Wait, you're serious, he doesn't have a sex dungeon?"
  3045. >"N-NO!"
  3046. "But that's in at least the top ten needs of evil villains!"
  3047. >"He isn't evil!"
  3048. "Huh, I must've forgotten the part where holy champions harvest pony blood and steal their souls."
  3049. >The CLING-CLANG of sword clashes echoes as this exchange goes on.
  3050. >Man, this takes you back to the days of drunken shit-talking on Earth.
  3051. "But we're getting off-topic here."
  3052. >"SHUT UP!"
  3053. "What kind of fucking world conqueror type doesn't have at least one harem of unwilling concubines?"
  3054. >Yeah, screech some more for me.
  3055. >Your autistic rage fuels my dark powers.
  3056. >You fake a worried expression for the next line:
  3057. "Wait, he's not a gelding, is he?"
  3058. >"NO HE ISN'T!"
  3059. "Well what the fuck, then? What's his excuse?"
  3060. >"Why would you even ask me something like that?!"
  3061. "Well, you struck me as the kinda gal who'd know something like that."
  3062. >CLANG CLANK CLUNK
  3063. >She's getting closer and closer as the parry-fight continues on.
  3064. >Perfect.
  3065. "Ooh, maybe he's one of those abstain-until-marriage types?"
  3066. >"I SWEAR, WHEN I GET MY HOOVES ON YOU!"
  3067. >One loud CLANG with the traditional sword-lock later, and...
  3068. "That'd be perfect for you, huh? You'd just sweep in and get him aaaaall to yourself."
  3069.  
  3070. >And there's the familiar payoff.
  3071. >A faltering of her movements.
  3072. >The shocked look.
  3073. >The light tinge of red.
  3074. >Every fucking time, like clockwork.
  3075. >Taking advantage of the momentary lapse, you grasp the handle of her floating sword with your free hand.
  3076. >The magic around said handle fizzles right out as you touch it, with the rest following soon after.
  3077. >Now or never.
  3078. >Both weapons in hand, you run forward for the double side slash.
  3079. >Her recovery is too quick, however, and she buzzes up and out of the way.
  3080. >You stop your main sword, but change the motion a bit for the 'reclaimed' one.
  3081. >Alright, just like the knife-throwing back home...
  3082. >It hits the right point in the arc...
  3083. >And you let go of the thing.
  3084. >The quickly spinning sword flies straight towards her.
  3085. >She was too focused on flying away to get even a shield going.
  3086. >THUNK
  3087. >Of course, Murphy wouldn't let you have a perfect hit.
  3088. >Oh, it hit. Right in the left temple.
  3089. >But it was the pommel, not the blade itself.
  3090. >With that said, it was still a solid hit, and definitely dazed the bug.
  3091. >You never stopped your forward run, which turned out to be a good thing, since she was losing altitude.
  3092. >What wasn't such a good thing, was her horn lighting up a brilliant green anyways.
  3093. >You recognize that spell.
  3094. >That's the big magic blast wave.
  3095. >FWMPHH
  3096. >And it was a lot stronger than the last one.
  3097. >Strong enough to knock you flat on your ass, and wrench the sword out of your grasp.
  3098. >Within moments, you felt a pair of hoof-shaped weights stomp down on your outstretched arms.
  3099.  
  3100. >Standing above you was a familiar pissed off changeling.
  3101. >And by pissed off, you mean absolutely livid.
  3102. >Not even wasting any time, she floats that sword of yours above, for one last strike.
  3103. >Of the stabbing variety.
  3104. >"Say goodnight, Anonymous!"
  3105. >ka-chuk SCHK
  3106. >The bug cried out in pain, while being thrown off of you.
  3107. >A crossbow bolt buried in her haunch.
  3108. >"That's my line, you bucking roach!"
  3109. >Hooooly fuck.
  3110. >That horse. Spirit animal.
  3111. >And guardian fucking angel, apparently!
  3112. >Looking downwards, you see a familiar Night Guard captain, crossbow in hooves, with his buddies filing in.
  3113. >"This a private party, Anon?"
  3114. >A witty retort would have come out, if Luna hadn't decided to enter next.
  3115. >By flying in.
  3116. >And judging from the glowing-eye thing, she was more pissed than your insectoid friend.
  3117. >An anger that got even worse when she spotted said 'friend'.
  3118. >Wordlessly, she flew towards her, horn aglow and looking ready to turn her into fucking mulch.
  3119. >Until, however, a bright green flash went off from where she was thrown off.
  3120. >Which caused her to slow down, growl with anger, and scream the Ancient Equestrian equivalent of 'FUCK'.
  3121. >In that order.
  3122. >Turning around to see what happened, you get your answer.
  3123. >She'd teleported away.
  3124. >Wonderful.
  3125. >Her glowing-eyed rage fades and is replaced with concern when she sees you next.
  3126. >She flies down in front of you right away.
  3127. >"Anonymous! Are you hurt?!"
  3128. "I've had worse."
  3129. >You take her hoof to get back up, and she hugs you straight after.
  3130. >"Who was that, Anonymous? Who attacked you?!"
  3131. "Well... I think that was Incog's biggest fan."
  3132.  
  3133. @@@@@@@@
  3134.  
  3135. >It's been an hour since that clusterfuck of an experience.
  3136. >You've been walked back to your 'official' room in the castle, that being the ambassador's suite.
  3137. >You were 'debriefed' by both Luna and some EUP general figure you didn't recognize.
  3138. >After that happened, and after Luna's promise to return later, you were kept under tight Night Guard supervision.
  3139. >And by tight supervision, you of course mean excited chattering with the guards about what went down.
  3140. >Razor was there, of course, spearheading the conversation.
  3141. >The other bats were pretty much there for cheering and throwing in remarks.
  3142. >"Geez, nice move with the damn sungem there! Never would have thought of that!"
  3143. "Best part was her face when she saw it flying towards her. Should've gotten a picture, man. Just, the definition of 'oh, shit'."
  3144. >Assorted chuckles from your increasingly endearing crowd.
  3145. >You go on to describe the start of the fight, how she managed to take out the guards, and you punting her ass away.
  3146. >And then essentially bantering her to near-defeat, despite your piss-poor swordsmanship.
  3147. >Probably would have won, too, if it wasn't for fucking magic.
  3148. >Man, the one time you're without your staves, and it's against a super strong bug minion of Incognito's.
  3149. >Fucking typical.
  3150. >Your audience was currently losing their sides somewhere in high Equus orbit from your retelling of events.
  3151. >Like, there were bat-horses rolling on the floor, howling with laughter.
  3152. >Razor was going with the more traditional 'banging the table' school of hysteric laughter.
  3153.  
  3154. >"Pffhahahah! Holy shit, Anon! Think she's repressed enough?"
  3155. "I'm just glad you showed when you did. Thanks for the save, by the way."
  3156. >"Ah, don't mention it."
  3157. "Too bad she got away, though. Maybe we could've gotten some more details out of her."
  3158. >"Well, she can't have gone far. That was a solid hit, too. She'll be limping for days."
  3159. "Guess that's the search warrant of the day?"
  3160. >"You know it. Especially since she knows how to get past our bug-detectors. We had to get the court mages to offer a hoof for patrols!"
  3161. "Hey, at least they're working now."
  3162. >"Hah! You've got that right!"
  3163. >One of the bats come across the ambassador liquor cabinet.
  3164. >You know, the one you totally forgot about?
  3165. >She's even loading up you and Razor's favourites, without any prompting!
  3166. >Man, these guys are aweso--
  3167. >KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK
  3168. >And just like that, the booze gets returned to the cabinet, and they all look busy pretty quickly.
  3169. >It's really funny to see them all 180 from happy-fun-times to serious-fucking-business.
  3170. >In any case, you'd best answer that door.
  3171. "Just a second!"
  3172. >You stroll over to the door with your sizable escort, and one of them opens the door for you.
  3173. >Safety reasons, and all.
  3174. >On the other side...
  3175. >Oh, man.
  3176. >It's Twilight, again.
  3177. >She looks really downtrodden.
  3178. >If Chrysalis was telling the truth, you could see why.
  3179. >"He-hey there, Anon..."
  3180. "Uh, hi, Twilight."
  3181. >"May I...?"
  3182. "Oh, uh, sure."
  3183. >You motion her in, the guards giving her a wide berth.
  3184. >Almost as if sensing the need for privacy, they all clear out.
  3185. >Some outside the windows, some in the bathroom, some outside the door.
  3186.  
  3187. >All except for Razor, who stays put.
  3188. >"Sergeant? I... I'd like some time alone with Anon, please."
  3189. >"Sorry, princess, but no can do. I'm under strict orders to keep Anon safe, straight from Princess Luna herself."
  3190. >A sideways smile accompanies him fishing out some--
  3191. >Oh you clever fucking horse.
  3192. >"But that doesn't mean I can't give you two some private speaking time."
  3193. >Fucking earplugs.
  3194. >Despite everything, that gets Twilight to laugh a bit.
  3195. "When I'm finished scratching her ears, you're next."
  3196. >"Should I be scared?"
  3197. "Oh, where's your sense of adventure?"
  3198. >"A very interesting question, tailhole. Oh, sorry, I mean, 'Sir Anonymous'."
  3199. >The chuckles were had all around.
  3200. >This had to be intentional on his part, since Twilight was brightening right up from all this.
  3201. >Speaking of her, the two of you move to the coffee table.
  3202. >You expected her to sit at the opposite end of the table, but instead she shares the same couch you're on.
  3203. >Razor promptly sticks those plugs in, shooting you a `don't mention it` wink your way.
  3204. >[spoiler]we're hitting spirit animal levels that shouldn't even be possible[/spoiler]
  3205. >Turning back to Twilight, her mood's gone back down, but not to the low it was at before.
  3206. >Looks like you're in for another repeat of the Chrysalis recovery debacle.
  3207. "So, uh... What's the occasion?"
  3208. >Her first response is to hold you in another hug.
  3209. >You just wish you didn't get them under these circumstances.
  3210. >"You almost got killed again."
  3211. >Welp.
  3212. "Guess... Uh, shit. Guess I did, huh?"
  3213. >"Is this going to be a common theme now?"
  3214. "I sure hope not."
  3215.  
  3216. >A beat of silence passes before her next response.
  3217. >"Nothing I say is going to stop you doing things like this."
  3218. >That wasn't a question.
  3219. >You sigh, followed by wrapping your arms around her.
  3220. "You know why I can't just up and stop."
  3221. >"That doesn't make it any less painful."
  3222. "I know."
  3223. >...
  3224. >"Anon?"
  3225. "Mm?"
  3226. >"Those magic artifacts you had. Did you have to... do anything evil, to make them?"
  3227. "Not one thing. Just wood, gems, and pre-existing magic items."
  3228. >She holds you tighter.
  3229. >"I... I heard what... he does to ponies. T-to... get their--"
  3230. "I know. I heard, too."
  3231. >"Did she tell you?"
  3232. "Yeah."
  3233. >...
  3234. "I know what you're thinking."
  3235. >No response.
  3236. "And I'm telling you right now, that I'm never gonna do anything like that."
  3237. >"I know you won't. But still..."
  3238. >A sniffle from her.
  3239. >"I didn't know you'd... go that far. For all of us."
  3240. "I had to. I knew what he could do."
  3241. >"I just... I don't understand, how any... thing, could do something so horrible, so casually."
  3242. "There's no shortage of sick fucks from my neck of the woods."
  3243. >...
  3244. >"She also mentioned human history."
  3245. "Yeah, I know."
  3246. >"Is... is it really that horrible?"
  3247. "Not as much as she thinks."
  3248. >"But still horrible?"
  3249. "About three-fifths horrible."
  3250. >Another sniffle.
  3251. >"Why didn't you say anything earlier?"
  3252. "I didn't, and still don't, see what some other asshole's actions from way back when, have to do with me."
  3253. >"But it's history, all the same."
  3254. "Listen. I... You've gotta be careful when talking human history. What with ponies being really peaceful, if you don't tell it right, then..."
  3255.  
  3256. >Fuck, need a good analogy.
  3257. "It'd... It'd be like if humans used Sombra as an example of ponykind."
  3258. >You felt her stiffen a bit.
  3259. >"But most ponies aren't anything like him!"
  3260. "I know. But outside observers don't usually see it that way. Missing context, and all that."
  3261. >A sigh.
  3262. "Especially if the guy telling the story knows how to spin it."
  3263. >"S-spin it?"
  3264. "If you wanted to paint a picture of humans as unstoppable killing machines, would you mention the world wonders, or the horrible wars?
  3265. "Alternatively, if you wanted to paint ponies as massive tyrants, would you mention the unification, or the whole nightmare-banishment thing?"
  3266. >She's getting tenser and tenser.
  3267. >"But that's not the whole story!"
  3268. "That's the point.
  3269. "Look, do you get what I mean, now? There's good and bad elements, it's just a matter of what you focus on."
  3270. >"You focused only on the good parts, then? During the get-togethers?"
  3271. "Of course."
  3272. >"Then tell me the bad parts."
  3273. "No. I'll tell you all the parts."
  3274. >"A-all the parts?"
  3275. "Well, sure."
  3276. >Twilight pulls back to look at you.
  3277. >You see some light tear streaks, but also that same adorkable curiosity of hers.
  3278. >You just can't help but smile a bit at the sight.
  3279. >"But... you said three-fifths were bad?"
  3280. "I did. And I won't lie, the bad parts are gonna sound really extreme to you."
  3281. >You make to wipe the streaks away with your thumbs.
  3282. "But I think the good parts are gonna shine way brighter for it."
  3283. >"You think so?"
  3284. "I hope so."
  3285. >"So, do you mind if... I have something to write with?"
  3286. "Heh, sure thing."
  3287. >She floats over some paper and utensils from a distant desk.
  3288.  
  3289. >It takes a lot of digging through your memory, but you start with the basics.
  3290. >Namely, what you told Sunburst before about Earth's creation.
  3291. >Like him, she immediately went to these 'Outer Reaches' as a locale.
  3292. >But she was more affected by the amount of suffering everything had to experience, before you got to the 10,000 year mark.
  3293. >"I... I don't understand. Such a perfect alignment of chance, the best opportunity for alien life, and... it suffers so much, growing up!"
  3294. "I like to think of it as 'adversity building character'."
  3295. >"But Anon, this is-- Oh gosh, you were right, this IS extreme!"
  3296. "Try to keep it under wraps, if you can. I haven't gotten to the extreme parts yet."
  3297. >It's sad to see the ear-drooping, but you both carry on regardless.
  3298. >You tell her about early human tribes, spread across the world, and quickly segue into civilizations.
  3299. >The Egyptians and what-not, and the invention of math, wheels, boats, metalworking, all that.
  3300. >Then you get to the Greek philosophy era, and the creation of the major religions.
  3301. >And then you get to the world empires.
  3302. >And that's where the bloodier parts begin.
  3303. >The Roman empire is pretty much all you know, so you stick with it.
  3304. >But you can't mention that empire without mentioning the military.
  3305. >To your credit, you'd been divulging the good and bad of all this stuff so far.
  3306. >The whole slave-labour-for-pyramids thing didn't go over very well with her.
  3307. >Neither did Roman slaves.
  3308. >But the level of conquest the Romans got under their belt was totally mind-blowing for her.
  3309. >And not in a good way.
  3310.  
  3311. >You go over the middle ages, and the various fracturing empires that propped up over the many centuries.
  3312. >It soon becomes a more complete explanation of the things you told Razor a while back, about the various wars.
  3313. >The Crusades weren't a fun subject for her, but things got worse with the famines and the plague.
  3314. >Losing possibly half the continent's population that quickly?
  3315. >Absolutely heartbreaking for her.
  3316. >It got worse with the advent of witch-hunts and the thirty-year war.
  3317. >But then the enlightenment and renaissance happened.
  3318. >That bit of good news was a huge relief to her.
  3319. >Colonization was covered, culminating in the good ol' war of independence.
  3320. >And who can forget Napoleon, of course?
  3321. >The wars wound down into the industrial revolution, which was a much better period for her.
  3322. >She was totally mindblown at the thought of humans having trains for three-hundred years.
  3323. >You take a breather at this stage, the two of you returning to hugging it out.
  3324. >Hours had gone by, and early on, you let Razor know that he could listen in, too.
  3325. >He stayed quiet all throughout, though.
  3326. >The sun was beginning to get to the low end of it's orbit, but none of you cared.
  3327. >"I... I'm just glad that, after all those terrible events, that things looked up, you know?"
  3328. "I hear you."
  3329. >"They... they did get better, d-didn't they?"
  3330. >Well, you had to get to this part sometime.
  3331. "I really hate to say it, Twilight, but we still haven't gotten to the worst part."
  3332. >If you could go another two years without seeing her heartbroken face again, it would be a blessing.
  3333.  
  3334. >She braced herself as best as she could, before getting ready to continue writing.
  3335. >She wasn't ready at all for the first world war.
  3336. >And that was with you sparing the details on the warfare.
  3337. >The final death toll was her breaking point, and she needed a moment to cry that one out.
  3338. >But you told her there was one final horrible event, that was unmatched so far.
  3339. >And it was the most extreme of the bunch.
  3340. >Hell, you offered to stop.
  3341. >You didn't want to see her this broken up.
  3342. >But she asked you to keep going.
  3343. >And to your reluctance, you did.
  3344. >You decided to give a lot more background to the second world war, just to soften the blow.
  3345. >It only helped a little bit.
  3346. >The sheer scale of the devestation that war brought?
  3347. >Even as drained as she was, she still had a tough time holding it together.
  3348. >The moment you mentioned the final death toll, she couldn't take anymore.
  3349. >That was the final breakdown point.
  3350. >You don't know how many minutes you spent, just cradling her as she bawled into your chest.
  3351. >It was too many, that's for sure.
  3352. >...
  3353. >She'd cried herself asleep on top of you.
  3354. >God, you feel like the world's biggest asshole right now.
  3355. >"Hey, Anon?"
  3356. >Razor had lowered his voice, so he wouldn't wake her.
  3357. >Looking over, you see him with a folded blanket cradled on his back.
  3358. >"I think you'll be needing this."
  3359. >Yeah, looks that way, doesn't it?
  3360. "T-thanks."
  3361. >Wordlessly, he unfurled it and draped it over the pair of you.
  3362. >You use your left hand to pull it the rest of the way over.
  3363. >...
  3364. >You'd forgotten to take off the metal thing.
  3365. >Why didn't you or her notice?
  3366.  
  3367. >"Anon, listen to me."
  3368. >His tone was almost... parental.
  3369. >"I know you've gotta be feeling like the worst scum around, telling her all that shit.
  3370. >"But you handled it really well. You're a lot better at this than you think you are, pal.
  3371. >"I've seen skirmish stories being told badly before. I know how it can go, believe me."
  3372. "I just told her that sixty million people died in a war. How's that supposed to go well?"
  3373. >"You said it yourself back there, Anon. It's all about who spins it.
  3374. >"Imagine if that other human told her that figure, instead of you."
  3375. >Now, that was an unpleasant thought.
  3376. >Watching her look at you like a monster, after being told a brutally huge number like that.
  3377. "And how many 'minions' of his already know that part, you think?"
  3378. >"Don't know. Probably all of them. If I were a betting stallion, I'd say he loves telling that side of it."
  3379. "That damn bug sure knew."
  3380. >"Well, I'd say that's a good bet, then."
  3381. "Some of the shit he does sounds like it came out of the war."
  3382. >"Look, the point is, better you than him. She'll at least forgive you later on."
  3383. >You look down at Twilight's sleeping face.
  3384. >Wonder what she's dreaming about?
  3385. "I hope so."
  3386. >"She will, trust me. But don't be shocked if the princess comes asking about her nightmares for a few days."
  3387. >Oh God, how will she--
  3388. >"Look, it's getting late, and you've done a lot. You should catch some Z's while you can, Anon."
  3389. >Yeah...
  3390. >That's probably a good idea.
  3391. "Sounds... good to me."
  3392. >"I'll be here keeping a lookout, like always."
  3393. >The events of the day quickly catch up to you.
  3394. >Soon, you're out like a light.
  3395. <...
  3396.  
  3397. >"All aboard for Ponyville!"
  3398. >Oh, thank goodness!
  3399. >You think they took long enough getting the train to leave?
  3400. >Of course, you had secreted yourself away inside the train's cargo hold a while ago.
  3401. >At least you wound up in a good position to sneak into the hold!
  3402. >You were totally unused to teleportation, so ending up in the palace gardens was at the very least better than the barracks.
  3403. >But seeing the night princess come after you like that...
  3404. >You didn't even want to try a showdown.
  3405. >Not after seeing that look she gave you.
  3406. >...
  3407. >Damn it, your leg is still burning from that bolt.
  3408. >Just...
  3409. >What happened back there?
  3410. >You thought it would have been easy to beat Anonymous!
  3411. >But instead, he...
  3412. >He played you.
  3413. >And nearly beat you.
  3414. >You can only assume that Incognito was wrong about him.
  3415. >And you knew one thing for sure.
  3416. >He was almost certainly the one who beat Chrysalis like that.
  3417. >...
  3418. >Incognito's not the kind to misjudge others.
  3419. >What did he see when he first saw Anonymous, anyways?
  3420. >Did he start off a coward?
  3421. >And then work his way up to... whatever it is you fought?
  3422. >But in only around four months time?
  3423. >That's insane!
  3424. >Hasn't Incognito been planning things for years now?
  3425. >If...
  3426. >If Anonymous is as big a threat as you think he is, he'll want to know immediately.
  3427. >He could threaten everything!
  3428. >Damn Chrysalis for now. She can wait.
  3429. >This information was far more important.
  3430. >The train lurches, and begins to move.
  3431. >Finally.
  3432. >Hopefully the Appleoosan plains wouldn't be too far off.
  3433. >That's where your evacuation would be.
  3434. <...
  3435.  
  3436. >Normally, you don't much care for waking from dreams.
  3437. >But your current one had been about screaming and crying.
  3438. >At least your bed was nice.
  3439. >All soft and warm and shit.
  3440. >Christ, is it heated?
  3441. >Must be.
  3442. >...
  3443. >Wait...
  3444. >The ambassador suite doesn't have a heated bed.
  3445. >And...
  3446. >This isn't a bed at all.
  3447. >This is the damn couch!
  3448. >You crack your eyes open the rest of the way to get a look at your surroundings.
  3449. >Yep, you were definitely on the couch.
  3450. >Blanketed up and everything.
  3451. >So what--
  3452. >"mmmph..."
  3453. >...
  3454. >Uh...
  3455. >You think you found the 'heater'.
  3456. >What's Twilight doing sleeping with you?
  3457. >Did something happen?
  3458. >Come on, think. What happe--
  3459. >Oh.
  3460. >OH.
  3461. >Fuck.
  3462. >That's right.
  3463. >The bugs.
  3464. >And this was the second time she sobbed herself to sleep in a single day.
  3465. >God damn it.
  3466. >...
  3467. >Man, at least everything these horses do is cute as all hell.
  3468. >And her sleeping like this?
  3469. >Pretty far up there in terms of cute factor.
  3470. >She groans a little, pushing her back against your chest a little further.
  3471. >But doesn't stir.
  3472. >This... this is gonna make getting out of 'bed' really tough.
  3473. >And waking her right now just seemed so... wrong.
  3474. >Unless...
  3475. >Unless you do it the right way, of course.
  3476. >You summon forth your right arm from it's hyperbaric slumber.
  3477. >Wait, do you still have the damn archery brace on?
  3478. >What the fuck, man?
  3479. >Oh well, can't use the left arm.
  3480. >Kinda buried underneath some purple hide right now.
  3481. >You bring the free arm over to her head.
  3482. >Being careful not to catch any hairs, you place your fingers onto her ear.
  3483. >They twitch in response.
  3484. >And then begins the slow scratching.
  3485.  
  3486. >You see her start to smile a lot more in her sleep.
  3487. >It feels like a few minutes before she begins stirring.
  3488. >You don't relent on the scratching, meanwhile.
  3489. >She tries to hide the fact that she's awake, just to get more of what you're giving.
  3490. >But she doesn't hide the big yawn particularly well.
  3491. >Oh look, still trying to play it cool?
  3492. >Well, we'll see about--
  3493. >KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK
  3494. >In an instant, her wings spring up, throwing the blanket up over your head.
  3495. >Oh, and she loudly squeaked when that happened, too.
  3496. >You pull the blanket off your face.
  3497. >Despite the bad bedhead, she's going over to answer the door for you.
  3498. >The Night Guard don't react quick enough to open the door for her.
  3499. >In the meantime, you decide to get yourself upright.
  3500. >All things considered, that was a damn fine sleep.
  3501. >You finally catch onto Twilight's voice.
  3502. >It sounds... a little panicked.
  3503. >Looking over, you see...
  3504. >Oh, it's Luna.
  3505. >Huh, she looks kinda amused.
  3506. >Well, can't blame her.
  3507. >Panicked Twilight is somehow always fun to see.
  3508. >Luna turns to look at you, next.
  3509. >"Slept well?"
  3510. "Very."
  3511. >You've said it once, you'll say it again.
  3512. >That giggle is fucking magical.
  3513. >But why is Twilight still looking frightened?
  3514. >Are you... missing something here?
  3515. >"Well, I come to bring you both good and bad news."
  3516. >Oh.
  3517. >Right into the subject matter, eh?
  3518. >"Unfortunately, we were not able to find your attacker anywhere in the castle. It seems that she managed to slip away."
  3519. >Ah, fuck.
  3520. >"But fortunately for you, you will not be confined to the castle any longer."
  3521. >Wait, what?
  3522.  
  3523. >"You see, after speaking with the commanders, we have decided that we do not have the resources to... 'investigate your alleged activities' any longer.
  3524. >"After all, if a single changeling was able to sneak past a heavily defended vault, then we have larger concerns than investigating a close friend, no?"
  3525. >...
  3526. >Wait.
  3527. >Is she...
  3528. >Did she just let you off the hook?
  3529. >"Well, you fighting off said changeling may have had something to do with swaying their decision, as well."
  3530. >Holy shit, she totally did.
  3531. >That smile of hers says it all.
  3532. >You just...
  3533. >What can you say right now?
  3534. >The giggle returns before she continues on:
  3535. >"Now, there are some conditions to your early release, of course.
  3536. >"I am sending a squad of my Night Guard to keep watch over you, and to help ensure that a repeat of the Ponyville attack does not take place."
  3537. >All right, sounds fine so far...
  3538. >She leans in a little closer for her next line:
  3539. >"Oh, and I would appreciate it if you did not forget those letters this time."
  3540. >Ahhh.
  3541. >Right.
  3542. >Those.
  3543. >"Are my terms acceptable to you?"
  3544. >All you can really do is nod right now.
  3545. >"Splendid! Now, since this is a sensitive matter, we must have you out of here quickly. I shall give you an hour to prepare!"
  3546. >Wait, wha--
  3547. >"Make your way to the barracks of my Night Guard, when you are ready."
  3548. >And with that, she left as suddenly as she appeared.
  3549. >Well.
  3550. >That was...
  3551. >Really fast.
  3552. >Hmm...
  3553. >Is she trying to fast-track you out of here?
  3554. >She could be avoiding having to deal with... whoever else wants you here.
  3555. >Maybe the pony gestapo?
  3556.  
  3557. >Well, no sense in waiting around.
  3558. >You've only got an hour.
  3559. >Up to your feet you rise, striding over to the bathroom.
  3560. >Twilight was still kicking around when you closed the door.
  3561. >What's up with her?
  3562. >You begin the process of purging the unclean from yourself.
  3563. >It doesn't take very long.
  3564. >When you exit the bathroom, you see Twilight still waiting around.
  3565. >And she darts into the bathroom herself as soon as you're out.
  3566. >Uh...
  3567. >Wouldn't it have been faster to just use her own bathroom?
  3568. >Pff, fuck if you know.
  3569. >Too bad you lack a change of clothes for this trip.
  3570. >Ah well. They're not that bad just yet.
  3571. >Kinda miss the suit jacket, though.
  3572. >What time is it?
  3573. >Looking over at the clock gives you an answer of around eight-thirty.
  3574. >Well.
  3575. >You'll hit the barracks at nine-ten, then.
  3576. >Your first destination is the dining halls.
  3577. >After all, you just got out of the secret hospital room, and fought off a changeling yesterday.
  3578. >If that doesn't induce hunger, you don't know what will.
  3579. >...
  3580. >You make your way over to the barracks, this time with Twilight in tow.
  3581. >She caught up with you fairly quickly, while you were in the lunch hall.
  3582. >You made a little small talk, but you could tell something was bugging her.
  3583. >She didn't really want to talk about it when you brought it up, either.
  3584. >Well, that's fine.
  3585. >She follows along with you, regardless.
  3586. >Something about 'keeping you company'.
  3587. >A few rounded corners later, and you find yourself faced with--
  3588. >"Twilight! Anon!"
  3589. >Wait what the shit?
  3590. >What are all the girls doing there?
  3591.  
  3592. >Well, guess you'll find out as soon as they're done tackling the pair of you.
  3593. >Now, see, these are the kinds of hugs you like.
  3594. >Twilight seems to be getting the most attention of the bunch, with them all huddled together and talking amongst each other.
  3595. >Meanwhile, Dash and AJ both stick with you, instead.
  3596. >"Anon, the guards were telling me all about yesterday! Did you really fight off a super-powered changeling?"
  3597. "Maybe a little bit."
  3598. >"Dude, that's awesome!"
  3599. >"Ah'll say!"
  3600. >The back-and-forth doesn't really go anywhere else.
  3601. "So, uh, what are you all doing here?"
  3602. >"Oh, that? Princess Luna got us an express ticket outta here, and back to Ponyville."
  3603. >"Was mighty nice of her, but Ah don't know, she seemed all rushed about it."
  3604. "Funny, it seemed like that to me, too."
  3605. >After they trail off to small talk about their hospital stay, you glance over to Twilight's groupie.
  3606. >The other three seem to be consoling her about... something.
  3607. >Guessing it's your whole fight-the-baddies thing.
  3608. >Rarity, in particular, catches you looking.
  3609. >The look she gives you is... sly?
  3610. >Wait, hold up.
  3611. >What's there to be sly about with fighting?
  3612. >Hm.
  3613. >You know that feeling you get, when you think you're missing something glaringly obvious?
  3614. >Pretty sure that's your current state.
  3615. >Well, that and confusion.
  3616. >You don't have much more time to ponder it, when you notice another two familiar faces coming down the hallway.
  3617. >Sunburst and Razor.
  3618. >Bloody fuck, how many friends are being gathered up here, anyhow?
  3619. >The two find you pretty easily, and pick up their pace in your general direction.
  3620.  
  3621. >"Anon! You're all right!"
  3622. "Yeah, more or less."
  3623. >"I-I heard about the attack! If I knew it was that powerful, I would have--"
  3624. "Don't worry about it, bud. There's always next time."
  3625. >And Razor decides to interject here:
  3626. >"Speaking of next time, guess who just got reassigned?"
  3627. "Y-- Wait, reassigned?"
  3628. >"Yeah, you know, to some crazy little town with royalty, national heroes, and a tall alien biped?"
  3629. >Okay, you've been 'wait, what'-ing a lot today.
  3630. "Wait, you're coming with us?"
  3631. >"Something like that. They thought I was the best choice for leading that little guard squad."
  3632. >Well, shit!
  3633. >Things are really looking up!
  3634. >"Speaking of squad..."
  3635. >He walks over to the doors leading to the barracks, and slams it four times with his hoof, in a funny pattern.
  3636. >Within moments, a group of around twelve bat-pony guards, fully suited up, come streaming out of the door.
  3637. >This pretty much kills any conversation between the girls, especially as they flank along the sides of your loose grouping.
  3638. >Razor's smiling the whole time.
  3639. >"Now, we've got a train to catch, with a nice private car all to ourselves. Let's not keep them waiting, eh?"
  3640. >No arguments from anyone here.
  3641. >And so you all set off, with the flashy escort, over towards your destination.
  3642. >It's a somewhat leisurely stroll towards the station, no real rush.
  3643. >Guess the train's waiting specifically for you guys.
  3644. >Hey, fine with you.
  3645. >"Hey, Anon?"
  3646. "What's up, Dash?"
  3647. >"What's up with the metal arm thing?"
  3648. >Oh for--
  3649. >It's a huge metal covering, how do you keep forgetting about it?!
  3650.  
  3651. >You start to tell her a little about the item, when your resident guard leader announces your arrival.
  3652. >Guess you'll save it for the train ride, then.
  3653. >The train car is the same royal-only car you know from before.
  3654. >Except the star-and-moon decorations give away who it was made for.
  3655. >That's nice of her, lending her private car for you all.
  3656. >You're all filed onto the train car, and man is it a nice car.
  3657. >There was a big oval table in the middle, followed by the usual benches towards the front, and some unstaffed service areas at the back.
  3658. >And besides the subdued decor, the ceiling was painted like a starfield.
  3659. >And from the light shimmer it was giving off to you, probably enchanted for extra SFX.
  3660. >Twilight was already pointing out constellations on it!
  3661. >Once everyone took a seat at the big table, sans the guards, the train began moving.
  3662. >Guess they really were waiting on you all, huh?
  3663. >Once the train passed the city limits, Razor spoke up again:
  3664. >"All right, at ease, fellas."
  3665. >All but four of the guards relaxed and removed their helmets, joining you all at the table.
