PASTEDOWN_OLD   127    82049   473.24 KB

Thaumaturgy With Anon [4/?]

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

  1. @@@@@@@@
  2. @ Thaumaturgy with Anon, Pt. 4
  3. @ Originally posted to Pastebin on Nov 27, 2017
  4. @@@@@@@@
  5. @ First time reading this story?
  6. @ You might want to read the previous part, first.
  7. @@@@@@@@
  9. >No.
  10. >No, that's impossible!
  11. >He...
  12. >H-he can't be here!
  13. >H-how?!
  14. >"Your reputation precedes you, O Princess of Friendship. Though I must say, I was not quite expecting to see you at Canterlot. Imagine my surprise, when my scouts told me you were absent from your castle, this day."
  15. >H-his speaking, it's...
  16. >It's commanding and frightening all at once!
  17. >His smile widens, as if nothing's wrong.
  18. >"Well, it certainly saved me an extra trip, regardless. Oh, but where are my manners? I don't believe we've properly introduced ourselves, have we?"
  19. >He turns to face Twilight, walking past a now-fainted Rarity.
  20. >There's something on his left hand.
  21. >It's...
  22. >Oh, good Goddess above...!
  23. >It's the catalyst he was said to have!
  24. >And it's been totally deactivated!
  25. >No wonder you didn't sense it earlier!
  26. >He gives a small bow, his left hand waving in front as he does, the blades of the catalyst flourishing.
  27. >Long, wicked blades of some very dark, iridescent green metal, lined with symbols of some kind.
  28. >The main body, a lustrous gray metal, flecked with red, encompassing the whole hand and stopping just short of the elbow, like a massive gauntlet.
  29. >The primary array of the catalyst itself was on full display.
  30. >You knew immediately, from the array's configuration, what kind of catalyst it was.
  31. >A battlelord's catalyst.
  32. >Made to dominate in close combat.
  33. >"I am Incognito Matthias, your majesty. I would have added 'at your service', but I think we both know that would have been a lie."
  34. >He stops the small bow.
  35. >His expression is perfectly calm, the smile never fading.
  37. >You can't move.
  38. >You're too afraid to move!
  39. >This...
  40. >This can't be real!
  41. >How did he get in here--
  42. >"You..."
  43. >Twilight's interruption brought your eyes over to her.
  44. >What took you aback wasn't how unafraid she looked.
  45. >No, it was how angry she looked.
  46. >"Are you quite all right, your highness?"
  47. >Twilight slowly stood up, off the couch.
  48. >"You...!"
  49. >Her wings unfurl, and her horn ignites.
  50. >The sheer power that suddenly came off of her is enough to force you to back up.
  51. >For Incognito's part, his smile only grows, and an almost gleeful glint comes to his eye.
  52. >"Ahh, you wish to get right into the meat of the matter? Well, I will certainly not protest, princess."
  53. >Twilight looks ready to charge.
  54. >Her horn is crackling with power, and the look on her face is pure fury.
  55. >You've never seen her like this before!
  56. >Still, he never bats an eye!
  57. >"But I do believe you are forgetting one very critical detail..."
  58. >His stance widens, expecting an attack.
  59. >A tingle is felt, coming from his catalyst.
  60. >And Twilight lets loose an almost feral cry, signalling her charge.
  61. >A large spear of pure magic is loosed from her horn.
  62. >Incognito's smile becomes savage.
  63. >His catalyst winds back, becoming active during the motion.
  64. >And the presence of a massive amount of dark energy reveals itself.
  65. >More energy than Twilight is radiating!
  66. >Everything seems to slow down, as you begin to try and warn her away from her attack.
  67. >A red aura ignites between the catalyst blades.
  68. >The spear fizzles against his armour.
  69. >And he sweeps his catalyst forward in a wide arc.
  71. >A WHOOSH is heard as a wave of red energy is sent hurtling towards her.
  72. >It strikes Twilight head-on, her body crumpling against it as it carries her backwards.
  73. >The wave doesn't stop there.
  74. >It hurtles towards you, too.
  75. >You don't even have time to ignite your horn.
  76. >Everything goes white.
  77. >Pain overwhelms your senses.
  78. >>`HE IS HERE`
  79. >Nothing registers for what feels like an eternity.
  80. >Your ears ring.
  81. >Your head feels like it's splitting apart.
  82. >You feel like you're about to vomit.
  83. >Your body feels nothing but pain.
  84. >And exhaustion makes your eyelids heavy.
  85. >THUMP
  86. >Crashing to the floor is what snaps away the exhaustion, adrenaline taking over.
  87. >The area around you comes into focus.
  88. >This half of the room, overturned and lightly steaming.
  89. >The human at the wave's origin point.
  90. >He begins to walk forward, in a slightly different direction to where you are now.
  91. >His smile is wicked.
  92. >Wait.
  93. >Twilight!
  94. >Where's Twilight?!
  95. >You try to move, but all you get is pain for your efforts.
  96. >It feels like your limbs are made of lead.
  97. >You try to speak, but instead a massive wave of nausea hits you.
  98. >The only motion you end up performing is your head pulling in, as you start to vomit a little bit.
  99. >It comes out black.
  100. >>`The instrument of our power! The one destined to carry out our will! The one destined to destroy all who could oppose us!`
  101. >You continue to throw up, as the voices rip through your head with unusual clarity.
  102. >The instant they stop, you force yourself to look back up.
  103. >You see Incognito reaching towards something with his right hand.
  105. >A brief gag is heard as he grabs hold of something.
  106. >When he pulls back, he's holding--
  107. >Twilight!
  108. >He's got her by the neck!
  109. >No, no!
  110. >Move!
  111. >Despite your efforts, you can't do more than writhe on the ground.
  112. >He studies her struggling form for a beat, before he pulls his arm back, slamming her into the wall beside him.
  113. >She cries out in pain.
  114. >Despite the ringing in your ears, you can still hear him talk:
  115. >"Your mentor, and her sister, both tried to engage me in combat already. What, precisely, made you think the outcome would be any different for you?"
  116. >He doesn't wait for a response, pulling back again and throwing her towards a coffee table near you.
  117. >With a loud SMASH, she crashes into the table, her body stopping a few hooves short of you.
  118. >Her barrel is cut up, and there was dust from the walls covering her back.
  119. >Her eyes settle on yours.
  120. >She's afraid.
  121. >You want to tell her to run, but fresh nausea is all you get for trying.
  122. >Despite everything, she pulls herself back up onto her hooves.
  123. >Metallic footsteps are heard approaching from behind her.
  124. >Looking towards it shows Incognito walking towards her, with a slow and ponderous gait.
  125. >Twilight barely manages a few steps, before his hand grabs hold of the scruff of her neck.
  126. >She shrieks as he pulls back, sending her behind him, and flipping her onto her back.
  127. >He turns around before she can right herself, and grabs hold of her throat.
  128. >She grunts, wheezes, and gags a few times as he hefts her up to eye level.
  129. >And then, he slams her back against the wall.
  130. >He's still smiling.
  132. >"Do you understand now, little princess? Do you fully comprehend now, just how... outclassed you are?"
  133. >His grip relaxes only enough to allow her to breathe.
  134. >"The power to move the very sun, the very moon. The power to manipulate emotions with ease. And such pure talent in the arcane. Such astronomical feats. You and the other alicorns all possess so much raw, resplendent power. And yet..."
  135. >She coughs, as he leans in close to her face.
  136. >"And yet, the most powerful ponies in the land, pose no more threat to me than the most powerful termites in the land."
  137. >His chuckling is both mirthful, and malevolent.
  138. >"It must be so odd for you, no?"
  139. >He hurls her away again, this time towards a couch.
  140. >Her back hits the front of the seat, and she collapses to the ground in front of it, as he walks back over towards her.
  141. >He stops in front of her shaking, absolutely terrified form.
  142. >"You've reaped the rewards of operating under the cloak of destiny for so long, now. Long enough for you to no doubt confuse happenstance of fate, with the power you actually possess.
  143. >"Yes, it must be so odd, indeed, to behold one such as me, who uses this same cloak against you, and the rest of your detestable race."
  144. >You realize it, now.
  145. >This was who the voices were talking about.
  146. >This is who they meant, by 'the Destroyer'.
  147. >This was their champion.
  148. >He kneels in front of her.
  149. >Come on, Starlight!
  150. >Move!
  151. >Your body slowly reacts to your commands, and the pain feels like it's receding.
  152. >But the headache was still there, along with the nausea.
  154. >His hand reaches out towards her face.
  155. >She tries to thrash away, but doesn't go anywhere.
  156. >Tears start to fall from her eyes.
  157. >She shrieks as his hand... caresses her jaw.
  158. >"Are you afraid, princess? You shouldn't be. You are still needed alive, after all. Alive, but not unharmed."
  159. >She still struggles, but stops completely as he pulls her head to look towards him, right in the eye.
  160. >"And believe me when I say, that I did not come to Canterlot simply to torment you. Were everything to go according to my plans, our first and last meeting would be within my laboratory.
  161. >"But I am here, because things have not gone according to my plans. And, well, that has rather... inconvenienced me."
  162. >She tries to pull her head away again, but he keeps it in place.
  163. >"Which brings me to the subject of my question. That, after all, was no lie: I did have a question for you, of the utmost importance."
  164. >She can't form any words to respond, and he doesn't wait for her:
  165. >"The guard here has done a splendid job of rooting out my informants, leaving me no choice but to ask you, one of my quarry's most prolific masters, one very simple question."
  166. >He leans towards her, their noses only a hoof away from each other.
  167. >"Where is the human, known as Anonymous?"
  168. >Wh-what?!
  169. >He-he's here, for him?!
  170. >Twilight's reaction was to thrash against his hold, her anger returning.
  171. >She does break free, but only for a moment.
  172. >His hand goes back to her throat, and he begins choking her.
  173. >"Ah, yes, it is easy to forget how... possessive ponykind is over their pets."
  175. >When Twilight began to thrash a little more weakly, he let her go, her body slumping to the ground as she coughed and wheezed.
  176. >"I am certain he is a very desirable serf, with how thoroughly you convinced him with your ineffectual nonsense. Well enough to keep him under the vigil of the other royals, no doubt.
  177. >"Alas, your vigil also keeps him quite protected from my agents. However... incompetent these agents turn out to be."
  178. >Twilight's coughing lets up, and she manages a weak response:
  179. >"Wh-what... what a-are you going t-to... d-do?"
  180. >"I am here to complete the task my agent was clearly incapable of performing. I am here to slay that simpering child."
  181. >Twilight starts thrashing again, this time out of fear.
  182. >"No!"
  183. >"Your concern is touching, yet ultimately pointless. Now, tell me where he is."
  184. >"NO!"
  185. >"I was hoping you would say that."
  186. >The catalyst extends outwards, the blades igniting red as--
  187. >Gaaaaahh!
  188. >Pain ignites through you, and the sickening sensation gets far worse.
  189. >Through it all, you see what he's doing.
  190. >He's levitating you over towards him!
  191. >Th-the dark magic, it--!
  192. >>`We warned you, deserter. Your delusion, indeed, did not avail you against the Destroyer.`
  193. >The combined sensations are almost enough to make you black out.
  194. >Somehow, you stay conscious, the nausea returning all the while.
  195. >You manage to bite back the urge to vomit, this time.
  196. >"Tell me, O princess, is the life of a worthless pet really more valuable than the life of a fellow Equestrian? Or better yet, the life of your precious student?"
  198. >No!
  199. >This is what he's using you for?
  200. >Damn him!
  201. >Twilight, please don't tell him!
  202. >Her tears come back again, and she begins to shake.
  203. >"N-no... P-please..."
  204. >"Well, whatever are you delaying for? Or... is this servant of yours indeed more valuable than her life?"
  205. >"No! Don't... d-don't h-hurt her, p-please...!"
  206. >"Well, that's all up to you, princess."
  207. >Something moves, out of the corner of your eyes.
  208. >It's a dark green figure--
  209. >Pharynx?!
  210. >He's okay?!
  211. >He puts his hoof up to his mouth, telling you to stay quiet.
  212. >He's slowly moving to the exit.
  213. >Help!
  214. >He's going to get help!
  215. >"Is your avarice for servants going to rule you again, much as it does with that mewling drake of yours..."
  216. >The sound of metal scraping and a blade ringing draws your attention back to Incognito.
  217. >Right as your eyes settle back on him, you feel a sharp length of metal pressed against your neck.
  218. >O-one of the catalyst blades!
  219. >"Or will you truly live up to your title of the Princess of Friendship, and give your friend here a chance at life?"
  220. >"N-no--"
  221. >"Of course, you should know that I have no intentions of simply slaying her. After all, a soul is a very useful resource..."
  222. >You're not surprised he'd threaten you with that, but Twilight's reaction is as bad as you expected, too.
  223. >"No! No, no, please!"
  224. >"Begging will not avail you here. Only compliance will."
  225. >You can't believe he's actually enjoying this!
  226. >He's sicker than you thought!
  227. >Your eyes dart back to Pharynx, right as you see another object move.
  228. >A rock lodged in the wall, falling out of it's hole.
  230. >No!
  231. >That'll give him away!
  232. >You have to distract him!
  233. >thunk
  234. "Y-you..."
  235. >His eyes, darting over to the rock, instead stop at you.
  236. >I-it's so hard to talk, but...
  237. "Y-you're the... D-Destroyer..."
  238. >His eyes light up with recognition.
  239. >Now he has your full attention.
  240. >C-come on, Pharynx, now's your chance!
  241. >"How do you know that?"
  242. >"D-Destroyer...?"
  243. >His voice is low and serious, matching his expression.
  244. >His magic pulls you closer, sending a fresh wave of nausea through you.
  245. >"There are few things in this world that would know such a thing. And you would not know, unless you--"
  246. >You can't bite it completely back this time.
  247. >A small stream of black makes it out, the awful sensation making you gag even more.
  248. >It defeats your attempt at holding the rest in, and you finish throwing up.
  249. >When you see his face again, it's surprised.
  250. >And slowly changes to... amused?
  251. >Then, he laughs.
  252. >It's disbelieving and mirthful at the same time.
  253. >"Haahahah! You... you keep darklings in your company, princess?! Oh, this is precious!"
  254. >He takes a minute to laugh it up.
  255. >"Hah! Pity for the lost, weak alien is one thing, but I did not expect pity for one who performs such abominable feats of magic! Ohh, you ponies always find a way to surprise me!"
  256. >M-maybe you'll take that as a compliment...
  257. >"Well, perhaps you shall be more... understanding of my demands, then. Tell me, dark one, do you know the location of the other human, Anonymous?"
  258. >You see a green blur zip through the doorway, in the distance.
  259. >He made it!
  260. >B-but what, now?
  262. >Wait.
  263. >M-maybe, you can... mislead him?
  264. "I..."
  265. >"S-Starlight... N-no...!"
  266. >"I am not asking you, princess."
  267. >Yeah!
  268. >M-mislead him towards somewhere dangerous in the castle!
  269. >The other guard compound!
  270. >The one for Sol Invictus!
  271. >That's it!
  272. >C-come on, Starlight, you've ad-libbed your deceptions before, you can do it again!
  273. "Y... Y-yes."
  274. >Twilight's gasp breaks your heart to hear.
  275. >I'm so sorry, Twilight, but this might just save Anon's life!
  276. >"There, you see, princess? Not everyone is as... possessive, as you are. Now, would you be so kind as to tell me more?"
  277. >He thinks Anon is some kind of pet, right?
  278. >W-weird thing to think, but m-maybe you can work with that!
  279. "C-Celestia... keeps him safe, when sh-she's gone..."
  280. >"No! D-don't tell him, p-please!"
  281. >"Be silent."
  282. "Sh-she keeps him in... the... the compound... f-for her personal g-guards...!"
  283. >Twilight's cry dies down.
  284. >D-does she know what you're up to?
  285. >"Her personal guards? I didn't realize she was also so possessive of him, too."
  286. >His thoughtful look turns into a wicked smile.
  287. >"Perhaps I will see for myself, what these precious destroyers of knowledge are capable of..."
  288. >He's buying it!
  289. >Yes!
  290. >"You've been very helpful, miss Starlight. For that, I shall spare you for now, and take you along."
  291. >W-wait, what?!
  292. >"What?!"
  293. >"Yes, princess, I shall take her with me, to hold in trust until we are graced with the chance to meet again."
  294. >Th-that son of a mule!
  295. >He rises, but not before rings of magic are cast around Twilight, trapping her.
  296. >"Come, darkling. We shall see if your claim has any veracity to it."
  297. <...
  299. >"And that is what they call the constellation of the quill!"
  300. "Damn, that's a lot of stars in that one."
  301. >"Indeed!"
  302. "You know, there's a hell of a lot more of those constellations than I thought."
  303. >"I was impressed, too! My sister left my night just as it was, before... w-well, it... it surprises me that our ponies could draw so many designs from the canvas left to them!"
  304. >That memory must still hurt for her.
  305. >"Still, it does pose problems for our-- Aah! A-ahh..."
  306. >Yeah, you'll just scratch that brief sour point away, eh?
  307. >Luna almost melts under your fingers, as usual.
  308. >"H-how can an-- a-aah, a-an act so simple, be-- mmph, so... wondrous?"
  309. >okay stop talking during it
  310. >that's too fucking qt
  311. >hnnnnnngh
  312. >A 'pomf', followed by a pressure along your other side.
  313. >She's thrown a wing around you.
  314. >A-all right, maybe you oughta... ease up a little, eh?
  315. >So that's what you do, a delighted sigh leaving her right as you pull your hand away.
  316. "Uh, sorry, didn't mean to interrupt. You were saying something about problems getting posed?"
  317. >"A-ah, yes! W-well, I learned that many races, not just ponies, used some arrangements as navigational aids. It caused quite a stir, when I first moved them, as before..."
  318. >Ooh, yeah, that'd be a bit tricky.
  319. >"We came to a resolution after a few months of discussion, thankfully. As long as some major stars and constellations they use remain constantly in the sky, they have little issue with what I do with the night sky."
  320. >You can tell that doesn't sit well with her, and the frown on her face bears that out.
  322. "Yeah, I can see that really sucking."
  323. >"Imagine my ire, when I first found out..."
  324. "Well, look at it this way. Working around the obstacles can be pretty fun by itself, right?"
  325. >"I... I suppose. Though I consider it more a chore, than I do 'fun'."
  326. "Hey, just trying to see the bright side, is all."
  327. >"I know. I do not fault you for that."
  328. >She scoots closer, her wing still on you.
  329. >"Still, the volume and complexity of the signs they derived from my night was quite impressive. They were surprisingly inspiring for my later works."
  330. "That right?"
  331. >A hum is your answer.
  332. >A few beats pass, before she turns around and hugs you.
  333. >"Thank you."
  334. "Huh? F-for what?"
  335. >"For spending all this time with me. For appreciating what I do."
  336. >oh christ she's nuzzling your cheek
  337. >"I know how precious your time has become, so it... it means much to me, that you would spend it doing this."
  338. >You return the hug.
  339. "Hey, it's no problem."
  340. >She pulls back to look at you.
  341. >Oh, God, that look is really out there, now.
  342. >You should really de-escalate this, before--
  343. >oh god she's getting closer
  344. >"I still remember what you told me, long ago. About the voyages your people took to the moon of your world."
  345. >hghk
  346. >The way she said that, softly and with all that emotion, just freezes you in place.
  347. >"Tell me. If... if I were to bring that strange gateway of yours, up onto my moon..."
  348. >She's getting closer.
  349. >"Would you like to... visit it? With me?"
  350. >The look on her face.
  351. >The meaning of what she said.
  352. >Your heart's pounding.
  353. >You can't think of any other response, that wouldn't upset her.
  355. >So without much thinking, you give her your answer.
  356. "Y-yeah."
  357. >Her face lights up, but she stays as calm as ever, even though the look in her eyes reaches damn near critical mass.
  358. >All the shit about atmospheres, temperatures, and climates on said moon are the furthest thing from your mind right now.
  359. >She gets even closer.
  360. >"Thank you."
  361. >You feel her breath on your face.
  362. >You can't move.
  363. >Your eyes are locked.
  364. >She darts forward.
  365. >Your lips touch.
  366. >And your heart just about stops.
  367. >It lasts only a few seconds, but it feels like forever.
  368. >She pulls back, a light smack heard as the kiss breaks.
  369. >She doesn't say a word, apparently content with the look on your face.
  370. >oh good god above
  371. >what the fuck
  372. >what are you gonna do now
  373. >The loud sound of the door to Luna's place opening breaks you both from the moment.
  374. >Yelling is heard, and Luna looks really pissed as she breaks for the door to her bedroom.
  375. >You need a moment to get up yourself, and hear her doors flying open.
  377. >Oww.
  378. >Remind yourself not to piss her--
  379. >"A massive bucking emergency, that's what!"
  380. >Wait.
  381. >That's Pharynx's voice!
  382. >You pick up your pace, rushing beside Luna.
  383. >Yeah, it is him!
  384. >He looks...
  385. >Oh, God, that look on his face...
  386. >Your gut just did a backflip.
  387. >"An emergency? And just what could possibly warrant this intrus--"
  388. >"Incognito is here!"
  389. >Everyone goes silent.
  390. >Your blood freezes over.
  391. >Your stomach sinks like the Titanic.
  392. >Wh-what?
  393. >No.
  394. >That can't be right.
  395. >"He's here, at the castle! And he just finished fighting Twilight!"
  397. @@@@@@@@
  399. >The instant you hear that, the ice in your veins turns to fire.
  400. >Your hands clench, and red begins to seep into your vision.
  401. "He did what...?!"
  402. >"I wasn't in the room to see it, but I felt the magic being thrown around! And... and I've never felt anything that twisted and powerful before in my life!
  403. >"I managed to slip out without being seen, and came here to get you!"
  404. >Magic is heard lighting up next to you, but you don't pay it any mind.
  405. "Where is he?"
  406. >You're only barely aware of the low, furious tone you just used.
  407. >Razor seems surprised by it, Pharynx not quite as much.
  408. >"He's at the royal guest suite! I didn't catch all of what he said, but I know that he's looking for you!"
  409. >That gets you to pause for a moment.
  410. "He's after me?"
  411. >"Yes, he wants you dead! And he was interrogating Twilight and Starlight to find out where you are!"
  412. >The fury returns, stronger than before.
  413. >"Th-this power..."
  414. >Luna's shocked voice comes in from the side, and whirling around gets you a scared face to match it, her horn aglow.
  415. >"Just like before... h-he is indeed here...!"
  416. >A scowl comes to her face soon after, fury of her own in her voice.
  417. >"That execrable whoreson! He lured my sister away from the castle for this!"
  418. >Exact pitches in, worry detectable in his speaking:
  419. >"And she took the most elite Sol Invictus guards with her."
  420. >"Damn him!"
  421. >Her wings spread out in a commanding show.
  422. >"To me, all of you! We shall assemble the Night Guard, and drive this cur back to the Reaches from whence he came!"
  423. >That sounds like one hell of a plan to you.
  425. >Right up until Pharynx interjected again:
  426. >"No! That's suicide!"
  427. >It was almost enough to get you to yell at him.
  428. >But it was more than enough for Luna:
  429. >"What?! You suggest we let him run rampant?!"
  430. >Razor got right into Pharynx's face for his piece:
  431. >"That homicidal bastard's been behind my friends being killed!"
  432. >Pharynx, far from backing down, pushed right back into his face:
  433. >"That homicidal bastard almost killed you, and your princesses!"
  434. >Instantly, you notice Razor and Luna reel back.
  435. >And honestly, you reel a little, too.
  436. >Pharynx turns back to you and Luna.
  437. >"I wasn't there for that first attack, but I heard all about what happened! Luna, you and Celestia were decked out in full war gear, with a whole platoon of guards, and he still wiped the floor with you!
  438. >"I don't want this guy going around and killing whoever he pleases, any more than you do! But just charging right at him is guaranteed to end up with most of us dead!"
  439. >The speech is enough to cool your jets just enough to think this over.
  440. >He's right.
  441. >You remember what happened, and he did end up almost killing them...
  442. >"I must agree with mister Pharynx on this matter."
  443. >Exact, right on cue, steps up, with anger detectable in his voice.
  444. >"The direct approach has a 7% chance of working, given what we know about Incognito's capabilities. If we are to have any chance at defeating him, we must devise a strategy."
  445. >Luna was a lot calmer this time, but still had that furious tone:
  446. >"A prudent call, but we must make haste! Every second we delay will place Twilight's life at even greater risk!"
  448. "Then I suggest we start multi-tasking."
  449. >"Whatever do you mean?"
  450. "Luna, where do you keep that slipgate I made for you?"
  451. >"W-within the place I needed your help, why?"
  452. >You're already moving.
  453. "All of you, follow me."
  454. >"W-wait a moment, Anonymous! Where are you--"
  455. "Gearing up. We'll get some privacy at my lab, while we're at it."
  456. >Her study door is thrown open, the hidden lever is pulled, and you're rushing through the hidden passage, in short order.
  457. >You hear the others catching up when you're halfway through the passage.
  458. >Before any of them can say anything, you're already speaking:
  459. "Pharynx, tell us everything that happened, and everything you heard."
  460. >You were half expecting him to trip up, but he actually started right after you finished, without skipping a beat.
  461. >It didn't take long to find the slipgate, and you opened it up in short order.
  462. >When you hit the secluded 'nexus' area, you immediately pull out the focusing crystal in the portal to your castle room, making it inoperable.
  463. >You flow quickly into opening the gate to your lab, storming straight over to your armoire.
  464. >As the thing swings open, and you start gearing up, Pharynx tells you everything that happened.
  465. >His entrance, his attack, his interrogation.
  466. >When Twilight was brought up, it took a lot of effort to not punch something out of sheer rage.
  467. >The only thing that brought you some solace, was that he wasn't going to kill her.
  468. >But the same wasn't true of Starlight.
  469. >By the time you finish gearing up, and turn back around, Exact's already starting things off, around a small table:
  471. >"We shall have to come up with a strategy to confront Incognito, without a direct confrontation. Such an approach will yield a 97% mortality probability for all of us, with the exception of Princess Luna."
  472. >Pharynx is next up:
  473. >"If this was the old hive, that would've been too easy! At least tell me the castle has some way of getting around, without being spotted!"
  474. >"Would invisibility spells not suffice?"
  475. "No dice on that. I can see through that without a problem, and if I can, it's a sure bet he can, too."
  476. >Luna takes that moment to pipe up:
  477. >"When I resided at the old castle within the Everfree, we had constructed hidden passages within the ceilings, using the beams as paths leading between them. Is there a similar such system for Canterlot?"
  478. >Razor and Exact pitch in:
  479. >"Nothing that war-timey, but there are the servant's passages, if that would work?"
  480. >"As a matter of fact, we do have such a network of passages within the castle."
  481. >"Wait, we do?"
  482. >"My organization created them under the orders of Princess Celstia. They are meant primarily to allow Sol Invictus members to leave and enter the castle without attracting attention, and to allow direct access to the most common areas where Celestia convenes, in case she requires our immediate aid."
  483. >That piqued both Luna's ire, and interest.
  484. >"To think she hid this from me...! These passages, do they terminate elsewhere?"
  485. >"They do have openings to some strategically valuable areas, and there is an opening near Princess Twilight's location. But if Incognito has moved..."
  487. >"Then their efficacy will be less certain."
  488. >Razor puts out his own suggestion:
  489. >"We should get our guard divisions in on this, too. Get a squad of our elites, armed with the best we've got."
  490. >"There are few elites from my own organization left at Canterlot, so such a squad composed of Night Guard would be of higher effectiveness."
  491. >"Yeah, and while we're at it, we should put the whole castle on high alert, tell them to stay away from this guy!"
  492. "You all should stay away from him."
  493. >That remark got everyone's attention, like you expected.
  494. >"Uh, Anon? What the hay are you trying to say?"
  495. "Remember what happened back when he first attacked? How his moves put you all in the hospital for months? And you, for weeks?"
  496. >Luna's only deterred slightly by the reminder.
  497. >"I... I remember all too well. But, what are you suggesting?"
  498. "His dark magic moves poison everyone who gets hit by them. Even if we get a sneak attack in on him, he's just going to throw those spells at all of you, and you'll end up being taken out of the game with one hit."
  499. >"What alternative do we have, Anonymous?"
  500. >You see Pharynx's face light up with realization.
  501. >"You want to take him on by yourself."
  502. >Well, he catches on quick.
  503. >Luna and Razor react about as badly as you thought:
  504. >"Wh-what?! You... you cannot be serious!"
  505. >"All right, Anon, I get that you're crazy, but there's a huge bucking difference between crazy and suicidal!"
  506. >Exact's humming is heard, and you see him with a thoughtful, yet very consternated look.
  507. >It doesn't take long for him to chime in:
  509. >"Your plan is extremely risky, but not without merit. You have demonstrated an apparent immunity to the poison-like effects of dark magic attacks.
  510. >"This, coupled with your innate magical resistance, and your protective equipment, would bring your own mortality rate in a direct conflict to 69.5%."
  511. >"Uh, yeah, did you forget the part where he'd be fighting him alone?!"
  512. >That's Pharynx's cue:
  513. >"Provided he stays hidden, he might not need to fight head-on at all."
  514. >"What?"
  515. >"This is my area of expertise, Razor. I served as Chrysalis's assassin. Striking from a distance, from a hidden position, will make pretty much any power or number difference mean nothing.
  516. >"And seeing how you've gone with ranged weapons, Anon, I think that'll make for a perfect approach."
  517. >"Whoa wait, hold on! What if he doesn't stay hidden?!"
  518. >"Then he can call on you guys for help. If you've got one of those alarm crystals handy, he can keep everypony safely away from danger, right up until he needs you.
  519. >"That's why you're considering the solo approach, right? To keep them out of harm's way?"
  520. >All eyes are back on you.
  521. "Yeah."
  522. >"Oh, for-- Anon, keeping our charges safe is our job, even if we have to take some licks to do it!"
  523. "This isn't going to end with you 'taking some licks'! This might end with you fucking dead!"
  524. >"And that's a risk I'm willing to--"
  525. "I'm not going to argue with you over this!"
  526. >"You're right, you're not. Like it or not, we're coming with you."
  527. "Listen--"
  528. >SLAM
  529. >Razor's hooves slam on the table, cutting you off.
  530. >Though his glare alone would've shut you up.
  532. >"No, shit-for-brains, YOU listen! This isn't some game of Ogres & Oubliettes, where you're some all-mighty hero type who can solo just about anything!
  533. >"This is a real crisis situation we're dealing with here! Ponies are going to die, no matter what you do! And in case you forgot, that tailhole didn't need dark magic to put you in the hospital!"
  534. "But--"
  535. >"SILENCE, ALL OF YOU!"
  536. >Jesus Christ, your ears!
  537. >Why'd Luna have to yell like that, right fucking next to you?!
  538. >Sure got everyone's attention, though!
  539. >"This bickering gets us nowhere! I agree that Anonymous has the greatest chance in a direct fight, but it is also true that he cannot do this alone! Therefore, we shall compromise!"
  540. "But--"
  541. >She just got right into your face, cutting you off again.
  542. >`What part of 'silence' didst thou not understand?`
  543. >Ohhkay, Ancient Equestrian and a low, threatening tone.
  544. >Shutting up, now.
  545. >"Sergeant, I will need alarm crystals, and a guide for these tunnels of yours!"
  546. >He floats five from a pouch on his armour, and gets to writing what you assume is a map on some parchment.
  547. >"I only have time to create one such map, your highness."
  548. >"That will suffice. Lieutenant, you and I shall make our way through these tunnels, and assemble the rest of the Night Guard. Once this is done, we shall take a squadron of our strongest soldiers, and await their signal to intervene!
  549. >"Pharynx, Sergeant Measure, you two shall accompany and guide Anonymous towards that vile monster! Pharynx, you shall endeavour to keep the group hidden, and arrange a surgical strike from the shadows!"
  551. >"That won't be a problem, princess."
  552. >"And remember, if your concealment is no longer viable, call for our aid as soon as you can! With any luck, the strikes made from the shadows will have weakened him enough to allow us to finish him off!"
  553. >The paper Exact was writing on was floated over to Luna.
  554. >"Is this plan acceptable?"
  555. >It isn't for you.
  556. >But she's right, arguing about it won't get you anywhere.
  557. >So a nod, it is.
  558. >"Good! Let us make haste, lieutenant!"
  559. >"Don't you bucking dare get yourself killed, Anon."
  560. "Wouldn't dream of it."
  561. >With that, the two of them run back through the slipgate, with your group of three following shortly after.
  562. >"Take the slipgate back to your quarters, mister Anonymous. The shortest path to Princess Twilight is through there."
  563. >No arguments from you.
  564. >The gem is stuck back in, and the gate re-opened.
  565. >"Sir Pharynx, do you sense anything?"
  566. >"Twilight and Rarity are close. One's struggling, the other's unconscious. I don't feel anything else."
  567. >Shit.
  568. >He's moved on.
  569. "Let's give her some help, then!"
  570. >A few nods later, and you're barging through the door, heading to the room Twilight's in.
  571. >You find the door open, Rarity collapsed but not hurt, and--
  572. >Holy shit, Twilight!
  573. >You rush to her side, Exact following close.
  574. >Jesus Christ, what happened to her?!
  575. >"A-Anon...?"
  576. "Twilight, are you okay?!"
  577. >"A-Anon! You're okay!"
  578. >Once Exact dispels her binds, she instantly latches onto you.
  579. "What happen--"
  580. >"There's no time! Starlight! He took Starlight! He's headed for the Invictus compound! He's going to kill everypony there!"
  581. <...
  583. >SCHLK
  584. >The cries of the patrolling guards were cut short, as the catalyst blades sheared through them.
  585. >Red energy seemed to flow from their wounds, and into the blades.
  586. >The guards that chose to run didn't get very far, before bolts of red, crackling magic flew out from his palm, and straight towards them.
  587. >The guards crumpled after being hit, with massive holes burnt through their bodies.
  588. >Their armour didn't help them at all.
  589. >You keep looking over at them from a distance, in a state of shock.
  590. >How?
  591. >H-how could anypony-- no, anyTHING, just...
  592. >J-just perform all this violence, all this destruction, so... so bucking casually?!
  593. >As blurred with tears as your eyes are, you still look over towards Incognito.
  594. >He looks annoyed.
  595. >Annoyed.
  596. >He killed those guards!
  597. >He's killed so many of these ponies, and he's annoyed?!
  598. >"Pathetic. Absolutely pathetic. It's as if I had never launched my first assault upon the castle."
  599. >Despite everything, you start to shake.
  600. >Red begins to seep into your vision.
  601. >"I sincerely hope that these vaunted members of Sol Invictus will prove to be of heartier stock."
  602. >He talks about murdering more ponies, like he's talking about the weather...!
  603. >He's...
  604. >He's a...
  605. "Monster."
  606. >"Hm? Did you say something, darkling?"
  607. >What started as a quiet line, soon became a furious outburst:
  608. "Monster! You bucking monster!"
  609. >You thrash against the telekinetic hold, for what good that was worth.
  610. "How can you do this?! How many ponies need to die before you're satisfied?! Wh-what kind of monster are you?!"
  612. >And he just looks at you, with a bored expression.
  613. >"Is that the best you can come up with? 'Monster'?"
  614. >The response shocks you more than you thought it would.
  615. >"To be perfectly honest, madam Starlight, I expected much better from you."
  616. >He resumes walking towards his destination.
  617. >You, meanwhile, are left speechless.
  618. >Of all the things he could have said...
  619. >Your thrashing had stopped a while ago, but now your limbs go totally slack.
  620. "They were right. You are a daemon."
  621. >He doesn't pay you any attention.
  622. "A cold-blooded, soulless daemon."
  623. >You notice him stop with that line, and his head turns to face you.
  624. >W-wait, what did--?!
  625. >"You have such remarkable intuition, for a pony. How did you ever find yourself in the ranks of these cretins?"
  626. "Wh-what?"
  627. >"Indeed, you appear to have... given up on your practice of the dark arts. Is that not the apparatus by which you came to steal the very destinies of your fellow ponies?
  628. >"Forgive me, but I am having a very difficult time fathoming how you could turn away from such an extraordinary power, to give up on your drive, and instead join the alicorns!"
  629. >He's resumed walking, but...
  630. >Is it even worth telling him?
  631. >No, probably not...
  632. >But--
  633. >"Were you lied to? Did they draw you in, with falsehoods about 'forgiveness' and 'friendship'? Did you think they would release you from the touch of the void?"
  634. >The anger returns.
  635. "They weren't lying! They did forgive me! They did become my friends! The princesses, the Elements, all of them! And none of them had to kill anypony to do it! They're weren't monsters, like--"
  637. >Your response was cut off by his laughter.
  638. >He's laughing?!
  639. >What could he possibly be laughing about?!
  640. >"Haahahah! You think the princesses didn't need to kill anyone to attain their goals? You think they gained the power they still enjoy today, through 'friendship'?"
  641. >When he looks at you next, the wicked smile he gives you sends shivers down your spine.
  642. >"I could tell you stories of Celestia's cruelty that would make your hair curl. I could tell you of the things she has done, things that would make my actions seem saintly by contrast!"
  643. >He rounds a corner.
  644. >"You think what I have done is monstrous? Of a demonic nature? Nothing is more monstrous than her subjugation of the Stonetalon Bluffs, centuries ago. Nothing is more evocative of demonic ploys, than the War of the Ancients.
  645. >"No, little pony. This is justice for those who were wronged by her. She has had this coming for a very long time."
  646. >He said all of that, with so much conviction...
  647. "You expect me to believe that? As if that's not a cover for your sick plans?!"
  648. >Too bad you've made speeches like that before!
  649. >"We're here."
  650. >We're--
  651. >The compound entrance.
  652. >Oh, no...!
  653. >The door is launched backwards with telekinesis.
  654. >Power floods his catalyst as he steps into the compound, the all-unicorn guards within scrambling to get ready.
  655. >"'For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness!'"
  656. >It's only then, when his crackling catalyst is held aloft, that you realize what you've done.
  657. >They're all going to die.
  659. @@@@@@@@
  661. >The guards only have time to launch a few magic bolts at him, the attacks fizzling harmlessly against his armour.
  662. >Incognito, meanwhile, sweeps his catalyst in front of him again.
  663. >A much louder WHOOSH follows the massive wave of red magic.
  664. >It flips a few objects over, but that's not what the attack is made for.
  665. >Bloodreaver Harbinger Waves are made to harm the living, and that's exactly what they do.
  666. >Every guard caught out in the blast wave crumples against the strike, and are sent flying backwards at high speeds.
  667. >And the dark magic within the wave almost seems to electrocute the ponies it touches.
  668. >The guards that aren't killed outright by the wave, are finished off when they collide with the walls.
  669. >He uses the opening it creates to simply walk towards the centre of the room.
  670. >Meanwhile, some of the gems in his catalyst retract back into the body, another set with different colours taking their place soon after.
  671. >He's changing out the mnemonic matrices?!
  672. >You didn't know you could do that!
  673. >O-oh holy Goddess above...
  674. >You thought the main body was way too big, for a regular battlelord's catalyst!
  675. >B-but what spells does he have in this new set?
  676. >Moments after the change, the blades on the weapon light up with a red aura.
  677. >It's only then that you notice the glyphs on the blades.
  678. >Wait.
  679. >No.
  680. >Th-those aren't glyphs.
  681. >They're runes!
  682. >The blades are already in motion, by the time you realize what they are.
  683. >With a high-pitched VRISH, he winds up his catalyst, the blades getting a very long extension of undulating, smoky red magic.
  685. >That's when you see some guards, charging him with glaives made of some kind of dark, tarnished, gold-coloured metal.
  686. >The same guards currently in reach of the Deathclaw spell he's just prepared.
  687. >By the time the guards realize, it's too late.
  688. >The back of his hand sweeps towards them, the magical blades scything through the entire group.
  689. >There isn't even any blood, the extensions searing the points where they hit.
  690. >Right after the initial strike, the blades collapse into a mass of the same smoky magic, this time in the palm of his hand.
  691. >Small currents of reddish energy flow from his victims, and into the same mass.
  692. >H-he can drain their vitae, even with spells?!
  693. >Small orbs of energy break off from the central mass in his hand, floating for a moment before shooting forth into the distance.
  694. >The sounds of yelling and crashing are heard soon after.
  695. >"Hmph. So disappointing."
  696. >You weren't expecting to hear him talk, and when you look up, you see...
  697. >Boredom.
  698. >He... he's just murdered all these ponies, a-and he's bored?!
  699. >"Is this all I shall find among this accursed race? Even with surprise on my side, I expected far more fight from these supposed elites!"
  700. >He's moving again, deeper into the compound, where he just flung those projectiles.
  701. >You're still forced to float a short distance behind him.
  702. >The bodies of more guards litter the path, as he walks to a set of double-doors.
  703. >He doesn't wait to open it normally, instead sending more of those smoky projectiles to blow the hinges off, sending it crashing down.
  705. >On the other side, was a mess hall.
  706. >A mess hall half full of guards, in various stages of readiness.
  707. >Some are totally geared up with their weapons and armour, others look like they just got out of bed!
  708. >No matter what their state was, however, they were all facing the destroyed door, weapons brandished and horns glowing.
  709. >Their combined power was really something.
  710. >But it was still eclipsed by the presence coming from Incognito's catalyst.
  711. >He steps into the large room, totally ignoring the warnings shouted by the guards.
  712. >You weren't expecting them to open up with magic that quickly, though.
  713. >Magical attacks of all kinds barrelled down on Incognito, but...
  714. >But nothing was penetrating his armour.
  715. >His catalyst had moved up to cover his face, though.
  716. >And it was there that you got a good look at the runes adorning the blades.
  717. >A... a soul-snare spell?
  718. >A soul-snare spell.
  719. >He makes the thing double as his soul trapper?!
  720. >You knew that catalysts needed a soulstone to work, but...
  721. >J-just how big a stone is he using, that he can get away with that?!
  722. >You don't have time to linger on that discovery, however.
  723. >The energy in his palm was sucked back into the catalyst, and you could hear the gems shifting around.
  724. >Another change?
  725. >Wh-what's he going to do now--
  726. >"Is this all the power you possess, O elites of Celestia? Is this truly the best that you have to offer?"
  727. >Their shots died down slightly, but it was only when his gauntlet erupted with a red, misty glow, that they stopped completely.
  728. >It swept out in front of him, but nothing was unleashed.
  730. >Wait...
  731. >This sensation, y-you recognize it!
  732. >"So much prestige, such deference, is given to your organization! And yet, all I find myself facing is little more than a rabble of disorganized spellslingers!
  733. >"And to think, I had actually been looking forward to this encounter!"
  734. >He raises the gauntlet in the air, the glow intensifying, and the misty aura more resembling steam.
  735. >Oh, no.
  736. >That's what he's doing.
  737. >He's going for a Lifedrain!
  738. >"You have wasted my time, and tested my patience. And these valuable resources of mine, can only be refunded with blood!"
  739. >Some guards had already been pulling back, but even after they slipped into the halls and passages, they still weren't far enough away.
  740. >The guards, in seemingly random order, are engulfed with the same red aura covering his catalyst, a thick stream of red magic being sucked out of their bodies, and into the blades.
  741. >You've cast Lifedrain before.
  742. >You've seen this effect already.
  743. >But the sheer number of victims...
  744. >His draining of multiple ponies at once...
  745. >And that they're only taking a second or two to be drained...!
  746. >How?!
  747. >How is anypony-- no, anything, that powerful?!
  748. >Let alone a catalyst?!
  749. >The spell completes, and the result...
  750. >Oh, no...
  751. >The whole hall, full of powerful unicorns...
  752. >Th-they're all...
  753. >Wait.
  754. >They're not dead?
  755. >They're not dead.
  756. >He didn't kill them!
  757. >He's in motion again.
  758. >He's still moving the same as before, at that slow yet deliberate pace.
  759. >That's impossible.
  760. >He's used so much dark magic, enough to turn most ponies into husks!
  761. >How is he still standing?!
  763. >He should be keeling over!
  764. >His soul should be ravaged by the warp right now!
  765. >He should be in all kinds of pain!
  766. >But instead, there's...
  767. >Nothing!
  768. >This is insane!
  769. >Nothing resists darkness like this, nothing!
  770. >How is this even possible?!
  771. >A groan draws your attention.
  772. >One of the guards, he's still moving, trying to get up!
  773. >Incognito notices this too, and makes his way over towards the guard.
  774. >The guard tries to float a nearby glaive, but his magic fizzles out, a pained grunt leaving him for his trouble.
  775. >Such a powerful unicorn, left completely defenceless by the dark magic poisoning him...!
  776. >"Well, what have we here? A grain of wheat amongst so much chaff, perhaps?"
  777. >Magic envelops the guard, and he's floated over to Incognito, with no shortage of pain on the guard's face as he does this.
  778. >"I know you wish for me to leave this place, and believe me when I say that I have no desire to remain here for longer than necessary, either.
  779. >"So I shall ask of you one simple question, that will help shorten my stay here at Canterlot. Where is the human, Anonymous?"
  780. >The confused look on the guard's face is all the answer he seems to need.
  781. >His right hand balls into a fist.
  782. >"Miss Starlight."
  783. >The venom in his voice turns the shiver you feel into total, icy dread.
  784. >The guard is sent flying off into a table.
  785. >"You told me of his stay, within this place. And yet, he--"
  786. >THUD-TWIIIiiing
  787. >His attention is diverted by the sound of an impact on his armour.
  788. >Another guard, a mare, part of the guards he just beat, and holding a crossbow.
  790. >He turns to fully face the guard, his catalyst igniting once again.
  791. >There, you see a bolt sticking in the left side of his armour.
  792. >It didn't go deep enough to hurt him.
  793. >"Miserable pest."
  794. >The guardsmare is flung towards him at high speeds--
  795. >SCHLICK
  796. >The strangled cry from the guard mirrors what you feel.
  797. >He just impaled her on the blades.
  798. >"But even pests have their uses."
  799. >She begins to scream, and the blades ignite more by themselv--
  800. >The runes!
  801. >He's going to--!!
  802. "N-no, don't! Stop!"
  803. >The catalyst pulls back and upwards, tendrils of white energy dragging along with it.
  804. "Please, I--"
  805. >The blades fully retract from the mare, and her screams are cut off by a white orb leaving her mouth.
  806. >He...
  807. >Y-you...
  808. >You barely notice yourself falling to the ground, free of his magic.
  809. >The tears in your eyes partly blur his boots coming into view.
  810. >"You lied to me."
  811. >But his voice pulls you from your shock, back into terror.
  812. >"I planned to have you... see the error of your ways. But now, I've had a change of heart."
  813. >The runes on the blades ignite again.
  814. >N-no...!!
  815. >"I've always wondered how different a darkling's soul is, compared to--"
  817. >"Graaah!"
  818. >The painful and shocked yell that leaves him takes you by--
  819. >WHOOSH
  820. "Waah!"
  821. >Suddenly, you find yourself swept up into the air, a pair of green, slightly shiny forelegs holding--
  822. >Pharynx?!
  823. >He lands on the ceiling beams, quickly shifting you onto his back with his magic.
  824. >Off in the distance, you see Anon, perched on another beam.
  825. >And the wrathful look on his face chills you.
  826. <...
  828. >In all your years, you've never wanted to kill someone before.
  829. >Hell, you've never truly hated someone before.
  830. >All that changed just a few moments ago, after arriving at Exact's HQ through the secret passage.
  831. >And seeing... him.
  832. >He was surrounded by so many dead guards.
  833. >You caught him just as he skewered that one guard.
  834. >And...
  835. >You don't know exactly what he did, but you've got a good idea.
  836. >But you moved into action, before even realizing, once his sights were set on Starlight.
  837. >Your bow came out in an instant, and you fired a shot, straight into his left upper back.
  838. >The shot was true, but buried only a good half-inch into him.
  839. >But you were nowhere near finished.
  840. >Another shot is strung up.
  841. >Despite the pure fury you feel, and the fresh taste of real, honest-to-God hatred, your hands are perfectly steady, your actions almost automatic.
  842. >He's reeling down below, trying to find who shot him.
  843. >Let's give him another hint.
  844. >THWANG-thud
  845. >The next shot lands in his gut, penetrating another half inch.
  846. >The pained yell that leaves him is pure pleasure to hear.
  847. >Another shot is pulled free and lined up.
  848. >You'll move after this one.
  849. >THWANG-thud
  850. >Another solid shot in the gut.
  851. >There's no way he won't be looking up for that one.
  852. >You, however, are already in motion.
  853. >Enchantments in your boots activate, one muffling your steps.
  854. >Another helped keep your balance right on these fairly thin beams.
  855. >Finally, one jacked your running speed up, and you dart your way to another part of the ceiling, around ten-ish yards away, in only a few seconds.
  857. >He's in your sights again in no time at all, another shot lined up.
  858. >Blood is seen trickling out of the points you hit him.
  859. >That armour is a little thicker than you thought it was, but it's not going to matter for much.
  860. >Not when you're through with him.
  861. >THWANG-thud
  862. >Especially not when he just leaves his back exposed, like that.
  863. >He turns in place to see where he was shot from.
  864. >Surprise and pain make up part of his expression, the rest being anger.
  865. >Although, you remember him moving a lot faster than that.
  866. >Not nearly as fast as you are now, though.
  867. >You rush over to another spot on the ceiling, and line another shot up.
  868. >Fury of his own looks to be pushing out the surprise on his face.
  869. >THWANG-thud
  870. >But hey, let's not leave pain out of the equation, shall we?
  871. >That shot in his right side ought to do it.
  872. >You see his dollar-store knockoff Talon of Horus ignite with red, misty magic.
  873. >Don't know what he's planning, but you don't intend to find out.
  874. >THWANG-thud
  875. >Another one right in the gut.
  876. >After reeling from the hit, his eyes lock on to where you are.
  877. >Shit, didn't move!
  878. >You dart across to another spot as quick as you can.
  879. >His eyes haven't followed you.
  880. >Still focusing on your old spot, a ball of some kind of dark red magic fires from his palm, destroying the beams where you just were.
  881. >"The first true wounds I sustain at the hands of ponykind, and of course, it's from a--"
  882. >THWANG-thud
  883. >You might be biased, but this fucker talks too much.
  884. >That shot in the chest knocked the wind out of him, thankfully.
  886. >Oh, he's really pissed now.
  887. >"Gaaaaah! Wretched coward! Show yourself!"
  888. >Let's not.
  889. >Another position is taken, another shot lined up.
  890. >There's something fitting, about this boastful shitstain getting pelted to death from a distance.
  891. >It's the only time throughout this whole event that you allow yourself to smile.
  892. >THWANG-thud
  893. >You know, you like the blood trails coming down from the impact points.
  894. >It's a good look on him.
  895. >It'd be even better if it caused him to keel over and die.
  896. >The next yell that comes from him is very high on the furious scale.
  897. >And his gauntlet catalyst thing wreathes itself in that red magic, the misty effect now looking more like steam.
  898. >"Mark my words, recreant Equestrian!"
  899. >He points it to the sky, a huge orb of that fire-like energy shooting up towards the ceiling.
  900. >"Your spirit shall never see Elysium!"
  901. >The orb stops dead upon hitting the middle of the beams, and instead almost 'deflates', the 'fire' spreading out from the impact point.
  902. >He's taking out all of the beams!
  903. >Forget your position, where's the others?!
  904. >You know Pharynx is dropping off--
  905. >Exact!
  906. >His path to the passage door is cut off!
  907. >Without any further prompting, you rush over to his position, jumping over some of the gaps with ease, thanks to the boots.
  908. >"Mister Anonymous, what are--"
  909. >Your TK gloves cut him off, lifting him up and onto your back.
  910. "Hang on to something!"
  911. >The added weight definitely slows you down, but the balancing aid from the boots is really making the jumps easier.
  912. >The 'flames' are hot on your trail.
  913. >But the door's right there!
  915. >Pharynx is seen opening the door, and also looks really taken aback by the sight in front of him.
  916. >But to his credit, he reacts extremely fast to the situation.
  917. >The weight on your back is lifted a bit by his attempt to float Exact over to him.
  918. >Noticing his plan, you have your gloves join his efforts.
  919. >In no time at all, he's safely floated off of your back, and over to the passage.
  920. >Once Exact is on solid ground, the two of them make way for your own entrance.
  921. >All right, just one more gap, and--
  922. >CRACK
  923. >Your foot fails to get the resistance it was supposed to.
  924. >Your eyes dart downwards.
  925. >The beam you were on just broke off.
  926. >And it's almost totally engulfed in 'fire'.
  927. >You hear those two call your name, but you've already kicked off of the beam.
  928. >Damn it.
  929. >Nowhere to go but down.
  930. >Your boots have some impact compensation, but you doubt it's effectiveness from this high up.
  931. >Luckily, you've got your greaves to help with that.
  932. >While you try your best to steer yourself to a more advantageous landing spot, the inertia-affecting enchantment in the greaves kicks on.
  933. >And thus, you make your landing on both feet.
  934. >It doesn't feel that bad for you, but the floor cracked quite a bit with the landing.
  935. >But you don't have time to marvel at your physics-breaking gear.
  936. >Looking up gets you a swirling orb of that same dark magic, covering where Incognito was.
  937. >Bloody arrows are flung out of the orb, the shafts burning up before they hit the floor.
  938. >Soon after, a pained yell is heard coming from said orb.
  940. >Well, while he presumably commits seppuku to boost his edgy powers, you take cover behind a pillar.
  941. >Maybe he hasn't seen you yet?
  942. >Guess you'll find out.
  943. >The orb's energy dissipates right as you peer out over the side of the pillar.
  944. >His teeth are gritted, and his right hand is clenching an empty vial.
  945. >There's also a notable lack of arrows and bleeding.
  946. >Wait.
  947. >Did he just pop a fucking healing potion?!
  948. >Before you have time to ponder that further, he throws the vial down, his catalyst igniting again.
  949. >And he does not look happy.
  950. >"I know you're here, little pony! You have nowhere left to hide! Show yourself!"
  951. >Yeah, that's not happening.
  952. >Slowly, with as many arm movements hidden behind the pillar as possible, you string up another shot.
  953. >There's still holes in his armour, after all.
  954. >Holes you might be able to get a more damaging shot into.
  955. >"Make no mistake, you miserable insect. When I find you, your soul shall fuel my--"
  956. >THWANG-thud
  957. >Ooh, that's a lot more penetration than you expected, this close.
  958. >Now that shot's a solid inch into the plate covering his left side.
  959. >His eyes dart over to the pillar you're hiding behind.
  960. >The catalyst ignites again, which you take as your cue to back the fuck away.
  961. >With a wide sweep, he launches a big orb of that energy straight at it.
  962. >It detonates with a much lower, way deeper 'BANG' than any explosion should.
  963. >Either way, the pillar is reduced to rubble, with plenty of marble shrapnel coming straight for you.
  964. >Shrapnel that your armour's shielding handily deflects away.
  966. >Before the dust clears, you string up another shot.
  967. >The silhouette of Incognito through the cloud is all you need.
  969. >Wait, hold on.
  970. >That last sound wasn't there before.
