PASTEDOWN_OLD   120    82504   476.28 KB

Thaumaturgy With Anon [3/?]

By HK-FortySeven
Created: 2nd November 2020 02:14:16 PM

  1. @@@@@@@@
  2. @ Thaumaturgy with Anon, Pt. 3
  3. @ Originally posted to Pastebin on Aug 23, 2017
  4. @@@@@@@@
  5. @ Haven't read the previous part yet?
  6. @ Boy, you're gonna be here a while.
  7. @@@@@@@@
  8.  
  9. >"We will be arriving at the Canterlot station in ten minutes, mister Sunburst. Is the stone's condition unchanged?"
  10. "It... No, the stone's fine. It should be, anyways."
  11. >"You seem unsure about that."
  12. "W-well, I... I don't know much about it's function, but it survived the train trip before, so..."
  13. >"Very well."
  14. >That strange guard...
  15. >You never expected to find such an observant and... well, blunt pony in the guard.
  16. >Much less part of the Sol Invictus!
  17. >And you certainly never expected to be given an escort from the Empire by them!
  18. >Well, not without being in hoofcuffs, anyway!
  19. >Anon must have taken a really big risk, letting them see his laboratory like that!
  20. >In fact...
  21. "Uhm, excuse me, mister...?"
  22. >"You may refer to me as sergeant Measure, in whatever permutation you wish."
  23. "I... I see. W-well, if you don't mind my asking, what... happened?"
  24. >"What event are you referring to?"
  25. "A-after he brought Shining and Cadance back with him."
  26. >"They set out to fight back the invading force."
  27. >...
  28. >Uh...
  29. "Is... is that it?"
  30. >"Most details revolving around the encounter are highly classified. I must ask you to hold your questions for the princesses."
  31. "Oh..."
  32. >Well, that was...
  33. >Way less helpful than you were expecting.
  34. >Still...
  35. >You can't shake this feeling that something's gone wrong.
  36. >All you heard from Anon was about monsters invading Ponyville.
  37. >And that they were dangerous enough to let Cadance and Shining know about his magic.
  38. >You never expected the Sol Invictus, of all groups, to also know about his magic!
  39. >Much less let him use it!
  40.  
  41. >O-okay, now that you think about it...
  42. >Things must have been really bad, if it got to the point where they looked past his magic!
  43. >At least he moved the slipgate stone up to your living room, first!
  44. >That way, they wouldn't discover your own workshop.
  45. >Or, is it laboratory...?
  46. >You don't know what it technically is at this point, but it doesn't matter.
  47. >The last thing you wanted was for guards to not just find it, but storm through it and potentially break everything.
  48. >Especially your big project...
  49. >B-but anyways!
  50. >You didn't really mind staying back and caring for Flurry while they went and fought back.
  51. >You're not a fighter, after all.
  52. >That changeling invasion in Ponyville is still fresh in your mind, after all this time...
  53. >But still, it only took a few hours for you and Anon to beat them off!
  54. >And right now, it's been three days since you last heard anything from them!
  55. >And it's not like you could have checked through the slipgate, either.
  56. >The Invictus leader gave you explicit directions not to open it, a move that Shining seconded.
  57. >Imagine your surprise, then, when another of their members came through it, and told you to pack it with you on a train ride to Canterlot!
  58. >DOOOOOOT
  59. >Oh, it looks like--
  60. >"We have arrived. Please ensure the stone is packaged securely, and please follow me."
  61. >Well, you can't say that Mr. Measure isn't...
  62. >Attentive?
  63. >In any case, you do as he asks: double-checking the keystone is secured in the case you quickly formed for it.
  64. >As expected, it didn't change, so you lift it onto your back, and follow him out of the train.
  65.  
  66. >Your path leads you to the back entrance of the train car, where a complement of regular palace guards wait.
  67. >They form a standard box formation around the two of you, escorting you to the castle proper.
  68. >It never takes too long, getting there.
  69. >And this time is no exception.
  70. >Once they led you through the main doors, they dispersed.
  71. >"Please follow my lead, mister Sunburst. Our first destination is to deposit the stone in a secure location for future usage."
  72. "Uh, sure..."
  73. >Well, at least he's... thorough?
  74. >Still, would it kill him to put more feeling into his voice?
  75. >You don't really have a way to describe the monotone he uses constantly.
  76. >You're sure Anon does, though.
  77. >He has a description for just about everything.
  78. >You really have no idea how he does it.
  79. >...
  80. >Your route takes you not to a vault, like you expected, but rather to...
  81. >The ambassador's suite?
  82. >"Please deposit the keystone case in an easily visible location."
  83. "A-all right, but... well, this doesn't seem awfully, uh, secure."
  84. >"It is kept under constant vigil. The location is quite secure."
  85. "I-if you say so. But I don't know if Anon would agree."
  86. >"This room is designated for mister Anonymous's use during his stay at the castle."
  87. >Wait, what?
  88. "He's here?"
  89. >"Yes."
  90. "Uh... well, is he available?"
  91. >"In a manner of speaking."
  92. "What does that mean?"
  93. >"You will see."
  94. >This time, there was the beginnings of an emotional intonation.
  95. >It sounded... sad, almost.
  96. >Okay, that bad feeling from before is getting worse.
  97. >Did... something happen to Anon?
  98.  
  99. >After you put the keystone on the coffee table, Mr. Measure speaks up again:
  100. >"Our next destination is the secure medical wing. Please follow me."
  101. "O-okay."
  102. >Secure medical wing?
  103. >Okay, what's going on?
  104. >Now you're getting really nervous.
  105. >...
  106. >S-secure is the right word!
  107. >There's so many guards here!
  108. >And over half of them belong to the Night guard!
  109. >Aren't they normally nocturnal?
  110. >"Please keep your voice down, as we enter the treatment room."
  111. >He doesn't give you time to think that over, and just walks to the door.
  112. >This looks... awfully similar to those hospital rooms the princesses stayed in, doesn't it?
  113. >But... who's staying here, now?
  114. >Mr. Measure pushes the door open.
  115. >Looks like you're about to get your answer.
  116. >Instantly, you hear the beeping sounds from the usual medical monitoring constructs, along with some shuffling.
  117. >Seemed fairly busy in there, which usually means intensive care...
  118. >Swallowing the lump in your throat, you follow Mr. Measure in.
  119. >Inside, is--
  120. >...
  121. >"Good afternoon, mister Anonymous. As you requested, the other stone of the pair has been delivered."
  122. >W-w-wha--?!
  123. >"And your friend, mister Sunburst, is here to see you, as well."
  124. >N-no...
  125. >"He is likely to bolt to your bedside in three and a half seconds, with a 73.2% chance of restraining himself from embracing you."
  126. >A-Anon is...
  127. >He's hurt!
  128. >You can't keep yourself from running over to his bedside.
  129. >Somehow, you manage not only to jump his wounded form, but also to keep from yelling his name out.
  130. "A-Anon?"
  131. >He just gives a weak smile.
  132.  
  133. >Sweet merciful goddess, you can't believe what you're looking at!
  134. >His skin was looking paler than usual, his eyes were ringed with dark circles, and he held a breath mask to his mouth.
  135. >Most of his body was bandaged, but it was light-duty stuff, meant for small cuts.
  136. >All of this, leading towards his chest area.
  137. >The left side of his chest was attached to a large glass suction cup, feeding into a tube.
  138. >You recognize it as a medical gas treatment tool, for large wounds.
  139. >And it becomes immediately apparent what kind of wound is being treated.
  140. >A huge, ragged puncture wound, with a diameter easily the size of your horn, was exposed to the gas chamber.
  141. >You knew how these chambers worked: exposing the entirety of the wound to a healing agent in gas form.
  142. >That didn't make the sight any less grisly.
  143. >You manage to pull your eyes from it, to meet Anon's face.
  144. >H-how is he still smiling, after all of... THIS?!
  145. "A-a-are you o-okay?"
  146. >His response is quiet, pained, and only comes after he takes a long pull from the mask, before pulling it off:
  147. >"Pretty far from okay, buddy."
  148. >He places the mask back on, before breathing back in.
  149. >You could smell something strange, on his breath.
  150. >It must be...
  151. >But, no, those masks just deliver oxygen!
  152. >Oh...
  153. >Oh, no.
  154. >That wound...
  155. >It punctured his lung!
  156. >You must have smelled the healing gas!
  157. >It has that strange, acidic smell that alchemy often has.
  158. >Makes sense, if alchemy is the only thing that works on him!
  159. >You didn't even know you could aerosolize alchemic solutions!
  160.  
  161. >The guard, Mr. Measure, made himself known again:
  162. >"We discussed this already, mister Anonymous. You need to limit your speaking."
  163. >"Not even a 'hello'?"
  164. >"I am certain that your friends would not wish for you to unnecessarily strain yourself, on their behalf."
  165. >"Like I did already?"
  166. >"The two situations are not comparable."
  167. >It's obvious from the still-masked chuckle, that he was just having a bit of fun with Mr. Measure.
  168. >How he can still have fun, despite everything, is still a mystery to you!
  169. >"Regretfully, my time allotments mean that we must part ways again, and mister Sunburst must accompany me."
  170. >An eyeroll.
  171. >That's his response, an eyeroll!
  172. >How?!
  173. >"Catch you guys later."
  174. >You really don't want to leave him alone like this, but what can you do?
  175. >At the very least, he seems to be in capable hooves.
  176. >Reluctantly, you pull yourself away from his bedside, and follow Mr. Measure out of the room.
  177. >"Our next destination is the war room. There, your questions can be answered."
  178. >Darn right, you want your questions answered!
  179. >Why was Anon hurt so badly?
  180. >What happened at Ponyville?
  181. >What is going on here?!
  182. >Wha--
  183. >Wait.
  184. >The war room?
  185. >That hasn't been used in...
  186. >Gosh, a long time!
  187. >...
  188. >Even before Mr. Measure spoke up about your destination, you could hear a lot of discussion behind the doors.
  189. >All of it muffled, of course.
  190. >Some of it from the wood, the rest on purpose by a special privacy enchantment.
  191. >"Please remain here, and only enter upon my signal."
  192. >Wait, signal?
  193. >He's opened the door, before you could even ask.
  194.  
  195. >"Your highnesses? Mister Sunburst has arrived, within the projected timeframe."
  196. >The voice of Cadance was heard first.
  197. >"Perfect, sergeant. Send him in."
  198. >"Mister Sunburst, if you will...?"
  199. >Ah, that must be the signal.
  200. >At least walking in here had some semblance of normalcy to it!
  201. >Three of four princesses were in attendance here, with Celestia being notably absent.
  202. >They were all seated around a small round table, papers and quills scattered around the table.
  203. >They looked really busy.
  204. >And while Cadance had a businessmare look to her, that you're not used to seeing on her?
  205. >Twilight and Luna both looked angry, a little sad, and very... focused? Determined?
  206. >Though they all brighten up at your entrance, so there's that.
  207. >"It's good to see you again, Sunburst."
  208. >"Sunburst!"
  209. >"A pleasure as always, mister Sunburst."
  210. >Cadance, Twilight, and Luna's respective answers, while warm, soon gave way to business looks and tone.
  211. >With Cadance immediately following up with her next line:
  212. >"I'm afraid we don't have time for pleasantries, Sunburst. As you've probably guessed, there's a lot we need to deal with."
  213. >"Indeed there is, although I suspect you also need some questions answered, no?"
  214. "Y-yes! What happened? Why is Anon so badly hurt?!"
  215. >The mention of Anon gets both Luna and Twilight to adopt a much sadder and angrier look.
  216. >Luna, at least, manages to keep it out of her tone.
  217. >"He was grievously injured during a conflict with the forces of Incognito."
  218. "The--"
  219. >Oh.
  220. >O-oh my g-gosh!
  221. >H-he didn't mention that part to you!
  222. >All he said was 'really evil monsters'!
  223.  
  224. >A sigh escapes Luna, as she leaves her seat to walk over to you.
  225. >"This is what happened. A force of five highly dangerous runic monsters, accompanied by a single powerful changeling, attacked Ponyville."
  226. >What?
  227. >R-runic monsters?!
  228. >"The monsters were a twisted, yet highly effective invention of Incognito. As for the changeling, it was the same one responsible for the train incident."
  229. >The...
  230. "Y-you don't mean the one that...?!"
  231. >"The very same. It appears that she is some kind of confidant of Incognito, and almost certainly his executrix."
  232. >Hoooly moly, that's insa--
  233. >Wait.
  234. "She?"
  235. >"Yes, that particular changeling, unlike it's cohorts, appears to be female."
  236. >The expression of pure anger on her face, is enough to make you take a step back.
  237. >"She is the one responsible for hospitalizing Anonymous."
  238. >...
  239. >And just like that, anger of your own rises to meet hers.
  240. >Cadance provided an interruption, however:
  241. >"He's lucky all he got away with was a large stab wound. She and the monsters could have done so much worse."
  242. >"It is fortunate, then, that Anonymous's quick thinking paved the way to his victory."
  243. "I... I need to know what else happened, if--"
  244. >"Of course, of course. Pull a seat up, and we will do our best to describe the details of the encounter."
  245. >And that's exactly what you set out to do.
  246. >Luna returns to the table, and you follow closely, while levitating a chair from the corner along with you.
  247. >...
  248. >Wow.
  249. >Just...
  250. >Holy mackerel!
  251. >You knew Anon was quick with that thaumaturgy, but...
  252. >Well, he certainly wasn't lacking in combat power!
  253.  
  254. >Cadance had been awake to see most of the fight, and was the main one providing descriptions of his weapons.
  255. >Blue flames, energy blades, telekinetic gloves, and more!
  256. >Forget being a quick learner, Anon must be some kind of genius, learning how to make all that so quickly!
  257. >And evidently crazy to match, making such reckless moves!
  258. >Eventually, however, the subject changed to the foes.
  259. >The monsters were still an unknown: their bodies were recovered, but nopony could make sense of the runes on them.
  260. >And of course, the changeling came up.
  261. >Cadance shook her head at this part:
  262. >"I don't think I've seen anything that... aggressive before. Or that hostile."
  263. >"Or that malevolent. She took great pleasure in watching our suffering, at least for a short while."
  264. >You still can't believe it, yourself.
  265. >This one changeling, capturing all of the princesses and Elements!
  266. >By herself!
  267. >It beggars belief!
  268. >"She was certainly well trained, but her overconfidence was ultimately her undoing."
  269. >Twilight found an opening to speak up:
  270. >"And her name, 'Athalia'? That's unlike any name I've heard of before!"
  271. >"Indeed. A strange, vile creature, through and through."
  272. "Um, so... What happened to this... 'Athalia'?"
  273. >"I intervened quickly, to stop her doing further damage to Anonymous. She is still alive, but was barely so after her defeat.
  274. >"She, too, is being healed, but in another vault. My sister has been seeing to that for the last few days."
  275. >Her scowl lightens slightly.
  276. >"She will also be overseeing her... interrogation."
  277. <...
  278.  
  279. @@@@@@@@
  280.  
  281. >>Another fresh wave of pain lanced through your forehead, right at the horn.
  282. >>Damn it!
  283. >>You went overboard again!
  284. >>Stupid, stupid!
  285. >>A pack of ice was unceremoniously tossed near your head.
  286. >>You don't waste time picking it up, placing it against your forehead.
  287. >>Aaaaaah...
  288. >>So much better...
  289. >>"This is the fifth time you have done this today."
  290. >>Your stomach drops.
  291. >>You look up at the very familiar, very commanding voice.
  292. >>Incognito looked both annoyed and concerned.
  293. >>"I have repeatedly told you not to over-extend during your practice. And yet, you persist. Why?"
  294. >"I..."
  295. >>Water begins to bead up in the corners of your eyes.
  296. >"I have to get better. Stronger."
  297. >>"And you are. But stretching beyond your limit is not the way."
  298. >"W-what choice do I have? I have to!"
  299. >>"Your progress has been nothing short of a quick, steady increase. I do not understand why you feel the need to make it exponential."
  300. >"Y-you beat the princesses! Discord! What can I do? Wave a spear around? Infiltrate? Shoot magic?"
  301. >>The beads progress into full tears.
  302. >"H-how am I supposed to do anything like that?"
  303. >>"Ahh, I see."
  304. >>He kneels to your level, a small smile on his face.
  305. >>You can't help but be captivated by it, your sadness almost melting away.
  306. >>"Have I ever told you the story of David and Goliath, Athalia?"
  307. >>Something about that seems famili--
  308. >>Ohh!
  309. >"W-when you came back, after you beat the princesses, my Lord..."
  310. >>"I did use it for theatrical effect, yes. But I don't recall sharing the full story with you."
  311. >"I... N-no, my Lord, I don't think you did..."
  312.  
  313. >>He stands up, walking to the bench.
  314. >>"Come, have a seat."
  315. >>How could you refuse?
  316. >>You give your eyes a quick wipe, and them move over to the bench yourself.
  317. >>"A long time ago, the armies of the Philistines marched to war against the Israelites, God's chosen people.
  318. >>"Amongst the Philistine army was the greatest of their champions, a giant of a man named Goliath.
  319. >>"He stood three times as tall as I, yet was possessed of even greater strength, consummate to his size."
  320. >>Whoa.
  321. >>T-that's a big human...
  322. >>W-well, you guess for him, anyways. There's already dragons and stuff here.
  323. >>"For forty days and forty nights, he taunted the armies of Israel, beckoning them to fight him.
  324. >>"Of course, none did. How could they? Their foe was invincible! Even without Goliath's great sword, he could easily have crushed him!
  325. >>"Goliath, of course, knew this all too well, and taunted them all the same. The Israelites were terrified. Even their king!"
  326. >>That did sound pretty scary...
  327. >"S-so... did somehuman finally fight him?"
  328. >>Even if you couldn't sense his emotions, that smile of his was still a wonderful thing.
  329. >>"Of course. Enter young David, the teenaged son of a shepherd, sent to the battle lines by his father, to find news of his brothers."
  330. >"Wait, a shepherd?!"
  331. >>"Oh, yes, my child. A mere shepherd.
  332. >>"When David reached the front, he heard the giant's taunting, and saw the great fear that had possessed his fellow countrymen.
  333. >>"But unlike his fellows, he was enraged. How dare this heathen come forth, and make such terrible proclamations!
  334.  
  335. >>"And so, young David volunteered to fight him."
  336. >"He WHAT?!"
  337. >>"A reaction shared by his king. And it took much convincing to allow him to do battle with the giant."
  338. >"I-- W-well, he better have brought something powerful to fight him with!"
  339. >>"Ahh, but you see, he tried their weapons and armour. And didn't like them. You see, he wasn't at all used to them, being a shepherd."
  340. >"So what did he bring?"
  341. >>"He went forth in only his tunic, carrying only his shepherd's staff, a sling, and a pouch of five smooth stones."
  342. >>Your jaw drops.
  343. >"Th-that's insane! There's no way he could have won!"
  344. >>"Goliath thought so, too. When he finally beheld David, he was insulted. He had asked for a warrior, and instead beheld a boy!
  345. >>"He cursed God, and beckoned David forth, proclaiming that he would make him into a bloody feast for the birds and beasts.
  346. >>"And yet, David was not moved by his taunts. Indeed, he fired back with his own declaration!
  347. >>"'Thou comest to me with a sword, and with a spear, and with a shield: but I come to thee in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom thou hast defied.
  348. >>"'This day will the Lord deliver thee into mine hand; and I will smite thee, and take thine head from thee.
  349. >>"'And I will give the carcasses of the host of the Philistines this day unto the fowls of the air, and to the wild beasts of the earth, that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel.
  350. >>"'And all this assembly shall know that the Lord saveth not with sword and spear: for the battle is the Lord's, and he will give you into our hands.'"
  351.  
  352. >>He always says those strange quotes with such passion.
  353. >>You can't help but be totally entranced by the delivery.
  354. >>His smile returns once again.
  355. >>"And Goliath was the one taunted, and charged forth. David, too, ran forward against the giant.
  356. >>"And David put a single stone into his sling, and loosed it towards the mighty Goliath."
  357. >>The clap of his hands makes you jump a little.
  358. >>"The stone struck him in the forehead. He crumpled to the ground, but he was dead long before that happened."
  359. >>...
  360. >>No.
  361. >>That...
  362. >>That can't be right...!
  363. >>"In a final show of victory, David took the giant's sword, and severed the former owner's head with it.
  364. >>"The Philistines were sent running, now the ones terrified. And the Israelites found their courage, and followed, thoroughly defeating them."
  365. >>His smile only grew, his gaze growing softer.
  366. >>"And so, David has slain the mightiest of their warriors, with naught but a single stone."
  367. >>You're...
  368. >>You're speechless.
  369. >>"Now..."
  370. >>He stands back up, walking a few paces forward.
  371. >>"Your worry is not matching their power, is it not? The power of the princesses, and their friends and foes?"
  372. >>And just as quickly as the good feeling came, it dropped again.
  373. >"Ye... yes. I... H-how can I ever compete with that?"
  374. >>"Oh, that's very simple, my dear Athalia."
  375. >>He turns back around, another one of his smiles adorning his face.
  376. >>"If you face two similar enemies, working together, who do not change their strategy against you, what would you do?"
  377. >>Wait, what?
  378. >>That came out of nowhere!
  379.  
  380. >"I... I-I'd look for an opening, of course!"
  381. >>"Good. Now, if you were to face a powerful foe with another like you, and your strategy was not working, would you change it?"
  382. >"Yes, of course! But... that's really easy stuff, my Lord!"
  383. >>"It wasn't for the princesses."
  384. >>...
  385. >>What.
  386. >>"The vaunted goddesses of Equestria, wise beyond reason... They continued circling and charging me, for several minutes. Never once changing strategy."
  387. >"No way."
  388. >>That's...
  389. >>That's the dumbest thing you've ever heard!
  390. >>"I should not need to tell you how simple it was to defeat them. Or how... disappointed I was in them."
  391. >>Wooooow.
  392. >>"But you saw the problem, did you not?"
  393. >>The good feeling returns.
  394. >>"The princesses, and their foes, are all possessed of great strength. But almost none of them are cunning."
  395. >>He walks back over to you.
  396. >>"It is true that you may not match their power."
  397. >>He kneels in front of you again.
  398. >>"But you have something arguably greater."
  399. >>His finger pokes at your forehead.
  400. >>Your own smile is starting to ache a little.
  401. >>"Learn from the example of the noble David, Athalia. You are far more intelligent than they are.
  402. >>"And with this intelligence, you can topple any of them easily, with nought but a single stone. An infiltration. A spear. Or indeed, a magic bolt."
  403. >>This time, the tears are happy ones.
  404. >>"Now, then. I believe you are recovered enough, no? Shall we keep on practicing your spells?"
  405. >>You wipe your eyes again, your smile never fading.
  406. >"Y-yes! Of course, my Lord!"
  407. <...
  408.  
  409. >Pain.
  410. >Dull, aching pain.
  411. >Absolutely everywhere.
  412. >Where...
  413. >Where are you?
  414. >Why is everything black?
  415. >What happened?
  416. >No, focus!
  417. >Seriously, where are you?
  418. >Everything feels...
  419. >Floaty?
  420. >No, more like weightless.
  421. >Well, on top of hurting, anyway.
  422. >You try to move your foreleg.
  423. >Nothing happens.
  424. >You try to look down at the unresponsive leg.
  425. >But your head doesn't move, either.
  426. >Wh-what...?
  427. >You try to thrash about.
  428. >Nothing.
  429. >W-what's happening?
  430. >W-why can't you move?
  431. >Panic begins to set in.
  432. >No...
  433. >No!
  434. >Pull it together!
  435. >Come on, think!
  436. >Why is this happening?
  437. >What--
  438. >>`Such a disappointment.`
  439. >The voices.
  440. >>`The Destroyer's actions have really spoiled us, it seems. We really expected you to succeed.`
  441. >You try to ask who's there.
  442. >But your mouth doesn't move, either.
  443. >>`But we suppose, against the other one, there could have been no victory.`
  444. >You can begin to feel something on your ears.
  445. >In fact, that's about all you can feel that isn't pain.
  446. >The voices were beginning to speak again, but a small dot of light creeping into your vision seemed to cause it to cry out.
  447. >As the dot grew bigger and bigger, the voice's cries became more and more protracted and pained.
  448. >As it grew to cover your whole vision in white, another voice was heard:
  449. >"Begone from this mind, creature of the warp. You will trouble neither of us."
  450. >It was singular. Feminine. Commanding all unto itself.
  451. >And so... familiar.
  452. >But not the good kind of familiar.
  453. >The feeling in your ears begins to spread.
  454. >It creeps along your spine, radiating out to the rest of your body.
  455.  
  456. >It's like the physical feeling is returning to your body.
  457. >And with it, the physical pain.
  458. >If you were able to cry, you might very well have done so.
  459. >But coming on slowly and by degrees, it almost feels survivable.
  460. >"Awaken."
  461. >The all-white vision from before begins to fade.
  462. >Replacing it is a dark gray.
  463. >It almost looks like...
  464. >Hm.
  465. >You open your eyes slowly.
  466. >Light feeds in through the small slit in your vision.
  467. >Okay, so your eyes were shut before.
  468. >You keep opening them, slowing as needed to adjust to the rather bright light.
  469. >Everything seems blurry at first, but quickly adjusts into focus, once the light isn't a problem anymore.
  470. >Brightly lit white curtains were the first thing you saw.
  471. >Trying to move your head sends a fresh bolt of pain through you, getting your eyes to screw shut.
  472. >Gritting your teeth, you force your eyes back open, this time only moving them, and not your head.
  473. >To the sides, you can see...
  474. >Ponies.
  475. >Reflexive instincts to escape surface, but you keep them suppressed.
  476. >The new tension in your muscles, however, you cannot stop.
  477. >And it sets your nerves alight with pain.
  478. >Your eyes shut again, and you can't prevent a small hiss of pain from escaping your throat.
  479. >You can hear the ponies react to the noise.
  480. >"What was that?"
  481. >"Sounded like... Nurse, check the patient for signs of wakefulness."
  482. >"Y-yes, doctor."
  483. >Hoofsteps are heard approaching in front of you.
  484. >You can hear magic being used, the light glow of their spell covering your face, filtering through your eyelids.
  485.  
  486. >"There is definitely more activity there, than just dreaming."
  487. >"I see. That explains the sudden tension in her muscles."
  488. >"Is... is she...?"
  489. >"Oh, she is very awake. Please fetch the others, and inform the princesses at once."
  490. >The princesses?
  491. >...
  492. >The princesses.
  493. >Oh, no.
  494. >Oh, no no no!
  495. >You remember now.
  496. >Ponyville.
  497. >The Homunculi.
  498. >The princesses and the Elements.
  499. >The guardsponies.
  500. >The fighting.
  501. >Anonymous.
  502. >Icy dread is felt in full force now.
  503. >Panic begins to follow suit.
  504. >No, no, NO!
  505. >Your muscles pull tight, causing terrible pain to burn through you.
  506. >Only this time, you're too afraid to care.
  507. >Your eyes shoot open again.
  508. >The tail of a pony is seen passing through one end of the curtain.
  509. >You try to move your forelegs.
  510. >But they're not moving, and not for a lack of trying.
  511. >More pain courses through you as you turn your head to see what's stopping it.
  512. >A white, padded leg restraint was wrapped around it, pulled taut with a chain anchored to...
  513. >Wait, are you on a bed?
  514. >You are!
  515. >Lying belly-down, no less.
  516. >And...
  517. >Your...
  518. >Your foreleg.
  519. >It's...
  520. >It's painted?
  521. >Very dark, off-purple paint of some kind was on your leg, in strange patterns.
  522. >...
  523. >No.
  524. >They weren't strange.
  525. >They were crack patterns.
  526. >Somepony had filled the cracks in your chitin, with some kind of--
  527. >"Good afternoon, miss... Athalia, was it?"
  528. >Your head snaps to the sudden voice.
  529. >It was that other pony.
  530. >A stallion, clearly a doctor of some kind.
  531. >Despite making a low snarl to scare him away, his professional look, complete with small smile, never changed.
  532.  
  533. >"I can't imagine you are feeling too good right about now, miss Athalia. And I'll admit, I've only worked on changelings once before.
  534. >"Still, we did the best we could to patch your chitin right up. Your wingspan is still in progress, and sadly, we don't have anything for pain that we're sure isn't toxic to you."
  535. >That gets your next growl to halt.
  536. >Your wings!
  537. >Your head whips back, more pain following the motion.
  538. >They're...
  539. >They're bandaged, separate from your body.
  540. >And your body itself was almost completely covered in more of the strange dark purple substance, with green-spotted bandages here and there.
  541. >And a pair of large, padded restraints were wrapped around the front and back of your barrel, both similarly chained.
  542. >"Please, relax. Try not to move too much. I realize you're agitated, but your recovery will be much quicker if you keep still."
  543. >Your gaze goes to your hindlegs briefly, before turning back to the doctor.
  544. >They're also restrained in the same way.
  545. >Despite the pain, you try to summon some magic.
  546. >Nothing.
  547. >In fact...
  548. >You can't sense his emotions.
  549. >That...
  550. >That must mean there's a...
  551. >A ring.
  552. >Oh, no.
  553. >You're well and truly trapped.
  554. >But you refuse to allow despair to set in.
  555. >The doctor was still there.
  556. >And Incognito told you never to show weakness or fear to any potential captors.
  557. >Just going down that trail of thought rekindles your anger, if only slightly.
  558. >You fix the doctor with a hard glare, but again, he doesn't react.
  559. >"Now, since you're looking here anyways, be a dear and keep your eyes open?"
  560.  
  561. >He floats an...
  562. >You don't know what it's called, but it's that light thing that they use to check your eyes.
  563. >Without skipping a beat, he lights it up, doing just that.
  564. >Is...
  565. >Is he messing with you right now?
  566. >He has to be!
  567. >The growl this time is out of anger.
  568. >"Well, isn't that interesting? Despite the lack of pupils, there is still a slight translucency to them. Perfectly healthy optical tissue underneath."
  569. >You thrash your forelegs in such a way that it rattles the chains.
  570. >Still, he doesn't flinch.
  571. >"Now, now, there's no need for that."
  572. >You debate the wisdom of saying something to this...
  573. >This stupid bucking doctor!
  574. >The light thing is replaced with a wide... popsicle stick?
  575. >"Now, say 'Ahh'."
  576. >That does it.
  577. "Shut up!"
  578. >Another thrash accompanied your outburst.
  579. >This stupid doctor!
  580. >You hate him!
  581. >"Ah, so you are able to speak, after all. I was worried for a moment that you'd lost your voice."
  582. "Stop screwing around with me! Where am I?!"
  583. >"Now, now, settle down."
  584. "WHERE AM I?!"
  585. >"Well, you certainly won't get answers with that tone, filly."
  586. "Raaaagh!"
  587. >"Or, is it nymph? My entomological knowledge isn't quite up to snuff, I'm afraid."
  588. >You keep thrashing against the restraints.
  589. >You only just met this pony, and already you want him dead!
  590. >Before long, it gets too painful to continue.
  591. >So you just lie there, panting and glaring daggers at the doctor.
  592. >Not once, did his expression change.
  593. >"Perhaps we can try a different approach? Why don't we start with introductions? How does that sound?"
  594.  
  595. >You don't even dignify that with an answer.
  596. >Moments later, hoofsteps are heard outside the curtain.
  597. >"Ah, they're here. I suppose introductions can wait until later, then?"
  598. >The curtain slides out of the way with a flash of magic.
  599. >More ponies file in.
  600. >Seven more, to be exact.
  601. >From their attire, they're clearly nurses.
  602. >Wordlessly, they begin doing...
  603. >Well, something to the bed under you.
  604. >"Now, you seem to be in good enough health, so let's go on a little trip, shall we?"
  605. >The bed lurches forward, yet doesn't topple.
  606. >Oh.
  607. >The bed has wheels.
  608. >And you're being wheeled out of the room, through a set of double doors.
  609. >Heavily armed guards are waiting outside, presumably to watch you.
  610. >As the bed rounds a corner, they do indeed follow you.
  611. >It's tough, keeping track of them with just your eyes.
  612. >But you didn't need more pain, on top of all this.
  613. >Still...
  614. >Where were they taking you?
  615. >You hear the doctor from behind:
  616. >"I trust that she knows not to resort to anything too physical, yes?"
  617. >"Yes, doctor, she does."
  618. >"Good, good. If there's one thing I hate, it's repeat visits for the same condition."
  619. >"She's just going to talk with her today, doctor. No cause for concern."
  620. >It sounds like he's talking to a guard.
  621. >But...
  622. >Who wants to talk to you?
  623. >You have some ideas, but none of them are pleasant.
  624. >Looking at the hallways, the pattern was a dead giveaway as to where you were.
  625. >Canterlot castle.
  626. >And wherever you were going, was getting increasingly more guarded.
  627. >Eventually, you're wheeled up to a nondescript metal double door.
  628.  
  629. >The doors are pushed open, revealing...
  630. >A very short hallway, with another set of the same double doors.
  631. >Through those, the room opens up into a...
  632. >A room.
  633. >A completely nondescript room, with metal walls, floor, and a ceiling.
  634. >Bright lights were above, probably some kind of magic gem, recessed into the ceiling and sealed off with both X-patterned bars and a metal grate.
  635. >They were probably the only interesting part about it.
  636. >The guards and nurses wheel you into the middle of the room, turning the bed to face back towards the door.
  637. >And then, they leave out of the same door.
  638. >The doctor is the last to leave, turning back for one last line:
  639. >"Please don't do anything too rash, miss Athalia."
  640. >Even if you wanted to respond, which you don't, the door closes too quick for one.
  641. >The sound of latches can be heard behind the door.
  642. >So, they locked you in here.
  643. >Great.
  644. >Looks like they didn't want to deal with you anymo--
  645. >click
  646. >...
  647. >Your...
  648. >Your legs...
  649. >They're not being pulled back?
  650. >Slowly, to ensure as little pain as possible, you try to--
  651. >Oh my gosh.
  652. >Your legs are free!
  653. >Ohmygos--
  654. >No.
  655. >Stop.
  656. >Calm down.
  657. >Focus.
  658. >Slowly, you bring one foreleg into your sight.
  659. >The padded restraint was still on the leg, but the chain was detached.
  660. >You could see tiny little glyphs on the restraint.
  661. >They looked like...
  662. >Hm.
  663. >Strength drain was on it.
  664. >Something to ease external telekinetic grip.
  665. >And a locking glyph set, releasable only with certain magical signatures.
  666. >Damn it.
  667. >Even unchained, you were still incapable of resisting them.
  668.  
  669. >Well, there's not much point in trying to decode the signatures.
  670. >It's not like you can sense the signatures of the ponies to compare against, anyways.
  671. >Although...
  672. >You slowly push yourself into a sitting position.
  673. >It hurts, but at least it's manageable.
  674. >At least you could see your underside, now.
  675. >Whatever wasn't bandaged, was also coated in that purple stuff.
  676. >All that stomping...
  677. >You shudder briefly at the memory.
  678. >But you didn't sit up to get a good look at your belly.
  679. >Your forelegs reach up, inch by inch.
  680. >Your hooves touch the horn, and you trail upwards for--
  681. >There.
  682. >The ring.
  683. >Keeping one hoof on it, you trail the other one the rest of the way.
  684. >Nothing.
  685. >Only one, then.
  686. >You bring the hoof back to the ring, and gripping it with both, give it an experimental tug.
  687. >Nothing happens, like you expect.
  688. >Ratcheted and friction-fit, no doubt.
  689. >Wonder how they even got it past the kinks?
  690. >No, focus!
  691. >...
  692. >Oh, who are you kidding?
  693. >What is there to focus on, anyways?
  694. >D-damn it...
  695. >You failed.
  696. >You failed worse than before.
  697. >After everything you trained for, everything he sent with you, you still--
  698. >The door is heard unlatching.
  699. >That's one way to break the melancholy.
  700. >Your forelegs come back down, taking the load off your hindlegs.
  701. >The doors swing open, reveali--
  702. >...
  703. >No.
  704. >"Up and about already? Goodness, you have more tolerance for pain than I expected."
  705. >Not her!
  706. >"Now, I have many things to ask you, but before we get to the business questions, let's at least try to be personable."
  707. >As if you'd want to be personable with Celestia!
  708.  
  709. @@@@@@@@
  710.  
  711. >She's smiling.
  712. >Why in the world is she smiling?
  713. >She, of all ponies, has no reason to be smiling at you!
  714. >And why is she trying so hard to pull off the 'parental' look?
  715. >It's making you angry.
  716. >"Now, I trust you're all together enough for some simple conversation? Why don't we start with some introductions?"
  717. >Oh, please.
  718. >That didn't work with that stupid doctor, and it won't work for her.
  719. >"Come now, there's no need for the cold wither. I'm quite interested in learning more about you."
  720. >Yeah, you're sure she is.
  721. >Interrogation called by any other name, is still just as terrible.
  722. >"Oh, there's no reason to be so shy."
  723. >That patronizing tone is really grating.
  724. >She begins walking towards you.
  725. >You reflexively take a step back.
  726. >A move that proves pointless, as a golden glow envelops the bed, wheeling it closer to her.
  727. >What's she trying to do with all of this?
  728. >Intimidate you?
  729. >Well, it's not really working.
  730. >"Surely you can give me your name, at least?"
  731. >Okay, she has to be messing around with you.
  732. "You know my name already."
  733. >"I meant your real name."
  734. >...
  735. >"For how collectivized your people are, you at least still retain individual names for powerful members of your hives.
  736. >"And a powerful member, you most certainly are. Reckless, twisted, and unwise, but powerful nonetheless."
  737. >Red begins seeping into your vision.
  738. >If she didn't have total control right now, there would be bucking blood.
  739. >"Tell me, did you think taking a human name would somehow endow you with their appetite for violence? Or their disregard for it's usage?"
  740.  
  741. >Her smile had been fading this whole time.
  742. >Her tone must have changed, too.
  743. >But you were too busy reining in your anger to notice if it did.
  744. >"Well, perhaps that is not accurate. One human, at least, resorts to it for a noble cause. The other, to satiate his wicked lust for blood and destruction."
  745. >Your teeth are grinding.
  746. >Your legs are shaking.
  747. >You're this bucking close to--
  748. >"And apparently, he has taken up corrupting impressionable minds in his spare time."
  749. >That does it!
  750. >You launch yourself at Celestia.
  751. "Shut your buckin--!"
  752. >All-encompassing, horrible pain lights up your senses, interrupting even your furious lunge.
  753. >The restraints on your legs were pulled apart and away from your body with a lot of force, in tandem with being stopped dead in the air.
  754. >You can't restrain the shriek of pain that comes with the action.
  755. >In the same moment, you're flung belly-down against the bed, sending another wave of searing agony through your nerves.
  756. >The shriek becomes a cry.
  757. >Your eyes screw shut, trying desperately to keep from screaming.
  758. >You keep your voice contained, but fail to stop yourself from tearing up slightly.
  759. >The pressure on your limbs had let up, but not completely.
  760. >Eventually, after what feels like minutes, you manage to open your eyes again, teeth still clenched tightly, and breathing raggedly.
  761. >Celestia was not smiling anymore, but instead her expression was severe, with a piercing glare to go with it.
  762. >"The doctor will be very displeased to hear about what you just did."
  763. >As if you care about what he thinks!
  764.  
  765. >Then, she begins...
  766. >Chuckling?
  767. >Not a mirthful chuckle, either, but a morose one.
  768. >"Oh, dear. It seems I went against my own aim of being personable, didn't I?"
  769. >You think?!
  770. >"Oh, you'll have to forgive me. It's been far too long since I've found myself in such a situation."
  771. >She flips right back to a severe look, with a surprising amount of speed.
  772. >"Regardless, you didn't answer my question. Tell me what your true name is. Now."
  773. >This was what you expected to see.
  774. >And to her credit, she manages to be a lot more intimidating here.
  775. >But you still do not answer.
  776. >Pressure begins to build on your limbs.
  777. >You break your own glaring to see what's happening.
  778. >It seems that she chained you back up, but hasn't stopped levitating your restraints.
  779. >The pressure continues building, and you find your left foreleg being pulled off to the side.
  780. >Pain shoots through the limb, and only grows worse as the force continues to be applied.
  781. >Is...
  782. >Is she trying to torture you?
  783. >Because it--
  784. "Gaaaaah!"
  785. >S-she just pulled on your other foreleg!
  786. >Oh sweet foremothers, she really IS trying to torture you!
  787. >"You still do not understand your situation here, do you?
  788. >"As it stands, you have the blood of almost two dozen guards on your hooves. That alone would be enough to condemn you to life in the crystal caverns.
  789. >"But you slew them with the blackest of magic, piercing the veil of the spirit, and wrenching their very souls from their bodies.
  790. >"If you were not more valuable to me alive, 'Athalia', I would have slain you myself days ago, after your loss of consciousness."
  791.  
  792. >One of your hindlegs lights up with white-hot agony, as it too is pulled up and away.
  793. >You only just barely bite back a scream.
  794. >"And trust me, nothing would give me more sickly saccharine delight, than depriving that otherworldly daemon of his precious little executor.
  795. >"But it is precisely because you are his executor, that we are even having this conversation right now."
  796. >The last remaining hindleg joins the chorus of torment.
  797. >Nothing can stop the scream that now leaves your mouth.
  798. >Celestia's eyes...
  799. >They promised nothing but ceaseless pain.
  800. >"I promise you this, little changeling. Unlike your dissimulative master, I will give you no delusions of free choice, here.
  801. >"The only solace you shall receive from my wrath, will be through your compliance. The pain you feel now is but a shadow of what you will later experience."
  802. >T-this can't be right!
  803. >H-he said she was weak!
  804. >W-who is this daemonic pony, standing before you?!
  805. >"You have one more chance to tell me your name, before your wings are the next to be used against you.
  806. >"And if you do not comply? Then we shall move on to your spirit."
  807. >N-no...
  808. >You can't...
  809. >This...
  810. >...
  811. >No.
  812. >No!
  813. >You can't give in!
  814. >You've failed Incognito enough times!
  815. >You'll never compound it by talking abou--
  816. >CRACK
  817. >Your vision goes white.
  818. >You scream yourself almost hoarse.
  819. >It almost feels like minutes pass.
  820. >Minutes of nothing but pure, unrelenting suffering.
  821. >Somewhere along the line, it lets up, all at once.
  822. >But the reverberations through your nerves continue for some time.
  823.  
  824. >Slowly, you become aware of the world around you again.
  825. >You hadn't changed location.
  826. >Celestia still stood before you.
  827. >Pain reigned supreme throughout your body, second only to exhaustion.
  828. >All you could do was sob, accompanied by deep, ragged breathing.
  829. >It's only when you have the wherewithal to look up at Celestia's face, that she spoke again.
  830. >"You continue to impress me. The only ones who could withstand such pain, all died thousands of years ago. You are indeed a rare specimen.
  831. >"But your body is not the only avenue over which I can... introduce negative reinforcement, so to speak.
  832. >"How fortunate for me, then, that you yourself have provided the means through which to torment your spirit."
  833. >She turns around, walking slowly towards the door.
  834. >"I shall let your mind suffer the consequences of your actions for a few days. Perhaps when I return, you will be far more... agreeable."
  835. >W-what?
  836. >W-what does she mean?
  837. >The first door opens, and that doctor is waiting behind it.
  838. >"I am afraid that your patient did not relent in her struggling, doctor. She even managed to throw her wings out of the bandaging."
  839. >What?!
  840. >Horseshit, you did!
  841. >"Oh, curses! I thought for sure you could talk her down!"
  842. >"Sadly, I only seem to have agitated her. Perhaps a few days will be enough to calm her down?"
  843. >Liar!
  844. >Witch!
  845. >She bucking tortured you!
  846. >"Certainly, princess. I'll be having a few words with her, myself!"
  847. >The much angrier doctor storms towards you.
  848. >That lying sow!
  849. >And she calls herself good?!
  850. >"You have a lot of explaining to do, missy!"
  851. <...
  852.  
  853. >You still can't believe the sight before you.
  854. >The gaping hole in Anon's chest.
  855. >At the very least, it was visibly improved from the last time you had seen it today!
  856. >Gosh, that must be some really strong alchemy!
  857. >Your sight breaks from Anon for a moment, to look at the rest of the guests.
  858. >As a unit, you and the other princesses decided to visit Anon, bringing Twilight's friends along as you went.
  859. >To say there was a lot of tears shed would be a massive understatement.
  860. >Even Rainbow Dash had teared up!
  861. >None took it harder, though, than Twilight and Luna.
  862. >Twilight couldn't go one word without breaking down.
  863. >Anon's ever-present ear scratching did little to assuage that.
  864. >As for Luna, well...
  865. >She's normally very good at keeping her emotions in check.
  866. >To see her cry like that, spoke volumes.
  867. >Eventually, however, the nurses had to show you all out.
  868. >Apparently, Anon had to be kept on a strict sleeping schedule while being treated.
  869. >Something about 'managing alchemic toxicity'.
  870. >You're not sure what that means, but if it involves toxicity of any kind, you're not about to argue!
  871. >"Don't be strangers, you hear?"
  872. >Well, at least he could still send you off in his usual style!
  873. >The door closes behind the group, and...
  874. >Well, everypony moves down the hall, sniffling the whole way.
  875. >It's not until they return to one of the lounges, that they finally show their true feelings.
  876. >Another massive outpouring of tears goes along with talk about what happened that day.
  877. >Seems like the story's out to this small group, at least.
  878.  
  879. >A lot of their grieving was what you'd expect.
  880. >How they couldn't do anything to help.
  881. >How bad Anon must have it.
  882. >How they could stop this happening again.
  883. >All sentiments you share, no doubt about it.
  884. >But... what could you possibly have done?
  885. >Hay, what could any of you have done?
  886. >This Incognito, he seems to plan for everything that anypony can throw at him and his minions!
  887. >Even the princesses don't seem able to stop him, at least not on their own!
  888. >The only consistent thing stopping his plans from succeeding is Anon!
  889. >It's just...
  890. >...
  891. >Oh, gosh.
  892. >When did the world get so insane?
  893. >Y-you need a moment...
  894. >After quickly excusing yourself, you step out of the lounge.
  895. >Y-yeah, that bench will be just fine.
  896. >And there you lie, head held in your hooves.
  897. >H-holy mackerel...
  898. >You didn't even do any fighting, and already you're so worn out!
  899. >How did things ever get so bad?
  900. >A super-powered changeling with runic monsters, all sent by another human!
  901. >A human that for all intents and purposes, is the complete opposite of Anon!
  902. >What kind of--
  903. >"H-hey, Sunburst!"
  904. >You bring your head up to the source of the voice.
  905. >A very tired sounding Starlight Glimmer was running towards you, a very nervous Spike riding on her back.
  906. >Gosh, she looks like she just ran a marathon!
  907. "S-Starlight?"
  908. >"I... We got here as soon as we could! What happened?!"
  909. "Y-you mean you don't know? Where were--"
  910. >"F-friendship missions, again! We only just finished a day ago!
  911. >"When we saw the damage in Ponyville, we knew things had gone bad again!"
  912.  
  913. >She just got here?
  914. >Well, that explains why she's so tired!
  915. >Spike jumps down from Starlight's back, and speaks up:
  916. >"Is Twilight okay? Are the others all okay?!"
  917. "Y-yeah, they're all fine."
  918. >"A-and what about those guards? What about Anon?"
  919. >Oh, gosh...
  920. >How do you even begin to explain this to Spike?
  921. >You pull yourself up, and begin trying your best to explain what happened.
  922. >You leave out a lot of details, like the monsters being runic, the swearing, and the exact nature of Anon's injury.
  923. >Honestly, despite doing it on the nose, you don't think you did a half bad job at it.
  924. >Soon after, you send the two over to the lounge, to meet with the rest of the girls.
  925. >Spike runs off right away to see Twilight, but Starlight hangs back.
  926. >"What else happened?"
  927. "I-- Huh?"
  928. >"Look, I know you held back some details for his sake. And I really appreciate that. But... I need to know."
  929. >And after seating yourselves at the bench, that's exactly what you do.
  930. >You retell the events, but without any filter this time.
  931. >Even without seeing it yourself, the descriptions the others had given were so...
  932. >W-well, you're not likely to forget it, let's just say.
  933. >By the time you finish, Starlight's face was...
  934. >Well, you don't think you'll ever get used to seeing her look so devastated.
  935. >But... there's something else in that look, too.
  936. >You don't really know what to call it.
  937. >"S-Sunburst? D-do you know where those... monsters are kept?"
  938. >Wait, what?
  939. "H-huh? W-why would you--?"
  940. >"Please."
  941. "I-I don't know. Only the princesses know about that, and they didn't share that with me."
  942.  
  943. >"Oh. Then... I-I'll be right back."
  944. >She walks off to the lounge, head hanging.
  945. >W-what's this all about?
  946. >Why does she want to know where the monsters, of all things, were being kept?
  947. >It's enough to make you follow.
  948. >She enters the lounge, and is immediately set upon by most of the girls.
  949. >It lifts her spirits, but you can tell it's not by a lot.
  950. >Afterwards, she makes her way to princess Luna.
  951. >"P-princess?"
  952. >"Starlight Glimmer? Is there something you require?"
  953. >"Y-yes... B-but, can we... discuss this more... privately?"
  954. >Whoa, she got a lot sadder all of a sudden.
  955. >A short-lived scrutinizing stare from Luna later, and her horn lit up, teleporting the pair of them away somewhere.
  956. >Well... it doesn't look like you'll find out what that was all about.
  957. >You say your farewells to the group, and make your way back to your room at the castle.
  958. >Yeah... you could use a good nap.
  959. >Just to take the edge off...
  960. >...
  961. >KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK
  962. >You jump awake with a start.
  963. >G-gosh darnit, you wish you weren't such a light sleeper sometimes!
  964. "Wh-who's there?"
  965. >"Sir Sunburst, it is I. We require your presence at once."
  966. >That's... princess Luna's voice!
  967. >Oh, horseapples, they need you!
  968. >The next few minutes is made up of fighting with the tangled sheets, and quickly freshening up for your visitor.
  969. "J-just a minute!"
  970. >Opening the door meets you with a very serious princess Luna.
  971. >"I trust you are cognizant enough to assist us in matters of magic, sir Sunburst?"
  972. "Magic? W-well, yes, but why?"
  973. >"We require your unique insights on a sensitive matter."
  974.  
  975. "S-sensitive matter?"
  976. >"I am afraid the matter itself is quite secret, and I cannot discuss it so openly.
  977. >"Once we arrive at our destination, it will be made clear."
  978. >G-geez, that's not foreboding at all!
  979. "U-uh, s-sure! L-lead the way, I-I guess..."
  980. >Her gaze softens slightly at your newfound nervousness, but she doesn't say much past that.
  981. >She leads the way to...
  982. >Wow, you've never seen so many guards before!
  983. >This...
  984. >Wait.
  985. >This looked very distinctly like a...
  986. >O-oh gosh, this is...!
  987. >This must be the new high-security section of the castle!
  988. >Built into part of the crystal caverns!
  989. >That must have been why there was a huge gated checkpoint on the way here!
  990. >B-but what did they have here, that would warrant something li--
  991. >...
  992. >The changeling.
  993. >S-she could be kept here, for sure!
  994. >M-maybe they moved Chrysalis down here, out from the vault?
  995. >A-and...
  996. >Oh gosh oh gosh, what do they need your help with?!
  997. >Luna eventually leads you towards one particular set of nondescript metal doors.
  998. >The sheen on it, and the fact that the guards needed special mouth handles to open it...
  999. >Iron plated.
  1000. >No doubt about it.
  1001. >O-oh gosh, wha--
  1002. >"Do not be alarmed, sir Sunburst. The subject we require your aid in is quite incapable of causing you harm."
  1003. >G-gosh, you sure h-hope so!
  1004. >There were two sets of doors, separated by a small hallway.
  1005. >You take the time to swallow the lump in your throat, while the guards open the second set.
  1006. >The sound of speaking follows immediately after the doors opened:
  1007. >"--he amount of time he must have spent, perfecting this... I..."
  1008.  
  1009. >That voice.
  1010. >Starlight?
  1011. >Luna enters at a slight angle, allowing you a view of the room's contents.
  1012. >You quickly wish you hadn't seen the contents.
  1013. >Monsters.
  1014. >Fear begins to drown your senses, as--
  1015. >POOF
  1016. >H-huh?
  1017. >You... aren't afraid anymore?
  1018. >"Apologies, sir Sunburst. But these creations still possess passive magic, designed to inspire indiscriminate fear."
  1019. >C-constant fear?
  1020. >So that must have been a dispel, then!
  1021. >But...
  1022. >You take a few tentative steps into the room, getting a closer look at the creatures contained within it.
  1023. >E-even without that passive fear spell, they still looked absolutely terrifying!
  1024. >Pale, stitched together, bottom half of a pony, top half of a human!
  1025. >A face with nothing but tiny slits for a nose, and a maw of sharp teeth!
  1026. >And covered, head to frog, in flowing, cursive patterns of magical symbols you don't recognize.
  1027. >Runes.
  1028. >All of them were in various states of damage, most with lacerations, one badly burned, one severed into large pieces.
  1029. >The two latter examples, you knew the cause of.
  1030. >D-did Anon really fight these things?
  1031. >G-gosh, what were they like in an actual fight?
  1032. >"Miss Glimmer, have you made any more progress?"
  1033. >"N-not much! It's just... I've only read the theory, a-and this is so much more advanced than what I read!"
  1034. >"Please, keep trying. Anything we can find will be of great use."
  1035. "S-Starlight?"
  1036. >The pony in question looks up from the notebook she's floating.
  1037. >Her expression falls.
  1038. "You... you know what these symbols mean?"
  1039. >A realization begins to take root.
  1040. >Your shock grows with her sadness.
  1041.  
  1042. @@@@@@@@
  1043.  
  1044. >A beat of silence.
  1045. >"Y-yes. I... I know what they mean."
  1046. >...
  1047. >No.
  1048. >N-no...
  1049. >S-she wouldn't...!
  1050. >She couldn't!
  1051. >"Sir Sunburst?"
  1052. >Your frantic thoughts are broken by Luna's interruption.
  1053. >It doesn't do much for your shock.
  1054. >"I understand your... hesitance here. But perhaps you should hear her explain herself, first?"
  1055. >U-uh...
  1056. >Well...
  1057. >...
  1058. >No.
  1059. >She's right.
  1060. >Starlight's your friend.
  1061. >She at least deserves to be heard out.
  1062. >You turn back to her, and...
  1063. >W-well, you would ask her something, but...
  1064. >Wh-where do you even begin?
  1065. >She clears her throat, looking back up at you.
  1066. >"I, uh... I guess there's no way to make this sound good, huh? No way to make how I know about this sound good?
  1067. >"Well, you don't need to guess. I... I didn't learn about... this kind of thing for a good cause. And I sure didn't use it for good reasons, either."
  1068. >She shifts in place for a moment before continuing:
  1069. >"S-so... you know how I, uh, t-turned evil, stole cutie marks, and all that?"
  1070. >All you manage is a dumb nod.
  1071. >She starts pacing.