  3666. >Razor included.
  3667. >And wait, when did he hide a big chest under the table?
  3668. >"So, Anon? I've got a little present for you."
  3669. "A present?"
  3670. >"That's right, buddy. Come on over."
  3671. >Pinkie is seriously struggling to contain herself here.
  3672. >Hell, you're kinda antsy yourself.
  3673. >The second you moved up beside him, he opened the latch and flipped it open.
  3674. >Inside was--
  3675. >Ohh, fuck, right!
  3676. >"Thought we'd forget about that little game, didn't you?"
  3677. >The blank wood tiles for mahjong!
  3678.  
  3679. >An aggressively pink blur materialized between the two of you.
  3680. >"OOH, OOH, A GAME?! What kind of game? Is it a human game?"
  3681. "Sure is."
  3682. >"Well, what are we waiting for?!"
  3683. >Quick as a flash, she somehow manages to pull out and throw each tile in the air, and have them land fairly neatly on the table.
  3684. >How she does this, you don't know.
  3685. >It's amazing to watch, in any case.
  3686. >Hell, even Razor's impressed!
  3687. "Not so fast there, pink stuff. I've still got to make the artwork for them."
  3688. >"Artwork?"
  3689. "Well, how are you gonna tell which ones do what?"
  3690. >Right on cue, she starts fishing around in her mane for something.
  3691. >A tap on your side from Razor brings your attention back to him.
  3692. >With a quick slide of his hoof, he--
  3693. >Whoa, this thing's got a false bottom?
  3694. >And inside is--
  3695. >Ohhhhh, you clever fucking horses!
  3696. >It's not only that bow thing, but they somehow snuck out that case for your staves, too!
  3697. >He closes it just as fast, giving you the briefest of knowing smiles.
  3698. >Is that why they got you out this fast?
  3699. >So they wouldn't catch on to this?
  3700. >If so, then well played indeed.
  3701. >"Aha! Found it!"
  3702. >Pinkie picks that precise moment to finally dig out a painting palette and some brushes from that eldritch hammerspace she calls a mane.
  3703. >"Well, what are we waiting for, Anon? Let's get artworking!"
  3704. >Chuckles all around for the crazy one in the pink.
  3705. "Sounds like a plan to me, el pinko."
  3706. >And thus, with the help of your huge gathering of friends, much painting was done to these pieces.
  3707. >And yes, you somehow did find a way to sneak yourself in this.
  3708. >All according to plan.
  3709.  
  3710. @@@@@@@@
  3711.  
  3712. >The painting took nearly all of the trip, even with Rarity giving you some help.
  3713. >Just enough time for one of the guards to have pulled out that frankenstein Uno deck you made.
  3714. >It was pretty clearly a quick copy of the 'original', too.
  3715. >Still, you had enough time for a game of that with a couple of the girls, before the train pulled in.
  3716. >You all agreed to a big game night a few days from now, however.
  3717. >The prospect of human games was pretty enticing for them.
  3718. >Can't say you blame them, either.
  3719. >While the girls mostly went to help around the town, which was still recovering from the attack, you needed to get back home.
  3720. >Now that you were fresh off that fight from before?
  3721. >It only intensified your desire - no, your need - for better weapons and tools.
  3722. >Remembering your bow skills has given you some ideas, too.
  3723. >God, you'd need to do all kinds of experimentation!
  3724. >The amount of enchants you could cram onto a bow?
  3725. >And what about the arrows themselves?
  3726. >Can anyone say 'tazer arrows'?
  3727. >And you don't know what happened to your jacket and gloves.
  3728. >But that's fine, the concept worked!
  3729. >You can just remake those, better than ever!
  3730. >They were always proof-of-concept, anyways!
  3731. >Fuck, maybe get some kind of melee weapon going?
  3732. >Swords weren't gonna be very useful against iron plate-mail, so maybe something custom?
  3733. >Some kind of mace?
  3734. >But you needed to get a lot stronger to heft something like that around!
  3735. >Fucking hell, you had so much to do!
  3736. >The walk back home was occupied mostly by these errant brainstorms.
  3737.  
  3738. >"Now, see that, you two?"
  3739. >Hold up.
  3740. >"That stride of his? His posture?"
  3741. >Since when were you being followed back home?
  3742. >"That's the look of somepony, or somehuman, on a damned mission."
  3743. >You whirl around to see your pursuers.
  3744. >The mystery narrator, Razor, as well as Sunburst and Twilight.
  3745. >Both Sunburst and Twilight shared surprised looks, the latter much more so.
  3746. >Meanwhile, spirit-animal horse just had another signature knowing smile.
  3747. >"And that right there's the look, to match."
  3748. "What are you all doing here?"
  3749. >"Geez, forgot already? I'm supposed to be your shadow, Anon."
  3750. >Sunburst chimes in, a tad nervously:
  3751. >"W-well, I've only got a day before I need to return to the Empire, so I figured I'd, well, see what I can do to help you."
  3752. >Twilight shakes off a little nervousness for her own two cents:
  3753. >"I need to know, Anon. Everything I've been told about artifacts and ancient magic all says they're evil.
  3754. >"I need to see for myself whether or not what you're doing is bad or not."
  3755. >An eyebrow quirk from yours truly.
  3756. "So, not an elaborate ruse to get me to stop?"
  3757. >"We've been over this. Nothing I say can stop you."
  3758. >Well, nothing short of pony jail, anyways.
  3759. >...
  3760. >This is a very dumb idea, you know.
  3761. >But let's consider our roster of ponies here.
  3762. >Sunburst's already in this.
  3763. >Razor works for Luna, who's cool with your shit. Might get a real kick out of seeing your setup, too.
  3764. >Hell, he's probably gonna report back to her about any evil shenanigans, too.
  3765. >Good thing you do nothing of the sort.
  3766. >And then there's Twilight.
  3767.  
  3768. >Even though you don't do a single evil thing in your lab, there's still the chance she might freak out over this.
  3769. >And while you hate to play politics like this, it's also a good chance to keep Celestia off your back.
  3770. >You're all but certain that she'd want you in jail for even breathing on a Lexica.
  3771. >Her against Luna makes that a stalemate.
  3772. >If you convince Twilight, she likely couldn't do anything to you.
  3773. >Fucking God damn it.
  3774. >Thinking about it like that gives you all kinds of scumfuck vibes.
  3775. >But if you're gonna whip Nito's lilly ass and save your friends?
  3776. >It's gotta be done.
  3777. >...
  3778. >Did you just call him Nito?
  3779. >Hm...
  3780. >You know what, fuck it.
  3781. >That's one thing you'll tip Chrysalis for.
  3782. >If she used that nick, it probably pissed him off.
  3783. >So that's just what you'll use, too.
  3784. >Anyway.
  3785. >You give off a little sigh before she can [spoiler]call your name and save you from the dark[/spoiler]
  3786. "All right."
  3787. >A finger comes up to interrupt her.
  3788. "But fair warning. Nothing I do is evil, but it's not even the same ballpark as pony magic. I know, I've compared.
  3789. "So please don't freak out too much. Some of the things I have took weeks to make, and I don't want them to break."
  3790. >"I-I do not freak out and break things like that!"
  3791. "Last time you found a piece of Starswirl's journals, you almost ripped it apart with how fast you pulled it towards you."
  3792. >That one gets a flustered blush out of the pony.
  3793. >Razor has to restrain the sniggers, while Sunburst just looks shocked.
  3794. >"You... you almost destroyed a piece of Starswirl's journal...?!"
  3795. >"I did not!"
  3796. "Did too."
  3797. >"DID NOT!"
  3798.  
  3799. >Well, mood's officially lightened up.
  3800. >But Razor's getting antsy.
  3801. >"Well damn, what are we just standing around, waiting for? Let's go!"
  3802. "Geez, someone's eager to pen their report."
  3803. >He freezes.
  3804. >"How'd you know that?"
  3805. "I didn't, but that's always the story."
  3806. >"Yo-- You clever son of a mule."
  3807. "Mules don't have kids."
  3808. >"Agh, whatever!"
  3809. >"Wait, hold on, what do you mean, 'pen a report', sergeant?"
  3810. >"Okay, so my princess might also be interested in knowing whether or not Anon's being evil, too."
  3811. >A shrug of confidence.
  3812. >"I really doubt that he is. He's not that kinda stallion. But it never hurts to be sure."
  3813. "So, now that I know I've got two auditors in attendence, how about we get inside?"
  3814. >"Oh, finally!"
  3815. >Oh, finally indeed.
  3816. >The door to your place opens, and you step inside.
  3817. >At least nobody fucked with your auspex wards outside.
  3818. >You can still kinda see them, but clearly the others couldn't.
  3819. >The interior looked just like you last left it.
  3820. >You weren't gone long enough for any visible dust layers to form.
  3821. >Checking the fridge over reveals that indeed, the same extended to your food.
  3822. >Still good.
  3823. >You'd have put on some tea for your guests, but they were looking pretty anxious to see what you were up to.
  3824. >Welp.
  3825. >Now or never.
  3826. >Into your study you go, said guests in tow.
  3827. >You pull on the usual spot to throw open the trapdoor.
  3828. >A light gasp from Twilight and a small whistle from Razor.
  3829. >"Secret compartment? Nice."
  3830. >"Anon? When did you get this installed?"
  3831. "Oh, it was in the blueprints."
  3832. >"You mean you had this the whole time?!"
  3833.  
  3834. >You scale down the ladder with practiced ease.
  3835. >Sunburst floats himself down with the same difficulty, while the other winged guests just glide down without incident.
  3836. "Well, I'd actually made it for brewing liquor. Kept it here so no ponies could get to it and kill themselves."
  3837. >You shrug.
  3838. "Didn't really plan on learning about magic, but it worked out in the end."
  3839. >The place was kinda dark, so Twilight lit it right up.
  3840. >Ah, right.
  3841. >You hadn't touched the liquor stuff in a while now.
  3842. >It's gotten pretty dusty.
  3843. >Christ, when's the last time you needed moonshine for glyphwork, now?
  3844. >Razor, as always, has his share of helpful commentary:
  3845. >"Noooot exactly subtle about your other door though, buddy."
  3846. >You turn to him, only to find his hoof pointing towards...
  3847. >Oh.
  3848. >There's a trail of dust-free prints leading to your secret passage.
  3849. >Whoops.
  3850. >So much for maximum secrecy.
  3851. "Ah. That might be a problem."
  3852. >"Gee, you think?"
  3853. "Whatever, dude."
  3854. >Rolling your eyes, you head over to said passageway, and pull the right switch.
  3855. >The thing slides right over to the side, as you expect.
  3856. >You lead the way, with the others streaming in single-file.
  3857. >You never bothered to widen the passage more for that.
  3858. "Oh, fair warning, there's a guard in this tunnel."
  3859. >And right on cue, your first golem pops back up.
  3860. >"STOP. HE WHO APPROACHES THE BRIDGE OF DEATH--"
  3861. "Go fuck yourself in the mouth with a tazer."
  3862. >The golem sparks and convulses, before retreating into the wall alcove again.
  3863. "Oh, you might want to hurry along. It resets pretty fast."
  3864. >And your increased pace is suddenly easily matched.
  3865.  
  3866. >You emerge into lab, sweet lab very soon after.
  3867. >Man, more lab projects were coming to mind now.
  3868. >You had nearly everything ready to create a pair of slipgate keystones.
  3869. >If they worked as advertised, you could link up this place with Sunburst's little lab!
  3870. >If he even wanted you to, that is.
  3871. >Still haven't told him.
  3872. >Probably does, though.
  3873. >You needed a distant satellite lab for any dicking about with magnetic shit, too.
  3874. >Turns out that de-magicing your equipment for too long makes them lose their power permanently.
  3875. >Meaning you need to re-charge them the old fashioned way.
  3876. >You're just glad you did the experiments far away from your local node.
  3877. >And you still need something better than vinegar batteries, too.
  3878. >But it's a huge discovery, nonetheless!
  3879. >It looked very much like near-perfect anti-magic!
  3880. >Christ, you were so lost in your projects that you didn't notice your two newcomers gasping and whistling respectively at your crib.
  3881. >"Hooooooly shit. I thought those staff things were cool. This is... Sweet tapdancing Epona, Anon, this is awesome!"
  3882. >"I... I don't b-believe it..."
  3883. >You wave your hand around in the usual gesture of 'behold'.
  3884. "This is where the magic happens. Now, you can look all you want, but don't touch anything without my say-so."
  3885. >After shaking herself back into reality again, Twilight darts forth to pore over anything she can get her hooves on.
  3886. >Razor makes do with casually walking around, gawking at the shit on display.
  3887. >Either way, your crowd was very impressed with what they saw.
  3888.  
  3889. >"Say, Anon?"
  3890. "What's up, bud?"
  3891. >"What's with the freaky ceiling design?"
  3892. "Oh, that? A little touch of home."
  3893. >"Yeah, I can tell. Doesn't look like anything I've ever seen.
  3894. >You cast your gaze over to Twilight, who is busy scrutinizing the everloving shit out of the luxcryst light 'tubes' in said ceiling.
  3895. >"E-even the lights are different..."
  3896. "Neat, huh?"
  3897. >"There's no instability, no intent, no... Agh, how is this even functioning right now? How is any of this working right now?!"
  3898. "Pretty big difference between my method and the pony method."
  3899. >"You think?! I don't even know what these glyphs are, much less how they're even manipulating magic!"
  3900. "Sounds like a great subject to talk about over some tea later, eh?"
  3901. >She turns to look at you, the familiarity of that offer getting the intended effect.
  3902. >"It... It's been so long since..."
  3903. "Yeah, I know. And I only ever got to talk language with you, remember? God, when was the last time we even had a chat like that?"
  3904. >"M-months!"
  3905. >See, early on, the two of you talked almost non-stop about whatever it is you were reading up on.
  3906. >Some kind of condition of living with her at the time.
  3907. >She lost a lot of interest after all you ever talked about was language books.
  3908. >"G-gosh, when's the last time you even picked up one of those books on language?"
  3909. >Huh.
  3910. "A... A really long time."
  3911. >"Well, I guess you had... something else to take up the time."
  3912. "Yeah, no kidding."
  3913. >Man, was this a trip down memory lane, or what?
  3914. >Sadly, your mutual reminiscing of good times gone was interrupted by another query from Razor.
  3915.  
  3916. >"Hey, Anon? What's this funny looking thing?"
  3917. "What funny looking thiiii--"
  3918. >Holy fuck-a-moly with a side salad, that's your magnetic set-up!
  3919. >"Never seen copper wire befo--"
  3920. "Get away from that! No touching!"
  3921. >Your change in tone took him by surprise, but he backs up quickly nonetheless.
  3922. >"Whoa, what's wrong?"
  3923. "That's... A really dangerous experiment."
  3924. >"How dangerous?"
  3925. "It might kill you if you touch it, Razor."
  3926. >And he just backed up way the hell away.
  3927. >Twilight chimes in with a good deal of concern, however:
  3928. >"Anon, I want to know why that thing there is so dangerous, too."
  3929. "Well, it's--"
  3930. >"Is that a... A piece of iron? But what's it doing wrapped with copper?"
  3931. "Hey, don't in--"
  3932. >"And why are there jugs of vinegar lying arou--"
  3933. "Stop!"
  3934. >In another one of her characteristic sperg-fits, she was walking closer to the electromagnet the whole time.
  3935. >If there was one pony you wanted nowhere near this thing, it was the probable goddess of magic itself.
  3936. >And you were so dead-set on that, that you had no second thoughts about giving her tail a yank to pull her back.
  3937. >You knew the social shit around that, but at this moment, you could care less.
  3938. >A loud squeak accompanied the action, along with a blush, but it succeeded in getting her away.
  3939. >"A-Anon! Wha--"
  3940. "I just fucking said it could kill him!"
  3941. >"B-but you just--"
  3942. "What part of that statement translated to `let's get closer to it`?!"
  3943. >Seems she's not used to being on the receiving end of getting protected by her bestie.
  3944. >Sunburst seems to finally find a chance to interject:
  3945.  
  3946. >"Anon's not kidding, Twilight. That experiment has the potential to kill Razor very quickly, and almost certainly kill you instantly."
  3947. >She recovers from the shock of that quickly enough, and turns to you with an angry look.
  3948. >"Kill me instantly?! Anon, is this some kind of dark magic?"
  3949. >Oh for fuck's sake, this is not what--
  3950. >"No, it's not. It's a natural elemental force from the Outer Reaches."
  3951. >Geez, when did Sunburst become your saviour today?
  3952. >"A... an elemental force?"
  3953. >"Remember when I invited you over to Anon's place for a talk about his world? Before the changeling attack?"
  3954. >"R-right?"
  3955. >"I was planning on divulging this particular effect to you there, as long as Anon was okay with it."
  3956. >"But... what is it?"
  3957. >"Anon? I think you'd be better at explaining it than I am. After all, I don't know much about it, myself."
  3958. >Fucking hell.
  3959. >Didn't expect him to save your ass here, of all horses.
  3960. >Hell, you're not complaining.
  3961. "Yeah. Sure, that's... no problem. Just... stay away from that particular experiment, all right?"
  3962. >"O... Okay, Anon. I-I'm sorry..."
  3963. "It's fine. Just don't get so carried away, all right? I warned you about look-not-touch, didn't I?"
  3964. >More embarrasment coloured her features.
  3965. >Hell, she needed a good petting after this.
  3966. >And after kneeling down, that's exactly what you do.
  3967. >All the while, Razor chimes in again:
  3968. >"Wait, Outer Reaches? Did I miss something here?"
  3969. >Oh yeah, he wasn't listening to that part of your talk with Twilight.
  3970. "Might be where my home is at, buddy."
  3971.  
  3972. >Of all the sounds he could make, that disbelieving scoff wasn't something on the list.
  3973. >"O-Outer bucking Reaches? Oh sweet heavenly goddess, Anon, aren't you just full of surprises?"
  3974. "Yeah, I've been getting that a lot, lately."
  3975. >"So you're not just an alien, you're like a super-alien!"
  3976. "Sure, let's go with that."
  3977. >You rise from your petting position.
  3978. "So, did you all get a good look? Satisfied?"
  3979. >"Yeah, pretty much. Except that 'experiment' over there, gonna need some serious details on that."
  3980. "If there's one thing you should know, it's that Anon always delivers."
  3981. >Twilight's next:
  3982. >"I... I'm with him on that. Everything seems fine... but I'll need you to explain that thing to me, first."
  3983. "That's fine."
  3984. >A quick stretch before you continue:
  3985. "I was planning on doing some more work down here, but it looks like I'll be doing Q&A instead."
  3986. >"Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't--"
  3987. "It's fine, really. God only knows I need some more info, myself. The work can wait.
  3988. "So, you guys want to head up? This isn't really the best place for discussion, and all..."
  3989. >Nods of agreement from Razor and Twilight.
  3990. >And so, the man-horses are the first through the passage.
  3991. >But you stop to talk with Twilight a little, first.
  3992. "Sorry about the tail thing, Twilight."
  3993. >A light blush accompanies her stiffening up.
  3994. >"I-It's fine. J-just please don't do that again."
  3995. "Sure, of course. Let's go, then?"
  3996. >"S-sure."
  3997. >You decide to go before her, just to make sure the golem doesn't freak out.
  3998. >You swear, you hear her mutter something as you go.
  3999.  
  4000. @@@@@@@@
  4001.  
  4002. >And just like that, you find yourself back at home with your trio of guests, with tea and tea accessories at the ready.
  4003. >You would really have preferred to be working on your magic kit, but this needed to be done.
  4004. >Finally seating yourself, you take stock of the expressions at the table.
  4005. >Razor, managing to restrain his own excitement pretty well.
  4006. >Sunburst, the picture of curiosity.
  4007. >Twilight, just as curious, but also equally concerned.
  4008. >Pretty much what you expected.
  4009. >Well.
  4010. >Might as well break the silence before things get awkwar--
  4011. >"Can I... just ask something, first?"
  4012. >Or she could beat you to it.
  4013. >That works, too.
  4014. "Uh, sure. What is it?"
  4015. >"I noticed that, well, Sunburst looked pretty familiar with that laboratory of yours. Is he...?"
  4016. >The look you give to the pony of the minute is one of `it's all yours`.
  4017. >He takes it on the nose, and responds in turn:
  4018. >"Y-yeah. I've been helping him."
  4019. >"For... for how long?"
  4020. >"Only a few weeks."
  4021. >"Only a few weeks? So, you didn't help him, well, build all that?"
  4022. >"No, it was pretty much like that when I started out."
  4023. >Her focus shifts to you.
  4024. >"So, uh, how long have you had that lab?"
  4025. "A couple of months or so? Kinda fuzzy. The days really bleed into each other, you know?"
  4026. >She pauses to rub her temples.
  4027. >"You didn't just learn all this by yourself. You had to have found a book on it."
  4028. "Yeah."
  4029. >"You got this book from those ruins, didn't you?"
  4030. "Yeah. Jacked it before those Invictus guys burned it."
  4031. >"So that passage...?"
  4032. >You nod.
  4033. >She pauses again, to calm herself down.
  4034. >Poor gal.
  4035.  
  4036. >"But none of us knew about Incognito back then. Did you still...?"
  4037. "Well, of course. I was curious."
  4038. >"So you made weapons back then?"
  4039. "Only after the not-weapons. And mostly because I was curious."
  4040. >"But... why?"
  4041. "You ever get chased around by manticores three times out of ten, down in the Everfree?"
  4042. >A shrug.
  4043. "It's not like I'd kill the things, anyways. But Fluttershy's talks with them never worked, and having something to warn them off sounded good to me."
  4044. >"You could have just stayed out of the Everfree."
  4045. "Sure, but that also would mean having to stop talking to Zecora as often."
  4046. >She gets that one, at least.
  4047. >The two of you are pretty close.
  4048. >Shit, she hooked you up with those iron supplements, after all.
  4049. >Hm, you might need to pop one after the last fight...
  4050. >Razor pipes up, once again:
  4051. >"Listen, I hate to sound like a dick, but this sounds like something you two need to one-on-one about.
  4052. >"Honestly, I'm more interested in finding out more about that little 'experiment' of his."
  4053. >Shit, right.
  4054. >You almost forgot about that.
  4055. >"S-sorry, sergeant. I kind of forgot."
  4056. >"I'm the one who oughta be apologizing here. But I have a really tight schedule for the next few days."
  4057. "Guess we should get on with it, then."
  4058. >Obligatory tea chug before proceeding.
  4059. "Alright, well, how much do you know about iron? And all those other anti-magic metals?"
  4060. >Twilight goes on to explain what she knows, with some key inputs from Sunburst along the way.
  4061. >About how there was a tiny 'field' that surrounds the particles that rejects magic.
  4062.  
  4063. >Well, it would work well enough to build off of, anyway.
  4064. "All right, well, after a bit of dicking around, I think I've figured out what the reason behind that rejection might be."
  4065. >"You have?"
  4066. "See, all those materials have one thing in common. Something that makes them very popular in industry back home."
  4067. >"Well, iron's a tough material, but I don't know about the others..."
  4068. "It's actually that they're all 'ferromagnetic' materials."
  4069. >Blank looks from the crowd, Sunburst included.
  4070. >Right. You didn't get to explain this to him.
  4071. "It's the property of being strongly attracted to magnetic fields, and even becoming magnets themselves."
  4072. >Some recognition colours Sunburst's expression, but the rest are all blank stares.
  4073. "Uh, Sunburst, you have a pretty good grasp on electricity, so why don't you explain that to them, first?"
  4074. >And explain he does, in surprisingly concise terms, about what you described before.
  4075. >You were counting on him relating some concepts to pony common knowledge, and sure enough, he does just that.
  4076. >After he finishes with right-hand rule, you pick things right back up:
  4077. "I'll admit, I don't know the exact details on how it all works, but the point is that electricity and magnetism are kinda inseperable."
  4078. >"So... was that the point of that experiment of yours?"
  4079. "Yeah, just recreating the force. Though, after seeing what it does, I can kinda see why you guys never really 'discovered' it."
  4080. >"What do you mean?"
  4081. >Sunburst picks up here:
  4082. >"When he did the initial experiment, I was there. I felt the effects.
  4083.  
  4084. >"When he connected those wires, it was like the tingle you feel when entering a weak magic-repelling field, only way worse, and stetching all the way down to the base of the horn."
  4085. >Twilight didn't do a good job of hiding her cringe.
  4086. >"After he, I guess, realized what he was doing, he formed it into a coil shape, which made it even worse.
  4087. >"I was almost halfway across the room from him, and I still had the feeling from there!
  4088. >"Hay, I could actually feel the magic of the devices near him waning from it!
  4089. >"But the worst part was when he wound it around that iron piece."
  4090. >A shake of his head.
  4091. >"Twilight, that field theory you had about denying magic's existence around the particles?
  4092. >"I swear, whatever he did just took that theory to an extreme I didn't even realize was possible!
  4093. >"Everything hurt, not just my horn. Like the world itself was trying to push me away.
  4094. >"But every magic device near him was completely neutralized.
  4095. >"The magic, simply pushed out. It just didn't exist in that space anymore!"
  4096. >"As if it's existence was denied."
  4097. >Twilight finished that train of thought, the monotone voice perfectly complementing her blown-away face.
  4098. >You recognize some of her tics.
  4099. >She's itching to write things down.
  4100. "Paper's in my office, bottom left desk drawer."
  4101. >Well, she didn't waste any time.
  4102. >A drawer was flung open, and paper and quill floated out at a very quick pace.
  4103. >And thus, the inner super-student was fully awakened in her.
  4104. >It's always fun, seeing her do that.
  4105. >What the French call, 'I don't fucking know what they call it'.
  4106.  
  4107. >As she writes, Sunburst gets some paper and quills of his own, and starts concurrently writing.
  4108. >The two were currently in full-blown study partner mode, and boy howdy were they masters at it.
  4109. >Like, they were wordlessly exchanging notes and making edits, juggling four and two quills, respectively.
  4110. >Man, you were too focused on Twilight to notice the same reaction in Sunburst.
  4111. >While those two wrote like they were possessed, Razor chimed in:
  4112. >"So, uh, that's new. A force that totally removes magic."
  4113. "It's pretty common back home."
  4114. >"Pff, figures the super-alien would use magic-destroying stuff every day."
  4115. "Don't know about the 'destroying' part."
  4116. >"Close enough to 'destroying' for me."
  4117. "It's the little details."
  4118. >"So, uh, what exactly do you use this 'force' for back home, anyways?"
  4119. "Pretty much everything. Motors, cooking, heavy lifting, data transmission; you name it, we've probably got electromagnetism all over it."
  4120. >"You know, for something that wrecks magic, that sounds pretty much like magic."
  4121. "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
  4122. >"Not even gonna argue with that one."
  4123. "Good."
  4124. >In an amazing display of synchronicity, the two eggheads of the round table put down their notes, and slam down their hooves on the table.
  4125. >"What else can you tell us?!"
  4126. >"What else can you tell us?!"
  4127. >...
  4128. >Pffffff.
  4129. >Nope.
  4130. >Couldn't keep a straight face.
  4131. >Hah.
  4132. >Yep, you're losing your shit right now.
  4133. >And from the sniggering to your side, seems your spirit animal agrees.
  4134. >All it takes is a glance at him for you two to lose it.
  4135.  
  4136. >Holy fuck, it felt good to laugh it out like that.
  4137. >God, these fucking ponies are the best thing.
  4138. >You take a moment to calm yourself before looking up at them.
  4139. >Somewhere along the line, the two got embarrassed, and wait shyly for you two to finish.
  4140. >You finish first, just to be nice.
  4141. >But Razor doesn't.
  4142. >Nothing a smack upside the head doesn't cure.
  4143. >You tell them a little bit about the Earth's magnetic properties.
  4144. >Namely, how it acts as a deflector shield against solar radiation.
  4145. >Keeping some oxygen attracted to the planet helps, too.
  4146. >Twilight moves to write some more, totally captivated by this new discovery.
  4147. >But she stops short of actually doing it, giving you an apologetic look.
  4148. >"I... I'm sorry, Anon. I wanted to ask a lot more, but... I can't even begin to describe the importance of what you just told me!"
  4149. "Hey, one big discovery for another."
  4150. >"If... If you want to see it that way, I guess."
  4151. >She gives her head another shake.
  4152. >"Sorry, but my mind is totally elsewhere right now. Do you mind if I come back later, to ask you more?"
  4153. >Well... shit.
  4154. >You knew this would derail her, but not this badly.
  4155. "Uh... I mean, sure, if you want."
  4156. >Sunburst wasn't content being left out, either:
  4157. >"Anon, I know I said I'd help you today, but I also really need to explore this theory, too. I hope you're fine with that..."
  4158. "Brother, don't let me keep you from your nerd shit. You go right on doing that."
  4159. >"T-thanks, Anon!"
  4160. >"Sunburst, I really need your insight on this. Do you mind staying in Ponyville a day or two longer?"
  4161.  
  4162. >"S-stay longer? But, Princess Cadance, she--"
  4163. >"I can send some advance notice to her, tell her it's an important matter."
  4164. >"W-well, I... I guess so."
  4165. >"Great! Let's get going!"
  4166. >She's entirely too enthusiastic about this.
  4167. >But it's an adorable sight, all the same.
  4168. >Really warms those heart-cockles something fierce.
  4169. >"Sorry about the brief stay, Anon! I'll make it up to you, I promise!"
  4170. "It's all good."
  4171. >Sunburst only manages to wave his farewell, before he's float-dragged out of your house by Twilight, along with all that paper.
  4172. >...
  4173. >"Well. That happened."
  4174. "Sure did."
  4175. >"I mean, I knew the two were nerds, but that's like... super-nerd territory."
  4176. >You quickly check the window, seeing the time of day.
  4177. >It's only a little past noon?
  4178. >Holy fuck, that took like no time at all!
  4179. >Maybe...
  4180. >Yeah, you could totally make those keystones!
  4181. >Fuckin' A, you'd get some work done, after all!
  4182. >"What are you looking at?"
  4183. "Getting the time."
  4184. >"What, you can't feel it?"
  4185. "How the hell do you 'feel' the time?"
  4186. >"Well, you just... Oh. Yeah. Right. No magic. Whoops."
  4187. >There's no escaping the eyeroll, puny man-horse.
  4188. "Looks like I've got enough time to squeeze out some projects of mine before bedtime."
  4189. >"Freaky human magic projects?"
  4190. "Sure, that."
  4191. >"Hope you're planning on showing me."
  4192. "I thought you weren't a fan of super-nerd shit?"
  4193. >"Writing notes is super-nerd shit. Making artifacts is super-awesome shit. Big difference."
  4194. "Fair enough. It is pretty cool."
  4195. >"Well, what are we waiting for? Let's go!"
  4196. >Your descent back into the lab was not made alone, needless to say.
  4197. <...
  4198.  
  4199. >The next day rolls around, and you arise from your own bed, at long last.
  4200. >Feels like forever since you've been able to do that.
  4201. >You contemplate the previous day's events as you perform the usual routine.
  4202. >So.
  4203. >You'd gotten a fuckton of crafting done.
  4204. >The keystones took like ten straight minutes of infusion to create.
  4205. >For each stone.
  4206. >Watching Razor's face when he saw the infuser fire up was fucking amazing, though.
  4207. >Once they finished, you gave them a spin.
  4208. >The things float on their own power, but are really meant for dedicated stone gate structures.
  4209. >Worked well enough for testing, though.
  4210. >You actually needed to create matching 'key' pairs for them, that would slot into the things, and link them together.
  4211. >Seeing them fire up was awesome. They looked almost exactly like Diablo portals, only with a complex magic rock floating above them.
  4212. >Razor offered to test them first, and it worked perfectly.
  4213. >The real test was you going through.
  4214. >Which also worked perfectly.
  4215. >Long-distance travel, acquired.
  4216. >Fucking ace.
  4217. >Once that was done, you drew up some rough diagrams for some new enchanted gear.
  4218. >Fitting more than a deflector shield on a suit jacket was a tricky prospect, given the fucky nature of glyph enchanting.
  4219. >And that's not even counting the gloves.
  4220. >Really need to figure out how to amp up the TK powers on that.
  4221. >But the interference between them just wasn't conducive to power increases.
  4222. >You poring over these details stretched into a bit too much 'nerd-shit' for Razor, who promptly took his leave.
  4223. >Wonder what he's up to today?
  4224.  
  4225. >Well, he'll show up when he's ready.
  4226. >Meanwhile, now that you had a fresh outlook on things, you decided to head back down to the lab.
  4227. >See what the Lexica could tell you.
  4228. >Let's see...
  4229. >Advanced Theory was available now.
  4230. >And it had a preface, to boot!
  4231. >Well, you've got nothing better to do.
  4232. >Let's get reading!
  4233. >"You are to be given the highest commendations for making it this far. Not many possess the accumen and determination to wield the arcane as you do.
  4234. >"However, the test of a true master of the magical arts cannot be taught by any book, nor instilled by any teacher.
  4235. >"No, the true test is one of creation. Of forging your own magic. Creating your own arrays. Weaving your own destiny.
  4236. >"Even amongst the gifted, the creation of new magic is a rare act. To those who accomplish it, they are lauded as great revolutionaries, and rightly so.
  4237. >"While we, the Faber Mystico, cannot tell you how you must create your own spins on the arcane, we can gift you the knowledge to help you in this act.