  971. >The dust fully clears, revealing a barrier of that same energy.
  972. >An arrow buried a good halfway into it.
  973. >The barrier fades, showing a furious Incognito behind it.
  974. >"You cannot hide any longer, pony! Now, prepare to--"
  975. >His eyes lock with yours.
  976. >And most of his fury evaporates, replaced with confusion.
  977. >"What? You?"
  978. "Looking for me?"
  979. >Your own fury hasn't faded at all.
  980. >And the smile he's grown only fuels it more.
  981. >"Well, well, well. The favoured servant of the ponies. I'm surprised, really. I did not expect a servile coward like you to engage in battle like this."
  982. >The fuck's he talking about, now?
  983. >"Oh, I see. You're still reeling from that defeat, aren't you? Is that why you had the princesses spread those falsehoods about your victory at Ponyville?"
  984. >Your confusion gives way to realization.
  985. >He doesn't believe that you beat his super-bug.
  986. >"Well, from their victory over my... servants, to that peculiar toy of yours, they certainly provide well for their slaves."
  987. >Heh.
  988. >He doesn't know a thing about your arsenal.
  989. >Probably didn't believe the bug's story, either.
  990. >You've still got some surprise on your side, after all!
  991. >"Come now, you don't need to settle for their illusions of power. You can still--"
  992. "What, join you? Get fucked."
  993. >"Hmph. Pity."
  994. >His catalyst ignites again.
  995. >"Then you will die now, so I am not troubled later."
  996. >Bring it the fuck on.
  997. <...
  999. @@@@@@@@
  1001. >A queen.
  1002. >That's what you've been turning into.
  1003. >That's what all these changes have been about!
  1004. >That's why the drones were so... deferential, when you left!
  1005. >You were a princess, a future queen in the making!
  1006. >Royalty!
  1007. >But...
  1008. >But, why?
  1009. >I-if that's true, then...
  1010. >Then why did Chrysalis take that away from you?
  1011. >Consorts and royals all look unique, right?
  1012. >You couldn't have been an exception!
  1013. >But you looked just like a regular drone, for a long time!
  1014. >Hay, you acted and thought like one!
  1015. >S-so...
  1016. >Why?
  1017. >Taking away your memory was one thing, but changing your appearance?
  1018. >Was she hiding you?
  1019. >Was she jealous?
  1020. >I-is that why she put that geas on the Fang twins, to keep them from telling you?
  1021. >But...
  1022. >But why did she act so...
  1023. >So indifferent to you, then?
  1024. >Was she jealous, after all?
  1025. >Did you do something she couldn't stand?
  1026. >Showed her up, maybe?
  1027. >The thought makes you really, really angry, but it...
  1028. >It doesn't really feel right, either!
  1029. >Yeah, you still hate her for her betrayal of Incognito, even more for... doing this!
  1030. >But she wasn't heartless enough to do that to her drones!
  1031. >Short-tempered, really, really pushy, and really terrible at keeping them safe, sure!
  1032. >But she never just... abused them, like the Fangs did!
  1033. >Not like that!
  1034. >They were still vital to her!
  1035. >To top it off, you would have been her direct successor!
  1036. >That had to count for something!
  1037. >Aaagh, what, though?!
  1038. >Why did this happen?!
  1039. >That has to mean that she was hiding you!
  1040. >But why?
  1041. >What possible reason could she have, to hide you away like this?!
  1043. >No matter what you try, it doesn't add up!
  1044. >If she was hiding you from Incognito, that meant she was doing it out of jealousy!
  1045. >After all, he'd never try to hurt you!
  1046. >All he's done is train you, help make you stronger!
  1047. >And the stories he's shared, the time he's spent with you...
  1048. >Her being jealous is the only reason you can think of, and it just doesn't make any sense!
  1049. >She doesn't do evil, roundabout stuff like that to her own lings!
  1050. >Ponies, gryphons, all other races, sure, but never her own lings!
  1051. >What are you missing?!
  1052. >Aaaaagh!
  1053. >D-damn it...
  1054. >Your thoughts begin to drift, landing on that...
  1055. >That traitor consort.
  1056. >You were so angry at the time, you never noticed before, but...
  1057. >You did feel... something.
  1058. >Some strange, distant familiarity.
  1059. >The kind that gives you a weird, nostalgic feeling.
  1060. >Totally at odds with how angry the thought of him is starting to make you.
  1061. >Still...
  1062. >Still, he did seem to know a lot about you.
  1063. >How the hay could he have known about your preference for storge, after all?
  1064. >Your love for malting things?
  1065. >A-and that chip in your leg!
  1066. >You never noticed that, until he brought it up!
  1067. >Were...
  1068. >Were you close to that ling, before?
  1069. >I-if he's a consort, and you were a princess, it makes sense.
  1070. >They're made to keep royals safe, after all!
  1071. >Hm...
  1072. >He did look pretty sad, when you first... talked.
  1073. >And he predicted your lunge, easily enough!
  1074. >What was all that, about 'beating you in wrestling'?
  1075. >The thought gives you another pang of that weird nostalgic feeling.
  1076. >Damn it...
  1077. >What does he know?
  1079. >A-are you ever going to find out?
  1080. >He didn't look like he wanted much to do with you anymore...
  1081. >Not after he...
  1082. >H-he...
  1083. >Sitting back down, you start looking over the holes in your hoof.
  1084. >Trying to stop thinking about what he said to you.
  1085. >D-damn it...
  1086. >N-no, don't you start crying!
  1087. >Y-you can still--
  1088. >bwmph
  1089. >H-huh?
  1090. >What was that?
  1091. >bwmph
  1092. >D-did the ground just shake a little?
  1093. >Up in front of you, you see the doors begin to crack open slightly, with that usual loud grinding.
  1094. >O-oh, no, who's trying to see you, now?!
  1095. >Is it--
  1096. >BWMPH
  1097. "Aah!"
  1098. >A huge rush of air just came through the small gap between the doors!
  1099. >I-it sounded almost like an explosion, but really deep and--
  1100. >W-wait...!
  1101. >Is...
  1102. >Is that metal clanging, you hear?
  1103. >As the doors open more and more, you focus in on what's behind the--
  1104. >What the...?!
  1105. >There's a fight going on back there!
  1106. >You see a pony guard, with beaten-up armour and a few bolts in his side, run into the room, only to skid to a halt upon seeing you.
  1107. >He turns around, to try and run back--
  1108. >CRASH
  1109. >Wh-whoa!
  1110. >A cloud of glittering dust is kicked up, as... something just launched up into the air, from behind the still-opening door, punching through the crevice!
  1111. >Whatever it is, it's coming straight for the guard, who's now screaming--
  1113. >H-holy--!
  1114. >The shockwave of that impact had you cover your face for a moment!
  1115. >Only a moment passes before you look at what just--
  1116. >J-just...
  1117. >I-it's...!!
  1118. >It's one of... those!
  1119. >Towering over the pony's corpse, both blades staking it into the ground.
  1120. >A Homunculus!
  1122. >You start to shake.
  1123. >N-no way.
  1124. >H-how did--
  1125. >The creature darts up with incredible speed, it's runic 'eye' locking with yours.
  1126. >Your stomach drops.
  1127. >With the same speed, it rears back and gives a loud, deep bellow.
  1128. >And your blood goes cold.
  1129. >Wh-what's this thing doing here...?!
  1130. >I-it has to be here for you!
  1131. >Which means he sent it!
  1132. >S-sent it to...
  1133. >To punish you...?
  1134. >It's blades pull out of the ground, and retract back into it's hands.
  1135. >You start to panic, pulling back as far as you'll go, as it looks at you.
  1136. >And it...
  1137. >It stands there.
  1138. >The clattering of metal in the background is barely audible.
  1139. >Meanwhile, your panic starts to subside.
  1140. >Wh-what's it doing, now?
  1141. >Isn't it supposed to... do something?
  1142. >It's blocking off your view of the entrance, meaning you can't see what's going on outside.
  1143. >So you can't hear what's talking out loud, from behind it:
  1144. >"Door's clear, check the sides!"
  1145. >"Left side, clear!"
  1146. >"Right side, clear!"
  1147. >"Pah. This is the extent of the Equestrian Royal Guard's battle prowess? Lord Matthias was right about them, after all."
  1148. >Wait, that voice.
  1149. >You recognize it!
  1150. >Isn't that...
  1151. >That zebra shaman, with Incognito?
  1152. >Or, is she an alchemist?
  1153. >You don't--
  1154. >Zamara!
  1155. >That's her name!
  1156. >"Wish I was there for his initial assault. From what I heard, it was a slaughter."
  1157. >That other voice is instantly familiar.
  1158. >And it stuns you to hear it.
  1159. >A-Ajay...?!
  1160. >"So, uh, you sure that... that she's here?"
  1161. >"There is no fooling the senses of a Homunculus, young warrior. She is here."
  1162. >You hear hoofsteps, and the clacking of talons, moving closer.
  1164. >A brief flash of the runes later, and the monster, which lacks any stitching and deformities, backs away and kneels down.
  1165. >And while it does this, it reveals the two that you heard before.
  1166. >Zamara, wearing some kind of armour made of equal parts bone and metal, with a lot of saddlebags, and a bloody bardiche stowed across her back.
  1167. >And Ajay, in plated armour, a crossbow and a pair of strange curved swords stowed across his back.
  1168. >Both of them reel in shock, upon seeing you.
  1169. >"What in the...? Hallowed ancestors, is that... her?"
  1170. >"A-Athalia? Is... is that you?"
  1171. >You don't say anything.
  1172. >You can't say anything.
  1173. >You can't believe it.
  1174. >It's...
  1175. >It's really him.
  1176. >"That is her, no doubt about it. The creature's senses cannot be fooled."
  1177. >Ajay makes his approach towards you, step by slow step.
  1178. >The expression on his face is many things, most of them disbelief, slowly changing to joy.
  1179. >A mirror image of what you currently feel right now.
  1180. >His talons bump into the stake pinning you to the ground, making him look down and follow the chain, back over to you, with his look becoming angrier all the while.
  1181. >"Godric's beak, what did they do to you...?"
  1182. >It's at that point, that you finally remember how to use your legs.
  1183. >And the first thing you do is run up towards him, your eyes beginning to water.
  1184. >He doesn't pull away, the surprise in his eyes quickly returning to joy.
  1185. >And as you latch onto him, throwing your forelegs around him and hugging him tightly, he returns the gesture immediately after you, his talons harmlessly skating around your carapace.
  1187. >"Oh, Lord above, you're all right!"
  1188. >The only response you're capable of is sobbing.
  1189. >It's him!
  1190. >It's really him!
  1191. >"I thought... I thought you were dead!"
  1192. >And the happiness you feel is quickly replaced by sorrow.
  1193. >"When you didn't come back after a few weeks, we--"
  1194. "I'm sorry!"
  1195. >"H-huh?"
  1196. >Your grip gets ever tighter as the words come flooding out:
  1197. "I-I should have listened to you! I shouldn't have rushed in like that! I should've brought help!"
  1198. >"W-wait a minute--"
  1199. "I'm sorry! I'msorryI'msorryI'msor--"
  1200. >His own squeezing cuts you off.
  1201. >"Hey, shh. None of that now, okay?"
  1202. "B-but, I--"
  1203. >"Hey, look at me."
  1204. >His head pulls back, prompting you to pull your own back.
  1205. >Your eyes meet.
  1206. >He's never had that kind of soft look to his eyes, before.
  1207. >You...
  1208. >You like it.
  1209. >It actually manages to calm you down a little bit.
  1210. >"Don't you worry about that mission right now, all right, Athalia?"
  1211. >His talon does a really poor job at wiping away the tear streaks, but the meaning of it still makes you smile a little, in spite of everything.
  1212. >"You just sit tight, all right? We're gonna get you out of here."
  1213. >"Not while you're still embracing her, I'm not."
  1214. >Your gaze goes over to an unamused-looking Zamara, who is now flanked by a pair of more heavily armoured zebras.
  1215. >"Oh, uh, sorry about that..."
  1216. >It's with no small amount of reluctance that Ajay lets you go.
  1217. >And you're just as reluctant to let him go, too.
  1218. >Once it happens, though, Zamara wastes no time in circling around you, studying the things attached to you.
  1220. >The small golden bangles on her forelegs, with magic symbols you don't recognize, occasionally glow as she does this.
  1221. >"Well, I can certainly say this. The guards did not need to be particularly good at fighting, with how securely you have been restrained."
  1222. >"Uh, is that going to affect anything? Are you gonna be able to spring her?"
  1223. >"Of course I will, young warrior. It will simply take more time than I would prefer it to."
  1224. >She yells something to her two guards in that weird language of hers, and they drop a few things off from the smaller bags on their armour, before heading back towards the now very damaged main door.
  1225. >All the while, the homunculus stays stock still, the dim red glow of the runes on it being the only indication that it's even... 'alive'.
  1226. >"Rugged Athalia, remain still and tell me what you feel."
  1227. "Huh? W-well, I don't really-- OW!"
  1228. >Gaaaah!
  1229. >Wh-what the?!
  1230. >You whirl around to Zamara, finding her with a small metal stake of some kind, covered in a thin layer of your blood.
  1231. >Did she just stab you?!
  1232. >"Zamara! What the hell was that for?!"
  1233. >"An important safety measure."
  1234. "You could have warned me!"
  1235. >"Weakness does not befit you, rugged one. Now, remain still."
  1236. >The stake is dipped into a flask of a faintly glowing green liquid.
  1237. >It flashes for a moment, before turning cloudy.
  1238. >She seems satisfied with that, and pulls out what looks like a metal gryphon poultry baster, dipping it into the liquid and drawing some in with the bulb.
  1239. >Quickly, she drags the end of it along one of your leg restraints, from top to bottom.
  1241. >And the liquid that comes out of it has an immediate effect.
  1242. >It melts away the restraint right where it touches, the liquid quickly eating away at it until it pulls itself apart at that point, falling to the ground.
  1243. >The strength immediately returns to your foreleg once it comes off.
  1244. >That's how she's doing it?
  1245. >With acid?!
  1246. >She seems to notice your panic, and gives a quick response:
  1247. >"The solution does not harm you, rugged one. Now remain still."
  1248. >She's already melting off the one on your other foreleg.
  1249. >W-well, you're...
  1250. >You're not going to argue with the results!
  1251. >With practiced speed and precision, she 'cuts' off every padded restraint, leaving you unchained and restraint-free in a few minutes.
  1252. >With the damned things gone, you feel...
  1253. >You feel so strong!
  1254. >"S-so, uh... you sure... look a lot different."
  1255. >You look over at a rather nervous-looking Ajay.
  1256. "Y-yeah... it's a really long story."
  1257. >"If... if it's any consolation, I, uh, really like the new look."
  1258. >Your smile is equal parts appreciative and prideful.
  1259. "It does look good on me, huh?"
  1260. >"If the two of you are quite done, there is still one last element remaining. Rugged one, keep your head still."
  1261. "I have a name, you know."
  1262. >"You have much to learn."
  1263. >Your eyeroll lands on the item she's walking over, one that her zebra friends set down.
  1264. >A horn-ring tool.
  1265. >Just like the one you used in Ponyville...!
  1266. >"Young warrior, you possess more dexterity than I. You will remove the final shackle from your friend."
  1267. >"The ring? O-of course!"
  1269. >He wastes no time in taking the tool in his talons, quickly heading over to you.
  1270. >"All right, keep still for me, all right?"
  1271. "Right."
  1272. >Excitement builds as you feel the tool clamp around the accursed ring.
  1273. >Your magic's coming back!
  1274. >You can't believe it!
  1275. >The metal-scraping, ratcheting action sends some rather uncomfortable vibrations down your horn.
  1276. >Whatever, you'll live with it!
  1277. >You already feel the thing loosening up!
  1278. >He pulls it upwards after a few rotations, guiding the now very loose ring along the kinks in your horn.
  1279. >Yes, yes, YES!
  1280. >The ring is quickly pulled off after the last kink.
  1281. >And the effect hits you like a maulwurf.
  1282. >Emotions, pure and at full force, floods your sixth sense.
  1283. >The impact of it is enough to make you keel over, crying out a little.
  1284. >I-It's been so long, you...
  1285. >You can't make sense of it yet!
  1286. >So overpowering!
  1287. >"Athalia? Are you okay?"
  1288. >Through the sensory overload, you pick up his fear, his concern.
  1289. >You can feel emotions again!
  1290. >You almost don't feel his talons shaking your withers, for a moment.
  1291. "F-fine! I... I'm all right!"
  1292. >"You sure?"
  1293. "Y-yeah, just... getting used to it. B-been a while, right?"
  1294. >"R-right..."
  1295. >You give the base of your now ring-free horn a rub, trying to get the sensation to abate a little bit.
  1296. >It doesn't help, but it at least made you feel better.
  1297. >A few moments pass, before you finally reorient your empathetic senses.
  1298. >Now, you could...
  1299. >C-could...
  1300. >Wh-whoa...!
  1301. >When...
  1302. >When could you feel all of this?!
  1303. >Not just their emotions, but their intentions, too?!
  1305. >"You good now, Athalia?"
  1306. >His emotions are full of concern for you.
  1307. >It's enough to make you smile a bit wider.
  1308. "G-good? Ajay, I... I haven't felt this good in weeks!"
  1309. >You rise up, standing tall and proud.
  1310. >Everything feels so...
  1311. >So damned RIGHT!
  1312. >You've never felt this strong before!
  1313. >You've never felt this powerful!
  1314. >And you've never felt so ALIVE!
  1315. >"It is good to see that you are in good health, at the very least. Now perhaps we can finally leave this accursed cavern."
  1316. >She hides it in her actions, but with your senses back, you feel the impression your new look's left on her.
  1317. >And you can't get enough of how awed Ajay is by it!
  1318. >Sweet Foremothers, you love it!
  1319. >"Y-yeah, I... Uh, yeah, agreed. I'd love to bash some more ponies around and all, but we need to leave."
  1320. >The line breaks you from your own high.
  1321. "W-wait a minute. I... I thought you all would have left me behind! Why did you come for me? How did you even find me?"
  1322. >"Lord Matthias certainly considered leaving you, once he learned the first Homunculi lived no longer."
  1323. >That reminder has you shrink away slightly, ears pinning back.
  1324. >"But I, with the aid of the young warrior, convinced him to at least hear your explanation as to why you failed his task.
  1325. >"Though he was very angry about it all. He even sacrificed a prisoner's soul, just to ensure you knew the extent of his anger!
  1326. >"Fortunately, nothing can hide from the senses of the Homunculi. It found you quite easily.
  1327. >"Now, I suggest we do not keep him waiting any longer. He will demand many details from you, once his task is complete."
  1329. >Wait.
  1330. "His task?"
  1331. >"Yes. He has taken it into his own hands, to finish the assignment that you were unable to complete."
  1332. >You freeze.
  1333. >Your blood runs cold.
  1334. >Memories of the fight rush back.
  1335. >>"I'm coming for that shitheel emo teenager scumfuck that you call a fucking lord!"
  1336. "N-no..."
  1337. >>"I'm gonna rip the eyes outta his head, and piss in his dead skull!"
  1338. "No!"
  1339. >Your panicked outburst takes both Zamara and Ajay aback.
  1340. >"A-Athalia?"
  1341. >"What is the meaning of this?"
  1342. "Oh, no, no, NO! Wh-where is he?!"
  1343. >"Rugged one, calm yourself. There is no cause for concern--"
  1344. "Yes, there is!"
  1345. >"He has more than enough power at his disposal to eliminate this other human. I--"
  1346. "No! No, he doesn't! Please, tell me where he is!"
  1347. >"What are you talking about? His power is unrivalled by even the alicorns!"
  1348. >"A-Athalia, what are you talking about?"
  1349. >Your head whirls around, to look Ajay in the eyes.
  1350. "Listen to me! I was beaten at Ponyville, yes, but it wasn't because I was careless! It wasn't because those monsters he sent with me were weak!"
  1351. >"What?"
  1352. "That human, Anonymous, he... he isn't weak! He isn't anywhere near as weak as Incogn-- L-Lord Matthias thinks he is!"
  1353. >"What... what are you saying?"
  1354. >"Yes, what are you implying, rugged one?"
  1355. >You turn back to Zamara.
  1356. "He beat those monsters! All five of them! He didn't do it alone, but he did most of the work!"
  1357. >"Excuse me? These creatures are powerful, destructive things, not so easily destroyed!"
  1358. "I know! I know that they regenerate, and keep fighting on! And he destroyed them all the same!
  1360. "He... he has these things. These magical weapons that I've never seen before! I've never felt anything like them! They were so powerful, so destructive, a-and... and he used them to totally destroy the monsters!
  1361. "I did my best to take out the guards, and even beat back a princess! But he... he was on a whole other level! His attacks were so powerful, and he was so furious, so unrelenting...!
  1362. "He beat me within an inch of my life! I... I lost to him! And I spent weeks recovering at Canterlot, every inch of my chitin broken and bleeding!"
  1363. >When the words finally finish coming out, you give your head a shake before concluding:
  1364. "Don't you get it? He's somehow gotten a hold of some kind of magic, something powerful enough to beat me and the creatures working together! And he's gotten it so fast!
  1365. "And the princesses know! Even my race's traitors know! And I'm sure they're all helping him! A-and if they're working together, to get him stronger, then Lord Matthias is in terrible danger!"
  1366. >The faces and emotions of both gryphon and zebra are shock and disbelief.
  1367. "Please, you have to tell me where--"
  1368. >"Athalia, rugged one. These devices, describe them to me."
  1369. "L-like rods, full of magic, a-and he kept switching these weird gems around on top of them, using them to change spells!"
  1370. >Zamara's expression becomes grave.
  1371. >"Like the legends within the great ziggurat's libraries..."
  1372. >She calls out back to the door in that language of hers, then turns back to you, her expression and emotions both deadly serious.
  1373. >"Young warrior, rugged one, come quickly."
  1375. >"W-wait, hold on, what's this all about? What the hell could this other human have, that's that powerful?"
  1376. >"The description that your friend has provided, is a match for the powers of an ancient foe of my tribe and their allies, the 'Towenaar' in my people's tongue."
  1377. >"A-ancient foe? So..."
  1378. >"Yes. If your friend is being truthful, and I have no reason to doubt her, then this Anonymous commands their power. Lord Matthias is indeed in terrible danger."
  1379. >Her fellow zebras return to her, and she speaks to them in their language.
  1380. >When 'Towenaar' is mentioned, they also turn deadly serious.
  1381. >The homunculus stands back up, the flash of the runes matched by the flash of a pendant you only now notice that Zamara is wearing.
  1382. >"There is no time to waste! We must come to the aid of Lord Matthias at once!"
  1383. >She runs out of the room with the other zebras and the homunculus, and you and Ajay aren't far behind.
  1384. >You see some more gryphons outside the exit, and Ajay calls out for them to follow as well.
  1385. >The cavern snakes around, leading down a small crevice, with dust and rocks giving away the Homunculus being used to open some of them up.
  1386. >"We are not far from the chariots, now. Rugged one, are you ready to do battle?"
  1387. "I've done nothing but rest for weeks! I'm more than ready!"
  1388. >You sense Ajay's hesitance, but he doesn't say anything.
  1389. >The passage opens up into sunlight.
  1390. >And three chariots wait outside, carrying more armed zebras, gryphons, and changelings.
  1391. >After everyone comes aboard, the chariots take off.
  1392. >Straight towards Canterlot.
  1393. <...
  1395. @@@@@@@@
  1397. >The moment the catalyst starts creating more of that evil-looking fire, you spring into motion.
  1398. >Another shot is lined up, and loosed before the 'fire' gets too big.
  1399. >THWANG-thud
  1400. >You don't stop to see if the arrow even hit, instead opting to sprint to the next pillar.
  1401. >A feat made so much easier by these boots, with you clearing the several-yard distance in only a few seconds.
  1402. >From behind, you hear his magic firing up something fierce, and some blasts of air at your back gives away him shooting off some projectiles your way.
  1403. >Ducking behind the pillar, you string up another shot, peering out from behind it to get your target in sight.
  1404. >His power-glove is totally cloaked in that 'fire'.
  1405. >And there's your shot, sticking just about an inch into his gut.
  1406. >And boy, he sure flipped from bemused to pissed, real fast.
  1407. >THWANG-thud
  1408. >"Gaaah!"
  1409. >The new shot in his ribs succeeds in pissing him off even more, if the angry yell he just let loose was any indication.
  1410. >A wall of that 'flame' now covers his front.
  1411. >"I will not suffer your cowardly attacks any further, miscreant!"
  1412. >Shit, he's turtling up.
  1413. >Don't think your shots will do much good against that.
  1414. >Unless, maybe...
  1415. >You check your bow, making sure you--
  1416. >Oh, what the fuck?
  1417. >You weren't using any foci?!
  1418. >God fucking damn it, Anon!
  1419. >You could've fucking ended this earlier, if you had the TK strapped on!
  1420. >Get your shit together!
  1421. >Well, fine, whatever!
  1422. >You weren't planning on TK-shooting that shield, anyways!
  1423. >Now, if that 'fire' is like any other magic fire, it should--
  1425. >Ohhkay, that firewall just got a lot bigger!
  1426. >Without any further ado, you quickly strap the ice focus onto the bow, and bolt to the next pillar with the speed of a coked-up Kenyan border hopper.
  1427. >The wall doesn't move with you.
  1428. >Once you're at the right angle, you see him dumping a good amount of magic into the wall, for God only knows what reason.
  1429. >Unfortunately for you, he catches you out of the corner of his eye, and before you can line another shot up, the wall moves back to blocking your sight.
  1430. >And it looks to be reaching critical mass.
  1431. >"Your death will be far from painless, Anonymous!"
  1432. >That sure sounds like the lead-in to his attack, to you.
  1433. >With a deep, thunderous 'FWMMPH', the entire wall is sent straight towards your position, as one huge projectile.
  1434. >Shit, too wide to run around!
  1435. >Ducking behind the pillar, you float your staff out, having it dump raw energy into your armour's shielding.
  1436. >God, you hope this works...!
  1438. >The pillar does a shit job at absorbing the blast, the whole column save for the base crumpling like paper.
  1439. >Leaving your shield to do the work.
  1440. >The physical layer, an orange array of hexagonal tiles, takes care of the pillar debris.
  1441. >The magic layer takes the brunt of the force, with the most effects to show for it: a bright iridescent teal in a perfect sphere, lighting up the brightest where the attack was getting deflected.
  1442. >The impact lasts for only a moment, the wall 'sliding' over your shield and impacting the wall behind you, kicking up a ton more debris and dust.
  1444. >Holy.
  1445. >Fucking.
  1446. >Shit.
  1447. >That actually worked!
  1448. >Holy fuck, are you glad you got this armour right!
  1449. >Once the high of actually living through that attack wears off, you realize that the cloud of debris and dust is currently covering you completely, and extending a good few feet in front of you.
  1450. >The shredded remains of the pillar's base also serves to partly cover your knelt-down form.
  1451. >"Hmph. Even when you find your courage, and succeed in harming me, you fall just as easily as the rest."
  1452. >Oh, no way.
  1453. >He thinks you're dead, already?!
  1454. >Oh, no way in hell are you not taking advantage of this!
  1455. >TK replaces the ice focus on your bow, and you string up another shot.
  1456. >Not making that mistake again.
  1457. >Unfortunately, your field of view is obscured by the dust.
  1458. >Good for keeping hidden, not so much for finding your target.
  1459. >Lucky for you, his footsteps give you a good idea of where he is.
  1460. >The glowing of his catalyst is visible now.
  1461. >So, if you aim a little to the left...
  1463. >The noise he makes is halfway between a yell and a gasp.
  1464. >Not that you really care, since you're already sprinting to pillar number three.
  1465. >Once you're situated, you string another shot up, and check out the damage you just...
  1466. >Uh.
  1467. >Wow.
  1468. >That shot was right in his gut.
  1469. >And it had to be around three inches deep.
  1470. >He was clutching the shot with a now quite bloody right hand, shock replacing the anger on his face.
  1471. >Finally, he gives a pained grunt, and his catalyst sparks up, forming a barrier of that 'fire' all around him.
  1472. >Oh, God, what's he doing now?
  1474. >The barrier-encased Incognito makes his move, towards a pair of destroyed doors.
  1475. >Wait, what?
  1476. >Is he fucking running away?!
  1477. >No, no way is a guy like him going to just--
  1478. >Except he totally just did.
  1479. >He just fucking bolted.
  1480. >Motherfucker!
  1481. >Could've taken a shot, but no!
  1482. >Unstringing the shot, you bolt your way over to the door he just fucked off through.
  1483. >Well, you do halfway, before the 'use your fucking brain' fairy comes knocking, and you skid to a halt just as quick as you started.
  1484. >Hold up, Anon.
  1485. >As much of a colossal blowhard this fucking guy is, he might still be planning something!
  1486. >This could be an impromptu trap!
  1487. >So, let's try and see what the deal is!
  1488. >Your arrow is slid back into the quiver, the same hand reaching down and grabbing hold of another magic item: a pair of super-manalens teashades.
  1489. >Slipping the thing on, you immediately start peeling back the layers of the place, trying to find where this shitwizard is.
  1490. >It doesn't take very long.
  1491. >An absolutely enormous magical aberration was front-and-center, which couldn't be anything but the catalyst.
  1492. >Weird, though.
  1493. >Despite how much power it was putting out, it didn't have a single node connection.
  1494. >More importantly, the thing was moving away, and seemed to stop somewhere off in that room over yonder.
  1495. >As expected, the mongoloid wielding the thing was a total dead spot on the lenses.
  1496. >Let's see what the Soulgazer says about this.
  1497. >Flipping over, you--
  1498. >Wait, hold on, what?
  1499. >The floor of this room is lit up bright orange!
  1500. >It's then that you look down, and pay attention to the guards.
  1502. >Their chests are rising, and some of them are panting slightly.
  1503. >They're not dead.
  1504. >Holy shit, they're not dead!
  1505. >He didn't kill them?!
  1506. >Now that you're aware of this fact, you notice a few of the guards struggling to get up.
  1507. >You're at the side of the nearest one, trying to offer some help.
  1508. "Holy shit, are you all right?"
  1509. >A groan is what you get in reply.
  1510. >"Don't... wait for... us..."
  1511. >That really weak voice came from a guard over yonder, who just pulled herself up.
  1512. >Naturally, you're over there in a flash.
  1513. "Hey, you shouldn't be--"
  1514. >"You can't... help us. G-go..."
  1515. >Jesus, she's struggling to hold it together!
  1516. >Your attempt to use your glasses to see what's wrong is interrupted by the guardsmare grabbing your arm.
  1517. >"Go...! S-stop... him...!"
  1518. >That snaps you back into reality.
  1519. >That fucker's still afoot.
  1520. >All the same, you put the guard's hoof back on solid ground.
  1521. "Stay here and don't move. Help's on the way, you hear?"
  1522. >"G-go..."
  1523. >She doesn't have to tell you thrice.
  1524. >You're out the door, pulling the glasses off and stowing them away, another arrow nocked up and ready to go.
  1525. >Okay...
  1526. >This door led to a huge opening hallway, the same as the one in the Night Compound.
  1527. >Same three-storey height, same balconies and watch posts on the walls.
  1528. >The same pillars, too.
  1529. >One of which was in the direction of where Incognito was skulking away to.
  1530. >If he thinks that's gonna hide him, he's got another thing coming.
  1531. >The TK on the bow is switched out for a Bluebaide focus.
  1532. >The nocked arrow changes immediately, almost turning into a small javelin of magic.
  1534. >You line the shot dead-center with the pillar.
  1535. >Funny how it's almost perfectly man-sized.
  1537. >"Gaaaah!"
  1538. >A small smirk makes it's way to your face.
  1539. >Bluebaide's lightsaber-like powers made the arrows penetrate targets with ease.
  1540. >Made them great for penetrating targets, or for your quasi-wallhacking.
  1541. >You replace it with TK again, however.
  1542. >And you finish that right as Incognito comes from behind the corner, all arrows gone, save for the new one in his lower back.
  1543. >He still looked angry, but... there was something else to his look, something that managed to unsettle you a bit.
  1544. >The magic around his catalyst changed, too: it was a constant aura of red energy, with the occasional crackle.
  1545. >Said catalyst shot right up, two fingers pointed straight at you.
  1546. >You take that as your cue to take cover.
  1547. >As you bolt for the pillar in front of you, you see a spear of his own magic rocket out of his sword-fingers, going straight for you.
  1548. >You were too augured into running to dodge it.
  1549. >ZWVASH
  1550. >But your shielding ate it well enough!
  1551. >Dust goes flying above your head, as one of those spears passes through the pillar, ripping the middle of it to shreds.
  1552. >You string a shot up, waiting for his follow-up attack.
  1553. >Except it doesn't come.
  1554. >"I would like to offer you my sincerest of apologies, mister Anonymous."
  1555. >Wait, what?
  1556. >Apologies?
  1557. >And what's with that tone of his, all happy-sounding?
  1558. >"I had erroneously assumed you were a weakling, utterly subservient to the whims of the ponies you frolic about with."
  1560. >Well, if he's just going to stand there and monologue...
  1561. >You lean out from beside the pillar, pulling the shot back and lining him up.
  1563. >Oh, come the fuck on, he's got a shield now, too?
  1564. >Motherfucker!
  1565. >That must be from the glow his power glove's putting off!
  1566. >"But that has self-evidently not been the case. No pony could have taught you to do battle in such an... opportunistic fashion. Even now, you continue looking for openings!"
  1567. >Okay, think!
  1568. >What do you have that can bust that shield down?
  1569. >"I had thought that my servant had failed in her task to slay you, due to gross incompetence on her part. But I see now, that is not the case. She was outperformed."
  1570. >Sonic, maybe?
  1571. >No, that--
  1572. >Riafalt!
  1573. >That's specifically for dark magic!
  1574. >"You have left a genuine impression on me, Anonymous. She was trained well, and was aided by my creations! And yet, you defeated them all the same!"
  1575. >Yeah, keep fucking talking, shit-for-brains.
  1576. >Don't actually try and kill your enemy, or anything!
  1577. >Nah, just let him slap Riafalt onto his super-staff!
  1578. >"And you came so very close to felling me, mere moments ago..."
  1579. >When you lean back out from beside the pillar, your staff floating out with a full charge, you see a savage little smile taking over his face.
  1580. >You string a shot up, while you're at it.
  1581. >"Truly, you have earned a good dea--"
  1582. >plink
  1583. >His reaction to the small white orb is instant, his shield becoming a translucent hemisphere in front of him.
  1584. >All right, you're gonna need to time this just right...!
  1586. >The orb connects to the shield.
  1587. >And the magic starts to happen.
  1589. >The huge pillar of white magic hits the shield head-on, eating right through it like it was nothing.
  1590. >It takes him by surprise, too, with him having to cover his face with his free hand.
  1591. >Leaving his chest wide open for you.
  1593. >The wind is knocked right out of him, as the shot buries itself into the right side of his ribcage.
  1594. >That shot had to have punctured a lung!
  1595. >Another shot is strung up and loosed, in short order.
  1597. >Wait, hold on, what?
  1598. >That shield's back?
  1599. >That's fucking impossible!
  1600. >Riafalt should have taken his catalyst out, along with the shield!
  1601. >But sure enough, there it is!
  1602. >It looked way more scuffed up, but it was far from destroyed!
  1603. >What the fuck is that thing made out of?!
  1604. >This fucking--
  1605. >He's laughing.
  1606. >A full-on evil laugh is currently leaving him, despite the arrow in his chest, and the accompanying blood trickle from his mouth.
  1607. >"Haahahah! The cleansing light of Saint Riafalt, too?! Oh, I understand, now! You took up their art, the art of the Faber Mystico! Now it all makes sense!
  1608. >"You work not with Celestia's support, but in spite of her objections! Ohh, how deep your claws must be in her circle, that you can so flagrantly use the techniques of her ancient enemies!"
  1609. >Riafalt's long-charge is still recovering, so you try for some of those holy bolts, to try and create another opening for your next shot.
  1611. >The shield reacts violently with the bolts, but still holds.
  1612. >Motherfucker!
  1614. >"Do you know how long I have sought a confrontation like this, mister Anonymous? Do you know how long I have been on this blasted world, without a true battle to show for it?"
  1615. >He grabs something from his belt, another vial.
  1616. >It has a brightly glowing amber liquid inside it.
  1617. >Another healing potion?
  1618. >"Let us do battle in full, then! Nothing restrained, nothing held back! A clash between men! Between two forbidden magics: the arts of the ancient Thaumaturges, against the arts of the undying Void Lords!"
  1619. >Without further ado, he downs the whole vial.
  1620. >Instantly, he doubles over, a grunt escaping him.
  1621. >He stays like that for a few moments, before he shoots back up just as quickly as he went down.
  1622. >His eyes seemed to glow, going along with the massive, predatory grin he now wore.
  1623. >With his free hand, he pulls free a falchion from his belt.
  1624. >The same one from so long ago.
  1625. >His catalyst is heard shifting, and the magic changes once again.
  1626. >This time, it's wreathed in black flames, and you swear you can hear faint screaming coming from it.
  1627. >Won't be doing that for long.
  1629. >He doesn't even try to dodge the shot to his ribs, in the same spot.
  1630. >Except...
  1631. >It only went in a couple of inches.
  1632. >And he didn't even flinch.
  1633. >Oh, shit...
  1634. >"Save your energy, Anonymous! You'll need it to scream, when I start tearing off your limbs!"
  1635. >He charges--
  1636. >Whoa, holy shit!
  1637. >SMASH
  1638. >You leap back just in time, as he clears the several-yard distance in seconds, smashing the remains of the pillar where you just were with his catalyst.
  1640. >The strike didn't just break through it with pure force, but there was also an explosion of that black flame, sounding off with a deep 'bong' and what you swear was a scream.
  1641. >Don't get hit by that, okay!
  1642. >Good plan!
  1643. >You've already about-faced, darting towards a pillar further away.
  1644. >Damn it, you need some distance!
  1645. >The only melee weapon you have, the super-Bluebaide wand, is fucking useless against his armour!
  1646. >Your eyes are drawn to the balcony the pillar is currently holding up.
  1647. >Actually...
  1648. >That might be--
  1650. >Whoa, what?!
  1651. >Your shield just got hit from behind!
  1652. >Your head turns back to--
  1653. >Jesus Christ, he's catching up?!
  1654. >Okay, never mind, you're going with that plan right now!
  1655. >While you put the pedal to the metal, your greaves kick on, along with the jump-boost of your boots.
  1656. >And you jump at precisely the right time, a huge blade of black fire slashing where you just were.
  1657. >The combined jump boost and inertia reduction made you jump like a fucking Jedi, and you overshoot the jump a bit, hitting the wall behind it.
  1658. >With the inertia being dropped, it wasn't actually that bad, and you drop to the balcony floor easily enough.
  1659. >"Escaping already? Oh, don't tell me you have nothing with which to face me head-on!"
  1660. >A SMASH from down below gives away him taking out the pillars holding this thing up.
  1661. >And you take the chance to Force Jump your way to a nearby watch post.
  1662. >Good thing those didn't have pillars!
  1663. >Okay, so he basically just popped a fucking berserk pack, then!
  1664. >That explains his speed in that armour!
  1665. >Wonderful!
  1667. >You nock up a shot from the post, looking down to where the balcony's pillars are.
  1668. >You catch him slashing the other pillar down with that catalyst, and the balcony crashes down on top of him.
  1669. >Not that that really does anything, seeing as how there's a sphere of black fire protecting him from the impact!
  1670. >Jeez, how is he even manipulating the magic like that?
  1671. >You'd need a good half-dozen foci to do all those tricks with the magic fire!
  1672. >Guess catalysts are way better at it than you thought!
  1674. >Your shot hits him in the leg this time, the head sticking out through the other side.
  1675. >His response is to just...
  1676. >Well, pull the fucking thing out, and pretend nothing happened.
  1677. >And there's barely any blood, either.
  1678. >Great, so it's buffing his damage tolerance, too.
  1679. >Just what you fucking needed.
  1680. >You're gonna need a different strategy for this.
  1681. >You can't pelt him from a distance forever, not if he keeps destroying your high ground--
  1682. >Hoooly shit, speak of the devil!
  1683. >You jump out from the post to another balcony, just before a ball of black fire totally destroys the post you were just on.
  1684. >"Do you intend to run and hide forever, Anonymous?"
  1685. >How long does that shit he drank last?
  1686. >If you can outlast it's duration, he shouldn't just shrug off your shots anymore!
  1687. >"You wield the weapon of a hunter, and yet find yourself to be the hunted. Come, you can do far better than this!"
  1688. >As if to show off, he pulls out an arrow in his chest.
  1690. >Only for you to replace it.
  1691. >Now he's looking way more annoyed than excited.
  1692. >Hm...
  1693. >Annoyed, huh?
  1694. <...
  1696. @@@@@@@@
  1698. >You finish vomiting up more of that black stuff.
  1699. >Oh, thank goodness...
  1700. >Y-you think that's the last of it, for now...
  1701. >"Starlight, are you all right?"
  1702. >Pharynx's voice draws you back into the present.
  1703. >Incognito!
  1704. >He's still there!
  1705. >You try to stand back up, but are rewarded with nothing but pain for your trouble.
  1706. >You cry out and collapse back onto your belly.
  1707. >"Hey, didn't I just say to stay still?"
  1708. >"Please do not attempt to move or utilize magic, miss Glimmer."
  1709. >The other unicorn, 'sergeant Measure', is in the process of scanning your body with his magic.
  1710. >The weird, detached look he has gave you a bad vibe, but so far he seems all right...
  1711. >"Your mana system is currently afflicted with stage-two dark magic poisoning, miss Glimmer. You will not be likely to use magic for--"
  1712. "A-a week or two. I know..."
  1713. >"I am unsure as to the veracity of that. Eight to twenty days is the standard duration of the mana-stunting effects, but that average was derived from subjects who were not previous users of dark magic."
  1714. "It... it doesn't really change that much. A-all you can do is keep using dark magic."
  1715. >"Ah, so it does not impede all forms of spellcasting."
  1716. >"Wait, you've used dark magic before?"
  1717. "Y-yeah, a long time ago..."
  1718. >"The emesis she has been experiencing is a side effect of dark magic utilization. It appears that exposure to external dark magic is enough to trigger a relapse of this condition, however."
  1719. >"So that's how you knew what she was going through...!"
  1720. >Damn it, there isn't time for this!
  1721. >Despite how ineffectual it is, you still try to get up.
  1723. >"Miss Glimmer, please remain still."
  1724. "I-Incognito! Wh-where is he...?!"
  1725. >"Mister Anonymous is currently engaging him."
  1726. "What? A-and you just left him there, by himself?!"
  1727. >"The passage to the mess hall is not usable. We cannot aid him from here."
  1728. >Pharynx cuts you off.
  1729. >"He'll be fine, Starlight. Believe me, nopony wants that monster dead, more than I do! But Exact's right, we can't get to him from here."
  1730. >Wait, 'Exact'?
  1731. >That's his name?
  1732. >He sure doesn't look all that happy about Pharynx using it.
  1733. >"And besides, of all of us, he's got the highest chance of surviving in a one-on-one. I'm sure he can hold out long enough for our help to get here."
  1734. "W-wait, our help...?"
  1735. >"Luna's assembling her toughest guards, and is gearing up for the fight, too. They should be here any minute, now."
  1736. >"If we were to attempt to assist mister Anonymous by ourselves, we would end up increasing his chance of success by only 11%. With a full platoon of elite Night Guard, however, this chance increases to 34%. With Princess Luna's direct intervention, this increases further to a 53% chance."
  1737. >All you can do is blink at the numbers he rattled off.
  1738. >But a shake of your head brings you out of all those... statistics!
  1739. "Damn it, so what?! He needs all the help he can get! Incognito's taken out the whole garrison in there, all by himself! I-if Anon's up against that, he doesn't stand a chance!"
  1740. >"I fully understand your rationale, miss Starlight, but given the situation, and his apparent willingness to take prisoners, we may end up being used against mister Anonymous, instead."
  1742. >That thought gives you pause.
  1743. >H-he's right...
  1744. >He could just go for all of you, instead of just him.
  1745. >A-and knowing how protective Anon is of his friends...
  1746. >You'd all be a liability!
  1747. >Damn it...!
  1748. >"Mister Anonymous also has the advantage of ostensible immunity to the poisonous effects of dark magic, giving him a considerable endurance advantage.
  1749. >"Combined with his extremely powerful defensive equipment, he has a 87.8% likelihood of surviving the encounter for the next eleven minutes."
  1750. >Resistance to dark magic...
  1751. >Is that connected to how those soul-scrying goggles didn't do anything to him?
  1752. >And to how that bucking monster is apparently ignoring the warp...?!
  1753. >You see Pharynx prick up a bit, and then a smile begins to grow on his face.
  1754. >"They're here."
  1755. >"Where are they coming from?"
  1756. >"The hallway outside this exit point, to the right. They'll be here in ten or so seconds."
  1757. >W-wait, what?
  1758. >How does he know that?
  1759. >"Good. I shall transport miss Starlight. Head outside and flag them down."
  1760. >"Right."
  1761. >Sergea-- Exact levitates you onto his back, while Pharynx opens a sliding door on the opposite wall of this dark little hidden room.
  1762. >You had no idea the castle had secret passages built into it, like this!
  1763. >But still, they're more claustrophobic than you expected, and the air was really stagnant and dry...
  1764. >You're just glad to be out of here.
  1765. >E-even if you can't help them...
  1766. >The indoor lights from the other side of the door stings your eyes a little.
  1767. >But the fresher air from the other side totally makes up for it...!
  1769. >"Luna! Over here!"
  1770. >Your eyes are adjusted well enough to see--
  1771. >Wh-whoa...!
  1772. >Look at all those Night Guards!
  1773. >They're all wearing full plate armour, magic gems slotted into their chestpieces where the Night Guard crest would normally be.
  1774. >They also came complete with terrifying, bat-like closed helmets, with another gem slotted into the forehead!
  1775. >And they were armed to the teeth, with those weird triple-shot crossbows, and large crescent glaives, with a blue metal making up the business ends of the weapons.
  1776. >But the real show-stealer was Luna, herself.
  1777. >And part of that show-stealing was from how terrifying she looked.
  1778. >Thicker, plated armour of that same bluish metal, with black, obsidian-like highlights covered her whole form, with chainmail of the blue metal covering her legs and neck.
  1779. >Another magical gem was embedded in the chest, where the crest would normally be.
  1780. >Her helmet wasn't closed like the others, and had more of a crown motif, but had three magic gems slotted into it, instead of just one.
  1781. >And upon her back, was a single, absolutely enormous crescent glaive, almost like a scythe, also made of that blue metal, and covered in magical glyphs.
  1782. >The wear-and-tear on it hinted at how much use it must have gotten...
  1783. >"Sir Pharynx! You are unharmed!"
  1784. >"Yeah, surprisingly enough."
  1785. >One of the guards close to Luna breaks away, heading towards you and Exact.
  1786. >"Holy shit, Starlight? What happened to you?"
  1787. >That voice, it's Razor!
  1788. >He blended right in with the other guards!
  1789. >Luna walked over towards the pair of you, looking concerned herself.
  1791. >"Sergeant Measure, report."
  1792. >"Miss Starlight was taken captive by Incognito, during the confrontation with Princess Twilight. She was forced to accompany him to my division's compound, and has sustained stage-two dark magic poisoning. We were able to rescue her from the enemy's clutches, however."
  1793. >"I see."
  1794. >Her look gets much more concerned, even if her voice doesn't show it.
  1795. >"And where is sir Anonymous?"
  1796. >"He is currently engaging Incognito directly. Unfortunately, we were cut off from him, and he has been in combat by himself for three minutes and forty-seven seconds."
  1797. >That makes Luna extremely angry, and even though you can't see Razor's face, you're sure he's angry, too.
  1798. >"I shall see that lady Starlight is taken to a secure location. Sir Pharynx, Sergeant Measure, your magic will be invaluable in the battle ahead. Let us not waste any further time!"
  1799. >Razor speaks up next:
  1800. >"Princess, I'd like to shuttle her out of here. I can make it to the hospital in just a few minutes."
  1801. >"Very well, but make haste. We will need your aid in the coming battle."
  1802. >He salutes her, and then has Exact lift you from his back, onto his.
  1803. >"Warriors, to me! We shall drive this otherwordly daemon back to--"
  1804. >"Aaaaagh!"
  1805. >Ph-Pharynx?!
  1806. >He just doubled over, crying out in pain and clutching his head!
  1807. >"Sir Pharynx? What is it?"
  1808. >"Gah... Wh-what... what is that?!"
  1809. >"What? Does something approach?"
  1810. >Her horn lights up, and her expression turns grave.
  1811. >"What... what manner of foul magic is this...?!"
  1812. >"Th-this thing, it... it's in so much pain, I--!"
  1813. >graaaaaaaaaaaaaaahh
  1815. >Th-that noise...!
  1816. >A cold shiver just went down your spine.
  1817. >"At the ready, my warriors! This foe approaches from above!"
  1818. >Her weapon is unslung in her magic, and the rest of the guards gets their own weapons ready, half of them glaives, the other half crossbows.
  1819. >"Th-that's not all... There's... there's more above, but I can't tell, with...!"
  1820. >"Hold fast, sir Pharynx! Be at the ready, my warriors! There may be--"
  1821. >CRASH
  1822. >Whoa!
  1823. >Something just crashed through the ceiling, a dozen or so meters ahead of where Luna is standing, up the hallway!
  1824. >The dust obscures it for a few moments, before it steps forth a few times, and--
  1825. >A-and...!!
  1826. >N-no...!
  1827. >It's one of...
  1828. >It's one of those things!
  1829. >"Just as described... such a fell creation...!"
  1830. >Pharynx has to cast a spell on himself, to stop whatever pain he's feeling.
  1831. >Luna takes a few steps forward, her glaive sweeping across in front of her, almost like a challenge.
  1832. >"You shall not prevent me from felling your dark master, creature of the abyss!"
  1833. >At that moment, something else flies down from the hole in the ceiling, landing behind the creature that's now standing still, and twitching in violent and disturbing ways.
  1834. >"Then I guess it's a good thing it's not working alone, then!"
  1835. >Wait, that voice...
  1836. >Have you heard it somewhere, before?
  1837. >Luna and Pharynx seem to recognize it instantly.
  1838. >And when the figure walks from behind the monster, standing beside it...
  1839. >Wait, who is this?
  1840. >It's some kind of changeling?
  1841. >It actually looked a lot like--
  1842. >Wait, what?!
  1843. >Th-that's...?!
  1844. >That's HER?!
  1846. >"You?! You escaped?!"
  1847. >"Oh, believe me, I'm just as surprised as you are."
  1848. >This is that 'Athalia'?!
  1849. >B-but she...
  1850. >She looks way different than what you were told by the princesses!
  1851. >She was a head shorter, but her physique, her horn, even her muzzle, were all dead ringers for Chrysalis!
  1852. >But her eyes were a dark purple, matching that long, messy mane of hers, that curled up towards the ends!
  1853. >"I do not know how you escaped, but you shall not bar my way, in any case! Your vile master shall fall this day!"
  1854. >"That's not going to happen, 'princess'. You won't keep me from tearing out your precious little Anonymous's heart, this time!"
  1855. >Her horn ignites, but not with what you expected to see, much less sense.
  1856. >Dark magic bubbles and leaks from her horn.
  1857. >Luna's reply was a growl, which was scary in it's own right, but was totally eclipsed by the agonized bellow the monster just let loose.
  1858. >Orichalcum blades, like the ones you found in the dead monsters, ripped out from it's palms.
  1859. >And it broke into a dead sprint towards Luna, screeching the whole way.
  1860. >Athalia wasn't far behind, unleashing magic towards Luna.
  1861. >You recognized her attack as multiple Dark Orbs.
  1862. >Arrows flew from behind Luna, hitting the monster and deflecting off of Athalia's shell, prompting her to erect a shield of 'normal' magic, which was the same eggplant-purple as her eyes and mane.
  1863. >Razor darts to the passage entrance, pushing it open a bit and setting you down.
  1864. >"Get yourself hidden away, Starlight! I've got to help them out!"
  1865. >His crossbow comes out, and he starts shooting at them.
  1867. >Luna, meanwhile, let loose a battle cry of her own, her magic creating a shield to absorb the orbs of dark magic, while her glaive reared back to strike.
  1868. >The monster itself had leaped into an overhead strike, intending to skewer Luna with it's blades, but her glaive collided with the blades with a loud CLANG, sending the monster off target, and crashing in a heap a good distance behind her.
  1869. >Her movements didn't stop, the arc from her strike going full circle, and coming back around to swipe at Athalia.
  1870. >She was forced to backstep, the glaive missing her by a few hooves, but she returned fire with a wave of magic, colliding with Luna's own shield.
  1871. >It was followed up by a sudden shower of small dark orbs, and at that distance, they all hit Luna's shield, causing it to crack a lot.
  1872. >A nightmarish shriek from behind was the only warning she had, for the monster coming from behind, and slashing at her with it's blades.
  1873. >Wh-when did it get back up?!
  1874. >Luna's shield crumpled and shattered, the blades hitting the plates with a loud CLANG.
  1875. >You don't know what that armour's made of, but it must be good, if it took a hit from orichalcum blades like that!
  1876. >The sound of yelling from the other side drew your attention from the huge fight in front of you.
  1877. >What you were met with was absolute chaos.
  1878. >From the opposite side of the hallway, was a large group of evil changelings, with gryphons and zebras, joining the fight against the Night Guard!
  1879. >Their gear wasn't nearly as 'heavy' as their pony opponents, but there was way more of them, especially the changelings!
  1881. >You've never seen a battle like this, before!
  1882. >Sure, you've never a proper military fight, but this...
  1883. >This was insane!
  1884. >The gryphons and changelings were all in flight, along with the Night Guard, taking shots at each other with their crossbows, when they weren't clashing in the sky.
  1885. >The Night Guard's crossbows, the bolts they fired, and their throwing wing-blades, combined with their heavier armour and the shielding enchantment in the gems, made them really tough to take on, and they were coordinating extremely well!
  1886. >Unfortunately, so were the enemies!
  1887. >The changelings and crossbow-wielding gryphons in particular, were focus-firing individual Night Guards in synchronized volleys, coordinated by a single gryphon that was more decorated than the rest.
  1888. >The ponies that were targeted usually fell to the ground, where the zebras awaited.
  1889. >They were clad in morbid bone and metal armour, and wielded curved swords in their mouths, along with hoof-blades on their forelegs.
  1890. >They moved fast, and charged at the downed guards with a kind of bloodlust you've never seen before.
  1891. >Even with the guards falling back on their glaives and wing-blades, they had a terrible time against their charges, and they never allowed them to group together on the ground and coordinate there.
  1892. >It was absolutely insane.
  1893. >There were a good twenty-five Night Guard present, to the almost seventy assorted enemies facing them, most of which were changelings.
  1894. >Yet despite it all, the Night Guard were still holding their ground.
  1895. >Until you hear glass breaking.