  1072. >"Y-years ago, I... I found this book. W-well, a bunch of books, really, but I only read one of them.
  1073. >"It was... It was a guide book. On dark magic. All kinds of dark magic."
  1074. >She cringes, eyes shut, expecting some kind of rebuke.
  1075. >When it doesn't come, she opens her eyes again.
  1076. >This time, there's tears in them.
  1077. >"I wish I could tell you I left that stupid book there, but... Well, I didn't. I was still so angry about being alone, about cutie marks, that...
  1078. >"W-well, I figured I didn't have anything to lose."
  1079.  
  1080. >She pauses to wipe her eyes.
  1081. >"Worst mistake of my life. The book was old, ancient even, and knowing what I do now, just... drew me right in.
  1082. >"Sunburst, dark magic isn't like regular magic. It's not even like that funny magic you and Anon seem to know about.
  1083. >"It's heavy, suffocating, cold, and so, so powerful. I can't even describe it. Your mind loves the feeling, but your body just hates it...
  1084. >"It's like a drug, almost. But like any drug, it... it has side effects. Really bad ones. P-permanent ones."
  1085. >She pauses, enough time for you to finally say something.
  1086. "L-like what?"
  1087. >She opens her mouth, but hesitates before saying her piece.
  1088. >You've never seen Starlight this torn up before, not even when she admitted to being evil.
  1089. >She turns to Luna, giving her a pleading look.
  1090. >Luna wastes no time in picking up where she left off:
  1091. >"I am not certain how Anonymous's peculiar magic functions, but I am certain you know all about how ours does?"
  1092. >You're still looking at Starlight as you nod.
  1093. "R-right. T-the principles are different, b-but his is extremely neutral. Y-you must have felt it, right?"
  1094. >"Yes, I did. Truly neutral magic, created so reliably, is truly a sight to behold. But then, so is dark magic, but for very different reasons.
  1095. >"Imagine, sir Sunburst, that the learned spell arrays are instead primal, instinctive, emotional abstracts.
  1096. >"Imagine that the force of will you use to perform a spell is instead the force of the most base, most powerful feelings.
  1097. >"Imagine that the separation between yourself and the subject is replaced with a deep connection.
  1098.  
  1099. >"And lastly, imagine if the shroud of the mind was not a vital, inborn protection, but instead a worthless obstacle to true power."
  1100. >...
  1101. >Wh-whoa.
  1102. >You... didn't see how any of that could even work, until that last part!
  1103. "They... they drop the shroud...?!"
  1104. >"Drop it? They bury it. Curse it's existence. If it was within their power, they would burn it.
  1105. >"It is because it is only suppressible, and not destructible, that they are capable of redemption. Even then, it is rare."
  1106. >The revelation is enough to make you sit down.
  1107. >Just... you didn't realize it was even possible to cast away the shroud like that!
  1108. >And yet, it makes so much sense!
  1109. >Without it's functionality, you would have power.
  1110. >But... the toll it must take...
  1111. "A-and... wh-what's the c-cost? Y-you can't just g-get that much power w-without a source!"
  1112. >"Very perceptive of you, sir Sunburst. The power is obtained through full access to one's own soul."
  1113. >N-no...
  1114. >"In that sense, the dark practitioners are correct in their assessment of it being an obstacle to true power.
  1115. >"But I should not need to tell you what drawing upon your soul for power will do to you."
  1116. >Y-yeah, you know.
  1117. >Reduced lifespan, madness, emotional deadness, mutation, a-a whole host of bad things!
  1118. >"But, that is not the only thing the darkness will do to you."
  1119. >I-it gets worse?!
  1120. >"There are dark practitioners in the world, who devote themselves so completely, so utterly, to the darkness, that they begin to... deteriorate.
  1121. >"The light within the world will revolt against their very being, slowly tearing them apart."
  1122.  
  1123. "Th-the world tears them apart?"
  1124. >"Just as a pure light will be absorbed by all that is even passingly dark, pure darkness will begin to consume you all unto itself.
  1125. >"Once this point is reached, you cannot reverse it. You are doomed to have your very soul consumed by your own folly.
  1126. >"Very few reach this point, thankfully. But infinitely more terrifying, are those who use even this very weakness to their ends."
  1127. >Wh-what?
  1128. "H-how do you take... dying like that, losing your soul, a-and make it work for you?!"
  1129. >"Y-yeah, what's up with that? And what's this got to do with my... s-side effects?"
  1130. >"Miss Starlight, this will serve as my answer to your query from before. Heed my words, the both of you."
  1131. >Wait, Starlight asked about this before?
  1132. >W-well... you're not sure you want to know the answer, but...
  1133. >Luna's telling of this whole thing is just so... mesmerizing!
  1134. >A-and terrifying, all at the same time!
  1135. >"Amongst these few, highly learned users of the darkness, are those who have learned to cheat this path to complete destruction.
  1136. >"Using the vilest of techniques, they transmute the remainder of their souls, now touched by utter darkness, into a thing of the dark itself.
  1137. >"I know little of this power, but I do know that such a modification is referred to as... 'transcendence'."
  1138. >Starlight is heard gasping.
  1139. >"W-wait. S-so you're saying, that...?!"
  1140. >"Yes. They become one with the abyss, instead of being consumed by it. And they live on forever more, searching for foolish mortals to do their bidding.
  1141.  
  1142. >"They band together, reaching out, touching the minds of those who cast the shroud aside, and harness the power of dark.
  1143. >"And those whom they touch, to shepherd along the path of true darkness? They suffer terrible effects.
  1144. >"Their cold, baneful touch is what causes the mental degradation. It is the primary reason why we have forbidden the use of the dark arts.
  1145. >"And it is what you felt, what you heard, all those years ago."
  1146. >Starlight's response is only a whisper.
  1147. >"The warp."
  1148. >A solemn nod from Luna.
  1149. >You turn slowly to Starlight.
  1150. "Th-the warp?"
  1151. >Starlight takes a moment before speaking again.
  1152. >"Wh-when I used the dark magic, I had these... headaches. Splitting, awful headaches. And... there were voices, too, that always came with them.
  1153. >"They didn't make sense at first. B-but the more I used dark magic, the more sense they made, until...
  1154. >"Th-they told me so many things. How to use magic even better. I... I didn't even care if hearing them hurt so much, they were just so helpful!
  1155. >"A-and then, when I read about souls, and thought about their relation to cutie marks? Th-they...
  1156. >She's tearing up really badly. Like she's right about to cry.
  1157. >"Th-they helped me make the spell to... 'equalize' ponies."
  1158. >She broke down.
  1159. >...
  1160. >O-oh my gosh...
  1161. >Th-that...
  1162. >Wh-what do you even...
  1163. >...
  1164. >Before you even realize what you're doing, you make your way over to Starlight.
  1165. >And you put a foreleg around her withers.
  1166. >Something to provide even a small amount of comf--
  1167. >Wh-whoa!
  1168. >In an instant, she's thrown her forelegs around your neck, her muzzle buried in your chest.
  1169.  
  1170. >In between her sobs, she sometimes says 'I'm sorry'.
  1171. >Y-you...
  1172. >A-all you can do is just... stroke her back.
  1173. >Minutes pass before she calms down enough to speak again, though she doesn't raise her head.
  1174. >"I-it was more than just headaches. I got so sick, after they... spoke to me.
  1175. >"Black vomit. Nightmares. Really bad sunburns. I went blind for a day. E-even one time, where I got so hungry, a-and nothing I ate satisfied me...
  1176. >"I... I had so many problems, I thought I might die..."
  1177. >She doesn't speak after that.
  1178. >You don't stop the gentle strokes across her back.
  1179. >Luna speaks up after a few moments:
  1180. >"These effects, left by the whispers of the abyss, is what is known as warp, sir Sunburst.
  1181. >"They always follow in their wake, and there is no defense against it.
  1182. >"The only way to prevent them from warping your body and mind, is to prevent them from touching you at all.
  1183. >"It means casting the shroud over yourself once more. And that is no simple task, for those who do everything to bury it."
  1184. >Starlight sniffles before continuing:
  1185. >"After Twilight saved me, I... I vowed to stop. It took months, but... the voices finally went away."
  1186. >She pulls back, wiping her eyes before looking at you properly.
  1187. >"B-but still... after you told me what had happened with Anon, I... I-I had to do something!
  1188. >"E-even if I won't use that magic again, I could at least help with... f-figuring out what that other human's magic is doing!"
  1189. "B-but... you didn't use any of that rune stuff... d-did you?"
  1190. >"N-no, I never did. But that book told me about it, anyways."
  1191.  
  1192. >She looks much less sad now, like a huge weight was off her withers.
  1193. >But what replaced it was... frustration.
  1194. >More than the relief.
  1195. >"A-and I've been trying my best to find out what spells he carved into these... things.
  1196. >"But it's been slow going. Sunburst, these runes, they're like... like the evil version of one of Starswirl's spells!
  1197. >"Complex, uncanny, powerful, and almost a work of art by itself. O-only, this is... also so evil, it..."
  1198. >She shakes her head, getting even more frustrated.
  1199. >"It doesn't make any sense!"
  1200. "H-huh? Wh-what doesn't make sense? The runes?"
  1201. >"No, not the runes! They make perfect sense! It's... it's that human who made them!
  1202. >"If... If I tried to do even a third of this work, I... I-I'd have ended up with my damn soul being destroyed, like Luna said!
  1203. >"But he's done all of this work, and done it at least five times! Hay, probably more than that!"
  1204. >"Miss Starlight is correct. This kind of dark craftsmareship is enough to damn over a dozen ponies.
  1205. >"And yet, even when I first fought him, he remained perfectly sane, with no apparent signs of warping.
  1206. >"And we do not know why."
  1207. >O-oh.
  1208. >That...
  1209. "You're right. That... that doesn't make any sense."
  1210. >"I know! S-so, I... I thought, maybe, since you knew about that funny magic, that--"
  1211. "W-wait, I never told you that!"
  1212. >"O-oh, right. Uh, L-Luna told me, and... s-she thought you could, well, help?"
  1213. >Wait, help?
  1214. "You... you want my help?"
  1215. >"Y-yeah. I know that it's not the same kind of magic, but... Luna can't stay and help, and, well, you always did see magic in weird ways..."
  1216.  
  1217. >O-oh gosh...
  1218. >She wants your help with... deciphering these things?
  1219. >T-that's...
  1220. "U-uh, I... I'm not gonna get all--?"
  1221. >Starlight recoils, like she was just kicked.
  1222. >"NO! No, no, no! I'd never let that happen to you, never ever!
  1223. >"I... I'm writing down the runes, trying to translate them over to regular spells.
  1224. >"B-but a lot of them just don't make sense in translation, s-so I thought maybe, with another spell system, I could..."
  1225. "W-well, I..."
  1226. >Gosh, this is all so... crazy!
  1227. >But still...
  1228. >You...
  1229. >W-well...
  1230. >It's not like you could do much at Canterlot, anyways...
  1231. "A-all right."
  1232. >A small smile finally spreads across her face.
  1233. >"Th-thank you."
  1234. >Luna clears her throat, before speaking up:
  1235. >"I am pleased to hear you say that, sir Sunburst. While I must indeed depart soon, I can stay for a while and help."
  1236. "I... I understand."
  1237. >Starlight approaches to give you a brief hug, and then, work begins.
  1238. >Almost an hour passes, while all three of you get to work.
  1239. >Before long, you both say your farewells to Luna, who leaves soon after.
  1240. >Wow, though...
  1241. >Starlight was super careful to not tell you much about how these runes worked.
  1242. >But after seeing the crude translations, you're glad she was.
  1243. "I just don't get it. How could anything make a spell like this?"
  1244. >"I don't know."
  1245. "You're... sure you're okay, reading all of this stuff?"
  1246. >"Y-yeah, I'll be fine. You don't have to worry about me."
  1247. "It's just that whole 'warp' thing, I..."
  1248. >"I-I know. After feeling the things it can do to you, I... I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy."
  1249. <...
  1250.  
  1251. >"Honestly, I'm not certain how you even threw your wings out of the wrappings like that!
  1252. >"That little tantrum of yours will hold your recovery back by another couple of days!"
  1253. >Oh sweet foremothers, does he ever shut up?
  1254. >He's been going on and on and ON!
  1255. >The whole bucking time you've been at the emergency room, he's never shut up!
  1256. >It's enough to give you a damn headache!
  1257. >As if you didn't have enough aching to deal with already!
  1258. >The wheeled bed jostles forward, and you finally go into motion, the doors ahead of you opening as this happens.
  1259. >"I work for days, healing most of your wounds, and this is what I get in return?
  1260. >"And to think, you still have the audacity to lie about harming yourself!"
  1261. >Don't.
  1262. >Give him.
  1263. >The satisfaction.
  1264. >You knew he wouldn't believe you, and you still tried anyways.
  1265. >That was the last time you try to tell the truth about their precious, two-faced, daemonic goddess to them.
  1266. >Bunch of bucking idiots...
  1267. >...
  1268. >No, that's not entirely true.
  1269. >Celestia's had centuries to twist her people's minds, like she twisted history.
  1270. >She's just really good at this.
  1271. >Hah, and she calls Incognito the monster?
  1272. >Maybe she should try a mirror sometime, if she wants a real monster!
  1273. >The bed wheels into another secured hospital room.
  1274. >It's turned around, so it faces the door, like always.
  1275. >Equipment is wheeled around, and curtains are moved into position, obscuring the rest of the room in a wall of sterile white sheets.
  1276. >At least you got to see the clock before it was covered.
  1277. >Middle of the evening.
  1278. >Maybe he'd finally leave you alone?
  1279.  
  1280. >Small pads attached to wires are strapped to your right foreleg.
  1281. >They lead to a monitoring construct.
  1282. >The second they touch, the gems in the thing light up.
  1283. >Quiet, soft peals accompany the pulsing red gem, obviously meant to be the pulse.
  1284. >The others you don't really recognize, but you also don't really care.
  1285. >The nurses who wheeled you in, and attached the machine, quickly head out soon after.
  1286. >Except the damn doctor.
  1287. >"Well, you certainly look calmer than before. There's just one more thing I need from you, miss Athalia."
  1288. >Oh, finally!
  1289. >He floats a...
  1290. >A spoon?
  1291. >And a black bottle?
  1292. >He pours out some teal-coloured syru--
  1293. >...
  1294. >No.
  1295. >"You just need to take this little dose of medicine here. Now, open wide!"
  1296. >Buck off!
  1297. >As if this wasn't humiliating enough!
  1298. >Despite the pain, you pull your head back, making sure to growl as you do.
  1299. >It doesn't deter him.
  1300. >"Come on now, there's no need for that."
  1301. "Go away."
  1302. >"You're making this much harder than it needs to be."
  1303. "I'm not taking your stupid medicine!"
  1304. >He stops.
  1305. >"Oh, yes you are."
  1306. >His tone and expression change to something more neutral, more foreboding.
  1307. >"Now, we can do this one of two ways, missy. Either you take the oral solution,"
  1308. >He floats something else in--
  1309. >...
  1310. >The machine's pulse noises get faster.
  1311. >"Or, you can receive it through injection."
  1312. >T-that's the biggest needle you've ever seen!
  1313. >A-and there's a small pickax to go with it!
  1314. >"This is how you have been receiving it, every night, in your time with me.
  1315. >"And I would prefer not to heal another puncture spot on your rump."
  1316.  
  1317. >W-what?!
  1318. >He's been putting that in--?!
  1319. >"It's your decision."
  1320. >He walks around your left side.
  1321. >The machine's noises get even faster.
  1322. >N-no!
  1323. >H-he's joking, right?
  1324. >He can't be serious!
  1325. >The small pick lines up with your flank--
  1326. "W-wait!"
  1327. >He stops.
  1328. >"Yes, miss Athalia?"
  1329. "I..."
  1330. >You swallow dry.
  1331. "I'll... I'll take the stupid medicine."
  1332. >"I'm sorry, what?"
  1333. "I said I'll take your stupid medicine!"
  1334. >"Not with that language, you won't."
  1335. >This bucking doctor!
  1336. >He's dead!
  1337. >He's the first pony you're killing when you get out of--
  1338. >OHGOSHHE'SRAISINGTHEPICKUPNONONO--
  1339. "I'll take it!"
  1340. >He stops before it comes down.
  1341. >"You'll take what, miss Athalia?"
  1342. >Words cannot describe how much you hate him right now.
  1343. "I'll... take... the medicine."
  1344. >"Nicer."
  1345. >If you grit your teeth any harder, they might actually crack.
  1346. >It's so hard, keeping the anger out of your voice.
  1347. "P-please. Give me. The medicine."
  1348. >"Now, see? Manners are not such a difficult thing, are they?"
  1349. >And like nothing happened, he's back to his cheery professional voice.
  1350. >He stows away the needle and pick, coming back around to face you with the spoon in tow.
  1351. >L-let's just get this over with...
  1352. >Wordlessly, you open your mouth.
  1353. >He floats the spoon's head inside.
  1354. >You close down, quickly taki--
  1355. >GAAAH!
  1356. >T-this stuff is vile!
  1357. >You choke it down as quickly as you can.
  1358. >He retracts the spoon fairly fast, leaving you to choke back your gags.
  1359. >B-bucking doctor...
  1360. >"I am afraid we are not quite done yet, miss Athalia."
  1361. >Your stomach drops.
  1362. >"Just one more to go, and that will be it for today."
  1363.  
  1364. >He's already refilled the spoon by the time you look up at him again.
  1365. >H-he's so dead...
  1366. >Swallowing dry again, you reopen your mouth.
  1367. >The same motion is repeated, only so much worse.
  1368. >By the time you choke it down, you gag loudly once, before you suppress the rest.
  1369. >"And that's it for tonight!"
  1370. >F-finally.
  1371. >H-his death will be so painful, you swear...
  1372. >"I shall see you again tomorrow, miss Athalia. Good night!"
  1373. >And with that, he passes through the curtain.
  1374. >The lights turn off, and the door is heard closing.
  1375. >B-buck...
  1376. >S-so tired...
  1377. >That stupid medicine...
  1378. >Must've...
  1379. >He...
  1380. >...
  1381. >Blackness.
  1382. >You can't move.
  1383. >>`Well, well, well. Back with us again, are we?`
  1384. >T-the voices...
  1385. >Pressure begins building in your head.
  1386. >>`We told you how to obtain more power, you know. But you didn't take our advice.
  1387. >>`And now look where you are. A prisoner. Weak. Broken. Ohh, your master must be so ashamed of you...`
  1388. >Pain begins splitting through your head.
  1389. >S-stop...
  1390. >>`You could have avoided all of this. All you had to do was breach the veil, like you did before.
  1391. >>`Pull in their essence, use it in lieu of your own. So much power, easily reachable, and you ignore it.`
  1392. >The pain gets worse.
  1393. >P-please stop...
  1394. >>`But don't worry. We understand. We were quite difficult to comprehend for you at first, weren't we?
  1395. >>`So let's get you up to speed, on all you might have missed.`
  1396. >Streams of red symbols flow into your vision.
  1397. >No!
  1398. >P-please stop!
  1399. >>`Oh, we're far past that point, now.`
  1400. >The symbols flood your vision.
  1401. >Pure agony floods your senses.
  1402. <...
  1403.  
  1404. @@@@@@@@
  1405.  
  1406. "Aw, come on doc, not even a little one?"
  1407. >"Absolutely not, Anon. I'm certain your alcohol tolerance is sky-high, but we can't say the same for your alchemic tolerance."
  1408. "Would it help if I said 'please'?"
  1409. >"Not this time."
  1410. "Damn it."
  1411. >Some booze would be mighty good for the damn pain right about now.
  1412. >"You'll have to wait a few more days, then you can drink to your heart's content."
  1413. "Define 'few more'."
  1414. >"Well, at this rate, the major damage should be repaired by evening. If that happens, you'll get the final repair agent dose tomorrow morning."
  1415. "Then I'll be good?"
  1416. >"Yes, Anon, then you'll be good."
  1417. "You're all heart, doc."
  1418. >Never figured that doc Valiant guy was such a professional worrier.
  1419. >But hey, that crazy gas alchemy shit they did actually fucking worked.
  1420. >Hole's finally closed up, so you're not breathing that pretty nasty shit everywhere.
  1421. >But the closed up point is still pretty sketchy.
  1422. >So you're still stuck with the mask.
  1423. >Still, at least you can talk with it!
  1424. >And use your arms!
  1425. >And oh man, even if you aren't outside to hear the best of it, you've racked up some serious street cred with the guards.
  1426. >Nowadays, even the regular royal guards were trying not to drop their spaghetti around you.
  1427. >And the guys you knew were Invictus at least respected you.
  1428. >"Trust me, Anon, I would love to get you on your hoov-- er, feet, as soon as possible.
  1429. >"But that injected repair agent caused so much toxicity build-up, that we weren't confident the alchemy regiment from before would work.
  1430. >"At least, not without very... unpleasant side-effects."
  1431.  
  1432. "The last regiment?"
  1433. >"Yes, a series of potent treatments, originally meant for the princesses themselves, actually.
  1434. >"You received that particular regiment after your run-in with the changeling queen."
  1435. >Ohh shit, that fight!
  1436. "Oh, right! The one where my arm got mangled!"
  1437. >"The very same."
  1438. >Man, it feels like forever since that fight with queen bitch of bug mountain.
  1439. >Looking back, the shit you were packing for that fight was pretty laughable.
  1440. >Compared to the shit you had now?
  1441. >That's some serious progress.
  1442. >But oh boy, that last fight...
  1443. >Talk about dialing it up to 11.
  1444. >Five juiced rune monsters, and a super-powered mutant bug?
  1445. >A mutant bug that just so happens to be the same one from your chat with Chrysalis?
  1446. >And if she really was some kind of major aide to that colossal edgy douchefuck, that goes a long way to explaining her own ascent to edginess.
  1447. >Like, Christ, did she get a fucking hand-me-down katana from him, or what?
  1448. >A series of knocks on the door breaks both you and the doctor from your thoughts.
  1449. >The doc goes over to open it up, and behind it is...
  1450. >"Good morning, mister Anonymous. I have brought you the items you requested."
  1451. >Man, perfect timing!
  1452. >That one Invictus sergeant guy was carting in your Lexica, and a ton of paper and quills!
  1453. >Hey, might as well do some work while you're recovering, eh?
  1454. >Though getting this guy's name was a challenge in itself.
  1455. >Whole 'secret police' thing and all.
  1456. >Still, you got him to relent, and tell you in private, with the whole 'never utter in company' clause.
  1457.  
  1458. >And the winner was: Exact Measure.
  1459. >Sounds about right, considering his schtick of announcing exact probabilities, and all that.
  1460. >Autistic as hell, sure, but in an endearing way.
  1461. >Huh.
  1462. >Actually...
  1463. >Something about that seems familiar.
  1464. >Ah, whatever, you'll pursue that train later.
  1465. >You've got book shit to do, damn it!
  1466. "Sweet, thanks man! Just set them down over here."
  1467. >You may or may not have gotten the nightstand doubled up in advance for this.
  1468. >In his usual quasi-emotionless Micro God™ manner, he does exactly that.
  1469. >Well, he floats the paper and writing stuff on, but has to mouth-place the book itself.
  1470. >Whoever made that thing, made damn sure to make it super resistant to magic.
  1471. >You'd know, you've tried.
  1472. >"You will have a series of visitors here in the next few hours, mister Anonymous.
  1473. >"The first will arrive two hours and thirty-two minutes from now, and the other three hours and fifty-seven minutes from now, with variances of up to thirty minutes."
  1474. >Geez, really earned the name Exact, didn't he?
  1475. "Thanks, bud."
  1476. >"There are matters to which I must attend to, and I cannot remain here. I shall return when the need arises."
  1477. >Okay, it's sometimes endearing.
  1478. "Yeah, sure, don't let me keep 'ya. Have fun."
  1479. >A small nod is the response you get, before he turns tail and leaves.
  1480. >Right as you were about to ask the doc about him, a nurse rushes into the room.
  1481. >"D-doctor Valiant? Th-the special patient's condition is worsening!"
  1482. >"Damn, her onset was quicker than I thought. Sorry, Anon, but I'll have to take my leave, too."
  1483.  
  1484. "Geez, is there something on my face, or something?"
  1485. >"Very funny. I'll be in touch."
  1486. "Oh, I know you will."
  1487. >Him and the nurse both rush out of the room.
  1488. >Huh, wonder who this 'special patient' of theirs is?
  1489. >Ah, who fuckin' cares?
  1490. >You've got shit to do!
  1491. >Reaching over, you pick up the all-too-familiar Lexica.
  1492. >While you'd love to read up on some more on those 'legendary foci', given the success of the Bluebaide focus, you're in no position to do any crafts right now.
  1493. >So theory it is.
  1494. >More specifically, the still-incomplete, super-advanced, build-your-own-spells theory.
  1495. >Ohh, boy.
  1496. >This was gonna be a slog and a half.
  1497. >But hell, better than sitting around.
  1498. >...
  1499. >KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK
  1500. "Who's there?"
  1501. >"Your entourage, buddy!"
  1502. >Everything stops.
  1503. >That voice.
  1504. "R-Razor?"
  1505. >The door opens up, and--
  1506. >Holy fuck, it is him!
  1507. >Lacking very much in the armour department, but still with that fucking grin of his.
  1508. >"Thought you'd lose me that easy, huh?"
  1509. "Hooooly fuck, you're kicking already?!"
  1510. >"Takes more than freaky alien physics to put this old bat down!"
  1511. >And your mood uptick suddenly goes 135°.
  1512. "Yeah, alien physics that damn near killed you!"
  1513. >"You know, I can't say that wasn't the closest I got to kicking the bucket for real.
  1514. >"Uhh... s-sorry about that, by the way. I didn't think your device could do that kind of a number on me."
  1515. "Stay the fuck away from my magnets next time, you hear me?"
  1516. >"Yeah, no shit. But oh man, Anon, are you the talk of the buckin' guards!
  1517. >"Now, what's this I hear about a super-bug?"
  1518. "Ohh boy, are you in for a story."
  1519. <...
  1520.  
  1521. >Your stomach empties itself of more black vomit again.
  1522. >For the fifth time.
  1523. >Your whole world is pain.
  1524. >The vomiting makes it so much worse.
  1525. >But you can't suppress it, no matter what you do.
  1526. >All you can do is heave for air, sniffle, and blink back tears.
  1527. >It hurts to even move your eyes.
  1528. >Keeping them shut only does so much against the tears.
  1529. >The times when you do have to blink them away, you catch sight of pony nurses, surrounding you.
  1530. >They're not doing anything.
  1531. >Nothing but giving you buckets to vomit into.
  1532. >S-some bucking help, they are!
  1533. >Every one of them, useless!
  1534. >W-why aren't they doing more?!
  1535. >They obviously want you kept alive, so why--
  1536. >"Five expulsions already? Goodness gracious, how much did she cast beforehoof?"
  1537. >The voice lights your anger up immediately.
  1538. >That doctor.
  1539. >T-that stupid, worthless, humiliating--
  1540. >You feel more vomiting coming on.
  1541. >O-oh please, n-no more...
  1542. >Against your internal stuggles and begging, your body lights up with more searing pain, as your stomach empties itself again.
  1543. >"Make that six."
  1544. >Damn it, help!
  1545. >That's his bucking job!
  1546. >When you get out, he's dead!
  1547. >No, worse than dead!
  1548. >He'll drown in his blood before you tear through his spirit and rip out his essen--
  1549. >Wait.
  1550. >R-rip out his essence?
  1551. >When did you learn to do that?
  1552. >Was...
  1553. >Was it the voices?
  1554. >T-they did all this to you, b-but taught you to...?
  1555. >H-huh...
  1556. >The pain almost feels like it's receding, as you ponder this.
  1557. >"That seems to be the last of it. Get her cleaned up and fed, check up on her every half hour."
  1558. >H-he's so b-bucking dead...
  1559. <...
  1560.  
  1561. "And then I was all like, 'no, wait for them to waste you', and she turned around, and then Luna sweeps in and absolutely fucking wrecks her shit!"
  1562. >"Pffhahah! Holy shit, Anon!"
  1563. "Wish I coulda seen her weasel face when she realized it, man! Almost would have made up for the stab."
  1564. >"O-oh holy buck, I... Geez, how's moving up from destroying changeling queens feel?"
  1565. "Painful and bloody. In other words, fucking amazing."
  1566. >More like saving your friends was fucking amazing.
  1567. >Two times now, you've saved them.
  1568. >That alone makes this all worth it.
  1569. >"Yeah, I'll bet! And hay, looks like you got to keep your magic shit, didn't you?"
  1570. "I'm a lot more surprised about that than you are."
  1571. >"You kidding? You single-hoofedly saved most of the royalty from some serious evil! Forget your book, I'm surprised you're not buried in a mountain of mares and booze right now!"
  1572. "Eh, wouldn't know. Doc won't let either of those near me."
  1573. >"Killjoy."
  1574. "That's what I said, too."
  1575. >You know, it's really bizarre to see Razor out of his armour.
  1576. >You could make out a few errant scars on his barrel.
  1577. >That, and his mark was actually visible.
  1578. >Looked like a bat wing with a sword crossing under it.
  1579. >"Although, while you're bringing up stabbing, I've gotta ask. When are you gonna be let out of here?"
  1580. "Should be good by tomorrow morning, why?"
  1581. >"One, I'm officially back to being your shadow. That means stalking your tall flank all day again.
  1582. >"Two, I'm gonna see about pencilling you in for some combat training."
  1583. >Oh, oka--
  1584. >Wait what
  1585.  
  1586. "Wait, what?"
  1587. >"Well gee, don't thank me or anything."
  1588. "N-no, no, it's just, where the fuck did that come from?"
  1589. >"Well, after hearing that little story of yours? I can safely say that your fighting sucks."
  1590. >Ouch.
  1591. >"Like, it's a hell of a brawl, if you could bring magical death weapons to a brawl, but as a fight, it bucking sucks."
  1592. "Gee, thanks."
  1593. >"Anytime. Look, point is, you're a big walking alien target for that Incognito tailhole, and obviously he wants you out of the picture.
  1594. >"Thing is, he can fight. So can most of his toadies, except that super bug you totally crushed. You can't.
  1595. >"And it's not like you're shit at throwing down, either. Hay, you're real bucking good at brawling it out, on top of being a real quick thinker.
  1596. >"You just need a little... refinement."
  1597. >Well...
  1598. >Shit.
  1599. >Can't say he's not making a solid point.
  1600. >You were kinda playing it by ear, in both of those big fights.
  1601. >Even if Nito's troops weren't exactly the most coherent bunch, at least if the ones Chrysalis brought were any indication, he certainly leads them well.
  1602. >There's also still the issue of him wrecking your shit in a 1v1.
  1603. >This would go some way to levelling the playing field.
  1604. >Yeah...
  1605. >Sounds like a good plan.
  1606. "All right, pal. Sold."
  1607. >"See, if all the grunts were like you, we wouldn't have any problems."
  1608. >Your retort was cut short by a loud stomach grumble.
  1609. >Ah, shit...
  1610. "Uh, hey Razor? Mind looking into something for me?"
  1611. >"Am I going to regret this?"
  1612. "Maybe. You guys keep anything around for gryphons to eat?"
  1613. >"Hah, that's all? Wondered when you'd finally ask."
  1614. <...
  1615.  
  1616. >Oh holy fucking Christ this is the best hospital stay ever
  1617. >The castle cooks just served you some fucking chicken enchiladas
  1618. >Why the fuck do they know how to make those
  1619. >Better question is who the fuck cares
  1620. >You hear me, Sonic
  1621. >Fuck your chili dogs
  1622. >This is the real nigga shit right here
  1623. >...
  1624. >Ah, there goes the moment of sagely clairvoyance.
  1625. >But in all seriousness, that was some of the best shit you've eaten since getting to Equestria.
  1626. >This just keeps getting better and better.
  1627. >Next time you see Razor, you...
  1628. >Uh...
  1629. >Actually, there's not a whole lot you can do, is there?
  1630. >The dude seems really uptight about the whole ear scratching business, so that's a no-go.
  1631. >Oh, whatever, you'll think of something.
  1632. >And speaking of thinking.
  1633. >Holy mother of God, are you doing a lot of that, thanks to the book.
  1634. >Already, you've got seventeen pages of notes down on this singular fucking section!
  1635. >'Fundaments of Vis', it's called.
  1636. >You were totally unprepared for just how much shit you could do to mana in this.
  1637. >Adding effects with 'essentia', which your foci did, and the 'dark' subsection on adding that soul-ownership 'taint' with 'animarum'.
  1638. >And an imperial long shit-ton of things you could do under those categories.
  1639. >It was pretty interesting though, seeing how things like the fire focus actually changed the mana into usable magic.
  1640. >More interesting was the kind of things that adding 'taint' could do to already-changed magic.
  1641. >Technically, you didn't need any souls to add the effect, but it's still a sketchy field.
  1642.  
  1643. >Still, if you could find a way to add it in a non-evil fashion, it presented a lot of interesting possible twists on your spells.
  1644. >Freezing fire could easily be achieved, for example.
  1645. >Forcing magic to take other forms, like forming the sonic focus's power into a ray or cone, instead of an all-encompassing field.
  1646. >It wasn't terribly efficient though, and used magic in a pretty uneven and rough way, which can creep out any caster who senses it.
  1647. >But it's worth keeping an eye on.
  1648. >Right now, though, you were going at this one thing for two hours.
  1649. >You need to change gears before you go insane.
  1650. >You clear off your current notes, stack them into a pile, and get some fresh ones laid out.
  1651. >Next section.
  1652. >'Arcane Dissection'.
  1653. >Well, that sounded fucking scary.
  1654. >And it's not even a dark section!
  1655. >Wait...
  1656. >Oh.
  1657. >It means 'dissection' in the sense of 'analysis'.
  1658. >And from the prefacing, it looks to be a bunch of ways to analyze things that are already magical, so you can... reverse-engineer them?
  1659. >That sounds pretty neat, actually!
  1660. >And hey, it's either this section, or 'Translation of Arcane Systems', which is taking other written spells, and turning them into thaumic glyphs.
  1661. >While that sounds a lot more immediately useful, your knowledge of pony magic is badly lacking.
  1662. >Especially after Sunburst explained the difference between their spells, and these ones.
  1663. >So, dissection it is.
  1664. >And what do you know, there's a dark subsection here, as well.
  1665. >Looks like you can analyze people's souls, too.
  1666. >Not just their magic.
  1667. >Lovely.
  1668. <...
  1669.  
  1670. >KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK
  1671. >Well hello there, who's that?
  1672. >Must be this fabled second visitor.
  1673. "Who is it?"
  1674. >"Hey, Anon! It's us!"
  1675. >Twilight?
  1676. >Man, she and Luna have been seeing you every day, almost like clockwork.
  1677. "Come on in!"
  1678. >The door opening confirms the pattern.
  1679. >There was Twilight, always happy to see you.
  1680. >Luna always came along with her, and this time was no exception.
  1681. >There she was, with a more restrained happy look.
  1682. >"Hello, Anonymous. I trust your recovery is going well?"
  1683. "You know it."
  1684. >+4 giggle of top hnnnngh hits for critical damage
  1685. >A very purple head finds it's way into your hand, urging on the scratching.
  1686. >This is something else she's been doing, too.
  1687. >Not that you're complaining or anything, but...
  1688. >There's something in that happy look of hers whenever she does that.
  1689. >You don't really know what.
  1690. >"I... I'm really happy to see you're almost all better, Anon!"
  1691. "Yeah, me too."
  1692. >Another free hand beckons the other princess over.
  1693. >This always ends in a double scratch-a-thon.
  1694. >The best kind of scratch-a-thon.
  1695. >With a bigger smile, Luna strides right over, into your waiting hand.
  1696. >And the itchies commence.
  1697. >Oh boy, do they commence.
  1698. >Twilight gets kinda pouty when she doesn't get maximum scratching, though.
  1699. >Funny, she only does that when Luna joins in.
  1700. >Though said pony doesn't seem to mind all that much.
  1701. >You do catch a smidge of confusion in her look, though, when she sees Twilight's pouting.
  1702. >Ah, who knows?
  1703. >Must be some kinda pony thing.
  1704. >Getting all competitive with the attention?
  1705. >Like a bunch of big, hooved, cuddly dogs.
  1706.  
  1707. >God, look at you.
  1708. >Two fucking ruler horses of a magic horseland, both melting in your not-magic fingers?
  1709. >A whole host of good friends, pals, and other such things to go with them?
  1710. >On top of being a literal wizard?
  1711. >Christ, who'd have thought you'd ever get to this point?
  1712. >"Anon?"
  1713. >The purple princess of the pair tenses under your hand.
  1714. "Mm?"
  1715. >When you see her face, it's not a nice look.
  1716. >Oh God, what's she--
  1717. >"Anon, have you been doing magic here?!"
  1718. >Oh, she's seen your Lexica.
  1719. >Right, she's still not a fan.
  1720. "Well, yeah? Kinda boring here otherwise."
  1721. >"Anon! You've been doing that for months! Shouldn't you at least take a break?"
  1722. "No can do. Ain't no rest for the wicked."
  1723. >"But--"
  1724. >Shh, hush now, little horse.
  1725. >No gods or kings, only itchies.
  1726. >That scrunch eyeroll combo of hers though, fuckin' top cute.
  1727. >Luna starts rising from her scratch-induced stupor.
  1728. >"Actually, Anonymous, that is what I had wished to... discuss with you."
  1729. >You feel Twilight's head turn to Luna, at the same time yours does.
  1730. >She's still got that smile going, but it's slowly moving up to a business look.
  1731. >"I am loathe to bring it up, but it is only through your usage of that strange, fantastical magic, that you are even still alive right now.
  1732. >"You are... exceedingly gifted at it, I will say. Few could obtain that kind of power, so quickly, without resorting to the dark arts.
  1733. >"But now that we know our foe is actively seeking your demise, I fear that..."
  1734. >Her face turns a good deal sadder.
  1735. >"T-that... your efforts alone will... not be enough."
  1736.  
  1737. >It had occurred to you that you were really outpaced by the other guy.
  1738. >But that fucking face of hers...
  1739. >It really touched some strings in the ol' heart.
  1740. >An extra hoof on the lavender field grabs hold of your hand.
  1741. >"L-Luna! How can you say that?!"
  1742. >"Look at all that has happened, Twilight. My sister, you, and your friends, all captured by a lone changeling.
  1743. >"Vile monsters, unlike anything I have seen, unleashed by that other human, all to eliminate dearest Anonymous.
  1744. >"Please understand, I do not mean to diminish his achievements. They are truly fantastic.
  1745. >"But our foe has also made advancements. And we saw those advancements in the form of our captor. Those creatures."
  1746. >Luna rises fully out of your grasp.
  1747. >"The knowledge of Anonymous's accolades is very public amongst the guard now. Secrecy is no longer an option for us.
  1748. >"And he has proven to be more than capable of handling himself in the face of adversity.
  1749. >"Therefore, I am proposing that we do whatever we can to aid him.
  1750. >Twilight's little gasp mirrors your own thoughts perfectly.
  1751. >She wants to help?
  1752. >Well...
  1753. >God damn, yo.
  1754. >"I believe my lieutenant has told you of his plans to aid you in training?"
  1755. "Yeah, he-- Wait, that was your idea? And isn't he a sergeant?"
  1756. >"No, it was his plan. I simply approved of it. And for his efforts in safeguarding you, he has been promoted."
  1757. >Sheeeeeeeit
  1758. >"While he will aid your progress in body, I wish to aid your progress in the arcane. If, of course, you allow it."
  1759. >Holy shit, magic help?!
  1760. "God damn right, I allow it!"
  1761.  
  1762. >There she is, right back to smiling wide.
  1763. >Twilight pulls herself out of your grasp, as well.
  1764. >"Luna, I'm not sure there is a whole lot we can do for him there."
  1765. >Aw, Twilight, why'd you have to kill the mood like that?
  1766. >"What? For what reason?"
  1767. >"He already tried to show me how his magic works, and... Aagh, it doesn't make any sense!"
  1768. >"How so?"
  1769. >"Oh, don't get me started! There's no concept of intent, they 'bend' the currents, there's apparently a 'network', there's 'channels' for mana, it...
  1770. >"Gah, it's the most confusing thing I've ever heard! It defies everything I know about magic!"
  1771. >"Truly?"
  1772. >"Yes! There's no way it should even be able to work!"
  1773. >"But it does work, does it not? We have borne witness to it, after all."
  1774. >"W-well there must be something that book's not telling him, because I don't see how it could possibly work!"
  1775. >ding
  1776. >An idea springs up.
  1777. "Actually."
  1778. >Both ponies look at you.
  1779. "There is a pony who knows how it works."
  1780. >"I really doubt that."
  1781. >That snark deserves a boop.
  1782. >A snort follows you doing that.
  1783. "You gals have Sunburst on call?"
  1784. >Luna sure seems to know something about that.
  1785. >"Sir Sunburst? Ah, of course! He knows the system you use! Surely he can help elucidate it's workings to us!"
  1786. >"O-oh. He knows, huh...?"
  1787. >"He is presently occupied with a task of mine, but I can break him from it for a few moments, to help explain this!"
  1788. >God, there's no stopping her, is there?
  1789. >She's already trotting to the door.
  1790. >"I shall return in but a few moments!"
  1791. >And there she goes, off to pull the poor guy out of his work.
  1792.  
  1793. >Leaving you alone here with Twilight.
  1794. >Things are a touch quiet between the two of you, but not in the awkward sense.
  1795. >Still, you do start to reach on over to--
  1796. >"Anon."
  1797. >And here you just wanted to scratch some familiar ears.
  1798. >"Are... are you really all right with all this work?"
  1799. >Wha...?
  1800. "What do you mean?"
  1801. >"There's pages of notes here. You must have made these all today.
  1802. >"It's just... I've never seen you work like this before. Are you sure you're not, well... pushing yourself too much?"
  1803. "Oh, that? Trust me, if anything, I'm not pushing hard enough."
  1804. >"I'm not sure I do trust you."
  1805. >Geez, what's with her today?
  1806. >She hefts herself up onto the bed, looking down at you.
  1807. >She's got a sad look of her own.
  1808. >"I hate seeing you like this. I hate seeing you hurt. I hate seeing you work and push yourself so hard.
  1809. >"I just... t-this is such a big change, from how you were before, I..."
  1810. >Yeah, none of this.
  1811. >She gets the full-on hug treatment, before the crying comes.
  1812. >There's some tensing at first, but she relaxes into it, wrapping her forelegs around you as well, being careful to avoid the damage.
  1813. "I know it's sudden. Trust me, I'm surprised at all the shit I've been up to, too.
  1814. "But here's the thing. I hate seeing you hurt, too. Hate seeing any of you hurt, really."
  1815. >"A-Anon..."
  1816. >She nuzzles your neck.
  1817. >"It's just that... I feel like you don't give yourself any time to recover.
  1818. >"I don't want you to just... burn out. Stress too much."
  1819. >She nuzzles your cheek.
  1820. >That's a new one.
  1821. >She's on the verge of tears, but also isn't as sad as before.
  1822.  
  1823. >"Will you at least take some time off later on? Just to relax?"
  1824. "Twilight, I don't--"
  1825. >"Please?"
  1826. >Oh, God.
  1827. >There's no saying 'no' to that face.
  1828. >But what you need isn't relaxing, what you need is progress.
  1829. >Still, that face...
  1830. >Fuck.
  1831. "All right."
  1832. >"Promise?"
  1833. "Promise."
  1834. >"Thank you."
  1835. >She goes in for another of those cheek nuzzles.
  1836. >Must've gone in closer than normal, since her lips kinda dragged along said cheek as she did that.
  1837. >When she rests her head on your shoulder, you resume the scratching.
  1838. >Oh, man...
  1839. >That little happy sigh of hers.
  1840. >That's a new one, too.
  1841. >And it's another category of 'hnnnnngh' in it's own right.
  1842. >Actually...
  1843. >This whole scene, with you hugging it out?
  1844. >It actually was kinda... relaxing.
  1845. >Huh.
  1846. >Maybe she's got a point.
  1847. >The pair of you stay like this for... however long you stay like this.
  1848. >KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK
  1849. >Felt like forever, over too soon.
  1850. "Yeah?"
  1851. >"It is us, Anonymous!"
  1852. >Twilight tenses up a little, before slowly pulling off of you, and hopping back onto the floor.
  1853. "Sweet, come on in!"
  1854. >The doors reveal Luna, with Sunburst in tow.
  1855. >And hold up.
  1856. >There's Starlight, too.
  1857. >Though she doesn't look so hot.
  1858. >She's holding her head, like she's got a headache of some kind.
  1859. "Hey, you guys. She here for the crash course, too?"
  1860. >Starlight responds first, a little flustered and panicky.
  1861. >"No! U-uh, no, not today. Can't really focus, with this headache. Thought I'd say hi, though!"
  1862. "Oh. Well, hi right back. Get well soon, I guess?"
  1863. >"Y-yeah, you too! Uh, see ya!"
  1864. >She shut the door behind the two main guests way too quickly.
  1865.  
  1866. @@@@@@@@
  1867.  
  1868. >Well, is she hiding something, or is she hiding something?
  1869. >Oh hell, she probably got brainfreeze or some shit before coming here.
  1870. >Pretty normal pony stuff.
  1871. >Sunburst and Luna are whispering things to each other.
  1872. "So, what's her deal?"
  1873. >Sunburst jumps slightly.
  1874. >Okay, that's not comforting.
  1875. >Twilight seems to share the sentiment:
  1876. >"Yeah, what's with her? She didn't look that great. Is she okay?"
  1877. >Luna's the first responder here:
  1878. >"Simply overworked. She merely needs some rest."
  1879. >Sunburst didn't look like he agreed with that.
  1880. >But you're not gonna push it right now.
  1881. >There's other things to worry about.
  1882. "So! How're you doing over there, buddy?"
  1883. >See, he lit right back up!
  1884. >"O-oh, I'm fine! Just... helping Starlight with her work, is all!"
  1885. >"Indeed. They are both working on a task of mine."
  1886. "I'm guessing it's a pretty tough one, huh?"
  1887. >"Yes. But that is a subject for another day."
  1888. "Right. So, wondering why you're here, buddy ol' pal?"
  1889. >"W-well, I... I only know you need my help explaining something."
  1890. "Sure do. These two lovely ladies here want to help me with all things magic. But I'm having a hell of a time explaining how thaumic shit works to them."
  1891. >Realization dawns like a hurricane on him.
  1892. >"Y-you want to tell them about... that?!"
  1893. "Yep."
  1894. >"B-but... I-I mean, you had to have tried yourself, right?"
  1895. "Yeah, about that. Remember my confusion over how this magic and yours worked?"
  1896. >Your thumb points over to Twilight.
  1897. "They're having the same problem I did. Just in reverse this time."
  1898. >"Ohhhhh... that's right, it is quite different!"
  1899.  
  1900. >And now it's Twilight's turn to pipe up, walking over to Sunburst.
  1901. >"Confused isn't the word I'd use! More like dumbfounded!
  1902. >"Sunburst, do you really know how his method works?"
  1903. >"O-of course, just not the more advanced portions."
  1904. >"Then how can any of it work?! It doesn't make any sense!"
  1905. >"N-no, that's not really true. It makes perfect sense. It just requires... a different perspective, and a lot of abstraction."
  1906. >Even without seeing her face, you knew there was an eye twitch there.
  1907. >He sighs.
  1908. >It was a sigh of 'it never ends, this shit'.
  1909. >"Anon? Do you mind if I borrow some paper for this?"
  1910. "Knock yourself out, buddy."
  1911. >He floats over a few sheets, along with a quill.
  1912. >"This is really tricky to explain, so I'll need to ask you both to please bear with me."
  1913. >Luna floats over a few chairs and a small table from the corner.
  1914. >The group all takes a seat, and Sunburst begins his explainer.
  1915. >"First of all, you need to understand where this system came from. According to that book, there were both magical and non-magical races living in the world.
  1916. >"The ones without magic wanted magic, so after they found each other and became allies, they actually made a way to use magic for themselves.
  1917. >"And, well, that's the method he's been using. They came up with it from scratch, all on their own. And believe me, it really shows."
  1918. >Luna seems... a little off-put by this information.
  1919. >She doesn't remember those old wars, right?
  1920. >But didn't she live through them?
  1921. >Hm.
  1922. >Maybe that's what's eating her.
  1923. >Hell, that'd eat you, too.
  1924.  
  1925. >"Their method, it... it views all of magic from the perspective of those who've never had it within themselves, 'colouring' their life, for lack of a better term.
  1926. >"The way they harness it relies on this kind of outsider's perspective. They... see things about magic, things that we normally don't.
  1927. >"Things we assume to be everywhere and always applicable? Don't apply for them. And they see that, and tried to understand it.
  1928. >"And they actually wound up decoding a lot of secrets about the very underpinnings of magic as we know it.
  1929. >"They know how raw mana is distributed throughout the world, when we don't. They know so many natural arcane laws, more than we do.
  1930. >"A-and that's just a few examples!"
  1931. >Both princesses soak this in for a few moments.
  1932. >"That is... intriguing. I had not considered such a perspective on our energies before..."
  1933. >"But wait, that still doesn't answer my question! How does any of this make sense? There's still no current bending in magic!"
  1934. >"W-well, you're wrong, Twilight."
  1935. >God, her fucking face.
  1936. >She looks like she just got told that 2+2=fish.
  1937. >"There absolutely is mana current bending. And all of this other stuff you think isn't possible.
  1938. >"H-here, maybe I should show you what I'm talking about."
  1939. >Paper is laid out, and he begins drawing out something on both.
  1940. >When he's done, he lifts two sheets up, showing them to all parties.
  1941. >One, a circle you only vaguely remember seeing somewhere before.
  1942. >The other is a regular thaumic circle, something to explain current flow to newcomers.
  1943. >Pre-wand theory shit. Really basic.
  1944.  
  1945. >"Okay, this is a regular arcane circle, right? Basic fundamentals on magic theory, how to produce mana currents?"
  1946. >"R-right...?"
  1947. >"This other one is a similar circle, just for a thaumaturge's magic theory. It also covers mana currents, or 'vis' as they call it."
  1948. >His horn lights up, and the circles on the paper are copied out into the air, as some floating magic lines.
  1949. >Oh shit, he's gonna explode the circles out?
  1950. >That would've been real helpful for you at the beginning!
  1951. >The circles get all three-dimensional, and a simulated display of mana currents passes through what you presume is the pony version.
  1952. >"I don't think I need to explain how this model of casting works, right? It's pretty fundamental stuff."
  1953. >"Yeah...?"
  1954. >"Okay, before I visualize the other circle for you, I should put this into proper perspective.
  1955. >"Twilight, do you remember that really controversial dissertation by Stargazer III, down at the Vanhoover Institute of Magic?"
  1956. >Whatever the fuck that is, it seems to trigger the shit out of Twilight.
  1957. >"What?! But that paper was completely wrong! That only proves you can't bend the currents!"
  1958. >"He was actually only half wrong."
  1959. >"Wh-what?"
  1960. >"You see, after doing a bit more research, I also found a piece by that one dark mage, Bright Shine.
  1961. >"And from... whatever crazy hallucinations she had, she had penned out the formulas behind another dimension that mana currents are pushed through."
  1962. >Another piece of paper is written onto, the contents of which you can't see from here.
  1963. >It's floated over to Twilight, who starts reading right away.
  1964.  
  1965. >Her face was extremely skeptical of what was on the page, at first.
  1966. >But as she kept reading, uncertainty began to replace it.
  1967. >By the end, she looked totally... floored.
  1968. >"Th-this... this is..."
  1969. >"I know. I was blown away, too."
  1970. >Luna takes the page for herself, and begins reading it over as well.
  1971. >Her expression goes through the same motions.
  1972. >"Unbelievable..."
  1973. >"You see? She had uncovered another dimension to current channeling, the 'flux' dimension, as she called it, to complement the 'will' dimension!
  1974. >"It takes mana current channeling, and turns it into a vector quantity, instead of a scalar one!"
  1975. >"But, sir Sunburst, where is this other quantity even obtained from?"
  1976. >"Ah, that's just it! She didn't know. But these ancient thaumaturges did. Hay, their entire magical system is based around this!"
  1977. >"I... I do not understand."
  1978. >"Y-yeah, I don't get it..."
  1979. >Sunburst does something to that first circle, making the simulated mana current sit parallel to the ground.
  1980. >"Thaumic constructs are true neutral and soulless, meaning they cannot by definition use willpower as a factor in spellcasting.
  1981. >"But their function is not at all like a fully aware, soulful caster. It's more like a machine.
  1982. >"It uses only the 'flux' dimension, or natural magical flow, as the agent for channeling mana.
  1983. >"And you know what makes this natural flow different from willpower?
  1984. >"Unlike willpower, which is always straight and immutable, natural flow, by virtue of being natural, is never NOT bending and mutable!"
  1985.  
  1986. >You don't understand half of what he's saying.
  1987. >But the explanation causes synchronized jaw-drops among his audience.
  1988. >"And their spellcasting has to bear this difference in channeling out! The formulas, the casting, even the darned analysis is completely alien compared to normal magic!
  1989. >"So alien, in fact, that I never was able to even use thaumic magic at first, without anti-magic isolation equipment to see it through!
  1990. >"But, I can show you what the end result of all this bending is, with a direct comparison to the thaumaturge's basic mana circle."
  1991. >The thaumic circle sits on it's side, compared to the pony one.
  1992. >It's inner workings are exactly what you expect: bending the mana through the basic construct.
  1993. >The current that comes out almost seems to flow straighter, and sits parallel with the other current.
  1994. >For good measure, he pans and rotates both circles around.
  1995. >The captive audience is...
  1996. >Well.
  1997. >If they were any more shocked and awed, they'd be witnessing the resurrection of Christ himself.
  1998. >"S-so you see, when Anon was talking about current bending, he was talking about a fundamentally different type of current.
  1999. >"The... terminology gets mixed up so often, that it's a really common mistake to make. Hay, I made it a lot when I first learned this system."
  2000. >Actually, come to think of it...
  2001. >Is that why you had that problem comparing that book on pony magic way back when?
  2002. >If the systems were as different as he's describing, no wonder it was like Chinese-versus-English.
  2003. >Huh.
  2004. >This deserves more study.
  2005. >Later.
  2006.  
  2007. >A few beats pass.
  2008. >You're pretty sure Twilight is blue-screening in her brain, trying to process all of that.
  2009. >Which makes Luna the first responder:
  2010. >"So that is why Anonymous has made such strident progress! Since he has no innate magic, he has no choice but to approach it in this manner!"
  2011. >"W-well, that's certainly a huge factor. But he's been flying through some really complex spellwork, even for that system."
  2012. >Aww, you're the friendly neighborhood genius.
  2013. >Funny, you sure don't feel like a genius.
  2014. >"Even so, it is no wonder why that magic was incomprehensible to us! What else is there? What other secrets have they unearthed, that lay beneath our noses?!"
  2015. >Whoa there, someone's getting a little excited, rearing up onto the table like that.
  2016. >Too excited for poor lil' Sunburst to formulate a coherent response.
  2017. >Time to save your nigga again.
  2018. "Aw, lay off the poor guy."