  4238. >"Thus, this section deals entirely in arcane fundamentals: previously hidden and abstracted to you, but now laid bare.
  4239. >"These repositories of knowledge will be the most difficult thing for you to obtain access to, and understanding of, make no mistake.
  4240. >"But it is our hope - nay, our dream - that the lessons they teach will last you a lifetime.
  4241. >"That it will propel you to levels of enlightenment possessed by the wisest of sages, and grant you the might of the most powerful of war-wizards.
  4242. >"And perhaps, even install your place in the annals of history."
  4243.  
  4244. >...
  4245. >Uhh.
  4246. >Holy shit.
  4247. >So, this is it?
  4248. >Like, end-tier shit?
  4249. >Making your own spells?
  4250. >Well, fuck me with a sideways fireaxe, that sounded fucking amazing!
  4251. >God damn right you're looking into that!
  4252. >...
  4253. >Wow.
  4254. >Wow, wow, wow.
  4255. >They weren't kidding about fundamentals.
  4256. >This was like, extremely fine details.
  4257. >You were never gonna cover this in one sitting.
  4258. >This needed fucktons of notes.
  4259. >But one of these sections was on translating spells from other schools of magic!
  4260. >Converting them, in essence, to thaumic glyphs!
  4261. >Fuck, you'll come back for that one later, for sure!
  4262. >Flicking back to Advanced Constructs, you check what else is there for you.
  4263. >Hm...
  4264. >'Animus'?
  4265. >That's different.
  4266. >And it was somehow linked to enchantment.
  4267. >Definitely worth a look.
  4268. >...
  4269. >Holy shit.
  4270. >This was the next stage of enchanting!
  4271. >Okay, so.
  4272. >You literally took gems, melted them down, and infused the fuck out of them with more magic and gems.
  4273. >Basically creating magical ink gel.
  4274. >You used this to draw glyphs onto items, instead of directly etching magical glyphs with a focus.
  4275. >Wow, given how much it says you infuse?
  4276. >That would be an enormous jump!
  4277. >This is exactly what you needed!
  4278. >Oh yeah, now you--
  4279. >Wait.
  4280. >Why's this section... bordered funny?
  4281. >Within the Animus chapter, was a section of text, separated from the rest by a dark border.
  4282. >The pages beyond the border were tinged a shade of red.
  4283. >That's... ominous.
  4284. >Is there any particular reason for this distinction?
  4285. >Well, you're not gonna find this out by speculating.
  4286. >More reading is in order.
  4287.  
  4288. >"We have made every effort to remain as neutral as possible in our application of arcane knowledge within this tome.
  4289. >"However, neutrality is not guaranteed where power is concerned, leading us to this warning.
  4290. >"This section of paper you read now, is our way of distinguishing magic that could, by all standards available, be considered a dark art.
  4291. >"A dark art defined as utilizing the pain, the life, and even the very soul of another being as a source of power.
  4292. >"We cannot tell you what to do with the knowledge you have obtained thus far, but know that we would caution you away from such sources of power.
  4293. >"The Faber Mystico has never condoned the use of the dark arts, but we nevertheless study some elements of it, to gain further insight into the arcane.
  4294. >"Our insights are therefore purely academic in nature.
  4295. >"If you wish to reveal the darker aspects of your discoveries, you need only sign your name below, and it shall be made available to you, and only you."
  4296. >...
  4297. >Dark magic?
  4298. >Oh, God damn it.
  4299. >Well.
  4300. >This was definitely a bad idea.
  4301. >Especially hot off the heels of Twilight's concerns over you using evil magic.
  4302. >But if these guys really did only take the academic approach?
  4303. >Maybe this could give you another edge over Nito.
  4304. >And hell, you weren't going to actually make this shit.
  4305. >At least, you sure hope not.
  4306. >...
  4307. >Before you second-guess yourself, you pick up a quill and sign away.
  4308. >Turning away, you flick through the book a little more.
  4309. >And yeah.
  4310. >There were new, 'dark' segments all throughout your old discoveries.
  4311. >Fuck-a-doodle-do.
  4312.  
  4313. @@@@@@@@
  4314.  
  4315. >Whatever plans you had for stomping out the 'Animus' research were totally thrown aside at this new discovery.
  4316. >Hell, the part where you first found that 'sign to get the dark side' option had changed over to a typical obscured page of knowledge.
  4317. >No take-backs for you, it seems.
  4318. >Fuck.
  4319. >Well, you had some serious reading to do.
  4320. >You pull up a chair in your lab, and flipped through your old discoveries.
  4321. >A good deal of them now had a 'dark' area in them, where there was just blank paper before.
  4322. >And indeed, you had some new discoveries to make under your theory sections, that were entirely 'dark'.
  4323. >Okay.
  4324. >Take it easy, Anon.
  4325. >The motherfuckers who wrote this book didn't like dark shit any more than you do.
  4326. >It's all for research purposes.
  4327. >Deep breath.
  4328. >And into the first basic 'dark' theory we go, 'Alternative Vis Sources':
  4329. >"Visnodes and leylines, as you well know, are the cornerstone of all magic distribution.
  4330. >"But, they are not the only method through which one may obtain vis.
  4331. >"A being with a previous connection to magic has potentially decades of vis stored within them.
  4332. >"And a prospective - or uncaring - practitioner of magic, may instead use this power, extracting it and bending it to their will.
  4333. >"But such a method is not without it's own set of challenges.
  4334. >"The vis you obtain through directly linking with the visnodes of the world is pure energy, without the need for 'filtration'.
  4335. >"By contrast, the vis from another being is 'tainted' with the essence of it's original owner, and does require such 'filtration'.
  4336.  
  4337. >"This by itself poses a significant barrier to any interested in quick grabs at power.
  4338. >"However, it also poses a problem to the question of accepting an ally's offering of their own vis, to help fuel your own constructs.
  4339. >"For indeed, an offer of magic from a comrade, particularly a gifted one, may be a legitimate use for such a 'filter'."
  4340. >Huh.
  4341. >Way to poison the well for the reader.
  4342. >Or...
  4343. >Is is technically 'cleaning' the well?
  4344. >Oh, fuck if you know.
  4345. >They're at least trying to put a positive spin on it.
  4346. >Still, that sounds useful.
  4347. >Could you imagine one of your spells, getting a power boost from Twilight?
  4348. >That might not be an unlikely scenario.
  4349. >Okay, definitely earmarking that for research later.
  4350. >Next is 'Tainted Vis'.
  4351. >Oh, that sounds fun.
  4352. >"The power of another being's vis, as discussed previously, is significant, but ultimately useless to a thaumaturge without 'filtration'.
  4353. >"However, thaumaturges are not the only ones who harness vis to their ends.
  4354. >"And it is these other practitioners of magic, those who use the full extent of another's power, 'taint' and all, that make this field a dubious one.
  4355. >"A user of these 'dark arts', will often directly use this impurity in the vis to amplify the power of their magic.
  4356. >"Through this section, you will learn what these 'impurities' consist of, and just how they are used by different sects of dark magic wielders.
  4357. >"And perhaps it will also serve as a cautionary tale, to show you just how far another being can fall, in the pursuit of vast, destructive power."
  4358.  
  4359. >Really laying the disdain on thick, aren't they?
  4360. >Hell, this is the only break in the overall neutral way the book presents it's knowledge to you.
  4361. >Well, you're not complaining.
  4362. >This segment looks important, too.
  4363. >If it can tell you a little bit about dark magic's inner workings, maybe you can figure out a way to... disrupt it?
  4364. >Maybe get a classification for just what exactly that Horus-looking motherfucker uses for his magic?
  4365. >Okay.
  4366. >One more thing, before you over-extend yourself here.
  4367. >You change gears to Intermediate Theory, and find 'Nature of the Soul'.
  4368. >Souls...
  4369. >Nito fucks around with them, right?
  4370. >Maybe you can do something about that.
  4371. >"The soul. A commonly misunderstood thing, particularly amongst the gifted.
  4372. >"But at the same time, it is the most powerful, readily-occurring source of vis available to a far-gone wielder of the dark arts.
  4373. >"It is the very core of magic in a gifted being, the thing responsible for tying them to the visnodes of the world.
  4374. >"And parting with it can only mean death to them.
  4375. >"The mundanes are distinct, in that they possess very limited souls, or even no souls at all.
  4376. >"Parting with their souls may only damage them partially, or ruin them as utterly as any gifted, depending on it's influence.
  4377. >"But no matter the race, the sheer power of an extracted soul is a boon that cannot be understated:
  4378. >"It provides both a powerful, self-recovering well of magic, and an empty vessel available to serve whatever ends the dark user wishes.
  4379. >"You will learn of the different aspects of a soul, and the applications of tampering with one."
  4380.  
  4381. >Ffffuck.
  4382. >Fucking fuck shit.
  4383. >Not a good subject to end on.
  4384. >Fuck, how do you even approach this?
  4385. >...
  4386. >Alright, you have an idea.
  4387. >Today will be a research day.
  4388. >You stand back up, and make your way to the makeshift writing desk, seating yourself.
  4389. >The first thing you do is pick up some paper, and take a page out of your bestie's book.
  4390. >Draw up a fucking list.
  4391. >You'll start with the dark topics, in the order you read about them.
  4392. >Since they're pretty basic compared to your current progress, it shouldn't be hard to crunch through them.
  4393. >And then, you'll dedicate your time, both today and tomorrow, to powering through the Animus research.
  4394. >Just like the infuser, it sounded like the next quantum leap in powering up your shit.
  4395. >Which puts it at a very high priority, indeed.
  4396. >But you'll save the best for last.
  4397. >After all, if there's one thing you know, it's that knowing your enemy is a very key step in taking them down.
  4398. >Or is that just what you keep telling yourself?
  4399. >You know, to avoid the gut-twisting feeling you're getting from even considering doing this?
  4400. >No.
  4401. >It's fine, Anon.
  4402. >You keep reassuring yourself that everything will be fine.
  4403. >After all, these authors haven't done you wrong yet.
  4404. >And if they really do hate this shit, which judging from the fucking opening lines of their research pages, they do...
  4405. >Then maybe it'll help keep you on the straight-and-narrow here.
  4406. >Really make it a 'purely academic' experience.
  4407. >God, you really hope so.
  4408. >The last thing you need, that your friends need, is for that abyss to gaze back into you.
  4409. <...
  4410.  
  4411. >"Get her on, quickly!"
  4412. >"O-of course, captain Ajay!"
  4413. >THUMP
  4414. >"Careful, you idiot! There's maybe a week's worth of damage here!"
  4415. >"I-I'm sorry, I--"
  4416. >"Don't be sorry, be useful! Get the medical kit!"
  4417. >rustle rustle
  4418. >"Good, now help me get her in position."
  4419. >rustle thump
  4420. >"We need her hydrated, first. Keep her head upright. And if she chokes on even a drop, I will end you, private!"
  4421. >"Y-y-yes, c-captain!"
  4422. >...
  4423. >Pain and exhaustion.
  4424. >An accurate statement on how you feel right now.
  4425. >Waves of hot, throbbing pain, extending from your left haunch.
  4426. >And too physically exhausted to even lift a hoof.
  4427. >All you can manage is to open your eyes.
  4428. >And listen.
  4429. >It's cloudy out.
  4430. >They're moving by really fast.
  4431. >Feels like the ground is shaking.
  4432. >You're on your side.
  4433. >A blanket covers you.
  4434. >A pillow under your head.
  4435. >What happened?
  4436. >Your fight at Canterlot remains burned in your memory.
  4437. >But everything after boarding the train is a blur.
  4438. >Why...
  4439. >Why can't you remember it?
  4440. >"Take the reins, private. I'm checking up on her."
  4441. >That voice.
  4442. >Is that...?
  4443. >The floor shakes a little bit more.
  4444. >A figure comes into your field of vision.
  4445. >It's him.
  4446. >Ajay immediately notices your eyes being open, which seems to surprise him.
  4447. >"Sweet mother of mercy, you're awake! Private, keep this damn thing steady!"
  4448. >"Y-yes sir!"
  4449. >Without wasting any time, he gets down to your level, looking you square in the eyes.
  4450. >"Don't you even think about talking right now, you hear?"
  4451. >You could almost taste the concern he gave off.
  4452. >It was... nice.
  4453. >Your vision fades again, and you hear your name called.
  4454. <...
  4455.  
  4456. >You wake up to pain and exhaustion.
  4457. >Again...
  4458. >Only, the ground wasn't shaking.
  4459. >And you were on your back.
  4460. >Lying on something nice and comfortable.
  4461. >Opening your eyes is about all you can do right now.
  4462. >You...
  4463. >You seem to be in some kind of tent.
  4464. >And there's a lot of empty gems lying around.
  4465. >Those are love gems, aren't they?
  4466. >Before you can get a look at anything else, you hear the flap opening.
  4467. >A fellow ling walks through, his back holding a basket loaded with full love gems.
  4468. >He sets them down on a small table, and levitates a few above him while he moves towards you.
  4469. >That's the second time somepony's looked shocked seeing you awake.
  4470. >Surprised chitters soon turn to excited ones.
  4471. >He's letting everyone know you're awake and okay.
  4472. >But...
  4473. >Why did he use those honorifics for you?
  4474. >You try to move your head, only to have the ling dart forward to stop you.
  4475. >He was very adamant that you stay right where you were.
  4476. >After adding the condition for you not to talk, he gave you the energy stored in the gems.
  4477. >More lings entered the tent, helping him do this.
  4478. >Huh.
  4479. >That's enough love stored in those gems to feed the whole colony.
  4480. >How are you just... consuming it all?
  4481. >Sure, you drained all those ponies at Canterlot, but...
  4482. >The amount you were taking in had to be easily double that!
  4483. >They ran out of gems fairly quickly, and you were...
  4484. >Kind of satisfied?
  4485. >What's going on with you?
  4486. >At least you could think straight, now!
  4487. >Wish this damn pain would go away, though!
  4488. >No, focus! Priorities!
  4489. >How did you end up like this?
  4490.  
  4491. >Okay, you had that fight at Canterlot.
  4492. >You were beaten by...
  4493. >Well, okay, the guards beat you, but Anonymous might as well have beaten you.
  4494. >That's the last time you underestimate him.
  4495. >Then, you left on the train.
  4496. >But even hurt as you were, you weren't totally immobile like that!
  4497. >Sure, it hurt a lot, having that bolt in your haunch, but it didn't outright cripple you!
  4498. >Hrm...
  4499. >You remember passing through Ponyville's station without incident.
  4500. >The train went on to Appleoosa, so you didn't need to leave.
  4501. >Then...
  4502. >After that, you just remember...
  4503. >Pain?
  4504. >No, wait, something else caused that.
  4505. >The...
  4506. >...
  4507. >>Pain lanced through your body as the magical wave collided with you.
  4508. >>You were blown through the train's wall.
  4509. >>You at least landed on your hooves.
  4510. >>Your attackers were royal guards. With some court mages.
  4511. >>The mages pummeled you with spell after spell.
  4512. >>The guards were too good at sword combat. You couldn't get close enough.
  4513. >>They wore you down until you simply had no love left.
  4514. >>More guards and mages appeared all around.
  4515. >>They wanted you alive.
  4516. >>You remember being so tired.
  4517. >>So...
  4518. >>Hungry.
  4519. >>The net came down over you.
  4520. >>Some kind of primal instinct came over you.
  4521. >>The next thing you know, you were poised over the lifeless body of a mage.
  4522. >>Not a drop of magic left in his body.
  4523. >>The area around you littered with the bodies of guard and mage alike.
  4524. >>The mages dead, and most of the guards barely alive.
  4525. >>Everything hurt.
  4526. >>You couldn't keep yourself upright anymore.
  4527. >>All you saw before you collapsed was a chariot flying in.
  4528.  
  4529. >The sound of the tent flap opening broke you from your recollection.
  4530. >A certain gryphon came through the tent.
  4531. >The other lings hissed at him for a moment, but abruptly stopped when they felt your relief by seeing him.
  4532. >Ajay was clearly confused, but didn't let it get to him for very long.
  4533. >He made to speak, but stopped at the last second.
  4534. >And instead spoke to a nearby ling.
  4535. >"How, uh... how is she doing?"
  4536. >"She cannot move or speak, and lies in constant pain. But she is recovering."
  4537. >It felt nice, having that kind of concern directed towards you.
  4538. >The others seemed to ease up once they felt it, too.
  4539. >Why were they all reacting so strongly to your own feelings?
  4540. >Ajay takes a few cautious looks to his sides, before moving up to your bedside.
  4541. >"You, uh, you all right?"
  4542. >The only thing you can do to respond is smile.
  4543. >"Can... can one of you tell me what happened with her?"
  4544. >"I think we'll find out soon enough."
  4545. >"How do you figure that?"
  4546. >The sound of heavy footsteps was all the response he needed.
  4547. >Footsteps.
  4548. >It's him.
  4549. >He's coming to see you!
  4550. >...
  4551. >Oh, no.
  4552. >He's coming to see you.
  4553. >And you failed.
  4554. >You couldn't bring Chrysalis back for him.
  4555. >The happiness you felt at him coming to see you was now replaced with dread.
  4556. >The other lings reacted in turn, many of them huddling close to your bed.
  4557. >The footsteps got closer and closer.
  4558. >They stopped for a brief moment.
  4559. >An uncovered, reddish hand grabbed the tent's door flap.
  4560. >Your blood turned to ice.
  4561. >After pulling it aside, the human stepped in.
  4562.  
  4563. >He...
  4564. >He wasn't wearing his armour?
  4565. >He was in some kind of robe, engraved with strange symbols that gave off lots of strange magic.
  4566. >He still wore his catalyst, though it looked really out of place.
  4567. >His eyes met yours.
  4568. >Your breath caught.
  4569. >His expression began as unreadable.
  4570. >But somehow, it began to soften.
  4571. >He...
  4572. >He wasn't mad at you?
  4573. >You only now just notice that the lings and Ajay had dropped into a bow.
  4574. >But the lings were trying very hard not to stand up and huddle around you.
  4575. >After what felt like an eternity, he spoke:
  4576. >"It is good to see that you are awake, Athalia. Captain, please rise."
  4577. >Ajay does so without hesitation.
  4578. >"Now, describe to me what you saw as you broke away from the rendezvous."
  4579. >The gryphon went on to explain what happened.
  4580. >They were waiting for you in the agreed-upon spot, but they noticed a lot of ponies gathering.
  4581. >Once they noticed some fighting, they crept forward to get a good look.
  4582. >That's when they noticed the fight between you and those guards.
  4583. >They threw a net over you, and...
  4584. >He hesitates for a brief moment, and you can feel the fear coming off of him.
  4585. >"Captain, what did she do?"
  4586. >"I... I don't know how to describe it. She... I don't know where she got the strength, but somehow, she bolted out and pinned down one of those unicorns.
  4587. >"Her eyes lit up a dark purple, and... she sucked out his magic. Flowed out of the mouth and eyes.
  4588. >"Some kind of... sphere came out of that pony, and the second it touched her, she lit up with power like I've never seen before."
  4589.  
  4590. >You...
  4591. >You don't remember any of that.
  4592. >Just the bodies.
  4593. >"She tore through their ranks like a daemon, my Lord. I've never seen anything like it, outside your own battle skills.
  4594. >"I don't know what magic she used on them, but it made my damn hide crawl from that far away.
  4595. >"Not a single pony was spared. And she drained each unicorn that was there, the same way.
  4596. >"We made it back to the chariot to get her, and the fight was over by the time we got there.
  4597. >"My Lord, she looked so... weak, when we found her. Nothing like the changeling we saw before."
  4598. >An audible 'hmm' comes from Incognito as he considers this.
  4599. >"Describe these 'spheres' to me, my child."
  4600. >"They... were like balls of white light, coated in--"
  4601. >"White and emerald flames?"
  4602. >"Y-yes, my Lord. Do you know what they are?"
  4603. >"Yes, I am well acquainted with them. And I now know enough to help her recover."
  4604. >Incognito made to walk over to your bedside, his catalyst dancing with magic.
  4605. >"My lord, what are you doing?"
  4606. >He doesn't offer a response, instead placing the index blade over your chest.
  4607. >"Child, this will hurt, but it must be done, if you ever wish to move under your own power again."
  4608. >What...
  4609. >What's he going to do?
  4610. >The lings became very agitated, but dared not move against him.
  4611. >The blade lit up a dark crimson colour.
  4612. >The tip touched your chitin.
  4613. >And the pain returned.
  4614. >Horrible pain seared across your whole body, drowning out almost all your senses.
  4615. >If you had the strength to scream, you would have done it.
  4616. >The agonizing feeling moved all across your body, never slowing pace.
  4617.  
  4618. >Somehow, throughout all of that, the pain began to lessen.
  4619. >And at the same time, you could feel your body's strength begin to return, as well.
  4620. >The only thing you had the presence of mind to use it for, was to thrash around in bed.
  4621. >Your voice managed to return, and that was when the screaming finally began.
  4622. >As the pain reduced to the feeling of tens of bolts impacting you, his blade finally moved, up to your throat.
  4623. >The screaming stopped, your airway blocked by something from within.
  4624. >Before you could begin choking, you felt something leaving up through your mouth.
  4625. >Dull gray orbs, with light flecks of white and emerald flame.
  4626. >The moment one left, the pain you felt dropped by an incredible amount.
  4627. >Before long, fifteen of those orbs left your body, and his blade lifted off of you.
  4628. >All you could do was cough, heave for air, and sob for many minutes.
  4629. >That was, without a doubt, the most painful thing you'd ever felt in your life.
  4630. >Once you had regained some of your senses, you turned to look up, where Incognito had been.
  4631. >Orbiting the bladed finger of his catalyst, were those orbs he had extracted from your body.
  4632. >The lings wasted no time in flocking to your side, trying to help you however they could.
  4633. >Ajay looked on in total shock.
  4634. >Incognito's face was neutral, and would be otherwise unreadable if his brow wasn't creased in concern.
  4635. >As if sensing your need to see the two of them, the lings kept your view of them clear.
  4636. >"Make sure she is well rested, my children. There is much we need to discuss."
  4637. >Another finger ignited with a sleep spell.
  4638. <...
  4639.  
  4640. >You woke up in a cold sweat, gasping for air.
  4641. >Instantly, your fellow changelings were on you, trying their best to calm you down.
  4642. >It only helped a little.
  4643. >But...
  4644. >Wait.
  4645. >You...
  4646. >You could move?
  4647. >And you didn't hurt anymore?
  4648. >No, not really. Your leg still stung from the bolt.
  4649. >But everything wasn't aching like before.
  4650. >Does that mean you can...?
  4651. >You try some experimental chitters, finding they come out just fine.
  4652. >The other lings respond with excitement!
  4653. >`You can speak again!`
  4654. >They still kept using those honorifics.
  4655. `What happened?`
  4656. >`Incognito used his magic, to remove something from your body! Your recovery was incredible after!`
  4657. >You know you could have spoken normal Common to them.
  4658. >It would have been a lot more concise.
  4659. >But the familiar chittering between hivemates was more comfortable for you.
  4660. >No, focus!
  4661. >You did remember that.
  4662. >How horrible it felt.
  4663. >Before you could think about what he removed from you, the tent flap opened again.
  4664. >Incognito had walked back through.
  4665. >His attire was much more casual; the same thing he wore around the mountain hive, when giving his speeches.
  4666. >Long-sleeved black clothes, with a collar near the neck.
  4667. >It looked a lot like the collars on pony shirts, except instead of a tie or bow, his had a strange white line of fabric through it.
  4668. >It always seemed to make him look so...
  4669. >Down-to-Equus?
  4670. >Oh, you don't know!
  4671. >"Good morning, children. Is Athalia well enough to speak?"
  4672. >"Y-yes, my Lord! She's recovered so quickly!"
  4673. >"I know. I must ask you to leave the two of us alone, however."
  4674.  
  4675. >Reluctantly, the lings filed out of the tent.
  4676. >He looked so much more... approachable, without his catalyst.
  4677. >But his unreadable expression contrasted it well enough.
  4678. >Once you were alone with him, he pulled a chair free, and placed it by the bedside, sitting soon afterwards.
  4679. >"It is good to see you moving again, my child."
  4680. >Oh, no.
  4681. >That's right.
  4682. >You...
  4683. >You failed him.
  4684. >He must think you--
  4685. >Your thoughts were interrupted by his hand clasped around your hoof.
  4686. >"Please, do not concern yourself with your mission. We shall discuss that later. For now, I'd like to hear how you are doing."
  4687. >His hold, combined with the softer expression, succeeded in calming you down.
  4688. "F... Fine."
  4689. >"I am pleased to hear that."
  4690. >And then, his expression reverts to serious.
  4691. >"Now, do you remember anything about this... fight you had?"
  4692. "N-no. One moment, there's a net, and the next, bodies..."
  4693. >"I see. Do you know what is is that you did there, my child?"
  4694. >You shake your head.
  4695. >He looks relieved to see that response.
  4696. >"So it was just an instinctual attack. Good. The damage won't be permanent, then."
  4697. >Wait, what?
  4698. >P-permanent damage?!
  4699. "D-damage...?!"
  4700. >"I suppose you deserve to know what happened, then.
  4701. >"Athalia, those orbs I removed were the remnants of fifteen pony souls."
  4702. >...
  4703. >"In whatever desperation you found yourself in, you had consumed the very souls of the unicorns to give yourself an enormous boost in power."
  4704. >T-t-that...
  4705. >"Quite frankly, you are fortunate to even still be alive right now, to say nothing of being left an emotionless husk for the rest of your life."
  4706.  
  4707. >You don't know how much time had passed since hearing that.
  4708. >But at some point, you must have started crying.
  4709. >At least, you can't think of any other reason why Incognito would he holding that handkerchief right now.
  4710. >"I realize that you must be... quite shocked by such a revelation."
  4711. >Shocked doesn't cover it.
  4712. >You...
  4713. >You feel sick.
  4714. >"But such... dark magics, are largely driven by intent. Were you consuming them while of sound mind, you would be beyond saving.
  4715. >"However, you had done so while being virtually unconscious. As such, the impact to your body and mind has been... largely transient.
  4716. >"In fact, I don't believe I have ever seen such a limited extent of damage from such an event."
  4717. >You're only half listening right now.
  4718. >The sick feeling was getting worse.
  4719. >Almost as if sensing your feelings, he procured a bucket from under the bed.
  4720. >He placed it into your hooves, letting go of you as he did so.
  4721. >The sick, nauseous feeling had gotten so much worse.
  4722. >You're really glad the bucket was there.
  4723. >Because it was at that point that you began to vomit.
  4724. >...
  4725. >"Easy, child. Such sickness is sadly par for the course, where dark magic is concerned."
  4726. >You were left heaving for air after what just happened.
  4727. >That wasn't normal vomiting.
  4728. >Normal vomiting doesn't go on for minutes.
  4729. >Nor does it come out as black!
  4730. >"I am afraid you will suffer this, and other effects, for several days. It is your body's method of eliminating the contagion of another's soul."
  4731. >Oh, that's just great.
  4732. >As if unknowingly performing evil magic wasn't bad enough.
  4733.  
  4734. "M-my Lord?"
  4735. >"What is it?"
  4736. "How... h-how do you d-deal with it?"
  4737. >"Deal with what? O-- Ahh, my own use of the dark arts?"
  4738. >A proud smile works his way onto his features.
  4739. >"You cannot poison a well that has never been dug, Athalia."
  4740. >You can't really work through the metaphor right now.
  4741. >Maybe later.
  4742. >"Now, the sickness you just felt comes in waves, roughly three hours apart. It shall decline as the days go on, thankfully.
  4743. >"But I would advise you keep your fellow changelings close, to help ease the recovery."
  4744. "I d-don't think I-I could k-keep them away, e-even if I t-tried..."
  4745. >"Yes, they do seem quite enamored with you, don't they?"
  4746. >His knowing smile was replaced with a more serious look, once again.
  4747. >"Now, I am afraid I must now ask about the mission you had."
  4748. >Oh.
  4749. >Now you felt a different kind of sick feeling.
  4750. >Damn it all.
  4751. >You somehow manage to explain to him what happened, leading up to getting to the prison blocks.
  4752. >But you break down right after getting to that part.
  4753. >"Child, what's the matter?"
  4754. >You're sure whatever you just said could be construed as 'I failed you'.
  4755. >His hand finds it's way to your withers this time.
  4756. >"Enough of that. The pair of us were enraged at the time. Good judgment was in short supply.
  4757. >"It was a mistake to send you alone, but you performed very well, getting that far by yourself."
  4758. >Well, if nothing else, you started to stop crying.
  4759. >Even after that, he still forgives you?
  4760. >He...
  4761. >He really is the best leader you've met...
  4762. >"You do not need to recount the prison. Just tell me about Chrysalis."
  4763.  
  4764. >With the go-ahead to skip past that part, you tell him about how you snuck into the vault, where she was kept.
  4765. >He seemed impressed by your ability to do that.
  4766. >It made you feel a lot better, seeing that reaction.
  4767. >Then you moved onto what Chrysalis told Twilight.
  4768. >All throughout, you notice his expression change.
  4769. >He's confused.
  4770. >"That can't be correct. I met that other human before. A loudmouthed, vulgar coward, he was."
  4771. "W-well, t-that's what she said."
  4772. >He shakes his head to clear it, and tells you to continue.
  4773. >Your own sadness returns when that Anonymous entered the vault.
  4774. >He caught you by surprise, and goaded you into attacking.
  4775. >Against all that self-control that you'd been taught, no less!
  4776. >You don't mention the things he said.
  4777. >Telling him about your defeat was humiliating enough.
  4778. >You work up the nerve to look at Incognito when you end at getting aboard the train.
  4779. >His confusion was even greater than before.
  4780. >Was...
  4781. >Was this really that far outside what he expected?
  4782. >He partly succeeds in forming his face into a serious look again.
  4783. >"Athalia, is everything you just told me accurate?"
  4784. "I-I'd never l-lie to you..."
  4785. >"I see. This is... very unexpected. I have much to prepare for."
  4786. >He takes his hand off you, and rises to his feet.
  4787. >"Please excuse me, I have much to investigate about this."
  4788. >It...
  4789. >It hurt a little, seeing him leave that abruptly.
  4790. >The changelings came back into the tent after he left.
  4791. >Despite their caring actions, the hurt feeling didn't leave.
  4792. <...
  4793.  
  4794. @@@@@@@@
  4795.  
  4796. >"Another glass, partner?"
  4797. "Just half, thanks."
  4798. >This fucking barkeep, man.
  4799. >How does one man-bull-pig remain so based?
  4800. >Must be a bartender thing.
  4801. >Three days after your little research spree, and here you are, sipping away on some whiskey.
  4802. >Your usual drinking pals of Dash and AJ in tow.
  4803. >Well, with the addition of Razor as the designated driver.
  4804. >Ish.
  4805. >Back at the castle, he just gave you the same booze that he had: yak gin.
  4806. >It was pretty god-awful, and obviously watered down.
  4807. >But hey, you wanted to be nice about it.
  4808. >Now that he's seeing you knock back two and a half glasses of straight minotaur whiskey?
  4809. >Well, shocked pony faces will never get old for you, let's put it that way.
  4810. >After receiving your drink, the apple-flavoured drinking buddy pipes up:
  4811. >"Just two n' a half?"
  4812. "I'd prefer not to pray for death in the morning, thanks."
  4813. >"Heh, ya' always know what to say, don'tcha?"
  4814. "Years of experience, 'Jackie. Years of experience."
  4815. >You take a small drink of said beverage.
  4816. >A few moments later, you feel it hit you.
  4817. >In that small, controlled dose, of course.
  4818. >You were serious about avoiding a hangover, though.
  4819. >You had too much work to do to fumblefuck around with that.
  4820. >Hm...
  4821. >Wonder if Sunburst got his gate stone set up by now?
  4822. >Okay, no, stop that immediately, Anon.
  4823. >You're here to get away from work, not drag it along with you.
  4824. >Being just partially loaded only did so much in that regard, sadly.
  4825. >But it's a lot better than entering hermit workaholic mode 24/7.
  4826. >Been there, done that.
  4827. >You'd rather not make them rectify that phase again.
  4828.  
  4829. >Ah, there we go.
  4830. >Dash got a bit too loaded, and is talking some real tough shit to Razor there.
  4831. >Seems she didn't forget the whole 'kept behind during the Canterlot shitstorm' thing.
  4832. >Razor, for his part, responds pretty well.
  4833. >Not his first rodeo with corralling drunks, it seems.
  4834. >AJ's totally transfixed on the scene.
  4835. >And while it's pretty entertaining, you're only really half-listening.
  4836. >"Nothing but work on the brain there, Anon?"
  4837. >Huh, didn't expect the barkeep to pipe up.
  4838. "You could say that."
  4839. >"Well, at least you're getting some downtime in. Had us all worried with that big hiatus of yours from before."
  4840. "Yeah, sorry about that."
  4841. >"Bah, don't worry about it. Still, seems like you've got an awful lot to handle lately."
  4842. "You don't know the half of it."
  4843. >"Do I want to know the half of it?"
  4844. "Heh, not really."
  4845. >God, that laugh is always a mood-booster.
  4846. >"Though if you don't mind my asking, what exactly's in your diet?"
  4847. >Wait, what?
  4848. "That's a bit random."
  4849. >"It got your mind off work, didn't it?"
  4850. "This is true."