  1897. >A female zebra, in similar armour, had just thrown a bottle of some kind of green liquid into the air.
  1898. >When it broke mid-air, it released green, web-like slime everywhere, coating Night Guard, changeling, and gryphon alike.
  1899. >Every one of them was sent to the ground, but it slid off of the enemies easily enough.
  1900. >The ponies weren't so lucky, most of their wings and crossbows gunked up and useless.
  1901. >The changelings immediately took to the air again, but the gryphons stayed grounded, instead pulling out curved swords of their own, and joining the melee.
  1902. >With most of the ponies grounded, they switched to their glaives, and fought on the ground again.
  1903. >The changelings magic bolts were mostly blocked by their shield gems, but they were clearly getting low on power.
  1904. >To make matters worse, this female zebra stayed back, throwing a bottle of some kind of potion at one of the bigger groups of ponies.
  1905. >It detonated in a yellow mist, causing them to cough violently and make their eyes water.
  1906. >The enemies waited a few moments for the mist to dissipate, and they were upon them quickly.
  1907. >"Slay them to the last, my bretheren! Their deaths shall please the blood god greatly this day!"
  1908. >The guards outside the impact got the idea to beeline straight for the zebra who just threw those potions, and made that announcement.
  1909. >While she was well guarded, she proved to be a vicious fighter on her own, wielding a strange pole-axe with as much skill as the guards with their glaives, and firing bolts of red magic from the bangles on her forelegs.
  1911. >They were losing.
  1912. >With just a few thrown potions, that zebra totally turned the tide.
  1913. >You look back at Luna's fight.
  1914. >She didn't look much better.
  1915. >Her armour had taken a beating, and despite the furious look on her face, you could tell she was getting tired.
  1916. >Athalia was getting winded herself, but nowhere near as much.
  1917. >And that monster didn't seem to get tired at all.
  1918. >Pharynx, Razor, and Exact tried to help her, but were tied up by changelings and a few gryphons.
  1919. >Damn it.
  1920. >Damn it, damn it, damn it!
  1921. >There's nothing you can do!
  1922. >You can't use your magic!
  1923. >You can't even move!
  1924. >It's hopeless!
  1925. >Y-you're all going to...
  1926. >T-to...
  1927. >W-wait.
  1928. >Th-the monster...
  1929. >Can you--?
  1930. >No!
  1931. >Y-you can't!
  1932. >You swore not to use it again!
  1933. >B-but...
  1934. >They're in danger!
  1935. >And you can't do anything else!
  1936. >Seeing Luna take another slash to her armour settles your decision.
  1937. >No.
  1938. >You have to do this.
  1939. >If you don't, none of you are surviving today!
  1940. >I-I'm so sorry, Twilight...
  1941. >But you don't have a choice.
  1942. >Your gaze fixes upon the monster.
  1943. >You focus upon your inner hate.
  1944. >Hate for how worthless you are.
  1945. >Hate towards Incognito.
  1946. >Hate for you having to do this!
  1947. >A barrier feels like it's falling, and you feel the disgusting, crawling, yet so very familiar sensation creeping through your body, focusing into your horn.
  1948. >You know this monster's control matrices.
  1949. >You know how the soul is corralled within it.
  1950. >And with all that, you knew how to force through all of it.
  1951. >To rebind it's owner.
  1952. >To take control.
  1953. >The dark magic 'drips' down your horn.
  1954. >You're almost ready.
  1955. <...
  1957. >FWBONG
  1958. >"Gyaaah!"
  1959. >Yes!
  1960. >The orb hit her dead-centre!
  1961. >She's vulnerable, now!
  1962. >The Homunculus picks that moment to charge in, it's blind rage giving way to another slash of it's blades.
  1963. >With another loud CLANG, it's blades bite into her side properly this time, shearing through the beaten-up armour and into her flesh.
  1964. >They only bit half an inch into her, but it was enough to elect a pained yell from her, as well as draw blood.
  1965. >You don't waste the opportunity.
  1966. >You blast her with a powerful bolt of magic, the same one you've always known how to use.
  1967. >But with all the love backing it, it almost detonates against her, and she's sent flying back into the wall.
  1968. >Heh...
  1969. >That looked like it hurt.
  1970. >Good.
  1971. >It's no less than what this worthless, meddling mare deserves!
  1972. >You remember what she did to you, how she stopped you from ending Anonymous before.
  1973. >You don't intend to let her do that again!
  1974. >Your hooves reach towards her, pulling her dazed and slightly limp form up, so you can look her dead in the eye.
  1975. >Wow, even when she's so badly beaten, she still doesn't show any fear!
  1976. >Well, you know just how to fix that little problem, now don't you?!
  1977. "How does it feel, 'princess'?!"
  1978. >You hurl her towards another wall.
  1979. >Your strength turns out to be much greater than you expected, and she crashes into the other wall with the same kind of force.
  1980. >Well, you're not complaining!
  1981. >Not if it keeps this witch beaten down and useless!
  1982. >You reach in again and pull her out, this time throwing her to the ground, and towering over her.
  1984. "How does it feel, getting beaten by the thing you locked away?!"
  1985. >Your hoof connects to her cheek with a loud SMACK, doing little to assuage your rage.
  1986. "How does it feel, being so usele--"
  1987. >SMACK
  1988. >Gaaah!
  1989. >Her headbutt takes you by surprise, and she uses the opening to blast you off of her with her magic.
  1990. >You land without issue.
  1991. >She's losing.
  1992. >You can see it.
  1993. >You've got her!
  1994. >She can't fight much longer!
  1995. >Not with the Homunculus helping you!
  1996. >Your horn ignites, preparing a--
  1997. >Suddenly, a piercing screech comes from the Homunculus, far more pained than usual.
  1998. >It's collapsed to it's knees, grasping it's head, screaming at the top of it's lungs.
  1999. >The runes, previously lit up red, are now glowing white.
  2000. >And a small tendril of smokey turquoise magic is connected to it's head.
  2001. >FWOOSH
  2002. >Suddenly, a whole swarm of the same tendrils make contact with it's head, wreathing it in that aura.
  2003. >It's screaming stops abruptly, and it's lifted into the air by the head for a brief moment.
  2004. >When it comes back down on it's hooves with a thud, the runes have changed from white to turquoise in colour.
  2005. >What happened?
  2006. >What's it--
  2007. >It's runic 'eye' locks with you.
  2008. >It's blades re-extend.
  2009. >The screech it looses is clearly directed towards you.
  2010. >I-it's turned on you?!
  2011. >How?!
  2012. >It makes that same charge at you, but you quickly teleport behind it, following the magic trail to...
  2013. >Starlight Glimmer.
  2014. >Fresh rage seeps into your mind, a feeling that is definitely mutual.
  2015. >Her teeth are gritted from pain and anger alike.
  2016. >"Let's see how tough you are, without that thing!"
  2017. <...
  2019. @@@@@@@@
  2021. >All right, you've got a plan.
  2022. >It's not a wise plan, not by any stretch of the imagination.
  2023. >But you don't have a lot of options for wearing down the clock on whatever fucking potion he's chugged, that's turned him into Shadow the Hulk-hog.
  2024. >Nito, still with that annoyed look on his face, decides against pulling out that fresh arrow, and instead pointing his power-glove straight at you.
  2025. >No words, just a blast of black fire.
  2026. >Once you see that start to happen, you're already jumping to another guard post on the walls.
  2028. >Geez, that took out half the damn balcony you were on!
  2029. >How much power does this fucker have in his catalyst, anyways?
  2030. >Actually...
  2031. >While you line up another shot, your gloves float on your mana-glasses.
  2033. >He's shielded that shot, unfortunately.
  2034. >But on the plus side, it did let you see a little more of how his catalyst is working.
  2035. >Man, that's fucked...
  2036. >Not the magic it's putting out, but the fact that it has no node connections!
  2037. >Meaning it's power isn't coming from the environment, like everything else.
  2038. >It has to be an internal supply of some kind!
  2039. >Maybe you can wear that down, too?
  2040. >It's then, that you see the mana flows from the catalyst shifting violently, a moment before his hand moves.
  2041. >That turned out to be a good move, as it heralded another ball of black fire being shot towards you.
  2043. >This time, you jump to a balcony with a staircase to the third floor's balcony.
  2044. >Huh, it's a continuous platform around the room?
  2045. >Never noticed that before!
  2046. >Damn right, you're using that!
  2048. >He seems to notice what you're up to, and looses another couple of evil fireballs your way.
  2049. >He isn't exactly shooting at where you're going, however, which makes them pretty easy to dodge.
  2051. >Even if it did take out the stairwell going down.
  2052. >"Does your cowardice know no end?! Face your death with some dignity!"
  2053. >Ahh, perfect chance to start your impromptu plan!
  2054. >Despite your anger, the retort comes easily, yelled down from above:
  2055. "Sure, I'll get right on that! Oh, do you want a massage to go with that, too?"
  2056. >It's too far away to say for sure, but you swear you saw his eye twitch.
  2057. >His rather angry groan said it all, though.
  2058. >The magic from the catalyst nearly tears it's connections apart, reshaping into another spell.
  2059. >To your lack of surprise, it comes out as another black fireball.
  2060. >You're already running, of course.
  2062. >Okay, so.
  2063. >You've learned some things.
  2064. >First, you're definitely keeping the glasses on.
  2065. >If his mana manipulation is that exaggerated, you should have a much easier time predicting his moves.
  2066. >Second, that potion he popped is definitely not doing wonders for his temper.
  2067. >Hell, you're not gonna complain.
  2068. >More pissed he gets, the more mistakes he's bound to make.
  2069. >You hope.
  2071. >Oh, come on, that one was nowhere near you!
  2072. >Okay, that deserves a retort.
  2073. >You peer down the rails, getting a good look at him.
  2074. "Where'd you learn to shoot, asshole?"
  2075. >When he turns to look at you, he delivers his fireball-punctuated response:
  2076. >"I will tear you apart with my bare hands, cretin!"
  2079. >Whoo boy, he's really fucking mad.
  2080. >He's picked up the rate of fireball slinging, and is making more of an effort to try hitting where you're going.
  2081. >While he throws that shit-fit, you need to verify something...
  2082. >The staff is floated to your side, Riafalt still attached to one end of it.
  2083. >Why the hell didn't this thing nuke his catalyst?
  2084. >Shouldn't it nuke dark magic, period?
  2085. >As a test, you line up a holy bolt with an incoming fireball.
  2086. >VROOSH
  2087. >TSSH-BWMPH
  2088. >The attacks collided, and the ball detonated with a whole lot of force, about what you'd expect for destabilized mana.
  2089. >Okay, so what the fuck?
  2090. >It's definitely working!
  2091. >But all it seemed to do to his power glove, was tarnish it!
  2092. >What fucking gives?
  2093. >Wait, hold on.
  2094. >He's stopped firing.
  2095. >You stop running, and get a look at what his deal is, now.
  2096. >He's opening a compartment on the catalyst's body, and just ripped out... something.
  2097. >Looked like a cylinder of some kind, and it was full of distorted magic.
  2098. >Wait, his catalyst de-powered!
  2099. >Oh, no way!
  2100. >He has to reload the damn thing!
  2101. >This is your chance for some good hits!
  2102. >Bow at the ready, you don't waste any time in firing a few shots off.
  2104. >He took that shot in the shoulder with a grunt.
  2105. >It looks like he's pulling out a necklace of some kind, from under his armour.
  2107. >"Guh!"
  2108. >He just let that one hit him in the back.
  2109. >He's trying to cover whatever the fuck that is!
  2110. >He finally pulls it free, and--
  2111. >Hoooooly fucking shit!
  2112. >Your glasses almost blinded you, with how bright that thing was!
  2114. >The brightness ratchets back down, and...
  2115. >It's another one of those cylinders!
  2116. >Bloody fuck, even the nodes you've seen don't have that much raw power in them!
  2118. >Another hit to the back, but he still doesn't change his course.
  2119. >He all but slams the cylinder into the empty spot in the catalyst.
  2120. >Almost immediately, it re-ignites with power, starting with what was definitely a few screams.
  2121. >It's radiating that red aura, from before he popped that potion!
  2123. >Damn it, you were hoping that wasn't a shield!
  2124. >He turns around and looks up, facing you.
  2125. >You can't see too well, but he looks about as far from pleased as you can get.
  2126. >"Your avoidance of my power will prove to be a short-lived endeavour!"
  2127. >He raises it up, palm to the sky.
  2128. >From out of the palm, an orb of white comes out, a scream coming from the catalyst to go with it.
  2129. >It looks like the same orb he tore out of that guard!
  2130. >"Nothing can evade the power of these cursed pursuers!"
  2131. >The orb is cloaked in black fire, and then splits out into five distinct orbs of black flame, orbiting around the catalyst body.
  2132. >One after the other, they're fired upwards in your direction.
  2133. >Yeah, that's your cue to run!
  2134. >You bolt across the balcony again, looking to shake the new projectiles.
  2135. >But when they fail to explode like the others, you turn back to see what--
  2136. >Oh shit, they're homing?!
  2137. >Okay, run!
  2138. >You keep running the circuit, and from down below, he's firing more of those red energy spears up towards you.
  2139. >And those homing fireballs are closing in on you!
  2141. >Your first reaction is to float the staff out again, and hope to go for another holy bolt collision, like before.
  2142. >You change to speed-walking backwards, to line up your shots.
  2143. >The first ball is a good two or three yards from you.
  2144. >VROOSH
  2145. >TSSH-KABLAM
  2146. >Whoaly shit!
  2147. >The wind blast from the explosion knocked you off balance.
  2148. >That thing just--
  2149. >Shit, another!
  2150. >VROOSH
  2151. >Brace, Anon, brace!
  2152. >TSSH-KABLAM
  2153. >That explosion was closer, the wind actually triggering the physical shield.
  2154. >And--
  2155. >Holy fuck, they're even faster!
  2156. >VROOSH
  2157. >TSSH-KABLAM
  2158. >Fuck fuck fuck, where's the other--
  2160. >The ball flew like a meteor towards you, breaking your shield in one hit.
  2161. >All you have time to notice is the fifth one, sailing right towards your stoma--
  2162. >KABL--
  2163. >Everything goes white.
  2164. >Your ears are nothing but ringing.
  2165. >It feels like hours before it fades from white, to something visible.
  2166. >A floor.
  2167. >Your right hand, stretched in front of you.
  2168. >Broken glasses.
  2169. >Littering the floor, small patches of...
  2170. >Black fire?
  2171. >You try to move--
  2172. "Aagh...!"
  2173. >Fuck, fuck, fuck, it hurts!
  2174. >Everything hurts!
  2175. >It feels like you just took a sledgehammer to the gut!
  2176. >Throbbing waves of pain radiate out from that point, to just about everywhere.
  2177. >G-God damn...
  2179. >An all-too-familiar sound snaps you back to alertness.
  2180. >A black fire blast just took out a good chunk of the floor, a few yards from you.
  2181. >Get up.
  2182. >Get up, you piece of shit!
  2183. >Your limbs feel like lead, and the pain threatens to knock you out.
  2184. >So far, you manage to get to your hands and knees--
  2187. >Another ball to the same segment of floor.
  2188. >Wait.
  2189. >That shot was closer to the wall.
  2190. >Oh, fuck...!
  2191. >He's trying to collapse this segment of walkway!
  2192. >Come on, move it!
  2193. >You have something for the wounds, but it won't help if you don't--
  2194. >Greaves!
  2195. >Inertia reduction!
  2196. >The instant you remember, you have them activate.
  2197. >Already, everything feels easier to move, but no less painful.
  2198. >But it's impossible to stand right now, so all you can do is crawl your way away from where he was blasting.
  2199. >Thankfully, that half was still intact!
  2201. >creeeeeeak
  2202. >Shit, it's starting to give out at that end!
  2203. >You keep going as fast as you can, determined to--
  2205. >Shit!
  2206. >That blast was a yard away from you!
  2207. >Fuck, keep moving!
  2208. >He's starting at the rail, moving to the wall!
  2209. >Just hug the wall!
  2210. >You'll do--
  2212. >The closeness of the blast almost has you cry out.
  2213. >But you soldier on.
  2214. >You're NOT kicking the bucket now!
  2215. >Not from a fucking fall!
  2217. >The wind gust from the blast is at your back, now.
  2218. >creeeeeeak
  2219. >You allow yourself to look back at the damage.
  2220. >Without the sides being supported, the metal walkway bent downwards from the wall, eventually breaking loose and falling to the ground.
  2221. >Dark chuckling can be heard from down below, as it breaks loose.
  2222. >Good fucking God, how did you survive that?!
  2223. >A fresh wave of pain shakes you from that thought, and you turn forwards.
  2224. >Up above, you spot a doorway leading... somewhere.
  2225. >Don't know, don't care.
  2226. >It's not the walkway, is the point!
  2227. >You beeline right for it, as best as you can.
  2229. >You crawl your way into the hallway a good yard and a half, before finally stopping, and pushing yourself into a sitting position against the wall.
  2230. >Your hand digs into one of your pouches, while you assess the damage.
  2231. >The fabric covering up the plates of the brigandine was scorched right off at the stomach, radiating outward a good foot and a half.
  2232. >Looked about right, since that was where the pain was concentrated!
  2233. >Fuck, you really hope nothing's broken...!
  2234. >Ah, wait, there it is!
  2235. >You finish digging through the pouch, pulling out one of the doctor's specials.
  2236. >A little potion he made up, for some field healing.
  2237. >Said it was a much slower-acting muscle repair agent, like the one you were stuck with back at Ponyville.
  2238. >The slowdown was supposed to keep the pain it caused from straight-up knocking you out.
  2239. >Guess you'll find out, huh...?
  2240. >Your hands are shakier than you thought, fumbling the cork out of the vial.
  2241. >It's downed in short order.
  2242. >A moment or two passes, before you--
  2243. "Ghaaaaah!"
  2244. >More pain floods your body, this time from everywhere.
  2245. >Your teeth grit, and your arms thrash, as you try your best to ride it out.
  2246. >It persists for a few seconds, but it feels like an hour.
  2247. >But slowly, steadily, it begins to subside.
  2248. >From off to the side, you hear a frustrated yell coming from down below.
  2249. >"Where are you, Anonymous?!"
  2250. >Oh, God.
  2251. >He sounds way angrier than before, if that's even possible!
  2252. >"I will tear this blasted castle apart, and slay all those within it, if it means ending your miserable life! You shall never have any solace from my wrath!"
  2254. >And that line alone rekindles your anger.
  2255. >He's not gonna do anything of the sort.
  2256. >Not if you have anything to say about it!
  2257. >You're not out of this, yet!
  2258. >As the moments pass, you feel your strength returning to you, along with a slight sick feeling to replace the lessening pain.
  2259. >A few spots of red are showing through the fabric underneath the plates of the brigandine.
  2260. >You don't know how that impact couldn't have broken skin, to be quite honest.
  2261. >At least it wasn't bleeding all that badly!
  2262. >As you take further stock of the damage, finding nothing much past that blast point, you notice your staff and bow are missing.
  2263. >Shit...
  2264. >Might've fallen down, might've been destroyed.
  2265. >But your wand is still good.
  2266. >And you've got your foci all together, sans Riafalt.
  2267. >You feel for your quiver, checking your shots remaining.
  2268. >Fifteen bodkins left.
  2269. >Still have twenty broadheads as fallback.
  2270. >Guess bringing all those arrows was a good call, huh?
  2271. >Okay...
  2272. >With some shaky, pained grunts, you start trying to push yourself back upright.
  2273. >Good God almighty, it hurts!
  2274. >But eventually, with the wall as support, you manage.
  2275. >The pain is lessening more and more as time goes on, so that's good!
  2276. >W-well, since you're stuck waiting to recover, it's as good a time as any to start strategizing!
  2277. >What the unholy fuck did he use to attack you?
  2278. >That 'orb' he used to... fuel it, you guess, it came from that one guard pony!
  2279. >And you've seen similar orbs before!
  2280. >Tiny gray ones that came out of those rune monsters, and the full white ones you saw through--
  2281. >The Soulgazer.
  2283. >Souls.
  2284. >He powered that spell with a fucking soul!
  2285. >Son of a bitch!
  2286. >As if... whatever the fuck that cylinder was full of wasn't enough!
  2287. >Okay, at the very least, he needs a hot minute to prep one of those soul spells!
  2288. >If he does that again, you need to eighty-six it, immediately!
  2289. >You don't think you can take another hit like that, and you have no fucking idea what other soul spells he knows!
  2290. >Riafalt ought to be the key to that, given that it took out those soul-powered fireballs.
  2291. >So finding your staff needs to be a priority!
  2292. >Even if it's broken, you can still pull the focus off of it!
  2293. >But either way, bow shots don't look like they'll do too much against him.
  2294. >At least, not if that fucking potion of his is still working!
  2295. >You need another way to do some damage!
  2296. >But what, though?!
  2297. >His armour just ignores anything magical you have, and he just shields everything physical, once he clues into it!
  2298. >And you still don't know if his roid rage is still active!
  2299. >Your legs stop wobbling, at last, and you try some experimental walking.
  2300. >Stings, but it's good enough!
  2301. >And it looks like your boots are still good to go!
  2302. >At least there was some good news!
  2303. >Still, you need something to hurt him!
  2304. >And nothing's coming to mind, despite your pondering--
  2305. >"Did you think you could stay hidden forever, wretch?!"
  2306. >You freeze, looking towards the exit.
  2307. >Incognito is right outside, floating himself on that segment of walkway he shot off.
  2308. >And his catalyst is charging up with red energy.
  2309. >"Pray for forgiveness from the Lord, for you shall see none from me!"
  2311. >Soldiering through the pain, you run forward, towards the exit, and by extension, him.
  2312. >Once you reach the remains of this ringed balcony, you dive off of the edge.
  2313. >A move he didn't expect, if his extremely pissed look shifting a little to surprise was any indication.
  2314. >As you right yourself in the air, and engage the greaves, you steer yourself underneath his platform.
  2315. >Quick, where's all your shit?!
  2316. >Come on, it can't be that hard to--
  2317. >There's your staff!
  2318. >Holy shit, it looks all right!
  2319. >With a thought, it responds to your amulet, and rockets towards you with the help of your gloves.
  2320. >Your search for the bow, however, is interrupted by the ground rapidly approaching.
  2321. >With a THUD, you land on--
  2322. "Fffffuck!"
  2323. >Oh Christ, that landing stung!
  2324. >A look above shows--
  2325. >Oh shit, the platform's falling down!
  2326. >Move it, move it!
  2327. >You clear the impact zone, eyes never leaving the big hunk of debris as it falls to the ground.
  2328. >ding
  2329. >Debris.
  2330. >Riafalt.
  2331. >Falling.
  2332. >Physics!
  2333. >That's it!
  2334. >The debris platform's fall was arrested close to the end, falling to the ground with a THUD instead of a loud crash.
  2335. >Stepping off of it was an extremely pissed off Incognito.
  2336. >An Incognito with a much more diminished eye-glow.
  2337. >"So, you survived that assault? You have more steel in your blood than I thought!"
  2338. >After all of this, he's still gonna monologue?
  2339. >"Most beings would be irrevocably tainted by the power in that attack, thrashing in agony as their very souls are consumed by it's corruption!"
  2340. >Your eyes dart around, trying to find your bow.
  2341. >No luck so far.
  2343. >His catalyst charges again, arcing with red lightning.
  2344. >Just like the end of the first fight, with the princesses!
  2345. >"It's a shame you cannot experience such suffering! I would give much, to see your death follow that path!"
  2346. >His catalyst comes up, pointed at you.
  2347. >Your staff comes up in your hands, Riafalt at the ready, while the Excavator focus attaches to the back end.
  2348. >The charge on his end is reaching it's apex.
  2349. >"What final words do you have, Anonymous?"
  2350. "Do you ever fucking shut up?"
  2351. >The angry yell he gives out is the only pleasing thing in this whole exchange.
  2352. >"DIE!"
  2353. >plink
  2354. >Riafalt's long-charge fires off, moments before the catalyst unleashes the red Sith Lord attack.
  2356. >The orb collides with the 'lightning'.
  2358. >The lightning breaks through in the moment the light ray is still forming, deflecting off of your shield.
  2359. >But the whole attack is easily overtaken by Riafalt's pillar of light.
  2360. >While you can't see him, his angry yelling is all you need to hear.
  2361. >You, however, are already in motion, panning around his position, still looking for your bow.
  2362. >There it is!
  2363. >You let your staff float autonomously again, and use your gloves to bring the thing back over.
  2364. >It looks like shit, but it's still strung!
  2365. >You quickly stow it onto your back, and pull your wand free, attaching your spare TK focus to it.
  2366. >As the light pillar peters out, you float the staff onto your ba--
  2367. >From the fading pillar, a yard away, comes a furious, charging Incognito.
  2368. >You only manage to backstep, before his sword comes down overhead.
  2371. "Aagh!"
  2372. >The sword slides through your shield, making a diagonal slash against your chest.
  2373. >The plates deflect a lot of the impact, but the speed and force at which it comes down doesn't keep it from cutting into you.
  2374. >The impact has you staggered for a moment, but he's not wasting any time.
  2375. >His sword arm reverses direction, coming up for another slash.
  2376. >WHOOSH-schling
  2377. >Your body had moved back enough for that slash to only just graze you.
  2378. >Your wand-holding arm comes up instinctively to defend.
  2379. >You were almost too focused on defending against that gray, banded sword, that you almost didn't catch the catalyst blades themselves making their approach.
  2380. >Approaching too fast to run.
  2381. >Your reaction is instant.
  2382. >Right as the catalyst batters your shield, breaking it easily, Bluebaide springs to life.
  2383. >SWISHKKKK
  2384. >The massive blade of magic sweeps upwards, aimed squarely at the catalyst.
  2385. >KSSSHHHH
  2386. >He grunts as the blade stops his catalyst dead, throwing him off-balance.
  2387. >That's your opening!
  2388. >You step back and bank right, taking off as fast as your legs will take you.
  2389. >As luck would have it, another balcony was overhead.
  2390. >No time is wasted in engaging your leg gear, and leaping up to that platform.
  2391. >Your chest hurts like a motherfucker, right where he slashed you, and there's blood seeping out.
  2392. >Not too much, though.
  2393. >So he didn't get a deep enough cut for that.
  2394. >Thank God.
  2395. >Your attention snaps back to him, with his frustrated yell coming out again.
  2396. >His eye glow seems totally gone, now.
  2397. >Talk about an encouraging sight!
  2399. >His catalyst was looking way worse for wear, now.
  2400. >Besides the extra tarnishing from the Riafalt blast, the collision with Bluebaide left a very visible burn mark on it.
  2401. >Unfortunately, it still seemed fully functional.
  2402. >And he still looked furious as all hell, though exhaustion was beginning to show on his face.
  2403. >That, at the very least, was a mutual feeling.
  2404. >"Your tenacity has tested me, more than it has any right to! But you are slipping. Your frailty, your weakness against my blows, is more evident than ever!
  2405. >"Yet conversely, you continue to strike upon me with great vengeance, and what has it yielded? Nothing!"
  2406. >Says the asshole who doped up mid-fight.
  2407. >"'For a just man falleth seven times, and riseth up again: but the wicked shall fall into mischief!'"
  2408. >Wait.
  2409. >Was that...
  2410. >A fucking Bible quote?
  2411. >You're no expert, but a choice verse comes front-and-center.
  2412. "Yeah? Whatever happened to ol' God destroying the fuckers who destroy his temple, you fucking mongoloid?"
  2413. >Sadly, no memery comes to mind for his angry recognition of that line.
  2414. >Well, at least 'biblical zinger' can be crossed off your bucket list!
  2415. >Riafalt still needs time to charge back up, so you'll take whatever delays you can get!
  2416. >"There will be a reckoning for every blow and affront you have executed here today, cur!"
  2417. >Your own retort is interrupted by his catalyst materializing another soul orb.
  2418. >He's shielded up again, too.
  2419. >Without Riafalt's charge, that leaves you with one immediate option.
  2420. >You leap down from your position, dashing towards him.
  2421. >Bluebaide charged and ready.
  2422. <...
  2424. @@@@@@@@
  2426. >That slimy little pony!
  2427. >Aiding your hive's destruction wasn't enough for her?
  2428. >Now she's interfering in your rescue?!
  2429. >She's dead!
  2430. >She's bucking dead, along with the rest of--
  2431. >The screeching of the monster draws your attention, and you see it making another mad dash for you, blades at the ready.
  2432. >However, there was enough distance for you to kick into flight, avoiding it's reach altogether.
  2433. >You ignite your horn again, ready to blast the damned thing.
  2434. >Wait...
  2435. >Hold on, it...
  2436. >It just ran by without stopping?
  2437. >It was charging towards--
  2438. >The other fight!
  2439. >Starlight's making it fight for the thestrals?!
  2440. >No, no, NO!
  2441. >You're not letting her get away with this any more!
  2442. >You stop hovering, and position yourself for a dive, aimed squarely at Starlight.
  2443. >Just before you start the manoeuvre, you see her accompanied by that traitor consort, and an orange unicorn in the armour of those strange guards of Celestia's.
  2444. >The only thing their presence does is convince you to charge your spell even more.
  2445. >And with that, you drop into the dive.
  2446. >You see the consort lifting Starlight onto his back, and you adjust your target accordingly.
  2447. >Meanwhile, you discharge part of the spell.
  2448. >Bolts of magic are unleashed towards her two helpers.
  2449. >You sense the intent of the unicorn shift extremely rapidly, along with a spell of his own igniting.
  2450. >A pair of small magic bolts are shot from his horn.
  2451. >Is he really going to try and intercept them?
  2452. >Well, if he wants to waste his mana, you're not going to protest--
  2455. >Wait, what?!
  2456. >He actually hit them?!
  2458. >You're too far into your dive to adjust, so instead you opt to press on towards Starlight.
  2459. >The remainder of your spell fires off, and a cone of magic, like the tip of a spear, envelops your front half.
  2460. >And like a bolt, you sail straight towards them.
  2461. >You're not going fast enough to catch them dead-on with this.
  2462. >FSHWM-CRASH
  2463. >"Waah!"
  2464. >"Holy...!"
  2465. >But you are going fast enough to catch them in the outer area of the cone.
  2466. >You land without issue after the impact, whirling around as quick as you can.
  2467. >Already, you see the impact has thrown Starlight off the back of the consort, and left him staggering as well.
  2468. >Perfect!
  2469. >That little magic connection to the Homunculus, already looking fainter, was about to be cut off completely, along with her life.
  2470. >You waste no time in charging towards her, horn wreathed in dark magic--
  2471. >FZWMPH
  2472. "Gah!"
  2473. >A magic attack, with an intent shift far too fast to predict, hits you in the foreleg.
  2474. >It throws you off-balance, and almost sends you crashing to the ground, but your wings come out to stabilize you.
  2475. >But that won't be enough to stop your attack!
  2476. >Your horn discharges, unleashing one of those 'Dark Orbs' straight towards Starlight.
  2477. >She won't escape from this one--
  2478. >FZWMPH-BONG
  2479. >What?!
  2480. >That was shot down, too?!
  2481. >The consort recovers, and bolts towards Starlight again.
  2482. >But your gaze now turns to the pony responsible for denying you her life.
  2483. >The orange unicorn regards you... oddly.
  2484. >His facial expression of emotion seemed contested with a stoic, calculating glare.
  2485. >And his emotions themselves are confusing!
  2487. >There was anger, intention to kill, and more, like everypony else here.
  2488. >But it was... constricted, hobbled.
  2489. >As if it was being unconsciously subdued in favour of other aspects of his mind.
  2490. >Something about that struck you as familiar.
  2491. >But whatever it may remind you of, his intent shifts were something else entirely!
  2492. >His actions are being performed barely a moment after his intention to perform them, which itself almost seems to come straight out of nowhere!
  2493. >But now that you're focused on him proper, you pick up on an almost-omnipresent intention: a hyper-aware analysis of everything he's looking at.
  2494. >The sheer amount of analysis is slightly unnerving, and definitely not normal.
  2495. >"Ensure miss Starlight is safely out of reach. I shall prevent Athalia from assaulting your position."
  2496. >Even his voice was monotone, trying half-heartedly to be determined!
  2497. >But it does draw your attention to that consort flying up and away, with Starlight on his back.
  2498. >Damn it!
  2499. >As much as you want her dead, this bucking pony isn't going to let you near her!
  2500. >He's clearly a massive threat, now that you see his reaction time, and the kind of almost unnatural accuracy he's capable of.
  2501. >But unicorns are still poor combatants up close.
  2502. >And with that in mind, you make to charge him, instead.
  2503. >You charge a shielding spell, just in case he tries something.
  2504. >But then, he does something unexpected.
  2505. >He's speed-walking backwards!
  2506. >How did--
  2507. >No, forget how he's doing that!
  2508. >What's he trying to--
  2509. >THUMP
  2510. >The battered figure of princess Luna lands in front of him.
  2512. >"I must echo the sentiment of lady Starlight, miserable caitiff! Let us see how powerful you are, without the aid of your damnable monster!"
  2513. >Her glaive swings out in a challenging fashion.
  2514. >Despite all the punishment she's taken, she still looks fully capable of fighting on.
  2515. >Your charge stops, and you instead drop into a fighting stance, charging more dark magic.
  2517. >What?
  2518. >Despite the volume, the voices don't give you a headache.
  2519. >What surprises you more, is hearing Starlight cry out at the same time you heard them.
  2521. >"Graaaah! Shut up shut up SHUT UP!"
  2523. >Wait, he's what?
  2524. >"Gaah! S-serves him right, monsters!"
  2526. >Ensure his safety...?
  2527. >Th-then Incognito, he's...!
  2528. >He's really in danger!
  2529. >"Wh-what? I-impede me? But, how would--"
  2530. >The sound of metallic hoofsteps from ahead snaps your attention back--
  2531. >Whoamygosh!
  2532. >SCHWING
  2533. >You just barely duck underneath the slash of the glaive.
  2534. >Your magic charging goes back to normal, and you make a short teleport to a fair distance behind her.
  2535. >It's also enough distance to be directly in front of that damned unicorn.
  2536. >Almost face-to-face, in fact.
  2537. >Your head dives forward, going for a bite to the head.
  2538. >CLINK
  2539. >Something metallic deflecting off your upper foreleg registers, but ultimately doesn't stop you.
  2540. >With a metallic CLINK of your own making, you seize the guard's helmet, and yank it hard to your right.
  2542. >The unicorn is thrown to the side, and despite the sound of the impact, he only grunts in response.
  2543. >But the intended effect is very much in play.
  2544. >The helmet was lifted off just enough to make contact with his horn, effectively disrupting his spellcasting.
  2545. >You really can't believe they haven't fixed that design flaw.
  2546. >Before closing in on him, however, you charge more dark magic, unleashing it behind you in a big wave of dark flame.
  2547. >As you expected, it caught the approaching princess off-guard, forcing her to shield against it.
  2548. >Perfect!
  2549. >Your charge is renewed against the guard, while the dark magic continues charging.
  2550. >A spear is seen clattering away from your hooves, as you do this.
  2551. >Huh, so that was the deflection from before.
  2552. >Well, it's no use to him, now.
  2553. >The guard, instead of trying to reseat the helmet, opts to just pull it off altogether.
  2554. >A rather messy, burnt-orange mane spills out, covering most of his horn's base.
  2555. >Said horn was now glowing, but like yours, wasn't keyed into a spell yet.
  2556. >That changes very rapidly, and this time, you're ready for it.
  2557. >His initial strike of a few small bolts of magic is countered by another wave of dark flame, aimed squarely at his position.
  2558. >He faces the flame head-on, and lies flat with his head down.
  2559. >The shield he creates against it, using some kind of harsh, brightly-lit magic you've never seen before, is tiny.
  2560. >No way that's going to--
  2561. >FWMPH
  2562. >Oh, what?!
  2563. >He blocked that?
  2564. >His positioning was precise, his shielding exactly large enough, for him to defend against it with minimal exertion!
  2566. >He's too low now, for your charge to do more than trample him.
  2567. >You instead stop running, and skid along the floor, a small spin put into the brief period of drifting.
  2568. >And you did it at the last possible second, just so he couldn't predict it in time.
  2569. >A gambit that paid off.
  2570. >Your legs catch his prone form, and send him flying a few hooves away, with him rolling a fair distance afterwards.
  2571. >You thought at first that it was due to your impact, but instead, he seems to be rolling on purpose!
  2572. >He springs back up at just the right time mid-roll, to land on his hooves without trouble.
  2573. >Damn this pony!
  2574. >Of all the times you find a competent royal guard, why did it have to be now?!
  2575. >Wait.
  2576. >One of the spells, that the spirits taught you.
  2577. >Maybe...
  2578. >Maybe you could make that work in your favour!
  2579. >Your new plan was interrupted by Luna's renewed charge.
  2580. >SCHWING
  2581. >Once again, you duck underneath the glaive.
  2582. >THUMP
  2583. >But this time, you slam yourself against her, preparing a dark magic attack as you go.
  2584. >It knocks her off-balance, but her own horn glows, as well.
  2585. >Your orb of dark flame is unleashed at the same time as her own bolt of magic.
  2586. >FWBONG-BLAM
  2587. >The combined blast blows the two of you apart a fair distance.
  2588. >But while she takes a moment to right herself to get back to you, your target changes from her to the guard.
  2589. >You just so happened to be blown in a favourable direction, and you spin towards him and make another mad dash.
  2590. >He tries for more bolts, and you respond with another wave, as before.
  2591. >His shield response is exactly like before.
  2592. >Perfect.
  2594. >Instead of skidding to a halt, you jump above him, putting enough spin into it that you'll land facing towards him.
  2595. >You pour a lot more dark magic into your horn, in preparation for the spell.
  2596. >You land, and he's already reshaping his mana for another attack.
  2597. >Too little, too late.
  2598. >He grunts as he's surrounded by a cloud of misty, black-and-purple magic from your horn.
  2599. >The snare portion complete, you pour more power into it, the swarm lifting him into the air as it seeps into his body.
  2600. >Yes!
  2601. >It's working!
  2602. >Just a little more, and he'll be all yours--
  2603. >VRIIIIiiiiim
  2604. >Gah!
  2605. >The spell was interrupted by a flash of golden light, radiating outwards from the insignia on the front of his armour.
  2606. >His intent had changed to indicate unconsciousness, and he's surrounded by a shell of that golden light!
  2607. >Damn it, what now?!
  2608. >Some kind of failsafe?
  2609. >Oh, fine, you'll take it!
  2610. >Even if the spell didn't work, you still took him out of the picture!
  2611. >Leaving Luna as your only obstacle!
  2612. >You charge more dark magic, and begin approaching her again.
  2613. >She doesn't wait, opting for another series of magical bolts.
  2614. >Your response is more orbs of dark magic, and you both dodge attacks wherever possible.
  2615. >What you still don't have a good counter for, is that damn glaive of hers!
  2616. >She brings is up for another swing, and you're already spreading your wings, trying to get a good distance--
  2617. >BHROOOOoooooosh
  2618. >What the--?!
  2619. >From behind her, the sound of ice and frost were...
  2620. >Condensed, somehow, into an explosion?
  2621. >A wave of cold hits you soon after you hear it.
  2623. >Luna, however, was only stopped by the noise momentarily.
  2624. >She went right back into swinging with her glaive.
  2625. >SCHWING-clink
  2626. >Whoa!
  2627. >It grazed your chest!
  2628. >Okay, now, to--
  2629. >THUMP
  2630. >In that moment, Luna darted forward, slamming into you with her whole body.
  2631. >The weight of her armour helped put a lot of force behind it, and it succeeded in putting you off-balance.
  2632. >However, she didn't press on, pulling back instead.
  2633. >What's she--
  2634. >Her glaive!
  2635. >It--
  2637. "Yaaaagh!"
  2638. >The weapon bit into your left side, the crescent-shaped tip working to puncture the chitin, making an opening for the rest of the blade.
  2639. >You don't even have time to formulate a response after the strike.
  2640. >In another instant, the weapon is pulled out of your side, and--
  2641. >THUMP
  2642. >Her body slam succeeds in knocking you to the ground, this time.
  2643. >You land on your left side, and slide a few hooves along the ground, a trail of green left in your wake.
  2644. >The instant you stop, an armoured hoof presses down on your other side, with the blade of the glaive held to your neck.
  2645. >The princess doing both of these things was furious, to match.
  2646. >"Yield."
  2647. >Her 'mercy' only deserves one response.
  2648. "Never!"
  2649. >Her glare hardens.
  2650. >"Very well."
  2651. >The glaive comes up overhead, this time.
  2652. >W-wait, hold on, is she--?!
  2653. >BHROOOOoooooosh
  2654. >Waaah!
  2655. >A sudden shockwave of freezing cold air hits you head-on, forcing you to cover your face.
  2656. >The sound of metal clattering to the ground soon afterwards, prompts you to look up again.
  2657. >Luna's glare is still there.
  2658. >Only this time, it's frozen in ice.
  2660. >Luna's whole body was encased in ice!
  2661. >Wh-what...?
  2662. >When did this happen?!
  2663. >The frozen pony was already beginning to teeter over, but something knocked her over properly, sending her skittering off to the side a fair distance.
  2664. >Zamara.
  2665. >Her armour was battered, and her bardiche was bloody, but there she was!
  2666. >"It was wise to pack the philtres of Frostbite, no?"
  2668. >Arrows rained down around her, and she spun in place, her weapon at the ready.
  2669. >Behind her was a beaten-up Night Guard, crossbow in hoof.
  2670. >"You and your pals will never make it outta here alive, bitch!"
  2671. >The voice is familiar, but implacable.
  2672. >To his sides, drops that damned Starlight, and that consort.
  2673. >Zamara didn't even flinch.
  2674. >"Rugged one, get up."
  2675. >It takes a moment to realize she's talking to you.
  2676. >The pain in your side is bad, but nothing you can't handle, and you're soon back on your hooves.
  2677. >You drop into a fighting stance, the consort's hesitance not escaping you.
  2678. >But Zamara's hoof stretches out in front of you, stopping any approach.
  2679. >"Find Lord Matthias."
  2680. >Incognito.
  2681. >He's still in danger!
  2682. >But...
  2683. "But what about you?"
  2684. >"These trifling buffoons cannot stop me. Now, go."
  2685. >There's no lead-in to her pulling back, a glass bottle falling out of her pack.
  2686. >She catches it with her hindleg, kicking it towards the group, where it detonates with a bright flash.
  2687. >She charges forth soon after.
  2688. >All right, she's got this!
  2689. >You break for the hallway behind you.
  2690. >It doesn't take long for your senses to pick up some familiar presences.
  2691. >The door!
  2692. >Where's the damned door?!
  2693. <...
  2695. >Incognito looked like he expected your charge.
  2696. >He stands his ground, his falchion at the ready.
  2697. >And that fucking soul-orb thing was starting to get covered in more black fire.
  2698. >Your grip around the wand tightens even more.
  2699. >You know that he's gonna get a hit in, he's too good at sword-fighting not to.
  2700. >But you don't really have much choice here.
  2701. >Your staff floats above and behind you, Riafalt facing his direction.
  2702. >Even if the long-charge is still on hold, the holy bolts are still game!
  2703. >You aim for his face with them, expecting the shield to fend off the bolts.
  2705. >Which of course, they do.
  2706. >But they also create quite a show, with the destabilized mana blasts.
  2707. >The light show provides good cover for your approach.
  2708. >You sustain the bolts at a good interval, to keep his vision of you to a minimum.
  2709. >Right up until you're within a few yards of him, at which point his shield drops to just his catalyst, the bolts fizzling harmlessly against his head.
  2710. >You're already committed at this stage, though.
  2711. >SWISHKKKK
  2712. >Bluebaide rips to life, the massive greatsword of magic coming out.
  2713. >It's at that point that he pulls his catalyst back, and brings his sword up front.
  2714. >He doesn't wait for you to approach, instead darting forward with a horizontal slash.
  2715. >That was probably the best thing he could have done.
  2716. >With your boots fully engaged, you leap right over him as he does this, the blade missing you by less than an inch.
  2717. >While you pull off the landing pretty well, landing right behind him, he reacts way quicker than you would've liked.
  2719. >He spins in place, a bit slower than usual, his blade slashing out horizontally once again.
  2720. >This time, however, you're not an inch away from the blade.
  2722. >You grunt at the strike, but it doesn't hit quite as hard as the last hit he landed, only scraping the skin.
  2723. >He's in the middle of pulling his catalyst back again, while he does this.
  2724. >Not fast enough.
  2725. >With a quick flick of the wrist, the magic greatsword comes swinging right towards the catalyst.
  2726. >More specifically, right for the soul orb.
  2727. >KSSSHHHH
  2728. >It lands just below it, 'burning' the finger-blades, and cutting off the white 'strings' connecting to the burning orb.
  2729. >Luckily, that turned out to be enough.
  2730. >The orb went out in a small, blue FWOOSH, rocketing upwards as it faded away into nothing.
  2731. >Fuck yeah, you got it!
  2732. >And...
  2733. >Oh, shit.
  2734. >He looks really pissed off, now!
  2735. >Bluebaide runs out of charge, fading away at probably the worst possible time.
  2736. >This time, he stabs with the sword, narrowly missing your chest.
  2737. >However, now that he's not nursing a soul-orb, his catalyst comes up for a swipe, as well.
  2739. >The blades are much blunter than the sword, but they do hit with a lot of force.
  2740. >They succeed in knocking the wind out of you, and pushing you back.
  2741. >Despite the burned look they now sported, they were still very functional.
  2742. >You make to leap back, aided by your greaves, but you weren't quite fast enough to escape without another hit from his sword.
  2744. >That horizontal slash caught you just below the last one, and hits just like it, too.
  2746. >But that was all he managed to get in, as you clear a several-yard distance away from him.
  2747. >Holy shit, you survived that!
  2748. >Okay, okay!
  2749. >You're still good!
  2750. >You just need a good position for the next part of your plan!
  2751. >His shield is back in action, and he's firing more of those red magic spears at you, as he catches back up.
  2752. >A catch-up that is much slower than before.
  2753. >Whatever, you're already bolting for the closest balcony.
  2754. >Okay, just need to--
  2755. >ZWVSHK
  2756. "Agh, fuck!"
  2757. >What the hell?
  2758. >That hit you?!
  2759. >Where's your shield--
  2760. >ZWVSHK
  2761. >Ow, ow, fuck!
  2762. >Okay, move it!
  2763. >You make it to the right distance, and leap your way up to that balcony, right as another 'spear' flies past where you just were.
  2764. >Oh, please tell me that Riafalt's ready!
  2765. >"Bluebaide of Axel will not aid you here, any more than Saint Riafalt's light has!"
  2766. >God, it's so fucking close!
  2767. >"Your hand was certainly played well, far better than those officious ponies ever could! But now, you are at the end of your rope!"
  2768. >His catalyst begins charging.
  2769. >Going for another Sith Lord attack, you think!
  2770. >It looks like you'll be ready in time, though!
  2771. >Fuck it, you're doing this now!
  2772. >Your staff floats out, and your grip on your wand loosens a little bit.
  2773. >Then, you flip both of them around.
  2774. >The Excavator on the staff, pointed at the ceiling.
  2775. >And the TK on the wand, charged and ready.
  2776. >You start things off with the staff.
  2777. >The massive beam of green magic fires up above him, chewing the ceiling to shit with ease, and compressing whatever it digs up.
  2778. >Riafalt takes that moment to flash.
  2779. >It's ready!
  2781. >Nito notices you creating debris above him, and shifts some of his magic into a shield above him.
  2782. >"Falling rocks? Is this truly what you've been reduced to?"
  2783. >Excavator shuts off, and the Riafalt-toting end of the staff points to him.
  2784. >One-liners currently escape you.
  2785. >So you'll just let Sir Isaac Newton do the talking.
  2786. >But first...
  2788. >The pillar of magic takes out his charging spell.
  2789. >But more importantly, it also takes out his shield.
  2790. >TK sparks to life, and you grab hold of the rocks falling.
  2791. >And then you give them a 'little' boost.
  2792. >Loud metallic THUNKS ring out.
  2793. >"Gaaaaaah!"
  2794. >Ooh, that sounded like it hurt!
  2795. >Too bad you couldn't see through the light-blast, right now!
  2796. >But you weren't finished.
  2797. >The rocks that fell, you grabbed and floated far off to the side, and launched towards him once again.
  2799. >He cried out with the first hit, but the second one knocked the wind out of him.
  2800. >Riafalt's attack fades away.
  2801. >And the sight you're met with is incredible.
  2802. >He's laid flat on his ass, huge dents in his armour.
  2803. >One of them looked like a real breathing impediment, and he was clutching that one with his sword hand.
  2804. >His breathing is ragged.
  2805. >But the look on his face really gives you the shakes.
  2806. >And this time, the good shakes.
  2807. >He's afraid.
  2808. >He's afraid!
  2809. >Incog-fucking-nito, asshole extraordinaire, and the fucker you've been working to trash for months!
  2810. >Laid the fuck out, and scared of you!
  2811. >You can't help yourself at this stage.
  2812. >Your chuckling is shaky, and stays shaky as it transitions to full laughing.
  2813. <...
  2815. >There!
  2816. >The presences, through that small door in the distance!
  2817. >They must be through there!
  2818. >You run for the door, not even bothering to open it properly, and instead just tackling it down.
  2819. >It opened into a small hallway, with some passages off to the side.
  2820. >Buck, which one is it?!
  2821. >You feel the presences down...
  2822. >That one!
  2823. >Down the passage you go, as fast as your legs will carry you.
  2824. >You're getting closer, you can sense it!
  2825. >Damn it, who the buck designed this place?!
  2826. >There's--
  2827. >Wait.
  2828. >What's that sound?
  2829. >As you approach, you hear...
  2830. >Laughing?
  2831. >Your pace slows a little, trying to--
  2832. >You freeze.
  2833. >Th-that voice...!
  2834. >I-it's...!
  2835. >"Hah! What's the matter, shitbird? What happened to all that good shit you were talking before, huh?!"
  2836. >thwang-crack
  2837. >A yell rings out, with that strange sound.
  2838. >Incognito!
  2839. >Th-that was him that yelled!
  2840. >"Uh-uh! You sit the fuck down, shitheel!"
  2841. >Oh, no!
  2842. >He's...!
  2843. >"This is impossible! Destiny has... placed me here! How have... how have you done this...?!"
  2844. >His pained, ragged voice breaks you from your frozen state.
  2845. >In that instant, you sprint as fast as you can down this passage.
  2846. >"Destiny? Really? Been huffing your fumes too much, 'holy man'?"
  2847. >Small openings in the wall to your left slow you down further.
  2848. >You peer through them as they pass by, and--
  2849. >It's them!
  2850. >"You know, I don't remember the priesthood killing people and eating babies to get dark magic powers! Oh no wait, don't tell me, is this one of those crusade things? Absolved of all sins for the greater good, that it?!"
  2851. >"Wretched bastard--!"
  2852. >thwang-crack
  2854. >"Gaaaaaah!"
  2855. >"No, you know what? Fuck you! Fuck you, fuck your little posse, and fuck everything you've done!"
  2856. >He's sounding increasingly furious as he goes on.
  2857. >You need to hurry.
  2858. >You need to get to him, right now!
  2859. >"Do you expect me to beg, Anonymous?"
  2860. >thwang-crack
  2861. >His strangled cry spurs you on even faster.
  2862. >Now!
  2863. >He needs you right now!!
  2864. >"Oh, no, I expect you to fucking die! Hell, I've got the perfect sendoff for you!"
  2865. >thwang-crack
  2866. >Another cry.
  2867. >Move!
  2868. >Move!!
  2869. >"And when you pray, don't be like the hypocrites! They loooove to stand and spout off their fucking Biblical know-how out in public, for every gullible dumbfuck around them to hear!"
  2870. >thwang-crack
  2871. >There's the exit!
  2872. >Faster!
  2873. >Damn it, faster!
  2874. >"Those assholes already have their reward!"
  2875. >You finally reach it, and look at the scene in front of you.
  2876. >A huge, destroyed hall.
  2877. >Anonymous, on another balcony, some kind of bodyless crossbow in his hands, pure fury on his face.
  2878. >Incognito, on the ground, bloodied and beaten, with long bolts stuck in his body.
  2879. >Anonymous strings up a shot in the weapon.
  2880. >Aimed at Incognito.
  2881. >"Give Satan my regards, you son of a bitch!"
  2882. >Everything seems to slow down.
  2883. "No!"
  2884. >Your own magic springs to life.
  2885. >You leap off the balcony, towards Incognito.
  2886. >A shield of your making forms around him.
  2887. >Anonymous's shot is loosed, with a loud CRACK.
  2888. >Your shield stops it, shattering in the process.
  2889. >You face Anonymous as you land in front of Incognito, in a defensive stance.
  2890. >And he looks shocked to see you.
  2891. >Soon, it turns to rage.
  2892. >"You have to be fucking SHITTING ME!"
  2894. @@@@@@@@
  2896. >S-sweet merciful Foremothers...!
  2897. >You've never seen Anonymous wield weapons like THAT before!
  2898. >The strange staff on his back, the strange bow in his hands, and more...
  2899. >All of it was giving off so much power, way more than when you first fought him!
  2900. >His beaten-up clothing--
  2901. >No, wait, that's armour!
  2902. >A-armour coated in his own crimson blood, leaked from the huge gashes upon his chest...
  2903. >It only serves to make his expression of fury even more terrifying than before!
  2904. >Did Incognito really go up against this...?!
  2905. >Groaning from behind is heard, belonging to him.
  2906. >As much as you want to turn back and help him up, you don't dare take your eyes off of Anonymous!
  2907. >"Athalia? So, you were freed, after all..."
  2908. >"Great! Fucking brilliant! Like I didn't have enough to fucking deal with! Now I've got to wrangle with the ugly stick's mortal avatar!"
  2909. >The insult stings, but if anything, only spurs you on to charge another shielding spell.
  2910. >Soon after you start doing that, his staff, looking far different, levitates to his side by itself, and one of those strange gemstones replaces another on one end of it.
  2911. >"If you think for one FUCKING second, that I'm gonna let you walk out of here with that murdering son of a bitch, you've got another fucking thing coming!"
  2912. >Oh, no, this magic, it's--
  2913. >THWOOSH
  2914. >The blue fireball!
  2915. >You shunt as much magic as you possibly can into the barrier.
  2916. >KA-BLAM
  2917. >The barrier was just enough to fend it off, but was already cracking badly and on the verge of breaking.
  2918. >And--
  2919. >H-he's charging another one?!
  2921. >"You should've stayed in your God-forsaken cell, you fucking cunt!"
  2922. >Metal creaking, along with Incognito's groans, are heard from behind.
  2923. >He might be trying to get up!
  2924. >But you can't stop shielding to help him!
  2925. >THWOOSH
  2926. >There it is again!
  2927. >KA-BLAM
  2928. "Waah!"
  2929. >The shield held until the last possible second, a blast of searing heat hitting you at the tail end of the blast, right as the shield shattered.
  2930. >S-so much power, just in the outermost blast!
  2931. >Damn it, damn it, damn it!