  2019. >Oh look, she remembered you were there.
  2020. >After realizing what she just did, she retreats back into her chair, a little embarrassed blush on her face.
  2021. >hnnnnnngh
  2022. >fuckin top cute
  2023. >Twilight's somewhat monotone voice interrupts:
  2024. >"I'm sorry. I need a minute. Or seven hundred."
  2025. >Oh, man.
  2026. >Her fabled 'literally cannot even compute rn' face, complete with strands of mane sticking up in crazy places.
  2027. >This is another first.
  2028. >She gets up, and walks somewhat slowly towards the door.
  2029. "Uh, where are you going?"
  2030. >"Oh, just to rethink everything I know."
  2031. >Oh Jesus tittyfucking Christ, she's in a full-blown existential crisis.
  2032. "Hey, come on, it's not wrong, just different!"
  2033.  
  2034. >"So much to do. So many experiments to run. So many theses to draw up."
  2035. "But don't you want to hear about where mana comes from?"
  2036. >That series of bad ear twitches was your cue to shut the fuck up.
  2037. >When she turns back, you see the crazy glint starting to develop in her eyes.
  2038. >"See you later, Anon."
  2039. >And there she goes, out the door.
  2040. >...
  2041. >Well.
  2042. >That was...
  2043. >Special?
  2044. >God, that girl's got some quirks to her.
  2045. >But even when she's crazy, she still manages to be cute as all hell.
  2046. >Fuckin' ponies, man.
  2047. >Luna's throat clearing breaks the building awkward silence.
  2048. >"Sir Sunburst, I thank you greatly for this new insight. However, I must now ask you to perform another task for me."
  2049. >"O-oh, uh... o-okay?"
  2050. >"Please see to miss Starlight, and Twilight Sparkle, if feasible. I suspect they need some... consoling."
  2051. >Just the mention of Starlight was enough to wash away his nervousness.
  2052. >"Y-yes, princess Luna! And, uh, it was nice seeing you again, Anon!"
  2053. "Likewise."
  2054. >He bows to Luna before rushing out.
  2055. >Geez, what went down with him and Starlight?
  2056. >"To think such wonders could exist in our own world..."
  2057. >Luna walks back up to your bedside.
  2058. >"Anonymous, might... might I trouble you for some more... details about the world, that you have uncovered?"
  2059. >that fuckin' face
  2060. >heart to mission control
  2061. >she can't take much more, cap'n
  2062. "Luna, you and 'trouble' don't belong in the same sentence. 'Course I'll tell you more."
  2063. >damn it you retard you're making it worse
  2064. >that huge smile
  2065. >she's assuming the 'i want scratchies' pose
  2066. >hnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnngh
  2067. <...
  2068.  
  2069. >Oh, darn!
  2070. >Where did she go?
  2071. >She's not in her quarters, and the guards here haven't seen her!
  2072. >Did she... go back to that secured room?
  2073. >N-no, that's ridiculous!
  2074. >She wouldn't go right back there, not after those headaches started!
  2075. >W-would she?
  2076. >Darn it, you can't think of anywhere else!
  2077. >Shaking your head, you turn in place, heading towards that room.
  2078. >You weave your way through the hallways, passing the threshold of the secure section, and greeting a few guards on your way.
  2079. >And there's the entrance to the right room, flanked by the usual complement of four guards.
  2080. >They don't even blink, as you push through the first set of doors.
  2081. >You pre-charge a dispel before getting to the second set.
  2082. >The second it opens, you cast the dispel on yourself.
  2083. >T-that's a really terrible thing to...
  2084. >Uh...
  2085. >W-well, perhaps not as terrible as, well, basically everything about those rune monsters!
  2086. >The sound of coughing draws your attention.
  2087. >Very familiar coughing.
  2088. >Starlight!
  2089. >She DID come back here!
  2090. >W-why?!
  2091. >You rush around the tables holding the monsters, towards the coughing.
  2092. >There was Starlight.
  2093. >She was leaning over a bucket, mane unkempt.
  2094. >And gripping her head with both hooves, really hard.
  2095. >Oh, no--
  2096. >"NO! Never again!"
  2097. >The sudden yelling at... something, stopped you in your tracks.
  2098. >It was so... furious.
  2099. >She doubles over, crying out in pain.
  2100. >"Shut up! Buck your 'champion'! And buck your 'emissary'! They'll NEVER win!"
  2101. >W-what's she even--
  2102. >"H-huh? T-two of--?"
  2103. >She freezes, then pulls herself up, bringing the bucket towards her.
  2104.  
  2105. >And then she starts throwing up.
  2106. >It... it comes out black.
  2107. >Just like she said it does.
  2108. >For 11 seconds, she throws up.
  2109. >By the end, she's heaving for air.
  2110. >"Oh... thank goodness... f-finally over..."
  2111. >It's at this point that you remember to use your legs.
  2112. >The sound of your shaky hoofstep gets her to whip her head towards you.
  2113. >The moment she sees you, her expression drops as quickly as her head moved.
  2114. >"S-Sunburst?"
  2115. >Y-you can't even say anything.
  2116. >"I... I-I don't know what you saw, but..."
  2117. >A sigh follows her trying to push herself on all fours.
  2118. >She manages, but her legs are really shaky.
  2119. "W-wait, stop!"
  2120. >Instinct kicks in, and you find yourself darting over to her.
  2121. >You somehow manage to dive underneath her legs, catching her on your back just before she falls.
  2122. >G-guh, heavy...!
  2123. >You have to kneel down in short order, and try--
  2124. >Or she could slide off your back herself!
  2125. >"H-heh, nice save."
  2126. >Y-you can't believe her!
  2127. >You face her, throwing both forelegs onto her withers.
  2128. "S-Starlight, why?! Y-you said you'd be fine!"
  2129. >"I..."
  2130. >Her expression manages to fall more, and she can't meet your increasingly watery gaze.
  2131. >"I never said I'd be fine. I... I just said not to worry about me."
  2132. "N-not worry about you? After everything you said?! Everything that just happened?!"
  2133. >"I-I know how it looked. B-believe it or not, that was pretty minor."
  2134. "Minor? Minor?! I-I can't believe you'd..."
  2135. >The wetness in your eyes drips down your face.
  2136. "I c-can't believe you'd d-do this t-to yourself! A-and try to hide--"
  2137.  
  2138. >All of a sudden, Starlight threw her forelegs around you in another tight hug.
  2139. >"I'm s-sorry."
  2140. >Her voice sounded so anguished.
  2141. >"I-I didn't w-want anypony to worry a-about me."
  2142. "W-why?"
  2143. >"B-because I can handle it. I-I have to handle it."
  2144. >You feel a wet spot on your neck, where her head is resting.
  2145. "B-but--"
  2146. >"No! I've taken so much worse! I can handle this! As long as I'm just reading, it shouldn't get worse than this!"
  2147. >You sniffle.
  2148. "Y-you shouldn't--"
  2149. >"Why not? Nopony else can read those spells, but me! I have to--"
  2150. >She chokes back a sob.
  2151. >"I-I have to help somehow!"
  2152. "Y-you--"
  2153. >"If I find even one weakness, one tell in that other human's designs, it'll be worth it!
  2154. >"He and his minions are all capable of so much damage! The princesses, captured and beaten!
  2155. >"I don't care about some tiny little warping effects, not if it helps against him!"
  2156. >Y-you... you can't believe her.
  2157. >You sit there, just... processing this.
  2158. >"I'm s-so sorry. I should've t-told you I'd get some m-minor effects from this..."
  2159. >Now it's your turn to hug her.
  2160. "P-please. Don't do t-this to yourself..."
  2161. >"I told you, I can h-handle it."
  2162. "T-then at least let me help you!"
  2163. >"Sunburst, how can you help me with this?"
  2164. "I-I don't..."
  2165. >Nothing coherent comes out.
  2166. >You just cry things out along with her.
  2167. >You don't know for how long.
  2168. >Eventually, she pulls away, wiping her eyes.
  2169. >"S-see? T-totally fine! It's just temporary!"
  2170. >She didn't look fine.
  2171. >Mane still a mess, tear streaks, dark circles under her eyes.
  2172. >Her forced smile wasn't helping.
  2173.  
  2174. >W-well...
  2175. >Okay, m-maybe you don't know what to do.
  2176. >B-but at least you knew a good start!
  2177. >You let go of her, standing up right after wiping your own eyes.
  2178. "C-come on, l-let's go."
  2179. >"Wha...?"
  2180. "Y-you need some rest. T-that's a start, right?"
  2181. >She blinks.
  2182. >The small smile this time is genuine.
  2183. >"Yeah... that's... a start."
  2184. >This time, she stands up properly.
  2185. >"S-sorry..."
  2186. "L-let's go."
  2187. >Neither of you had the energy to argue.
  2188. >Slowly, the pair of you make it out of the chamber, back into the hallway.
  2189. >Shortly after leaving the room, Starlight leans against you for support.
  2190. >You do your best to keep her upright.
  2191. >She looks so tired.
  2192. >But also... happy.
  2193. >M-maybe this won't be--
  2194. >"--ake way! Make way down there, everypony!"
  2195. >A ruckus from behind draws both of your attentions.
  2196. >A bunch of ponies, surrounding something on wheels.
  2197. >You two quickly move out of the way, while it passes.
  2198. >It's a lot of guards, some nurses, and... doctor Valiant?
  2199. >"It wouldn't kill you to be a little less obstinate, you know! He just wanted to make sure you were properly fed!"
  2200. >"Gaaaah, I can feed myself! Why can't you just leave me alone?!"
  2201. >That other voice, it's so... hostile.
  2202. >You see what's being wheele--
  2203. >...
  2204. >J-just like the description.
  2205. >Slightly larger than normal. Eggplant-coloured mane.
  2206. >Restrained to high heaven.
  2207. >The changeling.
  2208. >The one who hurt Anon.
  2209. >"H-her...!"
  2210. >Starlight's voice was equal parts shocked and furious.
  2211. >You can't deny that you're getting really angry, yourself.
  2212. >Though none were quite as angry looking, as the changeling itself.
  2213. <...
  2214.  
  2215. @@@@@@@@
  2216.  
  2217. >"Now, take it nice and slow, Anon. We don't want you to break something, let alone at this point."
  2218. "I hear you, doc."
  2219. >Man, do your legs feel like gelatinous logs.
  2220. >Still, it's not your first rodeo, staying so long in a bed.
  2221. >So at least you semi-know what to expect.
  2222. >Using your ass as the pivoting point, you slowly swing your legs over the edge of the bed.
  2223. >Just letting them dangle like that is bringing the feeling back.
  2224. >All right...
  2225. >Let's see about them touching the ground, shall we?
  2226. >Inch forward a little, and...
  2227. >Ah, you barely feel the cold floor on your bare feet.
  2228. >Yeah, they're gonna need a hot minute.
  2229. >At least pony beds had the advantage of being short, that way you can stay seated for this.
  2230. >But holy shit!
  2231. >Finally outta fucking bed!
  2232. >Well, almost.
  2233. >But it's in the pipeline!
  2234. >God, just thinking about the shit you have to do after this...
  2235. >Good thing you drew up a little itinerary for this occasion.
  2236. >Hey, lists work pretty well for Twilight, and your own ones haven't done you wrong before.
  2237. >Ooh...
  2238. >There's the constant prickly sensation.
  2239. >Been a while since your legs fell asleep like that.
  2240. >Still, at least you're able to mostly feel the floor now.
  2241. >That's your cue to try standing.
  2242. >The prickly feeling intensifies, but it's pretty easy to soldier through.
  2243. >Holding the bed for support, you soon rise to full height.
  2244. >Oh, man.
  2245. >Feels real good to be upright again.
  2246. >Although...
  2247. >Just standing up took more effort than it ought to have.
  2248. >But the doc did say that you needed a few days extra, to be a hundred percent.
  2249.  
  2250. >The sound of magic lighting up draws you away from admiring your basic human function of standing.
  2251. >The doc is floating over that special item you asked for.
  2252. >Well, okay, there's not much special about a cane.
  2253. >But hey, they needed to shrink it down from one of the minotaur ones in stock.
  2254. >So it was sorta special.
  2255. >Too bad it wasn't that balling cane from back home at Ponyville.
  2256. >Still the best failed staff you ever made.
  2257. >The top handhold finds it's way into your outstretched hand.
  2258. >Like most things that you grab on to, the magic fizzles out at the point you touch, making the rest of the spell's aura collapse soon after.
  2259. >Makes you wonder what type of aura they're using.
  2260. >The fact that it collapses when breached like that, makes you think it's a 'unity' aura, or maybe another type with high inter-stranded resonant--
  2261. >Oh, God damn it!
  2262. >The spell-making research is getting to you!
  2263. >Just can't unsee that stuff, man!
  2264. >Anyways!
  2265. >Standing's been delayed long enough, and the passengers are asking for refunds!
  2266. >Slowly, you shift forward, away from the bed, using the cane as support.
  2267. >What do you know, everything's working out!
  2268. >"I would say that's a good sign! Noticing any pain, or other oddities?"
  2269. "Nope, everything's green."
  2270. >Man, why's the doc gotta roll his eyes?
  2271. >Some people just don't appreciate a good dad joke.
  2272. >"Very funny. Your detail will be here shortly, to help escort you... wherever it is you're going next."
  2273. "Sweet!"
  2274. >"Sadly, I won't be able to see you off."
  2275. "Let me guess, didn't file those TPS reports?"
  2276. >That one flew over his head.
  2277.  
  2278. >"I... I'm not sure I understand."
  2279. "Nevermind, just some earthling figures of speech. Though if you don't mind my asking, what's eating all your time lately?"
  2280. >Can't be the guards from Ponyville recovering, since they took pretty 'normal' damage.
  2281. >And they didn't need dark magic filtering, like...
  2282. >Like the princesses.
  2283. >Okay, that train took the express track to darkville..
  2284. >"Well, even if I weren't sworn to secrecy by princess Celestia, I still wouldn't tell you."
  2285. >Whoa wait, Celestia?
  2286. "Aw, what for?"
  2287. >"Doctor-patient confidentiality, Anon."
  2288. "You're no fun."
  2289. >"Funny, that's not what the party-goers say."
  2290. >Ah, so the guy can make funnies sometimes!
  2291. >Once you're mobile enough, and he looks you over one last time, he takes his leave.
  2292. >Hm...
  2293. >Wonder if he's tending to that 'special patient' you heard about before?
  2294. >Oh hell, probably is.
  2295. >Ponies have a real hard time being subtle.
  2296. >Still...
  2297. >Wonder who exactly that would be?
  2298. >Some kinda VIP that got all fucked up?
  2299. >A field commander from a bad fight, like in one of Razor's little stories?
  2300. >Or, maybe...
  2301. >Hmm...
  2302. >Maybe, their patient isn't on their side?
  2303. >Maybe it's--
  2304. >KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK
  2305. >Such prime autism and contemplation, axed in it's prime.
  2306. "Who's there?"
  2307. >"Us!"
  2308. >Ah, there's Razor!
  2309. >Real punctual, when he doesn't surprise you.
  2310. "Us who?"
  2311. >"Really, Anon? Making this a knock-knock joke?"
  2312. "Well, you can't please everyone."
  2313. >The door opens, revealing the man-horse himself.
  2314. >Along with...
  2315. >Huh, what's Exact doing with him?
  2316. >"So uh, listen. You know who this other guy is?"
  2317. "What, haven't met him before?"
  2318.  
  2319. >"Wouldn't be askin' if I did."
  2320. >Wait, these two haven't met?
  2321. >That's new.
  2322. >This guy knows basically every guard.
  2323. >Hell, he knew Light.
  2324. >Cutting off both your thoughts and Razor's line, Exact rather abruptly walks in, past Razor, going straight for you.
  2325. >"Good morning, mister Anonymous. I have been assigned as both your personal guard, and as a liaison for my organization.
  2326. >"Both of these roles have been assigned under direct order of princess Celestia herself."
  2327. >Well.
  2328. >That's one way to say your ass is being watched.
  2329. >But Celestia's order?
  2330. >You haven't seen her once, since you were taken here.
  2331. >The hell's she up to?
  2332. >"Whoa whoa, slow down there. Why don't you start by telling me who you are?"
  2333. >"My identity is of paramount secrecy. As a sergeant, you are not authorized to know it."
  2334. "Actually, he's a lieutenant now."
  2335. >There's something approximating surprise in his look.
  2336. >"Is this true?"
  2337. >"Uh, yeah? Promoted a few days ago? Geez, where've you been?"
  2338. >"My tasks are of paramount secrecy. I am not authorized to reveal my whereabouts and activities."
  2339. >Pfffft.
  2340. >Watching Razor try and comprehend the hundred-percent serious antics of Exact?
  2341. >Not gonna lie, it's kinda funny to watch.
  2342. >"Well, excuuuuuse me, princess. All I wanted was to know who I'm talking to."
  2343. >Several things happen all at once.
  2344. >The door is magic'd shut, Exact closes the distance with Razor, and a silence bubble is thrown around them both.
  2345. >All right out of the blue, with literally no lead-in from Exact.
  2346. >Yeah, you're gonna have to work on that.
  2347. >Especially if he'll be rolling with you.
  2348.  
  2349. >You let them just... talk it out.
  2350. >Even without hearing what they're saying, Razor's getting kinda flustered and animated in there.
  2351. >Exact doesn't even move.
  2352. >So, pretty normal for him.
  2353. >After a while, Razor just... 'excuses' himself from the bubble, backpedaling towards you.
  2354. >When he turns to speak to you, he's got the look of a man who's encountered a mental ward escapee:
  2355. >"Dude, what the hay?! You actually know this guy?"
  2356. "Yeah, he's all right. Why?"
  2357. >"All right? Nothing about this guy's all right!"
  2358. "Aw, he's not that bad."
  2359. >"No, you're right. He's worse! It took this bucking long just to get him to tell me his name!
  2360. >"I swear, it's like I'm filing a mission report through a Zephyrtongue interpreter with him!"
  2361. "Ahh, I know what your deal is."
  2362. >"Wha-- My deal?"
  2363. "Never encountered the 'tism before, have we?"
  2364. >"The-- The what, now?"
  2365. "So that's a no, then."
  2366. >"What in the Nightmother's damned name is 'the 'tism'?"
  2367. "You'll learn."
  2368. >You can't keep yourself from snickering a little, after that little twitch of his eye.
  2369. "Here, let me take care of this."
  2370. >You approach Exact, waving to get his attention through the bubble.
  2371. >He 'pops' it super fast, right after the first wave.
  2372. >"Yes, mister Anonymous?"
  2373. "You giving ol' Razor a tough time back there?"
  2374. >The annoyed snort from behind was so damn good to hear.
  2375. >"There is nothing adversarial about divulging information on a strict need-to-know basis."
  2376. "Sure looked adversarial to me."
  2377. >You manage to slowly kneel to his level.
  2378. "Look, buddy. You know how long this guy's been hanging with me?"
  2379.  
  2380. >"I do not see what his assignment length has to do with this subject."
  2381. "I'll give you a hint: it involves friendship."
  2382. >The mouth opens, but nothing leaves.
  2383. >If there's one thing his flat look is very good at getting across, it's when he's thinking really hard.
  2384. >Because there's some serious thought going on behind those eyes.
  2385. >After a few seconds, the neutral look returns:
  2386. >"I am sorry, but I still do not see the relevance between befriending the lieutenant, and my divulgence of information."
  2387. >Okay, so baby steps it is.
  2388. "Okay, listen. Are we friends?"
  2389. >His head tilts, a semi-confused look seeping in.
  2390. >"I am... unsure. Do you consider us to be?"
  2391. "Sure do."
  2392. >"But is there not a well-defined set of criteria to meet, before you can consider me as such?"
  2393. "Bud, even if there was a list of that criteria, that shit's more like guidelines, anyway. It's gotta grow organically, see?"
  2394. >His muted expression changes are like a small kid, learning about the world for the first time.
  2395. >That's... a little sad.
  2396. >This guy must not have a lot of friends.
  2397. >"An... interesting perspective."
  2398. "So I guess what you've gotta answer for me, is whether or not you want to be friends, too."
  2399. >A little more thinking, and...
  2400. >"I... would like that."
  2401. >Aha, baby steps prevail!
  2402. "Nice. Now, I don't know how your criteria for friends is, but one of mine is that they all get along with each other.
  2403. "So, if you don't mind, I'd prefer if you tried to get along better with the good lieutenant, all right?
  2404. "He's not an enemy, and he's not trying to interrogate you. Dude's just curious, is all."
  2405.  
  2406. >Well, you're pretty curious yourself, about what his taskmasters are up to.
  2407. >But that's a spot of digging for another day.
  2408. >"I will... If... If it means preserving this newfound friendship, I will... attempt to... 'get along with him'."
  2409. >A lot of pauses in that line.
  2410. >This must be really new territory for him.
  2411. "Hey, all I ask is that you give it a shot."
  2412. >"I... I shall."
  2413. >A winning smile later, - with no reaction, of course - and you rise back up to your feet, with the aid of your trusty cane.
  2414. >Legs are still wobbly, so you'll have to take things nice and slow.
  2415. "Well, since we've all come to an understanding, how about we get on with the show?"
  2416. >A little prompting later, and Exact puts your notes and Lexica into a pair of saddlebags.
  2417. >Once that was done with, you set out into the hallway proper, course set for the ambassador's suite.
  2418. >At least they set you up with the familiar room, and a nice one at that.
  2419. >Slowly but surely, your little group makes their way there.
  2420. >Opening the door, and...
  2421. >Ohh baby, is that your fucking slipgate?!
  2422. >They didn't tell you about that!
  2423. >You just figured they express air-mailed your Lexica from Ponyville!
  2424. >Actually...
  2425. >Which end of the gate is this?
  2426. >You head over to it, giving the central gem a light tap with your knuckles a few times.
  2427. >Way less reliable than a notably absent wand, but it gets the job done.
  2428. >The gate rips open, revealing...
  2429. >Ohh man, this end goes to your lab!
  2430. >Which means Sunburst must have carted this one all the way from the Empire!
  2431. >best nigga forever
  2432. >This makes tackling your list infinitely easier!
  2433.  
  2434. >"You know, I don't know if I mentioned this before, but that portal thing is absolutely awesome."
  2435. "It is pretty cool, huh?"
  2436. >"A little past 'cool', don't you think?"
  2437. >"Of more interest is the functionality. I have never heard of any teleportation methods able to transport anything as magically resistant as iron before."
  2438. >"That just makes it more awesome."
  2439. >You'll need to figure out exactly how the gate does it's stuff, later on.
  2440. >It's one hell of a design, and it'd be a shame not to put it in the 'use later on' category.
  2441. >But speaking of 'use later'.
  2442. >Through the gate you go, with the familiar 'whoosh' following after.
  2443. >A few more distant whooshes accompany your entourage following after you.
  2444. >"So, what kinda crazy shit are you thinking of cooking up this time, Anon?"
  2445. "I've got a few ideas. Exact, did any of my stuff survive the fight?"
  2446. >Even in the relative secrecy of your sub-Everfree lab, he still cringes slightly at the use of his name.
  2447. >Something else to work on.
  2448. >"No. What survived was marred by dark magic and physical damage. As per regulation, the unusable items were destroyed after retrieval."
  2449. >Great.
  2450. >At least you can put some of your improvements to good use.
  2451. >You check your raw material stocks, to see if you have enough metal for more thaumium.
  2452. >Yeah, you're totally out.
  2453. >Shit, forgot you burned it all on that wand and staff.
  2454. >One hell of a pair, though.
  2455. >Really wish the foci had at least survived.
  2456. "All right, are any of you able to hook me up with some materials?"
  2457. >"I presume to utilize in the creation of new items?"
  2458. "Uh, yeah?"
  2459. <...
  2460.  
  2461. >Several hours go by, just mass-creating all the shit on your list.
  2462. >But at last, you finish etching the last animus glyph on the suit jacket.
  2463. >Completing the tougher and more compact shield enchant.
  2464. >Rounding off your re-creation of all the things you lost in the fight.
  2465. >Wand, staff, foci, gloves, everything.
  2466. >And naturally, you worked some improvements in as well.
  2467. >The staff got a sweet triple-helix thaumium endcap, really dialing in the power focusing.
  2468. >Always down for that efficiency.
  2469. >The wand was a near-total redesign, however.
  2470. >You just went 'fuck it', and permanently hard-crafted a Bluebaide focus into the bottom endcap of the wand, with a smaller triple-helix focus cap on the top.
  2471. >Figuring out the balance for getting only one end to fire off was tricky, but already your extra knowledge paid off on that front.
  2472. >Looks more like a proper wand, too: just thicker, and with a fabric grip, to help with holding it like a sword, and for extra manasponge space.
  2473. >Got almost double the longevity out of the thing, so you'd call it a success.
  2474. >The gloves weren't all that different, but the suit jacket was another deal.
  2475. >The omnipresent physical shield was still there, and with a good one-third more maximum load-bearing, or whatever the term is for that.
  2476. >Honestly, hiding manasponge in your tie was a total stroke of genius, and it gave the shield a fuckton more longevity.
  2477. >It shouldn't crack under that kind of assault again, at least not easily.
  2478. >But the best part?
  2479. >Oh, that was the extra glyphwork you had spiraling onto the left arm of the thing.
  2480.  
  2481. >With a single command, it would cut power to the omni-shield, and create a more traditional-looking, two-foot diameter shield, anchored to your left arm.
  2482. >It was focused in one spot, and was also keyed to block magic, not just block physical attacks.
  2483. >You got pretty lucky, eating that super-bug's magic with your natural resist, but you're not gonna chance that again.
  2484. >And it wasn't gonna block that fucked-up kamehameha-looking Sith Lord attack from Incognito, but it's a start.
  2485. >All right.
  2486. >That's the remakes all done.
  2487. >Now it's time for the new shit.
  2488. >You pull up your notes from your hospital stay, and go over the analysis portions again, double-checking the glyphwork.
  2489. >The authors made a good try at hiding away the designs for the upgraded manalenses, by making it a fill-in-the-blanks kind of thing.
  2490. >Really testing to make sure you actually learned shit.
  2491. >And while you were referring to your notes a lot, it sure took a while to fill in, after Luna had to leave yesterday.
  2492. >Well, that and the... other lens.
  2493. >But that comes later.
  2494. >And...
  2495. >Yeah, they both look good!
  2496. >Without further ado, you pull free the special headwear you designed just for this first test craft.
  2497. >A pair of thick-rimmed, lensless, thaumium blowtorching goggles, with a nice cloth headband.
  2498. >Totally unwieldy, but lots of room to refine.
  2499. >Good thing thaumium was pretty easy to mould with the right focus.
  2500. >You're pretty sure Sunburst was getting ready for bed at this point, and wouldn't want you bugging him for some golden rims instead.
  2501. >Even though that would've been balling as all hell.
  2502.  
  2503. >Anyways.
  2504. >You bring out one set of two glass lenses you've pre-cut to shape, and start the etching process in earnest.
  2505. >The glass was tricky, being slippery to etch on, and needing you to etch them first, before putting them in the infuser for a minute.
  2506. >But you manage to do it, without any fuck-ups.
  2507. >While the infuser runs, sucking in some gems you pre-placed, you open the flip-down lens holders, and start etching into those.
  2508. >The infuser finished the lens pair a few minutes before you finish.
  2509. >All right, the lenses look good!
  2510. >Let's put them in!
  2511. >You set them in place, getting the alignment right, and close up the housing.
  2512. >The fact that the lenses spark to life and glow purple is a very encouraging sign.
  2513. >You hold the thing up to your face, not bothering to strap it down for now, and flip the lenses down.
  2514. >...
  2515. >Whoa.
  2516. >Hooooly shit.
  2517. >The shit you see now reminds you of that one scene in the Matrix.
  2518. >You know, where Neo gets a taste of the VR learning for the first time?
  2519. >That's roughly what you feel right now.
  2520. >Look at all this shit!
  2521. >The mana currents, the natural auras, everything!
  2522. >It's all visible!
  2523. >And...
  2524. >Oh holy fuck, you can focus on only a few objects and currents!
  2525. >Christ, you knew you could command it, but you didn't think it was like a full-on goddamn HUD!
  2526. >Oh, how about...
  2527. >No fucking way.
  2528. >The leylines...
  2529. >You can actually see them clearly now!
  2530. >Huge, ethereal rapids of pale green magic deep underground, with small threads feeding into your local node!
  2531. >Holy fuck-a-moly, this is awesome!
  2532.  
  2533. >The next few minutes are spent gawking at your environment.
  2534. >And man, it even showed the details in the nodes!
  2535. >You could actually see distant nodes through the ground, like X-ray vision.
  2536. >And the nodes themselves looked more like... tiny black holes flowing in reverse, instead of the stars that the regular lenses made them out to be.
  2537. >Huh, that must be all the mana flowing out, getting stepped down from the leyline.
  2538. >Wonder what other things you can learn about--
  2539. >"Mister Anonymous?"
  2540. "Gaoly shit!"
  2541. >You jump really badly at the very monotone interruption, almost dropping your goggles.
  2542. >Turning around, you see Exact standing not even two feet away from you.
  2543. "Fffucking Christ, don't sneak up on me like that!"
  2544. >"My apologies. I am here to inform you that the princesses have requested your presence with them at the primary dining hall."
  2545. "Wait, dining hall? I thought it was too late for that?
  2546. >"They have made this a special occasion."
  2547. >A special occasion at eight-thirty?
  2548. >God, what's up with that?
  2549. "All right. I'll be out in around fifteen minutes."
  2550. >A small nod is what you get, before he turns around and walks--
  2551. >The goggles!
  2552. >You throw them back onto your face, getting a look at Exact before he clears the slipgate.
  2553. >He's radiating with orangey magic, matching his horn's aura, with several lines flowing into his body and horn from your local node.
  2554. >All of which vanishes and is cut off respectively, after he steps through.
  2555. >So that's what ponies look like through this!
  2556. >But that was just a unicorn!
  2557. >God, what do the other races look like?
  2558.  
  2559. >Well...
  2560. >Better not get too invested in this.
  2561. >Otherwise, you're gonna take an hour to leave, instead of fifteen minutes.
  2562. >Still, you only need five for the... last pair of lenses.
  2563. >Man, a small part of you kinda wanted to avoid making these.
  2564. >But you guess the cat had to be twelve-gauged in the name of curiosity sometime.
  2565. >Might as well be now.
  2566. >You etch them out, and throw the lenses into the infuser.
  2567. >And then open the normally-uncovered inner lens holders.
  2568. >The glyphwork for this is hidden under a small insert, that goes in after.
  2569. >The lenses finish crafting, a minute before you finish.
  2570. >With more haste than you expect, you take the lenses and throw them into the holders.
  2571. >They're crystal clear, like you expect.
  2572. >You peer through the goggles, outer lenses still flipped down.
  2573. >A single command later, and the view changes completely.
  2574. >The lines and glowing vanish completely, and the purple tint turns orange.
  2575. >Nothing glows, and everything is hazy and darkened.
  2576. >You wave your hand in front of it, and the similarly dark and hazy images of said hand confirms that yes indeed, this is how it's normally visible.
  2577. >And then you look up.
  2578. >Tiny orangey dots are above.
  2579. >It's really hard to see from this distance, but they're in all kinds of shapes, reflecting the Everfree critters above, no doubt.
  2580. >The colours radiate out into darker shades of orange, changing hues until it's totally darkened, just like a thermal camera.
  2581. >Welp...
  2582. >Some part of you kinda hoped this wouldn't work.
  2583. >But nope.
  2584. >Guess it's safe to say the Soulgazer lenses work.
  2585.  
  2586. @@@@@@@@
  2587.  
  2588. >The lenses go back to purple, just before you pull the whole ensemble off your head.
  2589. >Good to know it all works, at least.
  2590. >But you've got some royalty to meet.
  2591. >You set the goggles down on the table, and make your way through the slipgate, back to your castle room.
  2592. >A few knocks on the keystone, and it closes shut.
  2593. >You're still not sure how the castle-dwellers will react to your magic shit, so you elect not to bring any.
  2594. >At least until you get an official A-OK.
  2595. >Breaking from your thoughts, you look forward at the door.
  2596. >Exact and Razor are standing there, looking in your direction.
  2597. >"Your time taken was thirteen minutes and eleven seconds. I suggest we not keep the princesses waiting further."
  2598. >"Wait, you counted?"
  2599. >"Of course."
  2600. >Your own snort and eyeroll breaks their back-and-forth up.
  2601. "Let's roll, shall we? I'm starving here."
  2602. >Working overtime on those gear remakes will do that to you.
  2603. >Especially in the absence of a lunch break.
  2604. >Still, you're definitely moving much quicker now, than you were in the morning.
  2605. >Guess that last dose was working good.
  2606. >And so you put it to good use, strolling down the hall with your quirky little posse, towards the dining hall.
  2607. >Hm.
  2608. >Actually...
  2609. >Something about your recovery's been kinda bugging you.
  2610. >Just why the hell is that alchemy working on you, anyways?
  2611. >Doesn't alchemy qualify as magic, too?
  2612. >You mean, you don't remember Earth medicine being able to regenerate gaping stab wounds in just days.
  2613. >But it does that shit anyways, iron-bloodedness be damned.
  2614. >There's some missing link here you're not seeing.
  2615.  
  2616. >Oh hell, you've got one forbidden-magic-destroyer in the audience, why not ask?
  2617. "Hey, E-- Uh, sarge?"
  2618. >Almost forgot the whole 'no names in public' thing.
  2619. >"What is it, mister Anonymous?"
  2620. "Okay, I've got a quick question, and no goddamn idea why it only just now occurred to me.
  2621. "Why does alchemy work on me?"
  2622. >The question doesn't really faze him, but it certainly fazes Razor.
  2623. >"Huh, I... never thought about that."
  2624. "Yeah, me neither."
  2625. >"In answer to the question, I confess that I am not entirely certain of this, myself. I suspect that it involves the unique mechanism by which it operates, but I will need some clarifications to know for sure."
  2626. "Unique mechanism?"
  2627. >"Alchemic magic operates by way of a unique, distributed aura system. The particles in an alchemic solution each contain a miniaturized version of the metaphorical spell, each able to operate independently throughout the user's system.
  2628. >"This mechanism allows concoctions to be used at any given speed through a controlled dosage, and does not require casting to use."
  2629. >Individual particles with the whole spell?
  2630. >That sounds a lot like...
  2631. >Oh, what the hell did it say it was...?
  2632. >Uhh...
  2633. >Oh, that's right!
  2634. >A 'swarm' aura!
  2635. >But...
  2636. "That doesn't answer why it works on me."
  2637. >"Indeed, it does not. I do agree that it is a strange occurrence, however. Perhaps the castle alchemists will be of better help here."
  2638. >"Well, they damn well better be."
  2639. >Well, then.
  2640. >Chalk up one more uncertainty.
  2641. >But honestly, it's not that big of a deal.
  2642. >There's lots of other things to research, first.
  2643.  
  2644. >In fact, you've already gotten a list of things to withdraw up at the library for tomorrow.
  2645. >Good thing you still have that library card Twilight set you up with.
  2646. >You'll definitely make a note of the alchemy shit for later, though.
  2647. >But, as long as it works on you the same as it does on ponies, you're not too fussed about it.
  2648. >Or...
  2649. >Oh hell, why not go see Zecora about it?
  2650. >You're sure she'd talk to you about that kinda thing all damn day.
  2651. >Man, you haven't seen her in a while.
  2652. >Wonder how she's doing?
  2653. >Oh, hold up.
  2654. >There's the door to the dining hall.
  2655. >And it's guarded by some extra Night guards.
  2656. >Oh Christ, they're trying so hard to contain their spaghetti.
  2657. >You should see about another one of those guard game nights.
  2658. >Maybe give them another Earth-Clan game to play?
  2659. >Heh, that'd be great.
  2660. >The doors swing open, courtesy of the unicorn guard in the posting.
  2661. >Poor guy's faring only a little better at sperg containment.
  2662. >Passing through the doorframe meets you with a familiar, if rather shrunken-down sight.
  2663. >The large dining table has been subbed out with a pentagon-shaped one, no less ornate than the last.
  2664. >One side had a human-sized chair open to you.
  2665. >The rest were occupied by all the princesses of the rainbow.
  2666. >Looks like they were chatting a little, before you showed up.
  2667. >Girl shit, no doubt.
  2668. >Looked like Twilight and Luna were pumped as hell to see you.
  2669. >Hell, even Cadance had a nice smile-o-greeting going there for you.
  2670. >And then...
  2671. >Ohh, boy.
  2672. >There's Celestia.
  2673. >And she looks... really neutral.
  2674. >Like, spidey-sense-tingling neutral.
  2675.  
  2676. >You really don't want to have a verbal throw-down with her, especially not in front of everyone else.
  2677. >But you really can't tell what she wants.
  2678. >"Oh, it's good to see you, Anon! Come on, have a seat!"
  2679. >Cadance's line broke you from what you're sure at this point was a stare.
  2680. >Her look hints at her knowing it, too.
  2681. >Man, she defused that pretty quick.
  2682. >Guess someone who specializes in all things love would have to be a people person.
  2683. >Or... pony's pony?
  2684. >Ah, who knows?
  2685. >You return fire with a smile of your own, cane-striding over to your own seat.
  2686. "Likewise."
  2687. >God, this chair feels as good as it looks.
  2688. >All padded and shit.
  2689. >In fact, you don't think you've been here at all--
  2690. >Oh wait no, you were here before!
  2691. >Yeah, a few weeks after getting to Equestria!
  2692. >The recollection gets a little chuckle from you.
  2693. >"What's so funny?"
  2694. "Oh, just remembering the last time I was here."
  2695. >A little wink is shot Twilight's way.
  2696. "One hell of an alien planet-warming dinner."
  2697. >Huh, that flustered her more than you thought it would.
  2698. >Luna and Cadance chime in with their own giggles.
  2699. >"Yes, it was a strange and fantastic occasion, was it not?"
  2700. >"I'll say. When I got the letter, I didn't really believe it myself!"
  2701. >As you watch their reactions, your gaze drifts back to Celestia.
  2702. >She's looking at the others, almost like she's studying them.
  2703. >In the same moment you see that expression, it changes to a diplomatic smile, looking over at you.
  2704. >Her horn lights up, and doors are heard opening around you.
  2705.  
  2706. >Turning to see what the deal is, you first notice your posse of two isn't there.
  2707. >And that the doors in question have serving ponies coming out of them, carrying big covered plates.
  2708. >Oh whew, you were worried there for a second.
  2709. >But where are those two?
  2710. >Craning around to the door, you--
  2711. >Oh, what the fuck are they doing back there?
  2712. >Are they just not allowed to go near the table, or something?
  2713. >Who knows?
  2714. >The servers practically dance around, plopping down the dishes and cutlery, and all the other things you'd expect to see.
  2715. >They did this same kinda thing all those years ago, and it's still as cool as it was then.
  2716. >They finish in short order, the plates right in front of you all still covered up.
  2717. >With a flourish, they're all uncovered at the same time.
  2718. >And...
  2719. >Oh.
  2720. >H-holy mother of fuck...
  2721. >"Why don't we hold the conversation until after our little late dinner?"
  2722. >The sight of the almost orgasm-inducing chowder bowl in front of you just about drowned out her line.
  2723. >The exact femtosecond the 'bon appetite' goes off from the servers, you're on it like white on rice on a paper plate in a snowstorm.
  2724. >...
  2725. >jesus fucking christ
  2726. >why didn't you ask for the carnivore menu earlier
  2727. >this is the best stuff to grace your taste buds since forever
  2728. >all you need is a stiff drink of whiske--
  2729. >They just laid out drinks.
  2730. >A highball of whiskey now sits right in front of you.
  2731. >You know.
  2732. >You've never considered yourself a religious man.
  2733. >But this?
  2734. >This could damn well convert you.
  2735. >Talking with Celestia seems like such a distant concern, now.
  2736. >Man, life is good.
  2737. <...
  2738.  
  2739. >Everything's dark.
  2740. >You're totally immobile, as well.
  2741. >Again.
  2742. >You know what this means.
  2743. >Every night, after you're put to sleep, this happens.
  2744. >T-they come...
  2745. >>`You again.`
  2746. >The pressure builds in your head again.
  2747. >>`You know why we have come again. You are here to learn. To finish what you started.`
  2748. >T-the voices never stay the same, each time they d-do this...
  2749. >Every instinct you have is screaming at you to get away from them.
  2750. >To somehow escape.
  2751. >B-but...
  2752. >But even through the pain, they...
  2753. >They've been showing you so much!
  2754. >>`The prophesied Destroyer still has need of you. But your service must first be more... successful.`
  2755. >The symbols begin to fill your vision again.
  2756. >The pain grows with them.
  2757. >W-wait a second!
  2758. >Think!
  2759. >Wh-what did they show you, last night?
  2760. >That one spell!
  2761. >P-projection, was it?
  2762. >Your focus begins to waver with the increasing pain.
  2763. >No!
  2764. >K-keep it together!
  2765. >The spell!
  2766. >C-come on, you can...
  2767. >A sticky, crawling sensation envelops your immobile form as you perform the spell.
  2768. >>`What is this?`
  2769. >As disgusting as it feels, you can feel mobility returning to you!
  2770. >Still, the symbols don't let up, and neither does the pain!
  2771. >No!
  2772. >You won't go down without a fight!
  2773. >More power is poured into the horrible-feeling spell.
  2774. >As the awful sensation increases, so does your mobility.
  2775. >It reaches your head.
  2776. >You want to vomit from the sensation.
  2777. >But you can feel your head finally move!
  2778. >Air is sucked into your lungs.
  2779. >Eyes you didn't realize were closed opened.
  2780. >Your voice screeches out:
  2781.  
  2782. "STOP!"
  2783. >The pain does stop.
  2784. >But...
  2785. >...
  2786. >W-wha...?!
  2787. >What is--?!
  2788. >W-where are you?!
  2789. >"This is unexpected."
  2790. >You're face-to-face with...
  2791. >Y-you don't even know!
  2792. >It looks like a pony mare's ghost!
  2793. >It's eyes are black, with glowing dark Bitzantium-purple pupils!
  2794. >And it was in a pitch black robe!
  2795. >A-and it had no legs!
  2796. >It was floating on a cloud of off-black mist, seeping out from where the legs would be!
  2797. >"An intriguing development. The Destroyer's acolyte has learned projection far sooner than anticipated."
  2798. >As disgusting as it feels to move, you whirl your head around, anyways.
  2799. >You're held suspended and splayed out in the air, with wriggling--
  2800. >A-ARE THOSE TENTACLES?!
  2801. >OH, NO! YOU'RE NOT--
  2802. >In an instant, they vanish into black mist, dropping you onto the 'ground'.
  2803. >I-if an empty void could even be called a ground!
  2804. >No!
  2805. >There were bucking tentacles on you!
  2806. >Ew, ew, eewwww!
  2807. >"Are you finished with such frivolous worries? Or shall we resume imprinting our gifts of knowledge onto your frail little psyche?"
  2808. >You're right back to looking at the ghost... thing!
  2809. >You try to speak, but all you manage is gagging.
  2810. >The sensation was in your throat!
  2811. >O-oh damn it, why?!
  2812. >So you make do with a weak nod.
  2813. >"One who has rent asunder that many spirits, even while unaware, should not have this much difficulty with speaking during spiritual projection."
  2814. >Freaky evil ghost or not, that one hit a nerve.
  2815. >So you keep trying.
  2816. >It takes three attempts before you can finally say the word "yes".
  2817. >"Listen well, little mortal. And think carefully before you presume to speak.
  2818.  
  2819. >"You address us, the council of the abyss. It is us that you have heard, after throwing aside the shroud.
  2820. >"All those who take up the power of darkness fall under our purview.
  2821. >"And it is our duty to seed our knowledge among all of these seekers of power, so they might benefit from our wisdom and experience.
  2822. >"When you pierced the veil of another, you entered headlong into our domain. And therefore, fall under our jurisdiction."
  2823. >W-wha...?!
  2824. >This... thing, was the source of the whispers?!
  2825. >The headaches?!
  2826. >T-the vomiting?!
  2827. >A-and the... knowledge?
  2828. >"By baring your spirit to our influence so fully, as you are now, you have not only employed our knowledge successfully, but passed a test that few seldom do.
  2829. >"Your spirit will know our presence forever more. We shall always impart our wisdom upon you, as our duty demands.
  2830. >"But now? What happens past this point, is of your choosing.
  2831. >"Will you continue to resist us, bringing about the pain you experience?
  2832. >"Or will you willingly hear our words, heed our warnings, and learn our teachings?
  2833. >"Will you embrace our gifts, and in so doing, obtain power beyond mortal imagination?
  2834. >"Power to crush your enemies? Perhaps even to aid your... lord?"
  2835. >To--
  2836. >...
  2837. >Power to... help him?
  2838. >Y-you...
  2839. >You were so ready to reject this thing.
  2840. >B-but...
  2841. >Maybe...
  2842. >If it was telling the truth...
  2843. >You could... fix your mistakes.
  2844. >Redeem yourself to Incognito!
  2845. >Destroy Anonymous!
  2846. >Your decision was made.
  2847. >You stand up.
  2848. >You look the creature right in the eye.
  2849. >And finally, you seal the deal.
  2850. "I... accept."
  2851. <...
  2852.  
  2853. "Oh, God no, I can't accept more, but boy do I want to!"
  2854. >"Very well, monsieur Anonymous. Shall I...?"
  2855. "Huh? Oh yeah, sure, go right ahead!"
  2856. >With a flash of magic, the serving pony clears your meal's remains away.
  2857. >Holy mother of all that is fuck on this planet, that was the best thing you've ever eaten!
  2858. >You can't even put into words how much that clam chowder did wondrous, tingly things to your soul.
  2859. >So you settle with what's probably the dumbest looking smile on your face.
  2860. >Giggling and chuckles draw your attention again.
  2861. >The giggles come from all involved princesses, save Celestia, who was the chuckler of the bunch.
  2862. >The smile on her face actually looks real this time.
  2863. >"I take it you enjoyed that?"
  2864. "Yuh-huh."
  2865. >Luna's question sobers you a little out of your state of Zen-like bliss:
  2866. >"Anonymous, why did you not tell us before about your carnivorous needs?"
  2867. "O-oh, that? Well, I uh... didn't want to freak you all out with it, is all..."
  2868. >You did see Twilight and Cadance get a little unnerved by the sight, while you chowed down.
  2869. >But Luna's having none of it.
  2870. >"Nonsense! We have dined with many other races that partake in meats! Such a thing would never concern us!"
  2871. >"Perhaps not us, sister. But many of our ponies are still are not as... accepting of it, as we are."
  2872. >"Bah, I care little what they think of it!"
  2873. "Well, uh, I kinda do. So uh, thanks for being cool with it, all of you."
  2874. >Though maybe Luna does have a point, about not giving a fuck.
  2875. >Still, the attendance is all smiles.
  2876. >Well, except for Luna, who's still set on sticking up for you.
  2877.  
  2878. >Before she can give some more words of camaraderie, Celestia interrupts:
  2879. >"I am happy that you came here with us, Anon. We thought you could use a decent meal after everything you have endured."
  2880. "Hey, thanks! Beats the hell outta hospital food!"
  2881. >"That it does, doesn't it? But, I am afraid that I must retire for the night. Nothing better than a good night's sleep to deal with tomorrow's hurdles, isn't there?"
  2882. >On that, you'll agree a hundred percent.
  2883. >Everyone else had excused themselves in a similar way, except for Luna.
  2884. >She's got night court for the next few hours.
  2885. >You'd be more worried, if she didn't reassure you about her sleeping schedule being normally nocturnal-ish.
  2886. >Hell, you'd love to get up at like twelve in the afternoon as a 'morning'.
  2887. >You all decide to leave all at once, and after the final round of good-nights, all head out the various doors.
  2888. >Your posse of two waits outside the doors, having gone back with the other guards God-knows how long ago.
  2889. >"Heh, enjoy yourself in there, champ?"
  2890. "You better believe it."
  2891. >The journey back to your room is made in relative silence.
  2892. >Halfway through the trip, you realize you hadn't been using your cane.
  2893. >Wow, walking normally already?
  2894. >Nice!
  2895. >They also bid their goodnights, and leave you all alone to yourself.
  2896. >Well.
  2897. >Guess you'll get some much-deserved sleep in, huh?
  2898. >Off comes the jacket, and your tie gets loosened up--
  2899. >KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK
  2900. >The fuck?
  2901. >Who's knocking at this time of night?
  2902. "Who's there?"
  2903. >No answer.
  2904. >With a roll of your eyes, you go over and open the door.
  2905.  
  2906. >If this is a prank pizza delivery, you're gonna--
  2907. >Oh.
  2908. >Or it could be Celestia.
  2909. >Back with diplomatic smiles.
  2910. >Can't say you saw this one coming.
  2911. >"I'm sorry for the untimely intrusion. But there are things I must discuss with you, more privately."
  2912. >You should've listened to your pre-dinner musings.
  2913. "All right...?"
  2914. >You make way, and she promptly walks in, with you shutting the door after.
  2915. "I really hope you're not here to lock me up."
  2916. >"Not this time. I realize you must still feel angry about that, but I had my reasons."
  2917. >Did your eye just twitch?
  2918. "I'm gonna need to hear more about these 'reasons'."
  2919. >Her look becomes harder, but in a more business-like sense, not in an 'I will murder you' sense.
  2920. >"Then I'll dispense with the niceties. Trusted allies of mine have discovered a prophecy, invoked by one who desires the destruction of Equestria.
  2921. >"I had thought the individual who invoked it had been destroyed millennia ago, but it seems this foe had one last act of malice to perform.
  2922. >"It describes creatures, not of this world. Corrupting, warping, and destroying my ponies. And their described appearance matches that of your people."
  2923. >...
  2924. >This only makes you angrier.
  2925. "And... you think what's obviously describing that other guy, somehow also describes me?
  2926. "Sorry, but I'm actually having a hell of a time figuring out what part of that is pissing me off more!"
  2927. >"You might wish to listen more closely to what I said."
  2928. >[spoiler]urge to smack a ho rising[/spoiler]
  2929. >"I said 'creatures', plural. Because the prophecy speaks of not one human, but two."
  2930.  
  2931. @@@@@@@@
  2932.  
  2933. >Huh?
  2934. >Hold up.
  2935. "Two?"
  2936. >She nods through her increasingly pissed look.
  2937. >Your mouth opens for a retort, but you stop yourself before any words come out.
  2938. >Hold the goddamn phone, Anon.
  2939. >I know you're pissed off right now, and you've got every right to be.
  2940. >But let's think this through a bit.
  2941. >Novel concept, you know.
  2942. >All right.
  2943. >You know damn well you're not some evil villain type, here to destroy all ponies.
  2944. >But these friends of hers seem to think otherwise.
  2945. >At least, you think they do.
  2946. >And given all the magical shit that happens around here, you guess prophecies aren't a total reach.
  2947. >But it has to be wrong about you.
  2948. >If it were right, you'd be unsheathing katanas with lil' Nito right now, right?
  2949. >Right.
  2950. >Okay.
  2951. >Breathe.
  2952. >You know you're right, you just need to...
  2953. >Communicate it right.
  2954. >Think your next lines through this time, will you?
  2955. >Why not start with an attempt to calm things down, huh?
  2956. >Give you some time to think?
  2957. >Yeah, sounds like a solid plan.
  2958. >The sigh you give out was only half for show.
  2959. "Alright, listen."
  2960. >You make your way to the booze cabinet in your room.
  2961. >Restocked, as always.
  2962. "I think it's safe to say that, uh... we're at a little bit of a roadblock here.
  2963. "I mean, here you are, with a tip about some kinda world-destroying asshole shacking up with you.
  2964. "And here I am, only just hearing about this. Though I can't really say I believe it much, myself."
  2965. >You turn back around, two highballs and a bottle of whiskey in both hands.
  2966. "Seeing how heavy that little bombshell you just dropped is, maybe it'd be best if we... took this a bit more slowly?"
  2967.  
  2968. >Looks like you weren't the only one who had a moment of amnesia when it came to manners.
  2969. >If her face was anything to go by, she recognizes your quick little olive branch extension.
  2970. >"Yes... perhaps I came on too strongly."
  2971. >She shakes her head, as if clearing it.
  2972. >"Forgive me--"
  2973. "Let's save the apologies for after, shall we? Sounds like we've got a lot to talk about."
  2974. >Doesn't look like you're getting an argument from her.
  2975. >You make your way to your sofa-and-coffee table setup here, plopping down your boozy bounty.
  2976. "You uh, want something to--"
  2977. >"A glass of what you're having."
  2978. "Now that's what I call good taste."
  2979. >Okay, so the smile was barely there, but at least it's a start.
  2980. >You pour out the glasses, and slide one over to where she's sat down: opposite to you, on the other sofa.
  2981. >All this shit done, and you've only got half an idea of what to start with.
  2982. >Well, guess you'll make the rest up on the--
  2983. >"Anon, perhaps it would help to contextualize all of my actions, if you knew my... background on this matter."
  2984. >Or, she could start.
  2985. >Guess that's fine.
  2986. "All right?"
  2987. >You pick up your glass, sipping it a little.
  2988. >Ahh, sweet, sweet liquor.
  2989. >"You must understand, I have been guiding and leading my little ponies for millennia now.
  2990. >"Hardly the most uncommon knowledge, I know, but I take the role very seriously.
  2991. >"In my time doing this, I have signed countless treaties, formed and broken hundreds of alliances, and in the past, have even waged wars towards this end.
  2992. >"They are everything to me, Anon. I would do anything to safeguard them. Anything."
  2993.  
  2994. >She pauses to take a little sip herself.
  2995. >You mirror the action a second later.
  2996. >"When the frontier towns are threatened by the brutal, marauding arimaspi, I send considerable military forces to fight them back, however necessary.
  2997. >"Were the yaks to have gone through with their threat of war, and not accept Twilight's friendship, I would have been ready to fight them off myself.
  2998. >"And while I realize this is contentious for you, if my ponies are being corrupted by ancient stores of knowledge, I would rather see them destroyed, then to have them claim the lives, possibly even souls, of my little ponies."
  2999. >Well, she's not wrong about the contentious part.
  3000. >She takes one other sip before setting the glass down.
  3001. >"And similarly, if I learn from some of my oldest allies, well versed in discerning the threads of fate, that a dark prophecy was invoked, one that involved truly alien entities being tasked with the destruction of that which I hold dearest?
  3002. >"Then you must understand what lengths I am willing to go to, to ensure that does not happen."
  3003. >She's back to a hard glare, but her tone doesn't change.
  3004. >"There have been too many times, where an obvious opponent's actions have provided the perfect cover for a betrayer to slip into my ranks, to cause unimaginable damage.
  3005. >"I will not permit that to happen again. Not when the foe has brought a level of carnage and brutality only heard of in ancient times."
  3006. >Train of thought, emergency brakes engage.
  3007. "Whoa wait, hold up. You're not suggesting that I'm some kinda...?"
  3008.  
  3009. >"There are only two humans present in the world that we know of. And the similarities you share are of particular concern.
  3010. >"You both wield the magic of my ancient opponents, knowledge of which was supposed to be destroyed.