  4851. >"So, what're you eating?"
  4852. "Pony stuff, sans the hay. Why?"
  4853. >"Wait, really? How do you even stay alive like that?"
  4854. "What do you mean?"
  4855. >"Those teeth of yours say it all, friend. You're only getting half the stuff you need. I can tell."
  4856. >Wait...
  4857. >Meat?
  4858. >Of all things he could've brought up, it's your no-meat streak?
  4859. "Uh, don't know if you noticed or not, but... the equine crowd here isn't really fond of that."
  4860. >"Bah, so what? Way I see it, they oughta change their attitude around you, not the other way around."
  4861.  
  4862. "Where's this even coming from, man?"
  4863. >"Look, I've seen gryphons try to go the no-meat path before. Ends up the same way, each time."
  4864. "And, this is...?"
  4865. >"Those fellas are made for hunting, and the meat's there to get those muscles fixed up and ready."
  4866. "What, the protein?"
  4867. >"Yeah, that! And since you eat the stuff, that means you're made for the job, too."
  4868. "And... what makes you think I'll need to start... hunting?"
  4869. >"Oh, you're not fixing to hunt, I know that already. But you are fixing for the next best thing: a good fight."
  4870. >...
  4871. "Fuck did you say?"
  4872. >"You hide it from them well, but I've seen you around long enough to see the difference.
  4873. >"All the little changes in how you hold yourself? Pretty obvious to me what you're after."
  4874. >He leans in a little closer.
  4875. >"I'm guessing that's what you're working on, isn't it? Stuff to fight with?"
  4876. >Jesus fuck.
  4877. >When did this guy become a fucking mind-reader?
  4878. >"Well, you're not gonna go far in a fight with scrawny little arms like that, friend.
  4879. >"And if gryphons are anything to go by, the plant 'alternatives' take way too damn long to work their magic.
  4880. >"You, my friend, need the real stuff. Give it a week or two, you're gonna see a real difference."
  4881. >There's an offer in that sentence.
  4882. >But hold up.
  4883. >You've been trying to get some semblance of muscle on you since that research crunchtime.
  4884. >But you always hurt like hell after, and take a whole fucking day to function right.
  4885. >Because you...
  4886. >Oh, for fuck's sake.
  4887. >First it's iron, now it's Real™ protein.
  4888. >There's no end to your fuck-ups, is there?
  4889.  
  4890. >Fuck, no wonder you went down in a few punches to Incognito.
  4891. >And no wonder you needed intense alchemy to recover from that!
  4892. >And from the Chrysalis fight!
  4893. >Obviously, he doesn't skimp out on his daily dose of animal flesh.
  4894. >...
  4895. >Fine.
  4896. >I'll bite, you fucking bull-man.
  4897. "I'm listening."
  4898. >"There's this gryphon place, up in Cloudsdale. Sells all kinds of stuff I'm sure you'd like."
  4899. "Not sure what there is. You know, alien and all."
  4900. >"And you can't get up there, either."
  4901. "That, too."
  4902. >"There's this one pony in town, Thunderlane? Makes a good business 'reselling' the stuff to others, all under-the-table."
  4903. "Sounds shady as hell."
  4904. >"Hey, how do you think your animal-loving friend gets the feed for some of those critters?"
  4905. >Sh--
  4906. >Oh.
  4907. >That, you didn't know.
  4908. >"It's totally legal, just frowned on. But you knew that part already."
  4909. "Right."
  4910. >"He shows up at the clocktower every Friday at ten, delivering for Ponyville. Catch him there, get the menu."
  4911. "I'll... keep that in mind."
  4912. >"That's all I ask. Neither of us wants to see you in a body cast, is all. Much less a grave."
  4913. >Ouch.
  4914. >Shit.
  4915. >That one hit home a bit.
  4916. >"Now, care for another half-glass?"
  4917. >Huh, guess you went through it pretty quick.
  4918. "Oh, why the hell not. But that's my limit for tonight."
  4919. >"I'll hold you to that."
  4920. "Has anyone ever told you you're the best barkeep ever?"
  4921. >"Has anyone ever told you I'm the only barkeep you've met here?"
  4922. >Now you're both laughing.
  4923. "Hey, you said 'anyone'."
  4924. >"What can I say, it grew on me."
  4925. <...
  4926.  
  4927. >Man, this is like the total inverse of a Series of Unfortunate Events™.
  4928. >First you finish cracking Animus, then you get set up for an early meat delivery?
  4929. >Like, two days later early?
  4930. >You admit, the first meeting sketched you out at first.
  4931. >And Fluttershy was shocked seeing you there.
  4932. >But that Thunderlane guy was actually pretty cool about it.
  4933. >Well, after replacing his up-front fee with some ear scratches, of course.
  4934. >Even gave you a third off his going rate if you doled some out every meeting.
  4935. >The skills still pay the bills.
  4936. >Hell, it's not been that bad, living off the big cache of savings.
  4937. >Too bad Equestria doesn't have interest rates, otherwise you'd basically be set for life.
  4938. >But hey.
  4939. >More time for magic is time well spent.
  4940. >And here you are, the day after the meeting, finishing up with making a meat fridge n' freezer for the cellar.
  4941. >You were suggested to keep the meats in separate fridges, and it's hard to disagree.
  4942. >'Twas a quick little craft anyways, only half an hour to make it.
  4943. >Now that that's done with, you pick up your two favourite staves, and start digging out the planned satellite lab.
  4944. >The Excavator got a nice upgrade, where it also compressed the shit out of the earth it digs up.
  4945. >Makes it super easy to float the stuff away with the TK.
  4946. >All right...
  4947. >You've gone a good distance now, just a little further.
  4948. >Once the rough shape of the lab is dug out, you'll return to actually making yourself some animus.
  4949. >Almost there...
  4950. >Aaaand...
  4951. >Done!
  4952. >You'll pile up the compressed shit in the middle here for now.
  4953.  
  4954. >Getting back to the book, you flip over to the Animus directions.
  4955. >Not a bad infusion by any stretch, but you got fairly little out of each operation.
  4956. >It was bad enough getting those matching gems, too.
  4957. >But you've got enough for a decent amount.
  4958. >Huh.
  4959. >That's right.
  4960. >There's a 'dark' section to this animus shit, isn't there?
  4961. >You'll read it later.
  4962. >You get to work setting the gems out in the right order on the pedestals.
  4963. >And then, you fire up the gem-melting setup.
  4964. >Hm...
  4965. >Dark sections.
  4966. >You know, you were honestly pretty surprised.
  4967. >The first two ones you looked into were actually really helpful.
  4968. >Probably wouldn't have guessed they were evil, honestly.
  4969. >Figuring out how to make one of those 'filters' was going to be pretty helpful.
  4970. >After all, who's gonna say no to a power-up from a friend?
  4971. >Although.
  4972. >Hmm...
  4973. >Could that same theory also double up as magic absorption?
  4974. >Yeah, you know what, let's write that down for later.
  4975. >Something might come of it.
  4976. >...
  4977. >All right, sweet.
  4978. >That's only the eighteenth 'good idea' on the bucket list here.
  4979. >But hey, better to have than have not, right?
  4980. >Anyway.
  4981. >'Tainted Vis' was extremely helpful as well, more than you were expecting.
  4982. >The magical 'taint' wasn't really so much 'taint', as it was 'ownership'.
  4983. >In other words, their soul kind of 'flavours' their mana.
  4984. >Making it essentially only work for them.
  4985. >But true to it's word, it also told you a little bit about dark magic users.
  4986. >There were all kinds in the book, and the descriptions were pretty barebones, more like an overview.
  4987.  
  4988. >One particular type of dark magic user, however, immediately caught your eye.
  4989. >That type having the name of "Bloodreaver".
  4990. >About as self-explanatory as it is edgy.
  4991. >Those guys use people's blood as a kind of liquid mana battery.
  4992. >That gets more powerful the more the 'donor' suffered at the time of extraction.
  4993. >And they used...
  4994. >Actually, hang on, where's that section?
  4995. >Ah, here it is:
  4996. >"...However, a Bloodreaver's most distinguishing feature is the peculiar arcane conduit they wield.
  4997. >"This conduit, referred to by them as a 'catalyst', is made for two purposes.
  4998. >"The first is using a complex array of gems and soulstones to form and channel the extracted vis, with almost as much finesse as a spellcaster from a gifted race; a feat that we have not been able to match at the time of writing.
  4999. >"But the second purpose, is to use it as a highly dangerous melee weapon.
  5000. >"Whether it be bladed or blunt, the melee portion is designed to absorb the blood and pain of their victims for additional strength.
  5001. >"This creates a synergy that makes Bloodreavers extremely dangerous: virtually all of them are skilled warriors, in addition to being powerful spellcasters.
  5002. >"Because of this, they often stay in peak physical condition, and carry additional weapons, in case their catalyst fails them.
  5003. >"Thus, any who must do battle with a Bloodreaver is advised to keep their distance.
  5004. >"For even stripped of their dark magics, they are still a considerable threat, due to their combat expertise."
  5005. >Yeah, if that sounds familiar, it's because it is.
  5006.  
  5007. >So, at least you knew what you were up against.
  5008. >It explains a whole lot about his fighting at Canterlot.
  5009. >And the whole blood-draining death table thing.
  5010. >And even though your wimpy bitch ass was half to blame for it, he still hospitalized you in just four punches.
  5011. >Fighting him was going to be super tricky.
  5012. >Having that super awesome magic countermeasure wasn't gonna cut it.
  5013. >Still need to work on better battery tech for that, too.
  5014. >Point is, even if you killed off his magic, which by itself could overpower your own natural resist, he'd still be dangerous then.
  5015. >He'd just pull that fancy-ass sword of his out, close the distance, and fucking murder you.
  5016. >And this guy had a serious lead on followers and developed magic.
  5017. >Soul-binding was kind of a given for that 'profession', but runesmithing sure wasn't.
  5018. >Who the fuck knew what else he had up his sleeves?
  5019. >God damn it.
  5020. >Why couldn't you just fight regular-ass Equestrian Bond villains, instead?
  5021. >Thinking this shit over was hard.
  5022. >Hm...
  5023. >Well, you've still got options.
  5024. >Avoiding the question of a close-quarters fight altogether was very possible.
  5025. >You'd been planning on making a better bow, anyways, but the design is still up in the air.
  5026. >Absolutely had to be powerful enough to punch holes in metal, though.
  5027. >And then, have some way to avoid his attacks?
  5028. >Work on some wearable things to speed up your movements?
  5029. >Yeah.
  5030. >Yeah, that could work.
  5031. >You're liking this train of thought already.
  5032. >See his 'warrior STR build', and raise him a 'ranger DEX faggot'.
  5033. >Hell, it works for Sonic.
  5034.  
  5035. >Oh yeah, and you also had...
  5036. >Wait, no.
  5037. >Not anymore, you didn't.
  5038. >Fuck, right.
  5039. >The fucking ladybug thing escaped.
  5040. >Was going to say you also had surprise on your side.
  5041. >Who knows what her fucking edgemaster husbando was planning now?
  5042. >...
  5043. >Wow, did you get distracted, or what?
  5044. >The gems have been melted for a while, now.
  5045. >Let's just... get that over to the infuser.
  5046. >Alright, let's kick it off.
  5047. >The core opens up at the bottom, taking the container with the liquid gems.
  5048. >Man, seeing this thing work is never gonna get old.
  5049. >The infusion doesn't take long, actually. Only like, three minutes?
  5050. >By the end of it all, your container is returned, with the liquid inside being a lot more glowy and iridescent.
  5051. >The iridescent part you recognize as the 'seeing-through-illusions' kind.
  5052. >With silence reigning again, you hear the sound of hoofsteps in place from right behind you.
  5053. >Turning your head greets you with the sight of a certain bat-horse captain.
  5054. >"You know, doesn't matter how many times I see that thing work, I'm never gonna get used to it."
  5055. "Geez, taking the whole 'being my shadow' thing pretty literally, aren't we?"
  5056. >"Hey, never know when things are gonna go south."
  5057. "Fair enough, but still, at least knock before coming in."
  5058. >"You don't have a door to knock on."
  5059. "It's the principle that matters."
  5060. >"Whatever you say."
  5061. >He's not here for just no reason.
  5062. >Seems like he wants to tell you something.
  5063. "So, uh, something up?"
  5064. >"Unfortunately."
  5065. "That doesn't fill me with confidence."
  5066. >"It's not supposed to."
  5067.  
  5068. "All right, what's the problem?"
  5069. >"Actually, I'm supposed to share the problem with you and the princess."
  5070. "It's a long walk back. Why not tell me now?"
  5071. >"Because I said so."
  5072. "Killjoy."
  5073. >"Only the best for my charge. Anyway, the princess is waiting up at your place. Better not keep her waiting."
  5074. "Wait, you brought her over already?"
  5075. >"Uh, yeah?"
  5076. "You know, if you wanted me to come with, you could've mentioned that earlier."
  5077. >Setting your things down, you follow him out of the lab.
  5078. >Coming out of the office, you see none other than Twilight, sitting at your table.
  5079. >Helping herself to your tea supply.
  5080. >Figures.
  5081. >She looked a little downcast, but perked right up when seeing you.
  5082. >"Anon!"
  5083. >Oookay, a bit more than usual.
  5084. >She usually doesn't come over for a hug right away.
  5085. >Not that you're complaining or anything, but yeah.
  5086. >You return it anyway.
  5087. >An event that doesn't last long, thanks to Razor's throat-clearing.
  5088. >"Sorry princess, but this is important information. You'll have to catch up with him after."
  5089. >Well, you can't say he doesn't take his job seriously.
  5090. >Reluctantly, Twilight lets go of you, and you all make it back to the table.
  5091. >Razor doesn't waste any time getting started:
  5092. >"So, Anon, you know that one changeling you fought back at the castle?"
  5093. "What, the ladybug?"
  5094. >"Sure, that. She apparently got out of the city by train, heading to Appleoosa."
  5095. "How'd you figure that out?"
  5096. >"Passengers were complaining about effects consistent with love drain.
  5097. >"A contingent of royal guard and court mages stopped the train halfway to Appleoosa."
  5098.  
  5099. "And... did they find her?"
  5100. >His expression sours.
  5101. >"Yeah. They did."
  5102. >Oh, shit.
  5103. >Did she beat them?
  5104. >"Of the sixty-six guards and fifteen court mages that went after her?
  5105. >"Fifty-six guards survived, and none of the mages did."
  5106. >...
  5107. >Whoa.
  5108. >Holy shit.
  5109. >Twilight's gasp there pretty much described your feelings.
  5110. >"That's not the worst part. The mages had all suffered extreme mana drain. Lost their cutie marks and all.
  5111. >"It wasn't until the head mages looked at their bodies, that they realized they had their souls ripped out of them."
  5112. >Wh--
  5113. >What?
  5114. >That bug stole their fucking souls?!
  5115. >Twilight's shock was bad enough that she had to stifle a wail.
  5116. >He let that hang in the air for a bit.
  5117. >But it was obvious from his expression that he was beyond pissed.
  5118. >Somehow, he kept going with the same tone as before:
  5119. >"She was gone by the time their backup got there. Everypony still alive needed hospitalization. Most were critical."
  5120. >He could have gone on, but he was getting visibly more angry.
  5121. >It didn't matter. He said everything he needed to.
  5122. >Just...
  5123. >Holy fuck.
  5124. >You didn't think that bug, of all things, could do something like that.
  5125. >Granted, you didn't know much of anything about her, besides being another one of Nito's dickriders.
  5126. >But still...
  5127. >Knowing what you do now about souls...
  5128. >Christ, you can't even imagine how painful that must have been.
  5129. >Turning to the side, you see Twilight in a far worse state than you.
  5130. >The girl's choking back sobs, but isn't succeeding in stopping the tears.
  5131. >The sight makes this whole thing worse.
  5132.  
  5133. >You rise up, making to move over to her.
  5134. >Unexpectedly, she rises up herself.
  5135. >"I-I need to be... I'm sorry, I-I'll come back later..."
  5136. >Before she breaks down completely, she teleports out of the room.
  5137. >God damn it.
  5138. >"I knew some of those guys."
  5139. >You turn back to Razor.
  5140. >His tone was more in line with his expression: somber and angry.
  5141. >"They were good ponies. One of those mages was always shit at poker, but kept playing anyways."
  5142. >Ah.
  5143. >You see now.
  5144. >This was more personal for him than you thought.
  5145. >"Anon? I need to ask you to do something for me."
  5146. "I'm not touching anything's soul, Razor. Out of the fucking question."
  5147. >"That's not what I wanted to ask."
  5148. >The whole time, he'd been looking off to the side.
  5149. >Now he was looking you dead in the eye.
  5150. >"When the time comes, when you actually manage to stand face-to-face with that human-shaped monster, and his little bucking sycophants...
  5151. >"I won't ask you to kill them. But... hurt 'em. Hurt them bad, as much as they deserve, and then some."
  5152. >You were afraid, for a moment, that he was gonna ask you to terminate them with extreme prejudice.
  5153. >And at this moment, you might very well have said yes.
  5154. >But this?
  5155. "Hurting them was always my plan. But I'll turn the dial up for them, let 'em know who it's for."
  5156. >This, you could do.
  5157. >"Thanks, Anon."
  5158. >Without a single regret.
  5159. <...
  5160.  
  5161. >"Damn it, can't you take it easy for even a second?"
  5162. "Not when our mission's on the line here."
  5163. >"But you just got out of the med tent, Athalia!"
  5164. "I was, and am, perfectly fine."
  5165. >You really were. With all the love you'd been getting fed, your recovery was extremely quick.
  5166. >The only reason you were kept there was because of the vomiting.
  5167. >It actually took a day longer than he prescribed for it to pass, but you're glad either way.
  5168. >Incognito said the black, oily stuff you'd been 'expelling' was a physical version of soul corruption, being flushed out.
  5169. >You're just glad it's finally out of your system.
  5170. >"You've been on the job non-stop for weeks now! You can't sustain this level of--"
  5171. "Ajay, listen. I appreciate that you're worried, I really do. But I'm fine."
  5172. >He stops following beside you, staying in place.
  5173. >It's enough for you to stop and look back at him.
  5174. >"Stubborn bug. You're never gonna listen."
  5175. >He sighs.
  5176. >"Just... don't go overboard, all right? I don't want to see you like that again."
  5177. >That...
  5178. >That gets you to pause.
  5179. >He'd been seeing you every day, since you came back to the forward base.
  5180. >His concern for your well-being sensed by everyling in the tent.
  5181. >He...
  5182. >He was really upset about this, even if he didn't show it.
  5183. >Damn it.
  5184. "Fine. I'll... I'll try not to overextend like that."
  5185. >He doesn't show it, but you can easily sense his relief at hearing that.
  5186. >And his fear.
  5187. >He's...
  5188. >He's afraid for you.
  5189. >...
  5190. >It's a nice feeling.
  5191. >"All right. You go... do whatever the boss has got lined up for you."
  5192. >It doesn't take an empath to see the reluctance in that sentence.
  5193.  
  5194. >You bid Ajay farewell, and proceed to where one of the witch-doctors had instructed you to go.
  5195. >A stone ziggurat, that the camp was built around.
  5196. >Apparently, it was a laboratory, built long ago to develop dark alchemy, where nozebra would interfere.
  5197. >It was well guarded with members of some tribe, the Wyse Kunstenaars.
  5198. >They stormed the place long ago, in an ancient quest to stop the dark arts.
  5199. >But that's about all you know about it.
  5200. >If Incognito wanted it, though...
  5201. >It must be very important to his plans.
  5202. >The Plaag tribe guards let you in without a second look.
  5203. >Guess they were told about you.
  5204. >That same witch-doctor from before was waiting for you, just past the entrance.
  5205. >"Perfect timing, chosen of Incognito. Come along."
  5206. >She leads you through a labyrinth of passageways, until you eventually emerge into a large chamber.
  5207. >It was strangely empty.
  5208. >But Incognito, the head witch-doctor Zamara, and the tribe leader Veldheer were all together in the room.
  5209. >You barely notice the guide bowing and excusing herself.
  5210. >You were more interested in their conversation.
  5211. >The emotions coming from Veldheer were not pleasant.
  5212. >Just so you don't interrupt, you wreath yourself in an invisibility spell.
  5213. >And then make your approach.
  5214. >"I have tolerated your use of my tribe's resources for a long time, now! And what has come of it, besides this piddling conquest?!"
  5215. >"I have been busy at work, good Veldheer, building the foundations for our road to victory."
  5216. >"Whose victory, outlander? Yours, or mine?!"
  5217. >"Our overall victories, of course."
  5218.  
  5219. >This reminded you so much of Incognito's spats with Chrysalis.
  5220. >That...
  5221. >That was still a sore spot for you.
  5222. >"Overall? Large picture? Macro-scale? All words you use constantly, yet not once have I seen evidence of it!"
  5223. >"Are you implying that I have not been working?"
  5224. >"What else am I to assume?"
  5225. >"Perhaps you should not assume to begin with."
  5226. >Veldheer's anger spiked dramatically.
  5227. >"The next time we speak, Incognito, you will have something we can use. Otherwise, me and my tribe shall be your enemies, from here on out."
  5228. >He was trying very hard to keep his bloodlust in check, as he stormed out of the chamber.
  5229. >Once he was out of earshot, Zamara began:
  5230. >"I apologize for my leader's behaviour, Lord Matthias."
  5231. >"Do not apologize for acts you did not commit, cunning Zamara."
  5232. >He smiles.
  5233. >"You can show yourself now, Athalia."
  5234. >Ack!
  5235. >Damn it, that's right!
  5236. >He can see through this!
  5237. >In the same motion you drop the invisibility, you bow before him.
  5238. "P-please forgive me, I didn't mean to--"
  5239. >Whatever else you had to say was interrupted by his laughter.
  5240. >"None of that now, child. It is your nature to be surreptitious, and you are remarkably good at it.
  5241. >"I would not dare chastise you for using your talents to their greatest effect."
  5242. >Oh, thank goodness!
  5243. >You pick yourself back up, looking at the two again.
  5244. >Incognito wore that robe from before, and had his catalyst.
  5245. >Zamara had a similar robe, except with full saddlebags instead of a catalyst.
  5246. >She still looked unsure about you, and her emotions bore her suspicions out.
  5247.  
  5248. >"This is the one you spoke of?"
  5249. >"Yes, indeed."
  5250. >"You were not wrong about her potential."
  5251. >"I make an active effort to not be wrong about the individuals in my plans."
  5252. >His smile fades somewhat.
  5253. >"Of course, some defy even my efforts."
  5254. >"Which is why you requested the first five?"
  5255. >"Yes. We were fortunate, in a way, to have her return as damaged as she was."
  5256. >Wait, what?
  5257. "M-my Lord?"
  5258. >"Oh, my apologies, Athalia. Do you remember those souls I had pulled from your body?"
  5259. "I don't think I could forget..."
  5260. >"It is unfortunate, the damage they left on you. But they also presented me with an early opportunity."
  5261. "An... opportunity?"
  5262. >"Zamara, if you could?"
  5263. >The zebra's hoof lights up with a strange, red-orange magic, which dissipates through the floor with a clop of said hood.
  5264. >Circular sections in the floor open up, and five large glass tubes full of orange fluid rise from them.
  5265. >The silhouettes of... something were inside them.
  5266. >It was giving you the shivers, just looking at them.
  5267. >"Do not be alarmed by the fear you feel, it is part of the design. Cast the dispel I taught you to be rid of it."
  5268. >The fear was getting worse, for no real reason.
  5269. >But you cast the spell anyways.
  5270. >Suddenly, it all vanishes.
  5271. >You're glad you remember this spell, from the training you had before!
  5272. >Now, what were these--
  5273. >>`de...h`
  5274. >Huh?
  5275. >Did you hear something?
  5276. >>`h...ts`
  5277. >Was...
  5278. >Was something whispering to you?
  5279. >>`you... m...er...`
  5280. >It sounded so close, like it was right in your ear.
  5281. >And yet, when you turn around, nothing was there.
  5282.  
  5283. >>`chose this...`
  5284. >The whispers got louder.
  5285. >No, they got closer.
  5286. >Like it was almost within your head.
  5287. >>`YOU PIERCED THEIR VEIL, TOOK THEIR LIFE FOR YOURSELF`
  5288. "Guh...!"
  5289. >The whispering got loud, all within your head!
  5290. >>`PIERCING THE WEAKNESS IS FAR FASTER THAN THE STRENGTH'
  5291. >What's going on?!
  5292. >S-stop it!
  5293. >Your vision blackens around the edges, and you can feel your heart racing.
  5294. >>`USE A MEDIUM FOR THEIR ESSENCE, NOT YOURSELF`
  5295. >You're brought to your knees, one hoof clutching your head as a headache splits through you.
  5296. >Stop!
  5297. >>`REND THEIR ALLIES asunder with the...r o... ...lies...`
  5298. >And after one last tooth-clenching experience, it leaves as suddenly as it arrived.
  5299. >Vision clear, head not hurting, and no more voices.
  5300. >What...
  5301. >What just happened?!
  5302. >"Athalia?"
  5303. >Quickly looking up reveals Incognito, concern written on his face.
  5304. >"Child, are you all right?"
  5305. "I... I think so."
  5306. >"Are you certain? I would not wish for you to unnecessarily push yourself."
  5307. "I'm fine, my Lord. Just... a little headache, is all."
  5308. >"Hmm... Perhaps you should practice more with that dispel. It is a common side-effect for those who infrequently purge a mental charm."
  5309. "Y-yes, my Lord."
  5310. >You don't think it was anything related to the mental dispel.
  5311. >You don't know why, but it just didn't feel related.
  5312. >And yet, you're relieved he wasn't pressing the issue anymore.
  5313. >Seriously, though.
  5314. >What the buck was that?
  5315. >And what was all this, about 'piercing their veil'?
  5316. >What on Equus does that mean?
  5317. >You'll...
  5318. >You'll figure it out later.
  5319. >A quick wipe of your forehead, and he has your full attention.
  5320.  
  5321. >"Now, the creations within these tubes are... an older version of my project for the good Veldheer."
  5322. >The fluid begins to drain from the tubes.
  5323. >Revealing...
  5324. >O--
  5325. >Ohh my gosh, what...?!
  5326. >"While older, they are still exceedingly dangerous, and will perform admirably in your mission."
  5327. >Wait, what?!
  5328. >He's sending you out with...
  5329. >With...
  5330. >What even are these?!
  5331. >Pale, hairless, covered in black symbols, and looking like some madpony stitched together the bottom of a pony with the top of a human!
  5332. >They were covered in stitches, their bodies seemingly held together by them!
  5333. >They had no eyes, a flat nose, and a maw of sharp teeth!
  5334. >And one eye-shaped group of more symbols were carved in the middle of the face, where the eyes should be!
  5335. >It was like something from out of a nightmare!
  5336. >They were working on these?!
  5337. >"They are crudely assembled, I will admit, but I assure you, the... stitching is not present in the final version.
  5338. >"Still... a magnificent sight, is it not? The runework alone, I am quite proud of."
  5339. >M-magnificent isn't the word you'd use!
  5340. >M-more like horrifying!
  5341. >And wait, those symbols were runes?
  5342. >As in, the ones he demonstrated before?!
  5343. >But...
  5344. >But wait, they glowed before.
  5345. >These ones were pitch black.
  5346. >"As you may have noticed, they are quite inactive right now. Little more than misshapen corpses.
  5347. >"They require... a source of power, before they become active, and ready to serve.
  5348. >"A source, quite thankfully, that you had unknowingly provided to us."
  5349. >What?
  5350. >What does he mean, you gave them a power source?
  5351. >Is--
  5352. >Oh.
  5353. >The souls.
  5354. >Wait, souls?!
  5355.  
  5356. >"We are woefully short on collected souls, only able to use them for testing.
  5357. >"But with the weak ones you have provided, they will suffice for animating these creatures."
  5358. >Up comes his catalyst, and the index blade glows red.
  5359. >From the palm, flew out a familiar set of fifteen gray orbs, flecked with white and emerald flames.
  5360. >With another wave, the orbs flew towards the creatures, divided into threes.
  5361. >They entered the 'eye', one by one.
  5362. >Suddenly, the runes lit up a deep, crimson red.
  5363. >And the creatures began to screech and thrash.
  5364. >It didn't last long, but...
  5365. >Were you ever going to have a nightmare-free sleep again?
  5366. >The creatures froze stock still, the moment they were impacted by a cord of red energy, flowing from the same index blade.
  5367. >"You shall not bring harm to the Elements of Harmony, nor the princesses of Equestria.
  5368. >"And as long as you do not defy those orders, you are to follow the directives of this one."
  5369. >His finger points to you, a small cord reaching out and tickling your horn.
  5370. >The tubes extended back into the ground, but left the creatures in place.
  5371. >The cords of energy disappeared, but the creatures remained still.
  5372. >"I call these creatures Homunculi. And they are incredibly powerful predators, indeed.
  5373. >"They will follow your commands without question. And you will need them for your mission."
  5374. >His gaze becomes hard.
  5375. >"I will not suffer rogue elements in my plans. And you still desire vengeance.
  5376. >"You will go to Ponyville. You will find the other human, Anonymous.
  5377. >"And you will bring me his head."
  5378. <...
  5379.  
  5380. @@@@@@@@
  5381.  
  5382. >FWOOSH
  5383. >"There you go, Anon!"
  5384. "Thanks, Spike."
  5385. >True to your word, you toss him a roughed-up, yet very large sapphire.
  5386. >If his drooling look was anything to go by, he didn't much care about the appearance, just the 'taste'.
  5387. >Yeah, not even gonna ask.
  5388. >Fucking dragons.
  5389. "Hey, since you're here, you know where Twilight is?"
  5390. >Heh, and he was about to take a bite, too.
  5391. >"Oh, she's in her study."
  5392. "Big study?"
  5393. >"Yeah, how'd you know?"
  5394. "It's been pretty insane, this last week."
  5395. >"Sounds like it. Really wish me and Starlight were around to help beat back those changelings, though."
  5396. "You guys weren't there?"
  5397. >"No, we were at Baltimare. Friendship problem."
  5398. "Ah."
  5399. >"I think Starlight's up there with her, too."
  5400. "All right. Thanks again, buddy."
  5401. >chomp
  5402. >Couldn't wait any longer, could he?
  5403. >Heh, at least he waved you off.
  5404. >Too bad about the gem, though.
  5405. >Would've been a great energizing candidate, but it had too much internal fracturing.
  5406. >Ah well.
  5407. >At least that letter to Luna got the express delivery.
  5408. >That was worth the 'price'.
  5409. >Re-tightening your grip on your specially-made notebook, you head to the castle's stairwell.
  5410. >The big study, huh?
  5411. >She only goes there when she's really excited about some new subject she's unearthed.
  5412. >Or when she's really down about a bad event.
  5413. >Given that it's been a day since the news broke about that ladybug?
  5414. >Most likely the latter.
  5415. >...
  5416. >Well.
  5417. >If nothing else, you at least hope you can cheer her up.
  5418. >God only knows she could use it.
  5419. >Poor girl.
  5420. >You climb the stairs to the third floor fairly quickly.
  5421.  
  5422. >You see the door to the study open a good distance away.
  5423. >Out of it comes none other than Starlight.
  5424. >She looks...
  5425. >Frustrated.
  5426. >Kinda desperate.
  5427. >And more than a little sad.
  5428. "Starlight?"
  5429. >Her look over to you was just as she closed the door behind her.
  5430. >Needless to say, she was surprised to see you here.
  5431. >"Anon? That you?"
  5432. "The one and only."
  5433. >Well, at least she's smiling at your unexpected presence.
  5434. >You meet in the middle with a brief hug.
  5435. >"What are you doing here, Anon?"
  5436. "Checking up on our mutual friend."
  5437. >She wilts a bit at the mention of Twilight.
  5438. >"Anon, what happened? I've never seen her this... depressed before!"
  5439. "How bad are we talking?"
  5440. >"She... she keeps on crying, saying something about 'monsters'.
  5441. >"When I tried to ask her what went on, she just...
  5442. >"She totally broke down!"
  5443. >Fucking hell.
  5444. >"Anon, please, do you know why she's like this?"
  5445. "A bunch of royal guard died, trying to bring in a juiced-up changeling."
  5446. >"D-died?!"
  5447. "Yeah."
  5448. >Ponies must really not like death in general, if Starlight's heartbroken reaction was anything to go by.
  5449. >Considering how peaceful this place is, you can't really blame them.
  5450. >It's been jarring for you, too.
  5451. >"Wh-what changeling?!"
  5452. "I got attacked at Canterlot by some super-changeling. Worked directly for Incognito."
  5453. >The mention of him is all it takes for everything to fall into place for her.
  5454. >"It worked for him?"
  5455. "Yeah, she tried to bring Chrysalis back to his base. I'm guessing for execution."
  5456. >Is it bad that you're starting to get used to the sight of their sad faces?
  5457.  
  5458. "Starry?"
  5459. >"Y-yes?"
  5460. "I need to ask you a couple of things."
  5461. >"Wh-what is it?"
  5462. "Do you know how Chrysalis got beaten here?"
  5463. >"Huh? W-well, Twilight told me it was the Night Guard and Luna."
  5464. >So the secrecy's still on, then.
  5465. >The other girls probably don't know, either.
  5466. >...
  5467. >Fuck, they must think things are pretty hopeless.