  2932. >You have to keep--
  2934. >Something passes by your side with a WHOOSH, and lands with a metallic THUNK--
  2935. >"Gaaaaaaah!"
  2936. >He shot him?!
  2937. >You can't keep your head from whirling around to face him.
  2938. >Another long bolt, buried in his chest, next to another shot.
  2939. >It had to have further punctured that lung.
  2940. >No.
  2941. >No!
  2942. >No, no, NO!
  2943. >You spin back to Anonymous, this time charging dark magic.
  2944. >You won't let this bucking upstart hurt him anymore!
  2945. >The charge comes even faster with the fresh wave of anger you feel, culminating in a large wave of dark magic being unleashed towards him.
  2946. >VROOSH
  2947. >Wh-whoa...!
  2948. >What's that--
  2949. >FWBONG
  2950. >A blast of pearly white magic rips the incoming wave apart, before it can hit him.
  2951. >The other end of the floating staff, pointed at you, shimmers faintly, the light it gives off making your eyes sting a little bit.
  2952. >H-holy...!
  2953. >Wh-what kind of magic is THAT?!
  2955. >Huh?
  2956. >Failure?
  2958. >The staff's end flashes slightly with that magic, it's power irritating your whole shell.
  2960. >VROOSH
  2961. >A bolt of blinding white magic is launched towards you.
  2962. >The light from it alone bathes your carapace in a highly unpleasant burning sensation.
  2963. >Shield it!
  2964. >You have to shield it!
  2965. >Another, much smaller dark wave is loosed at the impending attack, detonating it a scant yard away from you.
  2966. >FWBONG
  2967. >The explosion is extremely violent, far more than you were expecting!
  2968. >The dark magic is annihilated, and a small strand of the pearly white magic lands along your side--
  2969. "Aaaaaaah!"
  2970. >It hurts!
  2971. >Sweet Foremothers, it hurts!
  2972. >Like a scalding hot brand was just pressed into you!
  2973. >Your focus collapses, and the dark magic in your horn rushes out, almost as if trying to escape the terrible pain!
  2974. >>`flee fr...m h...m`
  2975. >They're so quiet, now.
  2976. >>`dest...ny...`
  2977. >"Oh, I'm sorry, did that one hurt?"
  2978. >Your attention screams back to Anonymous.
  2979. >"Well, don't you worry! There's plenty more where that came from!"
  2980. >A charge builds within that end of the staff, and your instincts scream at you to run from it.
  2981. >You can't beat him.
  2982. >Wounded as he is, you can't fight against power like that!
  2983. >They're right.
  2984. >You need to get out of here.
  2985. >You need to--
  2986. >A powerful dark charge builds up from behind you, and a spear of violent red magic is flung towards Anonymous.
  2987. >He has to counter with one of those terrible blasts of white magic, the collision even more violent than the one with your own power.
  2988. >A whole salvo of those spears come from behind, and most are countered just as quickly.
  2989. >One lands squarely in the middle of his chest, causing him to cry out.
  2991. >But that's all you care to watch for right now!
  2992. >You spin back towards Incognito.
  2993. >His legs are trembling with the weight of his own body.
  2994. >His blood, something you've never seen before, trickles out of both his mouth, and the numerous puncture wounds dotting his body.
  2995. >His expression of anger was contested by both the very visible exhaustion and pain, and his ragged, painful breathing was not helping that contention, either.
  2996. >And his catalyst, despite how damaged it looked, still crackled with power.
  2997. >"You will not forestall my destiny, you--"
  2998. >He doubles over very suddenly, blood coming out in droplets as he hacks loudly, and struggles to breathe through it.
  2999. "My Lord!"
  3000. >You need to get him out of here!
  3001. >He can't take this anymore!
  3002. >Your reaction comes instantly.
  3003. >While he's doubled over, you run to his side, your head at a low angle.
  3004. >As quick as you can, you shuffle your way underneath him, his body lying across your back.
  3005. >"What are--"
  3006. >He stops talking with a painful groan, as you fully stand back up, his limbs hanging down your sides.
  3007. >O-oh Foremothers above, he's heavy!
  3008. >The strain it puts on your legs is enormous, but you'll get through it!
  3009. >Door!
  3010. >Where's the door?!
  3011. >"Oh, no! No, you fucking don't!"
  3012. >There!
  3013. >A destroyed set, off in the distance!
  3014. >All your energy is poured into running.
  3016. >"Gaaah!"
  3017. >He's still shooting him?!
  3018. >Come on, move faster!
  3019. >Incognito's catalyst ignites with power, and you feel it's spell radiating outward, creating a transparent red shield of magic.
  3020. >You pass through the broken doorway soon after.
  3022. >Immediately, you bolt down the hallway, making for Zamara as fast as you possibly can.
  3023. >You still sense her!
  3024. >You'll need her help to get out of here--
  3025. >A loud, protracted yell of pure rage is heard from behind, coming from none other than Anonymous.
  3026. >Hearing his footsteps in the distance spurs you on even faster, trying your best to ignore the burning in your legs.
  3027. >"Get back here!"
  3028. >Run!
  3029. >Keep running!
  3030. >Powerful magic flashes from behind, and you hear it hitting the barrier with a huge amount of force.
  3031. >You almost slide out of control, skidding along the floor to turn a corner.
  3032. >Almost there!
  3033. >Just one more corner, and you'll be there!
  3034. >"You and your friends are fucking DEAD!"
  3035. >You round the next corner, and--
  3036. >"You and your friends are bucking DEAD!"
  3037. >A blast of black flame rockets out of a sickly, haggard-looking Starlight, catching a very exhausted-looking Zamara, and sending her back a yard or two.
  3038. >That was the last thing they do, before all eyes are on you.
  3039. >The consort's cold fury, dissolving into despair.
  3040. >Starlight's rage increasing even more.
  3041. >A shocked Night Guard flipping to rage of his own.
  3042. >And Zamara, her bardiche missing, lighting up with recognition, and resolve.
  3043. >You, all the while, never stop running.
  3044. >You don't need to call for Zamara's aid, as she immediately breaks for you, potions full of some kind of gas flying out of her bags and breaking in her wake.
  3045. >"Follow me, rugged one!"
  3046. >She doesn't have to tell you twice!
  3047. >As you pass the Homunculus, encased in ice, she yells out in her language.
  3049. >Her tribestallions break from the fighting, and the remaining lings and gryphons soon follow suit.
  3050. >"Get back here, you bucking cowards!"
  3051. >Starlight's call doesn't scare you.
  3052. >"OUT OF MY WAY!"
  3053. >Anonymous's call, on the other hoof, scares you a lot!
  3054. >Despite your efforts, your body is beginning to peter out, the only thing keeping you fast on your legs being sheer terror, and your own willpower.
  3055. >Zamara barks something out in her language, and you sense some of the zebra warriors skidding to a halt, and whirling around to face him.
  3056. >Yes!
  3057. >Maybe they'll stop him--
  3059. >Their cries ring out simultaneously, and their lives are ended just as simultaneously.
  3060. >Nevermind!
  3061. >Nothing can stop him!
  3062. >Just keep going!
  3063. >"Sweet mother of Godric, what kind of weapons are those?!"
  3064. >"Ancient weapons of enemies long past! Now, keep going!"
  3065. >You're almost there, you have to be!
  3066. >"You're all next, you hear me?!"
  3067. >THWAMNMNMNMnmnmnm
  3068. >That sonic attack!
  3069. >Your ears are alight with pain, along with the rest of the group, who have to suppress crying out.
  3070. >KA-BWMPH
  3071. >The blast of the attack is at your back, and almost trips you up.
  3072. >Several lings and a gryphon could be felt losing their lives at the hooves of that one attack.
  3073. >Just before despair begins to set in, you see the hall ahead opening into daylight.
  3074. >The platforms with the chariots!
  3075. >You're almost there!
  3076. >You're going to make it!
  3077. >You physically cannot go any faster, and the pain in your legs is unbelievable.
  3078. >But you keep speeding towards the platform, anyways!
  3080. >Zamara's intent shifts, and she procures some bottles of an inky black liquid, radiating with dark power.
  3081. >"Trouble us no more, human!"
  3082. >The bottles are flung against the walls, on the floor, and even towards the ceiling, breaking and spilling their oily contents against the surfaces.
  3083. >Almost immediately, dark magic arcs between them, and begins to destroy everything around them, causing a collapse in short order.
  3084. >Even after the collapse, the dark magic continues to radiate outwards from the debris, threatening to harm anything that approaches.
  3085. >You clear the hallway's opening soon after, breaking out into an open platform holding three chariots, guarded by lings and some gryphons.
  3086. >"Get us airborne, now!"
  3087. >Everyone able to fly rushes towards the chariots as fast as possible, strapping themselves into them as quickly as they can.
  3088. >The ones left over, mostly lings, rush over towards you.
  3089. >Your pace slows as you feel the weight being lifted off of your back.
  3090. >Soon, he's being carried without your aid.
  3091. >Your legs pick that moment to give out, pain crashing through them as you collapse to the ground, skidding to a halt against Incognito's chariot.
  3092. >"Athalia!"
  3093. >Ajay's voice rings out, mere moments before he bolts off the chariot and over to you.
  3094. >You can't speak, instead crying out through grit teeth.
  3095. >It hurts so much!
  3096. >You feel talons clacking along your barrel, as he grabs your body and flies you into the chariot.
  3097. >The concern you feel from him, directed at you, helps reduce the pain a little bit.
  3099. >You're placed onto your back, facing the rear of the chariot.
  3100. >"Everyone's on board! Now get us the hell out of here!"
  3101. >"You heard your commander, winged predators!"
  3102. >The chariots grate against the floor for a brief moment, as they pick up enough speed to lift off.
  3103. >When they finally do lift off, though...
  3104. >Oh...
  3105. >Oh, my gosh.
  3106. >You...
  3107. >You made it.
  3108. >You made it out!
  3109. >"Insects, make yourselves useful! Help me pry off this accursed armour!"
  3110. >Armour?
  3111. >Incognito.
  3112. >Oh, no!
  3113. >Is he--?!
  3114. >Your head turns as far as it'll go, trying to see.
  3115. >His breathing is really shallow, his eyes unfocused.
  3116. >With a small knife, Zamara cuts through the straps, and has the lings burn the main body of the bolts off, leaving a small stump of wood left.
  3117. >They work as quick as they can, prying off the bloody chestpiece while trying not to hurt him any further.
  3118. >"His potions are missing. Damn it, he must have taken them already!"
  3119. >They finish prying the piece off, and Zamara immediately sets to work, demanding water and cloth.
  3120. >But the damage is unbelievable.
  3121. >Did...
  3122. >Did he really do all of that...?!
  3123. >"Athalia?"
  3124. >Ajay's voice has your head spin back to your front.
  3125. >He's there, with a medical kit of his own, concern written all over his face.
  3126. >A few lings were buzzing around as well, their concern matching his own.
  3127. >"Are you all right?"
  3128. >Though his definitely stood out.
  3129. "F-fine-- Aaaaagh!"
  3130. >Your legs!
  3131. >They--
  3132. >Gaaaaah!
  3133. >Hurts!
  3134. >Oh, it huuuurts!!
  3135. >"Damn it, help me sling them up!"
  3136. >The pain gets even more intense, as you feel talons, hooves, and magic moving your legs.
  3138. >Several moments go by, where it gets so intense that you almost pass out.
  3139. >Miraculously, you stay conscious, the emotions of your attendants keeping you awake.
  3140. >Something is pressed against your muzzle, something glassy.
  3141. >"Give her something for the damned pain first, you buffoons!"
  3142. >Something for the pain!
  3143. >Oh, please!
  3144. >The glassy thing, a bottle's opening, makes it's way to your mouth, and you waste no time in drinking the contents.
  3145. >Well, choking back is more accurate, considering how foul it tastes.
  3146. >While you get most of it, you drink it too fast, causing you to splutter and cough near the end.
  3147. >"Whoa, hey, easy! Easy!"
  3148. >Through your hacking, you feel the horrible pain begin to fade away really quickly.
  3149. >Within moments, it fades to a dull aching, and the lings quickly begin wrapping your legs in cloth and bandaging, enough to form slings.
  3150. >The fit is loose, but it does keep them still.
  3151. >You're left laying on your side, trying to slow your breathing.
  3152. >Ajay stays beside you, wrapping the wound on your barrel.
  3153. >"Relax, okay? You're gonna be fine."
  3154. >Finally...
  3155. >It's over...
  3156. >Now, you can--
  3157. >A glint.
  3158. >No...
  3159. >A magic projectile!
  3160. >It's flying at--!
  3161. >The cloth breaks, dull pain reigniting as your legs come out.
  3162. >You grab Ajay and push him off to the side, out of the projectile's path.
  3163. >Things seem to slow down, as it hurtles right for you.
  3164. >A sizzle is heard, as it glances the side of your neck.
  3165. >schlick
  3166. >It...
  3167. >It missed you.
  3168. >"He's hit!"
  3169. >Wh-what?
  3170. >Your head spins around, and--
  3171. >Incognito!
  3172. >The bolt hit him!
  3173. >"Get us out of here, damn it!"
  3174. <...
  3176. "You're so fucking dead! Do you hear me?! DEAD!"
  3178. >Keep firing.
  3180. >The Bluebaide arrows have to hit something!
  3182. >Come on, the staff's already TK accelerating them as they leave!
  3184. >It has to be enough!
  3186. >You're not gonna--
  3187. >Your hand finds nothing.
  3188. >Your quiver is completely empty, both broadheads and bodkins all gone.
  3189. >No.
  3190. >Uh-uh.
  3191. >No way.
  3192. >That did not just fucking happen.
  3193. >He did not just get away from that!
  3194. >His fucking brainwashed ass-kisser did not just swoop in and cart him off!
  3195. >That didn't happen.
  3196. >That can't have just...
  3197. >Fucking...!
  3198. >Your hands shake madly, before everything turns red.
  3199. "Raaaaaaaaagh!"
  3200. >You're dimly aware of you throwing the bow to the ground.
  3201. "This isn't over, you piece of shit!"
  3202. >The only thing in focus, the only thing unobscured by a red haze, is the rapidly disappearing trio of chariots.
  3203. "You hear me?! I'm not finished with you, not by a damned sight!
  3204. "I'll kill you! I'll fucking kill you! And then I'll drag you out of fucking hell, so I can kill you again!"
  3205. >The need to breathe interrupts your tirade towards the sky.
  3206. >Towards the rapidly shrinking dots.
  3207. >All that leaves you past that point, is a yell.
  3208. >One final bellow of anger, one last expression of rage, aimed squarely at the sky.
  3209. >There's so much you want to scream towards him.
  3210. >So much you want to dish out.
  3211. >But you can't.
  3212. >It's...
  3213. >Over.
  3214. >He slipped away.
  3215. >He was right there, right in your grasp.
  3216. >Sitting on death's door.
  3217. >You were winning.
  3218. >And he wormed out of taking the final L.
  3220. >The staff is heard clattering to the ground.
  3221. >Must've forgotten to keep it up.
  3222. >The toll of everything you've endured today, finally begins to catch up to you.
  3223. >The beating you took, the slashes caked in drying blood.
  3224. >The burning in your limbs, from all the jumping, running, and shooting.
  3225. >The only thing keeping you from collapsing is your ever-present, burning anger.
  3226. >And you stand there, stewing in it.
  3227. >Nothing but the pain, and the mountain breeze, to keep you company.
  3228. >You don't know how long you stand like that, with your head hung down, and your hands clenched.
  3229. >Not even the voices coming from behind break you from it.
  3230. >"--certain that she progressed to stage-four dark magic poisoning."
  3231. >"Shit! Is there anything you can do to help her?"
  3232. >"Nothing outside of rituals and antioneiric medicines will aid her at this point."
  3233. >"Damn it! At least--"
  3234. >A familiar gasp interrupts the familiar voice.
  3235. >"Anon!"
  3236. >Their hoofsteps, already loud from running, picked up into a dead sprint.
  3237. >"Holy shit, Anon! Are you all right?!"
  3238. >You don't respond.
  3239. >The steps slow down as they get closer to you.
  3240. >"Anon, talk to me! What happened--"
  3241. >As Razor circles around you, he stops dead with a small gasp.
  3242. >Must've seen the damage.
  3243. >"A-Anon?"
  3244. "I had him."
  3245. >"What?"
  3246. "One more shot, and he would've died. One more..."
  3247. >The exhaustion takes it's toll, at last.
  3248. >You drop to your knees, half from exertion, half from the feeling of defeat.
  3249. >"Anon! You two, get the medics here!"
  3250. >The fall forward, stopped by Razor's save?
  3251. >That was all exhaustion.
  3252. <...
  3254. @@@@@@@@
  3256. >>So much time's gone by, since you were dumped here by that...
  3257. >>Whatever the fuck that four-armed thing is.
  3258. >>This place lacks windows, clocks, all that kind of stuff, so you have absolutely no idea how long you've been here.
  3259. >>But it has to be on the order of days.
  3260. >>The only thing that changes over time, is bowls of some bland paste being straight-up levitated into your cell.
  3261. >>Like there was some kind of Jedi floating that shit in.
  3262. >>The place was starting to take it's toll on you.
  3263. >>The bland alien 'food', with God only knows what in it.
  3264. >>Being away from your friends for so long.
  3265. >>Being away from home for so long.
  3266. >>Having no contact at all for so long.
  3267. >>Is this how you're going to die?
  3268. >>Wasting away inside some alien jail?
  3269. >>Is this even on Earth anymore?
  3270. >>You've thrashed and panicked about this many times already, but this time, that was replaced with...
  3271. >>Resignation.
  3272. >>Tearful resignation.
  3273. >>You're never gonna see them again, aren't you?
  3274. >>You're never gonna get to say goodbye to your aunt, are you?
  3275. >>You're never gonna--
  3276. >>A loud metallic CLUNK sounds off in the distance, accompanied by the creaking of a door opening.
  3277. >>Someone's coming?
  3278. >>Oh, God.
  3279. >>Someone's coming.
  3280. >>More like, something's coming!
  3281. >>Your suspicion is proven by the thing that comes into view.
  3282. >>The same tall, thin, four-armed orangutan-looking thing that abducted you.
  3283. >>It's three-fingered hands were holding different things.
  3284. >>One set had a pair of weird, gemstone-covered gauntlets on.
  3285. >>The other held...
  3286. >>A metal collar on a stick.
  3288. >>It smiles at you.
  3289. >>That has to be one of the most evil smiles you've ever seen.
  3290. >>And the dark chuckling wasn't helping things.
  3291. >>"I see that you've kept yourself relatively healthy, my little human. That's good. You'll need to be quite healthy, for what I've planned for you."
  3292. >>Oh, hell no.
  3293. >>You're backed up into the corner, right as he opens the cell doors, with--
  3294. >>His gloves.
  3295. >>They glowed a blood-orange colour, the same glow wreathing the door.
  3296. >>Oh, hell no!
  3297. >>The same glow covered the collar-stick.
  3298. >"G-get the fuck away from me!"
  3299. >>"Now, why would I do that?"
  3300. >>The collar 'clicks' open.
  3301. >>You make a panicked rush for the other side of the--
  3302. >>SLAM
  3303. >>Hgkh--!
  3304. >>CLICK
  3305. >>In the blink of an eye, an almost blinding glow shoves you against the wall.
  3306. >>Wh-what the fuck?!
  3307. >>What is--
  3308. >>It's collared you.
  3309. >>Oh, no.
  3310. >>"Try not to hurt yourself too much."
  3311. >>It yanks you back towards him, dragging you along the floor with him as he walks back to where he came.
  3312. >>No!
  3313. >>This is not happening!
  3314. >"L-let me go!"
  3315. >>You pry at the collar, but it doesn't give.
  3316. >>He drags you into what looks like a lab.
  3317. >>Your panic increases even more, as he drags you to a cage on the floor.
  3318. >>He shoves you into the thing, locking it behind you.
  3319. >>The collar is still attached, and he fucking welds the stick to the bars!
  3320. >>"Now, let's get the prep out of the way, shall we?"
  3321. >>Fuck, no!
  3322. >>"You monster!"
  3323. >>Huh?
  3324. >>Another voice, to the left.
  3325. >>"It's bad enough you took me away, but you had to take another, too?!"
  3326. >>Is that...?
  3327. >>Oh, God.
  3328. >>It is.
  3329. >>Another person!
  3330. <...
  3332. >The first thing you notice is all the pain.
  3333. >Your limbs feel like noodles.
  3334. >Your chest feels tight, and aches more than it really should.
  3335. >And you've got a headache.
  3336. >The only good thing about all this, was probably the warm, comfy surface you're lying back on.
  3337. >Oh, God.
  3338. >Seem familiar?
  3339. >This has all the hallmarks of another hospital stay.
  3340. >God, what happened?
  3341. >Your eyes slowly slide open, everything blurry as you adjust to the bright light.
  3342. >Come on, think!
  3343. >Why would you be here again?!
  3344. >You were... hanging with Luna, right?
  3345. >Something about her loving you?
  3346. >Yeah, she...
  3347. >Kissed you.
  3348. >Oh, God almighty.
  3349. >How're you gonna--
  3350. >No.
  3351. >That wasn't it.
  3352. >Pharynx ran in.
  3353. >His warning.
  3354. >The rushing.
  3355. >Gearing up.
  3356. >Finding Twilight.
  3357. >Saving Starlight.
  3358. >Incognito.
  3359. >You immediately bolt upright, and just as immediately wish you hadn't.
  3360. >Your chest now feels like it's on fire, the tightness around it making it a bit tough to breathe.
  3361. >Your hands find a tough piece of bandaged plaster around your chest.
  3362. >Looking down gets you the sight of a cast.
  3363. >You're in a fucking cast?
  3364. >So...
  3365. >You must've broken some ribs, then!
  3366. >Fuck, damn it!
  3367. >Should've thought about that!
  3368. >Fortunately, the back of the bed is at that incline, letting you see the rest of the room as you ease back down, and try to slow your breathing.
  3369. >A very standard hospital room surrounded you.
  3370. >That included the white privacy curtains, which unfortunately blocked your view of the rest of the room, including the door.
  3371. >You eventually stabilize your breathing.
  3372. >And the door is heard opening, moments later.
  3374. >"S-so he's okay?"
  3375. >"Yes, and in surprisingly good condition. He's very lucky to have gotten away with only a few broken ribs, and some slashes."
  3376. >Twilight and Doc Valiant.
  3377. >Oh, thank God, she's all right!
  3378. >"Oh, thank goodness he's okay!"
  3379. >"I'm certain most of the castle will be quite thankful for all he's done."
  3380. >There's the familiar silhouettes, going for the curtain entrance.
  3381. >The first on the scene is the good doctor.
  3382. >And he looks surprised to see you?
  3383. >"You're awake? Do you make a habit of waking up at the most opportune times, Anon?"
  3384. "I, ah... don't really plan for it, doc."
  3385. >"Well, it certainly speeds things up, in any case."
  3386. >"A-Anon?!"
  3387. >The instant the doctor walks to one side of the bed, a familiar purple blur speeds through the curtain, and to the other side.
  3388. >"Anon!"
  3389. >You'd have gone for another ear treatment, but her clinging to your arm shoots that idea down.
  3390. "Hey there, Twilight."
  3391. >"Ohmygoshyou'reokayIwassoworriedIthoughtyouweregoingto--"
  3392. >"I really hate to interrupt you, princess, but I'll have to ask you to ease up on him a bit. His limbs were quite strained by all of the recent events."
  3393. >And instantly, she lets your arm go, like it was on fire.
  3394. >"I-I'msorryIdidn'tmeanto--"
  3395. "Hey now, he just said 'ease up'."
  3396. >"B-but--"
  3397. "Uh-uh. C'mere."
  3398. >The teary-eyed purple ball of stress hesitates a few moments, before walking a few paces towards your outstretched hand.
  3399. >Allowing you to proceed with the ear treatment properly.
  3400. >Her stress melts at the scratching, and she strokes your arm with a hoof, all while wearing a big, watery smile.
  3402. >"I'm sorry to interrupt, Anon."
  3403. >Alas, all good moments must come to an end.
  3404. >Your head turns to the doc, but the hand keeps on scritchy-scratching.
  3405. "No, it's fine, doc."
  3406. >"I disagree, so I'll try to be quick about this. First off, how are you holding up?"
  3407. "Well, my ribs are on fire, and I feel like a wet noodle. So, fantastic, thanks for asking."
  3408. >"Hilarious. I'll try to get you something for the ribs, but only once the alchemic toxicity wears down a bit more."
  3409. >Alchemic toxicity?
  3410. "Weren't you saying that before, when I got shanked in the chest?"
  3411. >"Yes, and this time is no different."
  3412. "I don't really get what that's about, doc."
  3413. >"No? Well, I suppose I can explain it quickly. The liquid that contains the active magical ingredients in alchemic potions isn't exactly the most healthy thing around."
  3414. "So you can't just chug potions all day, huh?"
  3415. >"Not unless you want excessive vomiting and flu-like symptoms, no."
  3416. "Ah, good to know."
  3417. >"Still, you did put that little potion of mine to good use. It healed the majority of the damage surrounding that impact wound, but sadly, it did little for the bones."
  3418. "Of course."
  3419. >"I'll take a few more measurements, of course, but you should be within safe tolerances in a few hours. Then, I'll give you something for the ribs."
  3420. "You're all heart, doc."
  3421. >He floats over a few instruments from his bags, and slowly starts slipping into a business look.
  3422. >"There are a few things I'm going to need from you, Anon."
  3423. "Should I be scared?"
  3424. >"Well, I'd certainly hope not. The first thing is a small blood sample."
  3426. "Oh, God."
  3427. >Yeah, there's the floating syringe.
  3428. >He just rolls his eyes, and covers the thing with a small cloth.
  3429. >"You'll barely feel it."
  3430. "That's what they all say."
  3431. >"Anyways. The second thing I need from you, is some confirmations."
  3432. "Confirmations? You mean, like, what I was hit with-- Agh!"
  3433. >'Barely feel it', my ass!
  3434. >"Oh, relax. But yes, I do mean that in part."
  3435. >Mercifully, the bloodletting is quite short.
  3436. >Did he really have to show the syringe, though?
  3437. >"There, that wasn't so bad, was it?"
  3438. "Yes?"
  3439. >That was a gigglesnort you just heard, from the other side.
  3440. >A significantly less teary-eyed purple horse was covering her mouth with her hoof.
  3441. "Hey, who's side are you on here?"
  3442. >Oh, she's not even being subtle about hiding the giggling.
  3443. >And...
  3444. >Uh.
  3445. >Fuck, that's contagious.
  3446. >Okay, maybe it was kinda funny.
  3447. >"It's always pleasant, seeing patients in such good spirits."
  3448. >And back to the doc you turn.
  3449. >He asks you about the attack that hit you in the gut, and you do your best to describe it.
  3450. >Ball of black explody fire, that he called a 'dark pursuer', everything like that.
  3451. >"That sounds very much like a powerful dark magic attack, to me. And you're sure you don't feel any... light-headedness, blurred vision, maybe even strange whispering?"
  3452. "Not a thing."
  3453. >His 'hmm' is more thoughtful than it is worried, if that counts for anything.
  3454. >The rest of his questions are along the same vein, naming which wound was caused by what.
  3455. >"All right, now, I have one last question. Do you recall having any dreams, before you woke up here?"
  3457. "Dreams? I... think so. You know I can't remember them though, right?"
  3458. >"Of course. But you did have one?"
  3459. "Pretty sure, why?"
  3460. >"Your eye movements while asleep were consistent with it. I simply wanted to confirm it, is all."
  3461. "Uhh, what for?"
  3462. >"Just... one last piece of confirmation for that analysis I performed before."
  3463. >Oh.
  3464. >That.
  3465. "Right. Uh, should I be scared of that, too?"
  3466. >"I don't think you should be too worried. Well, that's about all I needed from you, in any case. Thanks for being so patient with me, Anon."
  3467. "Uh, happy to help?"
  3468. >"I'll leave you two alone for a while, then."
  3469. >A question pops into your head, as he walks to the curtain entrance.
  3470. "Wait."
  3471. >"Hm? What is it?"
  3472. "How's everyone else doing?"
  3473. >His expression got a lot more grave.
  3474. >"It... depends."
  3475. "What's that supposed to mean?"
  3476. >"I'd prefer to inform you later, when all the princesses are gathered together."
  3477. "Doc, please--"
  3478. >"That's all I will say on the matter."
  3479. >Damn it.
  3480. "Fine."
  3481. >"I'm sorry, Anon. Is there anything else?"
  3482. >Not that you can think of.
  3483. "No."
  3484. >"All right, I'll be back later. Take care, Anon."
  3485. "You too, doc."
  3486. >He leaves through the curtain, and the door is heard shutting a few moments later.
  3487. >A long sigh escapes you, as your head falls back onto the pillow.
  3488. >"A-Anon?"
  3489. >Twilight's voice sounds a fair bit sadder than that giggle fit she had before.
  3490. >And when you look over to her, her face reflects the tone.
  3491. "Yeah?"
  3492. >"D-do you remember, back in Ponyville, when you... told me that story?"
  3493. "Story?"
  3494. >"The one with the... bandit? Th-throwing away the gems?"
  3496. >Wait, the one with--
  3497. >Oh.
  3498. "Oh. That one? What about it?"
  3499. >"I..."
  3500. >She flies up and onto the bed, careful to avoid stepping on anything as she looks down at you.
  3501. >"I didn't think that... that it was really all that believable. It didn't make sense to me, that somepony could just do... all of those terrible things, for no good reason."
  3502. >She's tearing up again.
  3503. >"B-but now... now I believe it. After what he did, how can I not?"
  3504. >Oh, God.
  3505. >You remember, now.
  3506. >You found Twilight, beaten up and bound in that room!
  3507. >The rekindled anger was secondary to your concern for her, and you slowly sit yourself up.
  3508. >"A-Anon, wait! You shouldn't--"
  3509. >She's silenced by the hug you give her once you're upright, pain be damned.
  3510. "What did he do?"
  3511. >The question scares her a little bit, but she decides to tell you, anyways.
  3512. >He walked in like he owned the place, then thrashed her around, only letting up to ask where you were.
  3513. >It was a very tearful recount, with several stops for her to cry it out.
  3514. >By the end, you're starting to regret asking her about it.
  3515. >"D-did you save her?"
  3516. >Huh?
  3517. >Oh, she means...!
  3518. "Yeah, we saved her."
  3519. >"Oh, thank goodness! Is she okay?"
  3520. "Last I saw. Why?"
  3521. >"A-after the doctor released me, th-they wouldn't let me check up on her. Something about an edict by Celestia."
  3522. >Celestia?
  3523. >"I-I hope she's doing okay."
  3524. "God, I hope so."
  3525. >But your gut tells you that's a fool's hope.
  3526. "Where is Celestia, though? Is she still out at that frontier place?"
  3527. >"I had Spike send a letter to her. She said she'll be back as soon as she can. That was a few hours ago, now."
  3529. >You really hope she gets here sooner, rather than later.
  3530. >Not knowing how your friends were doing was really eating you.
  3531. >"Anon?"
  3532. "Yeah?"
  3533. >"H-how badly did he... h-hurt you?"
  3534. "Pretty bad. But I hurt him worse."
  3535. >But didn't fucking finish him.
  3536. "God damn it."
  3537. >"Wh-what is it?"
  3538. "I almost had him."
  3539. >She pulls back a little bit.
  3540. "He was right there, right about to keel over for good, and then--"
  3541. >Your speaking is interrupted by a hoof over your mouth.
  3542. >"It's okay."
  3543. "But--"
  3544. >"Nuh-uh. Don't you dare kick yourself for winning, you hear me?"
  3545. >She's not having any of your protests.
  3546. >"You drove him off, and saved so many lives. That's more than good enough."
  3547. >A nuzzling of your cheek cuts off any further protesting.
  3548. >"You should get some rest. You really need it."
  3549. >Well, that was quick shift.
  3550. >But again, she doesn't budge against protests.
  3551. >Even if she does have a point.
  3552. >Soon enough, you're lowering yourself back down on the bed.
  3553. >"I'll come get you when Celestia arrives, okay?"
  3554. "All right."
  3555. >"O-one more thing, Anon."
  3556. "What is it?"
  3557. >She leans in closer, a smile on her face.
  3558. >"Thanks."
  3559. >It almost looked like she was going to kiss you, but at the last minute, she shifted to nuzzling your cheeks.
  3560. >The look in her eye at that moment looked like she had remembered something.
  3561. >"For everything."
  3562. >She flashes you one last smile, before hopping down off the bed, and making for the door herself.
  3563. >You let out a breath you didn't know you were holding, once the door shuts.
  3564. >You do your best to try and sleep.
  3565. >Luckily, it comes pretty easily.
  3566. <...
  3569. >Okay, the engine is running!
  3570. >Now for the rest of the tests!
  3571. >You float your checklist of things to test over, and start going down the list.
  3572. >The engine rotates the shaft perfectly, as expected.
  3573. >The fuel lines are in good working order.
  3574. >And the oil levels and temperatures are still good, thank goodness.
  3575. >It's too hard and complex to source and refine, for you to waste too much of it!
  3576. >Now, the shaft interconnect locks in, like that...!
  3577. >Okay, a solid connection!
  3578. >And it's disconnected the other input, as expected!
  3579. >Now, when the shaft rotates, it should drive...
  3580. >Yes!
  3581. >The suspended wheels begin to spin.
  3582. >Now, if you lift the traction testers into place, you should see...
  3583. >Yes, it all looks good!
  3584. >The cured rubber definitely seems to have the best effect, for the least weight!
  3585. >Gosh, you're glad you found that method in that minotaur book!
  3586. >You'd hate to see the results of the crystal-grit wheels, again...
  3587. >Shaking the bad memory aside, you continue the traction and stress tests, applying different kinds of 'terrain', at different levels.
  3588. >It all holds up.
  3589. >Wonderful!
  3590. >The load on top of the entire suspension shakes with the changes, but it's nothing a well-enchanted cabin can't fix!
  3591. >And with a few last tests, the engine shuts down.
  3592. >That completes the sixth consecutive test run!
  3593. >Oh my gosh, you actually did it!
  3594. >You made this all-mechanical device work, without the use of magic!
  3595. >This is...
  3596. >Incredible!
  3597. >Thoughts run through your head, of all the things this invention can completely revolutionize!
  3599. >Anon was right.
  3600. >He said this invention totally changed the course of his people's history, connecting the world more than trains ever could.
  3601. >Seeing the capabilities of your recreation, you can't disagree!
  3602. >Heh...
  3603. >When this thing gets unveiled, they'll never look down on mechanical systems again!
  3604. >Gosh, the papers you could write on this!
  3605. >But...
  3606. >No.
  3607. >The papers can wait.
  3608. >This thing can propel itself, but it needs an enclosure!
  3609. >And something to house the passengers and cargo!
  3610. >Immediately, you stow away your testing equipment, and return to your writing desk.
  3611. >Test notes are filed away, and your diagrams are pulled up again.
  3612. >Hmm...
  3613. >Maybe you can repurpose a carriage, mount it on top of the suspension system?
  3614. >But you'd still need some kind of enclosure for the engines!
  3615. >And all the existing carriage standards would overlap with them!
  3616. >Hmm...
  3617. >Maybe, if...?
  3618. >You start sketching some ideas out, marrying enclosures and carriages as best as you can.
  3619. >You think you've got a common design motif between them all, but nothing particularly sturdy or attractive.
  3620. >Gosh, even with all of this mechanical stuff, your designing skills still need work--
  3622. >Huh?
  3623. >The sound relay for your front door goes off.
  3624. >Setting down your sketches, you hurry up the stairwell leading out of your lab, closing the passage behind you.
  3625. "Just a moment!"
  3626. >The door opens, revealing--
  3627. >"Good afternoon, Sunburst."
  3628. >Wh-wha?
  3629. "P-Princess Cadance?"
  3630. >Sh-she looks really serious!
  3631. >"Something terrible has happened at Canterlot, Sunburst. We need to use your portal again."
  3633. @@@@@@@@
  3635. >Wh-what...?!
  3636. >Something t-terrible?
  3637. >An awful, sinking feeling grows in the pit of your stomach.
  3638. >And it's at that point, that you notice a group of guards behind her.
  3639. >Wh-what could have--
  3640. >"Sunburst?"
  3641. "Ah! O-oh, I'm sorry, I-I'll get right on it!"
  3642. >Your pace is shaky and rushed, as you turn around and dive into your lab again, this time carrying the slipgate in your magic as you climb back out.
  3643. >But all throughout, your mind was buzzing with fears.
  3644. >The principal fears being what happened, and who was involved.
  3645. >You have no idea what could have happened, but you were positive that Anon had to be involved somehow!
  3646. >Oh my gosh, is he okay?
  3647. >The gate is lifted out from the stairwell, and you place it down as you close the passageway back up.
  3648. >A few taps of your hoof, and the gateway rips open.
  3649. >You'll never get used to the way it messes with magic...
  3650. >"Thank you, Sunburst."
  3651. "P-Princess, what's going on?"
  3652. >"I don't know the details, but there's been an attack on the castle."
  3653. "A-an attack...?!"
  3654. >Oh, no!
  3655. >H-he had to be involved in this, somehow!
  3656. >Wh-what attacked, though?!
  3657. >"I'm afraid so. I'll tell you more about it once I get back, and learn about it myself."
  3658. >B-but if Anon's involved...!
  3659. >As she steps towards the gate's entrance, you blurt your request out:
  3660. "W-wait! I-I'd like to come too, princess!"
  3661. >"Are you sure?"
  3662. "I... I need to know if everypony's okay!"
  3663. >Wh-what if it's not just Anon?
  3664. >What if Sta--
  3665. >"Okay. But stay close to me, okay? The castle is always very chaotic whenever it's threatened."
  3666. "R-right!"
  3668. >Once she passes through the portal, the guards wait for you to follow her in, before passing through themselves, and shutting the gate behind them.
  3669. >Inside the little 'hub' room, a few guards greet Princess Cadance as she enters, and lead her through an already-opened gate.
  3670. >You recognize that one as Anon's slipgate.
  3671. >Passing through reveals--
  3672. >Wait, it's not in his room?
  3673. >This is...
  3674. >Th-the war room?
  3675. >Oh, no.
  3676. >The last time you were here, was when Anon was almost killed by that changeling!
  3677. >Your eyes dart around, desperately trying to find him--
  3678. >"I have told you already, I am more than capable of supporting myself!"
  3679. >"Even so, your highness, I must advise against straining yourself like this!"
  3680. >"I will be fine!"
  3681. >Those voices...
  3682. >They belong to Princess Luna, and a unicorn doctor you don't recognize.
  3683. >Wait.
  3684. >Luna looks really worn out!
  3685. >Besides the occasional bandage on her legs and barrel, she had dark circles under her eyes, and her wingspan looked strangely mottled.
  3686. >Wait, pegasus feathers only do that when they're really high up, to aid with the cold!
  3687. >Her sudden sneeze draws you back to the present.
  3688. >What happened?!
  3689. >Wh-why does she look so rough?
  3690. >Cadance walks up to Luna, who quickly notices the two of you, and lights up in response.
  3691. >"Cadance! How good it is to s-see you!"
  3692. >She shivered a little bit at that last part.
  3693. >"Luna, a-are you okay?"
  3694. >"Fine, dear niece! This is s-simply a cold, nothing more!"
  3695. >"A cold? But we don't get those. Most pegasi don't get those! What's going on, here?"
  3696. >"That is a far more grave matter, Cadance."
  3698. >Luna's head turns to you, next.
  3699. >"Greetings to you as well, S-Sir Sunburst. I only wish our meeting could be under much better circumstances."
  3700. >You swallow dry.
  3701. >A quick bow is given, before you rush up to her side.
  3702. "P-Princess, what's going on? A-are you okay?"
  3703. >"We were attacked, my subject. A foe most vile assaulted us, and dared to try and strike down--"
  3704. >THUMP-CRASH
  3705. >Wh-whoa!
  3706. >The doors to the room, off to the side, were thrown open, slamming hard against the walls.
  3707. >Everypony jumped, and--
  3708. >"Luna!"
  3709. >Galloping through the doorway was--
  3710. >H-holy mother of the Goddess, is that...
  3711. >P-Princess Celestia?!
  3712. >B-but...
  3713. >You've never seen her like this, before!
  3714. >She was clad in ornate golden armour, unlike anything you'd ever seen before, and it had signs of battle all over it!
  3715. >The large hammer stowed across her back completed the look, and you find yourself very scared by the sight.
  3716. >J-just...
  3717. >Wh-what is--
  3718. >"Tia!"
  3719. >Luna didn't have to yell out, for Celestia to close in on her.
  3720. >Without any signs of slowing down, Celestia leaped over the table, and once she landed, wasted no time in scooping Luna up into a tight hug.
  3721. >"Oh, Lulu, thank goodness you're all right!"
  3722. >"It takes more than a wretched insec--"
  3723. >She's cut off by a sneeze.
  3724. >"A cold? How did...? Lulu, who did all this to you?!"
  3725. >Her grip around Luna gets ever tighter, and she's started to nuzzle her as well.
  3726. >"Was it him who did this? Did he--"
  3727. >"Nay, sister, but his foul accomplice!"
  3728. >"What? You're telling me that he freed her?!"
  3729. >"Yes, and she did not battle alone!"
  3730. >"Luna, tell me everything."
  3732. >The serious tone she just used made you take a few paces back.
  3733. >No...
  3734. >Not serious.
  3735. >But angry.
  3736. >Even Cadance was taken aback by it.
  3737. >But after Luna's face matched the serious look now on Celestia's face, she began to--
  3738. >A very familiar, masculine groan could be heard down the hallway, through the still-ajar door.
  3739. >"Sh-she booked it from that far away?"
  3740. >"Yeah, and I only just heard about it!"
  3741. >"That's fucking nuts. I mean, I knew she-- hey, is the door supposed to look like that?"
  3742. >Anon.
  3743. >Anon!
  3744. >Anon and Twilight!
  3745. >The latter could be heard gasping, and a brief flash of teleportation magic was seen in the middle of the room.
  3746. >Twilight appeared there, in an aggressive stance, but relented the instant she saw all of you gathered here.
  3747. >"C-Celestia? You're here already?!"
  3748. >"Twilight!"
  3749. >She let out a small 'waah', as she was levitated over by Celestia, where she soon joined Luna in the tight hug.
  3750. >Unlike Luna, however, she had much more trouble breathing through it.
  3751. >"Oh, Twilight, I'm so happy to see that you're okay!"
  3752. >And Luna wasn't helping matters by hugging her closely, too.
  3753. >"I am so pleased to see you in good health, Twilight!"
  3754. >Her wheezes eventually got to them, and they quickly let her go, allowing her to breathe again.
  3755. >Once she caught her breath, though, she also hugged both of them tightly.
  3756. >Soon, all three of them were locked together, gushing and crying about how happy they were to see each other.
  3757. >But your sight turned towards the doorway.
  3758. >More specifically, to the hallway you heard Anon down.
  3759. "E-excuse me a moment!"
  3761. >You don't wait for any responses, as you rush out of the door, looking down towards--
  3762. >There he is!
  3763. >And...
  3764. >Oh.
  3765. >O-oh, no, he...!
  3766. >He's bandaged up even worse than Luna!
  3767. >His undone suit jacket does a poor job of hiding the heavy bandaging of his torso, so heavy that he's using them instead of a shirt!
  3768. >And he's propped up against the wall, supporting himself as he shuffles forward.
  3769. >You both freeze upon seeing each other, but he breaks the silence first:
  3770. >"H-hey there, bud! Long time, no see, huh?"
  3771. "Anon!"
  3772. >You rush towards him, but his outstretched hand and scared face stops you.
  3773. >"Wh-whoa, wait a sec! Not ready for the hugfest, man!"
  3774. >You quickly skid to a halt.
  3775. "A-Are you okay?!"
  3776. >"I'll live."
  3777. >How can he still seem so jovial, when he looks so injured?!
  3778. "Wh-what happened to you?!"
  3779. >"Well, you're really not gonna like this--"
  3780. >His hand slips on the wall, throwing his balance off.
  3781. >Your reaction was a little delayed, but you rush over to him, to where you think he might fall.
  3782. >But instead of a fall, his arms grab onto your back, and he uses it to support himself.
  3783. >"Whew, good save, pal!"
  3784. "Th-thanks..."
  3785. >"Look, I'll tell you and the others in the war room, all right? It's a lot to get through, and it's gonna be a real doozy for all of us."
  3786. >That only makes you feel worse about all of this!
  3787. >Still, you nod your assent.
  3788. >The two of you walk back to the room, only this time with Anon supporting himself on you, instead of the wall.
  3789. >"What I wouldn't give for my spiffy cane right about now..."
  3790. "'Spiffy cane'?"
  3791. >"I'll show you later."
  3793. >Once you two make it back, the reactions from the others were very similar.
  3794. >Everypony broke from what they were doing and rushed over towards Anon, save for that doctor.
  3795. >Twilight had to actually pull Luna back at first, since she ran forward, intending to tackle him.
  3796. >A few sheepish apologies later, and the three of them were hugging one another, too.
  3797. >Anon's gaze settles on Celestia before long.
  3798. >"Nice to see you, Celly."
  3799. >"Likewise, Anon. I'm glad to see that you're holding up well."
  3800. >"Yeah, you and me both. Bastard almost killed me."
  3801. >W-wait, who almost killed him?!
  3802. >Their looks to each other go much more serious.
  3803. >"His monstrosities were extraordinarily difficult to slay, unfortunately. Thankfully, the sparse population allowed me to... cut loose, shall we say?"
  3804. >"So, he actually sent them there, huh? That part wasn't a total load?"
  3805. >"I'm afraid not. They claimed many lives on both sides, before we were able to stop them. I was fortunate to not lose any of my own soldiers in the process.
  3806. >"But it seems that such a terrible threat was, in the end, merely a distraction."
  3807. >Luna and Twilight stopped hugging Anon, allowing him to move again.
  3808. >"I'll break things down as best as I can for you."
  3809. >A nod from Celestia, along with her arranging the desks in a circle, and Anon was helped to one of the chairs by both Twilight and Luna.
  3810. >Was it just you, or did they seem...?
  3811. >Huh, something about those two was reminding you of something.
  3812. >Whatever it is, it's not really that important right now!
  3813. >After everypony was seated, he began his retelling.
  3815. >Y-you knew it had to be an attack of some kind, and that Anon was involved.
  3816. >B-but you didn't think it would be like this!
  3817. >The evil human, Incognito, showed up to lead the attack!
  3818. >And he was specifically targeting Anon!
  3819. >Your gut sank like a stone, once you learned that he attacked both Twilight and Starlight to get Anon's whereabouts, first.
  3820. >Throughout the whole recount, you couldn't stop thinking about Starlight's safety.
  3821. >That one changeling, Pharynx, escaped and warned Anon and Luna, who then launched a sneak attack to take Incognito by surprise.
  3822. >Anon found Starlight in the guard compound for Sol Invictus, a location that visibly perturbed Celestia.
  3823. >But knowing that she was rescued by him was so relieving to hear!
  3824. >Before Anon could recall his fight, however, Luna interjected with what happened with her, at around the same time.
  3825. >Once Starlight was saved, she regrouped with Luna, and made to move on the compound to help Anon.
  3826. >Or at least they would have, if they weren't attacked by Incognito's forces!
  3827. >Lots of evil changelings, as well as gryphons, and even some zebras were in the attacking force.
  3828. >More disturbing, however, was the rune monster they brought!
  3829. >And they had freed that one changeling, Athalia, and brought her to fight with them, too!
  3830. >Luna had to fight both the monster and Athalia, while her guards fought against the other enemies.
  3831. >From what they were saying, it sounded like Luna and her guards were losing!
  3832. >"Her skills were clumsy, and she would have been simple enough to defeat, had that damnable monster not been there!"
  3834. >"Indeed, they are very difficult to engage with, particularly up close."
  3835. >Celestia's addition made Luna lighten up somewhat.
  3836. >"It would have been the death of me, if lady Starlight had not intervened."
  3837. >Wait, Starlight?
  3838. >She helped?!
  3839. >"She aided you? But, she wouldn't have been able to--"
  3840. >Celestia stops dead with a realization, her expression growing grim.
  3841. >"Luna, you don't mean that she...?"
  3842. >"I am afraid so, sister."
  3843. >"Oh, no..."
  3844. >Both Anon and Twilight get agitated at this, to say nothing of your own sinking feeling!
  3845. >But Anon is the one who speaks up, first:
  3846. >"Wait, hold up, what happened?"
  3847. >"Lady Starlight had leveraged the dark arts to aid us."
  3848. >Everything seems to stop.
  3849. >Twilight can be heard gasping.
  3850. >Wh-what?
  3851. >N-no, she... she wouldn't...!
  3852. >St-Starlight, no!
  3853. >She said she'd be--
  3854. >"She did WHAT?!"
  3855. >Anon's outburst partly shook you from your terrible feelings and thoughts.
  3856. >"Dark magic poisoning inhibits one's ability to use magic, Anon. All you can do, once poisoned, is wait the effects out, or use more dark magic."
  3857. >"God damn it...!"
  3858. >S-so she really did use that.
  3859. >St-Starlight, why?
  3860. >Luna pressed on, after she was sure Celestia and Anon were done.
  3861. >"It is the truth, I am afraid. I am uncertain of what spells she used, but she had somehow wrested control of that vile monster, turning it against it's masters.
  3862. >"She only briefly had it battle that loathsome changeling, but soon tasked it to aid my guards, who were in dire straits by then. It's performance was... terrifying, if not effective."
  3864. >Luna went on to recount how Athalia had a much worse time fighting Luna, and how she tried to use some kind of spell on mister Measure.
  3865. >The spell interested Celestia, and she asked her to elaborate.
  3866. >"It was like a cloud of black, fell power, immobilizing and forcing itself into the poor stallion's body."
  3867. >"A Shadowbind."
  3868. >"And what does that spell do, sister?"
  3869. >"It incapacitates it's target, but not before creating a duplicate of it's victim, with all the same abilties, bound to the whims of the caster."
  3870. >"She tried to turn him against us?"
  3871. >"Yes. Were it not for the periapt in his armour, your fight would have gotten much more difficult."
  3872. >Just thinking about spells like that terrifies you!
  3873. >"In the end, she was unsuccessful. She fell to me, but..."
  3874. >Now, she looks really frustrated.
  3875. >"I was prevented from striking the final blow! They had a damnable alchemist with them!"
  3876. >"An alchemist?"
  3877. >The doctor, standing off to the side, makes himself known.
  3878. >"If I may, your highness?"
  3879. >"Of course, doctor Valiant."
  3880. >"Princess Luna was immobilized by an alchemical agent known as 'Frostbite', which trapped her in magical ice."
  3881. >"She was frozen solid? So that is why she came down with that cold!"
  3882. >"That's not all, princess. At some point during the fight, the runic creature was similarly immobilized by Frostbite."
  3883. >Wait, what?!
  3884. >"Doctor, have you--"
  3885. >"Of course, we've taken the necessary precautions. It is being maintained in it's frozen state, under heavy guard."
  3886. >"Good."
  3887. >W-wait--
  3888. >"What?! You mean to say that... thing, is still alive?!"
  3889. >Y-yeah, what Luna said!
  3891. >"For the moment, your highness."
  3892. >Luna is really not liking that, and neither is everypony else, except for Celestia!
  3893. >"It will only be kept alive for any potential information, and after that, will be destroyed. I assure you, I don't intend to let it live past that point."
  3894. >"But--"
  3895. >"The guards that returned with me are seeing to this, as we speak. With what we know of those creatures, they should have no trouble neutralizing a frozen one."
  3896. >A-at least they know what they're doing!
  3897. >But neither Luna, nor Anon, seem happy about that.
  3898. >"Regardless, do you remember anything else from after you were frozen?"
  3899. >"No, it was blackness until I was... defrosted."
  3900. >"I see. Then we should confer with the surviving guards, to determine what happened."
  3901. >The doctor clears his throat, before speaking up:
  3902. >"Not for now, princess. I've kept all those who fought with that alchemist quarantined, in case anything they were exposed to turns out to be... infectious."
  3903. >"Hm, unfortunate, but prudent. When can we expect their release?"
  3904. >"It should be another three days, at the least, before I can clear them."
  3905. >Wait, does that mean--?
  3906. >"Wait, how are they all doing?"
  3907. >Anon looks as worried as you feel!
  3908. >"There were many casualties, and unfortunately, a few fatalities. Still others, well..."
  3909. >"Doc, come on!"
  3910. >Said doctor looks to Celestia, who offers a brief nod, at which point he looks back to Anon.
  3911. >"Sergeant Exact Measure sustained minimal injuries, and mild dark magic poisoning. Lieutenant Razor Wind took a lot of damage, but is expected to make a full recovery.
  3913. >"Mister Pharynx was harmed primarily with alchemic attacks, which seemed to be more effective on him than on everypony else. Still, I expect him to recover just fine."
  3914. >His expression gets more grave.
  3915. >"As for Starlight Glimmer..."
  3916. >Oh, no...
  3917. >"She has severe dark magic poisoning. It's too early to make an accurate prognosis, but... I'm afraid that she'll be unable to use any magic for at least the next six months."
  3918. >Wh--
  3919. >N-no...!
  3920. >No!
  3921. >Twilight took the news the hardest, barely suppressing a wail, while starting to cry.
  3922. >Everypony else was in various states of shock.
  3923. >A-as for you...
  3924. >Sh-she...
  3925. >No...!
  3926. >Why?
  3927. >Your glasses are levitated off, and you soon join Twilight in crying.
  3928. >Nothing is said for a long time.
  3929. >You're dimly aware of Cadance and Celestia trying to comfort you.
  3930. >But no matter what they do, it...
  3931. >No, no!
  3932. >Starlight...
  3933. >Wh-why did you have to...
  3934. >"Sunburst, look at me."
  3935. >Celestia's voice has this... strange soothing to it.
  3936. >Somehow, you manage to look up at her saddened face.
  3937. >"We will do all we can to ensure that she recovers. You have my word."
  3938. >The cool, rough metal surface of her armour greets you, as you cling to her barrel.
  3939. >Even after she wraps her wings around you, the tears don't stop.
  3940. >SLAM
  3941. >"Fuck!"
  3942. >Anon's outburst made you jump, more than you thought it would.
  3943. >It manages to break you from your crying, and you look back towards him.
  3944. >He looks frustrated.
  3945. >Frustrated, angry, and sad.
  3946. >"I was... I was gonna help her with that dark shit. Help her get over it."
  3947. >He sinks back into his seat, fists clenched and jaw set.
  3949. >"Doc, can... can she still talk?"
  3950. >"Not for the moment, I'm afraid. I'm sorry."
  3951. >"Damn it. At least--"
  3952. >"Anon, I don't intend on having her suffer. One way or another, I will bring her back to good health."
  3953. >"I know, doc. But..."
  3954. >He's at a loss for words.
  3955. >Celestia's voice rings out, still as soothing as before:
  3956. >"I think a small break is in order, before we... continue. Doctor, do you still have...?"
  3957. >"Yes, one more thing of particular importance."