  3011. >"You both carry that bizarre marking across your face. And you both have synonymous names.
  3012. >"Perhaps I am mistaken, and it is just a coincidence. But I ceased believing in such things a very long time ago."
  3013. >She leans forward, leveling one mean glare towards you.
  3014. >"So I will make this as clear as I can. Your friendships with my own closest friends, and those I consider family, are the only thing preventing me from sealing you in an iron-clad vault within the crystal caverns, as is your obvious hatred for the other human and his lackeys.
  3015. >"If I discover, at any point, that you do anything to place them in danger, or if you dare harm them, I will not hesitate to follow through with that threat, objections be damned."
  3016. >...
  3017. >Well.
  3018. >That's one hell of a declaration.
  3019. >Honestly, the way she said the whole thing did a decent job at deflecting away your own disbelief at being called a sleeper agent.
  3020. >All right.
  3021. >At least you had enough time to come up with a response.
  3022. >You take another sip, then set the glass down as well.
  3023. "I guess now's the part where I also tell you about where I'm coming from, huh?
  3024. "Look, I'm not gonna smother the story in chocolate. Life back home sucked. Bad enough to get wasted on shit stronger and less tasty than this stuff here on a fairly regular basis.
  3025. "And I don't know how the hell I even got here, but I can tell you this:"
  3026.  
  3027. >Now it's your turn to lean forward, and give her what you hope is a serious look.
  3028. "This place, the ponies, everything? Absolutely been some of the best years of my life. Even with the whole evil human attacker thing.
  3029. "I could tell you all kinds of stories about the great things I've done here with the others, how it all doesn't add up to me being some kinda harbinger of doom.
  3030. "But I get the feeling you don't much care to hear my word against those other guys of yours, huh?"
  3031. >A little readjustment of your seating before moving on.
  3032. >Her glare's gone down several notches of the metaphorical intensity dial.
  3033. "I just want you to know, that if there is some kind of over-arching prophetic bullshit about destroying all ponies, and that it might possibly involve me on the prosecution's side of the stand, then it sure is news to me.
  3034. "I've never even entertained the idea of hurting your friends, much less the other princesses. And I sure don't plan on starting today.
  3035. "Hell, finding out about that old magic stuff started off as old-fashioned scientific curiosity, until that other chode-choker showed up."
  3036. >Her glare keeps ratcheting down.
  3037. "I don't blame you for being all protective of them; God only knows I'd be, too. I do blame you for the jail-time, though. And the secret police harassment. And generally keeping me from pushing Incognito's shit in.
  3038. "So, how about this? You can have that guard of yours - great guy, by the way - watch and report on my ass all you like. Hell, throw more in, if you want. Doesn't really bother me anymore.
  3039.  
  3040. "And shit, if you're right about all that, and some deus-ex-machina prophecy bullshit turns me into the lovechild of Dr. Evil and that Sombrero guy, don't bother with the damn vault, and just straight-up blast me back to Earth."
  3041. >This is the part where you smile instead of glare.
  3042. "But in the meantime? I've got a lot of boning up to do. Body, mind, magic alike. And by the end of it all, I'm gonna shove my staff so far up his ass, that I can market him as a floor lamp for edgy teenagers."
  3043. >Even she has to suppress a small snort.
  3044. >Still got it.
  3045. >"I... I was not expecting such statements from you."
  3046. "Learn to love 'em."
  3047. >"Regardless, I... I must offer some measure of apology. I very clearly have misjudged you."
  3048. "Been getting that for years, I'm pretty used to it."
  3049. >She picks her glass back up, and goes in for another sip.
  3050. >"And this... shameful lapse in my own judgment, has resulted in some very poor decisions on my part, including your brief detainment. For that and more, I must apologize."
  3051. "Well, uh, sorry about getting all short with you?"
  3052. >"No need to apologize. I would consider that a fairly natural reaction."
  3053. >Holy shit, are you actually clearing some animosity here?
  3054. >She swirls her glass around a little.
  3055. >Still a good two-thirds in there.
  3056. >That's your cue to pick your own one back up for another sip.
  3057. >"Well... I suppose I have to finish this glass somehow, don't I? Perhaps you could... tell me more of your world? After all, my sister speaks very highly of your tales."
  3058. >You fuckin' are clearing it!
  3059. "Sure. What do you wanna hear first?"
  3060. <...
  3061.  
  3062. >You wake up to the sound of chirping birds, as always.
  3063. >It's a small, welcome little comfort from the last few days of madness.
  3064. >O-oh gosh, what a night!
  3065. >Starlight had come down with more of those headaches, but thankfully didn't vomit.
  3066. >Still, she was really weak by the end of it, and you had to carry her away to her room.
  3067. >Surprisingly, Spike was in there first, and was really concerned with Starlight's well-being.
  3068. >As in, way more than you thought he would be!
  3069. >Y-you guess they've become even bigger friends, since the last time you saw them.
  3070. >He wanted to know what happened, of course, but you had to tell him that it was a secret, that he had to ask princess Luna about it.
  3071. >You pull yourself out of bed, slowly but steadily.
  3072. >As usual, you're off to the shower.
  3073. >While you clean up, you drift back to the other part of last night's events.
  3074. >You had come by Luna late at night, who looked a lot happier than usual.
  3075. >She was likely going off to hold the remainder of the night court.
  3076. >You remember needing to ask her something privately, and...
  3077. >Well...
  3078. >You had to ask about Starlight.
  3079. >Whether or not this really was a good idea.
  3080. >Whether or not what was happening to her was really as 'normal' as she made it out to be!
  3081. >Because it... it can't be right!
  3082. >You know anything can happen, where the shroud is concerned, but...!
  3083. >These 'minimal' effects seemed so extreme!
  3084. >But, no.
  3085. >It turns out that it is indeed normal.
  3086. >Well, normal for somepony who worked with dark magic for so long, anyways.
  3087. >J-just how much of it did she end up using?!
  3088.  
  3089. >You walk out of the bathroom, still lightly steaming from a rapid evaporation spell.
  3090. >Way safer than a simple heat spell for drying off, that's for sure.
  3091. >The manastatic was easily controllable enough with an extra grounding spell.
  3092. >Your robes come on in a flash, and you set out towards the library, making sure your card was still on you.
  3093. >Whew, still there!
  3094. >You don't doubt that Luna is telling the truth, but...
  3095. >You need more confirmation!
  3096. >There has to be... something you can do about this!
  3097. >Surely somepony, or something has tried to find a way to stave off the effects of this 'warp'!
  3098. >Your first thought was to see Celestia about it, but you were warned off of asking her anything relating to the 'warp' early on.
  3099. >Just asking about it was grounds for immediate imprisonment, at the hooves of Sol Invictus!
  3100. >G-gosh, you didn't know she protected the knowledge of it that strongly!
  3101. >W-well, fine!
  3102. >If she won't tell you how to stop these effects, then...
  3103. >T-then you'll find a way to stop them, yourself!
  3104. >You can't keep doing this, seeing Starlight hurting like that!
  3105. >Hay, you're sure Twilight would agree!
  3106. >Your pace increases, almost at a full trot towards--
  3107. >Twilight!
  3108. >Of course!
  3109. >She's way better at magic than you are, and just as good with theory!
  3110. >She'd help you find a way to help Starlight!
  3111. >Your course changes, and you find yourself heading back upstairs, to where everypony you knew was temporarily living right now.
  3112. >B-boy, the servants must not have seen this coming, having to tend the important guest rooms like that...
  3113.  
  3114. >The doorway leading to Twilight's room was heavily guarded, like always.
  3115. >Her and Cadance always got the rooms meant for foreign leaders.
  3116. >They're even more lavish than the ambassador's suite that Anon has!
  3117. >No expense for the princesses, you guess.
  3118. "E-excuse me, I'm here to see princess Twilight?"
  3119. >"Princess Twilight is not here right now, mister Sunburst."
  3120. >She's up?
  3121. "O-oh. Do you know where I can find her, then?"
  3122. >"She departed towards the meeting chambers about half an hour ago. And, well, she didn't look too happy."
  3123. "W-what do you mean?"
  3124. >"Can't say for sure, but she was definitely sad and angry about something."
  3125. >A-about what, though?
  3126. "W-well, thanks for your time."
  3127. >They salute as you turn tail, and move towards the meeting chambers.
  3128. >She must have heard about Starlight, right?
  3129. >That's the only thing you can think of!
  3130. >Gosh, she must feel awful about that!
  3131. >W-well, at least that'll make her even more willing to help!
  3132. >Goddess only knows you could use it!
  3133. >No.
  3134. >Goddess only knows that Starlight could use it.
  3135. >The trip to the halls was long, like you expected.
  3136. >A-and hay, there were plenty of forks in the path, so she might not even be here...
  3137. >Still, you should at least check.
  3138. >Most of the hall doors were closed, with the occupied sign over them.
  3139. >Nobles deliberating, no doubt.
  3140. >But no Twilight.
  3141. >Asking another guard points you towards the servant's quarters.
  3142. >And that apparently, Luna was with her now, too!
  3143. >O-oh gosh, is she confronting Luna about this?
  3144. >With that scenario in mind, you trot off towards the quarters.
  3145.  
  3146. >The halls in the quarters were empty, like usual.
  3147. >The ponies here only changed shifts in twelve-hour intervals, so it makes sense.
  3148. >It made the hallway really quiet, though.
  3149. >You actually wound up casting a weak muffle on your hooves, since you were afraid your steps would wake somepony here!
  3150. >G-gosh, why would you even think--
  3151. >Wait.
  3152. >There's voices, somewhere up ahead, far off.
  3153. >Your pace picks back up.
  3154. >In the distance, you see a door cracked slightly open, leading to a storage closet.
  3155. >The voices become more defined.
  3156. >It's...
  3157. >Twilight's voice?
  3158. >A-and Luna's, too?
  3159. >W-what are they doing in there?
  3160. >Your approach speeds up, but slows right back down soon after, upon hearing the tone they were using.
  3161. >Twilight sounded really mad, but in a weird kind of way.
  3162. >Luna was more... confused?
  3163. >Y-you really shouldn't be eavesdropping, you know!
  3164. >B-but you've come this far, looking for Twilight!
  3165. >An ear swivels towards the door:
  3166. >"--ou mean you knew, this whole time?"
  3167. >"Well, yes! Twilight, please, I do not understand!"
  3168. >"Don't understand? How can you not understand?!"
  3169. >"Twilight, please! I genuinely do not know what it is I have done to upset you!"
  3170. >Huh?
  3171. >This didn't sound like it was about Starlight.
  3172. >Their voices weren't... sad enough.
  3173. >Seriously, what's this other... tone in their voices, that you can't quite figure--
  3174. >"Oh, so you're telling me that you keep... getting his attention like that, and you don't know what it is you're doing?!"
  3175. >Wait, getting who's attention?
  3176. >"Is... is that not proper courtship? Have the methods changed in my absence?"
  3177.  
  3178. >Courtsh--
  3179. >...
  3180. >Oh.
  3181. >OH.
  3182. >Oh, no!
  3183. >Oh, no no no!
  3184. >Y-you didn't expect to f-find them talking a-about--
  3185. >"Not proper? You think?! You couldn't have at least waited for me to leave, before making those moves?!"
  3186. >"But... why?"
  3187. >"Wh-what are you even talking about, 'why'?!"
  3188. >"I had thought it to be the most accepted approach! The one most capable of getting us both what we desire!"
  3189. >You shouldn't be listening.
  3190. >Y-you should go...!
  3191. >B-but why can't you--
  3192. >"I-- wait, what? Okay, wait a second, Luna. How did you think that would even work?"
  3193. >"Well, how else could it have worked, to that end? We both make our intentions known through increasing degrees, both to ease our potential mate into accepting, and to determine between each other who becomes the head mare."
  3194. >C-come on, legs!
  3195. >M-move already!
  3196. >"'Head mare'? Head of wha-- Wait. Wait, wait, wait! Y-you're not actually suggesting a...?!"
  3197. >"Yes, of course I am suggesting a herd! What else would I have been suggesting!"
  3198. >"No. No, no, NO! Luna, I don't know what it was like then, but ancient herd practices haven't been popular for almost four hundred years, now!"
  3199. >"Wh-what? Do... do you speak truly?"
  3200. >"Yes! I... oh, goddess... no wonder you were..."
  3201. >"Wait a moment, the practice has been popular for many millennia before my banishment! How did it fall out of vogue so quickly?!"
  3202. >"I... ohh, boy, I can't believe I'm explaining this... uh, there's three big reasons.
  3203. >"F-first off, there's a lot more stallions around now, about one for every three and a half mares, so it's just not as needed.
  3204.  
  3205. >"A-and there was the decree six hundred years back, where same-sex relations were decriminalized, followed by fully legalized a few decades later...
  3206. >"But then it really dropped off with the introduction of more relaxed adoption laws, legalized s-studding... o-oh gosh, why do I need to explain this...?!"
  3207. >"All those nobles, with their wives... all this time, I thought they were simply the head mares..."
  3208. >"L-look, the point is, it isn't seen outside of little frontier towns anymore. A-and even if it was popular, I-I still wouldn't want to be in one!"
  3209. >"But, Twilight! What does the opinion of those foolish nobles matter to--"
  3210. >"It's not them, Luna! It's me! I... I want to have something one-on-one! S-something like what Cadance has!"
  3211. >"I... I see. And... there is no way to convince you otherwise, is there?"
  3212. >"No, there isn't. I'm sorry, but that's how it's going to be."
  3213. >O-oh for the love of all that's holy, just run already!
  3214. >Luna's voice becoming louder and more challenging in tone was the final push you needed.
  3215. >"So, you wish to make this a contest, then?"
  3216. >Throwing a more complete muffling spell over yourself, you sprint back down the hallway.
  3217. >"It's always been a contest! And I'm not gonna stop until..."
  3218. >The voices fade away in the distance, on top of being drowned out by your own pulse.
  3219. >O-oh gosh, what poor colt were they fighting over?!
  3220. >I-is it anypony you know?
  3221. >No, no! Not thinking about this anymore!
  3222. >Just... just get yourself to the library!
  3223. >E-even without Twilight, you still have a lot of work ahead of you!
  3224. <...
  3225.  
  3226. @@@@@@@@
  3227.  
  3228. >"Hope you like this last day of bookworming it up, because you'll be getting the expedited training regiment, starting tomorrow!"
  3229. "You really know how to make a guy swoon, Razor."
  3230. >"And don't you bucking forget it."
  3231. >You knew the whole thing was necessary, to get /fit/ for your now well-planned 'ranger DEX faggot' skills.
  3232. >But still, big fights notwithstanding, you have been kind of a major slacker these last few years.
  3233. >Still trace amounts of laziness kicking around.
  3234. >But hey, you don't have time to re-assume your leech-kin heritage.
  3235. >You've got shit to do!
  3236. >And boy, are you gonna make the most of this last 'free' day.
  3237. >By taking a ton of shit out of the library, of course!
  3238. >The sacrifice of the trees will not be in vain, if you have anything to read about it!
  3239. >"So, what exactly are you gonna pick up over there, anyways?"
  3240. >Ah, perfect segue, old bean!
  3241. "A whole lotta books on magic, weapons, and armour. A little history, while I'm at it. Maybe a porno on the side, who knows?"
  3242. >"Pffff. Yeah, good luck finding that in this library."
  3243. >"Most of the internal Canterlot library's collection mirrors that of the Canterlot Library of Magic, and as a result, does not contain material of that variety."
  3244. "That include the forbidden books?"
  3245. >"The tomes present at the Canterlot Library of Magic are in fact redacted versions of the originals present here. Access is permitted only to the princesses."
  3246. "Well, that's a pity."
  3247. >Not that you're really too interested in pony forbidden magic.
  3248. >You've got enough 'forbidden' magic in your own super-book, thank you very much.
  3249.  
  3250. >Alright, let's go over this list one more time...
  3251. >Bowyer's book is a must, along with some fletching--
  3252. >bump
  3253. >Who dares interrupt the list reading of--
  3254. >Oh, it's Sunburst!
  3255. >And he... looks like he's seen some shit.
  3256. "Oh hey there, lil' buddy!"
  3257. >"A-Anon? Wh-what are you doing here?"
  3258. "Embracing my inner silverfish, of course!"
  3259. >"H-huh? Wha-- Oh, you mean going to the library?"
  3260. "Damn right."
  3261. >"W-well, that's where I'm headed to, too!"
  3262. "Oh, yeah? What for?"
  3263. >The two of you keep walking, as he keeps talking.
  3264. >"U-uh, I've got a little bit of a problem to solve, and I'm hoping I can find some answers there."
  3265. "What kinda problem?"
  3266. >"It's, uh... k-kind of a private matter..."
  3267. >Sunburst, the horse with a magic mark, being evasive around magic?
  3268. >Guess hiding shit is in high demand around these parts.
  3269. >Still, you shrug for appearances.
  3270. "Alright, didn't mean to pry."
  3271. >"I-it's fine."
  3272. >The rest of the walk went in relative silence, which is to say, all of around a minute.
  3273. >The pair of you flash your respective cards to the doorponies, who show you on through.
  3274. >Your guarding duo, of course, don't need silly peasant cards, though they do need muffle spells for that armour of theirs, which Exact provides before even being prompted.
  3275. >Gotta admire his efficiency, if nothing else.
  3276. >Ohh-kay, where's a...?
  3277. >Ah, there's a book trolley!
  3278. >...
  3279. >Geez, quite a haul already!
  3280. >They only had one bowyer's book, and one fletching book, all minotaur imports.
  3281. >Really should've expected that, since they're the only other race in Equestria you know of that use Real™ bows.
  3282.  
  3283. >Armouring was a much bigger success, with a book for ponies, a book for minotaurs, and a general smithing and metallurgy guide.
  3284. >It'll be interesting to see what kind of metals you'll have access to.
  3285. >Though you see a whole lot of thaumium in your armoured future.
  3286. >Hey, it's good shit, what can you say?
  3287. >Heavy, but good!
  3288. >You threw in a weaponsmithing guide, while you were at it.
  3289. >Don't see yourself using it, but it's there.
  3290. >As for magic, you had a nice haul of four books, one of which was the basics.
  3291. >You'll probably need Sunburst to spoon-feed you some concepts, especially near the beginning.
  3292. >Learning some pony magic will be great for cooking up new foci and constructs, but not if it takes you weeks, or even months, to figure it out.
  3293. >Now, the history was proving a lot more difficult.
  3294. >You've spent the better part of half an hour, trawling the various history sections, but just can't find anything satisfactory.
  3295. >Nothing about ancient enemies, nothing really about wars.
  3296. >Just various Equestrian achievements, friendships, alliances, and major events, all in surprisingly kids book-levels of detail.
  3297. >A stark contrast to the more scientific books in your collection.
  3298. >Leaving the forbidden section as the last.
  3299. >Luckily, you were just at the intersection to it, so you turn the trolley over to--
  3300. >"You know that you are not allowed inside that section."
  3301. "Nothing wrong with looking around it though, isn't there?"
  3302. >"You are technically correct in that assessment."
  3303. "The best kind of correct."
  3304. >Besides, you wanted to see if that one book was still there...
  3305.  
  3306. >This was the nice thing about the forbidden section: the surrounding sections were filled with the more questionable books.
  3307. >You know, kinda sketchy and skeezy, but not outright illegal?
  3308. >Cult documentaries, Nightmare Moon's banishment, crime statistics, it's all here!
  3309. >And more importantly...
  3310. >Ah, there's the shelf!
  3311. >The one from so long ago.
  3312. >From before Nito showed his face.
  3313. >Out comes a familiar pair of books.
  3314. >First, of course, is the edicts book.
  3315. >You flip it open for a moment, skimming it over.
  3316. >Still as redacted as ever.
  3317. >It's actually pretty surreal, how much more you know about these banned spells, in just a few months.
  3318. >You feel like that heavily redacted section, on 'others using magic', might be some kinda roundabout way of banning your style.
  3319. >You mean, it made sense, given that it was 'magic for the masses'.
  3320. >[spoiler]da, comrade[/spoiler]
  3321. >And, of course, the runic ban was pretty clear-cut now.
  3322. >For whatever reason, you're getting this mental image of a person covering their body in the things.
  3323. >Seriously, how crazy and obsessive do you have to be, to think that'd be a good idea?
  3324. >Alright, enough errant thoughts, Mr. subconscious.
  3325. >The book flips closed, and is put on the trolley.
  3326. >Of far more interest, however, is the book absolutely plastered in illusion magic, with the full disco ball effect going on to your eyes.
  3327. >'War of the Ancients'.
  3328. >Obviously, this one wasn't meant to be read by any average pony.
  3329. >Wonder what the 'official' cover of this one is, anyways?
  3330. >Hell, let's find out!
  3331.  
  3332. >Let's try the casual method first, shall we?
  3333. >You pull it out and set it on the cart, like normal.
  3334. >Instantly, you see Razor's nose turn up in disgust.
  3335. >He turns to you with a disbelieving look.
  3336. "What?"
  3337. >"What, 'what'?"
  3338. "I saw that look of yours."
  3339. >"Well, geez. How am I supposed to react to a book on eating ponies?"
  3340. >Wait, hold the phone, what?
  3341. >It's cover is on eating ponies?
  3342. "Well, I kinda want to know what the sick fuck wrote down. Morbid curiosity, and all that."
  3343. >Smoother than a newborn's ass.
  3344. >"Alright, fine, I'll give you that one. But I better not catch you eating anypony around here, you hear?"
  3345. "Friend, I'd rather eat a fuckin' changeling, before I try for ponies."
  3346. >With that thread finished with an eyeroll on his part, you browse through this section a little more.
  3347. >An Ancient Equestrian book on zebra tribes stood out to you, and so you take it along, as well.
  3348. >Same goes for another one on changelings.
  3349. >You're surprised you can even still read this, after so long outta practice!
  3350. >In fact, is there a...?
  3351. >Yes, there is a book in that zebra language!
  3352. >And...
  3353. >Aw, shit.
  3354. >It's a little tough to make out, after so long not reading it.
  3355. >It looks like something on ritualistic dances, though.
  3356. >Gonna pass.
  3357. >Actually, come to think of it...
  3358. >You still had a lot of those leftover books, from that initial raid to get your Lexica, didn't you?
  3359. >Yeah, they might be worth looking over!
  3360. >Man, you haven't even breathed on them, since getting said Lexica.
  3361. >There's gotta be something useful in there, though.
  3362. >Just a little icing on the path-to-thaumaturgy cake.
  3363.  
  3364. >Wait, hold up.
  3365. >Didn't you hear something about zebras and Nito...?
  3366. >Oh, fuck, right!
  3367. >Chrysalis told you that, of some tribe working with him!
  3368. >And he's apparently been working out there in the field?
  3369. >That was a long time ago, though.
  3370. >What was the tribe called, again?
  3371. >'Bloody plague', something like that?
  3372. >You'll figure it out.
  3373. >A little scanning later, shows nothing you really care for.
  3374. >Well, time to check out.
  3375. >...
  3376. >Man, that dirty look on the librarian when you checked out the disguised Ancients book?
  3377. >More framing material you're seriously missing out on.
  3378. >Sunburst had left a while ago, evidently not finding what he was after.
  3379. >Oh, well.
  3380. >It doesn't take long to return to your room, and unload the books hoisted on your duo's back.
  3381. >Strict 'no trolleys outside the library' rule in force.
  3382. >Hell, Exact offered.
  3383. >As much as you'd love to get to the reading, you've got your other forbidden collection to check.
  3384. >So back through the slipgate you go, towards the dusty-ass shelf tucked away behind your first workbench.
  3385. >The Ancient Equestrian ones were in the majority, and seemed to be on different magical systems.
  3386. >The surprisingly few zebra language ones were the same way.
  3387. >A distinct lack of thaumic ones, though.
  3388. >Shame, no cheat-sheeting for you.
  3389. >And then, there was a still-tied bundle.
  3390. >Which you immediately undo, revealing...
  3391. >The books in the more esoteric languages.
  3392. >Including that Scarabspeak book.
  3393. >You don't really understand the titles, so you'll have to come back with your old language notes.
  3394. >Hmm...
  3395. >That gives you an idea!
  3396. <...
  3397.  
  3398. >"Only two expulsions this time? That's a rather rapid improvement."
  3399. >He says, while never once helping you.
  3400. >Always leaving it to the nurses to clean up.
  3401. >This doctor, whatever his name is?
  3402. >Absolutely useless!
  3403. >You're sure he takes some kind of pleasure in feeding that disgusting 'medicine' to you, too!
  3404. >He has to!
  3405. >Why else would he do it, and threaten you with that needle if you didn't?
  3406. >Tch.
  3407. >Not like it really matters right now, does it?
  3408. >That... thing, creating those voices...
  3409. >It was right.
  3410. >Not fighting it off really did make these... effects, way less horrible.
  3411. >You still remember a few days ago, when you nearly blacked out from nine back-to-back 'expulsions'.
  3412. >N-never again...
  3413. >You're not sure how you feel, about those things more or less always haunting you.
  3414. >But most of your apprehension was swept away by the things they told you!
  3415. >Before, they forced in little things, like that bizarre spell you cast in your 'dream'.
  3416. >But now that you're using it to 'properly' listen to them?
  3417. >Just...
  3418. >Just, wow!
  3419. >So much knowledge, so many spells!
  3420. >Even more than what Incognito was teaching you!
  3421. >Of course, he didn't teach you dark magic.
  3422. >Knowing now what it apparently does to you, what with these voices and all, you can hardly blame him.
  3423. >Still...
  3424. >Doesn't he use dark magic, too?
  3425. >Yet...
  3426. >Yet you don't recall him ever getting a headache.
  3427. >Or having anything bad happen, really!
  3428. >There's got to be some kind of trick to that.
  3429. >Oh, hay, he's probably told you already, in some weird little allegory.
  3430. >But oh, those allegories...
  3431.  
  3432. >N-no, snap out of it!
  3433. >This isn't time to reminisce!
  3434. >You're trying to hear more of him in the future, not reflect on the things you've already heard!
  3435. >Gah, these stupid medical ponies!
  3436. >These stupid restraints!
  3437. >So many useless ponies here!
  3438. >Once you learn enough from the voices, maybe you'll find a better use for their magic!
  3439. >Blood, horns, even souls, doesn't matter!
  3440. >Anything's better than them sitting around, cleaning the vomit off of a harmless changeling!
  3441. >Speaking of useless ponies...
  3442. >The stupid doctor's examining you again.
  3443. >Always the same range of tests.
  3444. >Stethoscope, that eye light thing, saying 'ahh', all that.
  3445. >You hate being so damn compliant, but you're honestly more afraid of what he'll do if you aren't.
  3446. >Once you get out, though...
  3447. >He's going to die first.
  3448. >"All right, miss Athalia. Your body seem to have taken the fast track to recovery! Always wonderful to see!"
  3449. >You're sure it is.
  3450. >"Now, you'll be happy to hear that you have a visitor this morning, at the detention chamber! I think the change in scenery alone would do you some good!"
  3451. >Wait, visitor?
  3452. >Who the hay wants to visit you?
  3453. >"Well, let's not waste any time, shall we?"
  3454. >The increasingly familiar feeling of the bed lurching forward signals your bed being in transit.
  3455. >Well, it's more like a portable prison, than it is a bed.
  3456. >They don't even unstrap you to change sheets, or anything!
  3457. >They just magic new ones in from under you!
  3458. >Oh, they're probably afraid of you, is all.
  3459. >And you know what?
  3460. >They should be.
  3461. >All you can do now, is watch the ponies walking by as you're wheeled over.
  3462.  
  3463. >It doesn't seem to take that long before you arrive at a particular set of double-doors.
  3464. >And their 'procedure' is the same, as always: leaving you in the chamber by yourself.
  3465. >Moments later, you feel the chains on your restraints click, followed by the pressure on your limbs letting up.
  3466. >Aahhhh...
  3467. >You take a moment to stretch yourself out,
  3468. >You haven't moved freely in so long, now...
  3469. >It feels so good to finally be mobile again!
  3470. >Even if it is under the enemy's roof.
  3471. >And in chains.
  3472. >The symbols on the padded cuffs still glow faintly.
  3473. >Even without the real chains, you've still got the metaphorical ones...
  3474. >Your hoof trails up your head, reaching for--
  3475. >Yeah, the ring's still there.
  3476. >Out of curiosity, you try to cast a spell.
  3477. >Nothing happens.
  3478. >Hm...
  3479. >Maybe...?
  3480. >Ah, damn it!
  3481. >Guess casting that dark spell only worked in your dream.
  3482. >Well, forget sitting on this bed!
  3483. >Maybe there's something around here you can use?
  3484. >With more difficulty than you expect, you climb down off the roller bed.
  3485. >Your legs feel so sluggish and stiff, trying to walk.
  3486. >You don't know if it's more because of disuse, or because of these strength sapping enchantments.
  3487. >As for the room itself...
  3488. >The lack of pillars and crevices made hiding impossible.
  3489. >The surfaces were all metallic, but the metal felt cold in a strange, unnatural way.
  3490. >Did...
  3491. >Did they cover this place in what you think they covered it in?
  3492. >You lay flat, looking for the magic glyphs on your right restraint.
  3493. >Okay, there's the strength-sapping...
  3494. >Now, where's the mana locus glyph...?
  3495. >Ah, there it is!
  3496.  
  3497. >Over at one wall, one of the rivets was protruding slightly.
  3498. >Not enough to cut into the restraints, but just enough to break the otherwise smooth surface of the entire room.
  3499. >They really went out of their way to make it as flat and smooth as possible.
  3500. >Not smooth enough, obviously...
  3501. >You bring the cuff up, towards the rivet.
  3502. >Now, if you press it into the locus glyph...
  3503. >There!
  3504. >Your arm, it...
  3505. >It feels stronger!
  3506. >Then this place IS covered in iron!
  3507. >...
  3508. >Oh, sweet foremothers, this place is covered in iron?!
  3509. >Wh-where did they even get this much iron?
  3510. >Even Incognito's strange, private smithy didn't have this much, and he hoarded a lot!
  3511. >A-and how did ponies even work this all into place?
  3512. >This stuff was nightmarish to work with!
  3513. >At least Incognito had this stuff in his blood, so he could do it!
  3514. >But how did--
  3515. >The sounds of the first double-doors opening breaks your thoughts.
  3516. >Your cuff comes off of the rivet, the sapping feeling returning just as quickly.
  3517. >You walk to the back of the room, watching the door like a hawk.
  3518. >It sounded like something was getting wheeled in, as well.
  3519. >The final set opens, and--
  3520. >No!
  3521. >Not her again!
  3522. >"Ah, mobile already? Wonderful, that will make this so much easier."
  3523. >Is...
  3524. >Is she wheeling a bucking breaking wheel in?!
  3525. >"Oh, there's no cause for alarm. As long as you comply, you shall not be harmed."
  3526. >Why does she look so cheery?!
  3527. >No.
  3528. >No!
  3529. >Don't show weakness!
  3530. >She'll--
  3531. >Her horn lighting up preceded you being yanked over to her.
  3532. >"The question, then, is whether or not you want to do this the easy way, or the hard way."
  3533. <...
  3534.  
  3535. >Yeah, an array like that could work!
  3536. >Plug in the details of a language into two slots, one for input, the other for output.
  3537. >Make them interchangeable, so you can Google Translate that shit on-the-fly!
  3538. >Great framework for a new lens design, Anon!
  3539. >Now, if only you knew a translation spell...
  3540. >Hm.
  3541. >Ponies should've figured that out before, right?
  3542. >Once you get the spell translation chapters down, and get some pony magic pointers, you might be able to ape one of their spells!
  3543. >Hey, it's better than wasting days you don't have, right?
  3544. >The notebook closes up, with your fifteen-minute concept stored away safely.
  3545. >Yeah, one out of like fifty-ish others.
  3546. >But enough about that, how about some reading?
  3547. >Your old language notebooks come up, courtesy of your spiffy TK gloves.
  3548. >Maaaaan, you really see why unicorns love this shit.
  3549. >Filtering through the notes, you come across your pages relating to Scarabspeak.
  3550. >All right, let's make some light of this bug book, shall we?
  3551. >Hmm...
  3552. >Looks to be titled, "Lineage".
  3553. >There were honorifics attached to it, relating to high castes.
  3554. >Royalty, maybe?
  3555. >Man, bug-talk is real terse, sometimes.
  3556. >You're missing a lot of the sonic and hormone cues, is the thing.
  3557. >Guessing's the best you can do.
  3558. >Hold up, what's the time?
  3559. >Oh, good, you're not burning too much daylight.
  3560. >Still, you'll cap this book at thirty minutes, before moving on to the books you really want to get to.
  3561. >Your bow design comes to mind, and is promptly pushed back out.
  3562. >Patience, your time is soon.
  3563. >Very soon.
  3564.  
  3565. >Open it up, and...
  3566. >It's a... family tree?
  3567. >The text is doing the shimmer thing as well, but not almost-unreadably so, like the other book.
  3568. >The names were all in that fucky way that bug language does names: looking like some kind of bastard hybrid between Arabic and a barcode.
  3569. >Probably something to do with the whole hive-mind thing.
  3570. >At least, you think they do the hive-mind thing.
  3571. >Not really too sure about that.
  3572. >The 'pictures' attached to the names were also just a big, radiating series of brighter-shimmering barcode-Arabic.
  3573. >God, what does this book even look like to ponies and co?
  3574. >Wait.
  3575. >Maybe, if...?
  3576. >Your test goggles are floated over, and you take a moment to strap them on.
  3577. >You need some kinda name for these things, later on.
  3578. >Assuming the final product even are goggles.
  3579. >The manalens portion comes to life, washing everything in that trippy purple hue.
  3580. >The book looks... way more shimmery.
  3581. >Maybe if you...
  3582. >Aha, that's what the plans meant by "gifted sight", seeing things like magic races do!
  3583. >The pages now look blank!
  3584. >Okay, maybe that's not too helpful.
  3585. >But maybe you can...
  3586. >Hm.
  3587. >You're fiddling around with the sight-changing commands, trying to change perspectives such that it'll let you see it.
  3588. >A few combinations got you some weird bleeding-ink looks, but nothing readable ye--
  3589. >Wait, there it is!
  3590. >Oh shit, the pictures pop out in 3D?
  3591. >That's fucking cool!
  3592. >Too bad they're looking really distorted.
  3593. >Maybe some fine adjustments will...?
  3594. >Aah...!
  3595. >There we are!
  3596. >And whoaly fuck, that's...
  3597. >The least ugly bug-horse you've ever seen?
  3598.  
  3599. >Yeah, the first few trees had bugs that were decidedly more horse than bug.
  3600. >Still with the freaky eyes, but an improvement!
  3601. >Actually, their coloration was a lot more neutral than ponies were.
  3602. >And... they had little antlers, too?
  3603. >Huh, they're looking like a way more subdued version of... whatever the fuck that Thorax guy is doing with his look.
  3604. >Going further down the tree, you're seeing similar patterns along the descendants.
  3605. >They're all sporting that subdued bug-horse-deer look.
  3606. >Not gonna lie, it actually looks decent.
  3607. >Why couldn't current bug-horses look like this?
  3608. >Wait, hold up.
  3609. >There's some kind of big, red dividing line, further down the pages.
  3610. >Past the line, is...
  3611. >Ohh, boy.
  3612. >Now they look like the current bug-horses.
  3613. >As in, buttfuck ugly.
  3614. >There's a change in honorifics, too.
  3615. >Before the line, they had the highest ones, the god-level ones.
  3616. >'Foremothers', you think.
  3617. >Past it, they were all high, but way less valued.
  3618. >'Queens' of all kinds: beloved, brutal, vicious, powerful, cunning, all stripes.
  3619. >Hell, even some 'failed' and 'hated' queens.
  3620. >So, something in the past must have fucked these bugs over really bad, huh?
  3621. >What could that have been, though?
  3622. >Further down the trees, you see a lot of them end with either their queens, or their princesses.
  3623. >Guess they didn't make it, huh?
  3624. >You're near the end of the book now, and there's only a few lines left.
  3625. >Wait.
  3626. >That's Chrysalis, on one line!
  3627. >And with two descendants?
  3628. >One shining with rainbow-light, the other a few shades darker than normal.
  3629. >They're--
  3630. >The book drops.
  3631. "Holy shit."
  3632. <...
  3633.  
  3634. @@@@@@@@
  3635.  
  3636. >"My question is not an unreasonable one. I do not see why you continue to resist answering it."
  3637. >Don't give her anything, Athalia!
  3638. >Just like Incognito said, the smallest details can be used against you!
  3639. >"Even a captured soldier will divulge their names to their captors, along with their rank.
  3640. >"If they can do that much, then why, precisely, can you not?"
  3641. >Struggling doesn't do you any good.
  3642. >With these stupid restraints helping her magic, she's holding you stock-still in the air.
  3643. >And her cheery smile from before had slowly been wearing down.
  3644. >Gaaah, you hate this!
  3645. >Why's she so hung up on your name, anyways?
  3646. >You're not!
  3647. >As far as you're concerned, his new name is your real name!
  3648. >Against your better judgment, you decide to tell her as much:
  3649. "I already told you my name! Why do you keep bringing this up?!"
  3650. >"I asked for your true name. Do not dodge the question."
  3651. "That IS my true name!"
  3652. >Her smile is completely gone now.
  3653. >"I have given you every chance to comply. I have even been as polite as I could be, to a dangerous enemy. But now, you have forced my hoof."
  3654. >She slowly begins floating you to the--
  3655. >O-oh gosh, the wheel!
  3656. >"If you wish to continue spitting in the face of my offer to resolve this quickly and painlessly, then it seems you have resolved yourself to the hard way."
  3657. >You feel your legs pressing into the wood of the wheel's rims, the center digging into your back.
  3658. >The slightly elevated center, combined with your limbs being stretched out, caused an uncomfortable backwards pressure to build on your legs.
  3659.  
  3660. >Ropes were tied around the restraints proper, and her magic faded off of them soon after.
  3661. >Despite Incognito's pep talks on torture, you're beginning to feel a kernel of dread build in your stomach.
  3662. >S-she's not above torturing you, after all...
  3663. >W-what's she going to do to you, now?
  3664. >The anticipation was getting to you really badly.
  3665. >Now, your efforts were being poured into not shaking.
  3666. >Not showing how afraid you were.
  3667. >No, come on, you stupid filly!
  3668. >Don't.
  3669. >Show.
  3670. >Any.
  3671. >Fear!
  3672. >You level the best glare you can muster in her direction, too.
  3673. >Anything to show you're not going to cra--
  3674. >W-wait, why...
  3675. >Why is she chuckling?
  3676. >"Do you know how long it has been, since I have needed to do this?"
  3677. >W-wha--?
  3678. >"Isn't it fascinating, how even such a terrible procedure can evoke such... nostalgia?"
  3679. >N-nostalgia?
  3680. >"Yes, all the small details, just as I remember. Everything one comes to expect from a fearful captive."
  3681. >Something about the way she said that, sent a cold shiver down your spine.
  3682. >"Let me make this plain to you, little changeling."
  3683. >Her magic re-ignites.
  3684. >"You are far from the first captive I have had to interrogate."
  3685. >She floats into view--
  3686. >I-is that a bucking maul?!
  3687. >"And I assure you, you will be far from the last."
  3688. >It's a big, heavy maul!
  3689. >The head is the same colour and sheen as the metal lining the room!
  3690. >An iron maul!
  3691. >N-no!
  3692. >S-she wouldn't...!
  3693. >B-but her glare, it...
  3694. >It's like the glare from when she first tortured you!
  3695. >T-that wordless promise of endless pain!
  3696. >D-damn it, you c-can't stop yourself shaking anymore!
  3697.  
  3698. >With all pretenses of brave faces aside, you begin to thrash against the ropes.
  3699. >Nothing happens.
  3700. >You're completely secured to the wheel.
  3701. >You can't move anything but your neck and tail, your wings still bound by now-belted bandages.
  3702. >Your limbs were pulled uncomfortably tight across the wheel.
  3703. >Leaving everything exposed.
  3704. >Exposed for her to do whatever she wanted.
  3705. >"This wheel was a contrivance of an ancient foe of mine, you know."
  3706. >The unexpected line draws your eyes back to hers.
  3707. >The glare is smouldering, and still promised nothing but pain.
  3708. >"These ape-like creatures, of exceeding cruelty, created this to punish petty crimes.
  3709. >"You see, they were stretched across it, as you are now. Even with only four legs, to their two legs and four arms, it remains very effective."
  3710. >I-is she spinning you around?
  3711. >"They would strike at the limbs of those sentenced to this wheel, with a large, heavy hammer, like this one.
  3712. >"And without a backboard to brace the limb? Well, I'm certain you can imagine what would happen."
  3713. >W-what?
  3714. >Th-this is made to b-break your legs?!
  3715. >Y-you thought this was just used to put punished ponies on display!
  3716. >She stops the spinning after one rotation, putting you back upright.
  3717. >O-oh, no, she's...
  3718. >She's lining that hammer up with your left foreleg!
  3719. >"And performed correctly? Why, the ones sentenced were said to last for days, before finally... expiring."
  3720. >D-days?
  3721. >The images that conjures sends fresh panic rushing through you.
  3722. >Fruitlessly, you try to thrash the limb she's lining it up with away.
  3723. >N-no...!
  3724.  
  3725. >The cool, unnatural feeling of the metal tapping the back of your knee has you stifling a yelp of terror.
  3726. >S-she wouldn't, she couldn't...!
  3727. >O-oh gosh the hammer's going in another arc--!
  3728. >The tap on the joint gets a far less suppressed yelp out of you.
  3729. >P-please, don't!
  3730. >Please!
  3731. >Y-you know you can't beg, you can't give her anything!
  3732. >B-but...
  3733. >She...
  3734. >Ohmygoshanotherarc--!!
  3735. >tap
  3736. >You screw your eyes shut after the resulting yelp.
  3737. >S-stop it!
  3738. >"This does not need to escalate further. All you must do, it tell me your true name!"
  3739. >I-it sounded like she was losing her composure!
  3740. >She's annoyed with you!
  3741. >Y-you can't...!
  3742. >Th-this isn't what you--
  3743. >tap
  3744. >GAAHSHE'SSTILLLININGITUP!
  3745. >Your eyes clench tighter.
  3746. >You can't stop shaking.
  3747. >H-how are you not crying?
  3748. >"Still, you defy me? Very well, then! Brace yourself, little changeling!"
  3749. >Every muscle pulls tight as you recoil from that delivery.
  3750. >And pulls even tighter in anticipation.
  3751. >Your eyes shut, teeth grit, and with a small, terrified whine escaping your throat.
  3752. >Th-this is it!
  3753. >She's gonna hurt you even worse than before!
  3754. >S-she's gonna break your leg!
  3755. >You brace yourself.
  3756. >And brace yourself.
  3757. >And...
  3758. >H-huh?
  3759. >Why...
  3760. >Why isn't the hit coming?
  3761. >Confusion begins to surface, and you manage to slowly pry one of your eyes open.
  3762. >A silvery blur follows her glar--
  3763. >CRACK
  3764. >A blood-curdling scream of pain leaves your throat.
  3765. >Pure, blinding agony ignites your senses.
  3766. >It comes on so suddenly, after the strike to your arm.
  3767. >The initial shockwave leads into a horrible, radiating epicenter of white-hot pain.
  3768.  
  3769. >You can't speak.
  3770. >You're too busy heaving for air and sobbing.
  3771. >You can't see.
  3772. >What the pain hasn't blinded, was obscured by tears.
  3773. >You can't think.
  3774. >The pain is too much to think through.
  3775. >But you can still listen.
  3776. >"The bone remains intact? Quite impressive. No wonder you came out of that battle with nothing broken."
  3777. >The pain cools surprisingly rapidly into a still-horrible, pulsating inferno.
  3778. >All you can do is try to regain control of your breathing.
  3779. >W-wait...
  3780. >Not broken?
  3781. >You blink away as much of the watery veil as you can, and look at the--
  3782. >It's being healed.
  3783. >Celestia's magic was bathing the spiderweb crack, making it seal back up.
  3784. >B-but...
  3785. >W-why is she healing it?
  3786. >The rapidly lessening pain cleared more of your thoughts, along with the sight.
  3787. >Why would she--
  3788. >tap
  3789. >A sharp gasp followed a familiar unnaturally cool pressure, this time on the other leg.
  3790. >S-she's going for the other one...!
  3791. >"Did you think I would leave you disfigured and for dead, like those foes of mine would have?
  3792. >"Perhaps your master would have, but I will not. But do not mistake this mercy for kindness."
  3793. >H-her glare...
  3794. >"We shall continue like this, little changeling. A strike, and a restoration, until you decide to tell me the truth."
  3795. >S-s-she's...?!
  3796. >N-no!
  3797. >Y-you can't--!
  3798. >tap
  3799. >The yelp comes out unstifled.
  3800. >"Are you certain that you wish to be so... protective, of so simple a thing as your name?"
  3801. >You swallow dry.
  3802. >But...
  3803. >No.
  3804. >No!
  3805. >You refuse to fail him again!
  3806. >Not like this!
  3807. >"I'll take that as a 'yes', then. Very well."
  3808. <...
  3809.  
  3810. >KNOCK KNOCK
  3811. >G-gosh, you hope he's available...
  3812. >You really need some help on this!
  3813. >You didn't spend that long looking into this, and already you were in over your head!
  3814. >The door opens.
  3815. >Oh, thank goodness for--
  3816. >Oh, it's Mr. Razor!
  3817. >"Well hey there, pal! Looking for Anon, I take it?"
  3818. "Y-yes, is he...?"
  3819. >"Hang tight a sec, I'll check for you."
  3820. >He darts back into Anon's room, closing the door.
  3821. >Some steps and shuffling is heard, along with the telltale aura and sounds of a slipgate.
  3822. >The door opens again, completely this time.
  3823. >There was Anon, holding a...
  3824. >Wait, is that a bowyer's book?
  3825. >What's he reading that for?
  3826. >"Hey, Sunburst."
  3827. >He looks really... distracted.
  3828. >M-maybe coming now wasn't the best idea...
  3829. "O-oh, hi Anon. I... I'm not interrupting something, am I?"
  3830. >"A little bit, not gonna lie. Been cramming a whole lot before tomorrow's festivities."
  3831. "I-I see... Uh, listen, I-I know you're busy, and might not be able to help, but can you hear my request out, at least?"
  3832. >Whoa, is that a telekinesis glyph set on those gloves?
  3833. >He's floating over a pencil and notepad!
  3834. >"Sure, buddy. What is it?"
  3835. "I..."
  3836. >You shuffle closer, afraid of anypony else hearing this.
  3837. "I need help with... curing the effects of warping."
  3838. >"Curin-- Wait, the fuck is 'warping'?"
  3839. "Yo-- Wait, you don't know?"
  3840. >"Wouldn't be asking if I did."
  3841. "I... Uh, actually, it's kind of a long story. W-why don't you find me later, when you've got a moment?"
  3842. >He quirks an eyebrow.
  3843. >"All... right?"
  3844. "Th-thanks..."
  3845. >"You know, it kinda sounds like you've been messing in some real dark shit."
  3846. "N-not me..."
  3847. <...
  3848.  
  3849. >CRACK
  3850. >Another scream leaves your throat.
  3851. >Your senses are blanketed in more pain than before.
  3852. >Just like before, it takes you several moments before you can observe the damage.
  3853. >S-she almost broke your hindleg...
  3854. >Th-this hit was harder than the others.
  3855. >The healing aura around the badly hurt, bleeding area was slower than usual.
  3856. >Your limbs were coated in your own blood, with Celestia not bothering to clean it off after the fourth hit.
  3857. >You can't believe you've held out against her torture for so long.
  3858. >So many times, you've been close to breaking down.
  3859. >To telling her what you know.
  3860. >But...
  3861. >But the thought of failing Incognito, your Lord, for the third time?
  3862. >No.
  3863. >You can't.
  3864. >You won't!
  3865. >You...
  3866. >Wait.
  3867. >She...
  3868. >She's stopped healing?
  3869. >But it's not done yet!
  3870. >The leg was still cracked!
  3871. >Why would--
  3872. >A growl from in front of you.
  3873. >Even without sensing it, it was so full of anger.
  3874. >Turning meets you with the same loo--
  3875. >OHH, no, that's not the same look at all!
  3876. >S-she's so angry!
  3877. >Her teeth are bared and clenching!
  3878. >Her eyes burned with such anger!
  3879. >And...
  3880. >W-wait, is...
  3881. >Is there an actual burning in there--?
  3882. >"Why do you continue to defy me? How do you continue to defy me?!"
  3883. >The temperature of the room felt like it was climbing.
  3884. >"Your resilience is indeed impressive, but it has long lost it's charm!
  3885. >"If you will not break under this physical torment, perhaps this will loosen your tongue!"
  3886. >Celestia's horn shone brilliantly.
  3887. >It almost looked like it had a slight red tinge to it.
  3888.  
  3889. >W-what's she doing?
  3890. >The light coalesces into an orb at the tip, golden yellow with a definite, but subtle, streak of red to it.
  3891. >It looks...
  3892. >It looks really impressive, actually...
  3893. >W-wait, she's bringing it towards you!
  3894. >Okay, it's not impressive anymore!
  3895. >W-whatever that thing is, it can't be good!
  3896. >The moment you thrash to avoid it, her magic roots you in place with nearly crushing force.
  3897. >Now you're completely immobile, save for your eyes.
  3898. >And her horn was going for your chest!
  3899. >N-no, you can't--
  3900. >The tip makes contact.
  3901. >The orb spreads across your chest, before phasing into you.
  3902. >And that's when the pain begins.
  3903. >It starts as stabbing pain, all across your body.
  3904. >And it quickly grows into overwhelming burning.
  3905. >You'd started screaming far before that happened.
  3906. >"Such sickening taint, infesting the soul! Now, feel the full weight of your actions!"
  3907. >A brief memory of Incognito, healing you after the train incident, flashes forth.
  3908. >It's soon replaced by even more pain.
  3909. >Everything goes white.
  3910. >Everything is pain.
  3911. >You're not sure if you're still even screaming anymore.
  3912. >"CONFESS!"
  3913. >Stop!
  3914. >"YIELD YOUR SECRETS TO ME!"
  3915. >PLEASE, STOP!
  3916. >"GIVE IN TO ME!"
  3917. >STOOOP!!!
  3918. >>`Ooh, haven't seen this one in a few millenia! Back to your old tricks again, eh Celly?`
  3919. >"WHAT? WHO DARES TO--"
  3920. >>`Ah, come on, don't tell me you've forgotten about us already? Or rather, this piece of our whole?`
  3921. >"YOU... You... N-no, that is..."
  3922. >>`Feels damn good, doesn't it? Why'd you ever give it up, anyways? What, get immortal first, and figure you're too good for us?`
  3923.  
  3924. >Suddenly, the pain stops.
  3925. >The words come tumbling out the instant you're able to speak.
  3926. "I don't know what my old name is! Chrysalis took it away from me, and made me forget!
  3927. "I don't know! Please, I don't know what it was before my new name!"
  3928. >And then, you break down.
  3929. "P-please don't hurt me anymo-ho-ho-hoooore!"
  3930. >It doesn't feel like long at all, before her magic grips you again.
  3931. "No, please! I--"
  3932. >You're all but ripped off of the wheel, and thrown back onto the bed.
  3933. >The pain feels so minuscule in comparison.
  3934. >"Vile, repulsive monster! Surrendering yourself to his will was not enough? Now you conspire with the very embodiment of darkness, itself?!"
  3935. >You feel so weak.
  3936. >Moving your eyes is all you can do.
  3937. >Celestia's face was pure fury.
  3938. >It looked like a dribble of dark red, or maybe black, was coming from her snout.
  3939. >She turns around and storms to the doors.
  3940. >"The caverns shall be your eternal home from here on out! You will never see the sky again, creature!"
  3941. >Things are beginning to blur.
  3942. >The doors fly open with magic, in spite of the iron covering them.
  3943. >Teleportation flashes ignite next to you the moment she does that.
  3944. >Guards that appear from them immediately wheel you out of the room, to a waiting Celestia.
  3945. >Whatever she said was too muffled to be heard now.
  3946. >Everything hurts.
  3947. >Every limb feels like it's buried under a mountain.
  3948. >So tired...
  3949. >The quickly scrolling sight gives way to a spinning, blurry mess.
  3950. >It's the last thing you see before everything fades to black.
  3951. >>`And we were so looking forward to chatting, too...`
  3952. <...
  3953.  
  3954. @@@@@@@@
  3955.  
  3956. >"Rise and shine, monkey-colt!"
  3957. >Gah!
  3958. >The fuck?!
  3959. >A tangled cluster of bedsheets get in the way of your sudden ascension from the land of dreams.
  3960. >It ends with you falling flat on your ass.
  3961. >The sounds of Razor laughing serve as the backdrop for wrestling out of your comfortable prison.
  3962. >Ah, finally!
  3963. >There he is, laughing it up!
  3964. "The fuck, man?"
  3965. >This feels so goddamn early!
  3966. >Actually, where's the clo--
  3967. "It's five in the fucking morning!"
  3968. >To his credit, he kills the laughter pretty quickly.
  3969. >"Heh, that's right. You wanted into the expedited training program? You get the expedited training schedule to go with it, pal!"
  3970. "There's about twenty-odd reasons why I shouldn't punch you for this. And right now, I can't think of a single one."
  3971. >"Well geez, at least take me to dinner, first."
  3972. >Pff.
  3973. >Okay, fine.
  3974. >That got a snort out of you.
  3975. >"Now, get your tail in gear! We leave in twenty!"
  3976. >Groans of protest were in high supply that day, as you rose from your freshly disturbed grave, speed-shambling over to the bathroom.
  3977. >Hey, at least the whole bald thing made clean-up a snap.
  3978. >You're out of there in a solid seven or eight minutes, and throw some of the usual, non-glyphed attire on.
  3979. >"I'll be damned, he can move fast when he wants to!"
  3980. "Thanks, mom."
  3981. >You and your entourage of one leave the safety of your suite soon after, beelining straight for the Night Guard barracks.
  3982. >Once you arrive, you're greeted with...
  3983. >What must be every goddamn bat-horse you've seen in this section of the castle, waiting for you.
  3984.  
  3985. >You know, you're not sure if their faces are supposed to mean that they're happy to see you, or if they're hyped for your suffering.
  3986. >'A little of both' is probably the best answer to that question.
  3987. >Not a fan, so far.
  3988. >"Alright, Anon. I know you like your lists and schedules and all that, so here's what's gonna happen."
  3989. >That tone of his seems to be half 'hyped for your suffering', half 'laying down the game plan'.
  3990. >Not a fan of it, either.
  3991. >"You've got a whole eight hours each day to spend with us. And these first few days are all about figuring out those limits of yours.
  3992. >"See, we do things a little different here, over the regular guards. We don't just throw the standard ole program at you, waiting for somepony to fit the mold.
  3993. >"Oh, no. We custom train all our grunts. Each pony here's had themselves a nice, personal regiment, bringing them to max performance.
  3994. >"Hey, perks of being a special guard branch, am I right?"
  3995. >You just nod in response.