  5468. >Maybe...
  5469. >Maybe they need to know about, well, you.
  5470. >What you're up to.
  5471. >"Anon?"
  5472. "Hm? Oh, sorry. Was thinking there."
  5473. >"Why did you ask me that?"
  5474. "I'll tell you later. About that other thing, though. Could you..."
  5475. >You're fully aware of how bad this could turn out.
  5476. >But your gut's never done you wrong before.
  5477. "Could you bring the others here, too? I think she could use them right about now."
  5478. >"S-sure thing."
  5479. "Thanks."
  5480. >They needed this pick-me-up.
  5481. >In any case, you start heading to the door.
  5482. >"Anon?"
  5483. >You turn around to face Starlight again.
  5484. >"Thanks."
  5485. "Hey, what are friends for?"
  5486. >See, she's rolling her eyes.
  5487. >You're already making an improvement.
  5488. >You turn back around, and pull open the study doors.
  5489. >What meets you is...
  5490. >Oh.
  5491. >Good God.
  5492. >Twilight would normally never leave her books in such a huge mess.
  5493. >But this is not at all a normal scenario.
  5494. >You scan around the room, but don't see her yet.
  5495. >But you do hear some sniffles.
  5496. >Hm...
  5497. >It's coming from that book pile.
  5498. "Twilight?"
  5499. >You hear the sniffles give way to a small gasp.
  5500. >Right as you start walking towards the pile.
  5501. "Twilight, you there?"
  5502. >The book pile rustles a bit.
  5503. >Is she underneath all that...?
  5504. >No, wait, she's behind it.
  5505.  
  5506. >Peeking out from above the pile, is...
  5507. >...
  5508. >Oh, dear God.
  5509. >She looks horrible.
  5510. >Like, the worst you've seen her.
  5511. >Mane a complete mess, and tear streaks that despite being wet, were starting to crust at the edges.
  5512. >But the look...
  5513. >The look she had before she realized who you were...
  5514. >It's somehow worse than her reaction to the human history.
  5515. >Utterly crushed.
  5516. >The moment she realized who you were, however, you saw the look change to...
  5517. >Shit, a bunch of things.
  5518. >Disbelief, shock, maybe some hope buried away?
  5519. >The two of you just... look at each other for a few moments.
  5520. >You don't know how she still has anything left to cry out, but her eyes begin watering again.
  5521. >Experience dictates that she's about to tackle you.
  5522. >You're already bracing yourself by the time she flies straight for you, a wail escaping while she's in movement.
  5523. >This time, you're not knocked onto your back.
  5524. >But you sit yourself down very soon after, anyways.
  5525. >There's nothing you can really say to her right now, while she's bawling into your chest.
  5526. >All you can do is just keep a hold on her, and smooth her mane out mid-pet.
  5527. >...
  5528. >It feels like hours, even though it's only been a few minutes.
  5529. >Unlike the last time, she didn't fall asleep after she was done.
  5530. >She stays in the same place, still sniffling into your now very wet shirt.
  5531. >While you were pondering what to say to her, you hear the door open again.
  5532. >She doesn't turn to face it, but you do.
  5533. >True to her word, Starlight brought the rest of the girls over.
  5534. >They look about as shocked as you expected.
  5535.  
  5536. >Shock soon turns into concern, and all of them, sans Starlight, crowd around the two of you.
  5537. >They're all trying their damn hardest to get her to cheer up.
  5538. >Operative word being 'try'.
  5539. >Since they're not having a whole lot of success.
  5540. >Somewhere around ten minutes of their attempts pass, and all she does is cling tighter to you.
  5541. >They decide to return later, and bring some things back to help their efforts.
  5542. >As the last of them leave, however, Starlight stays behind.
  5543. >"Anon?"
  5544. "Mm?"
  5545. >"Why don't you bring her over to her bed, let her rest a bit? I'll get this place sorted out."
  5546. "Yeah. Yeah, I think that's a good plan."
  5547. >All you need to do is support her rear with one hand: she's still holding on tightly to your chest.
  5548. "Oh, one thing. See that notebook of mine there?"
  5549. >"What, that one?"
  5550. "Yeah, could you drop it off at her room when you're done here?"
  5551. >"Sure. Uh, what's in it?"
  5552. "My own attempt to cheer her up."
  5553. >She seems satisfied with that answer.
  5554. >Meanwhile, you carry the princess in question over to her bedroom, very luckily on the same floor.
  5555. >Finagling the door with your one free hand is tricky, but you manage in the end.
  5556. >Man.
  5557. >No matter how many times you see it, it's still quite a spread.
  5558. >If the book collection, windows, and deck weren't enough, there's a bathroom in here, too.
  5559. >The centerpiece being the canopy bed, really large for pony standards.
  5560. >As in, large enough to fit even you.
  5561. >The star patterning on the bed drapes was kinda cheesy, but at least it was subtle.
  5562. >Guess she had to work her mark in there, somehow.
  5563.  
  5564. >You stride on over to the bed, noticing the drape was already pulled back.
  5565. >And the bed wasn't made.
  5566. >Okay, that's definitely not like her.
  5567. >Shit, this was worse than you thought.
  5568. >Kneel-shuffling your way onto it, you try to let her go onto it.
  5569. >But she still doesn't let go.
  5570. >Fuck.
  5571. >How were you gonna tackle this--
  5572. >Whoa, shit!
  5573. >She twists around, sending you off-balance and on your back, thankfully still in the bed.
  5574. >The drapes close and the sheets cover you completely with a flash of magic.
  5575. >Well, you can't see shit.
  5576. >But she does let you go, at leas--
  5577. >"Don't go."
  5578. >...
  5579. >Wow.
  5580. >The way she said that.
  5581. >Sad and desperate, all rolled into one and taken to an extreme.
  5582. >You barely notice her moving around to lie on top of you.
  5583. >All right.
  5584. >Whatever arguments you had for departing, slim as they were before, were off the table now.
  5585. >You don't give a verbal response, but you do move your hand to her head, again.
  5586. >And begin scratching her ears.
  5587. >...
  5588. >A small groan escapes you as you rejoin the waking world.
  5589. >And...
  5590. >Okay, hold up.
  5591. >This isn't your room.
  5592. >Damn it, are you at Canterlot again?
  5593. >Because you swear, if--
  5594. >No.
  5595. >Wait.
  5596. >This is...
  5597. >Twilight's bed?
  5598. >The fuck were you doing--
  5599. >Oh.
  5600. >Right.
  5601. >That's what you were doing.
  5602. >Now fully aware of the situation, you re-check your surroundings.
  5603. >The sheets had been pulled back a bit, to let your head and arms free.
  5604. >And there was a distinct lack of purple princesses lying on top of you.
  5605. >Well, this is as good a time as any to sit up and look around.
  5606.  
  5607. >Your eyes immediately land on the right end of the bed.
  5608. >The drapes were pulled back there.
  5609. >And staring past them, through the windows, was none other than Twilight.
  5610. >Well...
  5611. >At least she didn't look so sad anymore.
  5612. >Instead, she looked so... lost.
  5613. >"You're awake."
  5614. >The flat tone wasn't helping.
  5615. "H-hey."
  5616. >...
  5617. "Uh, how long--"
  5618. >"Three hours."
  5619. >Geez.
  5620. >...
  5621. >"What happened, Anon?"
  5622. "What... do you mean?"
  5623. >"Everything used to make so much sense."
  5624. >You pull the sheets back slowly, while she goes on.
  5625. >"There wasn't a problem me and the girls couldn't solve without friendship. We very rarely needed to get rough-and-tumble.
  5626. >"Even after you got here, that never changed. Hay, it was amazing, being able to befriend a lost alien.
  5627. >"I still remember it all, you know. You made things around here so much more... alive. More vibrant. And with that special brand of bizarre you have."
  5628. >A smile accompanies her reminiscing.
  5629. >That soon drops to a frown.
  5630. >"And then... that other one shows up. The... the polar opposite of you.
  5631. >"You're kind, friendly, and always thought about us, even when you did things that were... less than legal.
  5632. >"And him? Cruel, violent, and doesn't even care about who he hurts.
  5633. >"He almost reminds me of Sombra. Except so much more extreme."
  5634. >You're halfway shuffled over to her, when she turns to look at you.
  5635. >"Even after you told me about human history, it still had the advantage of being far-flung from what could happen here.
  5636. >"But now, he's brought it here. I... I couldn't stop dreaming about it. T-that kind of destruction, in Equestria..."
  5637.  
  5638. >Before she can start to tear up again, you wrap her in another hug.
  5639. >She stays silent for a second, before she wraps both her hooves and wings around you, gently this time.
  5640. >"Why, Anon? W-what does he want? What could p-possibly justify all that death?"
  5641. >Your ear-scratching is accompanied by a sigh.
  5642. "I think... the best answer I can give you, is from something I watched, a long time ago."
  5643. >She pulls her head up to look at you.
  5644. >No tears this time, just sadness.
  5645. "See, there's this story from back home, about a small country, trying to buy the loyalty of warring tribes.
  5646. "And their choice of currency was a whole lot of gems."
  5647. >"G-gems? Why gems?"
  5648. "Gems are orders of magnitude more rare and difficult to find back home."
  5649. >"Ohh..."
  5650. "Thing is, though, the shipments were getting raided by this lone bandit, the gems being taken.
  5651. "They tried to find out where the gems, and the bandit went. They found nothing for six months. Nobody traded with him.
  5652. "Then, one day, they find a little kid, playing around with a gem the size of my fist. A gem that would make them rich beyond imagining.
  5653. "Turns out, the bandit was throwing the gems away."
  5654. >You let that one hang in the air, looking at her face all the while.
  5655. >Understandably, she's very confused.
  5656. >"Wh-what? But you said they were rare! Extremely valuable! Why would he go through the trouble of raiding them, j-just to throw them away?!"
  5657. "You want to know why?"
  5658. >You give her a hard look.
  5659. "Because he thought it was good sport."
  5660. >There it is.
  5661. >The completely lost, does-not-compute look of sadness.
  5662.  
  5663. >"W... why?"
  5664. "Twilight, what's the common thread between all the villains you've fought off? What did they want?"
  5665. >"I... W-well, there was Nightmare Moon, who wanted eternal night. Chrysalis wanted the love for her hive. Sombra, the empire. Discord wanted chaos..."
  5666. "But the point is, they all wanted something, right? Something important or valuable to them?"
  5667. >"R-right. But what did the bandit want?"
  5668. "Nothing."
  5669. >"Wh-- N-nothing?"
  5670. "Absolutely nothing."
  5671. >You very lightly itch her ear this time.
  5672. "See, I noticed something about Incognito. Something during the fight.
  5673. "I don't know if the whole 'saving their history' thing is true or not. But there's all kinds of ways to resolve that, outside of attacking the princesses.
  5674. "But he didn't just attack them, and take their stuff. He enjoyed doing it, too. For a while, anyway. Until he got bored with their 'performance'.
  5675. "Now, that bug I fought back at Canterlot? Her attitude was totally different.
  5676. "I could tell she was completely convinced she was doing the right thing. And her first instinct was to hide, and not fight.
  5677. "She seemed about ready to give her life up for that guy. But him? He'd never do the same thing for her. Or any of his toadies."
  5678. >A sigh leaves you.
  5679. "I guess the point I'm trying to make here, is that he wants something a whole lot different than what he says he wants."
  5680. >"He... he's lying to them?"
  5681. "Well, of course he is. You don't hold that kind of sway over that many people, without gale force spin."
  5682. >"So... what does he want?"
  5683. "I think he wants the same thing as the bandit."
  5684.  
  5685. >"But you said he wanted nothing!"
  5686. "That's not really true. What he wants might as well be nothing."
  5687. >"I... I don't understand."
  5688. "The villains here all wanted something tangible, something usually logical. And they were willing to hurt people to do it.
  5689. "But him? I think he just wants to hurt people. He doesn't want anything tangible. At least, nothing you'd want to give him.
  5690. "You can't buy him off, bully him, negotiate, or even reason with him, because what he wants would mean everything you know dying off."
  5691. >"S-so... control? He wants to... rule everything?"
  5692. "No, I don't think so. He likes controlling, sure, but it's more a means to an end."
  5693. >"So, what then?"
  5694. "He just wants to watch the world burn."
  5695. >...
  5696. >The kind of understanding that crosses her features is accompanied by a new wave of tears.
  5697. "I think that's why he uses all that evil magic. It wasn't just fast power, it causes a lot of pain."
  5698. >She manages to stop herself before any sobs escape.
  5699. >"D-did they catch the bandit in the end?"
  5700. "Yeah, they did."
  5701. >"How?"
  5702. "The bandit lived in a forest. And they burned the whole forest down."
  5703. >Her head returns to your chest, where a few sobs escape.
  5704. "That's why I'm going this far, Twilight. Because if I don't? There won't be anything to go far for later."
  5705. >She gets herself back under control fairly fast.
  5706. >Right as you hear the door opening.
  5707. >The view is blocked by the drape, but you see the silhouette of a certain pony, dropping off a book.
  5708. >Looking back out the window, you see the sun still up. It's only about three or four.
  5709. >The timing couldn't be better.
  5710.  
  5711. >"You... you're going to kill him, aren't you?"
  5712. "I don't want to. But I will if I need to."
  5713. >You stop the scratching, and lift your hand away from her head.
  5714. "But you know what I'm also realizing?"
  5715. >"N-no?"
  5716. "That there's no way I can do all this alone."
  5717. >You meet her surprised look with a winning smile.
  5718. >She begins to smile back.
  5719. >And then laugh a little bit.
  5720. >It's nice to see, sure, but where's this coming from?
  5721. "What's so funny?"
  5722. >"There you go again. I don't know how you do it."
  5723. "Do what?"
  5724. >"You just... make these bad events so much better.
  5725. >"That stupid archaeologist, the kinda-forbidden magic, and now this?"
  5726. >You shrug.
  5727. "I've had a lot of practice."
  5728. >Oh, look, an eyeroll.
  5729. >That's some big progress, right there.
  5730. >"I just... I don't want to hurt anypony. So how could I even help?"
  5731. "I was thinking about that, actually. How about... a little exchange?"
  5732. >"An... exchange?"
  5733. "I'm hitting some ceilings in my own magical findings. Kinda comes with a different system of doing it, I guess."
  5734. >Oh yeah, she knows what's up.
  5735. >The gasp, the glint in the eye?
  5736. >You've got this.
  5737. >"Wait, you don't mean...?!"
  5738. "I want you to tell me all about how magic works. And in return, I'll tell you how this crazy style I found works."
  5739. >Seeing her reaction made all of this worth it.
  5740. >Widening eyes, the growing smile, the obvious excitement?
  5741. >Hell, even if you didn't need the knowledge, you'd do anything to see this.
  5742. >Next thing you know, your vision's all purple, thanks to her hugging your neck and giving you mad nuzzles.
  5743. >"YES!"
  5744. <...
  5745.  
  5746. "NO!"
  5747. >Another wave of head-splitting pain rolls through you.
  5748. >>`PEER THROUGH THE VEIL, DISCOVER THE ARTIFICE'S POTENTIAL`
  5749. "Stop it!"
  5750. >>`DO NOT TURN AWAY FROM IT'S CALL`
  5751. "Aaaaaaaugh!"
  5752. >>`YOU MADE YOUR CHOICE, NOW FOLlow thro... w...h...`
  5753. >You collapse onto the ground, panting and on the verge of tears.
  5754. >Those voices came back.
  5755. >And it was worse than before.
  5756. >There was no whispering lead-in, just right into the loud voices.
  5757. >What's happening to you?!
  5758. >You take a quick look to your side.
  5759. >Those stupid... Homunculi were there, watching.
  5760. >Doing nothing.
  5761. >Some servants they were!
  5762. >They didn't even help you!
  5763. >An angry growl escapes you as you get to your hooves again.
  5764. "You liked that? Seeing me in pain? Don't even want to help, do you?!"
  5765. >There's no response.
  5766. "Aaaagh, forget it! Just take me there, already!"
  5767. >This, at least, they follow your command on.
  5768. >One of them picks you up, places you onto it's back, and begins to run, with the others following behind.
  5769. >At least they were fast!
  5770. >At this rate, you should get to Ponyville on hoof in around a week.
  5771. >And you'd probably keep it like this, too.
  5772. >No way you're braving those trains again!
  5773. >Gaah, if only you brought somepony else along with you!
  5774. >Anypony with even a lick of intelligence!
  5775. >Not these things!
  5776. >These stupid... machines!
  5777. >How does Incognito put up with these things?
  5778. >How did he even stand making them?
  5779. >Oh, you don't know!
  5780. >You rub your head, wincing at the sore spot.
  5781. >Great, you hurt yourself when you collapsed.
  5782. >As if this mission wasn't terrible enough.
  5783.  
  5784. >Sweet merciful Goddess, you wanted this to be over with.
  5785. >As your thoughts turn to Anonymous, your brooding gets ever more violent.
  5786. >Remembering the things he said, the way he beat you with dirty tricks like that...
  5787. >Oh, the things you were going to do to him.
  5788. >You'd let these monsters beat him, but you'd be the one to finish him off.
  5789. >Listening to his screams as you draw it out as long as possible.
  5790. >With those thoughts, and the surprisingly gentle rocking of the creature carrying you, you find yourself dozing off...
  5791. >...
  5792. >THUMP
  5793. "Aah!"
  5794. >The first thing you notice is being thrown to the ground.
  5795. >You scramble to your hooves, horn aglow and ready to attack.
  5796. >Except nothing was there.
  5797. >Nothing but the Homunculi.
  5798. >Did...
  5799. >Did they just drop you?
  5800. >Did they seriously just...?!
  5801. >Your anger returns with a vengeance, and you don't stop yourself launching at the offending monster.
  5802. >Your hoof connects to it's face with a sickening CRACK.
  5803. >Something must have broken when you did that.
  5804. >But you don't even care.
  5805. >Whatever catharsis you can get, you'll take.
  5806. >fzzzzztt
  5807. >Your attention snaps back to it when you notice some red lightning dancing around it's very dislocated neck.
  5808. >With another series of snaps and pops, the neck snaps back into place, accentuated by that same red lightning.
  5809. >Oh...
  5810. >Oh gosh.
  5811. >You just broke it's neck.
  5812. >And it recovered from it.
  5813. >Like nothing happened.
  5814. >Forget the anger, now you're just...
  5815. >You don't even know.
  5816. >Shocked? A little impressed?
  5817. >Not with them, they're horrible.
  5818. >But the work Incognito must have put in, to make them heal like that.
  5819.  
  5820. >Oh...
  5821. >Oh boy, and he said he was making an army of these things?
  5822. >If they all do that, then...
  5823. >You'd be unstoppable!
  5824. >But...
  5825. >What else did they do?
  5826. >You light your horn again, and try examining it with magic.
  5827. >You find nothing.
  5828. >Oh, come on!
  5829. >There has to be some way to find out what they do!
  5830. >You don't want to keep hitting them until they do something different!
  5831. >You cast another spell.
  5832. >You're coming up with this on the fly right now.
  5833. >It's something to just... peer inside.
  5834. >Get through the magic, and see what it does.
  5835. >A cord of green magic fires out of your horn, and strikes the creature in th--
  5836. >The world around you melts away into a storm of red, screaming heard throughout.
  5837. >What...
  5838. >What is this?
  5839. >What did you just do?!
  5840. >You cut the spell off, and the world returns to normal.
  5841. >Huh...
  5842. >You don't feel any different.
  5843. >...
  5844. >Bracing yourself this time, you cast the same spell again.
  5845. >The stormy world of red and screaming comes back.
  5846. >You don't know what this is, but now you're curious.
  5847. >Examining the 'environment', you see...
  5848. >Wait, those are...
  5849. >Those are the symbols on the Homunculi!
  5850. >Pitch black here, and floating in space!
  5851. >Now you're really curious.
  5852. >Hm...
  5853. >Trying to move doesn't do much of anything.
  5854. >In fact, your body is kind of...
  5855. >Transparent right now.
  5856. >Maybe--
  5857. >WHOOSH
  5858. >OOOKAY, that works!
  5859. >Apparently imagining yourself going somewhere sends you flying off there!
  5860. >With that in mind, you begin SLOWLY following the sets of floating runes.
  5861. >Soon, you find yourself floating amongst a huge cluster of the runes, swirling around...
  5862. >Oh, you're kidding.
  5863.  
  5864. >Are those the souls?!
  5865. >But wait, something's different about them.
  5866. >They're gray, with the flecks of white and green.
  5867. >But here, they're shaped like ponies.
  5868. >Emaciated ponies.
  5869. >Black 'spikes' are stuck in them, siphoning out a reddish energy into the rune clusters.
  5870. >Oh, and they're screaming.
  5871. >...
  5872. >Are...
  5873. >Are you inside this monster right now?
  5874. >Looking at it's inner workings?
  5875. >No, you know what, that's enough.
  5876. >This is too much to handle for one day!
  5877. >You cut the spell off, the world returning to normal once again.
  5878. >As for you, this whole scenario has left you with a headache.
  5879. >The sun's starting to set.
  5880. >Well.
  5881. >Sleeping on them is obviously a bad idea.
  5882. >Might as well make a camp.
  5883. >With a few commands, they do the hard work of digging a hole out for you to rest in.
  5884. >One holds the 'roof' up, the others keep watch.
  5885. >Meanwhile, you float a few brambles over, carrying them into the den.
  5886. >A special fire spell later, and it's a small campfire.
  5887. >Set to go out the instant you fall asleep.
  5888. >You curl up next to the fire, trying to do just that.
  5889. >Hm...
  5890. >Maybe...
  5891. >Maybe Ajay was right.
  5892. >Maybe you are pushing yourself too hard.
  5893. >Damn it.
  5894. >You should have brought him along, instead of rushing out.
  5895. >The headache persists, and you rub your hoof over your bristled head, trying to soothe it somehow.
  5896. >...
  5897. >Wait.
  5898. >Bristled?
  5899. >A quick mirror spell later, and...
  5900. >...
  5901. >There...
  5902. >There's hair on your head.
  5903. >A small stubble of eggplant-coloured hair.
  5904. >And...
  5905. >And since when did your horn have a kink in it?
  5906. <...
  5907.  
  5908. @@@@@@@@
  5909.  
  5910. >"I'm telling you, that's impossible! There's no way you can bend the currents like you're describing, without some kind of intent!"
  5911. "And yet, I can. And I do. Constantly."
  5912. >"Aaaagh! This doesn't make any sense! It defies everything I know about magic!"
  5913. "That's the fourth time you've said that."
  5914. >"And I'll keep saying it!"
  5915. "Look, it's easy. The array draws it in, like this..."
  5916. >Bloody goat fuckers on Mars, this was not how you expected this to go.
  5917. >You expected a nice exchange of ideas with Twilight, about different ways to make magic do it's thing.
  5918. >Instead?
  5919. >She's debating the whole thaum-glyph system with you.
  5920. >Keeps insisting it's impossible, that none of it makes sense.
  5921. >Well, at least she's not sad anymore!
  5922. >But God, it's gotten to, what, nine-thirty at night, and you two are still at this?
  5923. "And the glyph here caps off the whole network, like I said it needs to."
  5924. >"But there's no 'network' in magic! I keep telling you, it's all willpower, not these... 'channels'!"
  5925. >You pause to rub the bridge of your nose.
  5926. >God damn it all.
  5927. >You were at a complete impasse.
  5928. >The polar opposite of what you wanted to happen.
  5929. >...
  5930. "Alright, stop."
  5931. >"Why? Because this doesn't make sense?"
  5932. "Because this isn't getting us anywhere."
  5933. >"You wanted to know about magic!"
  5934. "And you keep debating with me about how my style works."
  5935. >"Because it's all wrong!"
  5936. "Yeah, no. Not getting into this debate anymore."
  5937. >You rise from the desk, closing your notebook as you go.
  5938. >The sudden rise catches her off guard.
  5939. "It's late, we've both had a rough day. I'll come back some other time."
  5940.  
  5941. >All you get is a huffed goodbye as you leave.
  5942. >And then you hear her argue to herself for a bit after you shut the door.
  5943. >It probably wasn't wise, honestly, to do this immediately after cheering her up.
  5944. >But damn it, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
  5945. >Like you said, it's been a rough day.
  5946. >Some sleep will fix all this, you're sure.
  5947. >Your trek home is uneventful, and the bed calls to you.
  5948. >Who are you to deny it's call?
  5949. >...
  5950. >Ahh, a beautiful new day.
  5951. >You get up n' at 'em like usual, and make your way to the--
  5952. >KNOCK KNOCK
  5953. >Or, you could answer the door.
  5954. >That works, too.
  5955. >...
  5956. >"Pleasure doing business with you, Anon!"
  5957. "Catch you later, Thunderlane!"
  5958. >With that last waving-off, you shut your door.
  5959. >Fuck, you'd forgotten about the delivery of meat!
  5960. >To make a short story a sonnet, you paid him in bits and scratches, and the two of you hauled the shit down to your freezer.
  5961. >He was quite impressed with the hidden cellar, and assumed your freezer was a crazy import.
  5962. >Oh, if only he knew.
  5963. >Which he doesn't.
  5964. >And you're not about to tell him.
  5965. >But man, did he have some variety!
  5966. >Now, the general rule was that if they talk, they ain't for dinner.
  5967. >So, some types like beef were not pony-kosher, what with the cows able to fucking talk and all.
  5968. >That left you with chicken and pork as familiar staples.
  5969. >But then there was also rabbits, ducks, and something called 'quarray eel'.
  5970. >He had more, but that was your limit.
  5971. >So that's what you had brought over.
  5972. >He even brought over a gryphon cookbook as an extra!
  5973. >Now that's customer service.
  5974.  
  5975. >But you'll peruse the recipes later.
  5976. >As in, tonight later.
  5977. >Right now, you need to check up on the lab.
  5978. >...
  5979. >All right, everything seems fine.
  5980. >Infuser's fine, wands are stored, slipgate's open, foci are on display right below the--
  5981. >Wait.
  5982. >Hold the fucking phone.
  5983. >When did the slipgate open?
  5984. >You grab one of said wands, and slap on a TK focus.
  5985. >Hmm...
  5986. >The gate goes... somewhere.
  5987. >Somewhere lit up with light purple torches, from the limited angle.
  5988. >Deciding to go with the YOLO approach, you step through the gate.
  5989. >It gives a little 'whoosh' of air as you pass through.
  5990. >As all portals should.
  5991. >...
  5992. >Oh, man.
  5993. >This is kind of a nice spread.
  5994. >A stone brick look, with a crystalline sheen, makes up all the walls, floor, and ceiling.
  5995. >Metal things which you assume are machines lie on a bunch of tables, and the ground.
  5996. >The sound of metal clinking draws your attention.
  5997. >Well, the source is pretty obvious.
  5998. >Sitting at a desk, laser-focused and floating shit around, is none other than your nigga, Sunburst.
  5999. >And he hasn't noticed you, yet.
  6000. >[spoiler]Then you had an idea[/spoiler]
  6001. >[spoiler]An awful idea[/spoiler]
  6002. >Performing your best Metal Gear manoeuvres, you creep up behind him, a good five feet away.
  6003. >Not really sure what he's doing, but whatever it is, he's getting a little mad at it.
  6004. >clink
  6005. >"Oh, for the love of--!"
  6006. >Make that decently mad.
  6007. >"Stupid thing! Can't even hold itself together!"
  6008. "Speak for yourself."
  6009. >Oh, man.
  6010. >The huge jump, coupled with the girly shriek?
  6011. >That was totally worth it.
  6012.  
  6013. >"Aaaah! Whatthehaywho'sthere?!"
  6014. >Once he whirls around, he's greeted with your best Samuel Rodriguez impression.
  6015. >"Wh-- Anon?!"
  6016. "What's up?"
  6017. >"What the-- How did-- Y-you jerk!"
  6018. "Runs in the family, what can I say?"
  6019. >"H-how'd you even get here?!"
  6020. "I'm from the future."
  6021. >"H-huh?"
  6022. "Just kidding. But seriously, I think the slipgate works as advertised."
  6023. >"The-- Ohh, gosh, the portal! I-I'd forgotten about that! I mean, I turned it on last night, but got so caught up in my work that I just, well..."
  6024. "It's all good. Looks like we won't need train rides anymore then, huh?"
  6025. >"I... I guess not, huh? B-but anyways, why are you here?"
  6026. "Figured I'd say hello. But, since we're here..."
  6027. >The next few minutes are spent with him, discussing the happenings at Ponyville.
  6028. >He already got advance notice at the Empire about the soul-eating changeling, turns out.
  6029. >As the discussion turns to your attempt to explain thaum-glyphs to Twilight, his face becomes one of... understanding?
  6030. >"Oh, I'm not surprised she rejected the notion outright."
  6031. "But why, though?"
  6032. >"It's hard to explain. It's like... instead of you moving an object through the world, it's like the world moving around the object, if that makes sense."
  6033. "So... a perspective shift?"
  6034. >"Yes, but that's just one facet of it. Pony magic is all about obtaining a balance, and 'pushing' the spell through smoothly because of it.
  6035. >"You could think of it as taking the untamed power of the world, and shaping it through your own will."
  6036. "Huh. But isn't that what the glyphwork does?"
  6037. >"Oh, no. In fact, quite the opposite."
  6038.  
  6039. >He takes your confused look as the go-ahead to proceed.
  6040. >"You see, the thaumaturges had a different approach, that I think ultimately makes their magic so much more consistent and reliable.
  6041. >"They take the untamed power, but instead construct a sort of magical system of canals and channels, to create their spells.
  6042. >"It took me a long time to figure that out, but once I got it, I was really impressed with how ingenious the system was!"
  6043. "No kidding?"
  6044. >"Yes! It has an uncanny functional resemblance to rivers and dams, actually.
  6045. >"But since it's a far more... indirect method of weaving spells, compared to the very direct method that unicorns use, well..."
  6046. "I didn't actually know that. Huh. That... makes a lot of sense, actually."
  6047. >"Of course, there's problems with their methods, too. Unicorns can create different spells with just a thought."
  6048. "And you need a whole new focus for a new one in the other system."
  6049. >"Right, it's not terribly flexible. But on the other hoof, exchanging spells is very simple!
  6050. >"And there's absolutely no willpower involved, either! All it takes to use it, is an intent to cast from an intelligent being!
  6051. >"Which means you can use it, despite the ironblood obstacle! Theoretically, even something without a soul could use thaumaturgical glyphs!"
  6052. "Wow."
  6053. >"I know! It really is quite revolutionary!"
  6054. >The topic goes on for a bit longer before the two of you decide to get back to your respective projects.
  6055. >Apparently, he's working on something based on an Earth design.
  6056. >He's keeping it a surprise, though.
  6057. >Go figure.
  6058.  
  6059. >After waving goodbye, you step back through the portal into your lab.
  6060. >Well.
  6061. >That was a lot more educational than you were expecting.
  6062. >And you were expecting your next round of labwork to be the educational highlight.
  6063. >Stowing your wand and focus, you head back over to your work area.
  6064. >On it is your Lexica, and a whole bunch of pre-made animus.
  6065. >The book is your first destination, and you immediately head over to the relevant section.
  6066. >You were too wrapped up in the creation process to really read through the use cases of the stuff.
  6067. >Time to fix that.
  6068. >...
  6069. >Okay, your suspicion about this being the next quantum leap of magic gear?
  6070. >Totally dead-on.
  6071. >The sheer density of magic in this stuff, along with it's lack of wasted magic radiation, meant that you could cram tons more glyphs into a given space.
  6072. >Not just more glyphs, but the glyphs could also get a lot more powerful, if you scaled them right.
  6073. >That being said, you needed a new tool for it, almost like a magic tattooing needle.
  6074. >Luckily, the materials for that were all in various piles around the lab.
  6075. >While the infuser works that one out, you read through the uses a bit more.
  6076. >Looks like there were also a lot more details and stanzas to consider with animus enchantment.
  6077. >Fuck, you'd need a new notebook for these details.
  6078. >Because there's no way in hell you can draw up enchants like that from memory.
  6079. >And then...
  6080. >Oh boy.
  6081. >The now-obligatory 'dark' section.
  6082. >Well, okay, to be fair, the others were really helpful.
  6083. >Maybe this'll be the same, too?
  6084.  
  6085. >"You may recall, from the prior knowledge on glyph enchantment, that performing enchantment on living beings was not possible.
  6086. >"With Animus, however, such a feat becomes possible.
  6087. >"However, enchanting a living being in such a manner is among one of the vilest of dark arts known to our scholars.
  6088. >"The practice had already existed amongst the gifted races within their spell systems, and is similarly reviled by their people.
  6089. >"Due to this analogue between thaumaturgical magic and the magic of the gifted races, we have used the same name for this practice: runesmithing."
  6090. >Your thought processes grind to a halt at the last word.
  6091. >Runes?
  6092. >This shit you made was also the gateway to fucking runes?
  6093. >Holy fucking Christ.
  6094. >"Glyphs, by their nature, draw in the nearest available source of arcane energy to fuel their power requirements.
  6095. >"When etched upon a soul-bearing being, however, this power source becomes their very soul, itself.
  6096. >"But as the soul's magic is tainted, the effects of the runes must be adjusted accordingly, requiring a different system of magical symbols.
  6097. >"While these systems vary between races and methodologies, their effects and implications remain the same:
  6098. >"The victim's soul is drained continuously to fuel the spell, leaching their very life essence to grant it power.