  3958. >"I see. We shall break for half an hour, then."
  3959. >Everypony, yourself included, shuffles out of the war room, and you all leave for a nearby lounge.
  3960. >There, everypony gets their feelings out.
  3961. >You lose track of who hugs who, of how many times you or somepony else has cried.
  3962. >But you do remember being allowed to meet her with the others, once the doctor's quarantine was lifted.
  3963. >And of everypony there, only the doctor, Anon, and Celestia weren't crying.
  3964. >But Celestia had since removed that armour and hammer of hers, and had teleported it away.
  3965. >The break felt far too short, for half an hour.
  3966. >But everypony still heads back to the war room.
  3967. >You feel so... drained.
  3968. >So exhausted.
  3969. >And so, so depressed.
  3970. >A feeling that seems very mutual, if most of the faces here are any indication.
  3971. >Celestia, for her part, resumes her all-business look and tone:
  3972. >"Anon, would you please recall for us what happened with Incognito?"
  3973. >Your gut sinks even further.
  3974. >Most of Anon's sadness and exhaustion is replaced with anger, and it shows through his tone.
  3975. >Even so, he tells his story without a single stutter.
  3977. >You knew that this Incognito was evil, but...
  3978. >You've never heard of such terrible, destructive magic before!
  3979. >Defeating so many guards at once was one thing, but the walls of black flame, the potions, the ferocity that was described...
  3980. >It almost seems surreal, that Anon actually fought against something like that, and lived!
  3981. >Granted, you didn't know much about his new weapons, but even so, you can hardly believe it!
  3982. >But you do believe it.
  3983. >He really did almost...
  3984. >SLAM
  3985. >Aah!
  3986. >Anon's fists had come down on the table again, making almost everypony around him jump.
  3987. >"I was this close! This fucking close! But then he just... just..."
  3988. >"Fled, yes."
  3989. >"That fucking guy... talking all that good shit about 'fighting like men', and then running like a little bitch after."
  3990. >By this point, both Luna and Twilight were hugging him again, with Luna in particular sharing his distaste.
  3991. >"For all his rhodomontade, he committed the very thing he chastised you for supposedly doing!"
  3992. >"When I find that shitweasel..."
  3993. >The doctor's throat cleared again, getting everypony's attention again.
  3994. >"If I may, Anon? Is your description of his condition after the battle accurate, along with those potions of his?"
  3995. >"Yeah, why?"
  3996. >"I don't believe this was as much of a defeat as it may seem."
  3997. >"What?"
  3998. >"From what you've told me, I believe he's too seriously wounded to fight again any time soon."
  3999. >"But the fucker has instant healing potions!"
  4000. >"Yes, but between the two he ingested, and that other potion I do not recognize, his system is undoubtedly quite saturated with alchemic toxins."
  4002. >"Wait. So, you're saying...?"
  4003. >"Yes. If my conjecture is accurate, it will be at least a week before he will recover to safe enough levels to ingest another of those strange healing potions."
  4004. >A-A week?
  4005. >That seemed to make Anon feel a lot better.
  4006. >"So he's out of it for that long..."
  4007. >Luna, on the other hoof, was over herself at this news.
  4008. >"Then we should strike at him and his cronies now, while he cannot shield them from our wrath!"
  4009. >Celestia doesn't look all that happy, though:
  4010. >"As much as I would like to do just that, we are still tracking where he has escaped to. I'm certain beyond any doubt, that they are masking their trail with magic."
  4011. >"Damn it all!"
  4012. >"But there is something else that concerns me greatly. Anon?"
  4013. >"Yeah?"
  4014. >"Could you remain still for a moment?"
  4015. >Celestia gets up, and walks towards Anon.
  4016. >Her horn charged with a powerful spell that washed over his body, almost like a scanning spell.
  4017. >"Uhh, what's this about?"
  4018. >The 'scan' ends, leaving Celestia looking...
  4019. >Shocked?
  4020. >"That's impossible."
  4021. >"What? What's impossible?"
  4022. >"You were struck by a Dark Pursuer."
  4023. >"Huh? You mean, that homing black fireball?"
  4024. >"Anon, that spell is unfathomably powerful. Everypony who escaped the first impact alive, succumbed to the corruption it leaves upon their very souls!
  4025. >"How are you still alive?"
  4026. >Once again, the doctor's throat clears.
  4027. >"Your majesty, there is a good reason for that."
  4028. >All eyes are on the doctor, again.
  4029. >"Anon, I wouldn't have believed you had survived myself, if I hadn't done that analysis beforehoof."
  4030. >"Doc? What the hell did you find?"
  4031. <...
  4033. @@@@@@@@
  4035. >"There! We're getting close, now!"
  4036. >The voice breaks you from your light sleep, and you turn your head around, looking for--
  4037. >The ziggurat?
  4038. >They're still occupying this place?
  4039. >From the looks of things, they've actually built up around it quite a bit, with some walls, towers, and other structures!
  4040. >To think that it was just tents, the last time you were here...
  4041. >It...
  4042. >It really put into perspective, just how long you'd been gone.
  4043. >Well, at least--
  4044. >"Keep your descent as steady as can be, fliers! If Lord Matthias is so much as nudged, I shall have your hides!"
  4045. >Zamara's voice is sharp and dangerous, and nobody dares to question--
  4046. >Incognito!
  4047. >You sit yourself up as best as you can in the leg slings, getting a look at him.
  4048. >The sight that greets you is...
  4049. >Is...
  4050. >O-oh, my...!
  4051. >His armour and clothes had been cut and pried off, with heavy bandaging covering almost all of his red skin.
  4052. >The bandages were caked in dark, crimson blood, most of it dried, with the sawn-off wooden shafts of the strange bolts left stuck in the wounds.
  4053. >As if the sight wasn't grisly, enough, his face...
  4054. >H-he looks so...
  4055. >So exhausted!
  4056. >So weakened!
  4057. >His skin was paler than you remember it being, but it showed the most in his face, where it exacerbated the gaunt look that he wore.
  4058. >His breathing was shallow and ragged, with the faded remains of blood that had leaked from his mouth.
  4059. >You...
  4060. >You can't even imagine how much pain he must be in, right now!
  4061. >A-at least he's asleep!
  4062. >thu-thump
  4063. >You barely notice the chariot setting down.
  4065. >Zamara immediately set to barking orders in her language, her tribestallions running off immediately.
  4066. >And then she started barking orders in plain Equestrian, to everygryphon and everyling around, demanding stretchers, water, and a cleared path to the 'chirurgie'.
  4067. >You don't know what that means, but everyone else seems to.
  4068. >The moment the stretchers arrive, they set to lifting Incognito onto it, as gently as they possibly can.
  4069. >A gentle 'thump' is heard as he's set down, and a good chunk of them waste no time in wheeling him off to...
  4070. >W-wherever they're taking him!
  4071. >Oh, please, just let him be okay!
  4072. >No, stop it!
  4073. >He'll make it!
  4074. >He...
  4075. >He has to!
  4076. >As he's pushed out of sight, that leaves you with the remaining lings and gryphons.
  4077. >The gryphons are all at work, unloading and repairing the chariots.
  4078. >"Hey, uh, are you all right?"
  4079. >Well, save for one, that is.
  4080. >Both Ajay and the remaining lings are all gathered around you, their concern almost overpowering.
  4081. "B-better, now."
  4082. >When you try to shift around a little, you're immediately set upon by the other lings, their intent to help almost eclipsing their concern for you.
  4083. >They've been doing this ever since you recovered from that train incident, going out of their way to help you.
  4084. >You never knew why they started doing that, but now, you have a pretty good idea.
  4085. >You'll definitely have to ask them about it later.
  4086. >Even if it's not likely to yield many answers.
  4087. >"You sure? I mean, you got hurt really bad back there, and the med-tent isn't that far away."
  4089. "Just, let me try something, first..."
  4090. >Your magic springs to life, pulling off the sling for your right foreleg.
  4091. >Funny, it didn't seem to hurt all that much...
  4092. >You slowly set it down onto the ground, trying to--
  4093. >Aaaah!
  4094. >Oww, okay, nevermind, that still really hurts!
  4095. >The lings get really agitated, and are quick to return your leg to the sling before you even think to.
  4096. >They all start chittering amongst themselves, wanting to take you to their small hive here.
  4097. >"Hey, easy! You shouldn't be straining like that, Athalia!"
  4098. >There's...
  4099. >There's something buried under that concern of his.
  4100. >But you can't tell what it is yet, not without some extra magic...
  4101. "Sorry, I just... thought it was good enough for at least some walking."
  4102. >You'll look into it later, when you're in better condition.
  4103. >"Look, we can take you over to the med-tent, and they'll--"
  4104. >One of the lings came forth, interrupting Ajay:
  4105. >"No! She needs to recover in the hive!"
  4106. >That was ruder than you would've liked.
  4107. >The ling in question backs down instantly upon sensing your disdain, chittering his apologies to you.
  4108. >Heh...
  4109. >You know, you could get used to this part.
  4110. "I appreciate the suggestion, but I think the hive here would probably be better."
  4111. >If you could rub your eyes, you would.
  4112. "Besides, I can't remember the last time I had a proper pod to sleep in."
  4113. >"Oh, right. You guys sleep in those things. You sure you won't--"
  4114. "I'll be fine, really. I'm in good hooves."
  4115. >"Well, you're not wrong there."
  4116. >A few intents later, and the lings start carrying you off towards their hive.
  4118. >You really hope this forward hive is developed well.
  4119. >Now that you're thinking about it, a pod really does sound good right about now.
  4120. >And you hope to the gods above that there's a free one!
  4121. >"So, uh, what... happened to you, Athalia?"
  4122. >Oh yeah, he's following along.
  4123. "What do you mean?"
  4124. >"I mean, just... look at you! You almost don't look like the same bug!"
  4125. "We're not bugs."
  4126. >"You know what I mean!"
  4127. "Well..."
  4128. >How much should you tell him?
  4129. >After all, are you technically a queen?
  4130. >Or just a really far-along princess?
  4131. "I don't really know a good way to put this, so I guess I'll just say it. I found out that I'm royalty."
  4132. >He doesn't respond for a few moments, and ends up slowing his pace out of surprise.
  4133. >A few beats pass before he catches back up.
  4134. >"Wait, hold on, what do you mean 'found out'?"
  4135. "Chrysalis took my memories away a while ago. I really only figured it out an hour or so before you guys saved me."
  4136. >"But..."
  4137. >Oh dear, he's at a loss for words.
  4138. >It takes him another few moments to respond again:
  4139. >"Okay, I... don't know how that works, but I'll take your word for it. So, does that make you... some kind of queen?"
  4140. "Maybe. I... I don't really know how it all works, myself..."
  4141. >You're getting a lot more anxious about this than you thought you would.
  4142. >The lings carrying you chittered some reassurances, and that helped relax you a fair bit.
  4143. >You could really get used to this...
  4144. >"I, ah, guess you'll... figure it out?"
  4145. "I really hope so."
  4146. >The lings all announce that you've arrived.
  4147. >Looking over gets you the sight of a modestly large forward hive.
  4149. >Already, you can feel yourself relaxing.
  4150. >Oh, sweet Foremothers, the smell of it...!
  4151. >You'd forgotten what home territory smelled like!
  4152. >How do you forget something like that?
  4153. >"Well, uh, I guess this is where we part for now?"
  4154. >Looking back, you see Ajay's stopped short of the hive's entrance.
  4155. "Huh? You're not coming?"
  4156. >The lings all stop.
  4157. >"No offense or anything, but these hives kinda... freak me out a little. Tight quarters, kinda damp, totally dark?"
  4158. >Pffft.
  4159. >He tried so hard not to stammer, you can't help but chuckle.
  4160. "None taken."
  4161. >"Uh, b-besides, I've got a lot of things to do around here. Lord knows the debriefing's gonna take forever..."
  4162. "It's fine, Ajay. Don't let me keep you."
  4163. >"Right. I'll see you later, all right?"
  4164. "See you later."
  4165. >He turns to leave, but freezes in place.
  4166. >Whatever was buried under his concern, started becoming more prominent.
  4167. >"Uh, one more thing."
  4168. "Hm?"
  4169. >"It's... it's really good to have you back."
  4170. >An unusually nervous smile crossed his face while he said that.
  4171. >Before you could respond, he took flight, heading off... somewhere.
  4172. >Well, uh...
  4173. >That was...
  4174. >Nice?
  4175. >Seemed a little out of character for him, though...
  4176. >More things to get to the bottom of, later on.
  4177. >The lings carry you into the depths of the hive, eventually--
  4178. >Ohmygosh, resting pods!
  4179. >Sensing your excitement, they waste no time in lowering you into it.
  4180. >With some magic, you remove the slings before closing the pod.
  4181. >The warm liquid filling the pod is the most comfortable thing you've felt in months.
  4182. >Sleep finds you very quickly.
  4183. <...
  4185. "Uhh... what?"
  4186. >Yeah, the doc's gonna need to repeat himself for you.
  4187. >Must've heard him wrong.
  4188. >Because it almost sounded like he said--
  4189. >"Anon, you survived the corrupting effects of that spell, because the spell had nothing to corrupt."
  4190. >You blink.
  4191. "Uh, no, hold on, go back. What did you say I lacked?"
  4192. >The doc looks really reluctant to retread that line, but soldiers through it anyways.
  4193. >"Oh, dear... Anon, from all the testing I have done, and from the effects I have observed, you appear to completely lack any kind of soul."
  4194. >Huh.
  4195. >So, you didn't hear that wrong.
  4196. >Well.
  4197. >The chuckle that leaves you is more forced than you would've liked.
  4198. "That's, uh... a rather poor taste joke, bud. I mean, last I checked, I didn't have any Hibernian folks in my family tree, so, you know, that's..."
  4199. >He hasn't changed his expression.
  4200. "Uh..."
  4201. >Oh.
  4202. >Hey, gut to mission control, you copy?
  4203. >We're taking on a lot of water, can't keep her afloat, please advise, over.
  4204. "Oh good God in heaven, you're serious, aren't you?"
  4205. >"I never joke about matters like this, Anon."
  4206. >You must sit there, with the dumbest look on your face, for God only knows how long.
  4207. >Everything around you is total silence.
  4208. >As for you?
  4209. >Whatever anger you had towards Nito, whatever sadness you felt for Starry, was all just shoved far off into a corner somewhere.
  4210. >And replacing it was something indescribable.
  4211. >Wait.
  4212. >No, you take that back.
  4213. >It's not indescribable at all.
  4214. >It's dread.
  4215. >Dread, with some existential crises thrown in for good measure.
  4217. >You don't even have the ability, much less the heart, to look at the ponies by your side.
  4218. >But one pony in particular makes herself very visible.
  4219. >There in front of you was Celestia, a renewed death glare levelled your way.
  4220. >Huh.
  4221. >You know, that would've scared you most times.
  4222. >Instead, it just feels weirdly nostalgic.
  4223. >A nostalgia that you don't have time to put a time and place to, before the doctor speaks up again:
  4224. >"I'll must ask all of you to collect yourselves. Despite how this must sound, this is - and I must make this absolutely, crystal clear - not a deficiency, or an imputation of malice, on Anon's part."
  4225. >Celestia doesn't break her gaze, as she responds:
  4226. >"I am having a very difficult time believing that, doctor."
  4227. >"So did I, which is why I had to take several steps to eliminate any doubt as to his... state."
  4228. >"You mean, his condition?"
  4229. >"No, princess, I mean his state."
  4230. >That does break her eye contact with you, and she looks at the doctor with an angry look of confusion.
  4231. >"You said yourself that he does not possess a soul! How can that not be a condition?!"
  4232. >The doctor takes that moment to float some paperwork out for her.
  4233. >"I arranged for Anon to take a Gleam-Eclipse mana-pattern examination, with every single analysis state possible implemented and maximally attuned.
  4234. >"As you are well aware, your majesty, this test is accurate enough to not only determine the precise details of one's mana conduits, sources, and sinks, but can also detect the spiritual plenum itself, at high enough levels of power and sensitivity.
  4236. >"And I assure you, I used the most sensitive instrumentation at the highest possible power levels, and had Anon take an additional alchemic agent to specifically highlight any conduits, and their connections, within him."
  4237. >Celestia takes the papers, and starts sifting through them.
  4238. >As she does this, more confusion creeps into her expression, starting to displace the anger.
  4239. >"These readings don't make any sense, doctor."
  4240. >"You are correct, your majesty. They do not make any sense."
  4241. >"But you said it detects the conduits, as well as the plenum!"
  4242. >"Yes, it does."
  4243. >"Then what possible arrangement do these figures represent?"
  4244. >"Arrangement? Princess, you labour under the misapprehension that there is an arrangement."
  4245. >It looks like the epiphany of the century just crossed her face.
  4246. >A look that's soon replaced by surprise, as the golden glow around the papers is replaced with lavender.
  4247. >"Let me see that!"
  4248. >Twilight all but rips the paperwork towards her, and the frantic, panicky voice that goes with it only adds to the effect.
  4249. >That pushes you turn and look over at her.
  4250. >You've seen Twilight sadder than this before, no doubt about it.
  4251. >But you've never seen her that desperate, that frantic.
  4252. >As she flips through the paper stack at breakneck speeds, the doctor chimes in again:
  4253. >"In truth, your majesty, I had an equipment calibration done soon after the analysis took place, just to ensure I did not suffer an equipment malfunction during the analysis.
  4254. >"The equipment was perfectly functional, with no abnormal operation.
  4256. >"But moreover, I later decided to perform an analysis on the solution I gave Anon, all by itself."
  4257. >He floats a few sheets extra out, which Celestia promptly takes.
  4258. >When it looks like the second consecutive epiphany crosses her face, she tugs the original paper stack back from Twilight for a moment, comparing the two side by side.
  4259. >That's the first time you've seen her completely floored.
  4260. >When Twilight wrestles the papers back, she takes the extra sheets with her.
  4261. >"Yes, I could hardly believe it, myself."
  4262. >Twilight's gasp was almost loud enough to interrupt the doctor.
  4263. >"The readings from the solution, and from Anon, are completely identical. As far as the arcane and spiritual tests were concerned, it was as if he did not even exist."
  4264. >He begins walking towards you, but with a look of...
  4265. >Is that wonder in his eyes?
  4266. >"I should have surmised this from the reports I received on this 'magnetism' that Anon had implemented and used in Ponyville. In hindsight, it seems so obvious.
  4267. >"Once I knew that Anon's condition from then was stable, I, as you know, princess - took part in an analysis of this strange force, along with the top minds in the sciences and the arcane.
  4268. >"What we discovered about this force exceeded all expectations, challenged so many theories... Anon, I must ask you, how much of a role does this magnetism play on your world?"
  4269. >You almost don't realize that he asked you a question, you're so damn stunned by all this.
  4270. >But sure enough, not to mention shakily enough, you give him the basic overview on geomagnetic fields, motors, radio, all that.
  4272. >He looks both satisfied, and even more curious, once you finish.
  4273. >"Then it is far in excess of what I expected."
  4274. >His attention turns back to Celestia.
  4275. >"Princess, this force, as was described in the report, did in fact expel all magic in it's area of effect, irrespective of the type.
  4276. >"But moreover, it also severely degraded the mana conduits within magical beings, and even constructs, when left exposed for an extended period of time.
  4277. >"Given the very close, almost linear relationship between spiritual potential, magical power, and conduit density, I do not think it is impossible that given enough exposure, it could potentially erode the plenum itself.
  4278. >"In simple terms, it could function as a completely natural, slowly acting variant of any number of soul-rending spells and artifacts."
  4279. >Wait.
  4280. >Your magic gear, in the mag room...!
  4281. >The thaumium shit would lose it's glyphwork for good, if you left it there for a few hours!
  4282. >The doc turns back to you.
  4283. >"This force, naturally emitted by your planet, and further exacerbated when utilized in your people's machinery, acts as a complete and total deterrent to anything magical in nature.
  4284. >"And if your people are even half as successful as you imply that they are, then that leaves me with no other conclusion.
  4285. >"Anon, you are part of a species-- no, an entirely different biological domain of life, that functions completely independently from the force of magic!
  4286. >"Indeed, your very blood carries a substance that is extremely poisonous, if not fatal, to magical life!
  4288. >"And yet, you can perform so many functions that we ascribe either as magical in nature, or that require a soul!
  4289. >"You possess emotions and intelligence that are strikingly like our own, even if they are alien in their own ways. You are fully capable of dreaming, and you still receive sensations such as pain!
  4290. >"All of these, performed in a completely biological and cerebral fashion!"
  4291. >Well.
  4292. >That's one way to make you feel better.
  4293. >Credit where it's due, the doc really kept his excitement in check.
  4294. >"No golem or construct could ever match a being like you. You are the picturesque definition of the term 'alien', both literally and figuratively.
  4295. >"And, if you'll allow me a further breach in my own professionalism, I consider myself quite proud to be a friend of yours."
  4296. >Okay.
  4297. >That last part almost one-eightied your negative feelings on this matter.
  4298. >It gives you the energy to take stock of the folks around you.
  4299. >Celestia, for her part, no longer looks like--
  4300. >Holy shit, that's right!
  4301. >When she first found out about the iron-blood thing, she had that exact look on her face!
  4302. >Like she was about to full on Deus Vult you into the shadow realm!
  4303. >Man, talk about deja vu!
  4304. >But yeah, she doesn't look like she wants to kill you, but still looks skeptical.
  4305. >You know what, this time around, you can't exactly blame her.
  4306. >As you pan your eyes around, you see floored looks on Luna, Sunburst, even Cadance over there.
  4307. >And as you turn to--
  4308. >thump
  4309. "Haaaow, ow!"
  4310. >oh god not the bear hug
  4311. >i'm still tender
  4312. >please twilight have mercy on me
  4314. >An indeterminate amount of time passes, as her grip loosens up, and Luna decides to join in.
  4315. >Speaking of Luna...
  4316. >"I... think we should adjourn for now, sister. I do not think we are in any state to handle any more... revelations like that."
  4317. >"I agree. This entire meeting has been quite shocking for us all."
  4318. >A glance at the clock on the wall points out that it's getting into the early evening.
  4319. >And just like that, a strong desire to rest makes itself known.
  4320. >"Anon, I... I believe you've earned yourself some rest."
  4321. >Rest sounds so good right about now.
  4322. >Though something in Celestia's look tells you that you'll be seeing her again, real soon.
  4323. >You just hope it's not in the black-bagging sense.
  4324. >As just about everyone says their farewells, and heads off to help out around the castle, it's Sunburst of all ponies that offers to give you some help getting back to your bed.
  4325. >Hospital bed, that is.
  4326. >Doc Valiant shot that one down before it even began.
  4327. >Spoilsport.
  4328. >And as you walk down the halls, with your trusty sentient walker, you get no shortage of passing praise from the guards and castle workers.
  4329. >Man...
  4330. >That feels really good.
  4331. >"I-is this your room?"
  4332. "Huh? Oh, no, the one over there."
  4333. >Well, here you are.
  4334. >Room, sweet room.
  4335. >"A-Anon?"
  4336. "What's up?"
  4337. >"Wh-when the doctor says it's okay, will you... visit them with us?"
  4338. "Goddamn right I am."
  4339. >After what those dark magic slinging assholes did, you're damn right you're--
  4340. >ding
  4341. >Dark magic.
  4342. >That's how he...!
  4343. >"Anon? Wh-what's wrong?"
  4344. "He knew. That fucking cheater!"
  4345. <...
  4347. @@@@@@@@
  4349. >You've been dreading this visit for days.
  4350. >Finally being allowed to see Starlight.
  4351. >But...
  4352. >It's been keeping you up all night, invading your thoughts.
  4353. >Long after the shock of learning that... detail about Anon had worn off, her well-being had been your foremost concern.
  4354. >And so here you stand, in a waiting room, with Anon, Twilight, and Luna, waiting for the doctor to come in and give the okay to visit her.
  4355. >Everypony decided against bringing Spike along, at the request of the doctor.
  4356. >S-something about 'nopony that young should see this'...
  4357. >And hearing that only j-just...
  4358. >You swallow dry again, for what must feel like the fiftieth time now, trying to fight off the gnawing feeling of dread and anticipation.
  4359. >It doesn't really work all too well.
  4360. >Twilight isn't faring much better than you.
  4361. >Luna and Anon, meanwhile, try to remain somewhat stoic, the former being much more successful at it.
  4362. >You could tell that this was really bothering him, too...
  4363. >A few minutes of waiting passes in silence, before the doctor comes out.
  4364. >"Good morning. Are you all ready to see her?"
  4365. >Murmurs of agreement are made, yours included.
  4366. >"I... imagine that many of you have surmised this already, but her condition right now, while stable, is exceedingly fragile. I must ask you not to disturb her, much less wake her."
  4367. "W-wake her?"
  4368. >"I can explain the reasoning for you later on. But for now, please follow me, and try your best to stay quiet."
  4369. >That awful feeling in the pit of your stomach gets even worse.
  4370. >But still, you follow him, along with everypony else.
  4372. >Immediately, you notice the differences in this hospital room.
  4373. >As if the sterile white manalaminate cloths covering everything weren't enough, you could feel a strange magical presence coming from the privacy curtains.
  4374. >On top of that, there was a tank of... something, a tube coming off of it and leading towards the curtained-off area.
  4375. >Wh-what is--
  4376. >"All right, you may see her now. Again, I must emphasize the need to remain quiet."
  4377. >His hushed voice adds to the effect, nopony wanting to break the eerie silence of the room, punctuated only by the quiet, infrequent sound of pumping.
  4378. >The doctor pulls the curtains aside, and one by one, everypony files in.
  4379. >Twilight's stifled gasping doesn't help the constantly sinking feeling.
  4380. >Finally, you file in.
  4381. >Gulping once again, you look up to--
  4382. >T-to...
  4383. >The sight in front of you, of Starlight, is terrible, and not in the ways you were expecting.
  4384. >But moreover, it stunned you.
  4385. >It stunned you to see her so...
  4386. >S-so...
  4387. >Not a peep leaves you.
  4388. >All you can do is stare dumbly, faintly aware of your eyes growing wet.
  4389. >There, lying on her side, her mane dull and bedraggled, her eyes shut and sunken, with huge dark circles underneath them, was Starlight.
  4390. >Her breathing was shallow.
  4391. >There were intravenous tubes in her forelegs.
  4392. >Some kind of machine was connected to them.
  4393. >The source of that strange presence.
  4394. >But it's purpose is the furthest thing from your mind.
  4395. >You keep staring.
  4396. >Staring at your friend.
  4397. >Somewhere along the line, you began shaking, no longer able to contain your sadness as the shock slowly wore off.
  4399. >But noticing the horn suppressor was the last straw for you.
  4400. >You backed slowly out at first, as the dam began to break.
  4401. >But it soon became a run.
  4402. >By the time you were back in the waiting room, you had broken down completely.
  4403. >It felt like an eternity, just laying there on the floor, sobbing uncontrollably.
  4404. >Even when somepony had thrown their forelegs around you, you couldn't stop.
  4405. >Even when you noticed this other pony was crying, you couldn't stop.
  4406. >Only when you were exhausted, when you physically could not cry anymore, did you finally stop.
  4407. >And that's when you noticed a still-crying Twilight, hugging you close as she too, poured everything out.
  4408. >Sometime during that, you must've returned the hug.
  4409. >It's all you can do.
  4410. >Just keep weakly holding onto her.
  4411. >A few moments before she also stops from exhaustion, you feel feathers embrace you, shortly before Luna makes herself known, holding the two of you close, too.
  4412. >She doesn't make a sound.
  4413. >But her own tear-streaked face says everything.
  4414. >As the three of you embrace, you're dimly aware of Anon being absent.
  4415. >An absence that doesn't last long, as his heavier than usual footsteps are heard.
  4416. >Out of the corner of your eye, you see him almost stomping off at a slow, laboured pace, his hands clenched and head hung.
  4417. >But there weren't any tears on his face.
  4418. >Instead, there was a look of anger.
  4419. >Perhaps something else.
  4420. >But it gave you pause, all the same.
  4421. >After the doctor offered his condolences, Luna lead you two out of the waiting room, towards the guest rooms.
  4422. >You barely notice falling onto the bed.
  4423. <...
  4425. >You awake with a start, after a terrible dream.
  4426. >S-something about Starlight, withering away and--
  4427. >Then, the events of before all come back to you.
  4428. >Of visiting Starlight with Anon, Luna, and Twilight.
  4429. >The memory of her face...
  4430. >How it was the same one in the dream...
  4431. >You shamble your way to the bathroom, allowing yourself a small period of crying before freshening back up.
  4432. >No... you can't just sit here, crying about this.
  4433. >Anon's face from before comes back to you, and with the gift of hindsight, you figure out what that look was.
  4434. >He was driven, determined.
  4435. >Furious about what happened to her.
  4436. >And no doubt, was going to work even harder, to prevent that from happening again.
  4437. >It really sounded like something he would do.
  4438. >And you know what?
  4439. >That thought alone was pushing you, too.
  4440. >You want to help him.
  4441. >You also don't ever want to see that happen again!
  4442. >A-and some dark part of you wanted to see some vengeance for this...!
  4443. >Of course, you can't fight.
  4444. >But you can assist him, all the same!
  4445. >And you think your invention is just the ticket for it!
  4446. >G-gosh, his drive is really infectious, huh?
  4447. >Yeah, an infectious blessing!
  4448. >You emerge from your room, determined to get back to work.
  4449. >Goodness knows Anon doesn't want to ride around in--
  4450. >Wait a second.
  4451. >He's still going to be angry about all of this, without a doubt, and given what happens when he gets angry...
  4452. >Y-you should probably check up on him, first!
  4453. >And so, you make for his room, first.
  4454. >A room that's closed off and guarded, but the guards point you in the right direction.
  4456. >He's apparently gone to visit mister Razor and mister Measure.
  4457. >So the hospital wing is where you go, intent on finding him!
  4458. >Hm... you're wondering if what the doctor said about Anon is really even true.
  4459. >As if the iron blood wasn't enough, learning about his lack of an actual soul was...!
  4460. >But while the empirical part of you might readily accept that, especially given the doctor's background, and Anon's origin from out in the Outer Reaches, some part of you refuses to accept it.
  4461. >It sounds so silly when you think about it, but you can't connect somehuman who cares so much for his friends, with being literally soulless!
  4462. >You'd sooner attribute that to that evil, horrible Incognito!
  4463. >He's the one who--
  4464. >Wait.
  4465. >Maybe... maybe he's also literally soulless, too?
  4466. >A-and if that's true, then--
  4467. >The sound of a door being thrown open startles you, but it slamming against the wall, being barely a few hooves in front of you, makes you jump really badly, even more than the actual opening!
  4468. >"Och, Ah cahn't wait to tell tha others about this!"
  4469. >"Pretty sure they already know by now, girl."
  4470. >A-Anon?
  4471. >"Wha? Pah, not tha guards, lad, mah family! Och, Ah cahn't wait to hear their reachtion ta how wee lil' Rahzor helped fight back those dahmned minions of thaht other tailhole offa human!"
  4472. >"Hey, who're you calling 'little'?!"
  4473. >"Heh, I'm sure it'll be fun."
  4474. >"Oh, Ah'm countin' on it! Don't be takin' tew long with 'im now, eh Ahnon?"
  4475. >"I make no promises, girl."
  4476. >"Psh, 'least yer honest about it! Ah'll tell ya, that's a good trait ta have inna husband!"
  4478. >The sound of Anon sputtering, punctuated by that thickly accented laughter, is heard for a few moments before the same voice bids it's farewells.
  4479. >Coming out of the door, pivoting to shut said door, is a thestral mare.
  4480. >No doubt the source of the thickest Haelic accent you've ever heard in your life!
  4481. >Said mare almost slams into you, as she pivots very quickly in place to start running, stopping short of actually hitting you!
  4482. >"Ah, shite! Didn't see ya there, lad!"
  4483. "I-it's fine, really..."
  4484. >"Ah, good! Well, don't let me keep ya!"
  4485. >She walks past you, going on her way.
  4486. >Wait.
  4487. >Does she know Anon?
  4488. >Maybe you can...!
  4489. "A-actually, wait!"
  4490. >When you spin in place to catch sight of her, she's made it a surprisingly long way down, but still turns back to look at you?
  4491. >"Hm? What is it, lad?"
  4492. "Y-you were just talking to A-Anon, weren't you?"
  4493. >"Ahnon?"
  4494. >She chuckles a bit, reversing her course to walk straight up to you.
  4495. >Th-the accent sure makes her seem more... imposing!
  4496. >"Well, who wants ta know?"
  4497. "W-well, you see, I've been looking for him, and uh, trying to--"
  4498. >"Hang onna tick. Do Ah...?"
  4499. >Her face lights up after a few moments of trying to remember something, her hoof coming down as it happens.
  4500. >"Yeah, Ah heard about some robed-up unicorn hanging around with him! Yew a friend'a his, lad?"
  4501. "Y-yes, a really good friend of his. Uh, I'm Sunburst, by the way."
  4502. >"Wait, Sunburst? Ya mean that lad foalsittin' fer tha wee lil' baby princess? Tha's you?"
  4503. "W-well, it's one of the things I do, but--"
  4504. >"Cripes, Ahnon's got tons'a friends up high, don't he?"
  4506. >She chuckles a bit before going on:
  4507. >"Well, iff'n yer here ta see Ahnon, might wanna wait a wee bit, lad. Ah could tell the lad was hankerin' ta see those two somethin' fierce."
  4508. "D-did he seem, well, angry at all?"
  4509. >"Psh, colt's always actin' like he's gotta fire lit under his rump! An after that fight, Ah'm not surprised ta see it's a full-blown inferno! Good fer him, Ah tell ya!"
  4510. "But, was he angry?"
  4511. >"Angry? Nah. On edge, maybe, but it's hard gettin' 'im ta stay mad around those two!"
  4512. >Oh, thank goodness, he's calmed down a bit!
  4513. >"Hey, listen lad, Ah've got some work to do, so if ye'll be wantin' ta chit-chat while Ahnon's off bondin' there, ye'll hafta start walkin!"
  4514. >W-well, didn't sound like you had a lot of choice...
  4515. "I guess..."
  4516. >She sure walks fast, making keeping up a little trickier than you'd like.
  4517. >But now you're really wishing you knew what to say, now...
  4518. >"Oh, by tha way, name's Crescent, lad."
  4519. "N-nice to meet you, uh Crescent."
  4520. >As you ponder subjects, your eyes go to her cutie mark.
  4521. >An anvil?
  4522. >So...
  4523. "Uh, you're with the Night Guard, c-correct?"
  4524. >"Damned right, lad. Big ole family trahdition!"
  4525. "I'd assume you'd be, uh, one of the forge tenders there?"
  4526. >"Oh, lad, ya been starin' southways back there?"
  4527. >A beat passes before you realize what she means.
  4528. "Wh-wha--?! N-noIhaven'tbeenstaringat--"
  4529. >Her guffawing cut off your panicked attempt at a defence.
  4530. >"Bahahah! Oh, Ah'm jus' screwin' around, lad!"
  4531. >Once that revelation hits you, you're quick to breathe a big sigh of relief, and--
  4532. >"Mighty good taste ya got though, iff'n ya were!"
  4534. >I-is this mare serious?!
  4535. >Th-the wink she just tossed only confuses you more!
  4536. >Her mirth drops a bit, however, when she sees the state you're in.
  4537. >"Jokes, lad. Jokes."
  4538. "S-sorry--"
  4539. >"Ah, ye'll learn. But no, Ah'm no forge tender. Try forge master!"
  4540. "F-forge master? So, you make all the equipment for the Night Guard?"
  4541. >"Damned right. Don't rightly care what those other divisions say, none'a my kit needs fancy gemstones to stop a few bolts!"
  4542. "A-and you design it all too, right?"
  4543. >"'Course! Ah'm not runnin' some EUP outfit 'ere, lad! All our stuff is designed, forged, n' blessed by yours truly!"
  4544. >She sounds really proud of that.
  4545. "R-right. I've actually been wondering something about the Night Guard's armour, about how, well, blue it is. I-is the colour from a surface oxide, or do you use actual moonstone in the metals?"
  4546. >She stops and looks back to you, looking somewhat intrigued.
  4547. >"Well, well, didn't picture ya bein' inta mehtallurgy, lad."
  4548. "I-it's more out of necessity, really..."
  4549. >Finding the right materials for the mechanical parts involved a lot more research than you thought...
  4550. >"Heh, ain't that the story o' all trades n' hobbies? Lad, 'ere in the princess's guard divisions, we get all tha good materials. Ah'd be ashamed iff'n we weren't usin' moonstone!"
  4551. "But how do you get it in those shapes like that, without weakening the metal too much?"
  4552. >"Secret's in tha annealing, lad. Don't take much ta heat it, an it's real easy to go overboard."
  4553. >You lose track of time, just talking about metallurgy, and other random things, with this strange mare.
  4555. >In fact, you almost don't notice walking into a blacksmith's workshop, the only thing giving it away being the huge heat difference!
  4556. >"Ah don't care what those unicorn divisions say, ya might as well be wearin' wet paper, iff'n yer decked out in gold like that!"
  4557. "Well, it's easier to work gold with magic, than it is to work arcanium."
  4558. >"Psh, where's tha fun in that?"
  4559. "Though I agree that it's not really the best thing in terms of--"
  4560. >You stop in your tracks, finally fully noticing just what you've walked into.
  4561. "Whoa!"
  4562. >L-look at all this equipment, over in that section!
  4563. >A-are those small crucibles?
  4564. >And what's with all that other stuff, with them?
  4565. >"Heh, lookit you, fawnin' over tha testin' grounds!"
  4566. "T-testing grounds? Y-you mean, you're trying out different metals back there?"
  4567. >"All tha damned time. Onna these days, Ah'll find a good use for that cursed durium!"
  4568. "You have durium samples?!"
  4569. >"Well, aren't you gettin' all eager there?"
  4570. >Instantly, you deflate a little bit.
  4571. "S-sorry, I didn't--"
  4572. >"Lad, don't ya dare get all sad on me. Ah, for one, am mighty chuffed about somepony knowing what all this stuff does! Least, somepony that ain't mah competitor!"
  4573. "Competitor?"
  4574. >"Long story."
  4575. >You once again lose track of time, this time with the metallurgy being taken from theory to practice!
  4576. >You can't believe she actually has samples of durium!
  4577. >A-and you really didn't expect the iron samples, either!
  4578. "So yes, durium really needs a unicorn's touch to shape and form. It's actually one of the few metals to have such high amounts of manaplasticity!"
  4580. >"So why isn't it used by 'em, all tha time?"
  4581. "Well, it's also pretty far down on the enchantability scale..."
  4582. >"Hah! They got the perfect armour mehtal, special for 'em, an' they still stick ta gold!"
  4583. "It's also really tough to make, too. It needs a well-tuned autoinfuser to fabricate!"
  4584. >"Well, ain't that something."
  4585. "B-but wait, what's with all the iron here, anyways?"
  4586. >Her smile gets really big.
  4587. >"Well, lad, our boy Ahnon mighta told me how ta make a common mehtal over on 'is world."
  4588. "Huh? What metal?"
  4589. >"Oh, ya know, only steel."
  4590. >Oh, okay--
  4591. "Steel?!"
  4592. >"Ah know!"
  4593. "Th-that's exists, where he's from?!"
  4594. >"Well, I don't figure 'im for the lyin' type! And wouldn't ya know it, it mostly made'a--"
  4595. "Iron."
  4596. >"Tha's right. Wish it coulda been somethin' with less red tape around sourcin, though!"
  4597. "Well, iron's really common on his home world, so it makes sense they'd make something out of it."
  4598. >"His home?"
  4599. "Yeah, he told me a bit about it."
  4600. >The next few moments are spent, telling Crescent about Anon's world: namely, about the iron core, the billions of humans, and a little about the machines they use.
  4601. >"Well good Goddess. Ah knew he was a strange fellah from outside'a Equestria, but ah didn't think the lad was an actual alien!"
  4602. "I almost didn't believe it, either."
  4603. >"Still, sounds like one helluva place! Imagine all those humans, runnin' around with their lil' machines!"
  4604. >ding
  4605. >Something major just occurred to you.
  4606. >She's working on human steel, and has access to lots of metals.
  4607. >You've been working on human machines, and need to finish your engine!
  4609. >Oh my gosh, this is perfect!
  4610. "This is perfect!"
  4611. >You only just notice that you interrupted miss Crescent.
  4612. >"Oh, ya done spacin' out there, lad?"
  4613. "M-miss Crescent, uh... can I tell you something Anon told me, too?"
  4614. >"Aye...?"
  4615. "P-promise not to laugh?"
  4616. >"Now why in tha hay would I do that?"
  4617. "W-well, you see, Anon also told me a bit about his world's inventions."
  4618. >"Inventions?"
  4619. "M-machines."
  4620. >The sideways look she gives you isn't exactly encouraging.
  4621. >"Ohh. So, all that mehtallurgy's fer yer... tinkerin'?"
  4622. "I-it's not 'tinkering'!"
  4623. >"Whoa, geez, settle down! Didn't mean that badly, lad!"
  4624. "S-sorry, I just--"
  4625. >"Don't worry about it. Now what's this about human inventions?"
  4626. "Well, he told me about a human invention, something he called an 'automobile', or 'car'."
  4627. >"Right?"
  4628. "Imagine if you put together a train and a carriage, where it doesn't need anypony pulling to move!"
  4629. >"Uh, alright?"
  4630. >S-she doesn't look like she believes you...
  4631. "N-now imagine if this 'horseless carriage' also ran just on combustion, using a fuel derived from a similar process used in brewing!"
  4632. >"Okay, slow down a bit, lad."
  4633. >Gah, why'd you have to blow it?
  4634. >The one time you tell anypony about your project, and they--
  4635. >"Oi, Sunburst?"
  4636. >You hazard a look at Crescent.
  4637. >"Lad, I'll grant that Ahnon's got some crazy shite workin' at his home, but Ah'm not gonna lie, an sorry if it stings ta say, but the whole 'horseless carriage' thing seems a lil'... out there?"
  4638. "But it's true! I even made a working prototype of one!"
  4639. >"Well?"
  4640. "W-well, what?"
  4641. >"Ya gonna show it, or what?"
  4643. "Sh-show it?"
  4644. >"Ponies say all kindsa crazy shite about their inventions n' mehtals. So let's see this 'horseless carriage' o' yours, then."
  4645. >Her words were challenging, but in a strangely supportive way, almost like she wants you to prove her wrong.
  4646. "F-fine. We'll have to take one of Anon's slipgates, though..."
  4647. >"His what?"
  4648. "Y-you'll see."
  4649. >You exit the smithy, this time with Crescent following you.
  4650. >She reacts a little more dramatically at the portal than you thought.
  4651. >Must not like teleporting much, huh...?
  4652. >But she soldiers through anyways, and eventually, the two of you come to your lab.
  4653. >And there it is.
  4654. >Your prototype 'car', in all it's unenclosed glory.
  4655. >A low whistle sounds off from Crescent.
  4656. >"Hooooly shite. Never seen anythin' like that before."
  4657. >This time, you're the one smiling.
  4658. >You lower the machine, and start it up.
  4660. >"Whoaly--!"
  4661. >Heh.
  4662. >A few rods on it are moved, and the machine goes into motion, with you making it run around in circles, reverse, and then stopping it in front of her.
  4663. >Speaking of...
  4664. >Her jaw is almost hitting the floor.
  4665. >Hahah!
  4666. "How's that for 'out there'?"
  4667. >She needs a moment to compose herself.
  4668. >"A-alright, well... guess Ah... aw holy shite, Ah'd be lyin' iff'n Ah said that wasn't damned impressive."
  4669. "But it's still not finished."
  4670. >"So-- Wait, did ya plan on havin' me help ya with this?"
  4671. "Maybe."
  4672. >You think you've earned a little smugness.
  4673. >"Geez, wha's it with stallions n' coverin' their exposed parts up?"
  4674. >It instantly flips to embarrassment, while she laughs it up.
  4675. <...
  4677. @@@@@@@@
  4679. >"That's all there was to it, Anon."
  4680. "Fucking hell, what a shitshow. I'm just glad you're all okay."
  4681. >"Yeah, you and me both! The way the docs approached us, like we had bucking terminal potomac fever? Makes me wonder what else that damn zebra had on her!"
  4682. >"It is fortunate that whatever bases she utilized in her direct-combat alchemy were not contaminated with easily transmissible diseases. It is quite a common thing to see in poorly managed alchemic creation."
  4683. >"Hate to say it, but she was a damned pro, whoever she was. Took monster hits, and kept coming back for more! Dodged around the place like a drugged-up ballerina!"
  4684. >"And it seems that her skills were not restricted to physicality, if her potions were any indication. Still, the design of the armour she and her cohorts wore is not like any Zebrican armours I know of."
  4685. >"Yeah, good thing, too! I don't wanna know where the bones came from!"
  4686. >"I will have to investigate the matter further, once we are discharged. I am certain there must be something to corroborate their techniques and armour designs, to their specific tribes."
  4687. "I'll save you the time. They're from some tribe called, uh... 'bloody plague', was it?"
  4688. >"The closest documented Zebrican tribe that matches that phonetic approximation is 'Bloedige Plaag'."
  4689. "Close enough."
  4690. >"Wait, hang on. How the hay do you know that, Anon?"
  4691. "Our old pal Chrysalis fessed that up to me, way back after she hit Ponyville."
  4692. >Chrysalis...
  4693. >She's not gonna like hearing how Athalia escaped like that.
  4694. >And neither Pharynx nor Thorax are gonna like it, either...
  4696. >"She did?"
  4697. >"If that is true, then it will certainly reduce the required research time. Unfortunately, they were only mentioned in name within my mandatory study requirements for joining Sol Invictus."
  4698. "Well, at least we've got a line on them."
  4699. >"Locating the tribe may be of greater concern, however. The geography and culture of Zebrica heavily promotes roaming tribes and fragmented populaces, as opposed to fixed settlements."
  4700. >"They can't make this easy, can they?"
  4701. "In my experience, things going easy usually means shit's about to go bad."
  4702. >"Amen to that."
  4703. >Razor takes that moment to stretch out in his bed.
  4704. >"I tell you, when I get out of this damn bed, I'm getting us all a round of booze. Hay, I'll buy the whole damned bar!"
  4705. "Sounds like a plan to me, ol' buddy."
  4706. >"So what about you, Exact? What's your poison?"
  4707. >"Poison?"
  4708. "What's your drink?"
  4709. >"I do not drink alcohol."
  4710. >Silence reigns for a few beats, and you and Razor both process what you just heard.
  4711. "Quesque cest?"
  4712. >"Je pense que tu voulais dire 'quesque vous avais dit'."
  4713. "Yo-- wait, what?"
  4714. >"Hey, don't change the subject! What do you mean, you don't drink?"
  4715. >"I did not change the subject. As for your question, I mean that I do not consume alcoholic beverages."
  4716. >And you and Razor, you both look at each other, in pure disbelief.
  4717. >An unspoken agreement is made then and there, and the two of you nod on it, turning back to Exact.
  4718. "Yeah, that's something that needs unfucking, post-haste."
  4719. >"You're coming along with us for a good, stiff drink, pal. And don't you start giving me excuses."
  4721. >"My division prohibits me from ingesting alcoholic beverages."
  4722. >"Horseshit. You guys follow the fraternizing rules like every other guard division."
  4723. >"There are more stringent requirements that you must pass security clearances to learn of."
  4724. >"And this is something that going off-duty for a bit can't fix?"
  4725. >"You are not going to stop until I join you, are you?"
  4726. >"You know it."
  4727. "No way we're leaving you out of that party, not after all you've done."
  4728. >He seems a little unsure.
  4729. "Look, it's not like we're gonna have you black out, or anything. Just a brew or two, right?"
  4730. >"Right."
  4731. >"It is... unfamiliar territory for me."
  4732. "You'll dig it, I'm sure. Besides, it's not like you'll be drinking alone, either!"
  4733. >"Yeah, half the damn fun's in drinking it up with friends!"
  4734. >He's considering it more intensely than you really thought he would.
  4735. >"Perhaps I shall... attempt to imbibe a small amount."
  4736. >"Attacolt!"
  4737. "That's more like it, man!"
  4738. >"Yeah, when I figure out when the damn guard party's happening, I'll let you all know. Hay, I'll make sure they stock up on some of that killer whiskey shit you like, Anon!"
  4739. "Never has there been a saintlier bat-horse."
  4740. >"Don't mention it."
  4741. "You know, most times, this is where I start treating the ears."
  4742. >He recoils at that, and your finger-wiggling isn't helping things.
  4743. >"I'll pass, thanks."
  4744. >"What do you mean by that, Anon?"
  4745. >"He does this... thing with his hands, scratches your ears with them!"
  4746. "You know, we just did the whole 'try it and you may, I say' routine. What gives, man? What do you have against the itchies?"
  4748. >He actually shudders a bit.
  4749. >"I expect his aversion is due to his racial qualities as a thestral."
  4750. >You sure, if you listened hard enough, you could hear the ADL's autistic screeching throughout space and time.
  4751. "'Racial qualities'?"
  4752. >"Thestrals possess far more sensitive ears than most ponies do, owing to their greatly enhanced sense of hearing. Their fluffier, bat-like appearance is intended to both enhance this ability, and to avert the need to touch them as much as possible."
  4753. "No kidding?"
  4754. >"I do not make jokes where biology is concerned."
  4755. >"Never would've guessed."
  4756. >"However, I find myself curious as to this strange behaviour of yours, Anon."
  4757. "What, the scratching? I dunno, tried it one day, and everyone seemed to like it."
  4758. >"Would you be opposed to demonstrating this?"
  4759. "Uhh... not at all?"
  4760. >Well, that's definitely the weirdest way you've been propositioned for ear scratching.
  4761. >But sure enough, you make your way over to him, and commence the scratching, a touch more gingerly than usual.
  4762. >For his part, Exact doesn't really react much.
  4763. >"Interesting. The scraping of the nails and skin is just enough to provide a surprisingly pleasurable sensation, but not enough to trigger a fight-or-flight response."
  4764. "Uh, thanks...?"
  4765. >Definitely the weirdest scratching you've delivered.
  4767. >Your activities were interrupted by the door, which opened soon after to reveal--
  4768. >"Ah, Anon. I knew I'd find you here."
  4769. "Celestia?"
  4770. >Well, this is a surprise.
  4771. >She doesn't look like she wants to black-bag you, either.
  4773. >"Sergeant, Lieutenant, I am glad to see you both in good health. I'm afraid I must borrow Anonymous here for a few moments, though."
  4774. >It's at that moment that you notice those two are bowing.
  4775. >Well, as best as you can bow, when you're laid in bed.
  4776. >Still, they say their farewells, and after she tells them to debrief tomorrow at fifteen-hundred hours, you follow Celestia out through the door.
  4777. >"They seem to be doing well."
  4778. "Thank God for that."
  4779. >"Now, why don't we find some place more private to talk?"
  4780. "What for?"
  4781. >"It concerns your... nature."
  4782. >Oh.
  4783. >That.
  4784. >Right.
  4785. >While you follow her, it occurs to you that you forgot to bring up the whole 'no soul' thing with those two.
  4786. >Well, shit.
  4787. >That's gonna make things a bit more awkward.
  4788. >The two of you head up towards...
  4789. >Wait, is this her room?
  4790. >Huh, isn't that something.
  4791. >The door looks a lot like Luna's.
  4792. >Well, barring the bright, sun-heavy motif, of course.
  4793. >The same can be said for the interior, which shared a room layout with Luna's as well, from the looks of things.
  4794. >She leads you to a small table, complete with a tea set.
  4795. >"Please, have a seat."
  4796. >Well, she seems nice enough about it.
  4797. >So have a seat you do, with her following suit.
  4798. "So, uh, what's the story?"
  4799. >"Nothing that indicts you, I promise."
  4800. "Even after that, uh, big reveal?"
  4801. >"I won't lie, I was... well, all right, it was one of the biggest surprises I've had for a very, very long time. It's not everyday that you talk to one that technically breaks the laws of magic."
  4802. "Hey, I was as surprised as you to hear it."
  4803. >"I believe you."
  4805. >She pours out some tea for the two of you, and you both start sipping.
  4806. >Seriously, this stuff's pretty bombing.
  4807. >"But your highly unusual nature also led me to a much more... disturbing realization."
  4808. "That he doesn't have a soul, either?"
  4809. >Huh, that looks like a spot-on psychic prediction, to you.
  4810. >"You deduced as much already?"
  4811. "Makes sense, doesn't it? I mean, he kinda alluded to it during the fight, but never went out and said it."
  4812. >"So he knows as much, then. No doubt he's using that to his advantage, as fully as he possibly can."
  4813. "What do you mean?"
  4814. >"How much do you know about dark magic, Anon?"
  4815. "Well, not a lot. Only that using it really fucks you up, and that apparently it doesn't fuck me up, at least not as much?"
  4816. >"It will never harm you, not like it harms everypony else. And neither will it harm him. But do you know why that is?"
  4817. "I... can't say that I do."
  4818. >"The reasoning is quite simple, though the implications are very disturbing. Simply put, the spiritual contagion that such vile magic brings about is precisely that, spiritual."
  4819. >The penny just dropped on a neutron star.
  4820. "Oh."
  4821. >Well, uh...
  4822. "That explains a lot."
  4823. >"Perhaps more than you know. Despite the vast, dark, destructive power that such terrible magic will bring to it's users, the ultimate irony is that it causes much worse harm to the wielder's soul, far worse than any retribution.
  4824. >"That has always been the reason why the darklings have not attained permanent power. Their own potential may eclipse my own at times, but it will kill them long before they can use it to it's fullest.
  4826. >"In a twisted kind of way, it's acted as a very effective check and balance, even before I moved to destroy all knowledge of the dark arts. That's why it always puzzled me, how that other human could use such vast amounts of dark power, and yet still live.
  4827. >"Puzzled me, that is, until now."
  4828. >What.
  4829. >Is she fucking kidding you?
  4830. >Judging from the look on her face...
  4831. >No, no she is not.
  4832. "He's cheating."
  4833. >You knew he was cheating, but not by that much!
  4834. >"Very much so. He has no limit on the amount of power he can wield, and he can never have his essence consumed by the creatures of the void.
  4835. >"Ironic, that the creatures who created the dark arts, who now crave souls for sustenance, find their craft realized fully by that which lacks one."
  4836. >She must mean those fuckers who gave Starlight the migraines!
  4837. >Still, not sure how she'll react to your knowledge of that.
  4838. "What are these... 'Creatures of the void'?"
  4839. >You'll avoid revealing your powerlevel on that subject for now.
  4840. >"That, Anon, is a very long and complicated story."
  4841. "I'm sure we've got time."
  4842. >She mulls it over for a few moments.
  4843. >"Anon, were you any other being, I would never allow myself to share this information with you. Not even with those within my organization."
  4844. "So, don't tell a soul, right?"
  4845. >"Interesting choice of words."
  4846. "I don't hear a correction there."
  4847. >Well, she smirked a little, at least.
  4848. >"Thousands of years ago, the first wielders of dark magic convened with one another. Some of them were ponies, but most of them were other races, almost all of which have since become extinct."