  3996. >"And you, my monkey-man friend, take the crown for 'special' training needs. Makes this little match-up all the more valuable.
  3997. >"Now, let's quit yammering, and get started on this fun little adventure, shall we?"
  3998. >You really don't like the semi-evil grin he's developed.
  3999. >Or the semi-evil grin the other bat-horses have developed.
  4000. >Well, when they're not about-to-drop-all-my-spaghetti grins.
  4001. >"Right this way, Anon."
  4002. >Despite the grins, you follow.
  4003. >Never been to this section of this place before.
  4004. >It's...
  4005. >A totally tricked-out gymnasium.
  4006. >Oh, God have fucking mercy on your soul.
  4007. <...
  4008.  
  4009. >So tired.
  4010. >Your whole body is nothing but aching.
  4011. >The bumps the wheeled bed makes is the only indication that you're still awake.
  4012. >And they blindfolded you somewhere along the line.
  4013. >You wish you could say that the blackout from the end of that...
  4014. >Th-that torture...
  4015. >Your train of thought breaks while you try in vain to repress a shudder.
  4016. >Th-that blackout didn't do anything for your exhaustion.
  4017. >It can't have lasted for more than an hour.
  4018. >A-at least it was dreamless, too...
  4019. >You don't think you could have handled another 'visit' from those voices...
  4020. >Wait.
  4021. >You hear magic lighting up.
  4022. >The sound of large, heavy doors of some kind, grinding along a surface, probably a floor, as it opens.
  4023. >It goes on for a few seconds.
  4024. >That's a lot of time, for a door.
  4025. >Then the bed moves again.
  4026. >It stops fairly quickly.
  4027. >You feel your chains release.
  4028. >And then you're picked up by their telekinesis spells.
  4029. >After being set down on the ground, more chains are felt being attached to...
  4030. >Wait, not the restraints on your legs.
  4031. >The ones on your barrel?
  4032. >And wait, what's with the floor?
  4033. >It feels cold, smooth, and yet somewhat slick, without being wet.
  4034. >The bed is heard being wheeled away.
  4035. >The large doors are heard closing, soon after the bed is too far away to be heard.
  4036. >A few seconds into the door sounds, magic is heard surrounding your head.
  4037. >Your blindfold being removed follows shortly after.
  4038. >B-bright...!
  4039. >Your eyes shut reflexively.
  4040. >The door is heard closing with a deep, almost thunderous CLUNK, while you try to adjust to the light.
  4041.  
  4042. >Eventually, you're able to see again.
  4043. >And...
  4044. >W-wha...?
  4045. >This...
  4046. >This place is all crystal?
  4047. >The floor, the walls, the ceiling, everything!
  4048. >All crystal!
  4049. >The facets were there, but they were also extremely smooth, with no sharp edges.
  4050. >The light was coming from a high-up cluster of some kind of light-emitting crystal, hanging directly over you.
  4051. >It was almost as bright as sunlight.
  4052. >Sunlight...
  4053. >S-she said you'd never see the sky again.
  4054. >Th-then this must be the...
  4055. >The caverns she talked about.
  4056. >Wait!
  4057. >The crystal caves!
  4058. >The same ones Chrysalis threw that damn princess Cadance into!
  4059. >Y-you didn't know the ponies had done something with the caves, too!
  4060. >Making it into...
  4061. >A prison.
  4062. >Oh, no.
  4063. >That's right...
  4064. >The crystals, they...
  4065. >They hamper magic.
  4066. >A faint, hazy memory surfaces.
  4067. >Something about Chrysalis showing you how it worked?
  4068. >Yeah...
  4069. >Something about illusions working together with shielding?
  4070. >Damn it...
  4071. >Not like you could work with that knowledge, anyways...
  4072. >Your magic is still suppressed.
  4073. >Despite everything, you try and stand up.
  4074. >Your legs were shaky, and it felt like you were going to collapse at any moment.
  4075. >It really felt like there were boulders strapped to your legs.
  4076. >But somehow, you manage to stand.
  4077. >You take a moment to try and stabilize yourself.
  4078. >Th-the floor isn't helping, with how slick it is...
  4079. >O-okay...
  4080. >You think you're good.
  4081. >Good enough to take a little step forward...
  4082. >And another--
  4083. >clink
  4084. >Something pulls back on your barrel, and sends you falling to the floor.
  4085. "Waah!"
  4086. >THUMP
  4087.  
  4088. >Agh...
  4089. >What the...?
  4090. >You whirl your head around, to see what pulled you back.
  4091. >Damn it, the chains!
  4092. >How did you forget?!
  4093. >They were anchored to a big, dull gray metal stake, with flecks of deep, dirty red seeming to 'grow' on it.
  4094. >You knew only one metal that did that.
  4095. >Iron.
  4096. >Looking around further doesn't show any other ways out.
  4097. >In fact, there's no evidence of a door being here, either!
  4098. >D-damn it...
  4099. >You were trapped.
  4100. >Trapped and helpless.
  4101. >Stupid, bucking ponies!
  4102. >Always messing things up!
  4103. >...
  4104. >No.
  4105. >You messed things up.
  4106. >Two times, you've failed Incognito.
  4107. >On tasks where he needed you the most.
  4108. >All that training, all that practice.
  4109. >All the time he spent teaching you those important lessons.
  4110. >Just to...
  4111. >To...
  4112. >Your eyes start to sting.
  4113. >Whatever energy you had left, was spent curling up, trying to keep warm in your chilly prison.
  4114. >And to hide the tears from any onlookers.
  4115. >W-why...?
  4116. >Why couldn't you beat Anonymous?
  4117. >You beat all those other ponies.
  4118. >For buck's sake, you even managed to beat the princesses, with some clever thinking and special spells!
  4119. >But even when you first encountered him...
  4120. >Why?
  4121. >Wh-what is it about him, that makes him so much more...
  4122. >Dangerous?
  4123. >How did he get so powerful, so quickly?
  4124. >How did he manage to become scarier than Incognito, in that last fight?
  4125. >What...
  4126. >What does he have, that you don't?
  4127. >Th-that bucking upstart...!
  4128. >He's probably off, strutting around like some kind of hero!
  4129. >Buck, maybe even getting under the tails of the princesses, too!
  4130. >While you're suffering down here!
  4131.  
  4132. >You...
  4133. >You wanted to be important, too.
  4134. >To win a big fight like that.
  4135. >To get Incognito's respect.
  4136. >M-maybe even his admiration...
  4137. >A-and the thought of getting all that praise, from your fellow lings?
  4138. >Something about that thought made you feel...
  4139. >Really good.
  4140. >More than it had any right to.
  4141. >With a dash of some strange sensation, or emotion, that you can't put your hoof on.
  4142. >But it soon gives way to melancholy.
  4143. >You'll never manage that, now.
  4144. >You'll never get his respect.
  4145. >Much less his admiration.
  4146. >A-and you'll never get that p-praise from the others...
  4147. >That strange feeling made the saddening line of thought far worse for you.
  4148. >It became all you could think about.
  4149. >Their rejection.
  4150. >You curl up tighter, trying in vain to keep yourself from breaking down.
  4151. >It was a very short-lived battle.
  4152. >The sobs that leave you are loud and bitter.
  4153. >Your mane brushes against your back for every sob that leaves.
  4154. >It feels like so much time passes.
  4155. >Time spent crying out all the sadness and guilt, that you'd spent so long repressing while in the castle.
  4156. >Only now, in this cavernous cell, did you finally let it all out.
  4157. >You were so tired.
  4158. >The torture from before had taken so much out of you.
  4159. >Your eyelids shut from exhaustion, but the crying doesn't stop, keeping you awake for longer.
  4160. >But soon, it lulls you into a fitful sleep.
  4161. >...
  4162. >Blackness again.
  4163. >But not like before, with the voices.
  4164. >It was... hazy.
  4165. >The dark gray haze slowly became lighter and lighter.
  4166. >A scene was forming in front of you, from the haze.
  4167.  
  4168. >Caves.
  4169. >Shimmering, crystalline caves.
  4170. >The colours were muted, objects were blurry, and there were spots in the image that had big, opaque streaks of gray almost painted over them.
  4171. >But it was still familiar...
  4172. >And then it hits you, what this is.
  4173. >It's a memory.
  4174. >The muted look, the streaks of gray, all degradation and holes in it.
  4175. >Th-there's more...
  4176. >There's supposed to be others here.
  4177. >S-somepony you're familiar with?
  4178. >Wait.
  4179. >No.
  4180. >Someling you're familiar with.
  4181. >...
  4182. >>The shimmering of the cavern, how the light comes out from the gem walls?
  4183. >>So amazing!
  4184. >>"A wondrous scene, is it not?"
  4185. >>You look up at your mom, Queen Chrysalis.
  4186. >>She's giving you that smile, the one that makes you feel so loved and warm inside!
  4187. >"Yeah! It's so amazing! How'd you find this place?!"
  4188. >>"Oh, it was a very long time ago, _______.
  4189. >>"These caverns are said to have once been an artery for the world's magic, you know. It goes on for miles, with many entrances and exits."
  4190. >"Whoa...!"
  4191. >>"It is an interesting tale, isn't it? And every inch is covered in these gems, practically overflowing with magic."
  4192. >"Y-yeah, it is pretty strong, huh?"
  4193. >>"But it pales in comparison to where one of the many exits leads to, my darling daughter. You see that small little cavern, off over there?"
  4194. >>She's pointing at the small area in question.
  4195. >"Y-yeah?"
  4196. >>"Do you remember the plan I made? The plan to take the love of those foolish ponies, and keep our whole hive fed for generations?"
  4197. >"Yeah, I sure do!"
  4198. >>"That little cave, my dear, leads to their very capital of Canterlot."
  4199. >>Your jaw drops.
  4200.  
  4201. >"C-Canterlot?!"
  4202. >>"Oh, yes. And you'll never believe what they're doing up there, either."
  4203. >"Uhh... what are they doing up there, mom?"
  4204. >>"Come now, you don't have any guesses?"
  4205. >"Aw, come on! I don't wanna make this a guessing game!"
  4206. >>"Just one guess, then."
  4207. >"Fine! Uhh, they're... having a wedding?"
  4208. >>Her eyes bulge in surprise.
  4209. >>"How... astute of you, my dear. Yes, that's exactly what they're doing."
  4210. >"I got it right?! YES!"
  4211. >>Mom's chuckling accompanies your little dance of joy.
  4212. >>"But not just any wedding, _______. In a few months, they're going to be hosting a very special wedding."
  4213. >"S-special?"
  4214. >>"That's right."
  4215. >"W-what makes it so special?"
  4216. >>"Because the mare getting married up there, is a real alicorn princess."
  4217. >>Wh-whoa, what?!
  4218. >>A-a princess?!
  4219. >"No way!"
  4220. >>"So many ponies will attend. So mach love, directed to this princess.
  4221. >>"This one wedding, my dear, will keep you, me, and all of your siblings fed and happy for decades!
  4222. >>"If, of course, we collect it properly."
  4223. >>Mom's look gets way softer.
  4224. >>She puts a hoof underneath your chin.
  4225. >>"_______. Listen to me very carefully, my daughter.
  4226. >>"This event, it's about more than just feeding the whole hive.
  4227. >>"Do you remember what I told you long ago, about your very special future? How we would talk more about it when the time was right?"
  4228. >>W-wow, mom looks so... serious!
  4229. >"Y-yeah?"
  4230. >>"That time is coming very soon. After the wedding, after we take all their love, that will be when the time is right.
  4231. >>"Huge, amazing things are coming, _______. The hive's very future depends on this. On us."
  4232. <...
  4233.  
  4234. >[spoiler]no mommy[/spoiler]
  4235. >[spoiler]don't do it again[/spoiler]
  4236. >[spoiler]don't do it again[/spoiler]
  4237. >[spoiler]i'll be a good boy[/spoiler]
  4238. >[spoiler]i'll be a good boy[/spoiler]
  4239. >[spoiler]i promise[/spoiler]
  4240. >[spoiler]no mommy don't hit me--[/spoiler]
  4241. >thump
  4242. "Ooooohohooow."
  4243. >Fucking door.
  4244. >Why'd it have to bump your arm like that?
  4245. >"Oh, would you quit your bitching? Geez, you're complaining more than a noble's daughter!"
  4246. "I hate you so much, it's unreal."
  4247. >"And the more you hate me, the more you'll learn."
  4248. "That's some Sith lord shit you're talking there."
  4249. >"You know I have no bucking clue what that is, right Anon?"
  4250. >Your response consists of a grunt, roughly translated from cave-man to 'fuck you, nigga'.
  4251. >Sweet Jesus, Joseph, and Mary.
  4252. >Everything hurts so goddamn much.
  4253. >You didn't even stretch, before swan-diving into the first bits of physical torment.
  4254. >Terrible fucking mistake.
  4255. >Didn't help that you don't know what to stretch, either.
  4256. >So you, Razor, and some other more medically-savvy bats all wound up playing a game of 'find the muscles that need stretching'.
  4257. >Followed by the riveting sequel, 'come up with the stretches from scratch'.
  4258. >There was a lot of trial-and-error in that one.
  4259. >A lot of very painful trial-and-error.
  4260. >And it didn't stop them from getting right back into their feature /fit/ presentations, scant minutes after figuring out the stretching.
  4261. >Which took a couple of hours, by itself.
  4262. >There was so much to do in the remaining time.
  4263. >Courses, challenges, timed events...
  4264. >Just thinking about it is liable to cramp something up.
  4265.  
  4266. >Luckily, your time with them and their house of tortures is all over for today.
  4267. >So here you are, shambling over to your crib, Razor in tow.
  4268. >Well, guess you shouldn't complain all that much.
  4269. >You did sign yourself up for this, and all.
  4270. >Just didn't think it'd be that taxing on you.
  4271. >Oh, would you look at that.
  4272. >Exact's waiting right outside the door, like he's expecting you.
  4273. >"Good afternoon, Anonymous. Did your introductory training meet your expectations?"
  4274. "It met something."
  4275. >"You seem to be in a significant amount of pain."
  4276. "Thanks for noticing."
  4277. >"It will take time for your musculature to acclimate to the regiment. On average, this acclimation starts at one week of regularly scheduled training for ponies.
  4278. >"However, carnivorous species, particularly gryphons, are able to acclimate in an average of four days, provided there is a ready supply of animal protein."
  4279. "So, what, the secret is to eat more meat?"
  4280. >"It is but one factor in the process, albeit a significant one."
  4281. >Geez, even he's giving you fitness tips!
  4282. >He waits for you to enter the room, very nicely opening the door for you, before changing subjects:
  4283. >"I was also told to inform you that Princess Twilight Sparkle has scheduled a visit to your suite, and she will arrive in precisely one hour and three minutes."
  4284. >Twilight's coming over?
  4285. >Man, she won't like it when she sees you like this...
  4286. "Thanks for the heads-up."
  4287. >A small nod is his response.
  4288. >Works for you.
  4289. >Razor files in through the door, shutting it behind him.
  4290. >As for you, might as well get some reading out of the way...
  4291. <...
  4292.  
  4293. >KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK
  4294. >Exact answered that door knocking literally right as the third knock ended.
  4295. >Really living up to the name, that one.
  4296. >"Mister Anonymous, the princess is here to visit you, two minutes ahead of schedule."
  4297. >And coming through the door was none other than Twilight herself.
  4298. >She looked a lot better, after the whole 'mind blown by your magic' thing.
  4299. >Too bad she missed the talk with Luna, she could've picked up a lot of pointers on it.
  4300. >But magic was far from today's to-do list.
  4301. >All you wanted was to keep drilling into this bowyer's book, and keep finalizing your design.
  4302. >It meant so much less standing...
  4303. "Hey, Twilight."
  4304. >"Hi, Anon."
  4305. >She's got that usual smile of hers, but again with that weird little look in her eyes.
  4306. >It was a lot more subtle this time around, though.
  4307. "Anything I can do you you?"
  4308. >"A-actually, I... was kind of going to ask you the same question."
  4309. "Wha...?"
  4310. >"I, ah... have a lot of time to spend here, before we head back to Ponyville. S-so I was wondering, if... i-if there was anything you needed to...?"
  4311. >God damn, first Luna, now Twilight?
  4312. >Despite the pain you still feel, you can't help but smile.
  4313. "Well damn, I'd love a little help, but... You kinda caught me by surprise there, girl. Gonna have to think it over."
  4314. >Oh, God, what's she giving you the +3 Glare of Scrutiny for?
  4315. >"Anon, are... are you all right? You sound like..."
  4316. >And then her look gives way to fear, mixed with a little anger.
  4317. >"Anon, are you hurt again?!"
  4318. >[spoiler]EVASIVE MANOEUVRES[/spoiler]
  4319. "U-uh, no?"
  4320. >Yeah, she's not buying that for a dollar.
  4321. "Okay, maybe a little..."
  4322.  
  4323. >Now her look is straight-up anger.
  4324. "All right, so I might have had my first day of intense fitness training today."
  4325. >"Fitness training?"
  4326. "Technically, it's combat training, but hey, baby steps."
  4327. >You'll never get used to that ear-flopping sad look of hers.
  4328. >"O-oh. But... you only just got better, a-and already, you're...?"
  4329. "You know I don't have a lot of time. Who knows what could happen next?"
  4330. >"I know that, but..."
  4331. >She sighs.
  4332. >She opens her mouth to speak, but you see an idea flash across her eyes, stopping her line.
  4333. >"A... Actually, uh... I might be able to do something for, uh, the pain."
  4334. >She can?
  4335. "You can?"
  4336. >"S-sure! I just, uh... ohmygosh, uhh... I n-need you to... t-takeyourshirtoffandliefacingdown!"
  4337. >...
  4338. >Uhh.
  4339. >Well.
  4340. >That's... a request, all right.
  4341. >Wait, hold on.
  4342. >Does that imply she'll do what you think it implies she'll do?
  4343. "Wait, hold up. You mean, like a... massage, or something?"
  4344. >"Yes! I-I mean, uh, y-yes, th-that's exactly what I mean!"
  4345. >Well, god damn.
  4346. >If it'll help even a little, you'll take it!
  4347. >Don't know why she's getting all flustered, though.
  4348. "You know, that actually sounds pretty great! Just give me a sec, all right?"
  4349. >Her flustering gives way to a bright smile.
  4350. >Boy, her expressions were all over the place today, weren't they?
  4351. >You put your books down, slotting bookmarks into them for later.
  4352. >And with the might of a wimpy bitch of a man, you pull yourself upright off the couch.
  4353. >An achievement worthy of the Olympics, as far as your body's concerned.
  4354. >God damn, this hurts...
  4355.  
  4356. >Still, you waste no time in pulling off your coat and shirt.
  4357. >Or, at least, you try to waste no time pulling them off.
  4358. >But alas, it's slow going, as you are right now.
  4359. >Luckily, Twilight pitches in with a little magic, and it comes off easily enough.
  4360. >Why, oh why, did you not slap the TK gloves on today?
  4361. >"O-okay, uh, how about you lie on your bed for this?"
  4362. "Uh, sure thing..."
  4363. >So that's what you do, shambling over to it, and all but flopping onto it.
  4364. >The initial pain was made up for by the cushiony goodness.
  4365. >After shimmying up a bit, you feel Twilight climb onto it herself.
  4366. >"N-now, hold still, okay?"
  4367. >No arguments here.
  4368. >Her hoof makes contact with your back.
  4369. >She starts moving it around a bit, before angling it against the--
  4370. >OW FUCK THAT'S NOT--
  4371. >Aah...!
  4372. >Ooh...
  4373. >Oh, holy...!
  4374. >J-Jesus Christ, where'd she learn to do this?
  4375. >Seconds after that initial pain, her other hoof joined in, and...
  4376. >A-aah...
  4377. >God, it's like the hurt's melting away!
  4378. >F-fucking hell, this is awesome!
  4379. >You make no effort to hide your pleased groans.
  4380. >"I-is this all right...?"
  4381. "Way better than all right..."
  4382. >"Really? S-so it's working?!"
  4383. "Twi, I've been in pain for hours. This has gotta be the highlight of the day."
  4384. >"Th-thanks...!"
  4385. "Aah... C-christ, I could kiss you right now."
  4386. >Wait, the hell was that sound she just made?
  4387. >Some weird mix between a choke and a squeak?
  4388. >And why'd she stop?
  4389. >You turn your--
  4390. >A-aaaah...!
  4391. >Nevermind, we're back on schedule!
  4392. >M-man, this is the...
  4393. >Aah...
  4394. >Ooh...
  4395. >Eyes getting a little heavy here...
  4396. >M-maybe if you close them for a sec...
  4397. <...
  4398.  
  4399. @@@@@@@@
  4400.  
  4401. >KNOCK-KNOCK-KNOCK KNOCK-KNOCK KNOCK knock
  4402. "Wh-who is it?"
  4403. >"Steven Spielberg!"
  4404. >Darn it, what's with Anon and his weird little lines like that?
  4405. >Wait, it's Anon!
  4406. >He's here already?!
  4407. >Even if, well, it's almost seven at night...
  4408. >But he's here!
  4409. >You trot over to the door, opening it with your magic.
  4410. >And there he is!
  4411. >Though... he's got a slight wince to his look...
  4412. "I-I'm so glad you came! Please, come in!"
  4413. >He walks into the room promptly, with a little nod.
  4414. >"So... any reason you're holed up in this cellar room, bud?"
  4415. "W-well, it's just that this line of research and development is a lot more... touchy, shall I say, than I'm usually used to working with..."
  4416. >It was a really roomy cellar, though!
  4417. >Plenty of space to store your hurriedly-assembled magic equipment!
  4418. >"Yeah, you're gonna have to define 'touchy' for me there, buddy."
  4419. "R-right, sure."
  4420. >Anon's personal Night guard, Razor Wind, follows him in.
  4421. >Strangely, mister Measure isn't with him.
  4422. >The door closing with that usual loud CLUNK breaks you from that thought, however.
  4423. >W-well...
  4424. >Guess it's time to explain this to him.
  4425. >Gosh, you hope Starlight will be here on time.
  4426. >You float over a few chairs and a small round table, and you all are seated in short order.
  4427. >Though Anon's wincing a bit more while he's sitting...
  4428. >Is he all right?
  4429. "Anon? Are, uh, are you all right?"
  4430. >"Peachy, why?"
  4431. "Y-you don't sound very peachy..."
  4432. >"Did a lot of training today. So there's a lot of hurting involved."
  4433. "Oh! Oh gosh, I'm sorry to hear that!"
  4434. >"Ah, don't sweat it. Now, what's this 'long story' of yours about?"
  4435.  
  4436. >You take a breath.
  4437. "Okay, uh... Anon, how much do you know about dark magic?"
  4438. >Instantly, both his and Razor Wind's brows furrow.
  4439. >"Why?"
  4440. "B-because, I... I need help fixing the negative effects associated with it!"
  4441. >"You better not have been messing around in that shit, Sunburst."
  4442. >You recoil.
  4443. "No! I-I haven't been messing around with it, I'd never! But... but somepony else has been, a-and they're--"
  4444. >KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK
  4445. >You jump a little at the interruption.
  4446. >"S-Sunburst? You there?"
  4447. >Oh gosh, Starlight's here early!
  4448. "C-come in!"
  4449. >The door floats open.
  4450. >And...
  4451. >Oh, no...
  4452. >She looks even worse than before.
  4453. >There's big bags under her eyes, and the eyes themselves are a little bloodshot.
  4454. >"I couldn't take studying those things anymore, so I figured I'd-- Wait, Anon?"
  4455. >"Starry?"
  4456. >"Wh-what are you doing here?"
  4457. >Anon's expression changes to dawning realization, soon followed by subdued anger.
  4458. >"Sunburst. Please do not tell me that she's been using what you're implying she's using."
  4459. >Th-that tone...
  4460. >Your own ears pin back in tandem with Starlight's.
  4461. >Shuffling is heard to the side, but you don't pay it any mind.
  4462. >The look Anon's fixing you right now, it...
  4463. >I-it's really s-scaring you...!
  4464. >"Sunburst. Answer me."
  4465. >Y-your voice comes out as a stammering mess, but--
  4466. >SLAM
  4467. >Everypony jumps at the very loud sound of the door slamming shut.
  4468. >The pony who slammed it is none other than Razor Wind.
  4469. >"Yeah, some answers would be mighty nice about now. How about we start with calming our damn teats, first?"
  4470. >Geez, how does he defuse things like that?!
  4471.  
  4472. >Starlight meekly shuffles forward, unable to meet Anon's eyes.
  4473. >N-nopony can, really...
  4474. >His hands are clenching.
  4475. >She floats a chair over for herself, and joins the table.
  4476. >Followed by Razor Wind taking his seat again.
  4477. >"All right, miss Starlight. How about you start us off here?"
  4478. >She audibly swallows dry.
  4479. >There's tears in her eyes.
  4480. >She begins with what she told you, about her history with cutie marks, and finding that book.
  4481. >She stammers a lot at first, but when she starts speaking, it all comes flooding out.
  4482. >She tells them everything: the evil book, the voices, the warp, the things she did with dark magic, her reformation.
  4483. >Everything but her study of those runic monsters.
  4484. >She'd been crying during her confession, but it was the kind of crying that didn't interrupt her talking.
  4485. >By the end of it, though, she was properly sobbing.
  4486. >Her head on the table, her hooves covering it, occasionally saying she's sorry.
  4487. >Y-you can't stand seeing her like this, b-but...
  4488. >You look up at the faces of your guests, trying to gauge their reactions.
  4489. >Razor was the more shocked of the two.
  4490. >Anon was still angry, but there was a touch of understanding and melancholy in there, too.
  4491. >W-wait...
  4492. >Why's he... chuckling?
  4493. >But it's not a happy chuckle, it's a sad chuckle.
  4494. >His hand finds it's way to her head, where he briefly pets her mane before moving to give her ears a little scratch.
  4495. >She tenses really badly at first, but slowly loosens up as he scratches.
  4496. >"God damn, girl."
  4497. >Somehow, she breaks down even further.
  4498. >Then, what she does next takes you slightly by surprise.
  4499.  
  4500. >"Whoa, shit!"
  4501. >She leaps out of her seat, all but tackling Anon with a huge, full-body hug.
  4502. >The force almost sends him toppling, but he grabs the table at the last minute for support, pulling his seat upright again.
  4503. >H-he was also wincing really badly all throughout...
  4504. >How he isn't yelling and pulling her off, you don't know.
  4505. >As for Starlight, w-well...
  4506. >She was apologizing constantly between sobs.
  4507. >Through Anon's grimace, you saw his anger fading away, and somehow, even a small smile form.
  4508. >Letting go of the table, he pulled her into a much lighter hug of his own, redoubling his ear scratching.
  4509. >He was also shushing her, telling her it's all right.
  4510. >She calmed a lot faster than you were expecting, soon just... resting on top of him.
  4511. >She lifts her head after a few moments, looking him in the eyes before speaking again:
  4512. >"I... I thought you'd be mad?"
  4513. >"Who said I'm not?"
  4514. >Her recoil was stopped with a poke to her snout, causing her to scrunch her muzzle.
  4515. >"But it's real hard to stay mad at you guys, you know that?"
  4516. >She blinks.
  4517. >And then she actually smiles a bit.
  4518. >"Th-thank you. Thank you so much. B-but, I--"
  4519. >"Have more to say, right?"
  4520. >She nods, and then climbs off of Anon, taking her seat again.
  4521. >After giving her eyes a quick wipe, and sniffling a little, she continues:
  4522. >"I gave it up, and I stayed 'clean' for over a year. Right through to when Flurry was born. I can't even describe how good it felt, finally not having those voices in my head...
  4523. >"But... W-well, as you can tell, I'm... I'm hearing them again."
  4524.  
  4525. >Anon's angry look makes a swift comeback.
  4526. >"You've been using it again?"
  4527. >"No. I swore off it, and I still do."
  4528. >Confusion replaced the anger.
  4529. >"Wait, what? I thought you said using it gave you magic schizophrenia?"
  4530. >"So did I, but... turns out there's another way to hear them again.
  4531. >"And that way is, well... reading the dark magic spells of another."
  4532. >His face has settled on confused anger.
  4533. >"God, the hell are you thinking?"
  4534. >"I-I'm thinking that I'm giving you some help."
  4535. >"How does reading some evil pony's spells help me?"
  4536. >"Not somepony's. Somehuman's."
  4537. >Deathly quiet follows that line.
  4538. >He clearly wasn't expecting that, if his look was anything to go by.
  4539. >But still, Starlight continues:
  4540. >"Those monsters you killed, back at Ponyville? Their bodies are here. And I'm one of the only ponies who knows how to read the spells carved on them."
  4541. >He needs a moment to recollect himself, before his whispered response comes:
  4542. >"Why?"
  4543. >"I'm looking for weaknesses. Tells in his runesmithing. Anything that can give you an edge over him."
  4544. >"But--"
  4545. >He catches himself from saying... something.
  4546. >"You know what, nevermind. I can't really talk when it comes to forbidden magic, can I?"
  4547. >"Yes, you can. Thaumaturgy doesn't involve letting evil things in your head for power."
  4548. >"Heh, guess so, huh...?"
  4549. >Why are they smiling, over such a dark subject?!
  4550. >"It's funny, though. The book I read, actually called out your style of magic as being 'weak', and 'soft'."
  4551. >"Wait, really?"
  4552. >"Yeah. I... I think the author might have been a thaumaturge himself, actually..."
  4553.  
  4554. >"No kidding? If you don't mind my asking, what book was it?"
  4555. >"Uh, I... I don't know if I should tell you..."
  4556. >"Yeah, you know what, that's probably a smart move."
  4557. >"Though I'll say, looking at what you did to those things? Sure doesn't look 'weak and soft', to me."
  4558. >You can't believe they can still chuckle, after all this!
  4559. >But Starlight's next line comes out as a little more... frustrated.
  4560. >"There's something else, though. Something I just don't understand.
  4561. >"Anon, those monsters are masterpieces of dark magic. A lot of time went into making the runes, and making the control and containment balance so fine.
  4562. >"But if I tried to make even a third of one of those monsters, that would be enough for the voices to totally consume my soul!"
  4563. >"That right?"
  4564. >"Yes! And somehow, that other human made five! Hay, he probably made more than five! And that's not even accounting for the prototyping he must have done!"
  4565. >"Well, is it the whole magic resist thing?"
  4566. >"I doubt it! I'm sure it would help, but for that amount of dark crafting? I don't even think that armor he's supposed to wear would defend against that!"
  4567. >"Hmm. You're right, that is weird. There's gotta be something we're not seeing here."
  4568. >"Yeah, there has to be! And it's driving me up the damn wall--"
  4569. >She cries out in pain suddenly, holding her head.
  4570. >Oh, no, not again!
  4571. >"Starry?!"
  4572. >"Aaaah! N-not again!"
  4573. >Quickly, you float a bucket over, dump a nearby towel in another bucket full of water, and cast a freezing spell on it.
  4574. >Anon and Razor had run over to Starlight in the meantime, as she collapsed to the floor.
  4575.  
  4576. >"Jesus, are you all righ--?!"
  4577. >"SHUT UP! I don't care who your 'champion' is, or your bucking 'emissary'! We'll beat both of them!"
  4578. >She doubled over again, all but screaming.
  4579. >But still, she presses on:
  4580. >"I don't care if there's more than two! We won't stop until they're beaten!"
  4581. >A scream leaves her, then the cries of pain begin to fade.
  4582. >You know what comes next.
  4583. >You float the bucket in front of her, and she takes it immediately.
  4584. >And begins throwing up again.
  4585. >You can't believe you're getting used to seeing her vomiting black stuff.
  4586. >She does this for only fourteen seconds, after which you wrap the iced towel around her neck.
  4587. >"Haah... O-oh gosh... Th-thanks for that, Sunburst..."
  4588. "N-no problem..."
  4589. >She gives you a weak smile.
  4590. >"Mother of Epona..."
  4591. >"Jesus Christ..."
  4592. >Both Anon and Razor Wind were absolutely shocked by what just happened.
  4593. >But their looks turned to business, almost in sync, soon after.
  4594. >"Sunburst, this is why you needed my help, right?"
  4595. "Y-yes..."
  4596. >"Yeah, this is something that needs unfucking, post-haste. Razor?"
  4597. >"Yeah, boss?"
  4598. >"I need those goggles from my place, along with the red notebook."
  4599. >"You got it."
  4600. >He races off, to get what Anon asked for.
  4601. >Meanwhile, he kneels to the other side of Starlight.
  4602. >"You all right, girl?"
  4603. >"F-fine. B-believe it or not, this is minor."
  4604. >"Fffffuck...!"
  4605. >"Uh, Sunburst? Wh-what did you bring him here for?"
  4606. "Well, Starlight, to put it simply, we're gonna find a way to keep those voices away from you."
  4607. >"Yeah, no friend of mine's getting mind-raped by the gods of edge, not on my fucking watch."
  4608. <...
  4609.  
  4610. >"Here's your stuff, Anon!"
  4611. >Razor gives you the notebook and goggles you asked for.
  4612. "Perfect, thanks man."
  4613. >Sweet teriyaki horseshit, man!
  4614. >Here you thought horseland was a great and happy place, with only occasional Bond villian incursions!
  4615. >But no!
  4616. >Even without Nito to ruin everyone's day, there was still super dark shit lurking around in this weird, wonderful world!
  4617. >Kinda depressing how that one asshole, Tirek, wasn't the only big exception.
  4618. >Anyways, back to business.
  4619. >An increasingly nervous Starlight lies down on a pony-size futon, off in the corner.
  4620. "So, how much can you tell me, specifically, about how this evil soul warping bullshit actually works?"
  4621. >"I-I wish I could tell you the specifics. But whenever they 'visit', they always tell me everything but how they do it!"
  4622. "Of course they do. What about you, buddy?"
  4623. >Sunburst takes a moment to wipe his forehead before piping up:
  4624. >"I don't get it, either! There's no signs of evil from any of my scanning spells, except when the events actually happen! It's like after they 'visit', they just up and vanish, without any trace!"
  4625. "All scans but the thaum-lens thing, right?"
  4626. >"Right! I-I'm hoping you can find something!"
  4627. "Yeah, me too."
  4628. >You take the time to throw on said goggles.
  4629. >Christ, these must look ridiculous.
  4630. >Definitely miniaturizing this later.
  4631. >Or doing a different design altogether.
  4632. >Who knows?
  4633. >After they're secured, you give the command to activate them.
  4634. >Everything is washed in that cool purple hue.
  4635. >With some very familiarly-shaped magic signatures in view.
  4636.  
  4637. >Starlight herself was a really bright, and fairly massive, radiant mass of turquoise magic.
  4638. >So bright, in fact, that you had to order the goggles to turn the fucking brightness down.
  4639. >Ah, much better.
  4640. >Geez, she's got six simultaneous node links going to her!
  4641. >Guess that answers how she's so goddamn good at slinging spells.
  4642. >The 'core' of the whole magic signature, right in her chest, where you assume a pony's heart is, looked like a tiny star, and the faint outline of her cutie mark could be seen almost 'etched' into the middle of it.
  4643. >Man, that's cool...
  4644. >Out of curiosity, you look over to both sides, quickly taking stock of the other ponies in attendance.
  4645. >Sunburst was much the same as Starlight, only light yellow coloured, half as bright, and has only three node connections.
  4646. >But his 'core' didn't look like that cartoony sequence star of Starlight; it looked more like a wavy red giant, that's three times as big, but with less than half the brightness.
  4647. >That has to mean something, you're sure of it.
  4648. >As for Razor, he has two connections, a steel-blue colour, with the obvious change of the 'veins' of magic being concentrated in his wings, instead of his head, where a horn would be.
  4649. >There were more going to his eyes and ears than you thought, though.
  4650. >As for his 'core', it was a solidly round red dwarf looking thing.
  4651. >Smallest of the bunch, but undoubtedly the most 'stable' looking.
  4652. >"Anon?"
  4653. >Ah shit, spent too long looking!
  4654. >You whirl back to Starlight.
  4655. "Sorry about that. Only just made these things a few days back, never really field-tested."
  4656.  
  4657. >Sunburst interrupts you this time:
  4658. >"Wait, really? But aren't they the same as the basic ones?"
  4659. "Ohh, no. These are the advanced ones. Way more detailed."
  4660. >"W-wow..."
  4661. "I'll give you the spec-sheet later. Right now, I've got some staring to do."
  4662. >And stare is exactly what you do.
  4663. >With your trusty notebook in hand, you scrawl down some details about Starlight's inner workings.
  4664. >You even discovered that the goggles can 'dissect' the magic signatures, slice-by-slice, which was totally awesome.
  4665. >What wasn't as awesome, was finding nothing amiss with her.
  4666. >Using both Sunburst and Razor as control samples, you try to compare-and-contrast their inner workings with hers.
  4667. >But outside of the big, obvious differences, you're not finding anything!
  4668. >'Slicing' through, adjusting the view like in that 'Lineage' book, even following the node links back!
  4669. >Nothing out of the ordinary!
  4670. >"You're sure there's nothing?"
  4671. "Starry, I'm pretty sure this thing has more detail in it than any spell you can think of. Even then, I'm not picking up a damn thing."
  4672. >"Ah, damn it!"
  4673. >Damn it was right.
  4674. >You were sure this would give you some insight into her problem!
  4675. >Although...
  4676. >You kinda did have another option.
  4677. >You could fire up the Soulgazer lenses.
  4678. >But you're a little hesitant to do that, for a multitude of obvious reasons.
  4679. >Still, what choice were you being left with?
  4680. >She even said herself, that this was a problem of soul corruption!
  4681. >So it makes perfect sense, that those lenses would be much more likely to pick up any problems!
  4682. >Shit, man...
  4683.  
  4684. >No, you know what?
  4685. >Fuck it.
  4686. >This is your friend's soul we're talking about here!
  4687. >And besides, all you're doing is looking, not touching.
  4688. >And you'll be damned, if you let an entire dimension of Shadow recolours fuck with her like that!
  4689. >You give a little sigh, only now realizing your hands were clenching.
  4690. "There's... one more thing we can try, I guess..."
  4691. >"R-really? What's that?"
  4692. >You give the goggles the command.
  4693. >The purple hue is replaced with the dim orange tint, and--
  4694. >Holy fuck, that's bright!
  4695. >Agh, why isn't there a brightness knob on this mode?!
  4696. >You close one eye, partly covering the other with your hand.
  4697. >There were some serious god-rays going on here, from your darker gray hand contrasting with the brilliant orange glow in front of you.
  4698. >Through it all, you hear Starlight gasp loudly, right as Sunburst pipes up.
  4699. >"Hey, that's different! What kind of mode is that?"
  4700. >You sigh again.
  4701. "Well, it's--"
  4702. >"Iiiiiit's a special corruption detecting lens, right?"
  4703. >Wait, the fuck did she interrupt you for?
  4704. "What? Well, I hope so, but it's really--"
  4705. >"Ohh, right, it does more than detect corruption, right, right! Say, why don't you tell us about it later, when you find what's wrong with me, huh?"
  4706. >Jesus, what's with her tone?
  4707. >She's trying really hard to suppress the panic in it.
  4708. >Wait.
  4709. >Is she...
  4710. >Covering for you?
  4711. >Does she know what you're doing, right now?
  4712. >Ohhkay, that's... understandably fucked.
  4713. >Just... roll with it, Anon.
  4714. >Follow the magic gut.
  4715. "Right, special corrupt-o-vision lens. Let's go with that."
  4716.  
  4717. >You can't see your entourage right now, meaning you can't gauge their reactions.
  4718. >Okay, seriously, is there a brightness control on this, or what?!
  4719. >You can't see shit like this!
  4720. >It's like looking into the sun, except way less eye-rapey!
  4721. >You try ordering it some more, in various permutations, to no avail.
  4722. >You're about to scream 'Aziz, light!' to it, when you remember one detail of the craft.
  4723. >It's fucking wand-operated.
  4724. >God damn it.
  4725. >You disengage the goggles, and pull them off, giving your eyes a little rub.
  4726. "Alright, the asshole who cooked up this lens design made it impossible to control without a wand, meaning I can't see shit. Razor, you mind heading up and grabbing one?"
  4727. >"Sure, but really? No brain controls?"
  4728. "Yeah, I don't know why they did it that way, either."
  4729. >Another redesign for the list, you think.
  4730. >"Maybe you oughta sue."
  4731. "Might just do that."
  4732. >"All right, hang tight, I'll grab one for 'ya."
  4733. >And there he goes.
  4734. >"Uhh, hey Sunburst, we've been here for a while now, right? Why don't you also head up, and grab us a few snacks?"
  4735. >"W-wha...? I-I mean, sure, I guess--"
  4736. >"Great! Ooh, make sure you get some macadamia cookies while you're out there! I love those things!"
  4737. >Aaaand she's pushing him towards the door, with the Totally Not Nervous™ wide smile on.
  4738. >"S-Starlight? You look a little tense, a-are you all ri--?"
  4739. >"Tense?! Y-yeah, totally! I mean, you know, with all that's happened today, how can you not be tense, right?!"
  4740. >"Uhh, I guess so--"
  4741. >"Okayseeyoulaterbye!"
  4742. >SLAM
  4743. >Uhh...
  4744. >Yeah, that was about as subtle as a Micheal Bay movie.
  4745.  
  4746. >Starlight turns back to you, shakes her head around a bunch of times, and takes a really, really deep breath.
  4747. >Man, feels like you fucked something up real bad.
  4748. >"All right. Anon. Mister Anonymous Fourside Chandler. My alien friend. My very close, totally hardcore, forbidden magic-wielding, and flank-kicking friend."
  4749. >Oh Christ, she's got the 'nice' tone going on.
  4750. >You know, the kind that precedes untold levels of anger?
  4751. >"I can't stress to you enough how nice it was, for you to try and find out exactly what's causing the problems I've been having.
  4752. >"Really, it's probably one of the nicest things that somepony, or, somehuman, has done for me. Buck, anyone, even!
  4753. >"But you know what they say, right? About genius and madness being two sides of the same old coin?"
  4754. >She's been walking closer and closer to you this whole time.
  4755. >"Which is why I have to ask you, in the most sincere and heartfelt terms possible, just WHAT IN THE NAME OF THE GODDESS'S OPULENT BUCKING TEATS YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING?!"
  4756. "Whoaly shit!"
  4757. >That's the loudest you've heard any horse yell, without magic!
  4758. >Doesn't help that she reared up and grabbed your jacket, either!
  4759. >The whole sudden exchange sent you sprawling to the grou--
  4760. >AH FUCK IT HURTS
  4761. >Looking up gets you the face of an extremely pissed off Starlight Glimmer.
  4762. "Jesus Christ, the hell did I do?!"
  4763. >"What did you do?! Oh, that's-- that's a real good one! I mean, he only performs the PERSONA-NO-BUCKING-GRATA OF PEERING THROUGH THE VEIL OF THE SOUL!
  4764. >"But don't worry, he's asking what he did wron-- WHAT THE BUCK DID YOU THINK YOU DID WRONG?!"
  4765.  
  4766. @@@@@@@@
  4767.  
  4768. >To say you were highly confused would be a Colossus of Rhodes-size understatement.
  4769. "Okay, yeah, it's a sketchier item than my normal stuff, but what the hell's wrong with just taking a look?"
  4770. >Her imminent aneurysm only looked to be provoked further, with that response.
  4771. >"Oh, so now you want to play dumb? Pretend like you don't know what--"
  4772. >Okay, that's quite enough crazy for one minute.
  4773. >You sweep your hand up and clamp it over her muzzle, quickly silencing her.
  4774. >While you're at it, you also fix her your best unamused stare.
  4775. "Now, I'm gonna let go of your face. And when I do, you're gonna step off of me, take a deep breath, and explain to me exactly why you decided to flip your shit. Capiche?"
  4776. >She recovers from the shock of what you did fairly quickly.
  4777. >And she looks a little more scared than you thought she would.
  4778. >But she does give you a muffled 'mmhm'.
  4779. >Good enough for you.
  4780. >Right after you let her go, she steps off of you, much to your relief.
  4781. >God damn, even after Twilight's help, shit's still sore.
  4782. >She skips the whole 'deep breath' routine, and just gets straight into the explaining:
  4783. >"How do you NOT know why I'd be freaking out about this?!"
  4784. >She's more whisper-shouting than actual shouting.
  4785. >It's a start.
  4786. "Apparently I managed to skip the memo, so why don't you start at the beginning?"
  4787. >"Which book taught you that design, huh? Was it the one I used? Because it works awful, oh I don't know, BUCKING IDENTICAL, to the one from--"
  4788. "Okay, stop."
  4789. >Wow, she actually stopped.
  4790. >Certainly not a fan of the glare she's firing your way, though.
  4791.  
  4792. "I seriously don't understand what you're going on about here, Starry.
  4793. "I mean, sure, you had that whole talk on the evil extradimensional psychics screwing around with you if you used the dark stuff.
  4794. "But I'm not using anything remotely approximating the dark stuff. All I'm doing is just taking a gander! When the hell did looking become persona-no-grata?"
  4795. >And she just looks at you, like you just got 2+2 wrong.
  4796. >When it finally dawns on her that you're dead serious, her face takes several turns for the sadder.
  4797. >"You... you really d-don't know?"
  4798. "I wouldn't ask if I already knew!"
  4799. >"Oh, no..."
  4800. >She's looking about ready to cry again.
  4801. >She swallows dry, before turning to the side, looking like she's thinking about something.
  4802. >Or maybe remembering something?
  4803. >"I remember when I first picked up that book. Everything I was told about magic, all told me that reading it would be an awful idea.
  4804. >"But no. No, I thought I would be different. Just one spell, I said. Just one device. It'll be fine."
  4805. >When she shakes her head and looks back to you, there's tear streaks forming.
  4806. >She's developing a thousand-yard stare.
  4807. >"Soul detection is one of the first spells you learn when stepping into the dark. It's such a perfect lure. You always think you're just looking, just taking a peek. You never think anything can come from it.
  4808. >"Oh, how wrong I was. The voices came so quick, after the spell. Th-they just clawed their way in, d-demanding I keep casting.
  4809. >"They didn't go away after that. When demands didn't work, they told me I was weak for not continuing. Th-they..."
  4810.  
  4811. >She stops to wipe her eyes.
  4812. >"Don't you get it? It's the ultimate beginner's trap! It's always 'just a look'!"
  4813. >Ohh...
  4814. >Oh, shit...
  4815. >Now you're starting to see what her freak-out was about.
  4816. >You might have just done the magic equivalent of 'just one line of coke'.
  4817. >"Anon, everything past the shroud is their turf! You peel it back just to get a look at the veil, and that's where they get you!"
  4818. >And now you're just confused again.
  4819. "Wait, hold up. Veil? Shroud?"
  4820. >"Yes, the-- Wait. You mean you don't know what those are, either?!"
  4821. "Should I?"
  4822. >"Yes, you should! How have you even been using magic, without knowing about those?!"
  4823. "Sunburst can explain it better than me. The short version is that I'm using soulless, true-neutral constructs, with zero willpower involved in casting."
  4824. >Now it's her turn to look completely confused.
  4825. >"What?"
  4826. "That's been my thought process for the last few minutes, too."
  4827. >"No, wait, hold on just a second! That's impossible! That's like trying to swim without water and gravity!"
  4828. "Like I said, ask Sunburst. He can explain it better then I can."
  4829. >"And you can't?!"
  4830. "I know the thaumic system, not the pony one. He knows both. I wouldn't even know where to fucking begin."
  4831. >She tries a few times to say something, but stops herself each time.
  4832. >Well, to her credit, she's handling that screwball much better than Twilight.
  4833. >And now she's taking that deep breath.
  4834. >"Okay. Let's assume that you're right. Let's assume that your devices are as... impossibly neutral as you say they are.
  4835.  
  4836. >"It wouldn't even matter! It's your soul they're after, and they don't care what means you use to step into their trap!"
  4837. "Okay, but you still haven't explained that part yet. The whole 'shroud' and 'veil' thing."
  4838. >"I can't believe... Okay. The shroud is... this natural protection from outside magic. It keeps magic that doesn't belong to you out, and keeps yours in.
  4839. >"It's kind of tricky to explain. It... it does more than that, and it covers the soul as well, but... Aaagh, I can't believe you don't know about this already!"
  4840. "So it's kind of like a... filter?"
  4841. >"Yeah, that's a big part of it! It lets the natural magic in, but keeps out the magic of others!"
  4842. >Ding-a-ling ling.
  4843. >That sounds like a very close match to what the Lexica said about magic ownership.
  4844. "Huh, that sounds really similar to something in my own studies. Close, but not totally the same thing."
  4845. >"But do you get it?"
  4846. "Yeah, so far."
  4847. >"Oh, thank goodness! W-well, now I guess I need to talk about the veil, huh?
  4848. >"The veil is... I guess the closest thing you'd call it is a kind of blindfold. Imagine if everypony's souls were in this one room, and they were all blindfolded.
  4849. >"And peering past the veil is just like removing the blindfold. While piercing it involves, well..."
  4850. "Messing with someone else's, huh?"
  4851. >"Right!"
  4852. "But how does looking translate to getting marked by evil?"
  4853. >"You can only get to the veil after getting past the shroud. One's hidden right after the other.
  4854. >"And it's like the warp has an alarm near the veil, that rings the dinner bell for them when you trip it."
  4855.  
  4856. >That's...
  4857. >Several layers of fucked.
  4858. "They've got enough power between them to trawl around the world like that, just hunting for folks who poke their heads out?"
  4859. >"Yes. They do. And when I listened to them talk, it showed. They're so knowledgeable. So intelligent. But so..."
  4860. >She shakes herself out of that train of thought.
  4861. >"This is why they banned dark magic, Anon! If you even flirt with it, it's a direct invitation to let them in! A-and now you've..."
  4862. >She's tearing up again.
  4863. >"Damn it. Damn it, damn it, damn it! It was only supposed to be me! I didn't want anypony else to suffer this! Let alone anyhuman!"
  4864. >You don't even know what to say at this stage.
  4865. >You just set yourself up for some major soul reaming, without even meaning to.
  4866. >"I-I know you m-meant well, but... Y-you shouldn't have made that thing before coming here! Now you're gonna suffer because of them, and it's all my fault!"
  4867. >O-oh, hell...
  4868. >What do you even--
  4869. >Wait.
  4870. >Wait just a cotton-picking second here.
  4871. "Hold up. What did you just say?"
  4872. >"W-wha...? Th-that you're gonna suffer because of--"
  4873. "No, no, before that."
  4874. >"Y-you shouldn't have made that before coming here?"
  4875. >Before coming here?
  4876. "Starry? How long did it take for the voices to get to you after that spell?"
  4877. >She blinks.
  4878. >"What? A-about an hour or two. I-I didn't really count. Why?"
  4879. >The slowly building dread deflates very suddenly.
  4880. "Starry. I made this lens days ago. And tested it the same day I made it."
  4881. >Silence.
  4882. >She says nothing as she processes what you just said.
  4883. >She starts mouthing the beginning of something.
  4884.  
  4885. >"Y-Yo-You what?"
  4886. >Before your response comes, she darts up in your face again.
  4887. >"Is this a joke? Is this some sick way of coping for you? Because you can't have done that!"
  4888. "Well, I did!"
  4889. >"That's impossible! The warp is always looking for souls! There's no way it could have taken them more than half a day to find you!"
  4890. "Well, someone in the land of the endless katanas must have their clock set wrong, because I haven't had any bouts of magic schizophrenia since making that thing!"
  4891. >"You're suggesting to me that you're somehow ignoring the warp, then?! That's impossible! Nothing gets past the warp, nothing! Otherwise, you'd be allowed to get away with--"
  4892. >Her line comes to a dead stop.
  4893. >It looks like she's had the epiphany of the century.
  4894. >"You'd be allowed to get away with any kind of dark magic."
  4895. "Uhh, Starry? You okay?"
  4896. >"Runes. Souls. Bloodreaving. Maybe even more. Without a single discernible consequence."
  4897. >What is she even--
  4898. >ding
  4899. >You think you just shared her epiphany.
  4900. "You said he was getting away with stuff that'd damn a town full of ponies."
  4901. >"And there's no way he could do that. Unless..."
  4902. "He was immune to the drawbacks."
  4903. >"Which you might be."
  4904. "And that means..."
  4905. >"It's not an Incognito thing."
  4906. >The synchronicity just turned up to 11.
  4907. "It's a human thing!"
  4908. >"It's a human thing!"
  4909. >Before either one of you can further explore that explosive epiphany, the door opens.
  4910. >"Hey, Anon! I know you said one wand, but I didn't wanna risk a return trip, so I..."
  4911. >He stops upon seeing you two, carrying two wands and a staff.
  4912. >"Uhh... did I miss something?"
  4913. <...
  4914.  
  4915. >Guh...!
  4916. >Damn it, that stings!
  4917. >"I know, I know. I'd love to use my usual anaesthetic spell, but the guard is very strict about no magic being allowed here."
  4918. >Because it'd get blocked by the crystals.
  4919. >As if your ring was enough of an obstacle.
  4920. >At least there was some semblance of a reason for his uselessness--
  4921. >Gah!
  4922. >Your teeth clench, and your muscles pull tight.
  4923. >D-damn it, that hurt...!
  4924. >"My apologies, miss Athalia. This region is a bit tricky."
  4925. >And here you thought you'd never have to see this stupid doctor again!
  4926. >But no, of course not!
  4927. >Your hindleg was still injured from the torture!
  4928. >Guess she must have remembered that at the last second!
  4929. >Or buck, maybe she left it like that, just so he could come down and mess with you some more!
  4930. >She's certainly cruel enough to do that!
  4931. >"There's one more shard stuck in your leg. You've been doing wonderful, holding so still for me, so keep it up, all right?"
  4932. >You're already bracing for the pain--
  4933. >Aaaagh!
  4934. >G-good call!
  4935. >After a few seconds of pain, the shard of chitin is felt being pulled free.
  4936. >You bet he doesn't even question how it got that way, either!
  4937. >Even drones are more inquisitive than that!
  4938. >"Wonderful, wonderful! That's the last of the shards that I can see. Just keep still, and I'll dress it up, all right?"
  4939. >You don't know why he sounds so nonchalant about this.
  4940. >You risk a look over in his direction.
  4941. >What you see manages to confuse you.
  4942. >His face...
  4943. >There's not a single negative emotion on there!
  4944. >It's just a small, professional smile!
  4945.  
  4946. >He's healing what you're sure he thinks is a monster, and he doesn't even bat an eye?!
  4947. >He's either extremely dense, or really damned brave!
  4948. >"And there we go! Now, try not to walk on it too much, all right? I'll be back in a few days to check up on it again."
  4949. >Nothing in his voice, either.
  4950. >You...
  4951. >You don't get it!
  4952. >He turns tail and walks back towards the wall, without waiting for you to reply.
  4953. >Not surprising, considering you usually never reply.
  4954. >And this time wouldn't be any different.
  4955. >He stops to give you a small wave, still with that small smile.
  4956. >Then, the door reveals itself.
  4957. >They actually enchanted one of the walls to double as the doors, and they were so damned large and thick, that it made breaking or prying them apart just as impossible as the walls themselves.