  6099. >"And unlike a traditional glyph, a rune is very difficult, if not impossible, to deactivate once etched.
  6100. >"Because of this, it is a death sentence for those touched by it, and runesmiths thus share the same moral and social quagmires as soulbenders."
  6101.  
  6102. >The infuser can be heard finishing it's craft in the background.
  6103. >You barely notice it, however.
  6104. >You're too busy processing what you just read.
  6105. >To be honest, you didn't really know all that much about the whole rune business.
  6106. >You just figured it was magic tattooing for edgelords.
  6107. >But now, knowing that it's literally just enchantment?
  6108. >And with the stuff you'd just built a little stockpile of, no less?
  6109. >That's...
  6110. >Fuuuuck.
  6111. >And the whole 'slowly eats your soul to work' thing goes a long way to explaining why Incognito uses it.
  6112. >It's the perfect complement to working with souls!
  6113. >Rip them out as both a power source and ingredient, and stick runes on whatever else!
  6114. >Okay.
  6115. >Let's see if there's more to this.
  6116. >Hm...
  6117. >No, that was basically it.
  6118. >While the book didn't say it was too dangerous, you're not too keen on taking chances.
  6119. >Next thing on the agenda is some secure storage for this shit.
  6120. >If it can do shit like that, you're keeping it away from curious hooves.
  6121. >You flip back to Intermediate Constructs, and pull up the pages relevant to secure storage.
  6122. >Luckily, it has just such a section on that.
  6123. >...
  6124. >A good hour goes by, and your sudden need for an animus lock-up is done.
  6125. >A nice, deep wooden cabinet, glyphed to high hell.
  6126. >You kind of wish you could have used the substance in question for the enchanting.
  6127. >But factoring in the new method's differences would've taken too long.
  6128. >Anyway, it's supposed to be impervious to most damage, magnetics notwithstanding, and requires a blood sample to open at all.
  6129. >Courtesy of the small needle in the handle.
  6130.  
  6131. >The blood part was still a skeeze point for you, but it was the only thing that seemed to work.
  6132. >Trying with the handprint sensor thing didn't really seem to work.
  6133. >It never recognized that you were there.
  6134. >Oh, well.
  6135. >At least it's a small pinprick, instead of a fucking rock gash.
  6136. >God, that was really stupid, in retrospect.
  6137. >But hey, it all worked out.
  6138. >Now that that's done with, let's actually make some upgraded kit, shall we?
  6139. >...
  6140. >Okay, this was...
  6141. >Actually kind of fucking ridiculous.
  6142. >Your newly-made TK focus was currently floating your entire focus collection.
  6143. >And it seemed to control a lot more finely, too.
  6144. >You'd have to test the strength later, but you're sure it's a big improvement.
  6145. >Know what isn't an improvement?
  6146. >The power draw on these things.
  6147. >Your best staff had a three-minute channel time with normal foci.
  6148. >With these super-foci, however, that dropped to about thirty-odd seconds.
  6149. >Granted, you haven't really 'optimized' the focus with that flashy new formatting, yet.
  6150. >So it was 'leaking' mana really badly.
  6151. >Gonna have to work on that, before making some new shit from it.
  6152. >Hmm...
  6153. >Well, you'll flesh out your notes on it for a few more hours.
  6154. >Until the afternoon.
  6155. >You've got some planning to do outside the realm of magic, involving the girls.
  6156. >You're fully aware it could turn out badly.
  6157. >But if it didn't?
  6158. >Well, it was gonna save you a lot of headache and hassle later on.
  6159. >But you're burning daylight here.
  6160. >Back to the Lexica.
  6161. >Now, let's get a good look at those stanzas...
  6162. <...
  6163.  
  6164. >"You know, some of your ideas are 'awesome' crazy."
  6165. "And this one's 'stupid' crazy, I know."
  6166. >"More like 'suicidal' crazy."
  6167. "Close enough."
  6168. >"And you're still going through with it?"
  6169. "Of course."
  6170. >"You know how badly this could end, right?"
  6171. "Can't stop thinking about the bad endings."
  6172. >Razor sighs before continuing on:
  6173. >"Look, I get where you're coming from. But I don't think they'll be as receptive to it as the princesses were."
  6174. "If that's true, which I don't think it is, then that should tell you what their reaction will be when they find out before I tell them."
  6175. >You finally reach the castle doors, and give them a few solid knocks.
  6176. >"Guess there's no stopping you, huh?"
  6177. "Damn right."
  6178. >"I sure hope you know what you're doing."
  6179. "Yeah, me too."
  6180. >Right on cue, the door opens.
  6181. >Instead of Spike, however, it's Twilight that greets you.
  6182. >"A-Anon?"
  6183. "Hey there."
  6184. >"Uh, hi! What are you doing here?"
  6185. "I need to ask a quick favor, actually."
  6186. >"A favor? Uh, right now?"
  6187. "Yes, right now."
  6188. >"B-but, me and the others are about to head out."
  6189. "I know. That's the favor."
  6190. >Ah, confusion. A common reaction for you to get.
  6191. >"Wait, you want to come with us?"
  6192. "That's the plan."
  6193. >"But... why? You usually don't like our group picnics."
  6194. "Well, I want to make this one a little bit... different."
  6195. >Her confusion gives way to a stern glare.
  6196. >"Anon... What are you up to, this time?"
  6197. "It's not another joint prank."
  6198. >"Then what is it?"
  6199. >You beckon her closer for some whispering action.
  6200. >Then you tell her your master plan.
  6201. >As expected, she rears back in shock.
  6202. >"You want to tell them WHAT?!"
  6203.  
  6204. @@@@@@@@
  6205.  
  6206. >"Who wants to tell us what, darling?"
  6207. >A loud 'eep' escapes Twilight at the interjection from behind the door.
  6208. >The door didn't really need to open soon after, for you to realize it was Rarity.
  6209. >"U-uh, n-nothing! I--"
  6210. >"Anonymous?"
  6211. "Afternoon, Rares."
  6212. >"Why, this is quite unexpected. What are you doing here, darling?"
  6213. "Just wondering if you'd be fine with me tagging along."
  6214. >You don't get to see Rarity's surprised face very often, but it's a fun little spectacle all the same.
  6215. >Twilight, meanwhile, looks about ready to have a panic attack.
  6216. >Sorry, Twilight, but you need to do this.
  6217. >"Oh, my. Uhm, forgive me for asking, but don't you normally... dislike our little outings?"
  6218. "You're forgiven. I just haven't gotten to see a good chunk of you gals lately, though. Figured I'd catch up a bit."
  6219. >"Indeed? Well, I certainly won't object, darling."
  6220. "Glad to hear it."
  6221. >"Although, what is this business about 'telling us something'?"
  6222. >God, Twilight was not reacting well to this.
  6223. >You'd need to placate her, first.
  6224. "Right, that. Just a little announcement for all of you."
  6225. >"An announcement?"
  6226. "Yeah."
  6227. >"Oh, whatever about, Anon?"
  6228. "Sorry, Rarity, but you'll have to hear about it the same way the others will."
  6229. >"Oh, surely you can tell me a little bit?"
  6230. >"Hey, where'd you two go?"
  6231. >And right when you had a retort ready, Dash decides to fly into the picture.
  6232. >"What are you two-- Oh, hey Anon!"
  6233. "'Sup?"
  6234. >"What're you doing here?"
  6235. >"He's decided to come along with us today, Rainbow Dash."
  6236. >"Wait, seriously?"
  6237. >"Indeed!"
  6238.  
  6239. >Word travels pretty quick after that, and before long, you and the whole gang are strolling over to a familiar field.
  6240. >It's funny, actually.
  6241. >You 'fell' into Equestria in this very field, right as they were having one of their little picnics.
  6242. >Man, you couldn't have fallen into a better place.
  6243. >You pull yourself from your reminiscing, to get a better look at a particular pony.
  6244. >Twilight was staying ahead of the rest on purpose, so they wouldn't see her distraught look.
  6245. >Now would be a good time to start the placating.
  6246. "Hey, Razor?"
  6247. >"Mm?"
  6248. "I need you to keep the others busy for a while, while I go talk with Twilight."
  6249. >"Take the edge off her, eh?"
  6250. "You got it."
  6251. >"All right, I'll see what I can do."
  6252. >Razor peels away from you, to do just that.
  6253. >He starts off with some line about his exploits, but you're not paying much attention.
  6254. >Since, you know, your target is a bit different.
  6255. "Hey, Twilight."
  6256. >She looks away from the distraction, turning to you.
  6257. >"H-hi..."
  6258. "You're upset about this, I can tell."
  6259. >"No, really? Anon, what the hay are you thinking, doing this?"
  6260. "I'm thinking full disclosure."
  6261. >"But why? Anon, I know Luna and her guards don't mind, but that's a special exception."
  6262. "And you don't think the others deserve to know?"
  6263. >"That isn't the point!"
  6264. "Seems like a pretty big point to me."
  6265. >"And what if they don't like what they see?"
  6266. "I've got faith in 'em."
  6267. >"But--"
  6268. "And besides, better I tell them now, than have them find out by themselves later."
  6269. >She's trying to formulate a response, but isn't doing much other than getting herself wound up.
  6270.  
  6271. >You check the status of the others.
  6272. >Looks like he'd somehow managed to get them to set up the picnicking stuff.
  6273. >Meaning they were too busy to notice your next move.
  6274. >Kneeling down, you throw your arm around her in a sideways kind of hug.
  6275. "You were okay with it, weren't you?"
  6276. >After recovering from your sudden move, she finally responds:
  6277. >"I'm not okay with it. I just know I can't talk you out of it."
  6278. >Now it's your turn to be at a loss for a response.
  6279. >"If it wasn't for the fact that your kind of magic doesn't use anything evil to work, I..."
  6280. >She brings herself around, to rub her head along your chest a little.
  6281. >"Please. It's bad enough that you get yourself into so much danger. Don't make me pick sides, too."
  6282. >Your other hand comes up for a small scratch of the ears.
  6283. "You won't need to. I know it's a risk, but I've got a good feeling about this."
  6284. >"But... Again, what if they don't like it?"
  6285. >A small, winning smile from your end.
  6286. "And what if they do?"
  6287. >Your little reversal gave her pause.
  6288. "Come on, you know them better than I do. You think they won't at least be receptive?
  6289. "Especially after they get told who really beat Chrysalis?"
  6290. >You could almost see the gears turning in her head, behind those eyeballs.
  6291. >"You brought him along to validate your story."
  6292. >He-- Wait, hold up.
  6293. "I... I didn't actually consider that. But that's a great idea."
  6294. >She huffs, but can't hide the small smirk.
  6295. >"Fine. You win."
  6296. "Mm?"
  6297. >"But if things go bad--"
  6298. "Which they won't."
  6299. >"Haven't you even considered the bad outcomes?"
  6300. "Constantly."
  6301.  
  6302. >"Wait, constantly?"
  6303. "What did you think I thought of when heading to you guys? Shit, what did you think me and Razor talked about on the way there?"
  6304. >"And... you're going to do this, anyways?"
  6305. "I have to. Besides, no reason to be all doom-and-gloom about it."
  6306. >She rolls her eyes.
  6307. >"As I was saying, if they don't like what you have to say, I'm not sticking up for you."
  6308. "That's fine."
  6309. >A little scritchy-scratch, and the two of you head back to the others.
  6310. >Right as Rarity was about to head over to you two, no less.
  6311. >"Twilight, Anon, where have you two been?"
  6312. "Just talking a bit."
  6313. >Her eyes narrow a bit with realization.
  6314. >"You got your guard to distract us, didn't you?"
  6315. "What, I'm that obvious?"
  6316. >"Hmph! Well played, Anonymous."
  6317. "Play well or don't play at all, am I right?"
  6318. >Is eye-rolling going to be a common thing today?
  6319. >...
  6320. >The whole group was set up, eating various items and talking about the happenings of the last fortnight.
  6321. >Razor stayed out of the group initially, but Fluttershy of all ponies wanted to hear more from him.
  6322. >And so right after their discussion on spa dates, he tells them tales of manning the Empire's border, before it was friendship-exterminatus'd.
  6323. >Apparently, there were a good amount of fucking frost trolls out there.
  6324. >While the story was actually pretty cool, your mind was elsewhere.
  6325. >Not just in timing your 'announcement'.
  6326. >But there were a couple of high-profile absences from this little gathering.
  6327. "Hey, Twilight?"
  6328. >"What is it?"
  6329. "I noticed Spike and Starlight are missing here."
  6330.  
  6331. >"Oh, them? They both apparently had errands to run, too important to come along for today."
  6332. "That doesn't sound like them."
  6333. >"I know. Lately, though, they've been spending a lot of time together."
  6334. "That right?"
  6335. >"Yeah. What's weird is how Spike's been spending less time around Rarity, too."
  6336. >Aaahhhhhhhh.
  6337. >You know where this is going.
  6338. "Has he, now? And what about Starlight?"
  6339. >"She's been taking time off of reading, and hanging around with Trixie, too."
  6340. >God, you can't keep the knowing smirk off your face.
  6341. >And she notices, too.
  6342. >"Anon? Do you know what they're up to?"
  6343. "I've got a good guess."
  6344. >"What guess?"
  6345. "Oh, I don't wanna... jump to conclusions. I'm sure Rarity could put it together for you, though."
  6346. >"Oh, come on! Just tell me!"
  6347. "Nope."
  6348. >The back-and-forth had the extra effect of getting some worry off of her shoulders.
  6349. >Withers.
  6350. >Same thing.
  6351. >Razor finishes his piece, at which point Rarity pipes up:
  6352. >"Oh, Anonymous? I believe you wanted to make some kind of 'announcement'?"
  6353. >Oh, God.
  6354. >Way to give a guy stage fright there, Rarity.
  6355. >Nope, no complaining now.
  6356. >You were the one who dangled the carrot.
  6357. >A look over to Razor signals a little request for help.
  6358. >The returned look is one of agreement, but the hoof gesture is pretty clearly 'you first'.
  6359. >Ah, great.
  6360. >Spirit animal giveth, spirit animal taketh away.
  6361. "Right, I sure did."
  6362. >The group shuffles a bit around to look at you.
  6363. "Although, it's more like a... correction of the record, if you will. That segways into the announcement."
  6364. [spoiler]0.02₪ deposited into your account[/spoiler]
  6365. >"A correction? Correction of what?"
  6366.  
  6367. "I know it's kind of a terrible subject to bring up, but you know the fight you guys had with queen bug?"
  6368. >The group collectively cringes.
  6369. "Yeah, sorry, I know. But it's important."
  6370. >"How... exactly is that important?"
  6371. "You know who wound up beating her down, in the end?"
  6372. >"Well, Luna told us it was herself and the Night Guard, of course."
  6373. >"Well, she lied."
  6374. >That little interjection from Razor piqued more than a little interest.
  6375. >"L-lied?"
  6376. >"That's right. That was the cover story."
  6377. >"But... if she didn't stop her, who did?"
  6378. "That would be me."
  6379. >While she and the others take in the surprise, you finger the wand hiding in your left sleeve.
  6380. >"Uh, Anonymous? Are you all right?"
  6381. "Absolutely smashing, why?"
  6382. >"F-forgive me for saying so, but... I don't see how you could have done anything of the sort."
  6383. "Yeah, I'm not surprised."
  6384. >"I mean, you've never struck me as the... confrontational type. That, and you lack, well..."
  6385. "Magic?"
  6386. >Her expression becomes a bit awkward, but morphs to confused when she sees your smile still hanging on.
  6387. "Yeah, about that..."
  6388. >The wand comes slipping out of your sleeve.
  6389. >You grab it with your right hand, lighting up the TK focus pre-attached to it.
  6390. >One of Rarity's profiteroles floats over to you, where you make a casual show of eating it right out of the air.
  6391. >Pretty swish, if you do say so yourself.
  6392. >And...
  6393. >Well.
  6394. >The audience in question is invariably shocked.
  6395. >Jaw-drops around.
  6396. >Not sure if it's the good jaw-drop, or the bad one.
  6397. >Razor seems to be evaluating that part, too.
  6398. >And Twilight just... clenched, expecting the worst.
  6399.  
  6400. >None of the ponies in attendance say anything for a while.
  6401. >So, you just...
  6402. >Float one of AJ's turnovers towards you in the same way.
  6403. >A bit too large for the eat-at-once manoeuvre, so you settle with a little bite instead.
  6404. >Which of course was to drive the point further home.
  6405. >T-totally not to allay your own nervousness.
  6406. >N-no, absolutely not!
  6407. >"Dude."
  6408. >Oh thank you, Dash.
  6409. >That silence was getting pretty brutal.
  6410. >"Did... did you just..."
  6411. >Your own uncertainty takes a massive backseat, the minute you see her face.
  6412. >The same face of blown-away awe she had, when you woke up after your first Equestrian hangover.
  6413. >Right as you identify it, she bolts right in front of your face.
  6414. >"What the hay, Anon?! When did you get your magic?!"
  6415. >"Ah-- Ah'll be..."
  6416. >"Oh... my..."
  6417. >"My word..."
  6418. >A confetti blast rounds off the last reaction.
  6419. >"WHOOHOO! Anon got his magic!"
  6420. >It sure took that dropped feeling right out of you, knowing that at least two-thirds of the attendance liked this development.
  6421. >...
  6422. >"S-so what happened next, Anon?!"
  6423. "Well, I broke the barrier and smacked her with another explosion, right in the face."
  6424. >You 'illustrate' the scene with the proper hand-motions.
  6425. >Dash was totally transfixed by the story of Chrysalis getting her shit pushed in.
  6426. >Hell, AJ and Pinkie were sitting around as well, listening very attentively.
  6427. >And very excitedly.
  6428. >The other half of the girls in attendance decided to sit the story out.
  6429. >Wasn't really to their tastes.
  6430. >So they just... talked to themselves, about whatever it is they're talking about.
  6431.  
  6432. "Made a nice changeling-shaped hole in the wall when I did that."
  6433. >"Ohmygosh, what next?!"
  6434. "Nothing, really. That hit did it for her."
  6435. >Even with you skimping on some details here and there, they still loved the story.
  6436. >They didn't know your blood was full of iron, for example.
  6437. >"Oh dude, was that why you were in the hospital, too?!"
  6438. "Yep. Not as beat-up as you gals, but still pretty bad."
  6439. >"Ah don't know, Anon. That bite sounded awful nasty."
  6440. "Oh, it was awful nasty. Could barely move the thing."
  6441. >A few last details rounding the story out, and they start asking you about what other things you can do.
  6442. >That's when the wind focus came out, and you messed around with some clouds.
  6443. >While they stared on at the sight of you making the Umbrella Corporation logo in the air, you look over at the other girls.
  6444. >Twilight looked a bit sad in whatever conversation she was having, but something Rarity said was cheering her up.
  6445. >And, inexplicably, making her blush a little.
  6446. >Must be some mare thing.
  6447. >Fluttershy, meanwhile, was talking not with the others, but with Razor.
  6448. >Don't know what that's all about.
  6449. >"So awesome..."
  6450. >Oh, right.
  6451. >Your current following.
  6452. >"So does this mean you can finally walk on clouds?"
  6453. "Sadly, no. Just mess with them."
  6454. >"Aw, man! So you can't play those games, after all..."
  6455. "Games?"
  6456. >"Yeah, pegasus cloud games! All you can do is play the cloud-shaping ones..."
  6457. "I didn't really know there were cloud-shaping games."
  6458. >"Well, duh! Of course there are!"
  6459. "So what are you waiting for?"
  6460. >"Huh?"
  6461. "Gonna show me those games, or what?"
  6462. <...
  6463.  
  6464. >You think it's safe to say that you definitely made the highlight of this picnic event.
  6465. >You're just thankful it all went well.
  6466. >But the optimum outdoor dining experience was drawing to a close, sadly.
  6467. >So you were following along with the rest of the group, back to the castle.
  6468. >"Well shoot, Ah can't wait to share this here story with the others!"
  6469. >"I'm sure that'd make great table talk, but I'm afraid that's not happening."
  6470. >There's Razor again, interjecting before you can.
  6471. >"What do 'ya mean?"
  6472. >"See, Anon's magic is kind of a top-secret thing. Only the princesses are supposed to know about it."
  6473. >"What? What kinda sense does that make?"
  6474. >"Afraid I can't tell you, miss Applejack. But you just can't go discussing it with anypony else. That goes for all of you, too."
  6475. >None were affected more by the oath of secrecy than Pinkie.
  6476. >"Aawww... But I wanted to throw an 'Anon-finally-gets-his-magic' party..."
  6477. "Well, you could make it a private one."
  6478. >"Ooh, really? That's a great idea! Thanks, Anon!"
  6479. "Anytime."
  6480. >It doesn't take long to arrive at the castle.
  6481. >The sky was beginning to tint red.
  6482. >The girls fan out, saying their farewells.
  6483. >You would have left, too, if a purple hoof didn't stop you.
  6484. >Twilight had a really conflicted look on her, when you turned to look at her.
  6485. "What's the matter?"
  6486. >Despite clearly wanting to say something, she loses her nerve.
  6487. >"N... Nothing. Have a good night, Anon."
  6488. >She lets you go, and teleports away before you can respond.
  6489. >Well.
  6490. >That was weird.
  6491. >Wonder what she wanted to say...?
  6492. <...
  6493.  
  6494. >The next few days kind of bleed into each other.
  6495. >The day after the picnic reveal, you'd figured out how the new enchantment glyphing works.
  6496. >The extra stuff, besides looking like Vietnamese dialectic marks, turned out to be 'shielding' for the glyphs.
  6497. >You actually needed to add on the extra stuff to further direct the mana.
  6498. >But you had to be sparing about it, since the shielding marks took power by themselves, too.
  6499. >Kind of like how electronic shielding has holes in it, actually.
  6500. >Once you got this down pat, however, you immediately moved onto creating your upgrades.
  6501. >And boy, what upgrades they were!
  6502. >All across the board, those foci charge times dropped to less than half of what they were before.
  6503. >And you were doing totally ludicrous shit, like lifting boulders or whole bookshelves worth of shit with your TK focus.
  6504. >Still sucked power, though.
  6505. >Your staves were bad mana 'leakers', turned out.
  6506. >And you couldn't use animus as a staff core; it was an excellent conductor of mana, but couldn't store it well.
  6507. >So the next bits of research, branching off from animus, was two extra things you had just finished.
  6508. >The book called them 'vis storage' and 'vis alloy'.
  6509. >Technically correct, and super awesome, but with terrible names.
  6510. >So you went with 'manasponge' and 'thaumium', instead.
  6511. >The manasponge was made with cloth, or actual sponges, and was infused with a lot of gems and animus.
  6512. >True to it's name, it was kinda like Shamwow for mana, and staff cores made of it were around double the capacity.
  6513. >Pretty impressive feat, actually.
  6514.  
  6515. >On the other end was the thaumium.
  6516. >You used the infuser to alloy together some animus and metal.
  6517. >Didn't really matter which metal, since the infusion would transmute it, anyways.
  6518. >You went with bronze, since that was the most you had lying around here.
  6519. >Not really saying much, though.
  6520. >You'd have to get more metal later.
  6521. >Still, you had enough to make a nice little batch of thaumium.
  6522. >This stuff was tough.
  6523. >Not quite iron tough, but fairly close.
  6524. >But more interesting was it's magical properties.
  6525. >By itself, it blocked out a fair chunk of spells directed at it.
  6526. >And while it wasn't enchantable with animus, it was enchantable with the old glyph-etching method.
  6527. >And the animus inside rose up to fill out the etched-on glyphs.
  6528. >Once it got enchanted, though?
  6529. >Oh, man.
  6530. >It was crazy good at powering spells.
  6531. >It even survives being permanently disenchanted by magnets, for a good hour!
  6532. >This made it a no-brainer for your staff adornments.
  6533. >Well, staff and wand.
  6534. >Dual-wielding staves wasn't the most elegant thing, you've found.
  6535. >Especially not with some of the new foci available to you.
  6536. >So you whipped up a couple of awesome new casting implements.
  6537. >A staff, with that same red-lacquer job from before.
  6538. >With the upgraded core, and an awesome double-helix thaumium adornment at the top, instead of the copper rings.
  6539. >Putting focus attachment points at the top was mandatory by now, so a thaumium one sat on top, too.
  6540. >Properly focusing and shielding the mana currents was a running theme by now.
  6541. >With the amount of power involved, it's not hard to see why.
  6542.  
  6543. >Meanwhile, your wand was specially made for a particular focus.
  6544. >Well, it could take other foci, but the construction was made with swinging in mind.
  6545. >Made out of the usual zap-apple wood, and with some brass, it was shaped like a handle.
  6546. >Sadly, you didn't have enough thaumium to make another cool double-helix attractor, so a set of three glyphed rings had to do, instead.
  6547. >Another attachment point sat on top, in the shape of a round sword guard.
  6548. >Take a wild guess what focus is meant for this wand.
  6549. >Yeah, you'd been given access to some 'famous' foci in the book.
  6550. >Some of them were kinda cool, but the book made you recreate the glyphwork yourself.
  6551. >The one you made so far was pretty cool; cool enough to warrant this wand.
  6552. >After all, a wand handles better than a staff for swinging a sw--
  6553. >FWOOM FWOOM
  6554. >That's your crystal ball going off.
  6555. >Someone's approaching your house.
  6556. >Huh...
  6557. >The ball isn't showing anything.
  6558. >There a big shimmering spot in front of the door, instead.
  6559. >Hoofsteps can be heard barreling down the passageway, as you ponder this.
  6560. >Turning around, you see they belong to a very winded and startled Razor.
  6561. >"Anon? You need to get up here, now."
  6562. >His tone brooked no argument.
  6563. >Setting down your stuff, he leads you back up to your house, in record time.
  6564. "Dude, what's the fucking rush?"
  6565. >"You'll see!"
  6566. >Stopping to catch your breath, you head for the door and open it.
  6567. >Outside was--
  6568. >...
  6569. >"Good afternoon, Anonymous."
  6570. >Ah.
  6571. >That's the rush.
  6572. >"I hope I'm not intruding."
  6573. "Uh, n-not at all, princess!"
  6574. >"Please, just Celestia will do."
  6575.  
  6576. @@@@@@@@
  6577.  
  6578. "Well, uh, I guess you oughta come in, huh?"
  6579. >"If you don't mind."
  6580. >Well, you're officially in OH GOD WHAT THE FUCK PANIC NOW mode.
  6581. >Okay, no, hold it together!
  6582. >She makes her way inside your house, going right for your main table.
  6583. >Settle down.
  6584. >She surprise visited you back at Canterlot, right?
  6585. >Maybe this won't be anything bad?
  6586. >...
  6587. >Yeah, right.
  6588. >Your gut disagrees with that assessment something fierce.
  6589. >Just play along for now, Anon.
  6590. >Now.
  6591. >First order of business for any guest?
  6592. >The tea, of course.
  6593. >So that's just what you do.
  6594. >It'll get your mind off things for a moment, anyhow.
  6595. >"Oh, there's no need for formality here, captain. At ease."
  6596. >"Th-thank you, Princess!"
  6597. >Right, Razor's still hanging around.
  6598. >Must've been standing at attention, or something.
  6599. >It doesn't take too long for the brew of icebreaking to be made and carried over to the table.
  6600. >"Ah, thank you very much, Anon."
  6601. "No problem."
  6602. >"Are you all right? You seem... tense."
  6603. "Well, uh, still not used to the whole 'royalty-dropping-in-by-surprise' thing, you know?"
  6604. >If nothing else, she's got a nice giggle.
  6605. >Must run in the family, or something.
  6606. >"Mm, I suppose so. But then, Twilight visits you often, doesn't she?"
  6607. "Yeah, but, you know. Seeing each other a lot drops the shock value over time, you know?"
  6608. >"Fair enough."
  6609. >There's nary a shimmer coming off of her.
  6610. >At least that disqualifies her from 'changeling' status.
  6611. >But why did your auspexes not see her before?
  6612. >Something funny's going on here.
  6613. >As if you gut wasn't screaming it at you loudly enough.
  6614.  
  6615. >Well, might as well make some more small talk.
  6616. "So, uh, I hear you've been out of the country for a while?"
  6617. >"Ah, yes, I have been."
  6618. "Diplomacy, was it?"
  6619. >"I'm afraid so. Maintaining our ties with the yaks is... an interesting exercise."
  6620. "The yaks?"
  6621. >"Well, it began as the yaks. But our old allies, the reindeer, showed up for a similar diplomatic mission with them."
  6622. "Whoa wait, reindeer?"
  6623. >"Indeed."
  6624. >That's new.
  6625. >You don't know a whole lot about the reindeer.
  6626. >But you do know that they're basically the same as the Earth legend variety.
  6627. >Minus the elves and Santa Claus.
  6628. >And that they're powerful wizards.
  6629. "Huh, that's neat. But don't they usually keep to themselves?"
  6630. >"Normally, yes. Ambassador Comet was quite elated to see me, as you can imagine."
  6631. >Oh Christ, are they gonna have the whole range of Santa's sleigh names?
  6632. "Weird that they'd be out talking with the yaks, though. They still having it out with those caribou?"
  6633. >Her expression sours.
  6634. >"Unfortunately. Almost four decades of war, and still no peaceable solution."
  6635. >Not surprising, considering they were the Equestrian equivalent of Vikings crossed with Slaanesh worshippers.
  6636. >Real 'rape and pillage' types.
  6637. "I'll be honest, I doubt those caribou are really interested in a peaceful solution."
  6638. >"Sadly, I agree. But the reindeer are insistent on finding such a solution."
  6639. "Guess all you can really do is wish them the best on that, then."
  6640. >An affirmative 'hmm' makes up her answer.
  6641. >Sounds like a neat trip.
  6642. >Still...
  6643. >Weird that she'd take weeks, just to talk things out with them.
  6644.  
  6645. >She takes a small sip of her tea, before speaking again.
  6646. >"Unfortunately, it seems that conflict has become somewhat of a norm here, as well.
  6647. >"I heard that Chrysalis had launched an assault on Ponyville in my absence."
  6648. >Oh boy, here we go.
  6649. "Yeah, I know."
  6650. >"The guards tell me that you had something to do with the victory over her."
  6651. >Oh, here we really go.
  6652. "Y-yeah, I did."
  6653. >Her expression is...
  6654. >It's that little default smile she gives.
  6655. >But her eyes don't hide her real intent quite as well.
  6656. >She's studying you something fierce.
  6657. >"The details of your... assistance with that were kept quite a public secret, by my sister's order."
  6658. "That right?"
  6659. >It's not the death glare she had, when she first found out you had some of the ol' Fe in your blood.
  6660. >But no telling if it could escalate there, or not.
  6661. >She lets a small sigh out, before placing her cup down.
  6662. >"I will be frank, Anonymous. I am rather... upset with all of this.
  6663. >"You succeeded in saving Twilight and her friends from the queen, and I am very grateful for that.
  6664. >"However, the means by which you did so?"
  6665. >Ah, shit.
  6666. >It's exactly what you thought it was about.
  6667. >And her face going to a proper hard glare wasn't helping.
  6668. >"I am giving you one chance to explain yourself. One chance to explain to me why you disregarded my laws regarding the practice of dark magic."
  6669. >...
  6670. >Well.
  6671. >There's the gauntlet, thrown on down.
  6672. >Can't say you didn't see this coming.
  6673. >You take your own cup, and drain a decent chunk of the liquid within.
  6674. >At least you weren't without a response to this.
  6675.  
  6676. "What was I supposed to do?"
  6677. >No change in her expression, even as your own look gets hard.
  6678. "My friends, the people who took me in, all of a sudden get attacked by one of their old enemies.
  6679. "Hell, not just an old enemy, but one who cozied up to that Incognito fucker, too.
  6680. "You think I'm just going to sit there, and let her get away with that shit?"
  6681. >There's a brief pause before she responds.
  6682. >"No, I suppose not.
  6683. >"But you're not stupid, Anonymous. Unwise, perhaps, but not unintelligent.
  6684. >"After all, nopony unintelligent could create that many auspex wards, so quickly."
  6685. >Hold up.
  6686. >She knew about those?
  6687. >"Your confusion is natural. But I have dealt with them on numerous occasions.
  6688. >"You did not pick up this dark magic on the day of the attack, Anonymous. You had to have used it for considerably longer than that."
  6689. >Another sip of tea.
  6690. "You're right, I have."
  6691. >"Then you realize what depths you have sunk to?"
  6692. "I haven't sunk to any depths."
  6693. >"Haven't you? Then please, explain to me how using dark magic to the extent you have, is not indicative of a descent into madness?"
  6694. "You keep saying I use 'dark magic'."
  6695. >Incredulity crosses her expression.
  6696. >"You harness the power of the dark arts so brazenly, and you dare to--"
  6697. "That's horseshit, and you know it."
  6698. >You can hear Razor nearly choke at your interjection.
  6699. >Celestia, meanwhile, develops a proto-death glare.
  6700. >But your anger is simmering just enough to speak past it.
  6701. "I would not, and do not, practice anything that even approximates 'dark magic'."
  6702.  
  6703. >"Don't you?"
  6704. "You said that you thought I was intelligent. So I'd appreciate it if you didn't insult said intelligence."
  6705. >Another sip.
  6706. "I don't know what you were expecting, Celestia. Some kind of deranged hermit, dripping with evil magic, lashing out, trying to get attention?