  4850. >Oh, man.
  4851. >Something tells you that you're in for one hell of a story.
  4852. >You decide to refill your teacup, and once you're fuelled up, brace yourself for some real heavy shit.
  4853. >"At the time, dark magic was a far simpler thing, and a far more contained phenomenon. It was simply magic that used the energies of another to fuel itself.
  4854. >"These practitioners became very adept at using it. It was such a great source of power, being able to amalgamate so many sources of magic into one focal point.
  4855. >"But as with all power, it eventually corrupted these first generations of magicians. Their methods became highly unethical. They stole the power of others, instead of sharing and uniting it.
  4856. >"It didn't take long for their ambitions to grow in lockstep with their thirst for magic. They began to encroach upon the lands of their parent races, and those simply in their way.
  4857. >"Fortunately, there was little honour among these thieves. Before they could cause too much damage, they splintered from within, individual factions squabbling with each other over power, land, and lives.
  4858. >"As I understand it, they were crushed by their common enemies, sometime after the pony races had united together, and founded Equestria."
  4859. "As you understand it?"
  4860. >"I was quite young at the time. Me and my sister had not yet ascended, though we heard of their defeat."
  4861. "Ah."
  4862. >"These users of the newly-anointed dark magic were not defeated, however. The survivors went into hiding, and were not heard of for centuries. Occasionally, we would destroy small covens that were found practicing dark magic."
  4864. >Just retelling this is really wearing her down, like she's dredging up some really bad memories.
  4865. >But it also looks like she's trying to choose her words carefully.
  4866. >"But they did return, and their return was marked by one of their most evil, and at the time, most puzzling of acts.
  4867. >"They had formed a secretive cult, formed of many races, and had been hard at work perfecting their newest, and darkest craft yet.
  4868. >"Upon their return, they swept across the land like a plague, conquering vast amounts of land. But something was different, this time.
  4869. >"Instead of slaying their foes and collecting the spoils of war, they only remained long enough to take prisoners. They foalnapped thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of ponies, and other races.
  4870. >"We didn't discover what they were taken for, until they retreated just as suddenly to their sanctum, where we were able to track them down and attempt to stop them."
  4871. >Her worn-down look reaches a record high.
  4872. >"What we found there, I... I cannot begin to explain the depths of the horrors we found. Some time during their dark studies, they had learned how to extract souls, and use them as fuel for their magic.
  4873. >"And they had been extracting the souls of everypony they had stolen away."
  4874. >Whoa.
  4875. >"So many bodies, just... discarded, as if they were little more than..."
  4876. >She has to take a moment to compose herself.
  4877. >Jesus Christ.
  4878. >There was some kind of pony holocaust, way back when?
  4879. >That got way darker than you expected!
  4880. >"We found the culprits, in the middle of completing a spell of great and terrible power.
  4882. >"Using the power from all their stolen souls, they had torn apart the very fabric of reality, creating a gateway into what I can only describe as pure blackness.
  4883. >"A place completely devoid of light. Indeed, it seemed to absorb the very light around the opening into itself. Eclipsing that, however, was the mass amount of power draining into the rift.
  4884. >"Their spell did something else, however, something that at the time confused us. It turned upon the massive circle of casters, ripping their bodies apart, and tearing free their own souls.
  4885. >"They orbited the rift like a swarm, the fell magic turning the swirling spirits black, distorting and corrupting them.
  4886. >"And then, all of a sudden, the spirits flew into the black abyss. Following them, was every single scrap of energy from their spell, just sucked into the void.
  4887. >"Then, the rift sealed itself shut. Not a single trace of them was found, nor any trace of the magic they had stolen. It was like it had all been erased from the world, save for our memory of the event."
  4888. "Christ almighty. Some kind of ritual suicide?"
  4889. >"We thought so, too. But a scant week after this abominable event had transpired, reports of dark magic use had began climbing. But something was terribly wrong.
  4890. >"It was random ponies, not a secretive cult. They were using a different kind of magic, one that was tailored to be highly seductive and immensely powerful, at the cost of their own life force.
  4891. >"But all who used the spells, no matter how little, all heard voices in their heads, and suffered terrible, crippling headaches alongside them.
  4893. >"The heaviest users even had their souls implode upon themselves, vanishing without a trace.
  4894. >"Some of our own confidants perused the tomes that spread this magic, sacrificing themselves to learn more. After many years, and so many lives lost to the dark power, we finally learned the truth.
  4895. >"Those evil magicians, 'Warlocks' as they called themselves, had torn open a gateway to a different dimension, one existing in the blackness outside our world, and beyond the reach of the sun, moon, and even stars.
  4896. >"And not only that, they discovered a way to corrupt their own souls, transforming them into entities of pure darkness, in a process they referred to, with great reverence, as 'transcendence'.
  4897. >"But in order to open this gateway, and twist themselves in such numbers, they required a massive sacrifice of souls in order to accomplish this. We finally knew why they had taken those poor ponies.
  4898. >"Making matters worse, was the books we pieced this together from. They were created by these Warlocks, and were distributed all across the world. They varied in content, but contained dark magic spells unlike any others seen before.
  4899. >"As I mentioned, it was seductive and powerful. But the use of their own life force didn't explain the headaches, the voices, and why the souls of heavy users literally imploded upon themselves.
  4900. >"It turned out, that every dark magic spell within the books contained a hidden curse. A curse that tainted the user's soul with the very black magic the warlocks had used to transcend.
  4902. >"As if bypassing the shroud was not enough, this poison of the soul created an undetectable tunnel, a gateway of sorts, into the minds of the users, whom they referred to as 'darklings'.
  4903. >"While normally closed by their own, unconscious power, it could be forced open for a moment by something on the other end, allowing those on that end to speak directly to the darkling, in a very invasive and painful manner.
  4904. >"But we didn't learn who these speakers were, until we witnessed a spiritual implosion. Once the soul corruption reaches a certain threshold, it opens this 'gateway', allowing dark magic to seep in from the other side.
  4905. >"That's when we learned, that this other side was the very same abyss I witnessed during the mass transcendence. And the voices were none other than the Warlocks who had transcended!
  4906. >"They told their darklings to use more power. They aided them in their progress, all towards forcing open this 'gateway', allowing them to reach out and consume their souls.
  4907. >"It was their plan, all along. To gain power and knowledge, without reproach. There were even a scant few who collected all the tomes, and learned to transcend themselves, becoming one with the Warlocks.
  4908. >"And they spread these tomes well, in advance of their mass transcendence. Their power grew and grew. Eventually, they did not even need the curse within the spells, becoming so powerful that they could find those dropping the shroud from within the void."
  4909. >She tapered off with those last few lines.
  4910. >She looks so tired, like she had the mother of bad trips down memory lane.
  4912. >You, meanwhile, sit there like a tool, processing what you just heard.
  4913. >Fucking hell, man!
  4914. >You knew her story would get dark, but not like that!
  4915. >It makes you wonder just what else happened here, with those 'Warlock' assholes!
  4916. >"I... I'm sorry, Anon."
  4917. "H-huh?"
  4918. >"I spoke about this subject for much longer than I expected to. It... it's been a long time, since I've told anypony, much less anyhuman, about this."
  4919. "I, uh, don't think you should be sorry. If anything, I oughta be sorry. If I knew I'd be dragging something that bad up, I'd--"
  4920. >"No, it... it's fine. To be honest, it's... relieving, in a way. You're the only one besides Luna who knows about those ancient events, now."
  4921. >She stops to rub her eyes a little.
  4922. >God, she looks so  exhausted.
  4923. >"I wouldn't suggest bringing it up with her, though. It enrages her to this day."
  4924. "I see. Uh, you mind if I ask a thing or two about all that?"
  4925. >"Just one, Anon. I'm afraid that's all I can give right now."
  4926. "Right. While I was fighting, the other guy said something about the 'arts of the Void Lords'. Are they connected to these 'Warlocks' at all?"
  4927. >"The Void Lords and the Warlocks are one and the same. They've gone by many such names throughout history."
  4928. >You guessed as much, but at least now, you know for sure.
  4929. "Thanks."
  4930. >"Thank you for listening, Anon. I'm sorry, but I'm too tired right now to answer more."
  4931. >To be honest, you could use a good nap too, after a story like that.
  4932. >But before you go, you walk over to her, and give her a well-deserved ear scratch.
  4933. >A move she wasn't expecting, but soon warmed up to.
  4935. >You soon find yourself wrapped up in a light hug, which you return with one arm.
  4936. >Neither one of you says anything for a while.
  4937. >But eventually, she breaks the silence:
  4938. >"Do you mind if I... ask you something?"
  4939. "Absolutely not."
  4940. >"Have... have your people suffered too, lost so many lives to such senseless desires?"
  4941. "Yeah. More times than I'd like to admit."
  4942. >She doesn't respond for a few moments.
  4943. >But she does pull herself back, breaking the hug.
  4944. >"Forgive me. I... did not mean to impose my moment of weakness upon you."
  4945. "Really, it's fine. Would've done it for any of you."
  4946. >"Thank you. I... I must admit, though, that I'm not quite sure how you do it."
  4947. "Do what?"
  4948. >"After all our... animosity, after your battles, even after discovering your odd nature, you seem to just bounce right back."
  4949. "Well, I... I just don't wanna stay and stew on the bad, you know? I don't ever want a repeat of the month-long hermit act."
  4950. >"Fair enough. But even so, I would have thought that the doctor's discovery would have bothered you more than it has."
  4951. "If he's right, and I never had it to begin with, then nothing's really changed with me, right? So why stew on it?"
  4952. >She gives you a tired smile.
  4953. >"You're a strange one, Anon. I'm glad to have you with us."
  4954. "Yeah, me too."
  4955. >Celestia went ahead and bid you farewell, heading off to her bedroom while you left her place, heading over to your castle room again.
  4956. >Man, you're glad to see this bed again.
  4957. >You set the alarm next to the bed, so you don't sleep through the afternoon, and flop onto the bed.
  4958. >Sleep comes pretty quickly.
  4959. <...
  4961. @@@@@@@@
  4963. >>"Race ya there, C-- Whoa!"
  4964. >>THUMP
  4965. >>Pffffthahahaah!
  4966. >>He tripped and fell over!
  4967. >>No, wait, he's back up already?!
  4968. >>Oh, no, he's not beating you today!
  4969. >>You bolt off after the red-finned youngling, as fast as your little legs will carry you.
  4970. >>Come on, almost there!
  4971. >>Almost--
  4972. >>Ahh, no, he's gonna beat you!
  4973. >>Unless...
  4974. >>He looks back with a smug smile, but it drops at your own evil smile back.
  4975. >>And just like that, you pounce.
  4976. >>You collide into the purple-eyed ling's side and hold on tight, sending the two of you rolling along the ground, and definitely not towards the nectar stores.
  4977. >>Wrestle now, nectar later!
  4978. >>The battle went on for a good minute, as you tried so hard to get him to give in.
  4979. >>But in the end, you find yourself pinned down, a triumphant look on--
  4980. >>"What'd I tell ya? Can't beat me in wrestling!"
  4981. >"No faaaair!"
  4982. >>Gaah, you're so steamed!
  4983. >>Every time he wrestles, he always wins!
  4984. >>He...
  4985. >>Uh...
  4986. >>Wait, what was his--?
  4987. >>"Having fun over there, dears?"
  4988. >>Mom's voice draws your attention.
  4989. >"Mooooooom, he's not letting me wiiiinn!"
  4990. >>Why does she always chuckle at that?
  4991. >>This is serious!
  4992. >>He--
  4993. >"O-ow!"
  4994. >>O-okay, he's really pressing down--
  4995. >>Waaahohmygoshwhatisthat?!
  4996. >>Whyishischitingreenandwhyaren'thereholesinhis--
  4997. >>"You're pathetic."
  4998. >>Wh-wha--?
  4999. >>"You think I'm just going to let you win, weakling?"
  5000. >>His head splits down the middle with a sickening CRACK.
  5001. >>Coming out of the middle, prying apart the halves, is a four-armed monkey monster.
  5002. >>"I think someling needs to be taught a very important, very painful lesson~!"
  5003. <...
  5005. >Your eyes shoot open and you cry out in terror.
  5006. >Or, at least you would've, if there wasn't currently liquid in your lungs.
  5007. >Waitohmygoshthere'sliquidinyourlungswhatthe--?!
  5008. >It takes a few moments of thrashing about, caught up in that moment of terror, before you realize what's going on.
  5009. >Green tint, blurry surroundings, soothing liquid in lungs.
  5010. >Resting pod.
  5011. >J-just the resting pod!
  5012. >Okay, now to just...!
  5013. >With a thought, the pod opens, and the fluid drains out.
  5014. >You expel the rest of the liquid with practiced ease, though more rushed than you would like.
  5015. >While you're not gasping for 'air' anymore, your breathing was still heavy.
  5016. >Faster than necessary, you sit upright, leaning out of the side of the otherwise comforting enclosure, trying to get your breathing steady.
  5017. >Wh-what was that?
  5018. >I-it was a really nice dream, a-and then all of a sudden, it...
  5019. >No.
  5020. >Calm down!
  5021. "Just a dream."
  5022. >A stupid dream.
  5023. >But that weird ling at the beginning seemed so familiar, before he turned into that trai--
  5024. >No!
  5025. "G-get it together...! Just. A. Dream!"
  5026. >Look at you, getting upset over a stupid nightmare!
  5027. >Come on, Athalia, you're better than this!
  5028. >Why--
  5029. >Wait.
  5030. >Why...
  5031. >Why'd that, of all things, feel off?
  5032. >Gaah, seriously?
  5033. >Now your own name feels off?!
  5034. >You give your head a good, hard shake, some leftover liquid flying out of your mane.
  5035. >Just get up and get cleaned off!
  5036. >That ought to clear your head of all this!
  5037. >You stand up and walk out of the pod, and...
  5038. >Wow, messy carapace aside, you feel really good!
  5040. >Sweet Foremothers, you really had forgotten how good a night in the pods was for you!
  5041. >Only moments after getting up, and already you feel energized!
  5042. >You can't believe you went so long without this!
  5043. >Okay, yeah, you're definitely doing this more often!
  5044. >But first things first.
  5045. >Following the telltale pheromone trails, you...
  5046. >Wait a minute, there's no cleansing chamber in this hive?
  5047. >Seriously?
  5048. >Oh, wait.
  5049. >The queen has to mix up the special spring water for that.
  5050. >Right.
  5051. >Still, the modified trail leads outside, somewhere.
  5052. >Might as well follow it, you guess.
  5053. >Still wish it was a proper cleansing chamber, though...
  5054. >Hmph.
  5055. >Maybe you should fix that, some time.
  5056. >Yeah, that sounds good, just maybe later.
  5057. >You approach the marked exit, the light outside a--
  5058. >Wait.
  5059. >You're...
  5060. >You're walking.
  5061. >Ohmygosh, you're walking!
  5062. >Your legs recovered that quickly?!
  5063. >Okay, yeah, it's official, you're taking those pods whenever you can!
  5064. >You're dimly aware of the extra spring in your step, as you finally clear the entrance.
  5065. >The light in the sky was a dim orange.
  5066. >Super early in the morning, huh?
  5067. >Still, this camp didn't seem to be lacking in activity!
  5068. >All around, you could sense the patrols, the workers, and more!
  5069. >Kind of put it well above a 'camp', huh...?
  5070. >Maybe more of a--
  5071. >A gust of wind interrupted your thoughts.
  5072. >Oh, gross, the liquid's getting crusty!
  5073. >Nevermind, cleaning first!
  5074. >Now in more of a rush, you follow the trail towards a pair of large tents, flanking a huge, steaming pool.
  5075. >No way, they've got a proper hot spring?!
  5076. >Don't mind if you do!
  5078. >It takes a lot of effort to resist just diving into the inviting waters.
  5079. >Sure was deep enough for it, though!
  5080. >Hmm...
  5081. >Well, you don't see or sense anyone looking...
  5082. >Yeah, you know what, the heck with it!
  5083. >If anyling asks, your wings were too wet!
  5084. >Cannonball!
  5085. >KA-SPLASH
  5086. >You spend a few moments submerged, before breaking the surface to breathe.
  5087. >Oh, gosh...!
  5088. >The water is perfect!
  5089. >The now slimy, semi-crusted pod liquid coming off of your chitin, combined with the absolutely perfect temperature...
  5090. >It was everything you didn't even know you wanted.
  5091. >After getting the crud off, you just float there for a few moments, a contented sigh leaving you.
  5092. >Yeah.
  5093. >After everything you went through?
  5094. >You totally deserve this.
  5095. >Hm.
  5096. >Funny, there's this aftertaste to the water.
  5097. >Have you... tasted that before, somewhere?
  5098. >Hrm... some kind of low-key bitterness--
  5099. >Alchemy!
  5100. >That's right!
  5101. >You've tasted that in alchemy, and--
  5102. >A-and that 'medicine'...
  5103. >You fail to repress the shudder of that memory.
  5104. >Stupid doctor!
  5105. >Stupid--
  5106. >No.
  5107. >None of that.
  5108. >Calm.
  5109. >Happy thoughts.
  5110. >Back to floating with you.
  5111. >Aah...
  5112. >So, the water's not real spring water, huh?
  5113. >Who knows what potion-ey stuff they put in it.
  5114. >Probably cleaning it, or something.
  5115. >Hay, might even be heating it!
  5116. >Not that you're complaining.
  5117. >Out of the 'corner' of your sixth sense, you pick up on some excitement from one of the tents.
  5118. >That transitions to seeing it open from the corner of your eye, with some unclothed gryphons barrelling out towards the water, some jumping into it.
  5119. >Heh.
  5121. >You always thought it was funny how gryphons, pegasi, heck, anything with feathered wings flop around in water, like birds do.
  5122. >Seemed really inconvenient, compared to your own wings!
  5123. >Ah, well.
  5124. >They're far enough away that they won't bother you.
  5125. >Let them have their fun.
  5126. >Hm.
  5127. >It occurs to you, just how much those gryphons have grown on you.
  5128. >Well, the ones that--
  5129. >"Athalia?"
  5130. >Your eyes go over to the source of the voice.
  5131. >Oh, hey!
  5132. "Hello, Ajay."
  5133. >He's still armoured up, standing above the pool, closest to where you are.
  5134. >"What the hell are you doing out here?"
  5135. "Huh?"
  5136. >"What do you mean, 'huh'? Those bugs keep you holed up and alone for that long, and now you're just... floating there?"
  5137. >Wait, what?
  5138. "'That long'?"
  5139. >"You-- Wait, you don't know?"
  5140. "Well, I didn't exactly talk on the way here."
  5141. >"Oh, well, uh... really?"
  5142. >You give him your best flat look, still floating in place.
  5143. >"Uhh, well... it's been about three days since you--"
  5144. "Three day--?!"
  5145. >SPLASH
  5146. >Okay, that brought your floating to a sudden end!
  5147. >Still, you surface quickly, more surprised than anything.
  5148. >Three days?!
  5149. >So, that...
  5150. >That's why your legs were feeling perfectly fine!
  5151. >Okay, now that you're thinking about it, the resting pods don't exactly have super fast healing powers, either...
  5152. >But still, three days?!
  5153. >Wh-what's been going on, all that--
  5154. >"Whoa, hey, are you all right?!"
  5155. >You look back up to see Ajay flapping overhead, concern in both his face and emotions.
  5156. "F-fine, just... three days, are you serious?"
  5157. >"Yes, I'm serious! And none of the other bugs would let anyone close to that hive!"
  5159. >Well, that realization brought your relaxation to a very abrupt stop!
  5160. >You move to float, this time with your back facing up, your wings shaking off all the water on them before they fully buzz to life, lifting you up and out of the pool.
  5161. >You fly down onto solid ground, and shake off the water a bit once you're landed.
  5162. >A quick drying spell clears up the rest.
  5163. >"Hey, I don't think you should--"
  5164. "I'm fine, really."
  5165. >He lands right next to you.
  5166. >You swear, if he was any more concerned, he'd be your moth--
  5167. >No.
  5168. >Nevermind.
  5169. >Very bad example.
  5170. >Uh, c-change of thoughts!
  5171. >"You sure?"
  5172. "Mmhm. Honestly, I haven't felt this good in a really, really long time."
  5173. >Not even in the sense of powerful, just...
  5174. >Contented, relaxed.
  5175. >Well, less so than a minute or two ago, but still!
  5176. >"Oh, thank heaven for that. You should let Zamara know as soon as possible."
  5177. >Zamara, right.
  5178. >She was the one who--!
  5179. "Incognito! Where is he?!"
  5180. >Oh, no!
  5181. >Is he all right?!
  5182. >"He's still in her care, went and moved him up to that creepy temple a couple of days back. Wouldn't let anyone see him, either."
  5183. >Temple?
  5184. >Wait, he means the ziggurat!
  5185. >Your eyes dart over to the imposing structure.
  5186. >The sun was still coming up, but was hidden behind the ziggurat at this angle, rays of dark red early-morning sunlight shining from around it's shadow.
  5187. >You have to see him!
  5188. >Without so much as a word, you dart off towards the structure.
  5189. >"H-hey, wait!"
  5190. >No time!
  5191. >Need to know, right now!
  5192. >As you get close, you skip the steps completely, flying up to the second floor entrance.
  5194. >But your approach is quickly stopped by zebra guards, brandishing their weapons and barking at you in their strange language.
  5195. >It didn't take an empath to figure out they were warning you off!
  5196. >Gaah, if only you knew what to say right now!
  5197. >This is important!
  5198. >You need to--
  5199. >"Just... slow down there, will you?"
  5200. >Ajay lands behind you, prompting you to turn your head.
  5201. >"I told you, they won't let anyone but themselves in!"
  5202. "W-well there has to be some way in!"
  5203. >"If there is, I'd love to hear it! Because right now, I--"
  5204. >The clattering of metal and bone is heard, just as the intents of the guards drops to reverence.
  5205. >You turn back around to see the guards kneeling alongside the door, as another armoured, well-decorated, and scarred zebra walks up the stairs of the entryway.
  5206. >Veldheer, wasn't it?
  5207. >Right, their leader!
  5208. >"If I face one more damned interruption from you insufferable birds, I shall skin you all alive myse--"
  5209. >He stops in his tracks once he sees you, his eyes locking with yours.
  5210. >Wh-what's his deal?
  5211. >First he came up all terrifying, full of killing intent, and the next, he's--
  5212. >"Well, well, what have we here? Just what manner of creature are you?"
  5213. >The way he said that, low yet without hostility, was strangely creepy.
  5214. >"Look, we're just here to--"
  5215. >Instantly, Veldheer flips back to fury at Ajay's interjection.
  5216. >"I was not asking you, intolerable fowl! Mind your tongue, lest I rip it from your maw!"
  5217. >Ajay backed away, his emotions coloured with fear.
  5218. >Probably a good call on his part!
  5219. >Still, you stay in place, determined to see Incognito.
  5221. >"Now, back to you. I'd quite like an answer to my question, strange one."
  5222. >The tonal shift was a little jarring, for something that's not a shapeshifter...
  5223. >Still, something tells you he won't let you through, unless you respond.
  5224. "A changeling, what else?"
  5225. >He lights up with recognition, followed by curiosity, tinted by a current of--
  5226. >"Changeling? You certainly look far better than any changeling I've ever had to suffer!"
  5227. >He's quickly gone from scary to grating.
  5228. "Good for you. Now, would you mind letting me through?"
  5229. >"Ah, to see your master, no doubt? Well, I suppose I could--"
  5230. >More recognition lights up in his eyes.
  5231. >"Tell me, you would not happen to be this... 'Queen Chrysalis' I've heard so much about, would you?"
  5232. "What? No!"
  5233. >"Hm, are you certain?"
  5234. "Very."
  5235. >"Then pray tell, what would your name be?"
  5236. >Oh for--!
  5237. "The name is Athalia. Now, how about letting me through, already?"
  5238. >"What?"
  5239. >He darts up to you, scrutinizing you closely.
  5240. >"You're Athalia? That runt changeling that those two went after?"
  5241. >Your calm is starting to get quite damaged.
  5242. >"My, my, you were among the royals of your kind, all this time? To think that they hid such a thing from me!"
  5243. >"Wait, how do you--"
  5244. >A glare from Veldheer was enough to silence Ajay.
  5245. >When he looks back at you, there's something in the look he gives you, that elicits some disgust.
  5246. >"To think, that something like you lurked underneath that unassuming carapace. Something so..."
  5247. >He lifts your chin with his hoof, the touch flooding your senses with an all-too-familiar emotion.
  5248. >"Ravishing!"
  5250. >Oh, no.
  5251. >Love.
  5252. >Eros, no less!
  5253. >As thick and disgusting as you remember it being!
  5254. >Eugh, now his attitude change makes sense!
  5255. >"So many tales of the dark, maledict beauty of the Shattered queens. Yet they do the real thing no justice."
  5256. >Is this supposed to be... flattering?
  5257. >Ugh, just thinking that makes your shell crawl!
  5258. "Take your hoof off me."
  5259. >He only seems to get bolder, his eyes lidding as his face nears yours.
  5260. >"Oh, I only wonder what else the stories give unflattering accounts of? Oh, how I would... love to learn...!"
  5261. >Nope.
  5262. >That husky 'love' was the last straw.
  5263. "Alright, let me rephrase that."
  5264. >Your own hoof darts up, grabbing hold of his, and slamming it into the ground.
  5265. >He grunts in pain as you apply more and more pressure.
  5266. "Put that hoof on me again, and that hoof will never touch anything again."
  5267. >You can't say you were expecting him to grin.
  5268. >M-much less push back against your hoof!
  5269. >"And the tiger has claws, too?"
  5270. >The grin grows and grows, along with his push-back against your hoof.
  5271. >"You've left me with quite an impression, Athalia. I dare say I find myself quite... smitten."
  5272. "Keep dreaming."
  5273. >"Dreams are for colts, my dear."
  5274. >His snout is starting to press into yours.
  5275. >"But I am a stallion of... aspiration."
  5276. >Why, this...!
  5277. >He thinks he can just...?!
  5278. >At this stage, you're growling at him, keeping that hoof of his at bay.
  5279. >He looks like he's enjoying the standoff, though!
  5280. >But you refuse to back down.
  5281. >You don't plan on letting this damn--
  5282. >He's chuckling, now?!
  5283. >"Nou praat jy my taal, Athalia..."
  5285. >From behind him, hoofsteps are heard.
  5286. >More of that strange language is heard, only this time it's from a familiar speaker.
  5287. >Zamara.
  5288. >Veldheer doesn't look very pleased by the interruption.
  5289. >But he does back down, pulling his snout back, and--
  5290. >Gaah!
  5291. >H-he wrenched your hoof up to his face, a-and--
  5292. >mwah
  5293. >"I'm afraid I am needed elsewhere. I do hope we meet again, before long."
  5294. >With one final smile, he releases you, turning and brushing past an exasperated-looking Zamara.
  5295. >You wait until he's out of earshot, before you proceed to shudder, and magically sterilize the fetlock he just kissed.
  5296. "Not long enough...!"
  5297. >"Ah, rugged one, I see you have recovered."
  5298. >Well, she sure flipped straight to serious!
  5299. "Huh? Oh, yeah, I'm doing... fine."
  5300. >"Better than before, certainly. Your people's method of recovery is... prolonged, if not effective."
  5301. "Right. But, wh-what about... him?"
  5302. >"Ah, you wish to see Lord Matthias? Of course, of course, I dare not deny you, not after all you have done for him. Come."
  5303. >Oh, thank goodness!
  5304. >If only she came to the door first, instead of...
  5305. >Eugh, him...!
  5306. >And today was off to such a good start, too!
  5307. >Wait, she's leaving!
  5308. >B-better catch up!
  5309. >"Forgive me, young warrior, but my warlord has forbidden your kind from entering this place."
  5310. >"Oh, for the love of--!"
  5311. >Of course he would do that.
  5312. >You turn back to Ajay with a sympathetic look.
  5313. "Look, I'll tell you how he's doing when I get back, all right?"
  5314. >"Yeah, all right..."
  5315. >You turn back to--
  5316. >Gaah, she kept walking?!
  5317. >You have to rush, to catch up.
  5318. >"But, how'd he know, if I never...?"
  5319. <...
  5321. @@@@@@@@
  5323. >You hear your slipgate opening back up, prompting you to turn around, and away from your work.
  5324. >Stepping through it is...
  5325. "Twilight?"
  5326. >"H-hey, Anon..."
  5327. "What's up?"
  5328. >"W-well..."
  5329. >A second pony steps through the gate behind her, and--
  5330. >Oh, God.
  5331. >She brought Luna along with her?
  5332. >Ah, shit, it's gonna be about the whole 'dating' thing, isn't it?
  5333. >"I-- No, we both need to tell you something..."
  5334. >You swear, if they ask you to pick one, you're--
  5335. >Luna steps up, sharing Twilight's sad look.
  5336. >"We have been... discussing this as of late, and we wish to tell you that--"
  5337. >"We're sorry!"
  5338. >oh god no--
  5339. >Wait, what?
  5340. >As you process the idea of not being completely stuck between a rock and a hard place, you find yourself getting hugged on either side, by both of them.
  5341. >"I didn't mean to make you feel horrible and trapped and forced to just pick like that!"
  5342. >"I must apologize for my own behaviour, too. It was a terrible judgment call on my part, to initiate all of this during this terrible conflict."
  5343. >"N-no, i-it's my fault. I started all of this!"
  5344. >"But I catalyzed the situation, made it worse."
  5345. "Hey."
  5346. >Both your hands find their way to their respective pony heads, poised to strike at the ears with extreme prejudice.
  5347. "Listen, uh... as glad as I am that I'm not about to, well, lose out on two of my best friends, I didn't exactly help things, either."
  5348. >"Huh?"
  5349. >"What do you mean?"
  5350. >Oh, boy.
  5351. >You take a nice, deep breath, to calm your nerves.
  5352. "Look, I know I didn't exactly know better at the time, but I still kind of, well, led you two on."
  5354. >"B-but you didn't know!"
  5355. "Twilight, I've lived here for years, and somehow didn't figure all this out in that time. I think I flew right past the 'ignorance as an excuse' window, here."
  5356. >"B-but--"
  5357. >"Perhaps so, but this is not a trial, dear Anon! I am perfectly willing to excuse your actions as simple happenstance of ignorance!"
  5358. "Doesn't exactly make me feel any better about it."
  5359. >A sigh leaves you, before you continue on:
  5360. "In hindsight, I really should have seen all this coming."
  5361. >"W-we all should have..."
  5362. >"I should have known something wasn't quite right, after what happened with the Gala. It seems that hindsight has humbled all of us, today..."
  5363. "Yeah, no kidding..."
  5364. >None of you really say much for a while, just sitting there as you keep holding the two of them close.
  5365. >You wish you could say that this was a huge, total relief, but alas, it was only a huge relief, not a total one.
  5366. "So... what now?"
  5367. >Not like you'll get a better chance to ask, then now.
  5368. >Though from the looks they both have, it seems like they've worked something out.
  5369. >"W-well, we've been thinking..."
  5370. >Called it.
  5371. >"We've agreed to... suspend our advances upon you."
  5372. >"A-at least, until all of this is over."
  5373. >"Indeed. We will do all we can to aid you in ending this fight, but when it does finally conclude..."
  5374. >"Y-you can... p-pick one of us then..."
  5375. >Uh.
  5376. >Wow.
  5377. >This is, like, the polar opposite of those bad harem animes!
  5378. >"Do you... agree with our decision, dearest Anon?"
  5379. >A quick scratch to the ears of both parties prefaces your answer:
  5380. "On one condition."
  5382. >Now it's their turn to look confused.
  5383. "First off, I'm not going to straight-up pick one of you, right after all this is over. If I'm doing this, I'm doing it right.
  5384. "So instead, why don't we get back to, well, doing what we were doing before all of this, minus my dumb ass not knowing about this stuff?"
  5385. >"W-wait, you mean...?"
  5386. >"Court us?"
  5387. "Yeah, that!"
  5388. >And they just look at you, like a pair of owls, before looking at each other.
  5389. >You can't tell if their shared look is either them thinking hard, or issuing some kind of challenge.
  5390. >Either way, you're nipping that in the bud, right now:
  5391. "You'll both take turns, one after the other. And if you two go at each other's throats during it all, game's over. Nobody's winning."
  5392. >That got them to look back, this time with some fear in their looks.
  5393. "I might be willing to try and make this work, but not if it puts you two at those kinds of odds. Not gonna happen."
  5394. >You already had enough of a scare with thinking you'd fall out with one or both of them.
  5395. >You'd rather not have a repeat of that nonsense, thank you very much.
  5396. "So, how about that? We in agreement?"
  5397. >The two think to themselves for a moment, then look to each other for another.
  5398. >The much less competitive-looking look they share is a good sign.
  5399. >"Yeah."
  5400. >"Yes."
  5401. >Whooooly shit, man!
  5402. >Out comes that breath you didn't realize you were holding, along with most of that tension of yours.
  5403. >Jesus Christ, you don't know how you managed to defuse this, but fuck it, you'll take it!
  5404. >Their hugs redouble, and you redouble the scratching in response.
  5406. >You get up to your feet after a while of this, both of them letting you go as you rise.
  5407. "Now, I don't know about you two, but I think we should get to work, and make sure that asshole doesn't come around here ever again."
  5408. >And the looks flip over once more, to business.
  5409. >"On that, I shall agree wholeheartedly!"
  5410. >"But... where do you think he could have gone?"
  5411. >"We do not know. The magical trails of his cohorts were masked very well, and we are still waiting for reports from the outposts along the paths he might have taken."
  5412. "Can't imagine it'd be that hard to see a bunch of flying chariots."
  5413. >"Unfortunately, our own spotters within the castle failed to detect his servants making their entrance, before the attack."
  5414. >"We think they're making the chariots invisible, or somehow harder to spot. Magic like that would usually have really obvious trails to follow, except that they were somehow erasing that trail, too!"
  5415. >Shit.
  5416. >"And, naturally, it is not very feasible to have you trying to spot magical anomalies like that."
  5417. "Figures. Makes me wonder if there's some way to spot them better, so they don't get the jump on us like that, again."
  5418. >"I wish it were as simple as deploying arcane isolators for our spotters, but they are far too fragile and expensive to be practical."
  5419. >"Though I'm wondering, how were they able to see their own chariots, if they're hidden like that?"
  5420. >"I am not certain. Perhaps they have something to modify their own perception of it?"
  5421. >"With that crazy alchemist of theirs, I guess it's possible, but--"
  5422. >ding
  5424. >You're certain beyond a doubt, that Twilight just had the same epiphany you did.
  5425. "Zecora!"
  5426. >"Zecora!"
  5427. >Shit, if she fixed up your whole iron deficiency problem with those potions, who knows what else she knows about alchemy?
  5428. >"Zecora, you mean that zebra living within the Everfree?"
  5429. "Same one. Twilight?"
  5430. >"I know. I'll be back, once I've brought her!"
  5431. >She takes off towards the portal, but you call out to her, first.
  5432. "Twilight? You know I have a door that goes right to the forest, right?"
  5433. >After some sheepish apologies on her part, you show her, and Luna, your escape ladder out of here.
  5434. >Twilight wastes no time in flying up the passageway, leaving you and Luna alone in the lab.
  5435. >For your part, you get right back to work on your current projects.
  5436. >"So, what is it that you are doing, Anon?"
  5437. "Just fixing all my stuff that got damaged in the fight. Making some improvements, while I'm at it."
  5438. >"I see. Do you mind if I... observe you?"
  5439. "Not at all."
  5440. >Luckily for you, most of your stuff wasn't that badly damaged, getting out kind of singed, and with residual animarum 'coating' it.
  5441. >A coating that Riafalt turned out to be quite good at scorching right off.
  5442. >The real sticking point, however, was your brigandine, which was basically unrecognizable.
  5443. >Sure, it did it's job really well, but fucking hell, did it take a pounding.
  5444. >And, as it turned out, you bleeding all over it during the late stages of the fight ended up disabling the shielding.
  5445. >That's a problem that needs fixing, before you think about remaking the armour.
  5447. >Fortunately, you didn't have to go very far, to get some help on that front.
  5448. >Turned out that Luna had some insights on that front, having done a whole lot of fighting, herself.
  5449. >After explaining to her the principle behind your armour, you and her came up with a new idea:
  5450. "So, two layers of the plates?"
  5451. >"Yes, the outermost one being the same kind you had created previously!"
  5452. "But what about the inner one?"
  5453. >"I was thinking that they could be made of iron."
  5454. >Wait, what?
  5455. "Iron plates? But iron sucks as armour."
  5456. >"It is indeed a poor material for physical defence, but that role can be fulfilled by the outer plates of the visalloy!"
  5457. >Wait, wha--
  5458. >Oh, right, the thaumium!
  5459. >"When I battled Incognito, his accursed armour, while undoubtedly weak against direct blows, gave him complete immunity to me and my sister's magic. A trait you no doubt noticed during your own battle, no?"
  5460. >Ohh...!
  5461. "Oh, I get it! Even when the shielding spells are shot..."
  5462. >"You would still reap the benefits of the iron's magical immunity, yes! And since iron is not poisonous to you, just as it is not with him..."
  5463. "I can ignore, like, half of his spells!"
  5464. >Holy shit, why didn't you think of that, before?!
  5465. >You could cut out almost all of the magical shielding glyphs, if you did that!
  5466. >Or maybe move the magic shield to something else, like that fancy suit you wore!
  5467. >Or maybe...
  5468. >Would a dedicated buckler work for that?
  5469. >And wait, if you find a way to piece together that Incaross focus, and get the mana redirection working...!
  5470. >Okay, holy shit, you need to start writing this down!
  5472. >You finish writing out the ideas that just sprung to you, and start getting to work on initial designs for--
  5473. >"Anon!"
  5474. >Twilight's distant interruption from inside your escape hatch followed her coming to a rest at the bottom, turning to you and Luna with a frantic expression.
  5475. >"She's gone!"
  5476. >What?
  5477. "Gone?"
  5478. >"Yes, she's disappeared! I can't find her anywhere, and some of her things are missing!"
  5479. >Oh, you've got to be kidding.
  5480. >You pick up your Bluebaide-wand, throwing a TK focus onto the free end of it.
  5481. "Show me."
  5482. >She darts up the passage, and you climb the ladder after her, making it to the top before too long.
  5483. >As you emerge into the overgrown tree stump, a flash of blue magic gives away Luna teleporting next to you.
  5484. >The two of you follow Twilight's lead, as she rushes towards where Zecora's house is.
  5485. >And soon enough, there it is.
  5486. >The garden was overgrown, and the door was left open.
  5487. >Entering the house itself revealed that there were, in fact, some things missing.
  5488. >You're kind of fuzzy on her ingredient shelves, but there was definitely a big mask missing from the wall, along with her quarterstaff and saddlebags.
  5489. >"This place has not been inhabited for some time. Look."
  5490. >Luna's hoof drags over a tabletop, a trail left in the thin layer of dust you hadn't even noticed was there.
  5491. "Where the hell did she go?"
  5492. >"I suggest we find out, and soon. I do not believe this to be a coincidence."
  5493. "Yeah, me neither."
  5494. >The three of you get to work, poring over her things to find any clues.
  5495. >Unfortunately, you don't seem to be getting anywhere with the search.
  5497. >The search gets slower and more meticulous, while at the same time more frantic.
  5498. >God damn it, why now?
  5499. >Of all the times she picks up and leaves without warning, why'd it--
  5500. >"H-hey, I think I found something!"
  5501. >You and Luna immediately turn to Twilight, who was inspecting the fire pit her big cauldron was set over.
  5502. >She floats up in her magic what looks to be a small scrap of paper, most of it burnt up.
  5503. "Let me see that."
  5504. >She floats it in front of you, but unfortunately, it doesn't look too--
  5505. >Wait a second, you know this writing!
  5506. >It's that weird-ass zebra language!
  5507. "Is there any way to piece this letter back together?"
  5508. >"I don't think so..."
  5509. >"No, there is a spell for this. An ancient one, made to recover destroyed enemy intelligence! Let us hurry to my quarters! Twilight, take all of the ashes of this fire pit with you!"
  5510. >She does just that, floating them in a big bubble next to her, and you follow Luna back to your lab, eventually heading into her study.
  5511. >On the way, you grab your notes on translating zebra language.
  5512. >Luna rifles through her book collection, eventually pulling out a rather dusty and beaten-up tome, titled "Report: The Bloodtalons" in ancient Equestrian.
  5513. >The title alone gets your interest.
  5514. >Huh, you'll have to ask about it later, see if she'll lend it to you.
  5515. >"Ah, here it is! Twilight, I will need your aid for this!"
  5516. >She nods her agreement, and Luna lays out the book, letting Twilight study the spell in question.
  5517. >She doesn't seem to have any problems reading it, and the two get to work on that spell.
  5519. >They start with clearing out the 'middle' of the ash pile, drawing spirals of ashes out in funny patterns, and finally, putting the paper piece in the cleared area of the pile.
  5520. >Then their horns ignite, beams of magic fanning out and hitting the ends of the spirals, where the magic then snakes along the trails, finally hitting the pile itself.
  5521. >The ashes catch fire shortly after, except weirdly enough, they look like they're burning in reverse.
  5522. >Wait a minute.
  5523. >Is that how they're gonna do it?
  5524. >A few moment of the spell proceeding onwards shows that yes indeed, that's what they're doing!
  5525. >The ashes start to solidify and take shape, as the spell just flat-out reverses the burning, eventually producing charred logs of wood that slowly get un-charred as the spell progresses.
  5526. >More importantly, the letter starts to reform itself, particles of ash flying from the piles around it, and fusing to the paper, which itself is also burning in reverse, though much slower than the logs.
  5527. >And from the looks on both of their faces, it seems like this spell is taking one hell of a toll on them!
  5528. >Now you're wishing you had some way to help their spell do it's thing.
  5529. >Regardless, the paper reforms completely after a solid minute or two, and the two stop the spell, breathing heavily and looking quite exhausted.
  5530. >You, meanwhile, snag the paper with your TK, and bring it over to the table, next to your translation notes.
  5531. "You two all right?"
  5532. >"Ye-yeah, just... whew, that was tough...!"
  5533. >"Give us a moment, dear Anon..."
  5534. "Sure thing."
  5536. >After those two catch their breath, they move in beside you, getting a look at the paper they just reconstruct.
  5537. >It looked faded and crumpled, but it was still readable.
  5538. >Without wasting any time, you start translating it aloud:
  5539. "Exile Zecora, may this letter find you swiftly,
  5540. "For we face the greatest threat, in recent history.
  5541. "While we cast you out, to repent for your crimes,
  5542. "We summon you back, in these terrible times.
  5543. "For the Bloedige Plaag, our mortal foes,
  5544. "Have returned in force, from the shadows.
  5545. "They spread like a dread plague, slaying thousands of our own,
  5546. "But they do not commit these atrocities alone.
  5547. "Dread insects, shaped like ponies, help them to spread terror,
  5548. "And gryphons kill from afar, their aim without error.
  5549. "These two races are led, from what we are told,
  5550. "By a red, upright daemon, monstrous and cold.
  5551. "There is no end to the carnage they have sown,
  5552. "But the purpose of their deeds, is still unknown.
  5553. "Exile, heed my command, with what honour you retain,
  5554. "You shall return to our ranks, to aid in our campaign.
  5555. "I swear on my honour, should you heed my call,
  5556. "We will not press that which had caused you to fall.
  5557. "Our end comes swiftly, lend us your aid.
  5558. "Be it by cunning, potion, or blade.
  5559. "Signed, Heerser."
  5560. >None of you say anything for a few moments, after you'd finished reading.
  5561. >Holy hell.
  5562. >So he's been raising hell in Zebrica, like you thought he was!
  5563. >Well, this answers your question on why she left!
  5564. >Too bad it raises more questions than it does answers!
  5565. >Chief one being, where exactly did she go?
  5567. >Unfortunately, the others don't know what to make of it, either.
  5568. >But Twilight did suggest that you show it to Celestia, to see if she could make something of it.
  5569. >Luckily, it was starting to get dark out, just in time for the courts to change over from day to night.
  5570. >Your party catches Celestia as she starts to pack it in for the night.
  5571. >After explaining the situation with Zecora, you show her the letter.
  5572. >Judging from her eye movements, she already knows the language, and can read it just fine.
  5573. >But judging from her face...
  5574. >Well, it's not what you'd call a good sign.
  5575. >"Thank you for bringing this to me. This is worse than I thought..."
  5576. "So, you know where she's gone?"
  5577. >"Unfortunately, no. But I can tell you which tribe has summoned her.
  5578. >"Heerser is the name of the current leader of the Wyse Kunstenaars. One of the more prodigious tribes, and thankfully, one that is generally not hostile to ponykind.
  5579. >"But they are just as nomadic as all the others, unfortunately. And it seems they are suffering greatly."
  5580. "There's got to be some way to track them down!"
  5581. >"If the Kunstenaars are resorting to summoning their exiles for aid, they must be getting desperate. I will order my agents to locate them, as well as the Bloedige Plaag tribe.
  5582. >"Should they find anything, you will be among the first to know, I promise."
  5583. "Thanks, Celly."
  5584. >With a nod, and after helping Luna set things up for her turn holding court, she retires for the night.
  5585. >Twilight leaves as well, to see about tracing Zecora's trail.
  5586. >As for you, you head back to your room, to get some extra rest.
  5587. <...
  5589. @@@@@@@@
  5591. >Zamara continues to lead you through the depths of the ziggurat, passing by a ton more magical equipment than you remember being here last time.
  5592. >Somewhere in the distance, you could see more of those tubes, with inactive, sometimes incomplete Homunculi floating in them.
  5593. >You don't care how useful they are, they still give you the creeps...!
  5594. >"He is just in here, rugged one."
  5595. >Zamara stops you in front of a door, fixing you a small glare.
  5596. >"Keep your voice down, and do not dare disturb his rest."
  5597. "R-right..."
  5598. >Satisfied with your answer, she turns and opens the door, and you follow her in.
  5599. >Instantly, your senses are almost overpowered by a strange, sickly-feeling magic: not as strong as that dark magic, but more... nauseous.
  5600. >And then your eyes fall on the bed, in the middle of the room.
  5601. >There he was.
  5602. >Lying back, covered by an unkempt quilt, his arms and head exposed.
  5603. >Definitely asleep, like she said, but it still looked like he was in a lot of pain.
  5604. >You...
  5605. >You had an idea of what to expect, and what you got here was definitely above that.
  5606. >So, why...?
  5607. >Why do you feel so... numb?
  5608. >You should be sad for his condition, overjoyed at his recovery!
  5609. >Hay, anything!
  5610. >Instead, it's just... numbness.
  5611. >Like you don't really know how to react.
  5612. >Indeed, you're faintly aware of walking in with Zamara, to get a closer look at him.
  5613. >Even without her warning, you're not sure you could say something, even if you tried...
  5614. >With smooth, practiced motions, she takes a cloth nearby and wipes his forehead.
  5615. >And then he groaned.
  5617. >Zamara freezes at the sound, a twinge of fear shooting through her.
  5618. >All you do is take a single step back.
  5619. >Not being able to read his current state is really bothering you, but from the way his face was shifting, you're sure that he was stirring from his sleep.
  5620. >Immediately, Zamara puts the cloth away, instead pulling out some kind of mouth-held magic reader.
  5621. >She looks through it for a few moments, frustration and disbelief colouring her emotions.
  5622. >She sets it back down soon after finishes stirring, his groaning more pronounced as his eyes begin opening.
  5623. >"Do not move, Lord Matthias."
  5624. >She soaks a cloth in some kind of liquid, placing it over her hoof.
  5625. >Wait a minute, that smell...!
  5626. >You know what that is!
  5627. >"You are too injured, in too much pain, to be awake right now."
  5628. >She's going to knock him out with that stuff!
  5629. >"Now, take a deep bre--"
  5630. >THWACK
  5631. >Whoa!
  5632. >As she brought the cloth close to his face, his hands came up in a flash: one knocking aside the cloth, the other grabbing hold of her throat.
  5633. >There was no exhaustion in his eyes, as he pulled her in by the neck.
  5634. >Just pure anger.
  5635. >"First you lie about destiny's vanguard over me..."
  5636. >H-his tone...!
  5637. >Zamara struggles to breathe, fear eclipsing her emotions.
  5638. >"And now you presume to rob me of my time in the waking world, too?"
  5639. >Despite his condition, he still picks her up by the throat, hurling her over to the other side of the bed, where you were.
  5640. >She skids to a stop before your hooves, coughing and panting.
  5641. >And as he regards her with all that anger, his eyes then lock with yours.
  5643. >Numbness was replaced with your own fear, if only for a moment.
  5644. >Moments after his gaze met yours, his look softened, becoming similar to the look he wore during your training.
  5645. >As soon as that happens, your own fear is displaced, at last, by happiness.
  5646. >His eyes leave yours, returning to Zamara with that angry look.
  5647. >His anger infects your own gaze, as you look down at Zamara, too.
  5648. >She was keeping him unconscious, this whole time...?!
  5649. >"Were it not for your usefulness to my cause, Zamara, I would have snuffed out your life, in that moment."
  5650. >"M-my Lord--"
  5651. >"But make no mistake: if you dare presume to override my wishes like this again, you will be the first to fuel a newly forged Homunculus. Am I clear?"
  5652. >Somehow, despite all that just happened, there was confusion in her emotions and intent; like she didn't think she'd done anything wrong here!
  5653. >Still, she sputters out an affirmative.
  5654. >"Leave us."
  5655. >And leave she does, rushing out of the door.
  5656. >You can't help but notice how clumsy her movements are, when she's afraid.
  5657. >Like it's an unfamiliar sensation to her.
  5658. >Once the door closes, Incognito sighs, prompting you to look back at him.
  5659. >His expression had become very tired, but he still wore that look of a teacher, as he met your eyes with a pained smile.
  5660. >"At least one of us had a much smoother recovery."
  5661. "My Lord!"
  5662. >Unable to help yourself, you run to his side.
  5663. >"It is good to see you again, Athalia."
  5664. "My Lord, I'm so sorry!"
  5665. >"What? What could you possibly be sorry for?"
  5666. "I messed up! I failed you again! And worst of all, I--"
  5668. >Your teary reply is broken by his hand cupping your chin.
  5669. >"Child, if anyone here must apologize, it should be me."
  5670. "H-huh?"
  5671. >"I... did not completely trust your story, when you last returned from Canterlot."
  5672. >H-him, apologizing to you?
  5673. >"I had thought your story to be far-fetched. And after witnessing Anonymous myself, back during the initial assault, it was inconceivable to believe he could have accumulated that much might, that swiftly.
  5674. >"And with that arrogance, I sent you against a foe far more dangerous than I could have imagined. More dangerous than even the royal sisters, themselves."
  5675. >N-no way.
  5676. >He's...
  5677. >He's forgiving you.
  5678. >"My lack of trust in you led to both of us nearly losing our lives. And for that, I must apologize."
  5679. >You're speechless.
  5680. >A-after everything you did, after failing him so many times, he...
  5681. >He still forgives you.
  5682. >"I only hope that they did not harm you much, while you were their prisoner."
  5683. >As his hand draws back, you start to shake, fresh tears welling up.
  5684. >"Now, why don't--"
  5685. "Thank you."
  5686. >Your hooves clasp around his arm, pulling it close.
  5687. "Oh, thank you! Th-thank you so much!"
  5688. >His hand holds onto your fetlock.
  5689. "I won't fail you again! I swear!"
  5690. >"My child, look at me."
  5691. >You do look up, and the sight of his small smile makes you even happier.
  5692. >"I do not fault you for your defeats. Neither do I intend to give you such impossible missions again.
  5693. >"You can still serve me. Provided, of course, that I have not broken your trust in me."
  5694. >You shake your head.
  5695. "I never stopped trusting you, my Lord..."
  5696. >He smiles wider.
  5697. >"Good."
  5698. <...
  5700. >How long has it been, since you felt like this?
  5701. >The familiar buzz, the way everything seemed to flow and swim around you?
  5702. >Way too long, is the answer.
  5703. >You finish your brief contemplation, by knocking back the rest of your third glass of liquor this night.
  5704. >The cheers of the off-duty guards around you go perfectly with the booze hitting you.
  5705. >Meanwhile, across the table, the random gryphon that challenged you to that drinking contest only gets as far as pouring his much weaker shot over his beak, before his eyes roll back, and he collapses onto the table.
  5706. >Heh.
  5707. >Nobody out-drinks Anon.
  5708. >The cheers of the ponies cement your uncontested dominance in this field.
  5709. >Shit, you just realized.
  5710. >You out-drank most motherfuckers back on Earth, didn't you?
  5711. >Wonder if this makes you the uncontested drinking champion on all of Equus?
  5712. >Heheh, that would be pretty spiff, wouldn't it?
  5713. >While the gryphon's friend, some travelling ambassador or (((merchant))) guy, pulls his blacked-out friend off the table, you take that moment to excuse yourself, too.
  5714. >The allure of the booze might be even stronger now, but your days of blacking out are over.
  5715. >You're trying to make that one time in Ponyville your last, thank you very much.
  5716. >Besides, you've got your friends to check up on.
  5717. >"Epona's buckin' teats, Anon...!"
  5718. >Ah, Razor found you first.
  5719. >Heh, look at him, swaying around with that stupid looking grin.
  5720. >"Knew ya were made'a schtrong schtuff, but... haahahah, never seen that bird put under tha table before!"
  5721. >God, seeing him loaded like this was hilarious!
  5723. "Nobody out-drinks Anon!"
  5724. >Right on the cusp of slurring your words, after glass number three?
  5725. >Man, guess the liver's still got it!
  5726. >The cheers of the guardsponies follows your proclamation.
  5727. >"Haahah, no buckin' kiddin'!"
  5728. >Aww, is there a touch of a Scottish accent, coming out there?
  5729. >Pfffffft, that's great!
  5730. >Man, all this party's missing is AJ and Dash!
  5731. >Wait, why weren't they here, again...?
  5732. >Ohh, right!
  5733. >Separate party, later on!
  5734. >Hah, more drinks for you!
  5735. >Razor gets called off by another loaded pony, who he seems to recognize.
  5736. >Should you...?
  5737. >Nah, let him have his fun.
  5738. >Now, where's mister Exact hanging out at?
  5739. >A little bit of stumbling around later, and soon enough, you find him.
  5740. >Sitting at the bar, ears flattened, with two empty bottles of pony beer besides him.
  5741. >Uh-oh.
  5742. >Flat ears is no good.
  5743. "Hey, buddy!"
  5744. >You half-shamble over to him, your call-out getting him to look in your direction.
  5745. >Oh, no, his eyes are red, and he looks sad.
  5746. >Still, he doesn't move to stop you sitting next to him.
  5747. "Wha's wrong, man?"
  5748. >"Mister-- Anon..."
  5749. >A sniffle punctuates his kinda slurred delivery.
  5750. >Oh, no, he's not one of those--?
  5751. >"I miss him."
  5752. >He's totally a sad drunk.
  5753. >Well, you know what to do.