  4958. >They also opened very slowly, and took some very well-trained unicorns to move those massive 'hoofholds' on the outside.
  4959. >Which were big stakes of some metal, plated in specially-glyphed gold.
  4960. >The glyphs were too far to see, but you imagine it had to be something to boost their telekinesis.
  4961. >They really spared no expense for this place, didn't they?
  4962. >CLUNK
  4963. >You didn't even notice the door close.
  4964. >But just like that, you were all alone again.
  4965. >Nothing but the occasional twinkle of your prison, the occasional soft chime of the overhead lights, and the sound of your own breathing.
  4966. >A welcome break from yesterday...
  4967. >Well...
  4968. >There isn't exactly much you can do right now.
  4969. >You might as well take this time to get some rest.
  4970. >W-who knows what might happen next...
  4971.  
  4972. >You get as comfortable as possible.
  4973. >Not really that hard to do, considering that the ground had to double as your bed a good deal of the time, out in Zebrica.
  4974. >Zebrica...
  4975. >You wonder what's been happening there, since you've been gone.
  4976. >Do...
  4977. >Do they miss you?
  4978. >The rest of the hive has to, for sure.
  4979. >Ajay definitely would.
  4980. >But...
  4981. >But what about Incognito?
  4982. >Does he?
  4983. >Or...
  4984. >Or is he going to be angry with you?
  4985. >Because you f-faile--
  4986. >No!
  4987. >No, none of that!
  4988. >You're trying to get some rest, damn it!
  4989. >Shaking your head, you curl yourself up, trying your best to get some sleep.
  4990. >...
  4991. >Blackness again.
  4992. >Already, you're bracing yourself for what's coming.
  4993. >The second you feel that pressure build in your head, you 'cast' that spell.
  4994. >D-damn it, it feels so wrong...!
  4995. >But you feel the 'air' shift, and soon find yourself faced with...
  4996. >Wait, this...
  4997. >This creature is different than the last few!
  4998. >It had the same style, with the purple eyes, shadowy robe, and the fog cloud where the legs would be.
  4999. >But this one wasn't a pony at all!
  5000. >It's some kind of... biped!
  5001. >You thought it might have been human, but it was too thin, and way too tall.
  5002. >And humans don't have four arms, either!
  5003. >What is this thing?
  5004. >"Ohh, wondrous! We knew our new neophyte was among the ranks of the Shattered, but this fragment had yet to see it!"
  5005. >Trying to speak was about as successful as the last time.
  5006. >The awful, crawling feeling made sure that all you could manage were gags.
  5007. >To your credit, you manage to adjust quicker than before, but the thing interrupts before you can say something:
  5008.  
  5009. >"Oh, what are we saying? You are hundreds of generations too young to remember that little event!
  5010. >"Now, then. Shall we begin with the... instruction?"
  5011. >It was...
  5012. >Entirely too eager-sounding, for what you can only assume is an ancient spirit of dark magic.
  5013. >But you are certainly not going to complain.
  5014. >Fighting off the urge to vomit, you do manage to speak:
  5015. "Yes."
  5016. >Did it's eyes just light up?
  5017. >"Marvellous, marvellous!"
  5018. >It's hands reach out, summoning forth ghostly images of ponies.
  5019. >"You've proved yourself an attentive learner, so listen well! This technique will allow you to traverse the veil, and seize upon another's--"
  5020. >FZZTCRACK
  5021. >Gaaah!
  5022. >What the buck was that?!
  5023. >"Oh, what a pleasant surprise! Another projection from the mortal realm!"
  5024. >You turn to the source of the noise, and see a storm of crackling red energy.
  5025. >The power...
  5026. >It feels so...
  5027. >Violent!
  5028. >The storm compresses and coalesces, until it takes the form of a...
  5029. >A screaming, pained zebra?
  5030. >"Hmm... this soul seems to be seeking you, newcomer. It's binding is quite specific."
  5031. >What?
  5032. >It wants you?
  5033. >Why?
  5034. >It's screaming comes to an abrupt halt, and it's eyes and mouth shoot open, glowing, burning, and leaking crimson power.
  5035. >And then, it speaks.
  5036. >The voice was guttural and deep.
  5037. >"YOUR FAILURE. SHALL BE PUNISHED. NO. ESCAPE."
  5038. >F-failure...?
  5039. >The spirit then screams again, before detonating in a storm of red.
  5040. >N-no...
  5041. >W-was that... thing, from...
  5042. >Him?
  5043. >It had to be!
  5044. >He...
  5045. >He was angry, after all...
  5046. >O-oh, no...
  5047. >"Oh, dear. We think you've made the Destroyer quite cross."
  5048. <...
  5049.  
  5050. @@@@@@@@
  5051.  
  5052. >"Lord Viraak pressed his initial advantage as hard as possible, harnessing the fearsome arcane might of his centaurs, in tandem with the incredible battle prowess of the gargoyles.
  5053. >"At first, the united mundanes stood little chance against them, thanks to his use of the element of surprise, and the lack of magicians in their outer colonies.
  5054. >"But this advantage was not to last; the tides reversed far more suddenly, and far more violently, than any of us could have anticipated.
  5055. >"When the Faber Mystico joined the battle, they did not give any quarter towards the invaders. We did not expect them to, but the sheer magnitude of the power they unleashed was unlike anything we had seen!
  5056. >"The progress that Viraak's forces had made in three months, which was vast in it's own right, had been swiftly undone in the span of a mere month!
  5057. >"Whatever strange, alien methodology the Faber Mystico had created to perform magic, was initially thought by all of us to be of comparatively limited scope, to our own naturally-born powers.
  5058. >"The first to experience the consequence of such a vast underestimation was none other than Viraak himself, and his forces.
  5059. >"The Faber Mystico's wrath was as swift as it was utterly devastating: two months after the reversal of his progress, they shot directly for his nation's capitol, their bizarre spells laying waste to anything in their path.
  5060. >"And the very nature of their magic, meant that even Viraak's best Spellbreakers were unable to absorb it, making his ultimate military force useless against their onslaught.
  5061.  
  5062. >"By the end of the two months, Viraak had been slain by the Faber Mystico's leaders, and the kingdom of the centaurs and gargoyles was no more, with all survivors scattered to the far corners of Equus, their fates unknown.
  5063. >"These leaders would become known to all of us over the coming months, as we sought a more peaceful path into the future with them;
  5064. >"Elder Zharrdan, an eccentric qilin even amongst his kind, specializing in protection against the dark arts.
  5065. >"Sage Ynnead, the most famous example of a reformed mon'keigh, and their utmost authority on holy magics.
  5066. >"Warmaster Axel, a hieracosphinx as ruthless as he is honourable, and their greatest war-wizard.
  5067. >"And none other than Primarch Cecilia, a peryton of such power, wisdom, and grace, that many considered her to be the mundane rival of Celestia herself.
  5068. >"We ponies, along with our trusted allies, the reindeer, sought to forge a peaceful solution as soon as possible.
  5069. >"As fate would have it, Cecilia was seeking a peaceful agreement herself, and it did not take long for us to arrange a time and location to have our discussions, with Princess Celestia and Freiherr Rudolph leading the talks on our end."
  5070. >Some light taps on your knee bring you out of your intense reading.
  5071. >"Anon? Starlight's examination is all over with. You're up next!"
  5072. "Really? Sweet, thanks doc!"
  5073. >You set down your sneakily disguised War of the Ancients edition 'bodybuilding magazine', and pull off your sneakily disguised super-manalens 'reading glasses'.
  5074. >And there comes Starlight, floating the two over to her side with a knowing look.
  5075.  
  5076. >"All right, just follow me inside, Anon, and I'll have this over with as soon as possible!"
  5077. "You got it."
  5078. >And sure enough, doc Valiant leads you into the little medical room, sitting you down for what you presume is a battery of tests.
  5079. >You figured you'd throw in a physical while you were at it, just to see how much you've progressed in this last week.
  5080. >Oh man, oh God, oh man, oh God, what a week it's been.
  5081. >All that /fit/ness shit was paying off after the third day, despite the pain it left you in.
  5082. >After your body had adjusted to the load, combined with a high-protein diet...
  5083. >Mother of God, you've never felt so ALIVE!
  5084. >Not invincible by any means, but a fuck of a lot better than you were before!
  5085. >Honestly, you're not even sure how you handled those last two big fights, without getting in shape like this!
  5086. >Now that your routine with Razor and the rest of the Night Guard was solidly in place, you only spent about three or so hours on the ol' bod, and the rest was in the 'combat' part of the training.
  5087. >You didn't realize how much thought was actually put into the fighting.
  5088. >Knowing your limits, minimizing risk-taking, reading and predicting your enemy's moves, strategizing on-the-fly, all of it!
  5089. >As if your brain wasn't already occupied with your magic studies!
  5090. >And if your timetable wasn't shaken up, your upcoming... 'visit'.
  5091. >No, let's get back on track.
  5092. >That line of thought can come later.
  5093. >But yeah, the amount of thinking that goes into fighting really puts the guards in a new light for you.
  5094. >Even if most of them don't do a whole lot of fighting...
  5095.  
  5096. >Well, the Night Guard seemed to be more of a special-ops bunch anyways, which was apparently how the poner military liked to do things.
  5097. >Keep things on the down-low as much as possible, so as to not disturb the peace.
  5098. >Might go a long ways to explain Sol Invictus's existence, even if they were more black-ops than spec-ops.
  5099. >Surprisingly, you haven't heard a lot from them, either.
  5100. >Well, okay, not really surprising, considering their whole modus operandi, and Exact wouldn't pony up any details about them, only ever telling you, well, exactly what you already knew about them.
  5101. >They weren't bugging you right now anyways, so you didn't really press the matter.
  5102. >You had a lot of other things to do.
  5103. >"All right, I'll need you to look into these little crystal windows for me, Anon, and tell me what you see."
  5104. "Hm? Oh yeah, no problem, Doc."
  5105. >And he floats up a little circular window of crystal, framed with gold.
  5106. "Pitch black."
  5107. >"Really? Hmm, that's strange. How about this one?"
  5108. "Hmm... nope, pitch black, too."
  5109. >And here you thought you'd never need to get one of these full-on magic exams, either.
  5110. >Actually, you never knew these were a thing at all.
  5111. >This part of your visit was Starlight's idea, and after hearing her reason for it, you agreed to go for it.
  5112. >After your little revelation of being apparently really resistant, or maybe even immune, to dark magic's effects, the two of you figured you should get to the bottom of exactly why that is.
  5113. >One part 'know thy enemy', one part 'know thyself', one part 'help Starlight', and one part 'you're really damn curious now'.
  5114.  
  5115. >"A-are you certain, Anon? Another one in black?"
  5116. "Yep, just like the others."
  5117. >He looks a little unnerved by that.
  5118. >"Well, I have a few left for you to look at, then we can go from there."
  5119. "Sounds like a plan."
  5120. >She was still a little touchy about you gazing longingly at her soul like that, but she did eventually cave.
  5121. >With Razor there as a control example, followed by Sunburst with his snack haul, you finally got to see what pony souls looked like.
  5122. >And more importantly, how Starlight's differed.
  5123. >Turns out souls, at least on ponies, looked like balls of white light, with off-white and emerald-green 'flames' licking up off of them.
  5124. >And that they were cloaked in a brilliant orange glow, almost like a magic bonfire, that obscured that sight pretty well.
  5125. >Honestly, you were surprised that their cutie marks weren't on them, like their magic 'cores'.
  5126. >But the real show-stealer was Starlight's soul.
  5127. >There WAS something different about it!
  5128. >There was a bunch of black, oily slime-looking shit, covering about a sixth of the orb, with it's own set of off-black and Byzantium-purple 'flames' coming off of it.
  5129. >It was pretty safe to say that you found the corruption.
  5130. >What you didn't know was how that translated to the gods of edge mind-raping her.
  5131. >But God damn, you were trying to look into it as best as you could.
  5132. >Still, that was really slow going, given your lack of dark magic books to reference.
  5133. >You'll go over your own recovered collection again later, to see if you have anything to help with that.
  5134. >You just haven't had time to go through them, yet.
  5135.  
  5136. >The training, your magic research, all of it, just ate your time like an overweight black hole.
  5137. >The impromptu crafts from the last two days didn't help matters.
  5138. >Sunburst had to leave back to the Empire with Cadance and co, which left him without a slipgate to here.
  5139. >You didn't manage to make one in time for his departure, but you did the next day, and it had gotten the express delivery to him, courtesy of Luna.
  5140. >She also suggested creating a little secure checkpoint for all the gate exits at Canterlot, and they were relocated to those cellars for that exact reason.
  5141. >And she wanted one for herself, weirdly enough.
  5142. >So did Twilight, actually...
  5143. >Man, those two are getting all kinds of weird.
  5144. >Luna's old-timey fighter side was spurring her on to give you a hand with fighting pointers, and more importantly, a good deal of pony magic advice.
  5145. >She was also doing her damnedest to figure out your way of doing things, even shaving time off her court to figure things out.
  5146. >Hell, she probably took some pointers from Sunburst in that field.
  5147. >As for Twilight, well...
  5148. >She's been more focused on getting you to relax, of all things!
  5149. >And since she got that direct link to here, she's been going very out of her way to schedule you some down time.
  5150. >You still think you don't need it, but you'd be lying if you said it wasn't nice.
  5151. >Though a lot of those two's actions seemed to be bleeding over into each other lately, with Luna sometimes trying her hoof at relaxing you, and Twilight sometimes trying to help you with magic.
  5152.  
  5153. >They also seemed a lot more, well, tense around each other.
  5154. >Definitely no joint visits to you anymore.
  5155. >Wonder what the hell their deal is?
  5156. >Did they get into some kinda fight, or what?
  5157. >Man, fuckin' ponies are weird.
  5158. >Adorably weird, but weird nonetheless.
  5159. >Still, you definitely appreciate their help.
  5160. >It's been a huge boost to your progress!
  5161. >"Another one?"
  5162. "Yep, just like the others."
  5163. >Okay, you're not liking the concern on his face.
  5164. >"All right, well... I don't want to draw any conclusions yet, so I'm going to prepare a more... exhaustive test, to determine your magical resistances and immunities."
  5165. "You know, I get the feeling that it's not looking good so far."
  5166. >"I won't lie to you, Anon. There are only less than a dozen conclusions to draw about this, and not many of them are what I would consider to be... 'positive'."
  5167. "Uhh... how not-positive are we talking?"
  5168. >"Well, they're negative in the sense of their implications to you, but exceedingly effective in their role in immunizing you from magical influence.
  5169. >"Again, I'd prefer to tell you more about it, once I have a more concrete picture of what the cause is."
  5170. "All right, I... guess I'll trust you on this, doc."
  5171. >"Thank you, Anon. Unfortunately, the test I have in mind will take another few days to prepare.
  5172. >"Now, as for your physical state, I am pleased to say that as far as I can tell, you seem to be as healthy as a clam!"
  5173. "Hey, that's great to hear!"
  5174. >"Certainly a welcome change from your usual visits, I would say."
  5175. "Gee, thanks."
  5176. >Who knew the doc had some sass in him?
  5177.  
  5178. >The two of you wave each other off, and you exit the hospital wing in short order, Starlight and your book in tow.
  5179. >Those glasses, with their adjustable 'gifted vision' from before, were super handy in dialing into the right 'mode' to read the book without disco-vision.
  5180. >Though reading the 'cover' story was pretty entertaining in it's own right, since it read like an edgy fourteen-year-old's really bad and long fanfiction of Highlander, where he eats ponies to gain their strength.
  5181. >Way funnier than it was supposed to be 'unnerving'.
  5182. >Pff, what kind of loser writes fanfics that long, anyways?
  5183. >"So, uh, you find out what the deal is with you?"
  5184. "Actually, I didn't."
  5185. >"Wait, really?"
  5186. "Yeah, apparently he wanted to run some more tests before coming to a solid conclusion on that.
  5187. "Though I'll tell 'ya, he didn't look too pleased with what the cause might be."
  5188. >"Well, what did he do?"
  5189. "Those little crystal window things, scan spells, pokes and prods with gems on sticks, all that.
  5190. "Still, don't think even half of that shit worked on me, though."
  5191. >"The spells and the divining rods, I can see not working. But what about the reflector oculus tests?"
  5192. "They all showed up as pitch black."
  5193. >You stop walking with her, once you realize she'd stopped in her tracks.
  5194. >"A-all of them... pitch black?"
  5195. "Yeah...?"
  5196. >Okay, that's bugging her, too?
  5197. >What the fuck's the deal?
  5198. >She shakes her head a few times before catching back up to you.
  5199. >"Ahh, on second thoughts, maybe you should let him run those other tests. Don't wanna jump to conclusions, after all!"
  5200.  
  5201. "You know, I'm really not digging the radio silence on this."
  5202. >"It's for the best, really. There's only nine or ten reasons why that could be, and, well, they're not worth stressing over."
  5203. "Starry--"
  5204. >"Trust me, okay? You're way better off knowing for sure when the last test results come back."
  5205. >You might not like that one bit, but you do trust her on this.
  5206. "All right, fine."
  5207. >"Sorry if I sound really cryptic about it, but given all you've been doing lately, I really don't think it's worth stressing over. Trust me, I know how that is."
  5208. "I'll take your word for it."
  5209. >The two of you shoot the shit for a while longer, but she eventually peaces out at the intersection to her room's general direction.
  5210. >At least she hasn't been having nearly as many schizophrenic puke-fests as of late.
  5211. >She's pretty confident she got all the spells off of those rune monsters, so she's left it well enough alone for now.
  5212. >The few days she's been off of that case have been a huge boon to her health, though.
  5213. >Guess reading evil spells doesn't 'stick' as well as actually using them.
  5214. >Makes sense, you guess.
  5215. >Of course, you couldn't resist taking your goggles, and staring at the things yourself.
  5216. >And yeah, the magic in them was fifty-seven varieties of fucked, displaying every 'distortion' trait the Lexica told you about 'animarum' aspects, and then some.
  5217. >The worst part, though?
  5218. >They looked like prototypes themselves, with all the stitching on them.
  5219. >Fucking Nito's probably made them better, since sending these damn things out.
  5220. >Dirty cocksucker.
  5221.  
  5222. >If anything, that thought was driving you to improve even faster.
  5223. >Even if the further pushes are likely to net you some ire from princess purple.
  5224. >Oh look, there's your room!
  5225. >And with none other than--
  5226. >Oh, sorry, you didn't realize Celestia was apparently your guard, now.
  5227. >"Good afternoon, Anon."
  5228. "Celestia? Man, you sure like your surprise visits, eh?"
  5229. >"It's a difficult habit to kick, even after all this time."
  5230. >Some chuckles were in order, this time of the genuine variety.
  5231. >After that one talk, about your supposed 'evil prophecy' involvement, there had been a lot of cleared air between you two.
  5232. >So the butthole clenching wasn't nearly as pronounced as before.
  5233. >Still, she opens the door for you, following you in shortly after.
  5234. "So, what brings you to your loaned-out, not-at-all-humble abode?"
  5235. >"Nothing accusatory this time, I assure you."
  5236. "I'll hold you to that."
  5237. >The two of you take your seats, sans the liquor.
  5238. >You might love your booze, but knocking back a few shots worth in the afternoon was overkill, even for you.
  5239. >"You continue to surprise me, Anon. Never in all my years would I expect you to not only uncover the Faber Mystico's knowledge of magic, but give it so freely to my sister, of all ponies."
  5240. >You know, normally that would be an 'oh lawd here we go' moment, but her face wasn't bearing that out.
  5241. >"When she shared what she knew, I... well, it appears that I have greatly misjudged their art."
  5242. "Not quite as 'dark' as you thought, huh?"
  5243. >"It's not that. I knew it was not a true dark art, but it's workings were always unknown to me.
  5244.  
  5245. >"I realize that makes what I said to you back in Ponyville a lie, and I must apologize to you for that, even if you found it rather... transparent.
  5246. >"You must also realize, however, that as an unknown work of magic, I had no way to verify the potential it has to cause harm to my ponies."
  5247. "You still take their safety really seriously, huh?"
  5248. >"And I always will, until the day I die. Though with this newfound knowledge, and pending further discoveries in it's field, I find... loosening my restrictions on that type of magic, a far more appealing measure."
  5249. >Geez, bent the law so hard, it conformed to you?
  5250. "Well, uh, that's nice to hear! But it's still really tough stuff to use for folks with magic in 'em, you know?"
  5251. >"All too well, Anon. But, while my misgivings towards this peculiar method are steadily lessening, that brings me to my next subject."
  5252. >Her look flips to business.
  5253. >"I know that you wish to take a far more active role in stopping the forces of Incognito. But why, precisely, did you feel requesting the presence of Thorax would aid you in that endeavour?"
  5254. >Ah, right.
  5255. >Your 'guest' for today's detective work.
  5256. "Well, I'm trying my damnedest to figure out more about our... unwelcome guest."
  5257. >She doesn't stop her look from souring, and you don't, either.
  5258. >You both have every right to be mad about her.
  5259. >That fucking super-bug.
  5260. >What's she called, 'Athalia'?
  5261. >Christ, even the names Nito gives to his underlings have to suck his dick in some way!
  5262. >And even if you couldn't make heads or tails of the name in 'Lineage', you knew for a fact that wasn't her real name.
  5263.  
  5264. >"Do you believe they might know more about that... creature?"
  5265. "Given what she's looking like, lately? I'd be surprised if they didn't."
  5266. >"You seem to have this planned out."
  5267. "I've had a little time put away for this."
  5268. >"Evidently so. And while I would very much like to accompany you for this... investigation, I am afraid that I have pressing matters to attend to, by the time they arrive."
  5269. "Shit, really? What kind of matters?"
  5270. >"Suspicious events occurring in various towns, all bearing hallmarks of possible changeling activity."
  5271. "Shit. Think he's on the move?"
  5272. >"Possibly."
  5273. >Well, he's not wasting any time, is he?
  5274. >"While I am expecting to hear more about whatever you find, I would be remiss if I did not tell you of what I found on her, so far."
  5275. "You did some digging?"
  5276. >"If you can call interrogation 'digging'."
  5277. >Whoa, wait, interrogation?
  5278. >Does that mean what you think it means?
  5279. >"She was far too stubborn, far too resistant to my... methods, and far too afflicted with the pox of darkness, to glean much from her.
  5280. >"All I can tell you, before I sealed her away, is that her true name was apparently taken from her by none other than Chrysalis herself, along with many of her memories."
  5281. >Oh hello, that's new.
  5282. >You figured there was some brainwashing by Nito going on there.
  5283. >But queen bitch herself mind-wiped her?
  5284. "That's... different."
  5285. >"Indeed, and I cannot understand why she would do such a thing to a clearly important member of her hive."
  5286. "Well, if I find out what the hell that's all about, I'll let you know."
  5287. >"I would appreciate that, Anon."
  5288.  
  5289. >KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK
  5290. >Man, are pony knocks consistent, or what?
  5291. >"Come in."
  5292. >And through the door comes Exact.
  5293. >"Princess, the changeling leader has arrived, three minutes behind schedule."
  5294. >"Thank you, sergeant. It seems that is my cue to leave."
  5295. "Hey, nice talking to you, Celly."
  5296. >"'Celly'?"
  5297. >That got a chuckle from her.
  5298. >"Well, it certainly is different. Farewell, Anon, and good luck to you."
  5299. "Likewise."
  5300. >Man, that's the smoothest talk you've had with her, since the whole ironblood reveal.
  5301. >She exits stage left, and you take the time to prepare for your little outing.
  5302. >You haven't actually met Thorax properly, only seen him in the same room as the others.
  5303. >Still not a fan of the weird look he's sporting, though.
  5304. >It's like he just went for the polar opposite of the 'evil' changeling look, aesthetics be damned.
  5305. >You really prefer the way their ancient 'Foremothers' looked in the book.
  5306. >So much more a e s t h e t i c
  5307. >Oh well, shoulda coulda woulda.
  5308. >You slip your discreet super-manalens 'reading glasses' into your coat pocket, opting to bring only that on your little 'talk'.
  5309. >Per Starlight's advice, you decided against including Soulgazer lenses in these things, on top of keeping the fact you can see souls at all now a secret.
  5310. >Given how iffy that field is, it's easy to see why.
  5311. >It also means your new-and-improved Soulgazer-and-manalens combo glasses set, along with your goggles, had a spot reserved for them in your animus lock-up.
  5312. >You won't have anyone getting their soul warped up through optical means, thank you very much.
  5313.  
  5314. >You link up with Exact on your way out, and he leads the way to where the moosebug of the hour is.
  5315. >Man, if only Razor wasn't busy with stuff right now.
  5316. >He'd be great for this kind of shit.
  5317. >"E-excuse me, you're Anon, aren't you?"
  5318. >Oh, well that was quick.
  5319. >There's the bug in question, looking about as timid as Sunburst.
  5320. >Nothing a winning smile won't cure.
  5321. "The one and only. Thorax, right?"
  5322. >Unlike Sunburst, however, he perked right up at your friendly first impression.
  5323. >"That's me! Nice to meet you!"
  5324. "Likewise."
  5325. >Even if he won't like who you're about to show him.
  5326. >Still, the two of you shake on it, and--
  5327. >"Geez, you weren't kidding about him looking funny."
  5328. >Oh hello, who's this cheeky lil' fuckboi?
  5329. >Another moosebug, this time sporting a cyan carapace and purple eyes.
  5330. >Looks way less overtly gay than Thorax, that's for sure.
  5331. >"Pharynx! There's no need for that!"
  5332. >"But it's true. He does look like a mutant monkey!"
  5333. >Oh, so you want a sass-off, do you?
  5334. >Challenge fucking accepted, shitboot!
  5335. "And you look like the bastard spawn of a deer and a dragonfly, so I guess looks don't count for much, eh?"
  5336. >Thorax's gasp doesn't go unnoticed, but you're too busy looking this Pharynx guy dead in the eye.
  5337. >And he's doing the same to you.
  5338. >And you look, and look, and...
  5339. >Hah, he cracked up first!
  5340. >None can out-sass the grand sass-master, puny moose!
  5341. >"Hah! Finally, somepo-- somehuman with a backbone!"
  5342. "Comes standard on most models of human, what can I say?"
  5343. >"You know, I had my doubts, but I can totally see you being the one to beat Chrysalis!"
  5344.  
  5345. "You don't sound too mad about that."
  5346. >"You kidding? After she got beaten at the hive like that, you bet I wasn't about to back her up again!"
  5347. "I think we'll get along just fine, mister Pharynx."
  5348. >Now, this moosebug had a good, strong hoofshake.
  5349. >"U-uh, so you two aren't gonna... start fighting?"
  5350. >Oh right, Thorax.
  5351. >He doesn't seem skilled in the art of the bant, just yet.
  5352. >"Of course not! I like him more than most ponies already!"
  5353. "Aww, you're makin' me blush here."
  5354. >"R-right, uh... S-so, Anon, the message from Canterlot said you needed us to help 'solve a mystery'?"
  5355. "That's right, and I hate to say it, but you're not gonna like who this mystery involves."
  5356. >"Huh? What do you mean?"
  5357. "Might be best if I showed you. Sarge, would you mind leading us on?"
  5358. >Exact nods his assent, and the whole group follows him.
  5359. >They are really not going to like this chat you're about to have with that bug.
  5360. >But you need them there all the same, to help corroborate and lie-detect what she says.
  5361. >Your path takes you to that special new area of the castle, where one of the rooms contain those rune monsters.
  5362. >Good thing you're not looking into rune monsters today.
  5363. >No, you've got a hot date with a bug, instead.
  5364. >Here's hoping it at least goes over well.
  5365. >Exact leads you to a pair of doors, with two sets of three guards flanking them.
  5366. >The first iron-clad set opens.
  5367. >It's funny how they have a magic airlock system going for this.
  5368. >The second door opens up, and...
  5369. >Ahh, there's the frightened gasp you were waiting for!
  5370. >"Y-you?!"
  5371. "Aaayyyyy, Chryssy! Long time, no see, huh girl?"
  5372.  
  5373. @@@@@@@@
  5374.  
  5375. >Well, she's looking a hell of a lot better, since the last time you saw her.
  5376. >Nary a crack to be seen on her shell.
  5377. >Guess the bugs do heal that kind of damage, given time.
  5378. >And boy howdy, has she had a lot of time.
  5379. >Of course, there's no healing that fugly mug.
  5380. >Truly, only something a mother could love.
  5381. >And if your hunch was right?
  5382. >That might just run in the family, too.
  5383. >Meanwhile, your differently hideous, far more tolerable entourage both gasp at the reveal.
  5384. >"C-Chrysalis?"
  5385. >"Chrysalis?! What the hay is this all about?!"
  5386. "Told 'ya you wouldn't like who this mystery involves."
  5387. >"I didn't think you meant... THIS!"
  5388. "You know, if you want out, the door's back th--"
  5389. >"No! No way am I backing down from this, not now!"
  5390. "Attaboy."
  5391. >With that settled, you stride forward like the flyest motherfucker around.
  5392. >Which helps to snap Chrysalis out of her shock-induced stupor, and get her to backpedal by a significant margin.
  5393. >Which doesn't really help much, if the chain around her midsection is anything to go by.
  5394. >Actually, now that you're seeing it...
  5395. >She's got way more than chains and a ring around the horn.
  5396. >Now she's packing some weird, glyphed-up, and padded... things, around her legs and midsection.
  5397. >Looks like someone just took those parts off a straitjacket, actually.
  5398. >The glyphs, you only partially recognize.
  5399. >Definitely pony ones, and you're seeing something about telekinesis on them.
  5400. >As for what that means, and what the others do?
  5401. >Yeah, totally lost on that front.
  5402. >But you're not here to gawk at the jail-time spellwork.
  5403.  
  5404. "So, Chryssy, old buddy ole pal of mine, been enjoying your stay at the hotel pony-jail?"
  5405. >"Wh-what do you want from me?!"
  5406. >Wow, holy shit.
  5407. >She's more scared of you than you thought.
  5408. "Whoa, easy there! Can't we just have a nice, pleasant little chat, before the business happens? It's been a while, after all!"
  5409. >Of course, you don't really care if she's scared or not.
  5410. >"Not long enough! Why are you here?!"
  5411. "Alright, fine, if you won't talk with me, how about your kids, then?"
  5412. >With a definitely over-dramatic flourish, you move out of the middle of the group and off to the side, leaving your entourage of two face-to-face with her.
  5413. >Chrysalis's scared look recedes slightly into anger.
  5414. >Thorax, well, he seems stuck between confusion and anger.
  5415. >Now, that Pharynx character, on the other hand?
  5416. >Yeah, he's all about that anger.
  5417. >Still, nothing is said in the span of a good half minute, with stare-offs abounding instead.
  5418. "Seriously? Cold-shouldering your fuckin' progeny? You know, even to a guy like me, that's cold."
  5419. >You can't say you expected Thorax to cringe a bit at your choice of expletive.
  5420. >But you did expect Chryssy's reply:
  5421. >"I have nothing to say to these... Gah, what does it matter? Why are you here?!"
  5422. >Before your own retort could leave the brain factory, Pharynx beat you to the punch, darting right up into her face.
  5423. >"We're asking the questions here, Chrysalis!"
  5424. >Hooo boy, he's mad.
  5425. >Mad enough to get her to back down, even!
  5426. "Alright, break it up over there. I'm looking for a little more conversation, and a little less action, please?"
  5427.  
  5428. >A small growl escapes Pharynx before he pulls back.
  5429. >Not that you'd protest to her getting slugged in the mouth, but you kinda need her speaking faculties working.
  5430. "Fine, fine, I figured there'd be a little window of fucking around to be had before we get down to the brass tacks.
  5431. "But, if you're so damn set on being a fun-hating recluse, let's just get on with this, then."
  5432. >You retake your position in the middle of your entourage, straighten your shirt out, and fall back to a serious look all the while.
  5433. "You hear a lot of news down here?"
  5434. >Good, that's got her confused.
  5435. >"What? What does that have to do with anything?"
  5436. "I'm the one playing twenty questions here, not you."
  5437. >"N-no! They don't tell me anything!"
  5438. "Oh, phew. For a second there, I thought you'd be thrilled about your rogue bugs launching that almost successful hit on Ponyville, is all!"
  5439. >Confusion morphs to shock, while you get a couple of confused huh's from the sidelines.
  5440. >"They--?! Wh-what does it matter? All that tells me is that he launched another failed attack! One that you no doubt stopped!"
  5441. "Well, you're right on that count. But I've gotta say, there was this one bug in the group, that--"
  5442. >"We are not bugs!"
  5443. "Sue me. Anyways, there was this one bug in the group that kinda... stuck out a little, you know?"
  5444. >Her face remains angry, but you can see a small kernel of discontent cross it.
  5445. >But you continue on with your little tale of partial lies and slander, anyways:
  5446. "Now, I thought at first, that it was our old pal Nito, slapping some hyper-edgy augments onto one of his troops."
  5447.  
  5448. >You slowly pace forwards.
  5449. "Since, you know, he certainly wouldn't be above doing something like that, right?"
  5450. >You can see the discontent growing on her.
  5451. >Seems she really doesn't like where you're going with this.
  5452. >"Wh-what did he do to that... drone?"
  5453. >Oh, you noticed that hitch at 'drone', all right.
  5454. "Nothing."
  5455. >She blinks.
  5456. >"N-nothing?"
  5457. "Well, outside of training, obviously. Although..."
  5458. >You lean in nice and close for the punchline.
  5459. "I don't remember changelings having female drones."
  5460. >The response you get is immediate.
  5461. >Fear was the first thing you saw in her eyes, before it went over to anger--
  5462. >THWACK
  5463. "Gah, fuck!"
  5464. >Pain flares across your forehead at the impact point, and you find yourself falling backwards, flat on your ass.
  5465. >She just fucking headbutted you!
  5466. >She made to pounce over your now-prone form, until a light blue magic aura stopped her in mid-air, forcing her back onto the ground.
  5467. >While you rub your almost certainly bruised forehead, you take stock of the now well-restrained queen.
  5468. >Hoohooly shit.
  5469. >If you thought Pharynx was mad, Chrysalis right now took the fucking Olympic gold medal for 'expression of pure fury'.
  5470. >"Wretched monster! What did you do to her?!"
  5471. >Jesus H Christ.
  5472. >You think your suspicion has just been confirmed in triplicate.
  5473. >While Chrysalis continues to shout, scream, and thrash, Pharynx looks down at you next, with a renewed angry look.
  5474. >Only this time, it seems to be directed at you.
  5475. >"Anon. You better be joking. By all that's holy, you had best be joking about that, or so help me, I'll...!"
  5476. >Make that quadruplicate.
  5477.  
  5478. "Yeah, here's the thing..."
  5479. >You stand yourself back up with little trouble.
  5480. "Remember what I said before, about this mystery involving someone you wouldn't like? I wasn't talking about Chrysalis."
  5481. >With a flash of his own viridian magic, he pulls your ass back down by the necktie, ending with you kneeling at his level.
  5482. >"I don't care who you think you are, or if it was some kind of accident! If you hurt even an inch on her--"
  5483. >"We couldn't find her."
  5484. >The distant-sounding, morose interjection by Thorax interrupted the threats coming from Pharynx.
  5485. >Even Chrysalis had stopped.
  5486. >"After the throne exploded, after most other lings transformed, we... we couldn't find her.
  5487. >"She... she couldn't have been dead, you would have kept her too safe for that.
  5488. >"But her presence was gone. Gone at the same time you had made your escape."
  5489. >He breaks his growing thousand-yard stare, to fix Chrysalis with his own angry look.
  5490. >"What did you do, Chrysalis? What did you do to her...?!"
  5491. >"I--"
  5492. >"What. Did. You. Do?!"
  5493. >His outburst wasn't the most extreme you've seen, but you could tell he wasn't the type to get angry very often.
  5494. >And if the stunned look on the others was any indication...
  5495. >Well...
  5496. >Seems you stepped on a few more toes than you expected to.
  5497. >Really should have thought this through...
  5498. >"I..."
  5499. >Chrysalis's voice was cracking up really badly, and she looked like she was on the verge of tears.
  5500. >Her head hung downwards with her next line.
  5501. >"I made a terrible mistake."
  5502. >Pharynx breaking for her was your cue to stand back up, and gather around.
  5503.  
  5504. >"Was this your goal, Anonymous? To break me down even further? Well, you did it. You succeeded. Are you happy?"
  5505. "Not in the slightest."
  5506. >Wow, she was crying over this.
  5507. >But it was the kind of crying where somehow, she talks right through it.
  5508. "I didn't come here to have fun at your expense, unlike a mutual friend of ours I could name."
  5509. >When her head shoots back up to fix you a glare at the mention of Incognito, you saw tear streaks beginning to form.
  5510. "I came here because I read a very special book, one that mentions you, Thorax here, and sports a picture of a changeling I just so happened to beat a few weeks ago."
  5511. >All eyes were on you, but she responded first, before Thorax:
  5512. >"Th-that's impossible...!"
  5513. >"You found one of those...?!"
  5514. "Yeah, 'Lineage'. Translating the Scarabspeak is a special kind of painful, but thanks to that, I know that this fella here isn't the only one on the track to lead the changelings, after you."
  5515. >"Is... I-Is she...?"
  5516. "She's alive, yes."
  5517. >The relief across the board was palpable.
  5518. >"Oh, thank the Foremothers, she's alive!"
  5519. "Now. I want to know everything about this mystery ling of yours. Name, job, birthday, even her favourite food. And don't try and lie to me."
  5520. >"Y-you... don't know her name?"
  5521. "No, I don't. Bug names are--"
  5522. >"Almost impossible to translate, right?"
  5523. >Holy shit, does Pharynx sound depressed.
  5524. >"Pharynx, no! Don't tell him--"
  5525. >"Shut up! First you steal her away from all of us, then she ends up on the side of the biggest evil we've faced in years, under your bucking watch?!"
  5526.  
  5527. >That last line looked like it stabbed her right in the heart.
  5528. >"Oh, you're not just going to tell him about her! You're going to tell us everything you've been doing! What she's been doing! And so help me, if you lie about even one thing--"
  5529. >"I can't say anything! One word about this to... him, and her safety will be in terrible danger!"
  5530. >"Her safety? She winds up on the wrong side of Anon's magic, maybe leading an attack, and you're worried about what that other human's going to do?!"
  5531. >"I... I c-can't..."
  5532. >Pharynx's tone goes several shades more dangerous.
  5533. >"If you won't tell him about her, I will."
  5534. >"Ph-Pharynx, please..."
  5535. >"Have it your way. Anon, she's a pr--"
  5536. >"NO!"
  5537. >That outcry was damn near deafening, and had everyone cringing back.
  5538. >Chrysalis's face was pure devastation.
  5539. >When she spoke next, her tone matched her look, with her head slumping back down.
  5540. >"I... I'll talk."
  5541. >Against your better judgment, you get closer to her, kneeling down to eye level.
  5542. >Christ, you...
  5543. >Kind of feel sorry for her.
  5544. "Who is she, Chrysalis?"
  5545. >It's only after you finish, that you notice how soft that came out.
  5546. >Her head rises back up, just so she can look you in the eye.
  5547. >"Please. He can't know about this. Whatever happens, please, I'm begging you, keep this from him."
  5548. "I wouldn't tell the guy my own birthday. But again, who is she? And what's with the radio silence around her?"
  5549. >She can't keep looking at you, and her head falls back down with a sniffle.
  5550. >"She... She's my daughter. She was my little princess, the one meant to succeed where I failed."
  5551.  
  5552. >Her daughter?
  5553. >Successor?
  5554. >"A-a beautiful little changeling with a sharp mind, and a mile long kind streak, in spite of what I taught her.
  5555. >"Always helping the special drones, always helping the consorts... S-she was so--"
  5556. >"Incredible."
  5557. >You keep looking forward, despite Pharynx's interruption.
  5558. >Her sad tone, his sad tone...
  5559. >There's so much emotion going around here!
  5560. >"Y-yes... An anomaly in the most wonderful sense."
  5561. >"The best princess our hive could have asked for."
  5562. >"I still remember her playing with you and the Fang twins, so long ago..."
  5563. >He tries to respond, but gets all choked up.
  5564. >Oh, Christ...
  5565. >You are not looking forward to breaking the news to them.
  5566. >Still, Chrysalis presses on.
  5567. >"Her name, Anonymous, was Chitter. Little princess Chitter. Lovely purple eyes, with the little curl at the end of her little purple fins..."
  5568. >She can't restrain a sob this time.
  5569. >Chitter, huh?
  5570. >So that's what her real name is.
  5571. >A damn sight better than what she's got now.
  5572. >"W-when I was cast out of the hive, I... I took her with me. She had just started her adolescence, preparing to become a proper queen.
  5573. >"I remember her being so... devastated by what happened. About more than half of her brothers splitting away like that...
  5574. >"Even after I gathered the last loyal lings to me, even though I was still so angry, she was there, hoping we could... r-reunite us all, somehow..."
  5575. >"Sh-she did?"
  5576. >"Yes. After everything that happened, sh-she still..."
  5577. >She has to pause to wipe her eyes.
  5578. >There's a small puddle of tears growing underneath her.
  5579.  
  5580. >You clear your throat.
  5581. "You said... she 'was' your princess? As in, she isn't anymore?"
  5582. >She cringes back.
  5583. >"N-no. Sh-she isn't..."
  5584. "Then, what happened?"
  5585. >When she pulls herself up again to look at you, there's fury burning in her eyes.
  5586. >"Incognito happened."
  5587. >Damn...
  5588. >You were starting to reconsider telling her about what's happened with... Athalia.
  5589. >"I wanted revenge, and I wanted it badly. He came along, with his merry little band of outcast gryphons, rambling on and on about reclaiming their history from ponykind.
  5590. >"I didn't care. I still don't care. All I knew, was that man... No, that... that daemon, wearing a human's skin, welcomed me and my hive into his warband, promising that Celestia's reckoning would come.
  5591. >"With such well-equipped soldiers and raiders, to my band of starving infiltrators? How could I have refused?"
  5592. >Her anger crept further and further into her voice, the more she went on.
  5593. >"He was such a braggart, so overconfident. I thought he would have been easy to manipulate. B-but instead..."
  5594. >She's shaking at this point.
  5595. >"I should have just killed him. Ripped his throat out myself, iron blood be damned! I had so many chances, when he donned that casual wear, just to preach that bizarre scripture to all who listened!"
  5596. >Her brief outburst of pure anger slowly descended back into sadness.
  5597. >"But I didn't. I was so fixated on revenge, on planning, that I didn't notice his own manipulation.
  5598. >"That daemon has many dark gifts. His honeyed tongue was one of them. He brought my own changelings, the only ones I had left, under his sway.
  5599.  
  5600. >"By the time he brought forth that... that terrible device, the thing he uses for dark magic?
  5601. >"He had already convinced them that even such dark craft is allowable against their foes."
  5602. >She sniffles.
  5603. >"My own children, taken in by that mad, power-crazed psychopath. I thought things couldn't have gotten worse."
  5604. >Oh, shit.
  5605. >You don't like where this is going.
  5606. >"But then, he had done the unthinkable. H-he harmed Chitter. He h-harmed her in such a terrible way, I..."
  5607. >Her eyes had shut, trying to get herself back under control.
  5608. >She continues only after her head hangs back down:
  5609. >"He told her the same things he told the others. B-but sharp as she was, she questioned his methods.
  5610. >"But then, he took advantage of her kindness, her willingness to understand.
  5611. >"A-and he--"
  5612. >She chokes back a sob.
  5613. >"H-he taught her a spell. S-something to 'see the veil of the others'..."
  5614. >See the--
  5615. >The veil...?!
  5616. >Ohh, shit!
  5617. "The gateway spell to dark magic...!"
  5618. >Her strangled attempt at a 'yes' was drowned out by the outcries of the two beside you.
  5619. >"Wh-what...?!"
  5620. >"He did WHAT?! No. No, she wouldn't do that! There's no way Chitter would use dark magic, ever!"
  5621. "Except she didn't know it was dark magic."
  5622. >"Wh-what?"
  5623. "'Seeing the veil' is a euphemism for 'seeing the soul'. A detail I'm betting he left out."
  5624. >"S-seeing-- N-no, you don't, you can't mean she--?!"
  5625. "She got tricked into casting the ultimate beginner's trap. And once that happened..."
  5626. >You let that hang for a beat, before turning back to the sobbing queen.
  5627. "She started hearing voices, didn't she, Chrysalis?"
  5628.  
  5629. >"D-do you know what that's like?"
  5630. >She looks at you again.
  5631. >The broken look she's wearing...
  5632. >That's going to haunt you for days.
  5633. >"Do you know what it's like, to hold your own child close, while she's in such terrible pain? To hear her screaming and begging for her mother to make it stop?!
  5634. >"Wh-when she began to vomit black, I couldn't take it anymore! I... I had to do something! I couldn't stand to see her like that anymore! So I--"
  5635. >She can't speak anymore.
  5636. >The sobbing overtook it.
  5637. >Holy shit...
  5638. >Just...
  5639. >What do you even say to that?
  5640. >Nobody speaks for the next few minutes, as she cries her heart out.
  5641. >When the sobbing finally lets up, when she finally speaks again, her voice is exhausted and quiet, but no less sad:
  5642. >"I knew that one way to remove the mental effects of dark magic, was to remove the memories associated with it.
  5643. >"But I went further. I never wanted him to find her again, to repeat what had happened.
  5644. >"So I... I erased her. I took away her memories of who she was. I changed her appearance to that of a normal drone."
  5645. >Not even a gasp from the others.
  5646. >So that's where her amnesia comes from!
  5647. >"My changes aren't permanent. She can regain her appearance when she resumes maturing, and the memories will slowly return, even without my spell to reverse it.
  5648. >"But now, I have nothing. My drones, my daughter, all gone. Taken from me by that monster.
  5649. >"The first chance I had to escape, when he left for Zebrica? I took it. I was supposed to defeat Twilight Sparkle and her friends, and use their love to help reclaim Chitter."
  5650.  
  5651. "But then I showed up."
  5652. >A solemn nod.
  5653. >"Please. I couldn't save her then. But if you truly have her here, th-then..."
  5654. >God damn it.
  5655. "I'm sorry."
  5656. >Telling them this was going to crush them.
  5657. >But they needed to know.
  5658. >You rise back up, and begin to unbutton your shirt, halfway down from the collar.
  5659. "When I said that a group of changelings attacked Ponyville, I lied."
  5660. >Her breath hitches.
  5661. "It was attacked by five monsters, made using runes. And they were controlled by just one changeling."
  5662. >The look in her eye was like a plea.
  5663. >A plea to not be who she thinks it is.
  5664. "This changeling took every one of my friends captive, isolating them away from me, all just to kill me."
  5665. >When you pull aside your shirt, showing the circular scar from the stab wound, you hear a small whine escape from her.
  5666. "She almost succeeded, too."
  5667. >"N-no..."
  5668. "When I came across her, she was a head taller than most of your drones. And she was growing out a mane where that fin would be."
  5669. >"No! No, no, please no!"
  5670. "I'm so sorry. I think he might have figured you out a while back, Chrysalis. I think he knew who she was for a long time."
  5671. >The wail she gave out was going to haunt you for weeks...
  5672. >Pharynx once again interjected:
  5673. >"Where is she, Anon? Where is she being kept?!"
  5674. "I'm not sure. I haven't seen her since the fight, but I know she's still alive."
  5675. >"Th-then you need to find out! We have to see her! We have to help her!"
  5676. >God damn it all.
  5677. "I... I don't think that's a good idea..."
  5678. >"At least let me see her! Please!"
  5679. >Chrysalis had since resumed sobbing.
  5680. <...
  5681.  
  5682. @@@@@@@@
  5683.  
  5684. "Why are you still bothering with me?"
  5685. >The doctor looks up from his work on your leg, a confused look on his face.
  5686. >"Whatever do you mean?"
  5687. "I'm a killer, remember? An enemy of the state?"
  5688. >His souring look doesn't escape your notice.
  5689. "Wouldn't it be easier, and way better for everypony, just to leave me be?"
  5690. >It's not like you'd be wanting for company down here, either.
  5691. >Even if those void spirits left a lot to be desired...
  5692. >His soured look somehow clears up, and he gives his response in that usual tone of his:
  5693. >"I can't in good conscience leave anypony, even one I may not like, in any state of harm."
  5694. "And you expect me to believe that?"
  5695. >"You may believe whatever you like. But whatever you may believe, does not change that I still have a job to do."
  5696. "You're awfully cheery for somepony who's fixing 'one they may not like'. Even if it is your job."
  5697. >With a sigh, he floats away the scissors he's using to cut off the bandaging.
  5698. >"I realize this must be difficult for you to believe, miss Athalia. But not all of us have ulterior motives, coercion, orders, or happenstance of fate driving our actions."
  5699. >If you had eyebrows, one of them would definitely be raised right now.
  5700. >"Sometimes, we do the things we do, simply because we choose to. For example, I could have had any number of other doctors take my place here, and I know none which would be anywhere near as thorough, or gentle, as I am."
  5701. "Can't imagine why."
  5702. >"Helping others has always been my calling. No matter who it is, what they've done, or what they represent, I will always be willing to help them."
  5703.  
  5704. >Okay, he's crazier than you thought.
  5705. "You can't not know how exploitable that is."
  5706. >"I am all too aware. But the alternative, leaving another to suffer, or maybe die? I would never sleep at night again, knowing that I caused that through my own inaction."
  5707. >He pulls free a smaller pair of scissors, as well as a damp sponge.
  5708. >"And besides, you are still my patient."
  5709. >Of course you are.
  5710. "How could I ever forget?"
  5711. >He clips off the remaining bandage--
  5712. >Wait.
  5713. >Why...
  5714. >Why is he chuckling?
  5715. "What's so funny?"
  5716. >"Oh, I'm sorry. Your response, it reminded me of somepony I know."
  5717. >With the bandage gone, he starts wiping the leg with the sponge.
  5718. "Nopony good, I imagine."
  5719. >"Oh, quite the contrary."
  5720. >Oh, please.
  5721. >You're not even going to dignify that with a response.
  5722. >"All right, miss Athalia, your wound has healed completely. I'm happy to say that you seem to have made a full recovery!"
  5723. >What a bunch of idiots.
  5724. >You still don't understand why they'd heal the thing that captured their princesses.
  5725. >"Now, you do your best to stay that way, all right? I'll see you later!"
  5726. >As he makes his way back, you mutter to yourself.
  5727. "That's not up to me."
  5728. >"Are you coming, sir guard?"
  5729. >Oh, right.
  5730. >This stupid guard came along.
  5731. >He's been giving you this sad look this whole time.
  5732. >It's really annoying.
  5733. >So how about some incentive for him to leave?
  5734. >Without warning, you bolt upright, the chains pulling back and keeping you from reaching him.
  5735. "What are you looking at?"
  5736. >Ahh, that did it.
  5737. >Now he runs off with the doctor.
  5738. >About damned time.
  5739.  
  5740. >The door opens slowly, as usual, and the doctor feeds through the small opening.
  5741. >But the guard stops short of it.
  5742. >He turns back to look at you again.
  5743. >The look is much sadder than before.
  5744. >Gah, what's with this stallion?!
  5745. >Is he afte--
  5746. >"What did he do to you...?"
  5747. >The quiet line was barely audible from where you were.
  5748. >It sounded so sad, so defeated.
  5749. >"Sir guard?"
  5750. >The doctor's call finally broke him from his look back, and he hurried through the door.
  5751. >It shuts soon after, as loudly as ever.
  5752. >Finally, alone again!
  5753. >You take a moment to stretch out, the sounds of joints popping ringing out through the cavernous prison.
  5754. >A satisfied groan escapes you all the while.
  5755. >So nice, not having injuries anymore!
  5756. >A small stone bowl sat next to the stake you were chained to, containing a trio of powder-formed love gems.
  5757. >That was actually ingenious of them, making your meals turn to dust as soon as you finished.
  5758. >If nothing else, they took your captivity here very seriously.
  5759. >You go through the gems quickly, and lie back down, looking at a particularly reflective patch of the floor.
  5760. >You look so different than you did before.
  5761. >A fuller, more defined muzzle, with inexplicably shorter fangs.
  5762. >The eggplant-colour mane, now that it was grown out more, actually looked... nice.
  5763. >Despite the unkempt look, it curled naturally at the ends.
  5764. >Your horn was longer, with three kinks.
  5765. >And...
  5766. >Were those eyelashes?
  5767. >They looked really out of place, with the solid blue eyes...
  5768. >Well...
  5769. >You don't know why you're changing so much.
  5770. >But you really like how it looks.
  5771. <...
  5772.  
  5773. >"D-do you speak truly?"
  5774. "Afraid so."
  5775. >Luna slumps back into her seat, a shocked and sad expression on her face.
  5776. >In the other chairs of the war room's big, circular table, was Twilight, Exact, and Razor.
  5777. >Twilight was a quietly sobbing mess, all but hugging a box of tissues.
  5778. >Razor looked equal parts shocked and disgusted.
  5779. >Exact, well...
  5780. >He's still as stone-faced as ever.
  5781. >"I... I never would have imagined that Chrysalis, of all creatures, had such a motivation behind her deplorable actions...!
  5782. >"To think, the being responsible for bringing such suffering, was doing it for her progeny's sake..."
  5783. >"With respect, princess, I think what's more concerning is what that monster-- no, that daemon, did to said progeny."
  5784. >Luna quickly shares Razor's disgusted look.
  5785. >"I must agree. What depths must one sink to, to do something so vile?"
  5786. >"It almost sounded like he was planning on that memory wipe, princess. Maybe he was always planning to brainwash her into doing his bidding?"
  5787. >"A... a disturbing conclusion, to be sure, but one I must agree with. Selecting a changeling to be his executrix, and having it happen to be a princess, is far too significant to pass away as mere coincidence."
  5788. >Exact clears his throat before interjecting himself:
  5789. >"Your majesty, I must also point out the implications of her utilization of dark magic.
  5790. >"Unlike Incognito, who appears resistant, if not immune, to the effects, this Athalia clearly does not share this advantage.
  5791.  
  5792. >"It is very strategically unsound to have such a powerful subordinate hobbled so by the crippling side-effects of the dark arts, however powerful the spells themselves may be."
  5793. >"Indeed. Either this is an oversight on his part, which I find very unlikely, or there is another element at play we have yet to determine."
  5794. >A sniffle from Twilight precedes her own line:
  5795. >"W-why? W-why would he do s-something like this?"
  5796. >"I don't know, princess. I thought his aim was destroying us, but if that were true, he'd have done it a long time ago."
  5797. >"I-It's just... Sh-she didn't sound like a bad pony! A-and now, she's done so many terrible things!
  5798. >"Why? E-even with the memory loss, what turns somepony like that into such a... monster?"
  5799. >You can think of a lot of ways.
  5800. "You might be better off not knowing, Twilight. Like I said, there's no shortage of sick fucks from my neck of the woods."
  5801. >She wipes her eyes off, but doesn't respond past that, only sniffling.
  5802. >Fucking hell...
  5803. >Seems like every time you talk about this kind of stuff, it always ends in her breaking down.
  5804. >At the very least, it wasn't nearly as bad as her state back in Ponyville.
  5805. >But that's not exactly comforting.