  6707. "Maybe in some bizarro parallel universe, you'd find a guy like that under my name. But not here.
  6708. "I'll admit, my prodding started off as a little mischievous adventure. Something to spice up the cozy life.
  6709. "But after that attack on the castle? After the Discord shit?"
  6710. >You're sure your glare doesn't come close to hers.
  6711. >But you give it a solid try, anyways.
  6712. "I promised myself that I'd never let them get hurt like that. So I resolved to do a lot of things, to make that promise possible.
  6713. "I promised myself I'd get stronger, to be able to keep them safe.
  6714. "I promised myself I'd get smarter, so I'd be able to outsmart everyone trying to hurt them.
  6715. "But most of all? I promised myself never to use anything evil to do it."
  6716. >Your words hang in the air for a moment.
  6717. >Her expression hadn't changed, but her eyes were back to studying.
  6718. >"You're certainly good at giving speeches, I will grant you that.
  6719. >"But if that is all true, then you failed your last goal at the very outset."
  6720. "Oh, this'll be good."
  6721. >And she's back to glaring.
  6722. >"Like I said, you practice the dark arts so brazenly, yet dare to proclaim yourself some kind of paragon?"
  6723. "And like I said, that's horseshit. And you know it."
  6724. >"I have had many centuries to consider this, Anonymous. I am not interested in your justification for using such evil."
  6725.  
  6726. >Pause.
  6727. "Evil?"
  6728. >Unpause, get mad.
  6729. "Evil?"
  6730. >Get very mad.
  6731. >"I have heard the same story each time. You claim to not be interested in the evil magic, and yet you progressed so quickly. A hallmark of the dark arts."
  6732. >You ignore that line completely.
  6733. "You've had centuries to consider this, have you?"
  6734. >"Of course."
  6735. "Tell me, you know what kind of magic I use?"
  6736. >"You already know the answer."
  6737. "Do you?"
  6738. >And now it's a full death glare.
  6739. >"The dark crafts of the Faber Mystico."
  6740. >The tea sip is more for show, than it is to hydrate your throat.
  6741. "A dark craft, that somehow avoids all the trademarks of dark magic?"
  6742. >You set the teacup down, more forcefully than you expected.
  6743. >It cut off whatever she was about to say.
  6744. "Changelings suck the love out of others to feed themselves. And then use said love to power their magic.
  6745. "Sombra had a thing for putting slave helms on his 'soldiers', and using plenty of classical dark magic.
  6746. "Your buddy Tirek did everything short of eating the fucking souls of ponies, to power his magic up."
  6747. >Your voice gets louder, and your tone harsher, as you go down the list.
  6748. "Maybe you'd prefer some obscure examples?
  6749. "How about Spirit Seeker, the master of all things soul-bending?
  6750. "Ooh, how about ol' Blackmane, the guy that dug up runesmithing for ponies?
  6751. >Oh, you're out of your chair now.
  6752. "Or maybe you'd prefer a modern example?
  6753. "How about none other than mister Incognito himself, the guy who took up being a fucking bloodreaver?!"
  6754. >A SLAM of your fists on the table punctuates that last line.
  6755. >She's gone from death glare to poker face.
  6756.  
  6757. "I might not be a fucking expert on all things magic, but I know enough to know the difference between objectively evil, and subjectively illegal.
  6758. "Did I break the law a bit? Yeah, sure, I'll grant you that.
  6759. "But don't you ever dare call what I do 'evil'. Especially when you know damn well it's not."
  6760. >...
  6761. >Silence reigns for a few moments, while the two of you just stare each other down.
  6762. >Despite the back-and-forth, neither one of you are budging.
  6763. >"As I said before."
  6764. >The door opens again, and...
  6765. >Oh.
  6766. >That's nice.
  6767. >"I am not interested in your justifications."
  6768. >There's her guard posse, in telltale Sol Invictus get-up.
  6769. >One of which is floating over some manacles.
  6770. >"Sergeant Razor Wind. You are hereby relieved of your assignment to guard Anonymous."
  6771. >Shit, you'd forgotten all about him.
  6772. >Looking over, you can see the conflict written all over his face.
  6773. >"Now, do you have anything else to say, Anonymous?"
  6774. "Yeah. See you in court."
  6775. >She doesn't even try to hide the snort.
  6776. >Meanwhile, you're not even trying to resist the shackling.
  6777. >This isn't your first rodeo with arrests, even if the galactic locale is different.
  6778. >A few 'drunk and disorderly' incidents will do that to you.
  6779. >You see Razor give you one last conflicted look, before bowing and taking his leave.
  6780. >Without any further words, you're led out of your house, surrounded by the pony gestapo.
  6781. >Great.
  6782. >Not how you wanted to spend today.
  6783. >You know, you have to wonder sometimes, if your gut has the magic of fucking fortune telling.
  6784. <...
  6785.  
  6786. >A series of knocks is heard on your hotel room.
  6787. "J-just a minute!"
  6788. >...
  6789. >All right.
  6790. >Everything's set on your end.
  6791. >You open the door, and are greeted with the expected sight.
  6792. >The princess of the sun herself, Celestia.
  6793. >You feign a gasp, and drop into a bow.
  6794. >"Rise, my little pony. There's no need for that here."
  6795. "O-of course, f-forgive me, p-princess..."
  6796. >"It's all right."
  6797. >You 'sniffle' a bit, before rising up to look at her.
  6798. >She wears that smile of hers.
  6799. >That annoying, supercilious, faux-motherly smile.
  6800. >Her feelings tell a whole other story, of course.
  6801. >But you'll bear with it.
  6802. "Did... did you...?"
  6803. >"You know I cannot discuss the actions taken due to the charge, my loyal subject."
  6804. >So...
  6805. >So she did it?
  6806. >She really did it?
  6807. "I... I understand, princess..."
  6808. >"I must ask you to remain in Ponyville during the investigation, however. The crown shall fund the living expenses, of course."
  6809. "As... as long as it brings that... thing to justice, princess..."
  6810. >"Try to get some rest, my little pony. The hearing is tomorrow."
  6811. >You bow once again, briefly this time.
  6812. >Celestia leaves you alone, the two pegasus guards flanking the door still where they are.
  6813. >Much less tense, of course.
  6814. >When you don't close the door as part of your act, the left guard leans in, as he always does.
  6815. >The soft ones are always the easiest.
  6816. >"Dinner's at six-thirty, miss Descent. Try to stay awake for it, all right? You'll need it."
  6817. >Another 'sniffle' is all the response you give.
  6818. >He closes the door a few moments afterwards.
  6819. >The empathy coming off him is very palpable to you.
  6820.  
  6821. >You walk over to the window, quietly fake-sobbing while you go.
  6822. >Once you reach it, your horn appears.
  6823. >A few flashes of magic later, and false hoofsteps trace around the room, followed by a bubble of silence around yourself.
  6824. >The 'sobs' become louder.
  6825. >And they don't stay as sobs for very long.
  6826. >It becomes laughter.
  6827. >Ohh, bucking YES!
  6828. >As your laughter reaches it's peak, your disguise drops, at last.
  6829. >You...
  6830. >You never thought it would be this easy!
  6831. >And here you thought that you would need to tear that bucking Anonymous limb from limb!
  6832. >You even had the Homunculi, waiting in the White-tail Woods, to rush to his house!
  6833. >But now, you're so glad you stayed a day in Ponyville, to observe and plan!
  6834. >Nopony in town knew about Anon's triumph over Chrysalis, not one!
  6835. >And somehuman like him would love nothing more than to get praised for something like that.
  6836. >Why else would he be quick with his words, if not to impress other ponies?
  6837. >But he didn't get praise.
  6838. >Which led you to believe that what he was doing, wasn't exactly the most legal of activities to begin with.
  6839. >And lo and behold, Celestia herself flies into town, business written on her face, and throughout her feelings.
  6840. >On a path straight to Anon's little cottage, out near the Everfree.
  6841. >You decided to test your theory, and re-assumed your Canterlot disguise.
  6842. >Gave her a sob story about seeing Anonymous performing dark magic.
  6843. >You made it up on the spot, from details about changeling magic, and the 'magic sticks'.
  6844. >But her reaction to it...
  6845. >She ate the whole thing up!
  6846.  
  6847. >There was no doubt in your mind.
  6848. >She took him captive.
  6849. >Ohh, did she have to rough him up?
  6850. >Gosh, you wish you could have seen that!
  6851. >As if being arrested by your own allies wasn't... delicious enough!
  6852. >Is...
  6853. >Is this what Chrysalis felt, during the failed wedding?
  6854. >Is this what she felt, when she turned that Twilight Sparkle into the pariah?
  6855. >Because you could get used to this feeling!
  6856. >Oh, you can't take it anymore!
  6857. >You need to see this!
  6858. >You need to see his face!
  6859. >You need to--
  6860. >>`PEER THROUGH THE VEIL, SEE THEIR TRUE FORMS`
  6861. "Aaaagh!"
  6862. >No, no, no!
  6863. >NO!
  6864. >Not again!
  6865. >>`ASCERTAIN THE ASPECTS OF THEIR ESSENCE`
  6866. >Your magic holds long enough to rush into the bathroom, closing the door behind you.
  6867. >>`FIND THE WEAK POINTS, DRAW THE ESSENCE FROM THERE`
  6868. "Stop it! Get out of my head!"
  6869. >>`YOU WILL BE FOREVER WEAK WIThout th... p...er...`
  6870. >You collapse to the floor, sucking air in through your teeth.
  6871. >You've just enough presence of mind to notice the guards become alert, and enter the room.
  6872. >And you've just enough presence of mind to cast another charm on them, to make them forget all about it.
  6873. >You wait for them to return to their posts, before a pained exhale leaves you.
  6874. >Groaning, you pull yourself up, towards the sink.
  6875. >A few flashes of magic has the taps running at full blast.
  6876. >Your hooves are too holey to splash your face with water very well.
  6877. >But you do it anyways, even if there's more effort involved.
  6878. >You stay standing there for a while, listening to the taps and your own breathing.
  6879.  
  6880. >These stupid headaches.
  6881. >No, they're not headaches.
  6882. >Whatever it is, it's giving you the damn headaches!
  6883. >Every time you hear the voices, it's like your head is splitting open!
  6884. >And it's always the same thing, every time.
  6885. >Something about 'essence', and instructions to observe and consume it.
  6886. >And usually, something about being weak.
  6887. >...
  6888. >Why...
  6889. >Why was this happening?
  6890. >These headaches started right after leaving the medical tent!
  6891. >It has to be related to the souls, it just has to be!
  6892. >But Incognito said there wasn't any damage!
  6893. >Well...
  6894. >Okay, he said there wasn't any permanent damage.
  6895. >...
  6896. >You finally look up, at the mirror.
  6897. >And...
  6898. >And that wasn't the only change.
  6899. >Looking back wasn't the familiar drone of before.
  6900. >Your horn had gotten longer, developed a large kink. A second one was forming near the top.
  6901. >Your head, formerly bare like the rest of the lings, had a two-inch long...
  6902. >Well, it... looked almost like a mane.
  6903. >A mane of mossy-feeling, eggplant-coloured 'hair'.
  6904. >A flash of magic has a nearby brush float over to you.
  6905. >You pause to look at the aura surrounding it.
  6906. >Even...
  6907. >Even your aura was different.
  6908. >It was fluctuating between bright green and eggplant colours.
  6909. >Like it couldn't decide which to be.
  6910. >You run the brush through the 'mane' a few times.
  6911. >After setting it down, you just...
  6912. >Stare.
  6913. >Stare at the ling looking back.
  6914. >You turn away after a while, opting to sit on the floor instead.
  6915. >You hold up a slightly trembling hoof.
  6916. >This time, the sniffle is genuine.
  6917. "Foremothers, what's... what's happening to me?"
  6918.  
  6919. @@@@@@@@
  6920.  
  6921. >SLAP
  6922. >No!
  6923. >Pull yourself together, filly!
  6924. >You have work to do!
  6925. >You'll deal with... whatever the hay these changes are, later!
  6926. >Sitting back up after that slap, you give yourself one more splash of water, before finally turning the taps off.
  6927. >You make do with the towel, instead of a drying spell.
  6928. >All right.
  6929. >At least you'd found some kind of pattern to the headaches.
  6930. >At first, they came around every two hours.
  6931. >But it seems to be dropping off as the days go on.
  6932. >Actually, where's the clock...?
  6933. >...
  6934. >Ah, this time it was five hours!
  6935. >It was just over four hours, before!
  6936. >So at the very least, it was dropping off fast!
  6937. >If only their intensity also dropped off, too...
  6938. >Agh, no!
  6939. >Focus!
  6940. >Retrace your steps, what were you--
  6941. >Ahh, right!
  6942. >Anonymous's untimely capture!
  6943. >The high from learning about it was very much gone for good, sadly.
  6944. >But the thought still brought a smile to your face.
  6945. >Still, you couldn't just rest on your laurels here.
  6946. >This human defied both Incognito's predictions, and almost beat you with dirty tricks back at the castle!
  6947. >Who's to say he won't find some way to weasel out of this, too?
  6948. >You need to watch him closely.
  6949. >You take the disguise of Slow Descent again, and make your way to the window.
  6950. >The room you had was on the second floor, so it was a decent enough vantage point.
  6951. >Which just so happens to have a nice view of the jailhouse.
  6952. >And would you look at that?
  6953. >The guard posting around it is significantly larger than normal.
  6954. >Funny, though.
  6955. >The royal guard from before were primarily thestrals.
  6956. >These were all unicorns.
  6957.  
  6958. >Hm...
  6959. >They seemed a lot more decorated than most of the castle guard, too.
  6960. >And you didn't recognize the crest on the front of their armour.
  6961. >Instead of the little blue star, it was a seven-pointed sun symbol.
  6962. >That's...
  6963. >That's not standard issue.
  6964. >Are they some kind of... elite force?
  6965. >If that's the case, you're thankful you don't need to fight them.
  6966. >Yet.
  6967. >You're hopeful about being able to get Anonymous thrown away in prison.
  6968. >Already, you can picture it.
  6969. >You'd sneak in through a change of the guard.
  6970. >You'd find him, chained up and defenseless.
  6971. >And then you'd finally kill him, and rid Incognito of that problem.
  6972. >But.
  6973. >That's still contingent on this going well.
  6974. >And right now, the jailhouse was too well defended.
  6975. >You're not risking your element of surprise on a far-off chance of ending him right now.
  6976. >Besides, you've got a day until the hearing, to plan how you're going to approach this.
  6977. >Maybe flesh out your 'accusation', make it more convincin--
  6978. >Wait.
  6979. >There's two guards down there, yelling at each other.
  6980. >When did this start?
  6981. >You open the window, and listen in:
  6982. >"--ny times must I repeat myself? We don't answer to the EUP structure, nor to princess Luna."
  6983. >"Damn it, Light! Can't you see how this is a stupid idea?!"
  6984. >"Your judgment is obviously compromised by you and your division's close ties to the human, Razor Wind."
  6985. >"Oh, and your judgment's any better? You fillies get some bucking visions or something, huffing each other's fumes?"
  6986. >Uh...
  6987. >Wow.
  6988. >This is more heated than you thought.
  6989.  
  6990. >The mare of the exchange was in that sun-crested armour. A white unicorn, orange striped mane, darker orange eyes.
  6991. >The stallion was clad in modestly decorated Night Guard armour. A gray thestral, light blue mane, sapphire eyes.
  6992. >And it was obvious from the emotions they radiated, that they had no love for one another.
  6993. >Competing guard divisions, perhaps? Personal rivalry?
  6994. >You're not sure.
  6995. >But, wait...
  6996. >'Close ties to the human'?
  6997. >"You worthle-- Ahem. Our division is guided by Celestia herself. If she suspects dark magic at play, who are we to question it?"
  6998. >"Oh, forget this. First you keep me out of the visiting window, now you blow my inquiries off?"
  6999. >He turns away, anger and frustration radiating strongly from him.
  7000. >"Hope you're ready to get bucking stomped at the hearing tomorrow. If there even is one."
  7001. >"Keep walking, bat!"
  7002. >"Dickhead."
  7003. >Huh.
  7004. >And here you thought Anonymous had a... colourful vocabulary.
  7005. >But that thestral sure had a mouth on him.
  7006. >Still...
  7007. >That can't be a coincidence.
  7008. >Let's check the time...
  7009. >Okay, it's only four right now.
  7010. >You've got a couple of hours.
  7011. >And this pony has really caught your eye.
  7012. >Casting your invisibility spell, you crawl out of the window, and glide to the nearest rooftop.
  7013. >You tail him from the rooftops, nopony the wiser.
  7014. >His destination seems to be...
  7015. >Twilight's castle?
  7016. >Oh, so that's his plan?
  7017. >Go over Celestia's head?
  7018. >...
  7019. >Okay, that's actually a decent plan.
  7020. >So, he wasn't as dumb as the other guards.
  7021. >All the more reason to follow him closely.
  7022.  
  7023. >The thestral, Razor Wind, reaches the door, knocking hard several times.
  7024. >What answers is...
  7025. >Ah, a baby dragon.
  7026. >That must be Spike, the one the other lings mentioned.
  7027. >"Geez, what's the hurr-- Oh, captain! What's up?"
  7028. >"Listen, there's no time. Anon's in a heap of trouble, and I can't help him out of it."
  7029. >"Wait, Anon's in trouble?!"
  7030. >"Yeah, and to spring him outta it, I need to see princess Twilight right away. Where is she?"
  7031. >"S-she's in her study. She asked not to be disturbed, though."
  7032. >"Well, she's gonna get disturbed. Lead on."
  7033. >A shaky nod is accompanied by him doing just that.
  7034. >"I understand you can send letters to the princesses, too?"
  7035. >"Y-yeah?"
  7036. >"Slow down a bit, because I need you to take one for princess Luna."
  7037. >"S-sure, let me just grab a quill..."
  7038. >Oh, you're joking.
  7039. >They're pulling all the stops out for him?
  7040. >Just how in bed with the royals is that stupid human, anyway?!
  7041. >While the dragon rushes to a nearby desk, you...
  7042. >Whoa.
  7043. >Was...
  7044. >Was that emotional rift always there?
  7045. >Not here, but...
  7046. >Somewhere in the upper floors.
  7047. >While those two are preoccupied with dictating a letter, you fly up the stairs to investigate.
  7048. >Okay...
  7049. >Whatever it is, it's coming from behind those doors.
  7050. >Gah, why'd they have to be so big?
  7051. >Your silence spell can't cover the whole thing!
  7052. >Okay, think.
  7053. >Is there window access?
  7054. >You check around for any presences behind a nearby, much smaller door.
  7055. >Nothing, good.
  7056. >You silently open it, revealing an empty room.
  7057. >With a nicely sized window.
  7058. >Perfect.
  7059. >Carefully prying it open, you fly outside.
  7060.  
  7061. >Oh, there's not just a window, but a whole porch!
  7062. >At least this was going well!
  7063. >Setting down, you--
  7064. >Oh, the window's already open!
  7065. >Behind it, you can see...
  7066. >Huh.
  7067. >That's Generosity, sitting next to Twilight Sparkle.
  7068. >It's only now, that you notice the massive emotional rift.
  7069. >It's coming from said princess.
  7070. >Geez...
  7071. >You knew alicorns were powerful, but why are her emotions particularly powerful now?
  7072. >She wasn't doing this back at the castle!
  7073. >And they were confused. Conflicted. Sad. Happy. And...
  7074. >Wait...
  7075. >Lovestruck?
  7076. >The taste of alicorn love hits you like a train when you notice it.
  7077. >S-so good...
  7078. >No!
  7079. >D-damn it, not now!
  7080. >You can't risk your mission, just for some love!
  7081. >O-oh gosh, that explains a lot!
  7082. >Fighting the urge to feed, you sneak behind a couch to listen in:
  7083. >"--arling, there's no shame in it. You've known each other for years."
  7084. >"It's just... This whole thing, the attack. It's changed him."
  7085. >"Yes, I've noticed it too. He seems a lot more... serious than before."
  7086. >"It's more than that. I've never seen him so... dedicated before. So determined.
  7087. >"And through it all, he still manages to be a big, foul-mouthed goof."
  7088. >You have to stifle a whimper at the wave of love that hits you.
  7089. >"He even told me that he's doing this for us. To keep us safe."
  7090. >"Ooh, a fledgling hero type? Just like in the minotaur sonnets!"
  7091. >"Yeah..."
  7092. >You never thought you'd be glad to feel love being diminished, and replaced with sadness.
  7093. >"Complete with the... competing suitor."
  7094. >"Oh, darling, is that what this is all about?"
  7095.  
  7096. >She hangs her head, the sadness and conflict rising up above the other emotions.
  7097. >Right as Generosity pulls her into an embrace, somepony knocks on the door.
  7098. >Oh, damn it!
  7099. >They finished that letter already?!
  7100. >The two mares flinch a bit at the sudden intrusion, and frustration colours both of their feelings.
  7101. >The princess opens the door with her magic, obviously preparing for a tirade.
  7102. >She never gets the chance, as the door is pushed open the rest of the way by that thestral.
  7103. >His presence surprises both of them.
  7104. >"S-sergeant? Wh-what are you doing here?"
  7105. >"Sorry about the intrusion, princess, but we've got an emergency on our hooves here."
  7106. >"What? What happened?"
  7107. >"Celestia's shown up in town, with a squad of Sol Invictus guards. They arrested Anon half an hour ago."
  7108. >Now you have to bite back a yelp, as the princess's shock also hits you.
  7109. >"WHAT?!"
  7110. >"She did what?! On what charge?!"
  7111. >"Get this: practicing dark magic, of all things."
  7112. >"WHY WOULD-- No, he wouldn't do something like that!"
  7113. >"I know, I've been watching him work. Totally dark magic free."
  7114. >"W-why, then?!"
  7115. >"Look, I don't know why she came after him like that, out of the blue.
  7116. >"But she relieved me of my mission to guard him, and none of her guards are listening to me.
  7117. >"Hay, they wouldn't even let me see him, after they locked him up at the jailhouse!"
  7118. >Gaaah!
  7119. >These stupid alicorns, and their strong emotions!
  7120. >She's flipped to anger and determination at breakneck pace.
  7121. >"Rarity, get the girls! Sergeant, let's pay the jailhouse a visit!"
  7122. >"Yes, ma'am!"
  7123. <...
  7124.  
  7125. "So, like, me, Unknown, and Nameless were stumbling around like retards, with these half-empty bottles of tequila in our hands, right?
  7126. "Well, except for Unknown. Dude's a total weeb, and only drinks the most nippon of sake, you see.
  7127. "But yeah, we were just fumblefucking through the street, drunk off our asses, when we come across this fuckin' Chinese festival."
  7128. >You're pretty sure you're the only one snickering right now.
  7129. "So... So Nameless just strolls up to the... dragon costume guy, and he-- pffft... H-he says, 'have a drink', and just..."
  7130. >God, you can't recall this with a straight face.
  7131. "And just... chucks the bottle right at the head, and... Haah, oh God, the dude just drops!"
  7132. >This calls for a good hold on your gut.
  7133. >Because fucking hell, that never got old.
  7134. >After your minor case of losing your shit, you take stock of your merry band of captors again.
  7135. >God, tough crowd.
  7136. >Five of eight are still stone-faced, the rest are grinning like idiots.
  7137. "Hooo, so yeah. That's how I got the drunk tank, for the third time. Pretty sure ol' Nameless got the slammer, though. Poor dude."
  7138. >One of them snickers.
  7139. >The stoniest of stone-faced guards, some green pony, gives the guy a death glare.
  7140. >And his smile just evaporates right off his face.
  7141. >You swear, greeny there growled a bit.
  7142. "So what's your problem?"
  7143. >He doesn't respond, but he's clearly more than a little bit mad.
  7144. "Geez, you sure take 'captain of the fun police' seriously, at least."
  7145. >Ahh, now he's growling proper.
  7146. "What's with you and my drunk stories, anyway? Did a drunk story kill your--"
  7147.  
  7148. >SLAM
  7149. >Well, that green armoured hoof against the bars stopped that line.
  7150. >And he's giving you the death glare, to boot.
  7151. >...
  7152. "You know, that worked a lot better when Incognito did it."
  7153. >growling_intensifies.m3u
  7154. "Actually, come to think of it, where were you fucks when he attacked the castle, anyway?"
  7155. >And now he's unlocking the cell door, presumably to fuck you up.
  7156. >Well, until an orange magic aura pulled his whole body away from the door.
  7157. >"Stow it, soldier."
  7158. >Oh, great.
  7159. >That voice, you recognize.
  7160. >And the pony marching down matches the voice.
  7161. >It's that fucking gestapo head pony, this time in guard armour.
  7162. >"I don't appreciate you antagonizing my soldiers, mister Anonymous."
  7163. "Hey, I'm trying to get 'em to smile. But mister Grinch here didn't approve."
  7164. >"Getting them to laugh? Is this some kind of game to you?"
  7165. "Gotta find the joy in whatever 'ya can."
  7166. >"Well, at least that attitude will serve you well, when you're rotting in the crystal caves."
  7167. "If."
  7168. >"Excuse me?"
  7169. "If I start rotting in the caves."
  7170. >Oh yes, her +2 haughty chuckle of condescension.
  7171. >"Oh, dear. You think there's some way out of this for you?"
  7172. "Babe, I'm sure of it."
  7173. >"I'm sure your attempts to escape will be genuinely entertaining."
  7174. "Now, see, you're half right. It'll definitely be entertaining, but I'm not doing any escaping."
  7175. >Before she can respond, you hear some shouting going on upstairs.
  7176. >One of her posse comes down the stairs.
  7177. >"Ma'am, the... the princess of friendship is demanding to see the prisoner!"
  7178. "You know, I think my gut qualifies as a prophet by now, or something."
  7179.  
  7180. >She turns from the impromptu messenger to fix you a death glare of her own.
  7181. "Oh, what are you complaining about? It's not like you folks don't operate off pure nepotism, anyways."
  7182. >Even on ponies you don't like, the scrunch is still adorable as hell.
  7183. >"This isn't over."
  7184. "Funny, I was thinking the same thing."
  7185. >The shouting gets closer, and has rustling added to it.
  7186. >Putting on her own stone-face, she trots upstairs to greet it.
  7187. >"Princess Twilight. You do not have the authority to--"
  7188. >"OUT OF MY WAY!"
  7189. >Large flashes of magic accompanied her...
  7190. >Well...
  7191. >Shit.
  7192. >You've never heard her yell like that before.
  7193. >It was... actually kinda frightening.
  7194. >Then, you see a certain purple pony storm down the stairs.
  7195. >And whoa-ly o'fuck.
  7196. >Her pissed expression was made all the more scary, with the crackling horn.
  7197. >Some of the guards tried to get in her way.
  7198. >Operative word being 'tried'.
  7199. >Since they were all just levitated up into the air, and almost-thrown up the stairwell.
  7200. >It's at that point that your eyes lock.
  7201. >Instantly, you notice her expression lighten up.
  7202. >"Anon!"
  7203. >Before you can even respond, she teleports into your cell, and tackles you before the flash had even dissipated.
  7204. "H-hey there, Twilight..."
  7205. >Before you can wrap your arms around her, she pulls back, and raises her forele--
  7206. >SMACK
  7207. "Yeow!"
  7208. >The fuck?!
  7209. >She just smacked you upside the head!
  7210. >Left hand now rubbing the hoof-shaped mark on your cheek, you notice her expression.
  7211. >It's changed again, only this time to...
  7212. >Uh...
  7213. >You don't really know what to describe it as.
  7214. >Happy and angry? Grateful and hateful?
  7215.  
  7216. >Fuck, you're just confused now.
  7217. >And now, she goes right back to hugging yo--
  7218. >thump
  7219. >Aaaand why is she punching your chest, too?!
  7220. >Granted, it doesn't really hurt that much.
  7221. >But still, what's going on--
  7222. >...
  7223. >Is she...
  7224. >Crying?
  7225. >Oh...
  7226. >That...
  7227. >Shit.
  7228. >It was at this moment that Anon realized, he done fucked up.
  7229. "Guess... ah, shit. Guess I deserved that one, huh?"
  7230. >You don't get a response.
  7231. >You weren't really expecting one.
  7232. >A minute of this passes, before you start bringing your free hand around, to scratch--
  7233. >"You said I wouldn't need to pick sides."
  7234. >And that hand freezes in mid-air.
  7235. "I did."
  7236. >A sniffle.
  7237. "Guess... guess I was wrong, huh?"
  7238. >Your hand flops back to your side.
  7239. "Boy, I'm just full of bad ideas, aren't I?"
  7240. >That line is punctuated by another hoof-shaped sock in the gut.
  7241. >You know what, not even gonna complain.
  7242. >And so there you sit, feeling like an absolute dick, getting--
  7243. >"WHAT HAVE YOU MISCREANTS DONE WITH SIR ANONYMOUS?!"
  7244. >Aaaaand the pair of you just jumped badly at that loud announcement.
  7245. >You've never actually heard Luna's 'Royal Canterlot Voice' before.
  7246. >It's quite something, that's for sure.
  7247. >...
  7248. >Wait.
  7249. >Luna's here, too?
  7250. >And she's looking for you?
  7251. >When did she show up?
  7252. >A million thoughts a second fly through your head.
  7253. >And through it all, Twilight still holds on to you.
  7254. >You can't tell yet whether it's from fear, or something else.
  7255. >Loud hoofsteps can be heard above, until finally some armoured hooves come down the stairs.
  7256. >They belonged to a Night Guard you didn't recognize.
  7257.  
  7258. >Following the guard was none other than Luna herself.
  7259. >To say she looked pissed, would be...
  7260. >Okay, not an understatement, but definitely a Captain Obvious moment.
  7261. >The moment her gaze lands on the pair of you, she lightens right up.
  7262. >And Twilight's hold tightens.
  7263. >"Anonymous! You are unharmed!"
  7264. "Y-yeah, in body, anyways. Pride, not so much."
  7265. >Her expression changes to serious-business mode.
  7266. >"Captain Razor Wind told me everything in a letter. I left the castle as soon as I could.
  7267. >"Anonymous, have you indeed been practicing the dark arts?"
  7268. >That question was asked with decidedly more scare-factor than you would have liked.
  7269. "N-no! Hell, no!"
  7270. >"Then why was my sister so quick to incarcerate you?"
  7271. "Look, I don't know. She reacted badly to my way of doing magic. Said it was dark magic, even though it's not."
  7272. >Confusion overtakes the serious look on her face.
  7273. >"Do you mean, by chance, the method you demonstrated to me after your encounter with the changeling queen?"
  7274. "Yeah, that one. She even named the invisible things outside my house. Name dropped my spellbook's authors, too."
  7275. >You feel Twilight let go just enough to poke her head up.
  7276. >She looks confused, too.
  7277. >"Y-your book's authors? What authors?"
  7278. >A golden flash to Luna's left follows that line.
  7279. >Out popped, to nobody's surprise, Celestia herself.
  7280. >Except she was also accompanied by four of those Invictus guards.
  7281. >The whole group of five had their horns aglow, and were dropped into a combat stance.
  7282. >Celestia was the first to break it, another confused and worried look on her face.
  7283.  
  7284. >"SISTER!"
  7285. >And Luna was the first to break the silence.
  7286. >Very, very loudly.
  7287. >"What is the meaning of this?!"
  7288. >To Celestia's credit, she recovers quickly, and responds on a dime:
  7289. >"I have placed Anonymous under arrest, Luna, for performing the blackest of magic."
  7290. >The way she said that, how serious it was...
  7291. >It probably would have convinced all parties, if they didn't know what you were doing ahead of time.
  7292. >"And just what, precisely, makes his particular magic evil, sister?!"
  7293. >A fact that totally catches Celestia off guard, from the looks of it.
  7294. >"You-- You mean you have seen it?"
  7295. >"Yes! He gave me and Twilight a demonstration of his tools, during his recovery after the battle with Chrysalis!"
  7296. >"And you allowed him to keep them?!"
  7297. >"I fail to see what harm there is in having him keep his constructs, during these dangerous times!
  7298. >"Particularly when they are true neutral presences, devoid of any dark magic!"
  7299. >You and Twilight just kind of... stare at the exchange.
  7300. >Celestia's expression gains a bit of... calm and confusion, in equal measure.
  7301. >"True neutral?"
  7302. >"Of course! Myself and Twilight verified it ourselves!
  7303. >"And I am certain Anonymous would be more than happy to demonstrate for you, as well!"
  7304. >She adopts a particularly nasty sneer.
  7305. >"Provided, of course, that you and your... secretive destroyers of knowledge have not destroyed all of his work!"
  7306. >Destroyed your--
  7307. >...
  7308. >A chill runs through you.
  7309. >That's right.
  7310. >They torch forbidden knowledge.
  7311. >Oh, dear God in heaven.
  7312. >Did she really...?
  7313. >No.
  7314. >Please don't tell me they torched your place.
  7315.  
  7316. >You just stare on at Celestia's face, looking for a sign.
  7317. >Please, anything.
  7318. >Anything to at least hint at your lab not being destroyed.
  7319. >Her expression falls, along with your gut.
  7320. >"I had hoped you would not learn about that."
  7321. >"Why? What did you think my reaction would have been, Tia?!"
  7322. >Her head falls a bit.
  7323. >"It... it seems we have much to discuss."