  5754. "Aw, it's okay, man..."
  5755. >Far from resisting your sudden hug, he wraps his arms around you in response.
  5756. >"I miss him, my frie-- Anon...!"
  5757. "S'all good, lil' guy..."
  5758. >"He was s-such a pain to deal with, but he'sh st-still my b-brother...!"
  5759. "Shh..."
  5760. >Brother, huh?
  5761. >Poor guy.
  5762. >His quiet crying into your chest eases up a little with some ear scratching.
  5764. >"I j-just want him back..."
  5765. "S'all right, man... s'all right..."
  5766. >His sniffles stop after a minute or two, his hold around you easing up.
  5767. >Looking down, you see he's fallen asleep.
  5768. >Aw, man...
  5769. >You just wanted him to loosen up a little, not break down!
  5770. >Now you just feel like a total dick.
  5771. >"I'll take him from here."
  5772. >The bad familiar voice you hear matches the bad familiar face of a certain guard pony.
  5773. >It's that 'Light' guard!
  5774. >Exact gets floated over to her, and she carries him across his back with little trouble.
  5775. >God, you forgot about this bitch, and how she--
  5776. >"Uh, mister Anonymous?"
  5777. >Huh?
  5778. >What's she looking all guilty, for?
  5779. >"L-listen, I... I just wanted to apologize, for everything I did."
  5780. "Wh-- huh?"
  5781. >"I didn't think you were, well, serious about keeping Equestria safe, not after all that forbidden magic you had.
  5782. >"But... you saved most of my team, my friends, from Incognito's attack. You kept the princesses safe.
  5783. >"So, well... I'm sorry. Sorry for all the horrible stuff I said and did to you."
  5784. >Uhh...
  5785. >While you collect your jaw from the floor, she flips to tsundere mode, looking away and turning her snout up.
  5786. >"B-but you put them at risk again, and I'll make sure you regret it!"
  5787. >What's she even--?
  5788. >Oh wait, there she goes, leaving with Exact.
  5789. >Now you're just confused again, and not just because of her delivery.
  5790. >"Hey, Anon!"
  5791. >Razor's voice from afar draws your gaze, and there he is, at a table with some other bat-horses.
  5792. >"Colts'ere wanna see ya down another glass!"
  5793. >Well...
  5794. >Ah, fuck it, why not?
  5795. >Just one more glass.
  5796. <...
  5798. >"So tell me somethin', Sunburst."
  5799. "Wh-what is it?"
  5800. >Crescent regards you with one of her sideways smirks.
  5801. >"Did ya know that Ahnon was such a buckin' boozehound?"
  5802. >Oh, that...
  5803. >Gosh, you can't believe he almost blacked out again!
  5804. >The other princesses already gave him an earful for that, on top of his hangover, but still!
  5805. "Yeah, I knew. He does some very... questionable things, when he's drunk."
  5806. >"Psh, everypony does crazy shite when they're drunk, lad!"
  5807. "Does that include leading a conga line of drunk ponies into Luna's court for that night, singing... really obscene songs?"
  5808. >And here you thought he couldn't top riding Twilight while singing!
  5809. >"Pretty up there, but Ah've seen worse. Buck, Ah've done worse!"
  5810. "D-do I want to know...?"
  5811. >"Yew tell me, lad!"
  5812. >Y-you could do without knowing...
  5813. >Crescent laughs at your grimace.
  5814. >"Oh, 'least the lad's humour's still there! Cripes, Ah don't wanna think about 'im bein' a sad drunk! Or an angry one!"
  5815. >A drunken, angry Anon...
  5816. >J-just thinking about that terrifies you...!
  5817. >"Ah, what're yew cringin' about there? Ye've never gotten drunk before!"
  5818. "A-and I don't intend to..."
  5819. >"Ya know, ya might enjoy it."
  5820. "No, thanks."
  5821. >"Psh, killjoy."
  5822. >Better to be a killjoy, than a big lout!
  5823. >N-no offense, Anon...
  5824. >Shaking your head to clear all those thoughts, you return to the task at hoof.
  5825. >Crescent had her share of objections to you forming these metals with your magic, citing it as 'taking the easy way out'.
  5826. >But you just didn't have time to learn how to do it all by hoof, so she relented fairly quickly.
  5828. >"So, remind me again why tha engine needs all this eyeron 'round it?"
  5829. "I don't want a random magic bolt messing up the internals."
  5830. >"An a crossbow bolt wouldn't?"
  5831. "Well, it's not the only reason..."
  5832. >"That right?"
  5833. "I just don't want there to be complications, in case Anon decides to connect some kind of generator to it."
  5834. >"Wait, generator? Complications?"
  5835. "It, uh... involves those magnets."
  5836. >"Wait, what?!"
  5837. "N-nothing to worry about, at least not yet! We're not doing anything that can kill us!"
  5838. >"Mate, anythin' involvin' them freaky 'mahgnets' don't sit right with me!"
  5839. "I know, and that's what the iron cover is for!"
  5840. >W-well, you hope it can absorb any errant electromotive force, anyways...
  5841. >"Alright, alright, I see yer point."
  5842. >Crescent finishes hammering the last of the perforated cover pieces into shape, which is your cue to insert the last few rivets into the respective holes.
  5843. >The magic around them fizzles out upon touching the iron, forcing you to keep them pressed down with your thickly-covered hooves, while she climbs down and under to flatten them in place.
  5844. >W-working around iron like this makes you really, really nervous, but Crescent assured you that these thick, burlap hoof covers were good enough to protect you.
  5845. >It's not that you don't trust her, it's just that... it's iron!
  5846. >"All good, lad!"
  5847. >Oh, thank goodness, she's done!
  5848. >As you let go of the rivets, she comes back up, giving the covering a rough shake to test it's integrity, as well as opening the little door on the side.
  5849. >She seems satisfied with the results.
  5851. >"Alright, tha's the hard part done."
  5852. "I really hope Anon likes this, when it's all done..."
  5853. >"Ach, ya kiddin' me, lad? He's gonna love it!"
  5854. "I hope so..."
  5855. >Keeping it a surprise was her idea, after all...
  5856. >"Now, ya find a way to get this thing runnin' over sand, yet?"
  5857. "N-no, nothing yet..."
  5858. >Your wheel designs for sand all kept on sinking!
  5859. >There just wasn't enough surface area!
  5860. >"Tch, a damn shame. Let's hope Ahnon won't hafta drive this thing inta Zebrica's dehserts, at least!"
  5861. "Y-you know, Anon might know a good design for that..."
  5862. >"Plan on askin' 'im with that killer hangover, lad?"
  5863. "W-well, no..."
  5864. >"Thought so. Now, hoof me those durium bits, already!"
  5865. >And with that, you start putting together the rest of the car's chassis.
  5866. >Her idea to use durium for the frame was great, given how sturdy the stuff is, though you had to put together an infuser to make this much...
  5867. >Goodness, at least that Thaumaturgy knowledge paid off here!
  5868. >Their design of infuser was way faster, not to mention more efficient, than the regular pony version!
  5869. >Piece by piece, you and Crescent keep going, welding the durium pieces together into a single piece.
  5870. >By the late afternoon, the frame was finished, and you two started work on replacing your suspension with durium, too.
  5871. >That took way longer, and you'd finally finished the task by around eight-thirty at night!
  5872. >"Reckon that oughta keep this bucket rollin' a good while!"
  5873. "It better..."
  5874. >"Yeah, no kiddin'!"
  5875. >Exhausted, the two of you break for the night, Crescent returning back home.
  5876. >Goodness, your horn aches...
  5877. <...
  5879. @@@@@@@@
  5881. >Alright, that was dumb.
  5882. >Really fucking dumb.
  5883. >Kinda sorta worth it, but still totally dumb.
  5884. >Story of your life, you know.
  5885. >Man, kinda reminds you of the first time you got wasted here.
  5886. >Great memories, terrible hangover.
  5887. >Except this time, you're a bit more pissed over losing a day of work.
  5888. >The earful from Twilight and Luna didn't help things, even if you did kinda deserve it.
  5889. >So here you are, the day after that debacle, drawing up your new-and-improved armour plans.
  5890. >It's gonna weigh a fair bit more, but if the magic resist is going to be that good, it'll be worth it.
  5891. >Really, the bulk of the work was redoing all of your glyphwork for the thaumium plates.
  5892. >That meant gratuitous amounts of physical shielding, with some extra power-input glyphs for what you're hoping is Halo levels of shield regeneration.
  5893. >A good hour of that later, and your preliminary design was penned out.
  5894. >You'll review it later.
  5895. >For now, your desk is cleared, and your attention returns to Incaross.
  5896. >Now, you had a little theory with that one: if you're using animarum to piece together Incaross, and it's not working as well as you'd hoped, why not refer to something that is using animarum as well as you'd hoped?
  5897. >With that, you had the design for Riafalt close by, giving the animarum parts of it a good look.
  5898. >Hmm...
  5899. >Now that you're looking at it, what's with those extra marks around those particular glyphs?
  5900. >Are you missing something?
  5901. >You bring up your actual Riafalt focus, and give those particular glyphs a good look.
  5902. >Oh man, look at that!
  5904. >The extra marks actually follow along the design of the focus itself, curling around the sphere to create these patterns that totally weren't visible in the 'schematic' beforehand.
  5905. >And now that you're properly studying it, it's...
  5906. >Holy fuck, that's a feedback system!
  5907. >That's how it was regulating the animarum?!
  5908. >The design never said anything about how it controlled that shit, kept it from overtaking the mana control!
  5909. >Okay, holy shit, you need to note this down.
  5910. >As you do, a realization dawns on you, of the much less happy variety.
  5911. >You need to design Incaross around a particular physical shape, don't you?
  5912. >Looking back at the incomplete design, you can't help but notice that unlike Riafalt, there wasn't any 'framework' glyphs or material ratios for the infuser, that tells it to form a specific design.
  5913. >Why the infuser needed such roundabout cues to work an end product into a specific shape is beyond you.
  5914. >All right.
  5915. >So this is gonna need some fucking mental CAD work to work properly, huh?
  5916. >Motherfucker.
  5917. >Guess this is what you get, for working with sketchy magic in a 'clean' way.
  5918. >Sure, you could just pull out a dark magic book, and go the evil route, but that's not you.
  5919. >That thought gets you to glance over at your lock-up.
  5920. >The place you're keeping that Crimson Incantations book.
  5921. >Hm...
  5922. >Even if the magic in that can't fuck you up, it can fuck your friends up.
  5923. >You'll peruse it later.
  5924. >Maybe.
  5925. >Translating the zebra-language alone is a bitch and a half for extended reading.
  5926. >Given the choice, you'd prefer an Ancient Equestrian book.
  5928. >Alright Anon, enough with your reading list, let's get back to work, shall we?
  5929. >With that, you start pondering Incaross again, trying to visualize how exactly you're going to line up the animarum glyphs like that.
  5930. >It wasn't going very well.
  5931. >God damn it, you wish you could do this in 3D, like how Sunburst explained your magic to Luna and Twilight!
  5932. >You stop for a moment, pondering that thought.
  5933. >Would it actually be worth it, trying to make a fucking magic VR AutoCAD setup for this?
  5934. >Where would you even begin with that?
  5935. >Hm.
  5936. >Maybe you don't need to make one yourself.
  5937. >Maybe you can have someone else make something to do that!
  5938. >Someone from your large list of magic-slinging friends!
  5939. >Okay, why not?
  5940. >You needed to get up and move, anyways!
  5941. >Up you come from your desk, opening the slipgate and stepping back into your castle room.
  5942. >There's the horse you need.
  5943. "Exact, buddy, you got a minute?"
  5944. >He looks towards you with a little bit of a head-tilt.
  5945. >"I assume that you need my assistance with something?"
  5946. "Yep."
  5947. >"Will this affect my ability to protect you?"
  5948. "Sure hope not."
  5949. >"Then what is it?"
  5950. "How good are you with making constructs?"
  5951. >His head tilts the other way, some confusion on his face.
  5952. >"Constructs? As in, magical constructs?"
  5953. "There's other kinds of constructs?"
  5954. >"Yes."
  5955. "Well, I meant the magic kind."
  5956. >"My skills around constructs revolve around reverse-engineering and safely dismantling them, not creating them."
  5957. >Shit.
  5958. >"Do you need a construct made?"
  5959. "Yeah, something to help my work go along smoother."
  5961. >"What do you mean by that, Anon?"
  5962. "Visualization. You know, modelling objects? Whatever the technical term is."
  5963. >"If that is a requirement, I presume you are working with shape-sensitive glyphwork?"
  5964. "Try shape-dependent glyphwork."
  5965. >A small 'hmm' leaves him, as he ponders that.
  5966. >"Visual aids like that are simple enough in spell form, but much more difficult in construct form. You would need a fairly advanced magic user to create a construct like that."
  5967. "Well, good thing I know all kinds of advanced magic users, eh?"
  5968. >"Are you able to do your work without that visual aid?"
  5969. "Only if I want to spend five or six hours figuring it out in my head each time."
  5970. >"I see."
  5971. >Time to start going down your mental list.
  5972. >You head back through the gate, Exact following you through this time around.
  5973. >With him in tow, you grab your wand and manalens glasses, take along a TK and Excavator focus, and head down the passageway, connecting to your old house.
  5974. >Old house...
  5975. >Man, how long has it been since you've been here?
  5976. >Actually, did you ever come back, after Athalia's first attack with those rune monsters?
  5977. >The marks in the walls, and the half-buried remains of your first golem answer that question.
  5978. >No way you'd leave this kind of mess in a hallway.
  5979. >Hmm...
  5980. >You've barely touched golems, past this one test.
  5981. >Maybe that's worth revisiting, as well?
  5982. >Of course, finding something to use them for is the bigger question.
  5983. >You'll think about it later.
  5984. >You soon make it to the cellar door.
  5985. >Or what's left of it, anyways.
  5986. >It's kind of a pile of splinters and gems, now.
  5988. >The darkness of this place was solved fairly quickly with Exact's lighting spell, revealing just how disused everything here was.
  5989. >Dank, stale air, with plenty of dust coating what used to be brewing equipment.
  5990. >Man, it all seems so long ago, now...
  5991. >Though one notable absence does make itself known.
  5992. "You guys cleared out that red powder shit?"
  5993. >"Standard operating practice is not to leave any unused TPA on-site."
  5994. "'TPA'?"
  5995. >"'Thermal Purification Agent'. Specially made to destroy all trace of magical artifacts."
  5996. "Right..."
  5997. >"I am curious, however: what was the purpose of all these barrels, racks, and other objects?"
  5998. "Oh, that? Alcohol."
  5999. >"You attempted to create unsanctioned alcohol?"
  6000. "Not attempted, did."
  6001. >"What prompted you to stop?"
  6002. "Making more than moonshine kinda took a back seat to helping save the world."
  6003. >"'Moonshine'?"
  6004. "Spirits that aren't aged a bit. Shit's so strong, you can set fire to it."
  6005. >"I do not understand why you would drink something like that."
  6006. "Folks do crazy shit for their booze, friend."
  6007. >"I see."
  6008. >With that chat over, you turn to your trapdoor.
  6009. >Again, what's left of it.
  6010. >Thankfully, the ladder was still kind of okay, just fallen over, so after righting that, you climb back up into your old office.
  6011. >You know, hole where the door was, and thick dust layer aside, this didn't look half bad.
  6012. >The memories just keep flooding back, as you step into your main hall.
  6013. >Everything just where you left it.
  6014. >The front door's totalled, of course, but that's expected.
  6015. >Besides, it's not the first time the door's been totalled like that.
  6017. >Water damage from the rain is visible around the door's opening, as you step out into the open sky.
  6018. >Good old Ponyville, a five minute walk from here.
  6019. >The rest of your prime Everfree real-estate was still untouched.
  6020. >Even the auspex wards.
  6021. >Auspex wards!
  6022. >Shit, wards in general!
  6023. >You can't believe you forgot about those!
  6024. >Quickly, you pull one out of the ground, looking it over.
  6025. >Looks rough, but the glyphs are still going.
  6026. >"Are you holding something, Anon?"
  6027. >Oh, right, they're usually invisible.
  6028. "Just an old ward of mine."
  6029. >"You used wards on your property before?"
  6030. "Just some auspex wards."
  6031. >"I see."
  6032. >Staking it back into the ground, you start walking towards Ponyville.
  6033. >Man, some auspexes would be great to have again!
  6034. >But how would you even get them to work from that far away?
  6035. >Man, easy to forget that Canterlot's a two-hour train ride from here.
  6036. >Could be useful in your castle room.
  6037. >Maybe.
  6038. >You'll see.
  6039. >Your walk takes you into town, where everyone's just going about their business, like always.
  6040. >Man, it's like nothing even happened here!
  6041. >Hard to believe it's mostly the same, after everything that's happened.
  6042. >Granted, weird shit kind of happens every other day here, but still!
  6043. >You get some waves and greetings as you go along your way, with no shortage of 'haven't seen you in months' comments.
  6044. >Man, they all still remember you...
  6045. >That's more touching than you expected.
  6046. >Regardless, you eventually clear the town, heading to a certain castle.
  6047. >Crazy, how you haven't been here in so long!
  6048. >Not even through Twilight's slipgate!
  6050. >As you approach the doors and knock, you quickly turn back to check on Exact.
  6051. >Still hanging behind, being your shadow.
  6052. >Dude really keeps things on the down-low, even more than Razor does!
  6053. >The door opening gets you to look back, and naturally, Spike's there to greet you.
  6054. >"A-Anon?"
  6055. "What's happenin', little guy?"
  6056. >"Dude, I haven't seen you in forever!"
  6057. "Haven't been here in forever."
  6058. >"S-so, uh... what brings you here? Another language book?"
  6059. "Just gotta ask the local librarian for something, actually."
  6060. >"Oh, Twilight? She and the other girls are all in the map room right now."
  6061. >They're all in the same place?
  6062. >Man, is this retreading old times, or what?
  6063. "You figure they'll mind the interruption?"
  6064. >"For you? Not at all. Come on in."
  6065. >You and Exact enter shortly after, and after assuring Spike that he was cool, you head to the throne room.
  6066. >You do slow your pace a little, upon hearing some lively chatter behind the doors.
  6067. >As muffled as it is, it sounds like they're having a good time there.
  6068. >Maybe you should delay that interruption--
  6069. >chu-chink
  6070. >Or the doors could fly open, courtesy of Pinkie.
  6071. >That works too.
  6072. >The Pink One™, in her usual Pink One™ fashion, does her protracted gasp of surprise and joy upon seeing you.
  6073. >"Anon?!"
  6074. "In the flesh."
  6075. >Her exclaiming your name drew the attention of all the other girls.
  6076. >Dash and AJ joined Pinkie in being psyched beyond belief, while Flutters and Rarity were more reserved with their joy.
  6077. >Couldn't really catch Twi's look, on account of a pink object eclipsing her face.
  6078. >"OhmygoshAnonwherehaveyoubeen?!"
  6079. <...
  6081. >"Catch you later at that party, Anon!"
  6082. >"Don'tcha be gettin' drunk without us, ya hear?"
  6083. "I'll try to remember this time!"
  6084. >Dash and AJ laugh at that, as they make their exit with Rarity and Fluttershy.
  6085. >Whew, you didn't really plan on recapping all the shit you'd gotten up to.
  6086. >But you'd say your friends deserved a little update, especially after your months of absence.
  6087. >Twilight had told them bits and pieces, of course, but your sudden appearance really fleshed their knowledge out.
  6088. >Needless to say, they wanted in on that second private 'Anon-beating-the-snot-out-of-that-meanie-pants-human' party, as Pinkie so verbosely put it.
  6089. >"Miss Pie, my name is highly classified. You will tell me immediately where you procured it."
  6090. >Speaking of Pinkie...
  6091. >"Heeheehee, birth registries aren't classified, silly!"
  6092. >"They were redacted after--"
  6093. >"Ooh, is that what that one new edition missing a few names was all about? Heehee, good thing I keep all my copies!"
  6094. >Exact was looking about as flustered with Pinkie, as Razor was when he met Exact.
  6095. >Well, as flustered as Exact can get, anyways.
  6096. >"Just how did you derive my name from a birth registry in the first place? It is statistically improbable for you to have simply guessed it."
  6097. >"No guesses here, Exact-a-mundo!"
  6098. >"Please answer the question."
  6099. >"Oh, I knew who you were right away. You and your brother have the same eyes! And muzzle!"
  6100. >That's the first time you've seen him properly taken aback.
  6101. >"Heehee, such a weird pony! Although, I haven't seen him around, lately."
  6102. >Oh right, you forgot the guy had a brother!
  6104. >Exact's face hardens right up, and another of his silencing bubbles drops around the pair, this time with him levitating Pinkie with him, as he leaves.
  6105. >You'd be more concerned, if Pinkie didn't look like she was having a blast.
  6106. >That girl always comes out fine, somehow.
  6107. >Wouldn't shock you to see them bonding by the end of it.
  6108. >"Anon?"
  6109. >Ah right, Twilight!
  6110. "Yeah?"
  6111. >"Thanks for coming over."
  6112. "Don't mention it."
  6113. >"No, really. The girls were getting really worried about you, and, well, I wasn't sure what you'd be fine with me telling them..."
  6114. "To be fair, wouldn't have killed me to visit more often."
  6115. >Oh, roll your eyes at me, will you?
  6116. >"Anyways, you said that you needed something?"
  6117. "Yeah. Need something to help me design shaped glyphwork."
  6118. >You know, Twilight has all kinds of tells.
  6119. >You're pretty sure these tells are a mixture of 'really difficult task', 'extreme interest', and 'challenge accepted'.
  6120. >"Shaped glyphwork?! Anon, I didn't think you were doing things like that!"
  6121. "What can I say? Stuff gets more and more complex."
  6122. >"S-so, uh... what did you have in mind?"
  6123. >Heh, seeing her needing to rein herself in was more adorable than you remember.
  6124. >Still, you explain your requirements to her: a construct you can manipulate, to project and free-form 3D objects, and superimpose some glyphwork patterns over.
  6125. >She was very forthcoming on the part where it was gonna be a real challenge to make, and that you'd need to wait at least a few days, if not a week.
  6126. >Not ideal, since you really wanted to finish Incaross, but hey, you've got other projects.
  6128. >Either way, she was super excited to put something like this together.
  6129. >Heh, look at her, hopping a little in place, brainstorming out loud.
  6130. >so fucking qt
  6131. >But sadly, the abundance of projects on your plate forced you to draw this to a close.
  6132. >A hug, and an excited double cheek-nuzzle later, and she skips off, super psyched to hammer that thing of yours out.
  6133. >qt3.14
  6134. >Anyways, out the door you go--
  6135. >Wait, Exact!
  6136. >Your question of his location was answered the second the doors shut behind you, with him and Pinkie sitting underneath a tree.
  6137. >Well, time to collect.
  6138. >"And... you're certain?"
  6139. >"Certain as cupcakes, Exact-o-mundo! You'll find him soon enough, trust me!"
  6140. >"I... thank you, miss Pie."
  6141. >"Just call me Pinkie, mister formal!"
  6142. "Yo, buddy!"
  6143. >Both sets of heads turn to you, with Exact getting up right away to follow you.
  6144. >"Heeheehee, don't be strangers, you two!"
  6145. "I'm tryin' my best here!"
  6146. >"No, you're not!"
  6147. "Hey, who's side are you on?"
  6148. >A few good-faith chuckles, and soon enough, you were on your way, back to your house.
  6149. >It occurs to you to that your lab entrance was wide fucking open, this whole time.
  6150. >Chalk one up for idiocy, Anon.
  6151. >Putting in another hidden door was now priority number one, once you got back to the lab.
  6152. >Luckily, the lack of footprints leaving the lab gave away nobody using it.
  6153. >Still, you'd prefer to take no chances.
  6154. >God knows Twilight would hate it if you lost her flashy ThaumaCAD setup.
  6155. >And yes, that's totally what you're calling it.
  6156. >Magic weapons and armour go just fine with cheese, thank you very much.
  6158. >All right, now that you're back in the lab, time to start making the--
  6159. >"Anon, I have a suggestion."
  6160. "What is it?"
  6161. >"Is the item you are trying to create a high priority?"
  6162. "Well, it'd sure help me out to have it made, why?"
  6163. >"Could you elaborate?"
  6164. "Sure. Celestia gave me a design for an unfinished focus, that's supposed to block and absorb magic. Everything works except the absorbing part, which needs the shaped glyphs."
  6165. >"Thaumaturgical constructs require pure, untainted mana to function correctly. From experience, the only thing that can remove magical taint, is a specially made tainted construct."
  6166. "Unless I want to make some unreasonably huge filter system."
  6167. >"I realize that you are immune to magical corruption, but I must nevertheless caution you against using such glyphwork."
  6168. >Shoulda known he'd object a bit.
  6169. "You're good at reverse-engineering constructs, right?"
  6170. >You grab your Riafalt focus, handing it off to him.
  6171. "Take a look at this, tell me what you see."
  6172. >He's skeptical, but nevertheless studies it for around a minute, becoming more interested as he goes along.
  6173. >"I have not encountered a feedback system like this, before. It seems capable of filtering 98.1% of all emitted irregular complex mana auras."
  6174. "Right. And that's what I'm trying to bring over to this new thing."
  6175. >"Very well."
  6176. >His horn ignites, and...
  6177. >He just summoned up a 3D image of Riafalt's design, glyphwork hovering over the 'surface'.
  6178. >"Creating shaped glyphwork is a very advanced operation, and is responsible for an estimated 77.9% of all failures of advanced magic classes.
  6180. >"The majority of this difficulty arises from being unable to properly visualize the shaped spell without a guide such as this, which is forbidden from most test environments.
  6181. >"Therefore, until the construct that you are likely to have requested is created, and given the scope of this project you have taken on, I would suggest that you continue your work, using my spell as a substitute for the aforementioned construct."
  6182. >Uh.
  6183. >Well.
  6184. >That... works.
  6185. >Actually, that works a lot!
  6186. "Uh... well shit, thanks!"
  6187. >Although...
  6188. "But how come you didn't suggest this before?"
  6189. >"You place a high value on independent work, and I was not aware of the nature of your project. At the time, commissioning the creation of a construct to fulfill this role had a higher net benefit to your productivity."
  6190. >You make to object, but...
  6191. >Uh...
  6192. "I'm... not even gonna argue."
  6193. >Well, this just got a lot easier!
  6194. >With Exact working as a stand-in for the ThaumaCAD, you pull your Incaross notes back up.
  6195. >He turned out to be just the ticket for helping your development along, processing all your requests for shapes and glyph overlays like a damn machine.
  6196. >Making the actual glyphwork was still a slow process, but at least now it wasn't totally glacial!
  6197. >By the time the clock ticks over to eight at night, you have some preliminary glyphwork designs down, along with what's looking like the final shape of the focus: a wide, outward-facing hemisphere, like a satellite dish without the feedhorn.
  6198. >That's also where you call it quits for today, heading to bed soon after.
  6199. >Wait.
  6200. >Aw, shit!
  6201. >The lab door!
  6202. <...
  6204. @@@@@@@@
  6206. >Okay, now if you wound this all up right, you should--
  6207. >Hahahah, yes!
  6208. >Your ghetto hand-crank portable generator works!
  6209. >Alright, now to disconnect it from the light, and hook it up to the electromagnet...
  6210. >Get the door to this room open, make sure the measurement gems are in place...
  6211. >All right, let's give it a crank, see what this baby's got!
  6212. >You start slowly, only one spin every second, eyes glued to your measurement system.
  6213. >Just a bunch of luxcryst stuck in the ground, arranged a foot apart from each other.
  6214. >No gems in between, because exact measurements are for nerds.
  6215. >The current spin creates a field that barely reaches the one foot mark.
  6216. >Up to two spins a second.
  6217. >Now the second foot's worth of gems went dark.
  6218. >Three spins a second nets you a whole yard's worth of distance.
  6219. >Testing the spin rates reveals your field strength scales up pretty much the same way: an extra rotation every second gets you an extra foot of magnetic denial.
  6220. >But you knew that wasn't the whole story when it came to your magnet tests.
  6221. >You take a quick trip over to your lab, grabbing your sacrificial thaumium sample, and bring it back over.
  6222. >Putting it a foot in front of you, you start turning again.
  6223. >The thaumium always looked pretty cool when you did this: the magic flaking off in cool little contrail patterns, like it was a meteor entering the atmosphere.
  6224. >You figured out a slightly more scientific system of measuring magnet intensity, using those patterns.
  6225. >The contrails get longer and faster, and thus the magic strips out faster, as the field gets stronger.
  6227. >Again, you repeat your tests.
  6228. >One crank per second wasn't too strong, three per second was stripping it out at a healthy rate, and five was really going at it, but was tough to sustain for long.
  6229. >The one crank per second was stronger than the old vinegar cells, for sure, but that's not saying much.
  6230. >All it could do was give a monstrous headache, if Sunburst's first reaction was anything to go by, and was too slow at shoving out magic to be effective in a pinch.
  6231. >A good five cranks per second matched your multiple vinegar cell setup, which was good enough to totally wreck those fucking rune monsters.
  6232. >And almost kill Razor.
  6233. >Fucking hell.
  6234. >Every time you think of working with the magnets some more, the same problems always rear their heads.
  6235. >Not only can this shit seriously hurt your friends, not just your enemies, but it also would completely disable your own equipment, even disenchant it if you sustained the field too long.
  6236. >That might be fine if it was used on that fucking Athalia, but against Nito?
  6237. >Without your boots to speed you up, much less your armour-piercing arrows, the fucker would tear you a six-pack of new ones, even without his fucking combat drugs!
  6238. >Huh.
  6239. >Actually...
  6240. >How does magnetism affect alchemy?
  6241. >You can't imagine it'd still work through the magnetism, even if it does somehow get around the iron in your body.
  6242. >You'll have to check with the doc, see if he's got something lighter-duty for that.
  6243. >Later.
  6244. >Anyways, magnets.
  6245. >You figured out how to recharge your crude lead-acid batteries, but making them portable wasn't nearly as successful.
  6247. >Granted, that was mostly due to not wanting to deal with the acid fumes again, but still.
  6248. >Not having plastic to work with was complicating the containment situation.
  6249. >Top that off with them being heavy as sin, and that made carrying them a lost cause.
  6250. >Which is a damn shame, seeing how your tests got it to nuke all magic in a six or seven yard radius, stripping out a thaumium chunk's magic in just under five seconds.
  6251. >A goddamn magic mini-nuke.
  6252. >Too bad it melted your coil after around seven seconds.
  6253. >Man, can those things dump power...
  6254. >No wonder they use 'em in cars!
  6255. >The coil wasn't too tough to rewind, but you could certainly benefit from a better iron sample, than this rusting chunk.
  6256. >Maybe Crescent can help you there?
  6257. >Yeah, maybe a nice iron rod?
  6258. >Would definitely make the crank-magnet more portable.
  6259. >Oh yeah, you're already thinking of the design for that.
  6260. >You guess it's worth taking along in your loadout, as an absolute last resort.
  6261. >Lord knows it would've been useful, way back in Ponyville!
  6262. >Actually, yeah, now that you're thinking about it, it's sounding more and more appealing.
  6263. >Man, guess you were too focused on how this would fuck Nito, instead of his damn flunkies!
  6264. >Alright, no, hang on a second there, Anon.
  6265. >You still need to overcome some major design problems with this porta-generator.
  6266. >Just like your proper lab generator, this one used some weak magnets, chipped off from your iron chunk and magnetized, to kick off the electricity generation.
  6267. >Carrying around permanent magnets, no matter how weak, was going to be a non-starter.
  6269. >Hmm...
  6270. >Maybe you can get away with electromagnets for the generator?
  6271. >Actually...
  6272. >That might just work!
  6273. >Not just as a portable way to generate, but if you worked a switch in, it could even act like a safety!
  6274. >Of course, you'd have to do some more experimenting to find out, but you're sure that you could get away with using vinegar cells.
  6275. >But air coils suck compared to coils wound around iron, sadly, so that was already going to be a bigger iron requirement.
  6276. >Actually, how easy was it to get nickel?
  6277. >The ponies seem really fixated on just iron, if those containment rooms they built were any indication, but nickel should work just as well for magnetic uses, right?
  6278. >You're not too sure on that count.
  6279. >Well, guess that's more things to experiment on, huh?
  6280. >Geez, hope the material requests aren't too much for Crescent to handle.
  6281. >Eh, she'll be fine.
  6282. >You hope.
  6283. >Anyways, time for some notes on all of this.
  6284. >A few minutes of scrawling down your results and brainstorming, and packing away your magnetic stuff, and you left the lab, notes in hand.
  6285. >More copper wire was on the materials list you drew up, and you'd definitely need some varying thicknesses.
  6286. >Nothing a consultation couldn't fix.
  6287. >Unfortunately, Exact wasn't around right now to help you further develop the Incaross focus, so that kind of sucks.
  6288. >After putting your mag notes away in the lock-up, you get back to the other pressing magic projects.
  6289. >You manage to remake your whole focus collection with spiffy new formacryst bases, and polish off the plans for your new composite brigandine.
  6290. <...
  6292. >"Cripes, everypony's been gettin' on my case, beggin' me for eyeron!"
  6293. "What, no love for humans?"
  6294. >"Shut yer hole."
  6295. "Later. So, you're sure you can't source it that quick?"
  6296. >"Not a chance in Tartarus, lad. Ah've had some... orders that called fer a whole lotta the stuff, an' it'll take me another week to get some more!"
  6297. "Shit. Well, in that case, how easy is it for you to get nickel?"
  6298. >Not a metal she was expecting to hear, if her head-tilt was anything to go by.
  6299. >"Eh? Nickel? Tha buck do ya need nickel fer, lad?"
  6300. "My iron needs for the rods and small pieces is less about the iron part, and more about the ferrous part."
  6301. >"Well, Ah... Ah don't rightly know, lad. Ah mean, Ah know the stuff's restricted, same as eyeron, but it just ain't as popular as the eyeron is, so..."
  6302. "Not as popular?"
  6303. >"Tha's right. Eyeron gets all tha credit, but honestly, nickel ain't much worse. A lot rarer, sure, but ain't in nearly as much demand."
  6304. "So that's a 'maybe'?"
  6305. >"Yeah, a good solid 'maybe'. Ah'll give it a good look, see what Ah can't source, but don't expect any miracles."
  6306. "I guess while we're on the subject, is it possible to get some cobalt in?"
  6307. >She snickers a bit.
  6308. >"Yeah, not a chance. Only way we can get that shite is in lil' chunks through nickel minin'."
  6309. "Eh, was worth a shot."
  6310. >Crescent files your metal requests away on her desk, and you can't help but notice it being put at the top of her priority pile.
  6311. >"Ah'll get yer plates and rods as soon as Ah get the eyeron in, and Ah'll look into the nickel fer ya, too. Tha copper wire Ah can get fer ya tomorrow, though!"
  6313. "Sweet, thanks!"
  6314. >"Do Ah want ta know what tha wire's used fer?"
  6315. "Honestly, probably not."
  6316. >"Hah, Ah'll take yer word fer it!"
  6317. >After bidding her farewell, you step out of her 'office', and make your way back down through the Night Guard compound, linking up with Razor on the way.
  6318. >"So, how'd it go?"
  6319. "Good, though it'll take longer than I thought."
  6320. >"Yeah, figures."
  6321. "Why, you know where it's all going?"
  6322. >"Remember hearing something about the nobility pissing themselves over that second attack, ordering iron trinkets to keep 'em safe."
  6323. "Right..."
  6324. >"More money than brains in that bunch. Though a few of 'em are all right--"
  6325. >"Mister Anon?"
  6326. >Wait, who's voice was that?
  6327. >"Excuse me, do you know where mister Anon is?"
  6328. >It's somewhere around a distant corner, down there.
  6329. >Huh, have you heard that voice before?
  6330. >Around that corner, comes a--
  6331. >"Mister Anon?"
  6332. "Thorax?"
  6333. >Said garish bug runs right for you, his look a few notes away from full panic.
  6334. >"Mister Anon! I-I need your help, fast!"
  6335. "Huh? What's wrong?"
  6336. >"Please, I need you to talk some sense into Pharynx!"
  6337. "Wait, Pharynx? The hell do you mean?"
  6338. >"No time!"
  6339. "Wait, hold on--"
  6340. >Aaaaand there he goes, running back the same way he came.
  6341. >Well, there goes your plans to retool your bow a bit, and do some reading.
  6342. >Still, if it involves Pharynx, you should look into this.
  6343. >Though you can't say you liked the way he panic-ordered you to follow without telling you why, you do still follow him, though not at his dead run.
  6344. >The area he's leading you into looks an awful lot like the war room.
  6346. >And yes, it is indeed the war room he's led you into.
  6347. >Inside is Celestia, a couple Invictus guards, and Pharynx himself.
  6348. >"Pharynx!"
  6349. >And of course, Thorax bounds in, putting the guards on edge instantly, while lightly startling Pharynx and Celestia.
  6350. >Pharynx, however, quickly flips to annoyance.
  6351. >"Listen, I already told you, I'm handling this!"
  6352. >"No, you can't do this! Not after what happened!"
  6353. >"I was just about to finish the deal with the guard deployments. Celestia, do we still have an accord?"
  6354. >"I am afraid that is no longer up to me, Pharynx."
  6355. >He looks even more frustrated, but a point of Celestia's wing in your direction finally clues him into your presence, which gets him to calm down a whole lot more.
  6356. >"Ah, Anon. Just who I wanted to see."
  6357. "Do any of you want to explain what the hell's going on, now?"
  6358. >"It's simple. I'm staying here to help you."
  6359. >Oh.
  6360. "That's it?"
  6361. >"That's it."
  6362. "But... weren't you kinda doing that before?"
  6363. >"No, you reached out for us to talk to Chrysalis, remember? And as things stand, we've long overstayed our welcome. We would've stayed longer, if..."
  6364. >A grimace crossed both his and Thorax's face.
  6365. >"If she didn't escape."
  6366. >Ohh.
  6367. "Look, I--"
  6368. >"I saw her carry that other human out of combat. And I saw you, chasing them down, ready to slay the whole pack of them. Whatever... misgivings you may have towards our princess, you've shown yourself to be the only option we have in slaying her puppet master."
  6369. >You fold your arms.
  6370. "Forget it."
  6371. >"Wh-what?"
  6372. "I'm not sparing her."
  6374. >Celestia's mild surprise was eclipsed by Pharynx's angry reaction:
  6375. >"Now, listen here--"
  6376. "No, you listen."
  6377. >Whatever good mood you were in before was just dashed away.
  6378. "That bug kept me from ending this whole damn war, right then and there. She hurt some very close friends of mine. Before all that, she ate the damn souls of some guards, tore up Ponyville with those monsters, and then tried to kill me. Almost pulled it off, too!"
  6379. >Your hand finds itself covering your chest, where she stabbed you.
  6380. "If it was just her trying to kill me, I might've been more agreeable here. But after saving that other asshole's life? Forget it!"
  6381. >"You are not going to kill her, Anonymous."
  6382. "If she shows her face again, I--"
  6383. >"I won't let you."
  6384. >His voice going several degrees colder wasn't dissuading you.
  6385. "You know, that sounds an awful lot like a threat."
  6386. >"I intend on making it a guarantee, if you even--"
  6387. >"Ahem."
  6388. >Celestia's interruption drew all the attention away, before this escalated.
  6389. >"Pharynx, I understand your dilemma, and can certainly appreciate the loyalty you show to your princess. But you have seen her already. She no longer acts like the changeling you described to me."
  6390. >"She's amnesic, damn it! You'd act totally different, too, if your damn memories were wiped!"
  6391. >Celestia's expression became a bit more uncomfortable, for a split second.
  6392. >"Be that as it may, she still poses a massive threat to us."
  6393. >"You think I don't know that, already?!"
  6394. >"Control yourself."
  6395. >Poor Thorax was on the brink of tears, over there.
  6396. >But Pharynx looked as pissed as you felt.
  6398. >"Now, I did not have any issue with you joining Anon in his battle before all of this, but it's clear to me that you two will need to come to some kind of compromise on this matter."
  6399. >"Compromise?! There's nothing to compromise on!"
  6400. "Agreed."
  6401. >"I will not dispatch my guards to your hive, until the pair of you come to an accord."
  6402. >"Aagh, I'm not going to debate over this!"
  6403. >Yeah, neither are you.
  6404. >"Aren't you?"
  6405. >The two of them have a little stare-off.
  6406. >After a minute or two, Celestia's stone-faced glare won over his borderline snarl.
  6407. >"Fine."
  6408. >While he turns to face you, she levels that same glare your way.
  6409. "Yeah, I get it."
  6410. >"W-why'd this have to happen to her?"
  6411. >Right as Pharynx opened his mouth to speak, Thorax spoke up to nobody in particular, now very much past the brink of tears.
  6412. >"Of all lings, why her?"
  6413. >Pharynx breaks away to console him, while you pinch at your brow, only slightly less frustrated than before.
  6414. "Celly, did you figure out where they went?"
  6415. >"I'm afraid not."
  6416. "Shit."
  6417. >"I wish I could say there has been more progress, but we're just as blind as before. We don't even know the locale of his other, older base of operations, despite all our surveillance."
  6418. >Thorax sniffles a bit.
  6419. >"W-why?"
  6420. >"Damn that Incognito. And damn Chrysalis! First the invasion, then the hive, and now Chitter! Every time something goes wrong, she has a hoof in it!"
  6421. >Man, does Pharynx sound bitter--
  6422. >ding
  6423. >Chrysalis.
  6424. "Fellas?"
  6425. >Everyone looks to you.
  6426. "I'm ready to compromise."
  6427. >"Ah, well done, Anon."
  6428. "Don't celebrate too soon, Celly. You'll have to compromise, too."
  6429. <...
  6431. >"I cannot believe I am about to allow this, Anon."
  6432. "You suggested the compromise, remember?"
  6433. >"Sometimes I wonder if you try on purpose to spite me."
  6434. "Never after our big talk, Celly. Besides, didn't exactly plan for the irony."
  6435. >All she offers is a snort.
  6436. >"I can't tell if you're either the most clever and devious schemer I've ever met, or just completely out of your mind!"
  6437. "Little of both, Pharynx."
  6438. >"Gah, you're--"
  6439. "Look, you want me to spare her, or not?"
  6440. >"Of course I do! But this?!"
  6441. "I don't like it any more than you do, don't get me wrong. But we're nowhere closer to figuring out where she might be in the first place. At least this way, we've got both a source, and a bargaining chip."
  6442. >"Damn it."
  6443. "That an agreement?"
  6444. >"You already know the answer. Let's just get this over with."
  6445. >No argument here.
  6446. >Honestly, you were hoping that was the last time you'd need to see her damn face again.
  6447. >But beggars can't be choosers, and all that.
  6448. >Seriously, fuck whoever made that proverb, and double fuck them for being right.
  6449. >Your group approaches the first set of iron doors, leading to the cell.
  6450. >Man, poor Thorax, though.
  6451. >Guy's really taking this hard.
  6452. >Hard enough that he had to sit this out.
  6453. >It's probably for the best.
  6454. >You can't imagine your 'talk' going smoothly.
  6455. >The first set of doors close behind your small group.
  6456. >Fucking hell.
  6457. >Well, like Pharynx said, let's just get this over with.
  6458. >The guardsponies start using their long rods to push the door open, right up until you just walk forward and push them apart, yourself.
  6460. >And there she was, still chained to that stake.
  6461. >And just like before, once she noticed you were there, she got really scared.
  6462. >"Y-you again...?!"
  6463. "Trust me, I didn't want to have to see you again, either."
  6464. >As Chrysalis catches sight of Celestia, she gets more frightened.
  6465. >The door closing behind all of you only completes the effect.
  6466. >And then, she hangs her head, going slack.
  6467. >"Is this the end, then? Fine."
  6468. >You take a few steps forward.
  6469. >"Do your worst."
  6470. >You kneel down to where she'd normally be at eye-level.
  6471. "I'm here for two things, neither of them being your death."
  6472. >She doesn't react.
  6473. "First off, some news. Incognito attacked us."
  6474. >That sure got a reaction out of her, darting up to look at you.
  6475. "He caused a lot of damage, hurt and killed a lot of folks. Would've done worse, if I hadn't kicked his ass."
  6476. >"Liar. Nopony can beat him, I've seen him fight before!"
  6477. >Your wand comes out, and the long-charge of Bluebaide rips to life, getting her to shriek and fall back.
  6478. "Then I guess it's a good thing I'm not a pony, huh?"
  6479. >She spends the whole time staring at the magic greatsword, before it fizzles out at the seven second mark, right on schedule.
  6480. >"Y-you... you defeated him?"
  6481. "Almost."
  6482. >"A-almost?"
  6483. "I almost had him. Right there, ready to keel over. Could've left him be, had a drink, and the blood loss would've taken care of it for me. Instead, he got rescued, right at the last second."
  6484. >She knows who you mean, you can tell.
  6485. >"No...!"
  6486. "Afraid so."
  6487. >"S-she was imprisoned here!"
  6488. "Was. His little pals broke her out during the attack."
  6490. >You stand back up, looking down at her.
  6491. "I'm gonna be honest with you. I was gonna let her stay there, either to rot or get redeemed, whichever came first. But now? Now, she's a huge threat. And I can't let her just run around, doing--"
  6492. >"No!"
  6493. >She runs towards you, but the shackles stop her a couple of inches from you.
  6494. >"No, no, no! Don't hurt her!"
  6495. "Give me a reason."
  6496. >You fold your arms, right as her tears start falling.
  6497. "You'd better have a damn good reason why I shouldn't take her out."
  6498. >"You can't--!"
  6499. "I'm waiting."
  6500. >"Anything!"
  6501. >At this point, she's groveling, with the saddest, most desperate look you've ever seen.
  6502. >Most other times, that would give you pause.
  6503. >But right now, being the mother of all assholes was the lesser of two evils.
  6504. >"Whatever you wish! Information, servitude, a mate, my life, whatever you want! Just please, don't hurt her, I'm begging you!"
  6505. >You regard her for a few seconds, before kneeling back down.
  6506. "Anything?"
  6507. >"Anything!"
  6508. >You reach behind, more fear igniting in her eyes.
  6509. "Second thing I'm here for."
  6510. >You pull out a horn-ring tool, given to you by Celestia.
  6511. >"Wh-what...? Wh-what do you want?"
  6512. "Hold still."
  6513. >Her confusion mounts, as she does as she's told, allowing you to close the tool around the ring on her horn.
  6514. >"I... I don't understand..."
  6515. "You will in a moment."
  6516. >After loosening it up with no shortage of ratcheting sounds, you start pulling it up, working it around the kinks.
  6517. >"I--"
  6518. "Want to know what I want, I know. But I'm gonna let him explain it to you."
  6520. >The ring comes off, and a deep, shocked gasp escapes her the moment it does, like she just held her breath for a long time.
  6521. >Pharynx comes in right on cue, all but shoving past you, grabbing onto the still recoiling Chrysalis, and slamming her onto the ground, towering over her.
  6522. >"Noling wants to see you dead, more than I do, Chrysalis! After everything you did to our hive, everything you did to her, you deserve worse!"
  6523. >"I--"
  6524. >"Shut up! All I want to see you do is nod! You understand?!"
  6525. >Well, he's taking a far stronger bad-cop approach than you thought he would.
  6526. >But one glance at the wand still in your hand, is all it takes for Chrysalis to nod in response.
  6527. >"You know where his hideout is, don't you?"
  6528. >Another nod.
  6529. >"Then here's what's going to happen. Celestia's going to take you from here, at which point you will answer every single question she has, and do absolutely everything she tells you to do."
  6530. >You barely noticed Celestia coming up besides you.
  6531. >"You are going to help us find out where he is, and determine everything he is doing."
  6532. >"As long as you cooperate with us, Anon's agreed to not kill Chitter. But if you don't, he will.
  6533. >"Don't you dare give him a reason, Chrysalis. If you get her killed, I will personally learn how to perform dark magic, just to make sure your suffering will never end! Do you understand?!"
  6534. >Her eyes dart around, but her weak response comes with her legs going slack.
  6535. >"Yes."
  6536. >They exchange something in Scarabspeak, before he lets her go, stepping off.
  6537. >Celestia moves up, undoing the shackles.
  6538. >"Follow me, Chrysalis."
  6539. <...
  6541. @@@@@@@@
  6543. "All right, all right."
  6544. >"Lord Matthias was very insistent on you joining him today, rugged one. I--"
  6545. "I know what it means, Zamara. I've been working under him for longer than you."
  6546. >She snorts, and continues leading you deeper into the strange temple.
  6547. >You'd really wish she'd slow down a bit, though!
  6548. >Why does she always move like there's a fire lit under her tail?
  6549. >As you approach an opening down the hall, you can hear talking faintly echoing towards you:
  6550. >"--eard enough, human!"
  6551. >"Mind your tone, Veldheer. I have neither the time nor patience today to endure your hollow bravado."
  6552. >"Then perhaps you would like to endure my hollow support, then? Because after your failure, I lost much hope in your vaunted talents and underlings!"
  6553. >"There was no way to know that the damned Equestrians possessed that kind of an ally amongst them, you know that."
  6554. >"You have a legion of shape-shifting insects within your ranks, capable of infiltrating with ease! How could you possibly not know of something that powerful helping them?!"
  6555. >"Because he was not always that powerful. He was a mewling weakling scant months ago, one that I subdued without issue."
  6556. >"Pah! You should have left him in a pool of his blood, not with his life!"
  6557. >"Is this all you came here to 'discuss' with me, Veldheer? If so, I am not interested in--"
  6558. >"One day, human. You have one day. Either I have the head of Zimian by sundown tomorrow, or you can make do without my tribe's aid."
  6559. >"You still insist on such petty shows of dominance? It's a wonder you haven't alerted Equestria to our stronghold's location!"
  6561. >"Let them come! Five of their pathetic warriors cannot match one of mine!"
  6562. >You and Zamara emerge into the same large hall as before, with all the magical equipment.
  6563. >Up ahead is Incognito, clad in his black, white-collared dress clothes, a simple cane in his hands.
  6564. >In front of him is a very steamed Veldheer, still in that same battle armour.
  6565. >Does he ever take that thing off?
  6566. >Zamara clears her throat, drawing the attention of both of them.
  6567. >"Lord Veldheer, Lord Matthias, greetings to you both."
  6568. >Incognito's small smile upon seeing you was still as warming as ever.
  6569. >Unfortunately, it was just as quickly soured by the impish smirk on Veldheer's face, along with that now-unmistakable aura of eros love.
  6570. >Eugh...
  6571. >"Thank you, Zamara. Though you arrived a while earlier than I had anticipated."
  6572. >"There is no sense in delaying matters of great importance."
  6573. >"True, although I did not specify that this matter was of great importance."
  6574. >Heh, the way he said that, all teacher-like...
  6575. >It flustered Zamara, even if she didn't show it.
  6576. >It's at that point that Veldheer begins walking towards you two, his course set for the door behind you.
  6577. >"Remember, human. One day."
  6578. >Incognito's look sours a bit, and you can sense the exasperation coming off of Zamara.
  6579. >Veldheer walks past you, but not before you feel his tail drag along your side, as he goes.
  6580. >Eugh, damn stallion...!
  6581. >If he thinks that's supposed to be impressive, he--!
  6582. >"Thank you for summoning Athalia to me, Zamara. You are free to leave. Do let me know the progress on the offering circles."
  6583. >"Of course, my Lord."
  6585. >Zamara bows, and quickly takes her leave.
  6586. >Well, she certainly shows more respect for him, than she does for her own tribe leader!
  6587. >Still, after what she did with him, you don't really know what to--
  6588. >"Come, my child, let's get some peace from these machines."
  6589. >Incognito's already started walking off towards another doorway near to him, and you quickly catch up.
  6590. >It's so strange, seeing him need a cane to walk.
  6591. >You can't imagine he'd be able to fight well, like that!
  6592. >He soon leads you to a small room, containing an office similar to the one back in the old mountain base, except with far less decor and books, and with a large, strange stone ring propped against the wall, covered in even stranger symbols.
  6593. >"Have a seat, please."
  6594. "O-of course...!"
  6595. >You do just that, following his lead.
  6596. "B-but, um... what did you need me for?"
  6597. >"You've been gone for a long time now, Athalia. I thought it prudent to update you on our current circumstances, before I move on to giving you your orders."
  6598. >And with that, he begins explaining things to you.
  6599. >This pyramid belonged to Veldheer's ancestors, and used to be their seat of power, back in ancient times when zebrakind didn't roam in small tribes, like they do today.
  6600. >They've restored a lot of it while you were gone, and added in walls and tents to make it more defensible and livable.
  6601. >The lings setting up that forward hive was a nice touch, too.
  6602. >The place was nice, no doubt, but it was also obviously cobbled together quickly.
  6603. >Maybe you can find some time to improve it a bit...
  6605. >While he was on the subject, the lings themselves came up, and he wanted to know why they were making themselves more scarce after you'd come back.
  6606. >You didn't know either, until they came back with a huge supply of charged love gems!
  6607. >They'd been working overtime, harvesting as much love as they could, and stockpiling it!
  6608. >When you questioned them about it, they said it was meant for you!
  6609. >You!
  6610. >What startled you the most about all that, was how you wound up going through half of the whole pile in that same day!
  6611. >Guess you really underestimated your own feeding needs.
  6612. >At least, now that you're... changing.
  6613. >Damn it, you need more information on this!
  6614. >If Chrysalis told you anything about this, you certainly don't remember it, now!
  6615. >On Incognito's part, he reassures you a bit on that subject, saying that he thinks he has some books pertaining to the subject, and that he'd try to get them to you soon.
  6616. >He then talks a bit more about the zebras.
  6617. >And damn, are they a ruthless bunch!
  6618. >Their warriors were fast and strong, stronger than even the gryphons!
  6619. >And most of their mares were good at tasks like building, and were responsible for building up the temple grounds so quickly!
  6620. >The remaining mares were alchemists, with Zamara leading them.
  6621. >He tells you a bit about their roles, how most of them just handle medical duties and general potion brewing, with only Zamara and a select few of her underlings having anything to do with magic and fighting.
  6622. >It's impressive, sure, especially given what she did during the escape, but...
  6623. >You can't help but sigh a little.
  6625. >"What's the matter, Athalia?"
  6626. "I don't know if I trust her."
  6627. >"No?"
  6628. "Sure, she helped me escape, and helped us get away from... him."
  6629. >You suppress a shudder, at the memory of Anonymous chasing you all.
  6630. "But she kept you asleep, against your wishes, while you recovered!"
  6631. >"Ah, that? Yes, I was rather alarmed at that, at first. But I assure you, I have since resolved that stumbling point."
  6632. "But... how?"
  6633. >"Zebras are a rather... overbearing race. Their roles to play, their methods, as well as their hierarchies, are typically followed without question. She had never before been challenged, when it came to her healing practices."
  6634. "A-and you just... forgave that?"
  6635. >"Not without admonishment, but yes."
  6636. "I... a-are you sure she'll listen, though?"
  6637. >"As I said, they follow hierarchies as much as they do their roles. She will adapt her methods accordingly."