  5806. >"I must agree with that sentiment. No doubt there are many unspeakable events in his world's history, that would have been vital inspiration for that madman."
  5807. >Luna blinks, and then gets all... agitated?
  5808. >"I-I mean no offense, of course!"
  5809. "None taken."
  5810. >It's not like you don't disagree with her, but why'd she get all riled up like that?
  5811. >A few knocks on the door draws everyone's attention.
  5812.  
  5813. >Exact wastes no time in jumping down and opening the door.
  5814. >And you really do mean jumping down, like, vaulting over the table.
  5815. >On the other side was...
  5816. >Thorax.
  5817. >Oh, Jesus, he looks...
  5818. >A few steps less sad than Twilight does, minus the tears.
  5819. >And you've got a pretty good idea of why that is.
  5820. >"Sir Thorax, you have returned! What news do you bring?"
  5821. >"What was I looking at...?"
  5822. >Oh, man...
  5823. >His voice is super quiet, and sounds as sad as he looks.
  5824. >His head dips down the whole time he speaks:
  5825. >"It... it was her. But also not her. H-her appearance, scent, everything, all tells me it's her.
  5826. >"But... she was never that cruel. N-never that aggressive. Never that... angry."
  5827. >When his head comes back up, he was wearing small tear streaks of his own.
  5828. >"S-she looks so different, and yet so familiar... B-but she acts just so... so..."
  5829. >He had no choice but to stop, lest he break down completely.
  5830. >Man...
  5831. >You were happy to have beaten that bug into the ground.
  5832. >But now, you felt...
  5833. >God, you don't know what you feel now!
  5834. >Quiet wing flaps were heard, preceding Luna's descent right in front of the poor guy.
  5835. >Moments after she pulled him into a hug, he just quietly let it all out.
  5836. >"I am truly sorry, sir Thorax."
  5837. >Exact, for his part, at least waits a few moments before speaking up next:
  5838. >"I must report this new information to Princess Celestia immediately, before her departure. With your permission, your highness, I would--"
  5839. >"Of course. You are excused, sergeant Measure."
  5840. >A salute is thrown her way, before he runs through the door, down the hallway.
  5841.  
  5842. >Nothing really could be said past that point, so you all decided to go your separate ways after that event.
  5843. >The last thing you saw before leaving with Razor, was Twilight joining Luna in trying to comfort Thorax.
  5844. >The walk back to your room seemed to last such a long time.
  5845. >Once you're in, you head straight for the slipg--
  5846. >"This is so bucked up, Anon."
  5847. >You turn your head back around, looking at the furious expression of Razor.
  5848. >"That damned bug killed all those ponies, and took their souls! I knew most of them too, Anon!
  5849. >"And I was there when she launched that attack on Ponyville, even if I didn't see the ending!
  5850. >"And now it turns out she's the brainwashed puppet of that bucking daemon? What... What the hay am I supposed to think now?!"
  5851. "I've been asking myself that, too."
  5852. >"Is... Sweet merciful goddess, is this what Celestia felt, when the nightmare took over my princess?"
  5853. "I don't know, bud. But I'll tell you what I do know. Royal bug servants or none, nothing's gonna keep me from kicking that shitlizard's teeth in."
  5854. >"On that, I'll agree a hundred percent. And sweet merciful Epona, I'll be praying for that outcome."
  5855. >You get back on track to the slipgate, opening it up to the little guarded 'hub'.
  5856. >"So, listen. Did you get those pieces together for that funny armour vest you wanted?"
  5857. "What, those? Yeah, finished them yesterday."
  5858. >"Good. Our armoursmith's been getting real antsy over putting that weird thing of yours together."
  5859. "That gal gets antsy over everything."
  5860. >"Yeah, but she never had that Rarity breathing down his neck those other times."
  5861.  
  5862. "I didn't exactly plan on her finding out, you know."
  5863. >"Yeah, and I still don't know how word got outside the Night Compound about that project."
  5864. >After the gate to your lab opens, you beeline right for the relevant table.
  5865. "All right, tell you what. Why don't you shuttle the pieces over to her, while I work on an overdue project of mine?"
  5866. >"What's with you, and making me play delivery colt?"
  5867. "Half enjoying your misery, half extremely dangerous project that you ought to avoid completely."
  5868. >"I'm not liking the 'extremely dangerous' part."
  5869. "I'd hope not, considering how familiar you are with it."
  5870. >"Wait, how would I--"
  5871. >And it just clicks for him what you mean by that.
  5872. >"OH."
  5873. "Yeah, 'oh'."
  5874. >He can't help but cringe back at the memory of the magnetism.
  5875. >"All right, I see your point. I'll warn the others off visiting while I'm out."
  5876. "Appreciate it, pal."
  5877. >You turn your attention to the table of the minute, quickly looking over the currently inactive thaumium plate segments.
  5878. >Let's see here...
  5879. >Yeah, that all looks good to you.
  5880. >Properly stitched to the cloth holder, clean rivet holes, and still properly glyphed, like you expected,.
  5881. >You fold the bare half of the cloth over the plates, and roll the thing up, tying it off and tossing it to Razor.
  5882. >"Good luck, buddy."
  5883. "Thanks, man."
  5884. >A quick salute, and he runs off with the plates to your brigandine.
  5885. >The guard here sure love their full plate, but even with some tricks on their armourer's part, it wasn't nearly light or manoeuvrable enough for your 'DEX faggot' emphasis.
  5886. >Luckily, Earth designs saved the day again.
  5887.  
  5888. >You still don't know how Rarity found out about your plan to make the granddaddy of bulletproof vests, with extra magic.
  5889. >But somehow she did, and insisted on doing the outer layer's design.
  5890. >And here you were happy to just have the plates showing off.
  5891. >Oh, well.
  5892. >Arguing with her over clothes was almost universally a lost battle before it even began.
  5893. >You'll let her have her fun.
  5894. >Who knows, it'll probably look pretty nice!
  5895. >You take the small hand-cart full of your magnetism items, and head over to the far further-away, new and improved magnetism lab area.
  5896. >New and improved in the sense of being about all things electricity, not just for magnets.
  5897. >Not that you've gotten to that former part very much, of course.
  5898. >So much damn time sunk into your other, more magical projects.
  5899. >You still need to test-fire that bow...
  5900. >Later.
  5901. >Tomorrow, for sure.
  5902. >Maybe your new threads will be done by then, too!
  5903. >God, and those new constructs!
  5904. >The boots and shin guards, you're really keen on testing out!
  5905. >Hold all those thoughts, you're here.
  5906. >Man, even with a quick floor paving job, it's a long-ass way to go.
  5907. >Mr. hand-cart here isn't helping.
  5908. >Fucking heavy metals.
  5909. >Regardless, you open the doorway, revealing the totally overkill Faraday cage design of this new, circular area.
  5910. >Tightly packed aluminum mesh was inside all of the walls, floor, ceiling, and even the door, to ground away most of the EM interference from here.
  5911. >You would've preferred copper, but the castle folks couldn't source that much, that fast.
  5912. >The room otherwise had a real 'bomb shelter' look going on.
  5913.  
  5914. >The quiet thrum of the crude generator provided a nice bit of background noise, thankfully not too overpowering.
  5915. >You had the idea to make a magically-driven motor, with some aid from Sunburst, and do some gearbox-coupling nonsense to still magnetically shield the room off, but have a constant, Real™ Free Energy℠ spinning rod inside.
  5916. >Perfect for driving a little makeshift generator.
  5917. >In this case, an alternator.
  5918. >[spoiler]friendship ended with edison[/spoiler]
  5919. >[spoiler]now westinghouse is my best friend[/spoiler]
  5920. >You still have no fucking clue how Sunburst made a functioning light bulb with your vague description of 'wolfram filament in glass tube filled with noble gas', but somehow he pulled through.
  5921. >The warm glow of the light it gave off, was...
  5922. >Well, it was more nostalgic than you'd care to admit.
  5923. >But you didn't come here to reminisce about Earth.
  5924. >You wheel the cart over to the large workbench, and set yourself to work.
  5925. >Pissant vinegar batteries weren't cutting it anymore, so you need to upgrade.
  5926. >Lead-acid seems like the next best solution.
  5927. >Of course, your old experiments didn't turn out so well.
  5928. >Turns out it's not quite as easy as dipping lead plates into sulphuric acid.
  5929. >So you've got a whole shitterie of different things to pick from here.
  5930. >Lead plates in all kinds of flavours: lead sulphate, lead chloride, lead dioxide, plain lead, all of it.
  5931. >Sulphuric acids of all kinds of concentrations.
  5932. >And of course, gloves, goggles, and a breath mask.
  5933. >After making sure the bench was clear, you pull the safety kit on.
  5934. >Now, let's get to work.
  5935. <...
  5936.  
  5937. >Finally!
  5938. >God damn, that took longer than you wanted!
  5939. >But you've finally got the electrochemical bullshit right for this!
  5940. >Your very crude cell was now fully armed and operational, and even by itself, was doing one hell of a job of magnetizing this little iron rod you had.
  5941. >Not gonna lie, the initial spark made you jump.
  5942. >And the thin wire did kind of melt when you first tried this.
  5943. >Tripling it up seemed to work, though it was a touch warm.
  5944. >Man, what's the fucking area on this thing, now?
  5945. >It's got to be covering at least six times the distance of your old vinegar magnet!
  5946. >This definitely calls for further testing.
  5947. >But holy hot damn, have you spent enough time on this!
  5948. >If you start getting light-headed over acid fumes one more time, you might just have to choke a bitch.
  5949. >So after clearing the area and dismantling the experiments, you collect your notes together, and make like a tree.
  5950. >Man, how are you gonna charge these things?
  5951. >Guess you'll have to repent to Edison after all, huh?
  5952. >Or fuck, maybe just get the chemistry right the first time, and just make them disposable.
  5953. >All right, let's put these notes away on your shelf, and--
  5954. >Jesus Christ, it's eight at night already?!
  5955. >All right, change of plans.
  5956. >Quick bite, grab a book, and head to sleep.
  5957. >So back through the slipgate you go, retreating to your castle suite.
  5958. >Man, when was the last time you used your house's bed?
  5959. >In fact, was the damage ever fixed?
  5960. >Oh fuck it, not important right now.
  5961. >Since you've missed the communal royalty dining, guess you'll order in.
  5962. >Man, room service is the tits.
  5963.  
  5964. >After you flag down a staff pony to get some stuff sent up, you pore through your book collection back at the lab.
  5965. >Been meaning to get through the other bits of the haul.
  5966. >Hm...
  5967. >Wait, this one here.
  5968. >The red-spined book, in zebra language.
  5969. >Wasn't this part of your initial haul, when you first found the Lexica?
  5970. >Yeah, this and that green-spined one, too!
  5971. >God, you'd forgotten about them completely!
  5972. >Those two are pulled down right away, along with your notes on zebra language.
  5973. >Still a little fuzzy on it, and all.
  5974. >Okay...
  5975. >The green book had all kinds of classical-styled plants drawn on the covers.
  5976. >And it was 'Occult Alchemy', by some guy called Strong Tonic.
  5977. >Huh.
  5978. >For some reason, you expected worse.
  5979. >You don't see yourself having the time or energy to get into alchemy, but hey.
  5980. >Maybe it'll have an answer to your 'why does alchemy work on you' question?
  5981. >It's worth a skim, you'd say.
  5982. >Okay, what about this other one?
  5983. >This one was solid crimson-red on the covers, with totally-not-foreboding skulls of all races drawn on the top and bottom borders of both sides.
  5984. >They were actually done really small, so as to not grab attention from the title.
  5985. >Which was 'Crimson Incantations: A Complete Guide on Dark Magic'.
  5986. >Tha--
  5987. >What.
  5988. >Excuse me?
  5989. >You...
  5990. >Oh, dear God in heaven.
  5991. >You had a fucking dark magic book, this whole time?!
  5992. >How in the fuck did--?!
  5993. >You know, you'd think you'd remember having something like this!
  5994. >Fuuuucking hell!
  5995. >Who wrote this monument to edge, anyways?
  5996. >'Elder Zharrdan'?
  5997. >Wait.
  5998. >That name, it's from...
  5999. >Oh.
  6000. >From that.
  6001. >Fuuuuck.
  6002.  
  6003. @@@@@@@@
  6004.  
  6005. >Okay, well hold on a tick.
  6006. >Let's not get too hasty here, shall we?
  6007. >Maybe this isn't as bad as you think it is?
  6008. >I mean, this nigga was supposedly their 'defence against the dark arts' guy, right?
  6009. >Yeah, you know what, let's just give the preface a once-over.
  6010. >So open it goes.
  6011. >It's weird, having a magic book that isn't sentient.
  6012. >You were half expecting it to demand a blood sacrifice before letting you read it.
  6013. >But here you are, with a plain-as-day title page.
  6014. >Wait, hold up.
  6015. >'Compiled and edited by Lord-Ascendant Slaerin', and 'Translated by High Warlock Zabraxas, of clan Bloedige Plaag'?
  6016. >Are edgy names going to be a running theme here?
  6017. >You turn the page, and are greeted with a wall of text in the form of the preface:
  6018. >"We have been abandoned.
  6019. >"In spite of our gains, in spite of our victories, our society, our brotherhood, has been broken.
  6020. >"Our elder, my master, destroyed.
  6021. >"The dark sage himself, his life stricken away by the stubborn short-sightedness of those cursed fools.
  6022. >"They retain control of this world, however bloodied, broken, and sinful they may now be.
  6023. >"They believe us to be defeated, and that the dark sage's apprentice is no longer among the living.
  6024. >"They are gravely mistaken.
  6025. >"As I pen this tome in honour of my fallen master, I have already begun to transcend the bounds of this mortal coil.
  6026. >"But I have no intention of leaving this world for the next, without leaving behind the methods and testament of our society.
  6027. >"And know this, you who now reads this final culmination of my work.
  6028.  
  6029. >"You hold within your grasp, all that remains of the once great Cult of the Crimson Penumbra.
  6030. >"Transcending our races, politics, and moralities, we were once the absolute authority on the dark.
  6031. >"But while the light drowned out our shadow, all it takes is but a seed of the dark, inoculated with the knowledge of the past, to rise once more against it.
  6032. >"This tome is that seed.
  6033. >"This is all that remains, but all that is necessary.
  6034. >"For from this mere seed, shall grow forth great power, and great knowledge, all within your grasp.
  6035. >"The petulant, feckless hypocrites that dance within their precious light will tremble before you.
  6036. >"Their promises of compassion, of friendship, will be forevermore shown for the hollow facade they truly are.
  6037. >"Come, o' reader!
  6038. >"Fear not the embrace of power, fear not the touch of the void!
  6039. >"For only through the deepest darkness, will you see the truth of our world!
  6040. >"Only through the passages of power, of knowledge, of history, detailed within these pages, will you know the truth!
  6041. >"The truth of your potential, the truth of the rot within the world, shall be laid bare to you!
  6042. >"The unfathomably arrogant 'gods' of the mortal world shall tremble before your might!
  6043. >"You will possess knowledge far beyond that of their wisest subordinates!
  6044. >"And if you persist, you shall receive the ultimate reward for your dutiful application of this curiosa's contents: transcendence itself!
  6045. >"The 'gods' themselves will fear your name, as you drink deeply of power they could never imagine within their wildest nightmares!"
  6046.  
  6047. >Aaaaand stopped reading right there.
  6048. >Before the book becomes a being of pure nippon steel, you close it up and shelve it away again.
  6049. >Well.
  6050. >Fuck you, right?
  6051. >Why did you expect anything different?
  6052. >Shit, that fucking preface had everything!
  6053. >Edgy author names, MySpace-meets-Tumblr levels of critical-mass edge, and what probably amounts to an enormous fucking spoiler for War of the Ancients.
  6054. >Fuck, it's like you stumbled on Nito's blog, or something!
  6055. >Wait.
  6056. >The mannerisms were...
  6057. >Okay, no idea if you're just reaching here, but it read really similar to how he spoke!
  6058. >Could this be one of the things he read?
  6059. >Fuck, if he's that knowledgeable about dark magic, he must have read something like this before!
  6060. >But...
  6061. >While getting a leg up on him by reading up on his methods sounds super appealing...
  6062. >You couldn't exactly be open about it, for absolute sure.
  6063. >And you still don't know to what extent you're resistant to dark magic.
  6064. >The last thing you need right now, are those kinds of side-effects.
  6065. >God, how did Starlight live with that for so long?
  6066. >Okay, uh...
  6067. >How about you just stick to what you're good at?
  6068. >Let's not overreach too goddamn much here.
  6069. >With that in mind, you grab hold of your trusty Lexica, retreat from the lab, and head back into your castle room.
  6070. >You needed to read up more on those legendary foci, anyways.
  6071. >That 'Riafalt' focus looked pretty interesting...
  6072. >Oh, and would you look at that!
  6073. >It's your room service pony, dropping off your--
  6074. >She's shimmering.
  6075. >She's shimmering just like changelings do.
  6076.  
  6077. >Instincts and training tell you to break for the wand under your pillow, and skewer the bug with a Bluebaide bolt.
  6078. >But that gets displaced by another dumb idea.
  6079. >"Your meal, sir Anonymous. The gryphon dignitary special, like you requested. Tatzlwurm tenderloin steaks, served with garlic potato wedges."
  6080. >god that sounds so fucking good
  6081. >No, no.
  6082. >Stay on target.
  6083. "Thanks a bunch, ma'am."
  6084. >'She' bows and makes to leave, like most service ponies do.
  6085. "Although..."
  6086. >Ah, that gets 'her' to freeze.
  6087. "I've got to ask. Do you know the chef who makes this stuff?"
  6088. >You walk over to your bed while you say this, putting your book on the nightstand.
  6089. >"N-no, sir, I'm afraid I don't."
  6090. "Ah, nuts. I was sorta kinda hoping to get a direct line to him. Figured it'd be a lot better for my complements to the guy."
  6091. >Your hand slips under the pillow, grasping the wand.
  6092. >"Well, I could certainly pass your complements along to the castle cooking staff."
  6093. "That'd be swell. Say, do you know if they make any skewers down there?"
  6094. >"Wh-what? I'm certain they do, but..."
  6095. "Oh, I'm just messing around. I just had skewers on the mind, is all. Incidentally..."
  6096. >As smooth and as cool as a 00-agent cucumber, you turn to 'her' with wand in hand.
  6097. >'She' jumps really badly when the blade ignites to life.
  6098. "Drop the fucking disguise, before I skewer your cockroach-looking ass."
  6099. >Alas, not everything can be 00-agent smooth.
  6100. >'Her' jaw opens and closes several times, trying to make noises.
  6101. >Then, 'she'...
  6102. >Wait, why's the thing smiling?
  6103. >"Hoooly tapdancing Foremothers, that's..."
  6104.  
  6105. >The disguise drops, revealing--
  6106. >Huowhaaaat?
  6107. >Of all bugs you expected to be creeping around you in disguise, Pharynx was not one of them!
  6108. >"That's the coolest way I've ever had my disguise blown!"
  6109. "Pharynx?!"
  6110. >He isn't shimmering now, so that's definitely him!
  6111. "What the everloving fuck, man?!"
  6112. >His expression just 180'd into fear.
  6113. >"U-uh..."
  6114. "I was this fucking close to murdering your ass!"
  6115. >"I, uh..."
  6116. "And just what in the fuck are you doing, subbing out my goddamn room service?"
  6117. >He tries to mouth something for a few moments.
  6118. >It gives your anger a moment to drop a few degrees until he speaks again, this time looking a lot sadder.
  6119. >"O-okay, look. I know this doesn't exactly look good. And to be honest, it really isn't all that good, either."
  6120. >The magic lightsaber gets de-powered, and you make for one of the coffee table couches.
  6121. "Sit down."
  6122. >After that little stunt, you're not really in the mood to fuck around.
  6123. >But sit down he does, without any complaints.
  6124. >"Okay, look. I... I wanted to see for myself, what you were up to. What you're capable of."
  6125. "By stalking me?"
  6126. >"I, uh... I guess when you put it that way, it... No, you know what, yeah, that's pretty much what it was."
  6127. "I'm guessing you're about to tell me why that is?"
  6128. >"Yeah. Look, I... kind of had my doubts about you. I didn't know for sure if you really were the one to kick the tar out of Chrysalis."
  6129. "And... why not?"
  6130. >"Look, no offense to the ponies or anything, but they love to exaggerate in their stories. Herd mentality, and all that."
  6131. >Well, that's not racist at all.
  6132.  
  6133. >"I've done my share of scout and collection duty for Chrysalis before. Ponies, gryphons, minotaurs, all kinds of races. I know what they're like, and what they're capable of.
  6134. >"Now, 'alien magic resisting monkeys' isn't one of those races. I don't know what you're capable of, or how motivated you are, or anything."
  6135. "Well, that's not creepy at all."
  6136. >"We get that a lot. The thing is, though, that we've always been a super careful race. We get really on edge if we don't know what we're dealing with.
  6137. >"Of course, it doesn't help when most of your hivemates suddenly drop all of that..."
  6138. >He clears his throat to get off that little tangent.
  6139. >"Look, the point is, I heard all kinds of things about you from the guards, and I didn't believe it was true. So I decided to do some digging."
  6140. "You could've just said that to begin with."
  6141. >That 'mouth open with no words' response rings of a solid 'got eem'.
  6142. "So if you wouldn't mind, I'd like it if you could get to the point on this: why didn't you trust them? And why the sudden interest in what I do?"
  6143. >He really deflates at that last question.
  6144. >"W-well, uh... Okay, look, I don't trust them, because I don't trust anything outside the hive."
  6145. >We-hell, that's an eyebrow-quirker and a half.
  6146. >"It's not that I don't want to, it's that I can't. I've got to be aware of any threats to us.
  6147. >"And when most of your hivemates get really chummy and trusting all of a sudden, well... that really complicates my job."
  6148. "Well, fair enough, I guess. So is that why you're going all Metal Gear Solid on my ass?"
  6149.  
  6150. >Even if he doesn't get what you're referring to, he gets the gist of it well enough.
  6151. >"K-kind of. You're... not like the ponies. Or minotaurs. Or heck, most other races! You saw through my disguise, and kept me here and distracted long enough to get your weapon ready!
  6152. >"You're not nearly as trusting as the others! And you're not afraid to act on that mistrust! Do you know how rare that is?"
  6153. "I prefer to think of it as an acquired skill."
  6154. >"Sure, but it also makes you dangerous! Not just towards the ones who threaten you, but those who threaten your circle!"
  6155. "Uh, thanks...? Is there a point here, though?"
  6156. >Looks like this is the touchy part of the subject, if his further deflation is anything to go by.
  6157. >"Y-yeah. Th-the point is, that... th-there's someling threatening your circle right now. A-and this ling happens to be in, well, mine..."
  6158. >Oh.
  6159. >He's talking about Athalia.
  6160. >Now things make a lot more sense.
  6161. "Listen. I don't know what your history with her is, but she--"
  6162. >"Attacked you, and your friends. Your circle. I know, I get it. If I were in your spot, I'd be out for blood, too."
  6163. >He shifts around a bit, 'ears' pinned right back.
  6164. >"But she's... she's still family. She's still so... important."
  6165. "She also sounds like a totally different bug than you remember."
  6166. >"I know. Thorax went to see her."
  6167. "He did?"
  6168. >"He wasn't as... close to her as I was. So he went instead. Saying that he'd gauge how different she was, first.
  6169. >"When he came back, I... I've never seen him that sad before. He kept saying how she was so different..."
  6170.  
  6171. >He looks really depressed by that.
  6172. >"E-everyling knew Chitter, back at the hive. She went out of her way to visit most of us, no matter the role.
  6173. >"But she was the closest to the... consorts. Her, the Fang twins, and me."
  6174. "Consorts?"
  6175. >"Specially bred changelings. Very powerful, made to serve the royalty directly. We're the only ones besides them, allowed to have personalities. Before, well, the dethroning.
  6176. >"I remember her treating us all like family. Even into her first changes to becoming a queen, she still treated us that way.
  6177. >"She... S-she's like a sibling to me, Anon. I'd do anything to keep her safe. To... to bring her back to normal..."
  6178. >His voice remained steady, despite the sadness in it.
  6179. "I get the connection you had, really, I do. But if you're asking if I regret doing what I did, then--"
  6180. >"I'm not asking that. You did what you had to. It'll be tough, but with her safely here, I'm sure we can bring her back around."
  6181. "I hope you're right about that."
  6182. >"I know I'm right about that. But to answer your question, I... I'm gauging how dangerous you really are."
  6183. >And now he flips to pissed.
  6184. >"That other human, Incognito. Did he really do all those horrible things? Defeat the princesses? Capture Discord?"
  6185. >His teeth grit.
  6186. >"Hurt Chitter...?"
  6187. >So, this is personal for him too, huh?
  6188. "He sure did. I can't speak to the last one, but I wouldn't put it past the fucker."
  6189. >"Then he's as dangerous and as evil as I thought. I want to know if you're more dangerous than he is, Anon.
  6190. >"I want to know if you have what it takes to kill him."
  6191.  
  6192. >Well, damn.
  6193. >Every pony you've talked to about this, have all wanted his ass kicked.
  6194. >Shit, nobody wants his ass kicked more than you do!
  6195. >But this Pharynx guy is the first to jump right to wanting him dead!
  6196. "You really hate the guy, huh?"
  6197. >"I do. But I've always been like this. I've always... ended the problems permanently. Even Venomfang abstains from killing.
  6198. >"But even if I wasn't the assassin of the old hive? I'd still want him dead. As it stands, I want worse than death for him.
  6199. >"I want him to suffer an hour, for every second he put Chitter through living Tartarus.
  6200. >"I want him to have everyhuman he loves gathered together, and then slain. And then have them brought back to life, and slain again. One cycle of that, for every minute she spent as his pawn.
  6201. >"And I want to see him thrown into a pit of crazed daemons, and torn apart for eternity, for making her use dark magic."
  6202. >Holy fucking shit.
  6203. >Not what you expected to hear!
  6204. >And you sure as shit didn't expect to hear it from a 'reformed' bug, saying it all as calmly as a chat about the weather!
  6205. >Anger notwithstanding!
  6206. >"In short, I want to help in any way I can, Anon."
  6207. "Christ, glad you're on our side."
  6208. >He gives you a coy smile.
  6209. >"And I'm glad you're on ours, too."
  6210. "Well, uh... As long as you keep the spying-on-friends thing to a minimum, as well as the whole 'bathing in the blood of your enemies' thing pointed squarely at the other guy, I'm not gonna turn down the offer."
  6211. >"Thanks, Anon. But don't worry about me. He should be the one worrying."
  6212. >Uh, yeah, did you need to sleep that badly?
  6213. <...
  6214.  
  6215. >THWANG
  6216. >thunk
  6217. >Ohh...
  6218. >THWANG
  6219. >thunk
  6220. >O-ohh...
  6221. >THWANG
  6222. >thunk
  6223. >I-it's...
  6224. >THWANG
  6225. >thunk
  6226. >Fucking beautiful!
  6227. >Who cares if you're out of arrows now?
  6228. >Holy fuck, this thing turned out way better than you expected!
  6229. >And it's fucking splendiferous!
  6230. >It helps that it's a real head-turner with the other Night Guards, too!
  6231. >That little target at the end just witnessed the firepower of this fully armed and operational bow!
  6232. >A specially made composite recurve bow.
  6233. >With all the high-end options.
  6234. >Animus-infused wooden limbs.
  6235. >Similarly infused hemp string.
  6236. >And the piece-de-resistance, the all-thaumium center piece.
  6237. >It wouldn't be an Anon project, without some thaumic extras in your prospective weapon of choice!
  6238. >But God, even without the magic part enabled...
  6239. >So.
  6240. >Fucking.
  6241. >Good!
  6242. >Only minimal adjustment of your little glass-window rangefinder sight was needed.
  6243. >SVD-style, of course.
  6244. >Even less was needed for the actual firing!
  6245. >Just, holy shit!
  6246. >There's barely anything to troubleshoot here!
  6247. >The fundamentals just came together, like it's nobody's business!
  6248. >"We-he-hell, holy horseshit! Those Earth fighters sure had some kooky designs, didn't they?"
  6249. "It works, doesn't it?"
  6250. >"It does a little more than work! That thing's punching like a crossbow!"
  6251. >To be honest, you were kind of worried about the draw weight, when you were designing this thing.
  6252. >It was the only thing keeping you from getting together with Sunburst to create a full-on compound bow.
  6253. >But after all this training?
  6254. >It didn't even feel that bad!
  6255. "It sure is. And it's the greatest damn thing ever."
  6256.  
  6257. >Another voice of the familiar variety pipes up, leading with a chuckle as it also floats your arrows out of the target.
  6258. >"It's a highly effective design, to be sure. Given the size difference between minotaur bows, and the design enhancements you've provided, it has very respectable stopping power."
  6259. >You weren't sure what to expect, letting Pharynx tag along for the show, too.
  6260. >Well, okay, it's been sort of what you expected so far.
  6261. >Commentary on your accuracy, and apparently now the force behind the shots.
  6262. >High focus on killing potential.
  6263. >"I'll say! I've seen their shooters in action before, and that's one heck of a good contender!"
  6264. >"Just imagine what they'd be capable of, if they employed that design in the full size version..."
  6265. >"Geez, that'd be like a bucking bull-portable ballista!"
  6266. >"It would, wouldn't it...?"
  6267. "Hold onto your nuts back there, because you might just see some of that up next."
  6268. >While the testing arrows are floated back into that trusty quiver of yours, you head over to a nearby table, holding a small roll-out bag.
  6269. >Within it was an older wand of yours, but more importantly, a small selection of foci.
  6270. >Again forgetting you don't have TK gloves on, you pick the TK focus up, and attach it to the mounting point, right above the back of the handhold.
  6271. >It sparks in that usual 'not-used-in-a-while' way.
  6272. >More importantly, the arrow rest and the string at the nocking point begin to glow.
  6273. >"Don't tell me that thing's got more tricks?"
  6274. "No tricks here, Razor. Only features. You might even say, killer features."
  6275.  
  6276. >Oh look, your crowd of onlooking bat-guards is waiting with bated breath.
  6277. >Let's not keep them waiting, eh?
  6278. >Heading back into position, you nock a shot.
  6279. >Right away, the arrow sparks upon hitting the resting point, and the glow intensifies as you pull the string back, visible magic current coursing through the string and into the arrow, making it glow as well.
  6280. >And if you did this right...
  6281. >THWAN-CRACK
  6282. >Oh...
  6283. >O-oh my fucking God...
  6284. >I-it...
  6285. >That shot just broke the fucking sound barrier.
  6286. >A-and flew right through the target, burying itself into the stone wall a good inch or two!
  6287. >Silence surrounds you, as all onlookers currently have their jaws hitting the floor.
  6288. >God...
  6289. >You can't resist.
  6290. >You start laughing like a fucking madman.
  6291. >"I-Incredible...! Magically infused shots, with variable effects? I never would've thought of that!"
  6292. >Yes!
  6293. >Fuck yes!
  6294. >Oh Lord almighty, you need more!
  6295. >You'd built a little wand functionality into the handle, enough to channel the foci's spells.
  6296. >Which you use to pull over a wind focus.
  6297. >After swapping them, you pull back another shot.
  6298. >THWAN-WHOOSH
  6299. >Oh...
  6300. >Ohh sweet baby Jesus...
  6301. >The sound barrier didn't break this time.
  6302. >But instead?
  6303. >An envelope of air, pointed at the front and expanding to the back, cloaked the arrow.
  6304. >And it just left a head-sized hole in the target, from where it scythed through.
  6305. >No.
  6306. >No, you know what?
  6307. >Fuck it.
  6308. >You're going all-in with the madman laugh.
  6309. >Because you feel evil, in the best sense of the word.
  6310. >And you don't even fucking care who knows it anymore.
  6311.  
  6312. @@@@@@@@
  6313.  
  6314. >All right, madman moment over.
  6315. >You need a minute.
  6316. >You can't handle that much hot goodness in one sitting.
  6317. >Speaking of sitting, let's just... take a seat, right over there.
  6318. >Yeah.
  6319. >Hoy boy, you're the boy!
  6320. >Packing many pounds of magical joy!
  6321. >God, what do the other foci do to the arrows?
  6322. >Can you make the arrows more enchantable on purpose?
  6323. >And if TK can do that to arrows, then holy shit!
  6324. >You need some new ones made up, pronto!
  6325. >Something bodkin-headed!
  6326. >Something to punch armour!
  6327. >Something to turn that plate of his into--
  6328. >tap tap
  6329. >"Uh, Anon? You all right there, pal?"
  6330. >Huh, why does Razor look so worried?
  6331. "Damn right, I'm all right! Shit, I haven't been this good in a while!"
  6332. >"Never would've guessed."
  6333. >"I don't think there's much cause for concern, Mr. Wind. He just created a weapon that may well be capable of taking on that other human. I think he deserves a little bit of... elation."
  6334. >"Not disagreeing with you there, but the whole 'evil laugh' thing just kind of... well, you know what I mean, right?"
  6335. >"Oh, I've lived around that for a long time. You get pretty good at telling the difference between the laughs."
  6336. >"So, that wasn't 'planning to take over the world' laughing?"
  6337. >"No, just 'so much power within my reach' laughing."
  6338. "You know I'm still here, right?"
  6339. >You sit up and give yourself a little stretch.
  6340. >"Well, excuse me for being worried."
  6341. "Ah, don't sweat it, pal. Pharynx is right. Just... I've been working on this for over a week, and seeing it work that well on the first try is pretty fucking great."
  6342.  
  6343. >"Fair enough, I guess. As long as you don't start actually planning to take over the world, you know?"
  6344. "If that ever happens, go for the back of the head, will ya?"
  6345. >He snorts and rolls his eyes, in the amused configuration.
  6346. >"I, for one, am quite thoroughly impressed, Anon. Though the effectiveness of that weapon would be vastly improved with a better selection of arrows."
  6347. "Way ahead of you on that one."
  6348. >"I'd expect nothing less."
  6349. >While you roll your eyes as his jovial Agent 47 impression, you return the foci to the roller pouch.
  6350. >All you had left was ice, but you wanted to get some other arrow types they have on-hand to test further with.
  6351. >They seemed to work well with these basic all-wood ones, but how well would they work with metal heads?
  6352. >Hm...
  6353. >How would the arrow-enchanting work with iron heads?
  6354. >You imagine not too well, but what about the shaft?
  6355. >Would that still get boosted?
  6356. >God, so much testing to do!
  6357. >Let's just get those arrow requests in first, shall we?
  6358. >Grab a few extra foci while you're at it?
  6359. >Then you can test to your heart's content!
  6360. "Hey Razor, is the smith still in?"
  6361. >"I don't think that bat's ever out. Why?"
  6362. "Need to make a few more... requests."
  6363. >"Oh good, like your little armour vest wasn't enough to get her excited."
  6364. "Hey, all she usually does is make swords and armour for you guys."
  6365. >"This is true."
  6366. "So let's give her something else to be excited about, shall we?"
  6367. >"Do I have to?"
  6368. "Less bitchy, more walky."
  6369. >Don't know why he's all sphincter-clenchy around the smithing mare.
  6370. >She's a pretty cool gal.
  6371.  
  6372. >Bow in hand, you walk over towards the smithing part of the compound.
  6373. >Apparently, all the different guard branches had self-contained complexes like this in the castle!
  6374. >The regular guards and troops effectively had the whole damn castle, but the Night Guard and Sol Invictus, in particular, had these special complexes all to themselves.
  6375. >Separate beds, mess halls, equipment, smiths, even diet!
  6376. >Of course, nobody knew anything about the Invictus compound.
  6377. >But apparently, nobody looked into the Night Guard compound much, either.
  6378. >But here you are.
  6379. >And you've gotta say, it's a pretty balling place.
  6380. >Up ahead, you can hear arguing going on:
  6381. >"--rling, certainly you could incorporate a little bit of this fabric into the next iteration?"
  6382. >"Ah told ya a thoousand times alreadie, lass! The damned stuff is a fyre hazahrd, waitin tew happen!"
  6383. >"But that's what the staining is for!"
  6384. >"And how dew ya intend to maek thaht work in such huge volumes, lass? And that isn't even countin tha snaggin and trippin hazahrd!"
  6385. "You two ladies at it again?"
  6386. >And you come across the same sight from before.
  6387. >Rarity, trying her damnedest to bring some flair to the Night Guard ensemble.
  6388. >And the resident smithy, Crescent Hammer, another grey-coated, blue-maned bat-horse, with an anvil mark.
  6389. >And honest to God, she sounds like fucking she-Griswold.
  6390. >Needless to say, you liked her already.
  6391. >"Ah'm no ladeh, Ahnon!"
  6392. "Nice to see you too, Crescent."
  6393. >"Lahkwise! And what's that weapon ya got there, laddie?"
  6394. "The best thing since avelyns shooting exploding bolts. I'll show ya' sometime."
  6395.  
  6396. >"Ach, that thing's got some real powah comin off'a it! Leht me guess, ya need somethin better fer it to shoot?"
  6397. "You read my mind, girl."
  6398. >"One'a me many tahlents! Now, what'll ya need?"
  6399. >Procuring some paper from her filthy-as-fuck worktable, you draw out the general shape of what you'll need.
  6400. >Some bodkin and broadhead arrows, with some specific material needs.
  6401. >Just some small test batches for now.
  6402. >When you bring the list over to Crescent, she seems pretty... okay with it, until the end.
  6403. >"Ach, Ah'm not sure Ah can make those heads in eyron, laddie."
  6404. "Huh? Why not?"
  6405. >"Behsides it bein a right pain to source and forge? It ain't that great as a weapon mehtal, 'specially naht at tha speeds ah bow shoots at!"
  6406. "Are... are you sure about that?"
  6407. >"Oh, positive. Eyron's real soft stuff without additives, and nopony Ah know of, naht even tha artisans, have the kinda kit needed tew add stuff to it, naht with how hot ya need ta get it! Nehvahmind that ya cahn't use mahgic tew help!"
  6408. >Wait.
  6409. >You figured it'd be a lot more... tough than that.
  6410. >So, does that mean...?
  6411. "Say, while we're on the subject, if I, hypothetically speaking, wanted an armour suit made out of the stuff, how good would it actually be?"
  6412. >She actually laughs a little.
  6413. >"Oh, as ah showpiece, it'd be buckin' fahntastic! Ahnd ye'd get tha best damned mahgic resistance ahround! But as strictly armour goes? Utter shite, lad."
  6414. >Huh.
  6415. >No kidding...?
  6416. >And...
  6417. >He never took a hit during that fight.
  6418. >Heh...
  6419. >You know what?
  6420. >All of a sudden, you're feeling a lot better about this match-up.
  6421.  
  6422. "So, what do you think I'd need to punch through something like that?"
  6423. >"Hah, iff'n ya shoot close enough, just aboot anythin' with ah good mehtal head will do tha job! Though Ah'd stick to ah'r usual armour-piercin' bolt mehtal.
  6424. >"Ah'll set ya up with some'a it for that lil' test batch ye'll be wahntin!"
  6425. "That sounds awesome."
  6426. >"Ach, that isn't the awesome pahrt, lad!"
  6427. >Crescent gestures over to Rarity, who takes that moment to speak up.
  6428. >"You had such a peculiar design for that vest, Anon! I simply couldn't pass up an opportunity to make it absolutely dashing!"
  6429. "I kinda want to know how you found out about that."
  6430. >"A lady never reveals her secrets, Anon~!"
  6431. >Alright, be coy.
  6432. >Wait a tick.
  6433. >Your vest?
  6434. >Is it actually...?
  6435. >With a flash of her magic, one of the armoires open up, revealing...
  6436. >Uh.
  6437. >Wow.
  6438. >Holy shit, that...
  6439. >That looks fucking sick!
  6440. >The whole thing was in some kind of black fabric, even the skirt plates, with some silver vine patterns around the arm, head, and waist holes.
  6441. >There was a somewhat small logo in the center, also with that silver stuff: an outstretched hand, with two seven-pointed stars, one purple and one green, layered over each other, set in the palm.
  6442. >"Shall I take your stunned silence as a good sign, Anon?"
  6443. "Rares, I don't know how the hell you do it."
  6444. >"Years of experience, darling!"
  6445. >"Psh! Tew much to clean n' fix, iff'n ya ask me!"
  6446. >A gal of utility too, that one.
  6447. >Still, cleaning issues or none, that armour looked swagger as all fucking hell.
  6448. >And the list of things to test just shot up exponentially.
  6449. <...
  6450.  
  6451. "Well, that's a wrap for today, fellas!"
  6452. >Normally, the bat-horses panting like dogs would be a cause for concern.
  6453. >But since they were so graciously helping you with your new equipment?
  6454. >You just consider it a little bit of revenge for all the training.
  6455. >Still, it worked!
  6456. >Once you activated the glyphs, the shielding did it's job!
  6457. >"That's one heckuva suit ya got there, lad! Ya almost don't need tha mehtal innit, ta keep ya safe!"
  6458. "Wouldn't be very good armour, if it couldn't take a hit or two."
  6459. >You've heard lots of different laughs in your time on this world.
  6460. >And that smith-horse's deep, booming laugh just displaced your minotaur bartender for the best laugh ever.
  6461. >[spoiler]qtest laugh still goes to luna tho[/spoiler]
  6462. >You finish undoing the brigandine, and hand it over to Crescent.
  6463. "You keep my baby nice and safe, you hear?"
  6464. >"Yew don't need ta tell me once, lad! Ye'll hafta show me thaht fahncy mehtal ya use innit sometime!"
  6465. "How about a trade for the winning arrow metal?"
  6466. >"Done n' done!"
  6467. >While you're at it, you detach the focus from the bow, and start unstrapping the thaumium greaves.
  6468. >"Oi, Rahzor!"
  6469. >When you stick your head up to find said horse, you see him skulking away to some part of the compound.
  6470. >"Yer naht gettin awae that easy, ya wee lil colt!"
  6471. >While she trots off after him, and while you finish pulling the last greave off, you hear the other Night Guards snickering amongst themselves.
  6472. >So there's a story here, huh?
  6473. >Remind yourself to get it later.
  6474. >After you pull these fancy boots off.
  6475.  
  6476. >You don't know how Dash does the whole 'Sonic speed' thing all the time.
  6477. >It'll definitely take some more practice and getting used to.
  6478. >Still, between the boots and the greaves, you'd call this particular part of your ensemble a success.
  6479. >Wonder how hard it would be, to build something to fly?
  6480. >Definitely on the waiting list, for sure.
  6481. >As for ol' Father Time...
  6482. >Oh would you look at that, four-thirty!
  6483. >Plenty of time to crank out some new foci, before tonight's festivities!
  6484. >Once the last magic boot comes off, you put the whole leg-borne ensemble into the case you brought along.
  6485. >The bow and foci follow suit.
  6486. >Good thing the bow didn't need to be unstringed!
  6487. >Not that you would've minded, but getting the mana connection on right was a colossal pain.
  6488. >With the case closed up, you...
  6489. >Huh.
  6490. >What are you gonna do?
  6491. >You can't exactly leave without Razor, not without Exact covering for him.
  6492. >Wait, Crescent was looking for him, right?
  6493. >Yeah, maybe you oughta see where they ran off to?
  6494. >Plan set and executing.
  6495. "Hey, mind watching all this stuff, Pharynx? I've gotta track down Razor's bitch ass!"
  6496. >"Not at all. Though you should know, he seemed rather keen on escaping Ms. Hammer, if the emotions he was giving off was any indication."
  6497. "'Emotions he was giving off'?"
  6498. >"Changelings can sense emotions. A handy sixth sense to have."
  6499. "No kidding? News to me. So... you're not reading my mind, or some spooky shit like that?"
  6500. >"Nothing like that, I assure you. That being said, however, I haven't been able to sense your emotions at all."
  6501.  
  6502. "You haven't?"
  6503. >"No, and that's a definite first for me. Most creatures, even the animals, are easily sensed, but not you."
  6504. "Should I consider that a good thing?"
  6505. >"You'd need somepony more qualified to tell you the cause, and the detriments. Though if I were you, I'd consider immunity to emotional spells and invisibility to empaths to be very valuable advantages."
  6506. >Okay, hold up.
  6507. >Now you're really intrigued.
  6508. "Define 'invisibility'."
  6509. >"Emotions are very telling things. Powerful changelings, in particular, can even use them to sense the location and intentions of those around them. For example..."
  6510. >His antlers and horn light up for a moment.
  6511. >"Mr. Wind and Ms. Hammer are currently en route to the smithy. And it seems Mr. Wind is being dragged up there by her."
  6512. >Uhh...
  6513. >That's one way to prove the point!
  6514. "I, uh... see your point. Sure sounds like mind reading to me, though!"
  6515. >"It does approximate it, with enough skill. But I wouldn't worry too much. Only consorts and royals are capable of that kind of power."
  6516. "Riiiight. I'll just... go grab Razor now, huh?"
  6517. >"Don't let me keep you."
  6518. >That's your cue to turn and stroll off.
  6519. >Well, that wasn't creepy at all!
  6520. >Now you're super glad he's on your side!
  6521. >Still...
  6522. >If he could tell all that just by their feelings, then holy shit, are you glad that shit doesn't work on you!
  6523. >As you make your way over to the smithy, you can't help but think about what else that means.
  6524. >If only royals can do that...
  6525. >Was that how Athalia was on top of every damn pony in the Ponyville fight?
  6526. >And how you were able to surprise her?
  6527.  
  6528. >And moreover, that meant Chrysalis couldn't pick up on you, either!
  6529. >But then...
  6530. >She didn't seem to pick up on Nito's plans, either!
  6531. >Christ, is this another human-exclusive leg up?
  6532. >As if the ridiculous magic resist wasn't enough!
  6533. >Too bad it wasn't only you with all that...
  6534. >Wait, hold up.
  6535. >No time for melancholy, you're hearing arguing!
  6536. >And some shuffling?
  6537. >"--ut darling, it seems like such a--"
  6538. >"This's between me an' mah dahmed hermit offa brother! Now git!"
  6539. >Before you reach the door, it's thrown open, and a certain white unicorn is straight-up tossed out, and the door slammed and locked behind her.
  6540. >Uh...
  6541. >"Brother?"
  6542. "Brother?"
  6543. >That little wavelength got her to look at you.
  6544. >"Anon?"
  6545. "Fancy meeting you here."
  6546. >"Looking for your guard, I imagine?"
  6547. "You know it. But he sure seems awful busy on the homefront."
  6548. >"Oh, quite. I wonder just what they're--"
  6549. >A small 'eep' leaves her as you pull her away from the door, which she went over and put an ear to.
  6550. "How about no?"
  6551. >"Oh, where's your sense of curiosity?"
  6552. "Currently tied up in mountains of magic, thanks for asking."
  6553. >"Hmph. You always know what to say, don't you?"
  6554. "All day, every day."
  6555. >She stands up to face you, using some magic to dust herself off.
  6556. >"I do wish she would maintain this place some more. It's positively dreadful!"
  6557. "Looks about right for a workshop to me. Honestly, I was expecting more oil."
  6558. >Oh, you noticed that cringe, fashion horse.
  6559. >Though oil's more of a machinist's thing, right?
  6560. >Christ, wonder what Sunburst's place must look like?
  6561. >And what his 'secret project' is?
  6562.  
  6563. >"Y-yes, well... I do hope your own workspace is kept in some semblance of order?"
  6564. "Kinda has to be, with all the books."
  6565. >"Well, I certainly hope that not everything you've been creating there is purely for... combative reasons."
  6566. "That's a weird concern to have."
  6567. >"Oh, it's not my concern, Anon, although it certainly is... off-putting. Rather, it's... Twilight's concern."
  6568. >Ohh.
  6569. "She's still worried about me."
  6570. >"Darling, she's never not worried about you. I realize you must progress with your craft in such a way to stop that vile Incognito, yet despite our efforts, it still leaves her quite... distraught.
  6571. >"In fact, the only thing that gives her any kind of respite, is the time she spends with you."
  6572. >She finds a bench while she talks, and lays on top of it, with you taking a seat as well.
  6573. "How... 'distraught' are we talking?"
  6574. >"She loses sleep, darling. She pores through every book she has, the notes she's brought back on your magic, all desperately trying to find a way to help you.
  6575. >"But even with Spike and Starlight helping her, nothing she finds satisfies her. It... it takes quite a toll on her."
  6576. "Uh... wow. I didn't know she did all of... that."
  6577. >"Needless to say, she's been really looking forward to tonight. Perhaps, if it's not too much of an imposition, you could demonstrate something not quite as... violent to her?"
  6578. >Hmm...
  6579. >Did you have anything like that?
  6580. >You mean, it shouldn't take more than a few minutes to make something more utilitarian...
  6581. >Ooh, maybe a Luxflood focus?
  6582. >Although, that's got some offensive charge attacks...
  6583.  
  6584. >God damn it.
  6585. >Most everything in the Lexica's been combat-oriented!
  6586. >There's gotta be something in there, though!
  6587. >"Anon?"
  6588. "Hm? Oh, sorry. Just... kinda struggling to think of something like that. Haven't really paid it much attention, you know?"
  6589. >"If you do think of something, do see about showing her? It would really lighten her spirits, darling."
  6590. "Yeah, of course."
  6591. >God damn...
  6592. >She looks so wound-up before she spots you!
  6593. >How have you not noticed that?
  6594. >A groan leaves you as you give your forehead a little rub.
  6595. >"Darling?"
  6596. "God, I've been so busy lately. I haven't even been paying you gals much attention."
  6597. >"I-it's fine, we understand..."
  6598. "No, you're right about doing more than just show up. God, thanks for that little wake-up call, Rares."
  6599. >"Oh, I hope I haven't wound you up too much, darling!"
  6600. "No, not at all. Man, I haven't even been making time for my besties, and she's been going out of her way to make time for me!"
  6601. >Jesus, talk about feeling like a piece of shit!
  6602. >"Oh, don't be too hard on yourself, darling! You said it yourself, you've been too--"
  6603. >She stops dead, some weird look in her eyes appearing at that moment.
  6604. >"A-Anon?"
  6605. "What's up?"
  6606. >"W-when you say 'bestie', you're referring to... Twilight, yes?"
  6607. "Wha? Yeah, of course! One of the very best besties that's ever bestied!"
  6608. >You're not liking the scrutinizing look she's giving you.
  6609. >Much less the shocked one that follows it.
  6610. >Even less, the monotone voice she's sporting:
  6611. >"Oh, sweet Elysian Goddess, have mercy. You don't know."
  6612. "Uhh... what? Know what?"
  6613. >What the hell's this all about?
  6614.  
  6615. >"I-it's been so... obvious..."
  6616. "What? What's been obvious?"
  6617. >"A-Anon, darling, I... I don't know how to tell you this, but--"
  6618. >SLAM
  6619. >"Waah!"
  6620. "Jesus!"
  6621. >Good fucking God, that door's got some noise to it!
  6622. >A tired-looking Razor, complete with the 'I-don't-want-to-be-on-this-planet-anymore' look, walks out.
  6623. >Crescent walks out side-by-side, with a rather annoyed look.
  6624. >"Now, ye will be whritin' that lettah to Ma an Pa tahnight, won't ye?"
  6625. >"Yes, Crescent."
  6626. >"Ye'd damned well bettah, ya lazeh sack'a shite! Iff'n Ah find out ya haven't--"
  6627. >"No, no! I will, I swear!"
  6628. >"Tha's moar like it! Now off with ya!"
  6629. >He looks about ready to bolt, until he sees your smug-looking ass.
  6630. "Had a good time there?"
  6631. >"Shut your hole."
  6632. "Which one?"
  6633. >Crescent laughs it up, while Razor continues stink-eyeing you.
  6634. >"Ya keep lil' Rahzer here oouta trouble, Ahnon!"
  6635. "Sure, right after I walk on water."
  6636. >God, you love how she just yuks it up.
  6637. >"Can we just go?"
  6638. "All right, sheesh. Catch you gals later!"
  6639. >"Be seein' ya, Ahnon!"
  6640. >You and Razor promptly take your leave, with him speed-trotting out of dodge.
  6641. >Not fast enough for you, though.
  6642. "So... sister, eh?"
  6643. >"Can you not?!"
  6644. "Oh, can I not? Like you could not ease up on the stretching?"
  6645. >"You motherbu-- All right, fine! Yes, she's my Nightmother-damned sister!"
  6646. >now am i become pepe
  6647. >lord of smug
  6648. "So, she the oldest?"
  6649. >Yes, suffer for me, bat-horse.
  6650. >"By ten minutes."
  6651. "Twins? Shit!"
  6652. >No wonder their manes and coats looked alike!
  6653. "So, any reason she--"
  6654. >"WHAHT?! HE DINNAHT KNOE?!"
  6655. >Oww...
  6656. >Even from here, she hurt your ears...
  6657. <...
  6658.  
  6659. @@@@@@@@
  6660.  
  6661. >"Holy Riafalt
  6662. >"A widely coveted creation of the venerable Sage Ynnead, created with the aid of the great Elder Zharrdan. Despite it's usage of animarum aspects, it is unmistakably holy in it's output.
  6663. >"The focus is a countersign against the death-centric powers of the users of dark magic, and is a key focus in the arsenal of paladins and clerics.
  6664. >"A sustained flow of vis will create a current of soothing arcane energy, that will mend the wounds of those who touch it; a countersign against the banal powers that strip the life from their targets.
  6665. >"A short release of vis will unleash a bolt of holy energies, harming those touched by or of the dark; a countersign against the arcane assaults that corrupt those harmed by them.
  6666. >"Finally, a powerful release will create a pillar of brilliant holy energy, obliterating anything of the dark in it's wake; a countersign against the unutterable destruction of powerful dark energies."
  6667. >From behind, you hear the infuser finish making exactly what you just re-read about.
  6668. >You doubt very much that anything with that kind of distorted glyphwork can even remotely be called 'good'.
  6669. >And you probably wouldn't have made this at all, if this 'sage' wasn't name-dropped in the other book as a good guy.
  6670. >Well, it's not like you can really test the Luxflood focus more, anyways.
  6671. >Might as well give it a whirl.
  6672. >But if it doesn't pass muster?
  6673. >It's getting fucking incinerated.
  6674. >You set the Lexica down, and head on over to retrieve the new focus, wand in hand.
  6675. >To it's credit, it sure looks like a 'good' item.
  6676.  
  6677. >Most of your other foci have been rough-looking utilitarian things, made only to do the job.
  6678. >But with this thing's pearly-white, kinda-transparent look, along with the smooth and rounded motif?
  6679. >If nothing else, it was definitely a looker.
  6680. >Without further ado, you pull it off the pedestal and slap it onto the wand.
  6681. >Outside of the initial sparking, it also starts to give off a faint golden glow.
  6682. >As you move to your dug-out focus test range, the gold glow gets stronger the more it charges, with tiny flakes of golden magic occasionally dropping off, like snow.
  6683. >Already, this is more showy than the other foci.
  6684. >Still, you give it a tentative shot.
  6685. >The channel fires off a golden, wavy stream of magic that, as predicted, does nothing.
  6686. >VROOSH
  6687. >That short-charge was a different story, however, with a bolt of blue-gold fire, flames 'flowing' against the wind, launching out and hitting the target for only a light shove's worth of 'damage'.