  7324. >Her guards stand down, with a small glow from the tip of her horn.
  7325. >Luna still does not look happy.
  7326. >And looking down at Twilight, reveals her very conflicted face.
  7327. >Going back to Celestia, she's gotten a whole lot sadder.
  7328. >"We only just found a secret passage, within his cellar. I have ordered my ponies to cease their activities, for now."
  7329. >You let out the breath you only just realized you were holding.
  7330. >Holy shit.
  7331. >They were about to torch your place.
  7332. >"It was surprisingly well hidden. The craftsmareship on the passage door was better than we expected."
  7333. >"It is a start. Now, perhaps we can come to an understanding, that does not involve wanton destruction?"
  7334. >Luna didn't sound like she believed that.
  7335. >Can't say you blame her.
  7336. >"Yes. But not here."
  7337. >Before any parties could react, her horn shone brightly, and a bright yellow flash erupted outwards.
  7338. >When you could see again, she--
  7339. >Oh, for fuck's sake.
  7340. >She'd warped Twilight and Luna away with her.
  7341. >You're glad your lab is allegedly fine, but...
  7342. >What in the fuck?
  7343. >Just why is she dancing around this topic so much, anyways?
  7344. >Any why'd she think those Faber Mystico guys were evil?
  7345. >...
  7346. >Oh, and her guard were left behind for your cell.
  7347. >Great.
  7348. <...
  7349.  
  7350. >Graaaaaah!
  7351. >Can't your missions go well, just for bucking ONCE?!
  7352. >It's bad enough that princess Twilight all but freed Anonymous!
  7353. >But princess Luna's response time was far faster than you expected it to be!
  7354. >Why can't anything involving Anonymous ever be simple?!
  7355. >Why does he have to ruin almost every plan you come up with?!
  7356. >WHY?!
  7357. >MOTHERB--
  7358. >SLAP
  7359. >No.
  7360. >Calm.
  7361. >Breathe, Athalia.
  7362. >Breathe.
  7363. >This...
  7364. >This is still salvageable.
  7365. >So you can't sneak into the prison and kill him like you wanted to.
  7366. >Fine.
  7367. >It's fine.
  7368. >There's other ways to do this.
  7369. >...
  7370. >Oh, who are you kidding?!
  7371. >They've probably freed him by now, the bucking--
  7372. >Whatever thought you had was cut off by a powerful teleport signature.
  7373. >Whoa.
  7374. >That came from the jailhouse.
  7375. >And...
  7376. >And it went to a small household, a few blocks from here.
  7377. >The emotional signatures of three particular ponies confirmed it.
  7378. >They'd traveled there!
  7379. >But...
  7380. >But why?
  7381. >...
  7382. >A smile begins to develop.
  7383. >They're all in the same place.
  7384. >No doubt arguing with each other, if their agitated states are anything to go by.
  7385. >Maybe...
  7386. >Maybe you could salvage this.
  7387. >Yeah.
  7388. >Maybe you've been approaching this wrong.
  7389. >Don't plan for Anonymous.
  7390. >Plan for his friends and acquaintances.
  7391. >Rob him of his advantages.
  7392. >Don't let him hide behind them.
  7393. >Ohh, yes...
  7394. >This could work brilliantly!
  7395. >Recasting your invisibility, you glide from the rooftop to the very chaotic jailhouse.
  7396. >You just need a few things from the jailhouse.
  7397. >They shouldn't notice you slipping in to get them.
  7398. >You had to really fight, to restrain the urge to laugh.
  7399.  
  7400. @@@@@@@@
  7401.  
  7402. >The guards were really thrown into disarray by all of this.
  7403. >Those strange elite ones, having a staring contest with the Night Guard?
  7404. >It made it far easier to slip into the jailhouse.
  7405. >The back door was left undefended, for buck's sake!
  7406. >It's supposed to be standard practice to keep all entrances and exits of jails guarded!
  7407. >It really makes you wonder just how those 'elite' guards got those decorations to begin with.
  7408. >Well.
  7409. >It doesn't really matter.
  7410. >You got in without raising any suspicion.
  7411. >Now...
  7412. >Where's the prison-wear depository...?
  7413. >...
  7414. >The guards had started to argue, by the time you left through the back door.
  7415. >Only now, you left with a pair of full, jingling saddlebags.
  7416. >It's really too bad, that they didn't have the totally collapsible restraints.
  7417. >But at least the business ends could be ratcheted to the ponies, and were key-locked!
  7418. >Should make removing them a very difficult prospect.
  7419. >All right.
  7420. >Now, to make your way to that house.
  7421. >And from the emotional disturbances, they were still in the middle of arguing.
  7422. >Hm...
  7423. >Maybe you could glean some information from them, while you're at this?
  7424. >Yeah.
  7425. >That could work.
  7426. >It would give you a much bigger window for the spell, too.
  7427. >But you'd need to be fast, and pay close attention.
  7428. >You decide to take to the rooftops again, just to avoid anything interrupting you on the ground.
  7429. >While you were en route, you also test the magical connection to the Homunculi.
  7430. >Ah, good.
  7431. >They were still in the woods, waiting for a command.
  7432. >Provided this went well, they'd get their command soon.
  7433.  
  7434. >Before long, you arrive at the home in question.
  7435. >The rifts were all underneath of it, likely a basement.
  7436. >Scanning through the house reveals another pair of pony presences.
  7437. >Great.
  7438. >Peering through the window shows the ponies in question:
  7439. >Some green unicorn with yellow eyes, and a lyre cutie mark.
  7440. >The other was an earth pony, wi--
  7441. >Ohh, that's why they chose this place!
  7442. >The overly cautious feelings coming from that pony were a dead giveaway for some kind of agent!
  7443. >Well, it shouldn't matter, either way.
  7444. >You circle around to another window, and silently open it, crawling into the house proper.
  7445. >Making sure your hoofsteps were magically silenced, you search for any stairs leading down.
  7446. >...
  7447. >Well, you didn't find any stairs.
  7448. >But after some mental tricks on the resident unicorn, you do find that the downstairs is accessed via a one-pony elevator, hidden in the broom closet.
  7449. >So here you are, riding down said elevator.
  7450. >Why was it always the closets, anyways?
  7451. >The quiet clanging of metal signals the elevator coming to a stop, followed by the door opening.
  7452. >Hm...
  7453. >This almost looks like some kind of command center.
  7454. >Obviously meant for emergencies.
  7455. >The insignias present are the same as those guards that Celestia brought along.
  7456. >No, focus!
  7457. >The princesses!
  7458. >They're hiding out in some kind of large meeting room up ahead.
  7459. >There's no guards here that you can sense.
  7460. >They must really not have expected somepony to come down here.
  7461. >Well, at least you knew that your casting wouldn't be interrupted anytime soon.
  7462.  
  7463. >The door wasn't soundproofed, so you heard them speaking seconds before you even started peering through the keyhole.
  7464. >"--not believe that for one second! 'Poisoning our minds'?! You simply wanted him kept in the dark!"
  7465. >"Please, I realize how this must sound, but it is the--"
  7466. >"Enough! I grow weary of this madness! If you have nothing else to add, then we are finished here!"
  7467. >Oh, damn it!
  7468. >You're too late--
  7469. >"Wait!"
  7470. >Yes, wait!
  7471. >Celestia is looking pretty desperate, a look borne out by her conflicting emotions.
  7472. >"This... this course of action, it hasn't been for the reasons you think!"
  7473. >"Hasn't it?"
  7474. >"You wanted to know why my diplomatic mission took so long? Well, this is the reason why!"
  7475. >"What do the yaks have to do with any of this?!"
  7476. >"Nothing! I... I encountered the reindeer, Luna! They were there on a similar mission!"
  7477. >Luna's confused face and emotions are matching your own.
  7478. >The reindeer?
  7479. >What were they doing outside of the north pole?
  7480. >Oh, darn!
  7481. >You forgot to prep the spell!
  7482. >Damn it, focus!
  7483. >You pour some magic into your horn, finally preparing the spell.
  7484. >They don't seem to have noticed.
  7485. >"The reindeer? Is this truly what you are resorting to, now? A people not seen outside their homelands in decades?"
  7486. >"I know how this must sound, but..."
  7487. >A flash of her magic accompanies a scroll materializing out of thin air.
  7488. >"Perhaps this will convince you."
  7489. >Luna takes the scroll, with no shortage of disbelief and skepticism.
  7490. >As she reads through it, you can sense those feelings melt away, replaced by anger and... acceptance?
  7491.  
  7492. >Whatever was in that scroll, seems to have convinced her.
  7493. >And given you enough time to charge the sensory capture stage of the spell.
  7494. >You envelop the trio of ponies with the undetectable field, finishing right as Luna begins to speak again:
  7495. >"Even after all this time, seer Blitzen still prefers that dark humour of his..."
  7496. >"Yes... as I discovered during our exchanges."
  7497. >"Very well, so you encountered the reindeer during your stay with the yaks. How, precisely, does that correlate to imprisoning Anonymous?"
  7498. >The pang of love that leaves her after mentioning his name doesn't escape your notice.
  7499. >"He... he was instructed to meet me, to warn me about a new threat to ponykind.
  7500. >"But this was not like the other threats to our little ponies. This one was akin to that of Tirek's return; a prophecy being invoked."
  7501. >"Prophecy?"
  7502. >"Yes. Invoked thousands of years prior by an ancient foe, and set into motion only recently."
  7503. >O-oh boy, this spell was a lot harder with three ponies to account for!
  7504. >You're approaching your limit for this stage already!
  7505. >Twilight Sparkle took the opportunity to interject, herself:
  7506. >"Wait. You think Anon has something to do with this threat?"
  7507. >"I do. The wording of the prophecy was too specific to be a coincidence."
  7508. >Luna scoffed at this.
  7509. >"Ridiculous! He is trying to help us, not destroy us!"
  7510. >"He uncovered the still-unknown magic of this same ancient foe, and learned it in such a short time.
  7511. >"I think, given these circumstances, that is enough for at least some suspicion!"
  7512.  
  7513. >"And yet, his methods create truly neutral constructs! Again, how is that remotely enough to cast him as an enemy?!
  7514. >"And better yet, sister, why do I have no recollection of any such ancient foes?"
  7515. >D-damn it...!
  7516. >You can't take anymore!
  7517. >You have to move to the next stage!
  7518. >Pushing the collection spell into backchanneling, you pour a large amount of magic into the functional portion of the spell itself.
  7519. >By the time that Twilight Sparkle notices the power channeling, it was too late.
  7520. >A flash of mixed green and eggplant magic envelops their heads for a brief moment, the spell's energy compressing into their heads as it fires off.
  7521. >The sudden draw of mana and love took a lot out of you, but you somehow manage to keep your breath held.
  7522. >You can't give anything away.
  7523. >Not if this didn't work!
  7524. >Across all three princesses, you noticed a dazed look in their eyes, and muted emotions.
  7525. >Did...
  7526. >Did it really...?
  7527. >"B... Blitzen... still prefers... dark humour..."
  7528. >"As I... discovered..."
  7529. >"Reindeer... during stay... How does... Relate to... Anonymous..."
  7530. >No way.
  7531. >"Instructed... meet me... warn about... threat..."
  7532. >It worked.
  7533. >"Unlike... other threats... Tirek... prophecy..."
  7534. >Holy horseshit, IT WORKED!
  7535. >Incognito's 'Cognitive Loop' spell worked!
  7536. >The moment you release your breath, it becomes a few jumps for joy.
  7537. >Finally!
  7538. >Finally, something goes your way!
  7539. >You never should have doubted his abilities!
  7540. >Of course somehuman who beat the princesses, would know a spell able to manipulate them!
  7541. >Yes yes YES!
  7542.  
  7543. >Wait, no!
  7544. >Calm down!
  7545. >Focus!
  7546. >This...
  7547. >This doesn't last forever!
  7548. >They'll be stuck repeating whatever was 'collected' during the first phase, but they'll think their way out of the loop soon!
  7549. >You need to act fast!
  7550. >Unconcerned with noise, you rush through the doorway.
  7551. >As expected, they don't notice you, too busy repeating their lines about suspecting Anonymous.
  7552. >As quick as you can, you drop the saddlebags, pulling free the restraints you 'borrowed' from the jailhouse.
  7553. >A set of six ratcheted and keylocked horn-rings, three similarly ratcheted and keylocked wing restraints, and three sets of hoof restraints, same features.
  7554. >You probably could have just used one set of rings, but considering how powerful alicorns are, you're not taking any chances.
  7555. >The rings go on first, applied with a special wrench you remembered to take.
  7556. >Two rings per alicorn.
  7557. >The hooves were next.
  7558. >Gah, you wish you could just float these on!
  7559. >But they were all made of iron, meaning you had to place them on by hoof and mouth.
  7560. >You can feel the princesses begin to stir, by the time the third set clicks into place.
  7561. >All right, you're doing fine.
  7562. >You still have time!
  7563. >The wing restraints were applied easily enough, considering their wings were already retracted.
  7564. >You finish restraining their wings the quickest, leaving enough time for one more 'loop' of their minds.
  7565. >And enough time to dart out of the room the same way, taking the keys and special wrench with you.
  7566. >They won't even know who did this, by the time they wake up!
  7567. >Oh, but they'll know soon enough.
  7568.  
  7569. >Although.
  7570. >They weren't the only ponies you had to concern yourself with.
  7571. >The other Elements of Harmony could still buck this whole thing up.
  7572. >But they were significantly weaker than the princesses, and could be restrained easily enough with just your normal resin.
  7573. >Yeah...
  7574. >Yeah, it's not smart to gamble on their intervention.
  7575. >Even given the strength that Incognito gave the Homunculi, they were still forbidden from harming them.
  7576. >Meaning they couldn't fight back against their attacks.
  7577. >Best to take them out of the picture, too.
  7578. >Your smile gets even bigger, when you notice the princesses finally break the trance.
  7579. >As much as you'd love to hear their confusion and panic, you've wasted enough time today.
  7580. >They're yelling for help by the time you climb back into the elevator.
  7581. >...
  7582. "Girls! Over here!"
  7583. >The five mares in question, gathered in front of the jailhouse, all turn to you, 'Twilight Sparkle'.
  7584. >It's enough to get them to stop arguing with Celestia's guards, and trot over to you.
  7585. >Conveniently, you're far enough away to make their trek take them just out of earshot of the guards.
  7586. >"Darling! What happened?"
  7587. "Listen, they moved Anon away to a secret prison, hidden in town!"
  7588. >"They what?!"
  7589. "I don't know what's gotten into Celestia, but she still won't let him go!"
  7590. >Loyalty decides to pipe up, no shortage of ire in her voice or emotions.
  7591. >"Oh, you're kidding! Where is she, Twilight?!"
  7592. "She's with Anon right now, over this way!"
  7593. >That's your cue to lead them towards the house, and sure enough, they're following.
  7594.  
  7595. >Upon your arrival, Honesty points this home out as belonging to 'Lyra' and 'Bon-Bon'.
  7596. >Ah, so that's what their names are.
  7597. >Well, they won't be in your way, in either case.
  7598. >You made sure to knock them out and hide them in the bedroom, first.
  7599. >They're surprised by the elevator's presence, but they don't hesitate to follow you down it.
  7600. >Only one pony at a time could travel down this elevator.
  7601. >Which was perfect for this next step.
  7602. >Exiting first, you move to the side of the door, just out of the door's sight radius.
  7603. >You keep a charge of magic in your horn for a stun spell.
  7604. >The second the first Element pokes their head out of the door, they get blasted with the stun spell.
  7605. >They have no chance.
  7606. >...
  7607. >Heh.
  7608. >Hehehe.
  7609. >Haaahahahahahaa!
  7610. >The laughter you held in before, was now coming out in full force.
  7611. >Forget framing Anonymous, you never thought THIS would be so easy!
  7612. >First capturing the princesses, and now the Elements, all within an hour?!
  7613. >No wonder Incognito defeated the princesses in one day!
  7614. >If you'd known they were this trusting, this incompetent, you would have gone after them a long time ago!
  7615. >How did Chrysalis ever lose Canterlot, much less all the princesses and Elements, in the first place?!
  7616. >After everything Incognito trained you for, they all just seemed so...
  7617. >Stupid!
  7618. >And unlike Chrysalis, you weren't going to make the same mistake she always did.
  7619. >She always gloated when victory was uncertain.
  7620. >But now?
  7621. >It was absolutely certain.
  7622. >Anonymous couldn't hide behind his precious friends and national leaders.
  7623. >He had no chance.
  7624.  
  7625. >The princesses were still yelling for help, by the time you opened the door to the meeting room.
  7626. >You, still in Twilight Sparkle's form, were floating five unconscious and resin-bound ponies behind you.
  7627. >Even if you wanted to, you couldn't wipe the smile off your face.
  7628. >A smile that only grew, when you saw the trio of princesses.
  7629. >All still bound, and still in roughly the same spots.
  7630. >Their yelling came to a dead stop, replaced instead with expressions of shock.
  7631. >Even muted by the horn rings, their emotions were sweet music to your senses.
  7632. >While they looked on, you just floated the Elements into the far corner of the room.
  7633. >Luna was the first to speak up, anger radiating like a tidal wave from her.
  7634. >"Wretched imposter! What have you done to them?!"
  7635. >A sideways smile is what she gets.
  7636. "Oh, nothing fatal, don't you worry."
  7637. >Sweet foremothers, you're really about to talk down to royalty!
  7638. >Nothing compares to this feeling!
  7639. >"Release them now, vile dastard!"
  7640. >You have no idea what 'dastard' is supposed to mean.
  7641. >But you don't appreciate it either way.
  7642. >So you begin walking up to her, while she runs her mouth.
  7643. >"Your despicable master wants us, not the--"
  7644. >SMACK
  7645. >The gasp from Twilight Sparkle only made the backhoof across Luna's face all the sweeter.
  7646. >The shock on said princess's face completed it.
  7647. "If Lord Matthias wanted something from you, he would have obtained it when he all but destroyed you at Canterlot."
  7648. >Wow, when could you hit that hard?
  7649. >The red mark on her cheek was huge!
  7650. >And when did you knock her crown off?
  7651.  
  7652. >Well.
  7653. >You're certainly not going to complain about additional strength.
  7654. "I suppose he was right, once again. Royals always love thinking they're the center of the world."
  7655. >By the time she starts growling, you'd turned away to walk up to Celestia.
  7656. >That icy glare is a lot less effective, when she's that helpless.
  7657. >Besides, Incognito's glaring was far more frightening, even when not directed at you.
  7658. "You're all supposed to be the princesses of Equestria. The most powerful ponies in the world! And then there's the Elements of Harmony!
  7659. "I'm beginning to see why my Lord had such an easy time, defeating you all at the height of your power.
  7660. "Here you all are, captured by and at the mercy of a single changeling. And I didn't even bring an army with me!
  7661. "How do you even keep this nation together, without devolving back into feudal caveponies?"
  7662. >It was an honest question.
  7663. >Given how easy this has all been, you're absolutely shocked they manage a kingdom like this!
  7664. >Her face, meanwhile, hasn't moved an inch, but her feelings of anger are enough for you.
  7665. >Your next face-to-face is with your current lookalike, the princess of 'Friendship' herself.
  7666. "I guess the answer's obvious, really. Everypony else who competes is even dumber than you all are.
  7667. "You fought my former queen, after all. It takes a special kind of idiocy, to lose a whole conquered city thanks to needless gloating.
  7668. "How sad for you, then, that my Lord is far from stupid. He knows exactly what he is doing, and his plans for the world are doubtless better than what any of you have."
  7669.  
  7670. >Oh, she does have more facial expressions than shocked.
  7671. >Now she's managing indignant and angry.
  7672. >Finally, you turn your back to the bunch of them, walking a few hooves away from them.
  7673. "Kingdoms without kings, unconditional 'friendship' for all, and of course, an unwillingness to take up arms?
  7674. "When Lord Matthias puts it like that, it's no surprise where your collective incompetence comes from."
  7675. >Twilight, of all ponies, decides to speak up:
  7676. >"If you're not here for us, what are you here for? To prove a point?"
  7677. "You think I would come up here, just to prove a point? How full of myself do you think I am?"
  7678. >"Then why?! Who the hay are you, anywa--"
  7679. >"You."
  7680. >Celestia's interjection got everypony's attention, yours included.
  7681. >"You're the changeling who defeated my guards, en route to Appleoosa."
  7682. >Luna joined the conversation, more outwardly angry than Celestia's more low-key anger.
  7683. >"You? The one who killed several? The one who devoured their very souls?!"
  7684. >Yeah, thanks.
  7685. >You didn't need to be reminded of that.
  7686. >Twilight's horror was present, as well.
  7687. "Well, at least some of you were paying attention."
  7688. >Geez, how long have you been in this disguise, anyways?
  7689. >Too long, is the answer.
  7690. >Just for some added flair, you turn around to face them, as said disguise finally begins to drop.
  7691. >You know, you thought you'd be a lot more... self-conscious about your current physical changes.
  7692. >But this, along with the upped love intake, just felt so... right.
  7693. >Your captive audience reacts with varying degrees of surprise, at the big reveal.
  7694. >None moreso than Luna, however.
  7695.  
  7696. "I sure look different than from back at Chrysalis's vault, huh? Oh, but I guess I'm overdue for an introduction, aren't I?
  7697. "I am Incognito's right hoof, Athalia."
  7698. >You don't fight the urge to flourish a little with that proclamation.
  7699. "And I'm not here for any of you. Honestly, you were just happy coincidences in the way of my real mission."
  7700. >Your gaze goes over to Luna and Twilight for this line.
  7701. >You don't want to miss their reactions.
  7702. "No, I'm here to find your precious resident human, Anonymous."
  7703. >There's the powerful flashes of realization, fear, and more importantly, love.
  7704. "Well, that's one part of it. After all, you need to find your target, in order to kill them."
  7705. >The flashes of fear and outrage almost take you aback, at their intensity.
  7706. >Their love really does amplify them more than you thought.
  7707. >"No!"
  7708. >"VILE INSECT! YOU SHALL NOT HARM HIM!"
  7709. >Oh, yeah.
  7710. >That was worth building up for.
  7711. "You know, it was supposed to be a lot simpler than this. I was going to find him alone at his house, wait for him to sleep, and rip his throat open."
  7712. >Twilight joined Luna in her struggling against the restraints, terror finally taken over by angry determination.
  7713. >You pretend to ignore them, instead fixing Celestia with a coy smile.
  7714. "Well, until you showed up. You made things a lot more complicated, but by gosh, you sure made them a lot more thrilling!
  7715. "I wonder, actually, if imprisoning him was always your goal, without the need to goad you into doing it?"
  7716. >She's confused for a moment, while the other two only pause their struggles for a beat.
  7717.  
  7718. >So you decide to refresh her memory, by shifting into Slow Descent, complete with tearful recount:
  7719. "P-princess, I saw it! Large, dark rods, with dark magic pouring from it! H-he's evil! He has to be! Oh, sun above, please, do something!"
  7720. >And you drop it just as quick, a smirk across your face.
  7721. "Actually, that was my plan at first: having you lock him away, sneaking in through the guard rotations, and hanging him from the ceiling!"
  7722. >And just like that, the struggles resume.
  7723. >Right as you turn back to the other two.
  7724. "Neither me or Lord Matthias believed that Anonymous had the ability to use magic. But now, that hardly matters, does it?
  7725. "Thanks to your fellow princess, and her bad reaction to that little fact, your precious Anonymous now sits in prison, away from his weapons."
  7726. >The smirk grows bigger with their realization.
  7727. "And unlike before, he did not send me alone this time. At my beck and call, are his creations. Vicious, unstoppable killing machines."
  7728. >Your horn lights up, testing the connection to the Homunculi.
  7729. "My Lord wants the princesses and the Elements unharmed. So they are forbidden from harming any of you.
  7730. "But anypony and everypony else is fair game.
  7731. "And now that you're all safely kept here, so he cannot hide under your tails?"
  7732. >Three of the creatures receive your orders, and begin rushing towards the jailhouse.
  7733. >The other two make their way to this house, to link up with you.
  7734. >"STOP THIS!"
  7735. >"Please, no!"
  7736. >Your smile grows at their pleading.
  7737. "He'll never defy my Lord's will, ever again!"
  7738. >And just like that, you break into full laughter.
  7739. <...
  7740.  
  7741. @@@@@@@@
  7742.  
  7743. >"Huh, when you put it like that, it is kinda weird..."
  7744. "Right? Like, screwing someone has obvious social problems, but you fellas don't bat an eye at, well, rearing back and bucking things.
  7745. "So, really, it oughta be 'rutting', not 'bucking', right? I mean, it only makes sense!"
  7746. >"No, I get you, buddy. But I never even thought about that before!"
  7747. "Leave it to me, to discuss the intricacies of expletives, eh?"
  7748. >At least these guards didn't seem to have a stick up their ass, laughing with you and Razor.
  7749. >Apparently, he had to do a lot of arguing to even get down here to begin with.
  7750. >These Invictus fuckers were keeping everyone but themselves out!
  7751. >A move spearheaded by none other than the head gestapo horse.
  7752. >Who, it turns out, is called Light.
  7753. >Just Light.
  7754. >No idea if it's a shortening, or the last name's left out, or some kinda secret codename, or whatever.
  7755. >Hell, you wouldn't be shocked if it was Light Yagami, at this point.
  7756. >But this bitch really hated your fucking guts.
  7757. >And after that 'argument', where you got her off Sunburst's back?
  7758. >Shit, who can blame her?
  7759. >Doesn't stop her from being wrong, though.
  7760. >Or a total cunt.
  7761. >She hasn't cracked a single smile, this whole time.
  7762. >The toughest nut of the bunch.
  7763. >"Shit, how come nopony else has come up with that, before?"
  7764. >Oh right, Razor.
  7765. "Couldn't tell you, man."
  7766. >"But it just seems like the most obvious thing in the world! Seriously, why am I only now just thinking about this?"
  7767. "Well, isn't it obvious? You're not as versed in the school of sailor mouth syndrome, as I am."
  7768.  
  7769. >"You know what, I'm not even gonna argue that one with you. Who knows what kinda stuff they say on your planet?"
  7770. "It's a doozy, that's for sure."
  7771. >Well, at least this part was nice.
  7772. >Your conversations with spirit animal horse are always nice.
  7773. >If only twat horse wasn't cramping your collective style.
  7774. >"Now that you've discussed perhaps the most pointless of topics, maybe you'd like to tell me where you learned how to use dark magic like that?"
  7775. >Like that, see?
  7776. "You know, I distinctly recall a princess argument over whether that's true or not."
  7777. >"Princess Celestia's word is more than enough for me!"
  7778. >"Yeah, well, Princess Luna and Twilight's word is plenty for me. That, and seeing him work for myself."
  7779. >"And you don't think your account, or that of the princesses, isn't corrupted by his dark arts?"
  7780. >The pair of you give this crazy horse a 'nigga you serious' look.
  7781. "Yes, Sherlock, you figured me out. Oh, I also breakdance over famous folk's graves, eat gryphon eggs, and turn the freakin' frogs gay, too."
  7782. >Her look just smoulders, while Razor just breaks out laughing.
  7783. "Seriously, you don't think you've overthinking this, just a tiny little bit?"
  7784. >She doesn't even respond at this point.
  7785. >Yeah, she does that.
  7786. >Give her a few minutes, and she'll reseat the stick in her small intestine.
  7787. >Well, back to Razor.
  7788. "So, did I ever tell you the story of my third drunk tank stay?"
  7789. >"Don't think I heard that one before. Is it anything like the first?"
  7790. "Better."
  7791. >"Oh sweet bucki-- er, r-rutt-- Geez, now you've messed me up!"
  7792. "Yeah, I do that a lo--"
  7793. >graaaaaaaaaaaaaaahh
  7794.  
  7795. >Everything stops.
  7796. >...
  7797. "The fuck was that?"
  7798. >graaaaaaaaaaaaaaahh
  7799. >It was like...
  7800. >Some kind of guttural... yell? Screech?
  7801. >Whatever it was, it... kinda freaked you out a bit.
  7802. >Hooves are heard rushing down the stairs.
  7803. >An Invictus guard shows up.
  7804. >And he looks panicked.
  7805. >"L-Lieutenant! Three dark magic presences, closing fast!"
  7806. >Oh, get fucked.
  7807. >Light, for her part, gets real commander-y here.
  7808. >"Form a defensive perimeter. Concentrate troops in the front, and get them into phalanx positioning!"
  7809. >She runs up the stairs the whole time she rattles off.
  7810. >"You're kidding."
  7811. >Razor's look goes deadly serious.
  7812. >"Fellas, keep him safe. Anon, don't go anywhere."
  7813. >You nod.
  7814. >He rushes off upstairs.
  7815. >Oh, fuck.
  7816. >That noise they made?
  7817. >Your gut's officially gone to dropped mode.
  7818. >Just like back at the castle.
  7819. >You can hear orders being barked upstairs, by both commanding ponies.
  7820. >"More magic into the barriers! Get more juice into those manatridents! Ohh, this is a real big presence, fillies!"
  7821. >"Get in back, boys! Shatterpoint bolts, on the double! Get ready to fire on my command!"
  7822. >You wondered what Nito, that slimy scumfuck, was up to.
  7823. >Apparently, at least some of that was sending... something to whack the town.
  7824. >Or...
  7825. >What if he's after you, now?
  7826. >The whole 'you can do magic' thing can't be an unknown factor to him.
  7827. >Not after his bug waifu slipped away.
  7828. >Oh, Christ.
  7829. >And you're in the fucking pony slammer.
  7830. >Without your weapons, or magic.
  7831. >"Mister Anonymous?"
  7832. >Oh, that helped avert panic.
  7833. >These guards finally spoke, outside of laughing.
  7834.  
  7835. >One of them was looking right at you, outside his post.
  7836. >The look was about half hard, half calculating.
  7837. >"Sir, do these presences have anything to do with you?"
  7838. "What? No! Fuck, I don't even know what they are!"
  7839. >"I hope not. Whatever they are, I can already tell that they are powerful. A good deal of dark magic went into them."
  7840. "Look, I already told you guys, dark magic isn't my thing!
  7841. "And why the hell would I want to kill the ponies I'm trying to protect, anyway?!"
  7842. >The hard part of the look gives way to thinking.
  7843. >And moments, later, more orders are heard above.
  7844. >"Now! Block their advance!"
  7845. >"Open fire! Buckin' waste them!"
  7846. >The sounds of magic and crossbows are heard above.
  7847. >"Good goddess, what are those things?!"
  7848. >"I have no idea! Let 'em have it, boys!"
  7849. >"Keep the pressure up!"
  7850. >Oh, shit.
  7851. >Oh, fuck.
  7852. >Oh f-fucking hell...
  7853. >"Holy horseshit, are they regenerating?!"
  7854. >"Maker above, that runework... Get a banishment prepped, on the double!"
  7855. >"Buck! Get the magemasher bolts in! Let them have it! Light, what am I looking at here?!"
  7856. >"I don't know! It's definitely a runic construct, but I've never seen such runework before!"
  7857. >Bone-chilling groans of pain can be heard upstairs, coming from...
  7858. >Shit, whatever the fuck is up there!
  7859. >Fuck, where's Twilight, Luna, and the others?!
  7860. >Shouldn't they be--
  7861. >click
  7862. >Your attention snaps to the cell door.
  7863. >Which is currently being swung open by this same guard pony.
  7864. >Even with his spear pointed your direction, this was a shocker and a half.
  7865. >And two and three-quarter shockers to the other guards.
  7866.  
  7867. >"S-sarge, what are you doing?!"
  7868. >"Take stock of the situation above, soldier. Whatever's attacking us is still making progress."
  7869. >"B-but--"
  7870. >"There's been three banishment spells cast so far, as well as at least two dozen magemasher bolts launched. It's only slowed them down."
  7871. >"LT's gonna kill you for this, you know that!"
  7872. >"And I will take full responsibility."
  7873. >His spear comes away.
  7874. >Whoever this orange horse is, he's got that 'StarCraft Micro God®' look to him.
  7875. >His tone had a similar partial detachment to it.
  7876. >"These constructs are attacking the jail for a reason. And there is nopony in here that would be high value enough to warrant a broad daylight attack like this.
  7877. >"However, there is somehuman who is. And if the enemy is aware of your magical arsenal, that makes you a priority target.
  7878. >"Particularly if they sought to separate you from said arsenal."
  7879. >Loud steps are beginning to be heard, in the distance above.
  7880. >"I'll make this brief. Get on your feet and follow my lead."
  7881. >Hell, you're not complaining.
  7882. >Too stunned, try again later.
  7883. >"Soldiers, diamond formation around mister Anonymous. Hold position with him above until I order otherwise."
  7884. >Interesting way of saying 'escort above, box in'.
  7885. >But shit, you're all moving up the stairs in a hurry.
  7886. >"Bucking shit, how many magemashers are they gonna eat before they drop?!"
  7887. >"Damn it... Launch manatridents, now!"
  7888. >No shortage of increasingly panicked orders given above.
  7889. >Unsurprisingly, loud WHOOSHes of magic are heard after that last order, ending in semi-distant blasts.
  7890.  
  7891. >The group reaches the top floor, and--
  7892. >Hooooly shit!
  7893. >Look at the fucking guards here!
  7894. >Invictus and Night guards alike, blasting magic and bolts at something you can't see at this angle!