  6638. "If... if you say so, my Lord..."
  6639. >You're still not so sure, yourself...
  6640. >"Still, thank you for voicing your concerns, Athalia. I am pleased to see that your instincts for this are still intact."
  6641. >You can't help but smile at his words.
  6642. >After finishing his explanations with the layout of the base, and giving you a special token to allow you access to the temple, he sits up.
  6643. >"Now, my child, let us retreat to the temple's training grounds."
  6644. "T-training grounds?"
  6645. >"Of course. I have every intention to continue our lessons, as they were before."
  6646. >No way!
  6647. >You'll still train?!
  6648. >"We will gauge how much we will need to retread, first, before we learn anything new. Is this acceptable?"
  6649. >Ohmygosh, YES!
  6650. "Y-yes, my Lord!"
  6651. >...
  6653. >"We make no apologies for what we did to them," boomed Axel, his previously jovial tone dropping. "They attacked us first, and we fought back."
  6654. >"And we do not blame you for defending yourselves," came General Ironhoof's even reply. "But was it absolutely necessary to vanquish their entire kingdom?"
  6655. >"They came out of nowhere, killed every Confederate citizen they could get their hands on, and you think we're going to let them go, after that?"
  6656. >"I must concur. Centaur-gargoyle kingdom far too dangerous. Unpredictable. Could not leave alone," came the ever-unnerving Ynnead's reply, as he gesticulated with his four arms. "Loss of life terrible tragedy. Always is."
  6657. >"You don't seem too bothered with it," came Rudolph's off-hooved reply.
  6658. >Ynnead's look hardened, and his arms folded. "Only so much sympathy one can have for raiders. The hereafter will mete out their final judgment."
  6659. >I couldn't help but shudder at the display; I saw, in that instant, the cold indifference in the sage's eyes, the kind I heard the mon'keigh race possesses.
  6660. >It made me wonder, if he really was as reformed as they claimed...
  6661. >The exchange continues as such, with the good general exchanging words with the Mystico warmaster, while the sage and freiherr continued on in their own separate vein.
  6662. >That eccentric Zharrdan, however, never said a word, observing everything and taking notes, an odd look in his eyes that I could not place.
  6663. >But it was the conversation between Princess Celestia and the Mystico's primarch, Cecilia, that drew my eye the most.
  6665. >The two of them began this deliberation with all the detachment one could expect from a pair of supreme leaders, meeting for the first time after a less than favourable diplomatic incident.
  6666. >But it was the strangest thing, seeing the two gradually warm to each other.
  6667. >While the attendants on both sides continued their debates, those two soon came off of the discussions, having apparently satisfied each other with their responses.
  6668. >How they could come to a resolution that quickly was still beyond my ken, but it was when they allowed their attendants to continue discussing matters, while they themselves had what I can only describe as light-hearted tea-time chatter, that it transcended into the outlandish.
  6669. >The two of them, never having met before this, chatting as if they had known one another for most of their lives!
  6670. >The strange sight was not to last, however.
  6671. >As one, both leaders rose, drawing silence from their attendants.
  6672. >In perfect harmony with one another, they announced that there would be no war between Equestria and her allies, and the Confederacy that the Faber Mystico protected.
  6673. >All of Cecilia's confidants were overjoyed, with the exception of Zharrdan, still taking his notes.
  6674. >Rudolph was quick to question Celestia's decision, but she gave her assurances that it would be fine.
  6675. >They agreed to discuss things further, at a later date, and we all left.
  6676. >I, at the time, still did not trust them, least of all that Ynnead.
  6677. >But the deed was done, and I would join my princess in our next meeting.
  6678. >And I prayed that we could attain a lasting peace...
  6679. >...
  6681. >"N-no, seriously, he's messing with me, right?"
  6682. >"He is very serious in his claim, and it has been substantiated to a high degree by Doctor Valiant."
  6683. >"R-really? Because, uh..."
  6684. >"This is the fourth time you have expressed fears over Anon's state. I assure you, there is nothing to be concerned about."
  6685. >Oh, you'd love to keep reading more of this War of the Ancients book, but sadly, your entourage's chatter is making it tough.
  6686. >So you bookmark your place and set it down, taking stock of Razor and Exact, the former of which is still looking unnerved as all hell.
  6687. >"Come on, you can't not be a little--"
  6688. "Jesus Christ, you're still freaking out over this?"
  6689. >"Gah! W-well, why the buck wouldn't I be?"
  6690. "Because you're the bestest and most understanding bestie in the history of besties."
  6691. >"Yeah, but--"
  6692. "Dude, come on."
  6693. >"Listen, the whole iron-blood schtick was one thing, but the no-soul thing? How does that even happen?!"
  6694. "How does it happen?"
  6695. >"Yes, how?! I don't buy that you're just... born without one! That Incognito tailhole, sure, but you?"
  6696. "All right, I'll tell you how it happens."
  6697. >You lean in a little closer, and to Razor's credit, he stops his freak-out enough to listen.
  6698. "Do you remember the magnet fiasco?"
  6699. >"Gyuuuh... don't remind me!"
  6700. "I'm reminding you. The magnets rip magic to shreds, make it stop existing as best as they can, right?"
  6701. >"R-right...?"
  6702. "That means all magic. All. Not parts of it, all."
  6703. >"Uh, where is this--"
  6704. "And souls, at least here on big ol' Equus, just so happen to be extremely magical things."
  6706. >"Uh, okay, I'll... grant that, but that doesn't explain you not having one!"
  6707. "Totally does."
  6708. >"How?!"
  6709. "Earth."
  6710. >"Wh-- Earth? You mean, that planet you're from?"
  6711. "That's the one."
  6712. >"What's that got to do with it?"
  6713. "Imagine for a moment that Equus was chilling out in those Outer Reaches, instead of here. Do you know what kind of natural forces are out there in the Reaches?"
  6714. >"Uh... no?"
  6715. "Stars and suns, thousands of times bigger than the one here, that fucking explode, destroying entire solar systems. Interstellar beams of radioactive energy that'll liquefy you in a split second.
  6716. "Collapsed stars that are so dense that a bit-sized piece of one would weigh more than two Canterlot mountains. Fucking black holes, things with such strong gravity that not even light can escape from them.
  6717. "All while everything forever freefalls in an airless void, chilling quite literally at a temperature several times colder than the Crystal Empire's topmost mountain."
  6718. >Once Razor had been properly awed by some interstellar reality, you continue without skipping a beat:
  6719. "Do you know what keeps us safe from the lion's share of all that interstellar radiation, all the random comets and meteors, all the jets of energy the sun randomly spews our way?"
  6720. >"Wh-what...?"
  6721. "Fucking magnets."
  6722. >"H-huh?"
  6723. "The entire planet Earth has a core of iron and nickel, that functions as an all-natural, absolutely massive fuckoff magnet.
  6724. "It's actually a little weaker than the one I used on those monsters, but it extends out into space for several hundred miles.
  6726. "And it's so big, so powerful from that far away, that it blocks most of those solar and interstellar death rays, before they can even touch the planet."
  6727. >Oh, yeah, that's blown his mind something fierce.
  6728. >Exact, meanwhile, looks utterly fascinated.
  6729. "And that, my good bat-horse friend, is why I don't have a soul. Because I used to live on a planet-sized magnet."
  6730. >While Razor recovers from that bit of knowledge, Exact chimes in:
  6731. >"I did not know that this force played such an important role in the survival of your world. Small wonder, then, why you readily survive magnetic exposure, and why your people leverage the force for their machines."
  6732. "Pretty crazy, huh? Although, you sure took the news better than I thought, given, well, your job."
  6733. >"I had been briefed beforehoof by Princess Celestia on your state."
  6734. "When was this?"
  6735. >"The day after the doctor cleared our release from the hospital. I was told of your state and it's implications, but not the reason for it's existence."
  6736. "Right..."
  6737. >Oh look, Razor seems to have finally snapped out of it.
  6738. >"Y-you humans are bucking insane, you know that?"
  6739. "The whole universe is insane, pal-io. I'd say we're pretty normal, all things considered."
  6740. >"R-remind me to never visit Earth..."
  6741. "Oh, what, alien planets full of life isn't good enough for you, now? I'm positively offended."
  6742. >"Heheh, j-just shut your hole, you crazy son of a mule."
  6743. "Love you, too."
  6744. >He tries to snort it off, but can't help but start laughing.
  6745. >And then, the train announcer came up on speaker, announcing your arrival in ten minutes.
  6747. >"So, uh, not that I mind or anything, but why'd the princesses tell us to take the train to Ponyville?"
  6748. "Your guess is as good as mine. Got some insight into that, Exact?"
  6749. >"Unfortunately, I am as ignorant on the reasons as you two are."
  6750. >"Great."
  6751. >Honestly, you missed these kinds of rides, the two-ish hour train ride to and from Canterlot.
  6752. >Gave you plenty of time to catch up on your reading, and of course remember to tell your entourage about the no-soul thing.
  6753. >Been meaning to do that for a while, but you just kept forgetting.
  6754. >Work has a way of sucking your attention span away.
  6755. >The train comes to a swift stop in no time, and you pack away your books, slide your 'reading glasses' into your shirt pocket, and leave the train after your pals, book bag and hidden wand cane in tow.
  6756. >They said you wouldn't need magic for the trip, but you weren't about to go anywhere without some kind of wand.
  6757. >Shit's addictive.
  6758. >The sun's just beginning to set, as the three of you make your way towards Twilight's castle, trekking through the emptier-than-usual streets.
  6759. >Knocking on the door gets you Spike, as usual.
  6760. >"Anon?"
  6761. "That's me."
  6762. >"Oh, sweet, you came just in time! Come on in!"
  6763. >You do just that, your entourage following you in, but...
  6764. >'Came just in time'...?
  6765. >Spike leads you and your party towards the map room door, gesturing for you to open it.
  6766. >Weird, but okay...?
  6767. >You push the doors open, a dark room greeting you.
  6768. >The fuck--
  6769. >"SURPRISE!!"
  6770. "Whoaly--!"
  6771. >The lights kick on, revealing all your friends, the pinkest of them darting towards you.
  6772. >"Happy birthday, Anon!"
  6774. @@@@@@@@
  6776. >Wait, what?
  6777. >Your birthday?
  6778. "Uh..."
  6779. >Pinkie wasted no time, segueing right into more excited talking.
  6780. >"Well, technically it's more of the 'beating-the-snot-out-of-that-meanie-pants-human' party, but then I found out your birthday was coming up, so I moved the other party to the birthday one for double party action!"
  6781. "Uh, Pinkie?"
  6782. >"What's up, Anon?"
  6783. "Since when do you know my birthday?"
  6784. >You mean, you told her the date and all that, but the dating difference between Earth and Equus was fucked to shit and back.
  6785. >So she usually made do with 'happy-landing-on-Equus-during-our-picnic' parties, instead.
  6786. >"Weeeell..."
  6787. >In her typical eldritch fashion, she pulls shit out of her mane, with today's physics violation being a chalkboard.
  6788. >A chalkboard she proceeds to speed-draw shit on.
  6789. >"After I found out about your world from Sunburst I got reeeeaaaaly interested and went down to that stargazing club in Vanhoover that maps out the Outer Reaches and may or may not have totally found where your planet was on the charts..."
  6790. >She's gone from planet drawings to math equations.
  6791. >"Aaaaaaand through a little bit of easy-peasy triple integral root elliptical curve magic with a little general relativity for good measure I found out the exact dates your world has compared to ours and totally figured out when your birthday was here!"
  6792. >And all at once, she grabs her chalkboard full of Hawking's wet dreams, and stuffs them back into her mane.
  6793. >"You totally have 1.1 birthdays for every year here, Anon! Eleven birthdays every ten years! Isn't that crazy?!"
  6795. >All you can do is...
  6796. >Well, blink.
  6797. >Actually, would that 'math' technically be Hawking's worst nightmares come true, given how she breaks literally every law of everything every Tuesday or so?
  6798. "Uh..."
  6799. >And then, she shoves her snout right up against your nose, complete with a glare that stares right through your not-soul, before she starts whispering to you.
  6800. >"Just roll with it, okay? There's only so much I can do with this tangled nightmare of a plot this dummy's written up!"
  6801. >Before so much as a Patrick-tier 'uhh' can escape you again, she darts back down, her massive grin back in full strength.
  6802. >And this time, she's backed away just enough for you to really take stock of the ponies in attendance, besides her.
  6803. >AJ, Dash, Rares, Fluttershy, Twilight, Luna, even Celestia.
  6804. >And holy shit, you didn't even see Sunburst and Crescent chilling back there, the latter with a huge smirk on her face.
  6805. >The entire room was decked out rather conservatively for one of Pinkie's events, the streamers and balloons at an all-time low.
  6806. >Instead, there were tables with--
  6807. >Oh holy shit, that's the bartender, chilling back there!
  6808. >With a full stock of booze, ready to serve up?
  6809. >No, bad Anon.
  6810. >Too early in the day for booze.
  6811. >Kind of begs the question as to why they brought him, then.
  6812. >Not that you don't want him here, but still!
  6813. >Continuing your pan around--
  6814. >And what in the name of Christ is behind them?
  6815. >Is that a fucking mountain of presents?
  6816. >It... totally is.
  6817. >A pile of presents as tall as Celestia, in all kinds of shapes and sizes.
  6819. >Pinkie jumps up, obscuring your view and making your eyes follow her on the way down.
  6820. >"You've missed three birthdays here, Anon! Three! So we had a loooooot of making up to do!"
  6821. >In the same theme of 'preempting your words', she darts back to the present pile, grabs a bunch of them, and then throws them at the table, where they land more perfectly than they have any right to.
  6822. >"So, how about opening some of these up, huh?"
  6823. >She doesn't speak up after that, allowing you to finally perform some semblance of collecting your thoughts.
  6824. "I..."
  6825. >Nope, nothing to say yet.
  6826. >Keep collecting.
  6827. >The others start gathering around, some of them offering polite chuckles.
  6828. >"I think you might've overwhelmed him a bit there, Pinkie..."
  6829. >Yeah, what Twilight said.
  6830. "Guys, I..."
  6831. >Okay, deep breath.
  6832. >Hands on the table.
  6833. >Look them in the eyes.
  6834. "L-listen, I... I'm totally just... Whew, okay, I love this. This whole party thing you're throwing. I really do. But..."
  6835. >Great, now you can't look them in the eyes anymore.
  6836. "Is this really a good time for it? I mean, we've got huge problems to tackle. I've got huge problems to tackle."
  6837. >"Ah, yes. I know precisely what you mean, dearest Anon."
  6838. >Your eyes go back up to Luna, who wears a knowing look that's not quite a smile yet.
  6839. >"I, too, felt the same way, as did Twilight and my sister. At the same time, however, we had no desire to deprive you of your much-earned respite. So, in light of that..."
  6840. >She floats one of the presents towards your hand.
  6841. >"We set out to make this event as productive as it is relieving."
  6843. >Huh?
  6844. "What do you mean by that?"
  6845. >Another present was floated to the other hand, this time by Twilight, who spoke up next:
  6846. >"Open them up, and you'll find out."
  6847. >Uh...
  6848. >Well, you guess you can do that.
  6849. >Wouldn't exactly be a good gesture to look the gift horses in the mouths, after all.
  6850. >You take the two gifts in your hands, and start with the one Twilight floated to you.
  6851. >After a rather ginger opening in relative silence, you--
  6852. >What?
  6853. >"You see?"
  6854. >It's a book.
  6855. >"An Animillustrated® Guide to Intermediate Glyphwork"
  6856. >And it's shimmering like a motherfucker.
  6857. >Putting on the 'reading glasses' stashed in your shirt pocket reveals the garbled front page to be an animated illustration of a pony spell circle.
  6858. >Holy shit.
  6859. >"We want to help you, Anon. So we all came together to pick out whatever would help you the most!"
  6860. >Now you're back to being blown away.
  6861. >"Th-that book's really limited edition, too. Did you know it takes almost two work-weeks of enchanting to get every page animated right?"
  6862. >No, you didn't.
  6863. >But now that you know that, you'll set it down gently before getting into the next present.
  6864. >This one contains...
  6865. >A distinctly lunar-themed medal, loaded with magic, powering an enchantment you don't recognize.
  6866. >The similarly lunar-themed pony who gave it to you speaks up again:
  6867. >"The rest of the Night Guard leadership also felt, as I did, that you deserved that. The Gibbous Medal of Valiance, offered to those who go above and beyond the call of duty. I thought you would appreciate the personal shielding enchantment within it, too."
  6869. >More presents are pushed your way, hanging around your peripheral vision.
  6870. >K-kinda hard to see, though.
  6871. >M-man, are things getting blurrier, or is it just you?
  6872. >Your head must hang down like that, fixated on the two items you got already, for a while.
  6873. >"A-Anon? What's wrong?"
  6874. "I..."
  6875. >Your head comes back up, looking over the gathered party-goers.
  6876. >No.
  6877. >Your friends.
  6878. "I don't even know what to say."
  6879. >Words come, something about them being the bestest friends a guy could ask for, but it just kind of comes out as a mess.
  6880. >Somewhere along the line, one of them hugs you.
  6881. >Can't say you particularly care which one did it, because it soon turned into the mother of all group hugs.
  6882. >Your arms couldn't physically wrap around all of them, but God as your witness, did you ever try.
  6883. >Then Dash started getting antsy about wanting you to open your presents already, getting some good chuckles and eyerolls out of everyone.
  6884. >She totally had a point, though.
  6885. >And so, the opening ceremony began in earnest.
  6886. >Dash was super insistent on hers being next, and besides the very cool-looking beer steins, she also had some old wing-blades, back from when the Wonderbolts were still a military force.
  6887. >The things looked like fucking kunais, and Razor was damn near drooling over them.
  6888. >Really cool, in any case.
  6889. >The ice box full of frozen beef was a real surprise, especially coming from Fluttershy of all ponies.
  6890. >You decided to just nod and accept it, after she started muttering something about trampling Angel.
  6891. >Remind yourself never to get on her bad side.
  6893. >Rarity's offering being clothes was a surprise to precisely nobody, but what was surprising was that she'd made some for Razor and Exact, too.
  6894. >So now they had pony tabards to go over their armour, in the same style and with the same insignia as your old brigandine.
  6895. >There may or may not have been an IOU snuck in with the multiple clothes changes for you, offering to beautify your next set of armour.
  6896. >AJ had wrapped up a whole bunch of logs, belonging to some very big magical trees she had to cut down during some farm expansion.
  6897. >It looked almost like the synthetic Greatwood you'd made before.
  6898. >Except with a good deal more magic in it, and looking distinctly less synthetic.
  6899. >Hmm.
  6900. >That deserves a good look.
  6901. >Taking the crown for the present Zerg rushing was none other than Pinkie, who blitzkrieg'd you with tons of small boxes.
  6902. >All of which contained a few squares of a biscuit-looking bread of some kind, wrapped in a big leaf and cut diagonally down the middle.
  6903. >When asked what it was, she simply replied 'lembas bread'.
  6904. >Fucking lembas bread.
  6905. >She even acted out the part where she ate the corner of one of them, commenting that one small bite is enough to fill the stomach of a grown stallion.
  6906. >You have no idea how she knows this shit, but holy fuck, she made a lot of it for you.
  6907. >Even some different flavours.
  6908. >Naturally, you had to have some yourself.
  6909. >The distinct alchemic aftertaste gave away how it managed that 'fill stomach' effect, but boy did it work.
  6910. >And like that, the present pile was done.
  6911. >Only Celestia, Sunburst, and Crescent hadn't offered anything here.
  6913. >Celestia's look was very much 'I'll give it to you later'.
  6914. >But--
  6915. >"Hah, don't tell me ya want more, lad!"
  6916. >Oh, speak of the devil.
  6917. >Luna's the first responder this time around, turning to Crescent and Sunburst.
  6918. >"Perhaps now, you can tell us what it is that you have created for dearest Anon?"
  6919. >"Princess, it'd be mah pleasure. An it's gonna blow yer wee mind, Ahnon!"
  6920. "Oh, yeah?"
  6921. >Heh, even when he's looking confident, Sunburst still manages to look a little sheepish.
  6922. >"We worked really hard on this one, Anon. I think you're going to love it!"
  6923. "Wait, 'we'? You worked together on it?"
  6924. >"Y-yeah."
  6925. >"Damn straight."
  6926. >Ignoring Razor's quiet 'uh-oh' from behind, that has you very intrigued, indeed.
  6927. "All right, let's see it!"
  6928. >"Sure thing, lad! Just follow us, all o'ya!"
  6929. "What, couldn't bring it in?"
  6930. >"Lad, if the damn thing could actually fit in tha castle, Ah'd have done it!"
  6931. >Couldn't fit in the castle?
  6932. >Oh, God.
  6933. >Was Razor's 'uh-oh' more on-point than you gave it credit for?
  6934. >Just what the hell did those two make?
  6935. >The two lead your group through the front door, heading towards a very flat spread of land.
  6936. >And there, sitting in the distance, was a massive, car-sized present box.
  6937. >Sweet merciful Christ.
  6938. >Part of you is nervous at what the unholy fuck they created, and why the fuck it's in a box that big.
  6939. >But the other part is starting to get hyped right up.
  6940. >If it's as big as the box it's in, they must've spent a ton of time on it!
  6941. >Once those two get to the box, they turn back to you and the others.
  6942. >And they look entirely pleased with themselves.
  6944. >"A-Anon, what we're about to show you is something heavily inspired by your home."
  6945. >"An' heavy as sin to boot! Ya know how much mehtal we put inta this thing?"
  6946. >"A lot, is the answer!"
  6947. >"Well, lad, how about we jes' show ya?"
  6948. >Based on something from Earth?
  6949. >And it's that big?
  6950. >The hype factor ramps up, and you nod in response.
  6951. >While Crescent sports the biggest, proudest smirk you've ever seen, Sunburst grunts a little as he floats the whole box up.
  6952. >It slowly reveals...
  6953. >Wheels.
  6954. >Wheels attach--
  6955. >A-attached to...
  6956. >T-to a...
  6957. >A...
  6958. >Your eyes go wide, and your jaw drops.
  6959. >The ponies in attendance gasp and exclaim at what they see.
  6960. >But you are far past that point.
  6961. >The box being flung to the side barely even registers to you.
  6962. >It's...
  6963. >The box was the size of a fucking car.
  6964. >Because the box was hiding a...
  6965. >A fucking car!
  6966. >It was big, the size of an SUV.
  6967. >It looked like someone had taken a vintage 30's car, and a large horse-drawn stagecoach, and mashed them together in a way that actually worked.
  6968. >Except stagecoaches don't have big, studded rubber car wheels.
  6969. >Nor do...
  6970. >A-ah...
  6971. >No, no words or thoughts, today.
  6972. >Just marvelling.
  6973. >Everyone around you is chattering, going on about what it is, and even something about getting that much 'durium'.
  6974. >Don't know what that is, don't really care right now.
  6975. >Almost like a zombie, you start taking steps towards it.
  6976. >Crescent, wearing a very smug and satisfied smile, moves out of your way.
  6977. >Your hand touches the side of it.
  6978. >God, it even smells like a new car!
  6980. >"Told ya he'd like it, lad!"
  6981. >"I... I didn't think he'd be that blown away, though!"
  6982. >"Oh, ye'll learn, lad. Ye'll learn."
  6983. >A hand finds it's way to the door handle, and it soon opens.
  6984. >Everyone starts quieting down when you do this.
  6985. >Almost as if in a trance, you step into the cabin.
  6986. >Labels are put onto the items in the control cluster, which consists mostly of levers and buttons surrounding a steering wheel.
  6987. >But you sit in front of it anyways, just looking it over.
  6988. >A big button titled 'start'.
  6989. >It takes a lot more force than you expected to push it down, and it makes lots of mechanical noises as you press it.
  6990. >And then, you hear it come to life.
  6992. >Th-the sound...
  6993. >It sounds like a proper diesel engine!
  6994. >The door closes next to you, prompting you to look over to the side.
  6995. >A still-smug Crescent is flying just outside of said door.
  6996. >"Try not to crash 'er, eh lad?"
  6997. >You still can't speak, but you do nod slightly.
  6998. >A large rod titled 'speed' is seen to your left.
  6999. >You reach out and push it forward.
  7000. >The engine is heard working harder from behind, and the car lurches forward, into motion.
  7001. >A moment of nothing but staring out the front passes, before you try the steering wheel.
  7002. >Tough to turn, definitely no power steering here.
  7003. >But it works.
  7004. >The slow numbness of the initial shock begins to fade, and excitement replaces it.
  7005. >The throttle is cranked up, and a clank is heard as it's pushed past a certain point, marked by the car picking up even more speed.
  7007. >Driving music of yore, shit you never thought you'd think of again, start to resurface.
  7008. >Your hands grip tighter on the wheel, excitement continuing to build.
  7009. >All the driving from before you came to Equestria starts to come back to you.
  7010. >More specifically, the speeding tickets and reckless driving charges.
  7011. >As the memory of a certain remix of a certain Thunder Force 4 song returns to you, the speed gets cranked up even higher.
  7012. >You start steering more aggressively, putting a lot of force into the wheel to get it to turn hard enough to kick up dirt and grass like that.
  7013. >Laughter soon starts to escape you, as the throttle is punched to the limit.
  7014. >It's hard to tell without gauges, but this had to be almost a hundred klicks per hour.
  7015. >The brake lever to your right makes all kinds of terrible squealing sounds, as you use it to try and pull off drifts and other such things.
  7016. >Really hard when it leaves only one hand on the wheel like that, but that doesn't stop you from trying.
  7017. >Your laughter reaches madman-tier levels when you finally pull it off right, drifting continuously in circles for the next half a minute.
  7018. >The marks left in the ground, the way the tires kick up so much dirt and grass...
  7019. >It was absolute perfection.
  7020. >Something you never thought you'd experience again.
  7021. >Your arms physically cannot maintain the drift, and so you stop doing it, steering in a gentler circle and ramping down the throttle, making your way back to the group.
  7022. >There's varying degrees of shock on their faces.
  7023. >Sunburst has the worst of it.
  7024. >Crescent just looks more impressed.
  7026. >The car comes to a stop next to them, and a 'stop' button is hit, silencing the engine in a rather unhealthy-sounding way.
  7027. >Your arms hurt like hell, from all the steering and braking.
  7028. >And you give not a single, solitary fuck.
  7029. >Not even a microfuck.
  7030. >As you step out of the vehicle, Crescent sounds off with a low whistle.
  7031. >"Bloody buck, Ahnon. Ah've seen gryphon drug runners fly chariots less aggressive than that!"
  7032. >"Th-that's a bit racist..."
  7033. >"Ya haven't met many gryphons, have ya-- Whoa!"
  7034. >"Ack!"
  7035. >Shh, no redpills now, horses.
  7036. >Just bear hugs.
  7037. >"C-can't breathe...!"
  7038. >"C-cripes, Ahnon, at least take me to dinner first!"
  7039. "Thank you so much."
  7040. >No, no tears yet, Anon.
  7041. >Hold out just a little longer.
  7042. "Never in a million years did I think I'd do that again. I--"
  7043. >Choke that manly sob back, you cuck!
  7044. "I don't even have words for this. Just... thank you."
  7045. >Before the high-T tears of pure joy start leaking down, your grip around those two loosens up, with Sunburst heard taking huge gulps of air soon afterwards.
  7046. >Now the waterworks can begin.
  7047. >"Ah'd tell ya not ta mention it, but Ah'm just too damn proud'a it!"
  7048. >"Haah... haah... P-please, don't do that again..."
  7049. >"Ach, it wasn't even that bad, lad!"
  7050. >"W-was, too..."
  7051. >You don't say anything.
  7052. >You can't say anything.
  7053. >Even as the others offer their praises to the first two automakers on Equus, you stay silent, hugging it out with them.
  7054. >You've had a lot of birthdays, before.
  7055. >More missed birthdays than you'd care to remember.
  7056. >But this?
  7057. >Best make-up birthday ever.
  7058. >The best by several country miles.
  7060. @@@@@@@@
  7062. >Everyone started making their way back to the castle after that, with the spiffy new car getting towed along by magic, owing to the noisy-as-shit engine in it.
  7063. >You still can't fucking believe that Sunburst made a functioning car!
  7064. >You mean, you knew the guy could extrapolate designs from your vague descriptions with downright scary accuracy, but this?
  7065. >Forget gearhead, this nigga's a fucking technomancer!
  7066. >It honestly makes you wonder if he got the wrong cutie mark!
  7067. >Heh, wonder if Starlight would have an--
  7068. >Starlight.
  7069. >She's still...
  7070. >Aw, fuck.
  7071. >Why'd you have to...?
  7072. >No no no, none of that!
  7073. >The docs are doing all they can for her!
  7074. >You need to change thought trains, Anon, and you need to change them right fucking now.
  7075. >Uhh...
  7076. >The car!
  7077. >R-right...
  7078. >You were kind of surprised at how, well, barebones it really was.
  7079. >Granted, it's a fucking diesel engine in a world with a tech level of basic bitch steam engines, but still!
  7080. >You were half expecting some kind of hybrid switchable engine system, with one engine working off diesel, and the other working off magic.
  7081. >Wouldn't be hard to make, either: you had to make one to get some isolated generator movement into your mag room!
  7082. >Maybe it's worth looking into later?
  7083. >Although, hybrid engines is a bit too... metropolitan.
  7084. >What about some weapons?
  7085. >Yeah, add a dash of Mad Max to it!
  7086. >Ooh, a good ballista, maybe?
  7087. >Or straight up 007 that shit with some hidden thaumic pew-pew weapons?
  7088. >Oh, yeah...
  7089. >The more you consider all those highly lethal makeovers, the more you want to throw on.
  7091. >Man, if only you had some fucking guns to go with it!
  7092. >But damn it, their damage output just wasn't enough to keep up with the firing speed!
  7093. >Assuming you could pull off a traditional muzzle-loader, which didn't seem that tough, you'd still be able to fire faster, get more penetration, and shoot different ammo types with your magical bow!
  7094. >A bow that you're now beginning to plan on making full-on compound, just for some extra oomph.
  7095. >Still, the gun question is worth considering.
  7096. >Getting it to top the effectiveness of your bow, however, would require teching up, at the very least, to something that uses cartridges or shells.
  7097. >Leaning more towards shells, not going to lie.
  7098. >Your close-range is far more shit than you'd care to admit, especially after the huge fight you had.
  7099. >Hmm...
  7100. >A good sawed-off would serve you pretty well there, wouldn't it?
  7101. >Maybe something classical and known-reliable, like a good old fashioned break-action shotgun?
  7102. >Double barrelled, even?
  7103. >As you ponder this more, a great idea forms, along with an overarching problem.
  7104. >You could definitely construct something like that with a similar structure as a staff, and slap foci onto the gun!
  7105. >Shoot magical attacks, or more interesting, infuse your shots with magic, just like in the bow!
  7106. >Man, imagine some fire-infused buckshot!
  7107. >A Bluebaide-enhanced slug?
  7108. >Christ, would that qualify as a fucking railgun by that point?
  7109. >But...
  7110. >The problem is, it'll be another thing dependent on magic to function.
  7111. >And you're just starting to make that hand-crank portable magnetic 'ADS' of sorts.
  7113. >While sure, the thing would brutally rape any Equus native, and totally cuck any magical bullshittery that fucking Nito might pull from the fucking Doom Dimension, or wherever the fuck he gets his edgy powers from...
  7114. >The same is also true for you, and your friends.
  7115. >Your entire arsenal, your special shielded armour, all of it, totally depowered and needing a recharge at best, permanently disabled and needing re-infusion at worst.
  7116. >That's to say nothing of repeating what happened with Razor...
  7117. >Fucking hell.
  7118. >You're too dependent on the magic.
  7119. >You know you're too dependent on it, but you just can't think of a way out of using it!
  7120. >The problem with the magnetism, once again, is how much of a colossal double-edged sword it is!
  7121. >And worst of all, Nito is just flat-out better than you, when magic is removed from the equation.
  7122. >Faster, stronger, and far more brutal.
  7123. >He'd fucking murder you, if you tried this shit.
  7124. >You're still going to go forward with the portable mag generator, but...
  7125. >There's got to be a better way of using this!
  7126. >Some way that doesn't involve completely cucking your own loadout!
  7127. >But what, though?
  7128. >Hmm...
  7129. >Maybe, remotely triggering mag fields?
  7130. >Setting them up as if they're bombs?
  7131. >Huh.
  7132. >Magnetic 'bombs'...
  7133. >That doesn't sound half bad.
  7134. >If you put down a huge iron-core coil with a lead-acid battery, and put that shit inside of, say, an enemy base...
  7135. >God, that would be fucking devastating!
  7136. >Sounds like a solid application to you, but...
  7137. >How the fuck do you plan on transporting all that shit, much less stealthily planting it?
  7139. >That train of thought has to take a temporary vacation, as Twilight's castle comes up quickly, the setting sun hiding behind it and casting some pretty neat shadows.
  7140. >Looking over your shoulder, you find Celly and Luna doing their magic moving-the-heavens schtick as they walk.
  7141. >Man, you remember past-you being freaked out when you first saw them do that.
  7142. >Now it's just... kind of there.
  7143. >Heh, and there you thought the sudden sunrise and sunset was just alternate dimension cartoon logic.
  7144. >Oh well, whatever.
  7145. >Everyone files back in, and you're greeted by the tables being much, much more covered in food and drink, with the resident minotaur at the tail end of setting all of that stuff up.
  7146. >He then looks up towards you and your group, and smiles wide.
  7147. >"Finally ready to get this show on the road?"
  7148. >No arguments from your groupie, with Pinkie of course being the first to literally torpedo towards a table and start sampling things.
  7149. >The bull-man's eyes stay on you, as everyone else starts spreading out to the food.
  7150. >"Been busy lately, huh?"
  7151. "Friend, you've got no idea."
  7152. >"You sure look the part. Looks like you took the advice on the diet, too."
  7153. "Did a little better than that."
  7154. >"Hah! Tell you what, I'll set you up with the usual, you tell me more about it?"
  7155. "Oh, I'd love to."
  7156. >Or at least you would, if a white wing didn't come out to stop you.
  7157. >"I'll have to ask you to wait just a moment longer, Anon."
  7158. >Looking over at Celestia, it's clear that she wants to tell you something.
  7159. >Evidently it's a more sensitive something, if she led you to a quiet corner, like this.
  7161. >"I believe that now would be a good time to present you with my own little gift, Anon."
  7162. >She allows herself a little chuckle, halfway between serious and light-hearted.
  7163. >"And the timing of today couldn't be better for it."
  7164. "Yeah?"
  7165. >"My gift to you, Anon, is progress. Your little gambit paid off. Chrysalis led some of my scouts to his mountain base."
  7166. >What?
  7167. "Seriously?"
  7168. >"Indeed. I was surprised at how cooperative she was, actually, but I hope you'll forgive me for implementing some extra... assurances."
  7169. "Define 'assurances'."
  7170. >"I've never been one for trusting enemies, especially not of that calibre. Let's just say that her own life is on the line as well, not just her child's."
  7171. "Do I want to know?"
  7172. >"You'll know when you see her next."
  7173. "Right..."
  7174. >Considering that she maybe kind of implied that she 'interrogated' Athalia before...
  7175. >Yeesh, you knew she could be ruthless at times, like when she first found out about your thaumaturgy stuff, but straight-up torture?
  7176. >Definitely glad things worked out like this, between you two.
  7177. >"It'll be another few days, however. We know the location, but she and my scouts are intent on mapping out the area in more detail, a move I have sanctioned."
  7178. "Don't wanna go in blind, huh?"
  7179. >"This is the closest we have gotten to striking back at Incognito. I will not stumble blindly into our best chance at a counterattack."
  7180. "I'll drink to that. Well, if I had a drink."
  7181. >"Ah, yes, that reminds me of my other gift to you."
  7182. "Man, another?"
  7183. >"Luna insisted on delivering it to you personally. I think you'll appreciate it."
  7185. "Celly, I've got an actual target to make a move on. How are you gonna top that?"
  7186. >"I suppose you'll have to find out, then, won't you?"
  7187. >Man, she does the 'smug but not bitchy' sideways smile so damn well.
  7188. "Guess so, huh? Uh, thanks, by the way. Really, it means a lot to me."
  7189. >"Don't you mention it, Anon. Now, go have your fun. It's not every day that you get to celebrate many missed birthdays at once."
  7190. "What, you not joining us?"
  7191. >"I'm afraid not. Somepony has to watch all of you, to say nothing of the never-ending paperwork."
  7192. "Aw, come on, paperwork during a party?"
  7193. >"It can't be helped."
  7194. "But--"
  7195. >"My mind's made up. Enjoy your party, Anon."
  7196. >One last smile, and she trots off to a more empty table.
  7197. >Well, uh, that happened.
  7198. >Shit, you'll have to get your armour expedited for that upcoming base!
  7199. >Hell, you'll have to get everything expedited for it!
  7200. >Well, that's a problem for future you.
  7201. >That and the possibility of shotguns.
  7202. >Shit, that'd be a pretty good complement for your current DEX build.
  7203. >No, no more work, Anon.
  7204. >Back to the celebrations.
  7205. >Walking back, you find the tables getting mercilessly slaughtered by your entourage of horses.
  7206. >Naturally, you have to join them in the devouring of innocent morsels.
  7207. >And man, whoever made this stuff up was real good.
  7208. >Special complements to the maker of the punch, too, even if it wasn't spiked.
  7209. >Then, of course, came the cake reveal.
  7210. >Classic Pinkie handiwork, complete with the absolute coolest domino-like sparkler arrangement you've ever seen.
  7211. >Almost felt bad for eating that showpiece.
  7212. >Almost.
  7214. >After the cake was sufficiently eaten into, your course took you to the bar, where you found Crescent chatting up a storm with the barkeep.
  7215. >Judging from the shared laughs, you'd say it's a good storm.
  7216. >She even has Sunburst sitting at it, with her trying to convince him to drink a bottle of... something.
  7217. >The barkeep's assurance of it's very low alcohol content doesn't do a whole lot to inspire him.
  7218. >He finally picks up the bottle and starts downing it, as a familiar voice comes from the side.
  7219. >"Dearest Anon!"
  7220. >After getting your attention, Luna led you over to a round table, where Twilight, Razor, Dash, and AJ were all sitting.
  7221. >More notably, the table was full of booze.
  7222. >Ohh boy, you know where this is going.
  7223. >And you like the direction.
  7224. >"Have a seat, Anon. There is one final gift I would have you receive."
  7225. >From underneath the table, she floated out a small crate full of bottles, filled with distinctly alchemical... something.
  7226. >You, meanwhile, take your seat.
  7227. "And what's this?"
  7228. >"Something my sister commissioned for you, and something I did not know existed before! Alchemical potions, intended to negate the effects of the common hangover!"
  7229. >Wait, what?!
  7230. "Those exist?"
  7231. >"Apparently so, and I intend to verify this claim!"
  7232. "That shit damn well better work, because-- Wait, you're gonna verify it?"
  7233. >"Of course, dearest Anon."
  7234. >She takes her seat, wearing the smile of a challenger.
  7235. >"It has been far too long, since I have been able to do this. And I intend to see how well your limits compare to my own!"
  7236. "That sounds awfully like a challenge, Luna."
  7238. >Her smirk grows, followed by her downing one of the potions with a slight grimace, then chasing it with a shot glass full of...
  7239. >Wait.
  7240. >Did she just chug a glass of that whiskey?
  7241. >The ponies in attendance look shocked by the display, especially Razor.
  7242. >You, meanwhile, drink one of those same bottles, never breaking eye contact with Luna.
  7243. "You know..."
  7244. >Man, this shit is nasty.
  7245. >No wonder she chased it down.
  7246. >Ah, but you'll endure.
  7247. "I drink for funsies now, to be all social and unwind and shit. But it wasn't always that way."
  7248. >A shot glass is pulled over to you.
  7249. "Used to be, I drank myself nearly into comas, just to get away from the shit festival that was my life, at the time."
  7250. >Her look wavered.
  7251. >Hell, you'd be shocked if it didn't.
  7252. "I'd like to think I've got one hell of a liver for this, as a result. And besides..."
  7253. >One particular bottle sticks out to you.
  7254. >'Genuine Reindeer Vodka'.
  7255. >Her eyes bulge when she sees you grab the bottle.
  7256. "Only a savage drinks shots of whiskey."
  7257. >The shot is poured and drank, causing jaws to drop.
  7258. >And whoooooaly piss!
  7259. >This was some of the best vodka you've ever had!
  7260. >Definitely stronger than the whiskey, too!
  7261. >Even as you feel it hit you, and even as you put on your own challenging smirk, you never break eye contact with Luna.
  7262. >Then, her horn lights up, drawing the bottle over to her.
  7263. >"I've only ever seen Cadance drink that, and remain standing."
  7264. >Her shock is gone, replaced with pure challenge as she pours out a shot for herself.
  7265. >"But I remain the unofficial Equestrian drinking champion, Anonymous!"
  7267. >Well, can't fault her style.
  7268. >She knocks back the shot with gusto, and with that, the game begins.
  7269. >The others barely drink at all, instead just watching the show unfold.
  7270. >You and Luna, passing the bottle to one another, drinking shots of vodka.
  7271. >Granted, pony shot glasses are a good half the size of human ones, but you're far past caring at this stage.
  7272. >Even as shit starts to sway, and as your arms become one with the Force, Luna doesn't give in, even through her own obvious swaying.
  7273. >Heheheh...
  7274. >You like thish pony, more an' more!
  7275. >"Looks like yer havin' fun there, Ahnon!"
  7276. "Oh, hey Creschent!"
  7277. >"Hah, you fillies mind if Ah join ya?"
  7278. >She pullsh up a chair for hershelf, an shtarts drinkin' some'a your whishkey.
  7279. >Hehehehe, look'at her go!
  7280. >Two highballsh down, n' still goin strong!
  7281. >Actually...
  7282. >Sh-shomethingsh not right therrrre...
  7283. >An' whatsh Razhor chucklin' aboot?
  7284. >AJ shuddenly looksh a lot angrier, an pointsh a hoof at Creschent, all acc--
  7285. >Accu--
  7286. >Sh-she'sh blamin her for schomething!
  7287. >"Ya rotten cheater!"
  7288. >"What, me?"
  7289. >"That's what ya drank outta that darned flask back there, a liquor-scrubber!"
  7290. >L-liquor-schrubb'r?
  7291. >N-no way...
  7292. >She tried to out-drink you, all cheater-like?
  7293. >After getting nervous and defenshive, AJ tried to tackle her, only for Creschent to take off and fly away.
  7294. >"Ye'll never take me alive!"
  7295. >Oh, itsch pershonal now.
  7296. >You stumble-march to Luna, an embarrased squeak leaving her as you sit atop her back.
  7297. >"A-Anon! Wh-what are--"
  7298. >A tap of your heels on her sides silences her.
  7299. "I am assuming direct control."
  7300. <...
  7302. >"Too much for you, little guy?"
  7303. "Ohh, boy... everything's all swirly and light..."
  7304. >"Hah! You'll get used to it, don't worry!"
  7305. >S-stupid minotaur bartender, convincing you to drink that stupid light beer!
  7306. >Stupid Crescent, egging you on!
  7307. >Stupid you, asking for another two!
  7308. >B-but they tasted so good, how could you resist?
  7309. >Wh-where'd Crescent go, anyways?
  7310. >Y-you're gonna give her Tartarus for this!
  7311. >You stumble a little, getting off the stool, but you eventually--
  7312. >"Aaaah! Ah'm sorry, Ahnon!"
  7313. >W-wait, wha--
  7314. >WHOOSH
  7315. >"Your interference has ended. This is what you face."
  7316. >W-was that Anon?
  7317. >Looking up, you--
  7318. >Ohh my gosh, he's riding on top of Luna?!
  7319. >And he's chasing Crescent around the room!
  7320. >"My attacks will tear you apart."
  7321. >A-and he's throwing cake at her!
  7322. >"This is true power."
  7323. >"Oh goddess, Ah'm sorry! Ah won't do it again, Ah swear!"
  7324. >Her pleas fall on deaf ears, as he continues chasing Crescent around the room.
  7325. >Th-this is even worse than that one time he rode Twilight around the room, singing really badly all the while!
  7326. >A-and yet...
  7327. >"Face your annihilation."
  7328. >splat
  7329. >"Aah! Stop it, stop it please!"
  7330. >Mister Razor can be heard howling with laughter in the background.
  7331. >H-heheh...
  7332. >You know, you might not need to give her an earful, after all!
  7333. >Yeah, you're gonna sit back, and enjoy this!
  7334. >The bartender already had another bottle ready for you, and you quickly scoop it up, sipping on the contents while you watch the show above unfold.
  7335. >"P-princess, please stop him!"
  7336. >"No mercy for cheaters!"
  7337. >"If I must tear you apart, Crescent, I will."
  7338. <...
  7340. >Ohh God, your head...
  7341. >It's...
  7342. >Wha?
  7343. >Not hurting?
  7344. >No, it's just hurting a tiny bit.
  7345. >The fuck?
  7346. >And why do you feel so damn warm?
  7347. >Your eyes slowly crack open, adjusting to the light.
  7348. >The ceiling is the first thing you see, in all it's tree-root hanging-lantern glory.
  7349. >So, Twilight's place?
  7350. >The party, right!
  7351. >So you--
  7352. >A light snore from below your head draws your attention, and looking down gets you...
  7353. >Uh...
  7354. >You seem to currently be part of a post-drinking cuddle pile, arms wrapped around a soundly sleeping Twilight and Luna.
  7355. >Well, uh...
  7356. >You've definitely woken up to worse...?
  7357. >Geez, you must've put away...
  7358. >Was it a dozen pony shots?
  7359. >Maybe more?
  7360. >Fuck, you don't remember.
  7361. >Though you sure remember the potion thing!
  7362. >That shit really works!
  7363. >Definitely taking some bottles with you next time!
  7364. >Heh...
  7365. >The sight of those two is goddamn adorable, especially with the messed-up hair.
  7366. >Man, at least you had a nice pillow to go with this!
  7367. >"Nggh... no more..."
  7368. >Huh, do pillows usually speak in Scottish accents?
  7369. >Or...
  7370. >Or does Crescent just make one hell of a pillow?
  7371. >Also, why the hell is she covered in dried-up cake and frosting?
  7372. >"Noo... w-won't do it... again..."
  7373. >God, what did you do this time?
  7374. >Some chuckling can be heard off to the side, belonging to Celestia, who walks up to you and the other members of your pile.
  7375. >"I'll take them from here, Anon."
  7376. >She floats them off of you, with no shortage of reluctance on your part.
  7377. >Still, it lets you sit up and check the time.
  7378. >Wait, it's like two in the morning?
  7379. >Ah, fuck it, you're going back to sleep.
  7380. <...
  7382. @@@@@@@@
  7384. >Aah...
  7385. >You'll never take these pods for granted, ever again.
  7386. >Rising out of the pod, you're greeted by the lings you spoke to yesterday night.
  7387. >`Your majesty, we've finished cleaning out the hive, like you ordered! The chamber's ready for you, now!`
  7388. >Just like you'll never take speaking this language with them for granted, either.
  7389. `Good. Collect your reward.`
  7390. >You figured a full love gem was a suitable reward for them.
  7391. >Anyways, you finish climbing out of the resting pod, but this time, you walk into the nearby passage leading to the cleansing chamber.
  7392. >Or rather, the passage that leads to the future cleansing chamber.
  7393. >You emerge into the chamber, and find everything laid out for you, just like you ordered.
  7394. >The spring, dug up and routed properly.
  7395. >The basin, ready to be filled.
  7396. >The raw materials set up for you, over to the side.
  7397. >Now, let's see if those strange dreams you had about this process, actually work in reality.
  7398. >First, the love gems need to be powdered.
  7399. >At first, you try really hard to recall the details of what the dream's 'recipe' taught.
  7400. >But as you finished grinding up the gems with strange, almost practiced ease, you start moving on to the other components, in short order.
  7401. >It's as if you've done this a hundred times before, and are just following the motions, despite it being your first time.
  7402. >Before you know it, the basin is set up with the dry ingredients, prepped and ready.
  7403. >Now, if you unblock the spring inlet, it should work...
  7404. >The water hits the ingredients, and reacts almost immediately.
  7406. >The ground-up items seem to swirl through the water of their own accord, glowing a deep blue colour as it goes.
  7407. >It continues doing that until you block up the spring inlet, at which point the reaction changes.
  7408. >The liquid begins to thicken and lose transparency, turning a dark shade of teal as it goes.
  7409. >Before long, the liquid settles down to being just like what you remember: an oily-looking pool of lightly glowing dark teal liquid, with that unique, pleasing scent to it.
  7410. >A cleansing pool.
  7411. >It...
  7412. >It actually worked!
  7413. >You don't know how to feel about just... instinctively knowing how to make this, but who can argue with the results?
  7414. >The drying, flaky residue of the resting pod makes itself known, and you use the opportunity to test out the pool.
  7415. >Aah...
  7416. >It's perfect!
  7417. >Every speck of dirt melting away, every muscle relaxing, every surface, nook and cranny getting polished...
  7418. >Ohh, you missed this so much!
  7419. >You sit there in the pool, taking in the sensation, the familiar turquoise fog beginning to very slowly 'steam' off of it's surface.
  7420. >Nothing could ruin this for you--
  7421. >>`There you are!`
  7422. "Gaah!"
  7423. >A fresh wave of pain lanced through your head, almost causing you to double over into the pool.
  7424. >>`Do you know how long it takes to find somespirit again, after getting cut off mid-conversation?`
  7425. >You're forced to lean out the side of the pool, resting your head on a nearby flat surface, clutching it with both hooves.
  7426. >>`Next time, try to at least have the good decency not to let that damnable Riafalt touch you again! At least not while we're still with you!`
  7428. >Damn it, damn it, DAMN IT!
  7429. >You just had to bucking ask!
  7430. >You thought you'd been forgetting something, after your return here!
  7431. >>`Now, we've got some serious catching up to do, you hear us?`
  7432. >More pain shoots through you, increasing in intensity rapidly.
  7433. >However, the pool's mist begins to coalesce around you, the pool 'boiling' to create more as it goes.
  7434. >Th-the pool!
  7435. >It thinks you're wounded!
  7436. >S-so it's--
  7437. >>`Oh, for the love of the Soulcairn, what are you doing, now?!`
  7438. "Shut... up!"
  7439. >>`Is that how you're going to be, then? Why we chose YOU for our twice-cursed prophecy is beyond this part! If it were up to--`
  7440. >Suddenly, the pressure in your head lets up, causing you to gasp, and the fog to stop it's painkilling effects.
  7441. >The presence isn't gone though, not by any means.
  7442. >Instead, it feels like...
  7443. >Like it's being fought over?
  7444. >Soon after, another voice makes itself known, more familiar and without the pain this time.
  7445. >>`Oh, how good it is to sense your presence again, neophyte! You had us quite worried there!`
  7446. >The four-armed spirit's voice...!
  7447. >>`It was perhaps not very wise to continue speaking to you while the Failure wielded Ynnead's prize weapon, but it was a small price to pay to ensure your continued survival, as well as the survival of the Destroyer.
  7448. >>`We are quite pleased to see that move has paid off.`
  7449. >While the voice wasn't actively trying to hurt you, a pressure was beginning to build in your head, causing your head to hurt more and more.
  7450. >>`Oh, do forgive us, you must have quite the headache right now.
  7452. >>`There's a good reason we visit our charges in their dreams, you see.`
  7453. >The mist began to wrap around you again, doing a decent job at assuaging the now-splitting headache.
  7454. >>`Ah, yes. Neophyte, find the leading blood alchemist within the hour. Tell her that the emissary is waiting.`
  7455. >And just as your vision was starting to blur, the pressure stops.
  7456. >A noise halfway between a grunt and a gasp escapes you.
  7457. >You...
  7458. >You don't believe it.
  7459. >Of all the things--
  7460. >`Your highness!`
  7461. >Wha--?
  7462. >Oh, gosh, the drones!
  7463. >They must've sensed you were in pain!
  7464. >There was some warrior drones, armed to the teeth and ready to fight off whatever they thought was harming you.
  7465. >If only they could actually harm this enemy...
  7466. >`Your highness, are you well?`
  7467. `Fine.`
  7468. >`But--`
  7469. `I am fine. Don't worry about it.`
  7470. >It's nice that they want to protect you so badly, but there's just nothing they can do.
  7471. >Unless they can fight disembodied void spirits, anyways...
  7472. >Reluctantly, their concern for you felt even stronger, they retreat from the chamber, leaving you alone again.
  7473. >You quickly climb out of the pool, the moment they're out of sight.
  7474. >Well...
  7475. >At least you know where to go, if these damn spirits started to hurt you again!
  7476. >Agh, the problems just never end, don't they?
  7477. >Escaping Canterlot, fleeing Anonymous, falling into a coma for days, settling in, and having that despicable Veldheer make passes at you wasn't enough?
  7478. >Now the voices decide to rear their heads, too?
  7479. >And to think, you were finally starting to sleep well, again!
  7480. >Damn it all!
  7481. >Agh, no, focus...!
  7483. >What did that one spirit say?
  7484. >'Find the leading blood alchemist'?
  7485. >Blood alchemy?
  7486. >Is...
  7487. >Is that something that really exists?
  7488. >W-well, if it did, then you can't think of a more fitting zebra tribe to practice it...
  7489. >And if if was going to be a 'leading' role...
  7490. >That can't be anypony else but Zamara.
  7491. >But, what's with the message they wanted you to send?
  7492. >Well...
  7493. >It's not like you had much else to do today, outside of train and practice.
  7494. >With Incognito and Ajay gone, off on that mission to wipe out another zebra tribe...
  7495. >Damn it.
  7496. >Groaning, and with one final shake of your head, you make to leave the chamber.
  7497. >Damn voices.
  7498. >So pushy.
  7499. >Helpful, sure, but it's not like you asked for them to 'help' you!
  7500. >They certainly didn't leave a good first impression, either!
  7501. >You still remember the worst of it.
  7502. >Spoonfed some kind of 'medicine' by that damn doctor, then the voices flooding your head...
  7503. >Damn it.
  7504. >You soon find yourself exiting the hive, and after a quick inquiry, start making your way back to the temple.
  7505. >Thankfully, your passage goes without incident, with nopony stopping you.
  7506. >Once you head into the giant, equipment-filled central area, and head down a few passageways, you come across a door with a very prominent 'keep out' message painted on it.
  7507. >The bones and occasional smears of dried blood decorating the door helped to carry the message.
  7508. >Can't say you'd ever enter a door like this, normally.
  7509. >But you can sense Zamara behind the door, and the voice was pretty insistent on 'within the hour'.
  7510. >Ugh, let's just get this over with.
  7512. >The handle is turned, the door pulling open.
  7513. >Immediately, you notice the smell.
  7514. >Strong herbs and spices, mixed with a hint of carrion.
  7515. >"Who dares enter this sacred place?"
  7516. >Well, her anger certainly spiked!
  7517. >There she was, in the middle of...
  7518. >A spell circle?
  7519. >Drawn in blood?