  6688. >You swear, if the long-charge is shit, you're gonna sue--
  6689. >plink
  6690. >It shot a white orb at it?
  6691. >Okay, yeah, this is officiall--
  6692. >KA-VRIIIIIM
  6693. >Holy Christ!
  6694. >What?!
  6695. >The second that orb hit, the wand just shot a foot-and-a-half wide pillar of white, blue-outlined magic at the thing!
  6696. >After it's second-long lingering clears up, you see the target knocked over, with dust kicked up all around it.
  6697. >Uh.
  6698. >Okay.
  6699. >Very delayed reaction, but...
  6700. >That was actually kind of cool!
  6701. >Not terribly impressive damage-wise, though...
  6702. >Wait.
  6703. >It said it only fucks up 'dark' targets, right?
  6704. >If you had to guess, ones full of animarum and co?
  6705.  
  6706. >Well, shit...
  6707. >If this focus is selective about what it damages, you need a proper target!
  6708. >You double-back to your animus lock-up, checking for--
  6709. >Aha, there we are!
  6710. >The animarum examples you made!
  6711. >Easy enough to re-make if you need them again.
  6712. >Again forgetting your lack of TK, you pick a half-dozen of them up, and lay a couple on the target range.
  6713. >All right, what'll the 'holy bolt' do against it?
  6714. >VROOSH
  6715. >TSSH-CRACK
  6716. >Uhh.
  6717. >Well.
  6718. >Apparently, the target explodes, and pretty violently, too!
  6719. >Just for kicks, you arrange the rest of the targets in the middle of the range, and try that big attack out.
  6720. >plink
  6721. >KA-VRIIIIIM-CRACK-BLAM
  6722. >Wha--?
  6723. >Yo--?
  6724. >Ho-hooooly SHIT!
  6725. >The end of the range, just...
  6726. >There isn't a fucking end of the range anymore!
  6727. >The targets all exploded, and caved the entire end of the range in!
  6728. >Jesus Christ!
  6729. >Okay, you take everything back.
  6730. >This thing fucking rules!
  6731. >But, why did the targets explode like that?
  6732. >The only thing you can think of, is that it destabilized the ma--
  6733. >It destabilizes the mana.
  6734. >Holy Jesus, it destabilizes the mana!
  6735. >And those were good, well-charged gems, used as bases!
  6736. >So they--
  6737. >Oh, my fucking God.
  6738. >Those were just test samples!
  6739. >What's this thing going to do to a fucking rune monster, that's loaded with an imperial shitload more 'evil' mana?
  6740. >Holy shit, okay!
  6741. >This thing's coming along in the loadout, for sure!
  6742. >You're officially sold, mister holy-sage-person from a long time ago!
  6743. >Off comes the focus, with a brief shower of gold magic 'snow' before it goes dim.
  6744. >Totally worth the loss of the range!
  6745.  
  6746. >Speaking of loss, what's your time looking li--
  6747. >Oh, God damn it!
  6748. >You went ten minutes over your limit!
  6749. >All right, no dicking around anymore.
  6750. >You've got things to do tonight!
  6751. >Your kit is all set aside, and you head back through the gate, heading to your castle room.
  6752. >Exact is milling around in the room, when you get there.
  6753. >Guess he's your guardian angel for tonight, then.
  6754. >Speaking of tonight, you rifle through the nearby hanger for a fresh set of higher-end clothes, taking the winning set with you to the bathroom.
  6755. >Apparently, Twilight wanted to bring you to some high-end theatre in the city.
  6756. >'The House of Stars', it was called.
  6757. >A place so high-end, in fact, that the skyboxes were only available to plutocrats and royalty.
  6758. >Guess which category you're falling into?
  6759. >After shedding your current outer layer of 'work' attire, you give the mirror-man a good stare-down for the grooming to come.
  6760. >From what little you heard about and read from that city guide, something tells you the +2 stubble of manliness wasn't gonna fly in a place like that.
  6761. >Still, though...
  6762. >That's really, well, strange of her to just... take you out to a place like that!
  6763. >You don't know if the venue falls over itself to accommodate the royalty, or something like that.
  6764. >But she's not the type of gal to really go to such high-end spots like that.
  6765. >Hell, it's not unusual for her to resist Rarity's demands for highly flashy get-up, either.
  6766. >She doesn't even wear any crowns!
  6767. >Not that you mind, but still!
  6768. >This whole scenario is kind of out-of-character for her!
  6769.  
  6770. >While you step into the shower for the final phase of the beautification, you can't help but think over the other times she's done things to chill you out, these last few weeks.
  6771. >It was small things at first, like bringing you out to some gryphon-catering restaurants in the city.
  6772. >Pretty good shit, though not as good as the castle cook specials.
  6773. >Man, those fucking enchiladas...
  6774. >Still, even though the whole carnivorous thing was very obviously a skeeze point for her, she never said anything about it.
  6775. >Then she brought you a few days back, to that spa back in Ponyville.
  6776. >Can't say you've ever been there before, but man...
  6777. >Those fucking spa-horses know how to give a back massage...
  6778. >Now, that was a delightful time, indeed.
  6779. >Still...
  6780. >You're certainly not complaining about it, but she never went out of her way to arrange these kinds of things before!
  6781. >And there was that omnipresent weird glint to her look, every time you went with her...
  6782. >Some niggling voice in the back of your brain cavity is telling you that you're missing something very vital here.
  6783. >Not that you disagree, but...
  6784. >The shower opens up, revealing the dripping, amateur-statuesque pillar of man that you are.
  6785. >You don't really have much time to ponder what you're missing.
  6786. >You've got to leave pretty soon!
  6787. >Towels were pumped n' dumped that day, as you dried yourself off.
  6788. >Your eyes stop on the stab scar for a few moments, however.
  6789. >Man, are you lucky to have survived that ordeal.
  6790. >The cool scar was definitely not a worthwhile consolation prize, consummate to the shit you dealt with.
  6791.  
  6792. >Pushing the memories of almost getting murdered aside, you start pulling your ensemble on.
  6793. >It was a lot like your Gala get-up, except lacking the gemstone vine patterns and the cape.
  6794. >Still, the remaining vertical pinstripes, plus the red bowtie, were looking mighty swank.
  6795. >Should definitely be passable for that venue.
  6796. >And of course, who could forget about a special little side project of yours?
  6797. >An unassuming stylish cane to most.
  6798. >But hidden underneath the black lacquered wood, and layers of magic camouflage shit deep within, is a cane wand!
  6799. >Nobody has to know that the handle has a hard-crafted TK focus, either.
  6800. >Yeah, she'll probably flip a little when she finds out.
  6801. >But damn it, it feels wrong, being without access to your casting tools.
  6802. >Without it, you just feel so damn... vulnerable!
  6803. >The cane-wand satisfies your quasi-neurotic need well enough.
  6804. >Twirling the item in your hands, you step out into your room and beeline to the hallway, Exact wordlessly following along for the ride.
  6805. >Now, if you were interpreting that clock right, you should be at the meeting point a minute or two early.
  6806. >But knowing Twilight, she's probably been waiting at least ten minutes early.
  6807. >Alright, you're getting pretty close to one of the castle exits now.
  6808. >One more corner to round, and...
  6809. >Yeah, there she--
  6810. >Whoa.
  6811. >Ho-ly...
  6812. >She's dolled right up!
  6813. >She's wearing a pink dress, the same colour as the lighter stripe in her mane, with the head and leg holes covered in a yellow, sash-looking fabric, with a much longer stretch of it wrapping around her whole body.
  6814.  
  6815. >She's wearing a much more nervous expression than you recall her wearing, before all those other outings.
  6816. >It doesn't take long for her to catch sight of you.
  6817. >Once she does, her nervousness almost seems to evaporate in an instant, flipping instead to a wide smile.
  6818. >Oh man, she even did up her mane?
  6819. >The end of it definitely does not curl upwards like that normally.
  6820. >You don't know who suggested the small lock curling around her ear like that, either.
  6821. >But whoever did deserves multiple raises, because that some top-tier good-looking shit, right there!
  6822. >"Anon! You came!"
  6823. >Shit, hope you weren't staring too much.
  6824. "Well, yeah, of course I would!"
  6825. >The two of you meet in the middle, with another signature pony hug experience.
  6826. >She pulls away before you can give the ears some special treatment, however.
  6827. >"W-we should get going! The skyboxes are still open before the play starts!"
  6828. >Or we could leave now, all right.
  6829. >Works for you.
  6830. "They have any food up there?"
  6831. >"Of course! The skyboxes all have a server, and they make some pretty good stuff there!"
  6832. >Probably costs as much as the GDP of Zimbabwe to order in, too.
  6833. >At least, if the last 'fancy' place she took you was any indication.
  6834. >Christ, you damn near had a heart attack at the bill!
  6835. "Sounds like a plan to me, girl."
  6836. >The two of you don't say much outside of that, instead going straight for the venue in question.
  6837. >Of course, the path there was directly through the richest spots in the city.
  6838. >Hey, at least neither of you look out of place here!
  6839.  
  6840. >Man, Rarity does one hell of a job on these outfits.
  6841. >It's not enough that they're real sharp lookers, but they're also comfortable as all hell to sport!
  6842. >Having that pony twist on human designs is a plus, too.
  6843. >Speaking of pony designs...
  6844. >Twilight's ensemble is great and all, but...
  6845. >Actually, that's not just specific to her, isn't it?
  6846. >Most pony dresses are like that!
  6847. >You can't help but chuckle a little.
  6848. >"A-Anon?"
  6849. "Yeah?"
  6850. >"Wh-what's so funny?"
  6851. "Oh, it's just... something about pony dresses I've noticed, is all."
  6852. >Her heightened nervousness doesn't escape your notice.
  6853. >"Wh-what about them?"
  6854. "Always found it weird how they cover up the tails."
  6855. >"I-- Wait, what?"
  6856. "You know, I kinda figured they'd be styled up and put on display, or something."
  6857. >Makes them look longer than they really are, too.
  6858. >Twilight, meanwhile, only just now seems to be contemplating this.
  6859. >"I... Huh. You know, that is a good question."
  6860. "Right?"
  6861. >The walk continues on in relative silence, but she's still stuck thinking over what you just said.
  6862. >Finally, she giggles a little bit.
  6863. >"There you go again. Always noticing the weirdest little things."
  6864. "Well, I am a pretty weird fella."
  6865. >hnnnnnnnngh
  6866. >o-okay that gigglesnort should be outlawed
  6867. >that qtness is fucking lethal
  6868. >why are these poners so fucking adorable holy shit
  6869. >Once that minor heart attack was staved off, you find yourself approaching the entrance to the theatre.
  6870. >The door-pony just about shits his pony-styled long johns when he sees the two of you approach.
  6871. >That part of tagging along with royalty will never get old.
  6872.  
  6873. >The staff go several nautical miles out of their way to make sure your party's every need is met.
  6874. >And right now, that just means striding up the stairwell to the skybox, appetizers already being cranked out in the kitchen.
  6875. >Once you finally hit the skybox, it...
  6876. >Whoa.
  6877. >Okay, now.
  6878. >'Skybox' was correct, but holy shit!
  6879. >The view from here was fucking nuts!
  6880. >And why was this box so damn roomy?
  6881. >You're not complaining or anything, but man!
  6882. >Five choices of spectator seats?
  6883. >A small dining table?
  6884. >A regular-size fridge?
  6885. "God damn..."
  6886. >"D-do you like it?"
  6887. >Turning around gets you a nervously smiling Twilight.
  6888. "Yeah, it's really sweet, but holy shit, girl! This place has got to cost a fortune to chill out at!"
  6889. >She recoils initially, but bounces right back with a little glare to match.
  6890. "I mean, I really like the places you take me and all, but not if it--"
  6891. >Huh, it got really hard to talk all of a sudden.
  6892. >The hoof over your mouth might have something to do with that.
  6893. >"Uh-uh. Not another word about money."
  6894. >Aaand she's having none of your finger-raising, either.
  6895. >"Not. Another. Word."
  6896. >Well, then.
  6897. >Not another word, it is.
  6898. >The moment the hoof comes off your trap, is when the serving ponies show up.
  6899. >Already, the shit they're laying out looks like it cost as much as a fucking Porsche.
  6900. >But alas, you've been forbidden from speaking on it.
  6901. >While the pair of you munch away on the items, the show is heard setting up from behind.
  6902. >Well, you've got the view, so why not use it?
  6903. >Man, are they putting pyrotechnics in the stage?
  6904. >Pretty hardcore for a play.
  6905.  
  6906. >While the crowd begins to file in, you decide on sitting in the couch spectator seat thing.
  6907. >Well, okay, you didn't decide that; she did.
  6908. >She couldn't resist the lure of the itchies.
  6909. >So here you are, with a purple head in your lap, idly itching an ear while you both look down at the about-to-begin act.
  6910. >"We used to go here all the time."
  6911. "Hm?"
  6912. >"Back when I was still a student at Celestia's school. Me and my parents came here all the time.
  6913. >"Celestia even took us up to this box, one time. It was really nice."
  6914. "Really? You like your theatre then, eh?"
  6915. >"Mmhm. It's been a while since I've gone, though..."
  6916. "Remind me to tell you more about the mysticism known as 'movies'."
  6917. >no stop cease immediately
  6918. >no more gigglesnorts
  6919. >my poor blood muscle can't take this heat
  6920. >hnnnng--
  6921. >Oh, wait a minute, the show's starting.
  6922. >She pulls herself upright to get a proper view of the festivities.
  6923. >And so, the two of you just watch the play down below.
  6924. >It was... all right, you guess.
  6925. >Something called 'Tribes', emphasizing the struggles between the pony races during the whole founding of Equestria.
  6926. >A lot of betrayal and drama.
  6927. >Pretty heavy for ponies, but it was really more like cutesy Shakespeare to you.
  6928. >Whatever you thought of it, Twilight really got into it.
  6929. >It wasn't uncommon for her to scoot closer to you during the more 'tense' moments.
  6930. >Hell, she even threw a wing around you once, during the ending scene.
  6931. >Must've really gotten to her, since she just kept it there while the actors all took a bow.
  6932. >Hey, if nothing else, the effects were pretty swish.
  6933.  
  6934. >One last ear scratch is granted to princess purple, before you two decide to take your leave.
  6935. >And after you snag one last appetizer thing.
  6936. >And after some of the actors and the venue owners start crowding Twilight for a hoofshake, maybe a contract or two.
  6937. >She gets out of it pretty easily.
  6938. >Nobody pays attention to the tall man, of course.
  6939. >Well, there was this rich man-horse and his girl who looked like they were about to, but Twilight was pulling you away by then.
  6940. >Considering the crowd following her, you can't blame her for the rushing.
  6941. >And hot damn, you barely noticed Exact ghosting you there!
  6942. >That guy's a goddamn pro, that's for sure.
  6943. >The rushing ceases once you two head back to the castle, though.
  6944. >There's no shortage of spring in her step, while you both walk back to your castle room.
  6945. >Man, she's happier than you thought!
  6946. >Once you reach the door, she speaks up again:
  6947. >"Th-thanks for coming, Anon. I-I know it was kind of a weird idea but I hope you liked it and maybewecoulddoitagainsometime?"
  6948. >D'aww...
  6949. >You kneel to her level, for both the eye contact and the scratchies.
  6950. "Twi, it's no problem. Hell, I wouldn't mind doing that again."
  6951. >"Yo-you wouldn't?!"
  6952. "Oh, yeah."
  6953. >The cutest fucking squeal hits your ears, before she gives you a big ol' bear hug.
  6954. >"ThankyouthankyouthankyouI'llseeyoulatergoodnightAnon!"
  6955. >You'd respond, but there's currently something wet over your mouth--
  6956. >"Mwah!"
  6957. >Twilight trots off after she...
  6958. >She...
  6959. >what
  6960. >she just
  6961. >wat
  6962. >"Mister Anonymous, are you all right?"
  6963. >not now tism horse
  6964. >currently not computing
  6965. >just
  6966. >wat
  6967. <...
  6968.  
  6969. @@@@@@@@
  6970.  
  6971. >Another dizzy spell washes over you, forcing you to sit down and ride it out.
  6972. >A groan leaves you as this happens, a hoof coming up to your forehead.
  6973. >D-damn it...
  6974. >If it wasn't one thing, it was another!
  6975. >Even after the void spirits stopped 'infecting' you with those negative effects, there's always something else going wrong with you, isn't there?
  6976. >And this wasn't from them, either; you always knew if it was them doing it!
  6977. >Meaning this was something 'naturally' happening to you!
  6978. >Your senses were a total mess, during these spells.
  6979. >Your ears were sensitive and ringing.
  6980. >Your balance was all off, making you feel like you were tumbling through the air in a freefall.
  6981. >You couldn't smell anything, either!
  6982. >Though to be honest, that would've been a reprieve all by itself.
  6983. >The strange, musty antiseptic smell of this cavern was one of the many things grating on you.
  6984. >Worst of all, however, was your vision.
  6985. >Everything turned into a blurry, unfocused mess, with the colours going all wrong.
  6986. >As if that wasn't bad enough, your eyesight was getting worse and worse, with every spell!
  6987. >And there was this weird pressure behind your eyes, feeling almost like something's trying to get through them!
  6988. >By the time you thought to check your reflection, it had deteriorated too much to see for certain!
  6989. >All you could make out was the colour purple, maybe some blurry details in the eyes.
  6990. >Damn it all!
  6991. >You liked these stupid changes when it was just your body and mane!
  6992. >You wish you would've known this would happen!
  6993. >Just what are all these changes about, anyways?!
  6994.  
  6995. >Tch.
  6996. >Listen to yourself.
  6997. >A changeling, getting agitated about things changing.
  6998. >The irony isn't lost on you.
  6999. >Wait...
  7000. >Oh, thank goodness, the spell's finally passing!
  7001. >Once it does, you give your head a small shake, and stand back up.
  7002. >Weird...
  7003. >Even though the cavern was still a blurry mess, it seemed more... colourful.
  7004. >There was this iridescent shimmering to everything, that...
  7005. >Wait...
  7006. >I-is...
  7007. >Is it actually following the crystal's contours?
  7008. >You look up at the crystal light, trying to focus on it.
  7009. >You'd memorized the shapes and patterns on it, so--
  7010. >So...
  7011. >That's...
  7012. >That's not right!
  7013. >The shimmering, it...
  7014. >It was following the shape of the light!
  7015. >The weird, iridescent glowing outline of the light was contrasted by your unusable blurry eyesight.
  7016. >It was creating a strange double-vision effect, that made trying to focus and squint at the light give you a huge headache.
  7017. >What the hay's going on?
  7018. >What's that other... sight?
  7019. >You don't know why, but somehow you know it's some different way of seeing things.
  7020. >But...
  7021. >Agh, this doesn't make any sense!
  7022. >What are you even seeing?!
  7023. >This is--
  7024. >The loud grinding of the prison's door breaks you from your thoughts.
  7025. >Oh, no.
  7026. >Who's visiting you, now?!
  7027. >Damn it, if only you could see!
  7028. >Buck, it could be anypony!
  7029. >The doctor, the guards!
  7030. >Celestia...
  7031. >E-even Anonymous...
  7032. >No.
  7033. >No!
  7034. >Stop it!
  7035. >Stop panicking!
  7036. >Focus!
  7037. >Your other senses are fine!
  7038. >Use them, instead!
  7039. >You lie back down, closing your eyes.
  7040. >Now, focus.
  7041. >Focus on what you hear.
  7042. >Make out what's around you by sound, just like at the hive...
  7043.  
  7044. >Separating the cacophony of the door was hard enough.
  7045. >It's so much more invasive than the background sloshing of the hive's resting pods...
  7046. >But...
  7047. >There's steps, you're sure of it.
  7048. >But what kind?
  7049. >Wait, they're getting closer.
  7050. >The doors reverse direction, and you can hear a small gasp.
  7051. >Even when you're unable to sense emotions, it sounds... shocked.
  7052. >The sound of a--
  7053. >Wait, a changeling disguise?
  7054. >I-it sounded just like a ling's disguising power!
  7055. >The doors finally close, and silence reigns.
  7056. >Now, you heard so much more.
  7057. >Heavier breathing, maybe agitation?
  7058. >You swear, you could just make out a dry swallow.
  7059. >Then, the figure starts moving.
  7060. >Clopping noises.
  7061. >Something with hooves, then!
  7062. >So, not a human!
  7063. >Oh, thank goodness!
  7064. >Now, what about the...
  7065. >Wait, the sound is... lighter, hollower.
  7066. >Ponies have a heavier, fuller sound to their steps, especially on such a hard surface!
  7067. >So...
  7068. >So is your visitor a...
  7069. >A changeling?
  7070. >But, who?
  7071. >And why?
  7072. >The steps make a circle around you.
  7073. >Judging from the light steps, you think he's trying not to disturb you.
  7074. >Wait.
  7075. >You're stock still right now.
  7076. >Does he think you're sleeping?
  7077. >Hm...
  7078. >Maybe you can make that work!
  7079. >You force yourself to relax, to keep appearances.
  7080. >Damn, you hope you're right about that...
  7081. >The circling gets closer and closer.
  7082. >The visitor's breathing gets more agitated, too.
  7083. >A faint whisper is heard:
  7084. >"Ch-Chitter..."
  7085. >The voice is male.
  7086. >It could be the ling itself, or maybe it's disguise.
  7087. >But why did it say 'chitter'?
  7088. >There's only a few reasons you'd do that, none of them appropriate.
  7089.  
  7090. >No, wait a minute!
  7091. >Why is a ling here, anyways?
  7092. >Wait, does it...?
  7093. >Taking a brief sniff, you...
  7094. >Wait...
  7095. >Yes, it is another changeling!
  7096. >The scent is unmistakable!
  7097. >The usual pheromone is stronger, headier, more tasteful than a drone's.
  7098. >But only the Fang twins smelled like that!
  7099. >So...
  7100. >A consort?
  7101. >But wait, there was this uncharacteristic sweetness to it, too...
  7102. >Sweetness.
  7103. >A sweet-smelling changeling.
  7104. >Noling smells remotely 'sweet'.
  7105. >Noling IS remotely sweet.
  7106. >Except for...
  7107. >Them.
  7108. >Thorax.
  7109. >Thorax and his traitors.
  7110. >You can't keep yourself from tensing up, this time out of building anger.
  7111. >You almost didn't hear it-- him nearing your body.
  7112. >He was well within reach of your stake, now.
  7113. >"H-hello?"
  7114. >There's something besides the fear, there.
  7115. >Some kind of... deference?
  7116. >And a strange softness, that you only usually hear in pony families.
  7117. >"Hello? Are... are you awake?"
  7118. >He's trying to wake you up, is he?
  7119. >Perfect chance for a scare.
  7120. >You wait for him to walk closer, which eventually of course he does.
  7121. >A tap on your midsection.
  7122. >Perfect.
  7123. >The second tap gives way for your lunge.
  7124. >Your forelegs shoot out, and a hiss leaves you, darting over for the--
  7125. >clop
  7126. "Waah!"
  7127. >A pair of hooves meet your own mid-air, and a twisting motion from the other ling flips you over, onto your back.
  7128. >Both forelegs are still locked in his grasp, and though you can barely see, his head is barely two hooves from your own.
  7129. >`Even grown up, I can still beat you in wrestling.`
  7130. >The tone is playful, if forced.
  7131. >And he seems to have good command of Scarabspeak, too!
  7132.  
  7133. >Your struggling is negated largely by the restraints, but something tells you this would've been tough, even without them!
  7134. "Get off! Get off of me!"
  7135. >`Come on, don't you remember? We used to do this all the--`
  7136. "GET OFF OF ME!"
  7137. >A beat passes before he does just that, jumping back and away.
  7138. >You immediately flip back upright, in a defensive position.
  7139. >A growl leaves you, and your vision is tinted slightly red.
  7140. >Whoever this bucking ling thinks he is, he's shimmering quite brightly!
  7141. >`I... You reacted just like before. I thought for sure, you'd...`
  7142. >No amount of sadness and melancholy in his voice or pheromones is going to get you to drop your guard.
  7143. >`Must've been muscle memory. Damn it...
  7144. >`You... you really don't know who I am, do you?`
  7145. >Oh, now he wants a serious response?
  7146. >Fine, you'll give him an abundantly clear one!
  7147. `I know what you are! A damned traitor! Someling who turned their back on us!`
  7148. >Plenty of hatred and malice went into that delivery, and if the recoiling steps were any indication, it succeeded in it's intended duty.
  7149. >`So, his claws are that deep in you. Then they were right. You... you are like a totally different ling.`
  7150. >What's that supposed to mean?
  7151. >His tone and presentation change, to resignation, seriousness, and an undercurrent of sadness and anger.
  7152. >`You're not wrong about the traitor part. Still, you're only partly right. I turned my back on her, not us.`
  7153. `And what did that leave you with, hmm? A worthless, effeminate waste of chitin?`
  7154. >`That 'waste of chitin' freed us from our dependence on love, in case you forgot.`
  7155.  
  7156. `At what cost?! Reducing our entire race to a bunch of mewling grubs? Making us subservient to those damned ponies?!`
  7157. >`If you think that's bad, you should see the 'feelings forum'.`
  7158. `The--`
  7159. >Wait, what?
  7160. >Why the buck is there mirth in his tone, now?!
  7161. >`Look, I don't disagree with the first part. For the longest time, I didn't accept what they offered, either.
  7162. >`They're a lot more skittish than they were before, and keeping them safe is a special kind of painful.
  7163. >`But they're still my hivemates. Me and Thorax still have a duty to them. To the whole hive.`
  7164. >What's he got to be proud of?!
  7165. >He said himself that they're skittish and weak!
  7166. `The whole hive, huh? Tell that to the others! What about them?`
  7167. >`They can still come back. Just... just like you can.`
  7168. >Silence.
  7169. >What?
  7170. >He...
  7171. >He's joking, right?
  7172. >Oh, sweet Foremothers, he's serious.
  7173. >Disbelieving, sarcastic laughter comes tumbling out, and you make no effort to stop it.
  7174. `Hah! O-oh, that's... that's bucking rich! What makes you think I'd do anything of the sort?!`
  7175. >`You would've before, without a doubt.`
  7176. `Oh, would I? And what, exactly, makes you think that?`
  7177. >`Because I know you. You would've wanted us all to come together.`
  7178. `Haaahahah! Don't make me laugh! You don't know a thing about me!`
  7179. >`Don't I?`
  7180. `Would you like to know? Would you like to know about all the things I'm going to do to you, your weak hive, and all the ponies who back it?`
  7181. >`Let me guess, an angry imitation of Incognito's every thought and whim?`
  7182. >Anger snaps through your mind.
  7183. >`Some long diatribe about their slow, painful deaths?`
  7184.  
  7185. >This...
  7186. >This bucking upstart!
  7187. >Red colours your vision again, with pressure building behind your eyes.
  7188. >`You were someling special before. You were unique, interesting. Mimicry doesn't suit you at all. Especially not when the one you're imitating is a soulless sociopath.`
  7189. >Something snaps inside you.
  7190. >You lunge for the changeling, the chains holding you fast only a few hooves away from him.
  7191. `Dead! You're all dead! You, Thorax, everyling and everypony you love, all dead! Their blood will run like rivers, and you'll drown in it!`
  7192. >You thrash and hiss in between furious panting.
  7193. >It's only after the red haze clears, that you notice the ling is now perfectly in focus.
  7194. >A very dark green carapace, with red horns and 'tail', and purple wing-shells and eyes.
  7195. >The sight stops your own anger for a moment.
  7196. >`Echoed to the letter. Just like I thought.`
  7197. `Mark my bucking words, you're all dead!`
  7198. >`If you're trying to shock me, you'll be disappointed to hear that it isn't working.`
  7199. >There was this edge to his tone, as he spoke.
  7200. `You little--`
  7201. >`Shut up.`
  7202. >His tone became deadly serious, the hard edge rising to prominence.
  7203. >And the glare he now wore was unrelenting, with something dark deep underneath.
  7204. >`You think you're intelligent, 'Athalia'? You think you're powerful, dangerous? You're none of those things.
  7205. >`The ling you were before was a shining, radiant beacon of hope for us all. I would've gladly given my life for you.
  7206. >`Now look at you. Pathetic. Worthless. Shunning all you knew for your little alien coltfriend. And he doesn't even feel the same about you, either.`
  7207.  
  7208. >The shift in the conversation takes you completely by surprise.
  7209. >Wh-who the buck does he think he is...?!
  7210. `You bucking--`
  7211. >`You think you're some powerful champion of his? You couldn't even complete his orders.`
  7212. >Wh-wha--?
  7213. >`You think you're a loyal, virtuous changeling? You turned your back on your family, for a vicious, hateful wretch.`
  7214. >You only just notice yourself backing away from him.
  7215. >`You think you're smarter than me, than all of us? You couldn't even keep the princesses captured. Just like someling else we know.`
  7216. >D-don't answer him...
  7217. >His face lunges forth, and your attempt to pull back is met with the chains pulling taut, forcing you onto your haunches.
  7218. >`You can't even remember what your own name is.`
  7219. `Sh-shut up...`
  7220. >`But you know what's even worse? You don't even want to remember. You'd rather stick your head in the sand, and live this torrid little lie that's been built for you.`
  7221. >Despite getting in his face, he doesn't even blink.
  7222. `Shut your bucking mouth! You don't know anything about him! You don't know anything about ME!`
  7223. >`Your favourite food is malted honeydew nectar. Everyling think it's disgusting, malting it like that, but you love it.`
  7224. >Your retort dies in your throat.
  7225. >`Your favourite type of love is storge, especially when 'brewed' for over a decade. You panic really badly whenever you get in trouble. You have trouble staying focused. And there's a chip in your back left hindleg's biggest hole. Or did you forget that, too?`
  7226. >Y-you're...
  7227. >You're speechless.
  7228. >The entire time he said all that, his tone and expression never changed.
  7229.  
  7230. >`Oh, I know you very well, more than you do right now.
  7231. >`This insecure, brooding little fiend in front of me, is a walking insult to the carapace belonging to the ling I knew.
  7232. >`But mark my words. By all that's holy, I will get that ling back. Even if it means putting my life on the line for her.`
  7233. >His voice becomes low and dangerous, and murderous intent seeps into his pheromones.
  7234. >`Even if it means finding your precious master, and ripping his still-beating heart out of his chest.
  7235. >`Even if it means showing it to him, so he can see just how black it is, before he dies.
  7236. >`But not before every moment leading up to that event is made living, breathing Tartarus for him.`
  7237. >Th-the hate in the air...
  7238. >It...
  7239. >It was making you sick!
  7240. >`It's a shame you don't remember me. You might remember what my role under Chrysalis was. And what I'm capable of doing to that creature.`
  7241. `Yo-you won't beat him. He's... he's too powerful.`
  7242. >`Who said anything about me beating him?`
  7243. >Wh-what?
  7244. >B-but if--
  7245. >`When Anonymous defeated Chrysalis, he was at only a third of the power you faced him at.
  7246. >`And now, he's become so much more powerful. Powerful enough to fell that creature.
  7247. >`Now, tell me. Just how much do you think your precious Incognito has improved, in the same span of time?`
  7248. >A cold shiver runs through you.
  7249. >N-no...
  7250. >`Propped up on his own hubris, he won't even expect it, until it's too late.
  7251. >`He'll die in the most unceremonious, most painful, and most humiliating way possible.
  7252. >`And the world will sigh with relief, once he breathes his last, drowning in his own blood.`
  7253.  
  7254. >N-no!
  7255. >No!
  7256. >`Do you know what the difference between my threats and yours are?
  7257. >`Unlike yours, mine aren't empty, and meant for shock value.
  7258. >`Incognito will die. He'll drown in a lake of blood, the blood of those he murdered for power, and mister Anonymous will drag him down to the bottom of it, ensuring the job is done right.
  7259. >`And if he can't do it, then I will.`
  7260. >N-not a single stutter!
  7261. >Not a single blink!
  7262. >All in that same tone!
  7263. >Wh-who is this changeling?!
  7264. >As suddenly as the tenor changed before, it changes again.
  7265. >The melancholy returns, and he wraps his forelegs around you.
  7266. >`And I hope that when this is all over, and when you're back to normal, that you'll forgive me for everything I said. Everything I've done.`
  7267. >The voice was sad, the pheromones full of longing, sorrow, and some degree of hesitance.
  7268. >He pulls away just as suddenly, making for the door.
  7269. >"I'm done here."
  7270. >The doors open, and the confusion is cleared, panic and terror returning in full force.
  7271. >I-Incognito!
  7272. >He doesn't know!
  7273. >He must still think that Anonymous is weak!
  7274. >No, no, NO!
  7275. >Your panic continues well after the doors close.
  7276. >Th-the void spirits!
  7277. >They can help, right?
  7278. >They have to!
  7279. >You try to sleep again, but you're too worked up!
  7280. >Damn it, you need to warn him!
  7281. >You try to calm yourself down, without success.
  7282. >While sitting down, your eyes drift to your left hindleg.
  7283. >There...
  7284. >There is a small chip in it!
  7285. >And gazing back, in the floor's reflection, is a pair of cat-like, eggplant-coloured eyes.
  7286. >Your eyes.
  7287. >Y-your eyes...?!
  7288. >They...
  7289. >They look just like...
  7290. >Hers.
  7291. <...
  7292.  
  7293. >[spoiler]i wake up in the morning sinking halfway to the bottom[/spoiler]
  7294. >[spoiler]there's a loud distorted screaming in my soul[/spoiler]
  7295. >[spoiler]everything is dark and empty and i don't know how to fix it[/spoiler]
  7296. >[spoiler]so i curl up in a ball and cry in the comfort of my home[/spoiler]
  7297. >except for that last part
  7298. >anon doesn't cry
  7299. >he just sits in bed, contemplating death
  7300. >what the fuck
  7301. >why
  7302. >why did she even do that
  7303. >what the fuck
  7304. >Hey, excuse me, God?
  7305. >Yeah, I've got this great pitch for you!
  7306. >See, it's the story of this one asshole, called Anon!
  7307. >And in this story, Anon turns into the densest, blindest, and most pants-on-head retarded motherfucker imaginable!
  7308. >I mean, he'd have to be a real dense motherfucker, to not realize that his bestie's been hitting on him for the last week or so?
  7309. >I mean, sheesh, you'd think with all the dinner dates, the horse version of going out to a movie, he'd have seen it sooner, right?
  7310. >Yeah, what kind of retard would do that, right?
  7311. >R-right?
  7312. >H-hahahah...
  7313. >Hehe...
  7314. >Heh...
  7315. >[spoiler]ladies and gentlemen[/spoiler]
  7316. >[spoiler]if you want to fucking kill yourself, put your fucking hands up[/spoiler]
  7317. >From beside, the door is heard opening.
  7318. >Since your face is covered in sheets, you can't see who it is.
  7319. >"So wait, he just collapsed?"
  7320. >"Yes. He went into a state of mental shock immediately following the kiss, and collapsed 42.7 seconds later."
  7321. >"Wait, kiss?"
  7322. >"Yes, it had a 92.4% chance of being the trigger for the event."
  7323. >"You're telling me he got a kiss?! Ohh, sweet tapdancing Epona, that sly little devil!"
  7324.  
  7325. >A metal-covered hoof taps on your covered-up form.
  7326. >"Hey, Anon!"
  7327. >No response.
  7328. >The sheets are pulled back without any warning.
  7329. >"So, what's this I hear about... a..."
  7330. >His excited look dies once he sees your face.
  7331. >Must look like shit.
  7332. >An accurate reflection of what you feel right now.
  7333. >"Geez, are you all right? You look like you've seen a damn ghost!"
  7334. "My life is a lie."
  7335. >"Uhh, what?"
  7336. "My existence has become like that of the Japanese cartoons: a shallow, contrite mockery of all sense and awareness, meant only as a warning to others."
  7337. >"A-are you high, or something?"
  7338. "Sadness has become my oxygen, shame my nitrogen--"
  7339. >SMACK
  7340. "Yeouch!"
  7341. >Jesus Christ, what the fuck?!
  7342. >"That's the second time I've had to smack you upside the head."
  7343. "That fucking hurt, you douche!"
  7344. >"Love you, too. Now, what's this crazy shit you're talking?"
  7345. "Please don't mention 'love' to me again."
  7346. >"Geez, what the buck's up with you today?"
  7347. "Oh, I don't know. A little bit of fucking everything, how about that?"
  7348. >"Do I need to smack you again?"
  7349. >"I must advise against that."
  7350. "No, you know what, go ahead. Hell, bring a spear!"
  7351. >"Okay, seriously, what's going on? Most ponies would be pissing themselves with joy, over getting to first base with a princess!"
  7352. "One, I'm not a pony."
  7353. >"Oh, buck you--"
  7354. "Two, I didn't fucking know she was into me!"
  7355. >Whatever he had to say died in his throat.
  7356. >He tries to form words, but fails every time.
  7357. >Leaving Exact to pick up the slack:
  7358. >"You failed to detect the social cues for Equestrian courtship?"
  7359. >JUST levels now at 847 millifrasers
  7360.  
  7361. @@@@@@@@
  7362.  
  7363. >Congratulations, Anon!
  7364. >Your life is now officially an anime!
  7365. >Your reward is eternal suffering, and endless shame!
  7366. >Razor eventually finds his voice again, and what comes out isn't too pleasant:
  7367. >"Sorry. I must've heard you wrong. It almost sounded, for a minute there, like Anon, one of the smartest not-ponies that I know, somehow missed the fact that princess Twilight was making moves on him.
  7368. >"But hay, that's silly, right? I mean, there's no way you'd miss that, right?"
  7369. >Mmm, eternal shame!
  7370. >It's what a growing cuck needs!
  7371. "The truth is stranger than fiction, my friend..."
  7372. >"You... you're serious."
  7373. >He's face-hoofing.
  7374. >"Good bucking Goddess above, you're actually serious."
  7375. "Is begging you to kill me asking too much?"
  7376. >"As much as I'd love to take you up on that, I'm still sworn to protect your impossibly dense monkey flank."
  7377. >It's about now, that you finally rise from your disturbed coffin of fine fabrics.
  7378. >You're still wearing the suit from yesterday.
  7379. >And it's eight in the morning.
  7380. "Excuse me, gentlemen. I need to wash away all of my sins."
  7381. >"You do that."
  7382. >And do that, you do: hitting the bathroom and taking the longest and coldest shower ever taken by yours truly.
  7383. >God, it's Anon again.
  7384. >Why?
  7385. >Why do you hurt me like this?
  7386. >Was it something I did in a past life?
  7387. >Because I'm sure we can work something out!
  7388. >No, you're gonna keep making me suffer?
  7389. >Fine, be a cocklord.
  7390. >Odin's way cooler than your Semitic ass, anyways.
  7391. >After a virtual eternity, you finally emerge from the bathroom.
  7392.  
  7393. >If only an eternity actually passed, and everything crumbled to dust around you.
  7394. >Alas, Razor and Exact are still in your very intact room, currently playing some poker.
  7395. >"Your time taken in the washroom was 232% longer than your average elapsed time."
  7396. "That's really creepy."
  7397. >Razor fails to hold in a snort.
  7398. >But there's no mirth left inside of you.
  7399. >Only depression of the crippling variety, spiced with anxiety of the panicking variety.
  7400. "Okay. Is there anything else I'm missing? Who else is trying to hit on me?"
  7401. >Please say it was just her.
  7402. >"I can't bucking believe you didn't see this coming..."
  7403. >"From my time guarding you and observing your company, one other pony besides Princess Twilight has a 91.1% likelihood of attempting to court you."
  7404. >You and your big fucking mouth.
  7405. >You're already bracing yourself for the news.
  7406. "And... who is it?"
  7407. >"Princess Luna."
  7408. >"Princess Luna."
  7409. >Oh.
  7410. >Nevermind, then.
  7411. >Your life's become a fucking harem anime.
  7412. >God fucking damn it.
  7413. >It takes more energy to plop down on one of the couches than it has any right to take.
  7414. >Your groan is interrupted, however, by the friendly neighbourhood bat-horse:
  7415. >"Come on, are you serious? How did you not see this coming?!"
  7416. "Well shit, I guess I managed to miss the memo."
  7417. >"Try missing the bucking bulletin board! Those two have been making huge, obvious passes at you the last few days!"
  7418. "Obvious? You call that shit 'obvious'?"
  7419. >"Yes, I call it obvious! Buck, why does Luna making passes at you surprise you, anyways? You two were practically glued to each other before!"
  7420.  
  7421. "Yeah, 'before'! I thought with the whole 'hospitalized by villains' thing, on two occasions, that there was some kind of a hold on that!"
  7422. >"Are you serious? Where the hay'd you come up with something like that?"
  7423. "Dude, everyone's been up to their necks in work, especially me! How the hell am I supposed to keep track of who's trying to go out with me, anyways?"
  7424. >"Everypony keeps track of that!"
  7425. "Yeah, every 'pony'!"
  7426. >"Oh, that's such a load!"
  7427. >"I disagree."
  7428. >All eyes go to Exact.
  7429. >"Oh, come on! He's had years to pick up on all of this!"
  7430. >"The duration of his stay has no bearing on his willingness to learn about courtship customs."
  7431. >"Really? And how do you figure that?"
  7432. >"Data from the last three years suggest that of the small number of non-equine migrants to Equestria, only 44.3% of them enter into a relationship with a pony, and only after an average elapsed stay of 4.3 years."
  7433. >Uh.
  7434. >Well, shit.
  7435. >Who needs wikis, when you've got this guy?
  7436. >"Uh... really?"
  7437. >"I make every effort not to deliver inaccurate information.
  7438. >"While we are on the topic, this also does not account for the species difference in courting rituals, some of which are very disparate."
  7439. "How... 'disparate' are we talking, here?"
  7440. >"Gryphon males perform highly exaggerated mating dances to court females, inherited from the avian side of their nature.
  7441. >"Minotaur males engage each other in hand-to-hand combat over females, using strength as a measure of success.
  7442. >"Arimaspi perform sexual cannibalism, wherein the males engage in opportunistic mating to avoid being devoured by the--"
  7443.  
  7444. >"Okay, okay, stop! I get it! You don't have to bring those damned cyclopes into this!"
  7445. >Yeah, you didn't need to hear that last part.
  7446. >"The point still remains, however. I see this current predicament as an issue on both sides: Anonymous's failure to understand the details of equine courtship, and the failure of us, and the princesses, to account for any and all differences in human courting rituals."
  7447. "Wonderful."
  7448. >God, man...
  7449. >How did everything get like this?
  7450. >"Alright, uh, so how exactly do humans do their thing, anyways?"
  7451. >Oh, even more wonderful.
  7452. >It's with no small degree of reluctance, that you begin to explain how humans do their dating-and-loving thing.
  7453. >Of course, it doesn't help that you know so damn little about that, to begin with!
  7454. >Still, Razor manages to piece some parts of it together, from your disorganized mish-mash.
  7455. >"So, let me get this straight. You're telling me, that humans make passes that are so obvious, that they often straight-up tell each other they're trying to date 'em?"
  7456. "Yeah."
  7457. >"And the stal-- men, usually start it, not the... 'women'?"
  7458. "That's the long and short of it."
  7459. >Now it's his turn for some temple-rubbing.
  7460. >"Good Goddess, that's... All right, now this is starting to make a lot more sense."
  7461. >"While this is certainly good progress, I would strongly suggest that he learns more about the Equestrian methodologies."
  7462. >"Yeah, he damn well better."
  7463. "Whoa, slow the fuck down! I don't even know if I want any of this!"
  7464. >Razor's derisive snort isn't doing your gut feeling any favours.
  7465.  
  7466. >"Yeah, you're a little late to that party, buddy."
  7467. "Please don't tell me that kissing is some kind of fucking marriage proposal."
  7468. >"Nothing quite that extreme, mister Anonymous, although it is a signifier of a very deep personal connection. It is not something given out nearly as liberally as it is with your people."
  7469. >"Yeah, she'd have to be really into you for that to happen. Was she, like, rubbing up on you before this? Nuzzling the face, throwing wings around you, pressing noses together, anything like that?"
  7470. "Uh..."
  7471. >She totally was.
  7472. >You fucking idiot.
  7473. "Y-yeah...?"
  7474. >"You're telling me you didn't know what all that meant?"
  7475. >A shake of your head is all the response he needs.
  7476. >Oh, Christ...
  7477. >Luna's been wing-wrapping and nose-pressing you, too!
  7478. >Gooooood, why?!
  7479. >"Alright, that's it. I'm not gonna stand for this shit anymore. Anon, training's cancelled today."
  7480. "Wait, wha--?"
  7481. >"Exact, you're the resident nerd, get me the books on how this dating and courting shit all works. Textbooks, foal shit, I don't care."
  7482. "But--"
  7483. >"Shut it. I don't care if you did it without knowing, you still led those two on something fierce. This, Anon, is what we like to call an intervention.
  7484. >"You're about to get the ultimate crash course in how we do all things love and dating. By the end of today, you're gonna have no excuse for bucking up like this again, you hear me?"
  7485. >You can't decide if you're extremely scared, or extremely grateful.
  7486. >"And sweet Nightmother help me, if you start drawing in more mares after this, I'll fight you in the bucking street."
  7487. >Scared it is, then.
  7488. <...
  7489.  
  7490. >"HE DIDN'T KNOW?!"
  7491. >Oww.
  7492. >Great, as if you didn't have enough of a headache.
  7493. >"I'm certain of it, darling..."
  7494. >"B-but, I... we... a-all of our..."
  7495. >"I'm afraid that's not the worst of it, darling. I'm convinced beyond a doubt that he's been unaware of both yours and Luna's propositions!"
  7496. >"What?! N-no! That's impossible! H-he can't have...!"
  7497. >Twilight's shock soon gives way for anger.
  7498. >"Th-that little...! After everything I--!"
  7499. >"Hold on, Twilight! I don't believe he did it intentionally!"
  7500. >"What, you mean he didn't know? How could he NOT have known?!"
  7501. >"Well, that's just it, Twilight. Do you recall any occasions where he expressed even a remote desire for... companionship?"
  7502. >"Yes, he--!"
  7503. >No, he didn't, Twilight.
  7504. >Guuuh, why are they even bothering with this?!
  7505. >"He... uh... oh."
  7506. >"Precisely. In all the time he's been here, all he's done is peruse languages, and only recently took up learning that strange magic! But I don't recall him ever once desiring a romance!"
  7507. >"A-and... he's not from Equus. Oh, gosh. They might not even date the same way!"
  7508. >"Indeed. I... I cannot believe I didn't even consider any of this beforehoof..."
  7509. >"He has to be so confused right now! Oh, no! What if he thinks I'm crazy or weird, now?! What do I do?!"
  7510. >Yeah, you're gonna go crazy, if you keep watching this mess.
  7511. >Of all the times she falls for somepony, why'd it have to be in the middle of a bucking crisis?!
  7512. >And why the buck is Rarity encouraging her?!
  7513. >No, you know what, you can't take this.
  7514. >This is too much.
  7515. >What you need is some fresh air, and a good trot.
  7516.  
  7517. >"S-Starlight? Where are you going?"
  7518. >Damn it, think fast!
  7519. "I'm gonna go see if Sunburst needs some help."
  7520. >"O-okay..."
  7521. >"I'm sorry, darling. Don't let us keep you."
  7522. >Well, that was easy!
  7523. >And so, you leave in short order, waving as you go.
  7524. >You know...
  7525. >You never took Sunburst for the mechanist type!
  7526. >But with Anon's encouragement, he's done some really cool things with that stuff, more than you thought possible!
  7527. >That 'diesel engine' in particular was really impressive!
  7528. >It makes you wonder what they had over at that 'Earth'!
  7529. >Ahh, see, you're feeling better alread--
  7530. >>`return to us`
  7531. >Guh...!
  7532. >No, damn it!
  7533. >Not again!
  7534. >The pain throbs through your head, instead of splitting like usual.
  7535. >It still leaves your teeth clenching, though.
  7536. "Not... happening...!"
  7537. >>`you can be powerful again`
  7538. >You stumble into the nearby bathroom.
  7539. "Shut up! Without you, I'm stronger than I've ever been!"
  7540. >>`your delusion will not avail you against the destroyer`
  7541. >Again with this 'destroyer'?
  7542. "It's gonna take more than that to scare me!"
  7543. >>`you we..e w...rne...`
  7544. >A-ahh...
  7545. >Oh, thank the Goddess, it's over!
  7546. >And no urge to vomit, either!
  7547. >At least the stupid voices were receding quickly!
  7548. >While you're here, you give your face a quick splash of water.
  7549. >Hmm...
  7550. >The voices have been really obsessed with this 'destroyer' character.
  7551. >Sometimes even bringing up an 'emissary'.
  7552. >You don't know who either of them are, though.
  7553. >They never tell you specifics, as usual.
  7554. >Finally, you emerge from the bathroom.
  7555. >Now, what?
  7556. >Well, maybe--
  7557. >thump
  7558. "Whoa!"
  7559. >"Hey, watch i--! Wait, Starlight?"
  7560. "Pharynx?"
  7561. <...
  7562.  
  7563. >Finally, the blackness!
  7564. >Quickly, Athalia, there's no time to waste!
  7565. >The spell is 'cast' the quickest you've ever casted it, and you find yourself in familiar 'territory' again.
  7566. >The nausea was still bad, but nothing you couldn't handle!
  7567. >Come on, come on!
  7568. >Why do the spirits always take their time getting to you?!
  7569. >His life could depend on this!
  7570. >"Well, now. Aren't you just a little ball of stress, today?"
  7571. >"You're unbearably chipper about this. How'd you ever join the whole with the personality of a hyperactive mudpony?"
  7572. >"There's no need for that. Divisions within us will only weaken our grand mission!"
  7573. >"My mind is weakening with every second you keep talking."
  7574. >W-wha...?
  7575. >Two spirits this time?
  7576. >One of them, you recognize: that strange four-armed biped from before!
  7577. >The other one with it, was a unicorn's spirit!
  7578. >"You wished to come along for the blessing of knowledge, you know."
  7579. >"To make sure you did it right! How much time does it take to teach a simple bucking Shadowbind, anyways?!"
  7580. >"Any darkling can learn a soul-affecting spell, you know. I'm more interested in blessing them with the knowledge of the process, as well!"
  7581. >"For what reason?!"
  7582. >"Think of the innovative spins they could put on their spells!"
  7583. >"Who bucking cares, you stupid shit?! The Em--"
  7584. "L-listen to--"
  7585. >A shadowy 'tentacle' clasps around your muzzle.
  7586. >"You'll speak when spoken to, you damn hole!"
  7587. >Another 'tentacle' breaks the one muzzling you, while the unicorn is covered in a huge mass of them.
  7588. >"Well, if you're going to act like this, you can watch with the rest of them."
  7589.  
  7590. >You...
  7591. >You don't believe this.
  7592. >They're fighting each other?
  7593. >"There's no bucking point to this! You don't need to tell them about the process, just teach the damned spell!"
  7594. >"You wouldn't understand. You weren't alive when the Faber Mystico still existed."
  7595. >Before that unicorn spirit could say anything further, it was whisked away in a pillar of dark-purple magic.
  7596. >"Do forgive us. Even within our whole, we still have our... differences. Now, shall we proceed with the blessing of today?"
  7597. "N-no!"
  7598. >"No? You were so eager, before--"
  7599. "Listen to me! I'll g-get your lesson later! I need to... to get a message out!"
  7600. >The spirit tilts it's head.
  7601. >"A message? Whatever for?"
  7602. "I have to warn my Lord! He's in terrible danger!"
  7603. >"Your Lord? Ahh, yes, we see. The Destroyer's many sacrifices to us often mentioned him as a 'Lord', didn't they?
  7604. >"Well, we don't see why you would need to warn him of anything. He's nigh-on invincible with the backing of destiny."
  7605. "Please, I need to do this!"
  7606. >"Listen, good neophyte. While we'd love to grant your request, there are two major barriers to completing it.
  7607. >"For starters, contacting one from beyond the veil is not trivial. You'll need a soul to perform that task."
  7608. "Th-then take mine!"
  7609. >"Absolutely not! Yours is far too valuable to squander on something as simple as an astral projection!
  7610. >"Besides, even if you did have an offering, he wouldn't be able to receive your message, anyways!"
  7611. "What?! Wh-why not? Why can't you send him a message?!"
  7612. >"Please, try to calm down. Agitation is not advisable for mortals in this realm."
  7613.  
  7614. >It's only now that you notice the splitting headache.
  7615. >Gah, you don't care!
  7616. >You need to do this!
  7617. >You open your mouth to speak again, but find it closed by another 'tentacle' muzzling you.
  7618. >"Calm down, neophyte. We realize you are agitated, but there is nothing to worry about."
  7619. >Trying to speak doesn't work; the appendage won't budge.
  7620. >All right, just...
  7621. >Just do what he says.
  7622. >Calm down a little bit...
  7623. >A few deep breaths later, and the appendage eventually pulls itself off.
  7624. >"We're sorry, but we must move on with your blessing. The rules of this connection to your world only permit us so much time."
  7625. "P-please, just one more question..."
  7626. >"All right, but only one. We only have time for a brief answer."
  7627. "Wh-why can't he get a message...?"
  7628. >"The Destroyer is a rather... unorthodox creature. He lacks many elements to his being that you would consider integral, and possesses a few you would consider... deadly."
  7629. "B-but--"
  7630. >"We are sorry, but we simply do not have more time to spend. We must move on to your blessing."
  7631. >D-damn it...!
  7632. >He needs to know!
  7633. >What are you going to do, now?!
  7634. >This was the only thing you could think of!
  7635. >And that 'answer' could mean anything!
  7636. >Damn it!
  7637. >"Now, pay close attention. We've focused a lot on souls as of late, but now you will learn how to tap into the primal darkness of the veil itself; a more... 'classical' dark magic, if you will."
  7638. >F-fine, then!
  7639. >You'll try to find out more next time, if the next spirit will cooperate!
  7640. >You might as well take this lesson, while you're here...
  7641. <...
  7642.  
  7643. @@@@@@@@
  7644.  
  7645. "A-and that was what I heard had happened, back in Ponyville."
  7646. >You've never seen Pharynx this sad before.
  7647. >Never this... depressed.
  7648. >He just sits there, slowly shaking his head.
  7649. >"Then... then she's just like she was in the prison. Damn it...!"
  7650. "Pharynx? Do you know who that changeling is?"
  7651. >"Y-yes. She's-- No, she was our hive's princess. She was going to be our next queen."
  7652. "A-A princess? Your next queen?"
  7653. >"Yes. We were... really close. It was hard for me not to be close to her. I was made to be one of her guardians, after all."
  7654. >Wait, he what?
  7655. "I... Oh, gosh, I... I'm sorry..."
  7656. >"She wasn't always like that, you know. She was the total opposite of Chrysalis. Caring, kind, playful, curious, and so incredibly intelligent."
  7657. "Really?"
  7658. >"Everyling loved her. Even in spite of their different personalities, Chrysalis was still so proud of her.
  7659. >"But then... well, you were there for the hive's reform. She left with Chrysalis, and... they found that other human."