PASTEDOWN_OLD   133    81521   467.89 KB

Thaumaturgy With Anon [5/?]

By HK-FortySeven
Created: 2nd November 2020 02:17:59 PM

  1. @@@@@@@@
  2. @ Thaumaturgy with Anon, Pt. 5
  3. @ Originally posted to Pastebin on Apr 16, 2018
  4. @@@@@@@@
  5. @ Hold up, stranger. Did you read the last part?
  6. @ If you didn't, I have several questions. But I'll stow them in lieu of the link:
  7. @@@@@@@@
  8.  
  9. "Doc, you sure about that?"
  10. >"I am. There is nothing wrong with princess Twilight. If anything, she seems to be healthier than normal."
  11. >That can't be right, not after what just--
  12. >"Anon, really, I'm fine. It didn't hurt me, it just surprised me."
  13. "But I saw--"
  14. >"I know, I saw it, too. But really, it was fine."
  15. >You want to keep arguing this with her, but...
  16. >Damn it.
  17. "You sure...?"
  18. >"Absolutely."
  19. >As if to prove it, she jumped down off of the doctor's bed, spinning in place.
  20. >"Well, I hope you will exercise greater care in the future, princess. You are still dealing with unknown magic, and Anon is right to be worried about you. If anything changes, please don't hesitate to see me."
  21. >"I will, doctor."
  22. >The doc nods, and the two of you leave the examination room.
  23. >"All right, what are we waiting for?"
  24. "What?"
  25. >She's already started trotting away, a not insignificant spring in her step.
  26. "Hey, wait up! What do you mean?"
  27. >"I mean more magic work, of course! What else would I mean?"
  28. "Wait, you want to get right back into it?!"
  29. >"Of course! Don't you want to get your focus working right?"
  30. "Well, yeah, but holy shit girl, you gotta pace yourself!"
  31. >All she does is giggle in response.
  32. >God damn it.
  33. >The two of you soon arrive back at your castle room, back through the slipgate, and into your lab again.
  34. >It's nice to see her energized like this, but right off of seeing the doc for...
  35. >Whatever the hillbilly fuck that node did to her?
  36. >No, no, something's not right here.
  37. >That can't have seriously been good for her!
  38. >Can it?
  39.  
  40. >"So, you promise not to do more of that crazy beam stuff?"
  41. "'Crazy beam stuff'--?"
  42. >"Good! You really gave Anon a scare there, you know!"
  43. >Wait, wha--
  44. >Oh what the fuck, she's talking to your node?!
  45. >And when did she get that wand back on?
  46. >"I know you meant well, but... uh... well, actually, what did you mean with all that, anyways?"
  47. "Twilight, for the love of God, stop it!"
  48. >"It'll be fine, Anon. Pedullal promised not to do any more of those crazy shenanigans."
  49. "That doesn't--"
  50. >Wait.
  51. "Who the fuck is 'Pedullal'?"
  52. >She points to...
  53. >"This is Pedullal, of course!"
  54. >Your node.
  55. "The node."
  56. >"Yes, the node! Or... wait, what is your race's name, anyways?"
  57. >Your node has a fucking name.
  58. >And can apparently talk to Twilight.
  59. >Now you've seen it all.
  60. >"Oh, you're called 'ascendants'? But a name like that implies, well, 'ascendance' from something else, doesn't it?"
  61. >Huh, been a while since you were at a loss for words.
  62. >"Really? So, you were once a powerful magician? What did you do, back when--?"
  63. >She recoils a little.
  64. >"S-sorry, I didn't mean to upset you! I just--
  65. >"Wait, what do you mean it's rude to remember?
  66. >"But... Huh, really...? So... Aaaahh, I think I get it! Sorry, sorry, I didn't realize that was a faux pas for your race!"
  67. "Should I just... leave you to it?"
  68. >"Oh, sorry Anon, I didn't mean to ignore you! Say, since you're here, could you maybe help us a little bit, Pedullal?"
  69. >And now she's asking it for help.
  70. >Now you've really seen it all.
  71. >"I-it's a bit rude to call him a 'void', isn't it? I know it's descriptive, but still...
  72.  
  73. >"Oh, well, the problem we're having is..."
  74. >She starts to tell the node about the details of your issue, in her usual levels of explicit detail.
  75. >While she does that, you grab your manalenses and throw them on, to gauge just what in the fuck is going on.
  76. >You're met with the sight of the node, it's central 'black hole' dilated a bit, with several links going between it and Twilight.
  77. >The links were extremely weak, definitely incapable of any real mana flow, but they were oscillating like crazy.
  78. >Filtering out Twilight's 'owned' magic broke the sight down to both her node and your lab's one, allowing you to see the details a lot more finely.
  79. >And it took a moment to notice that whenever Twilight spoke, the links from her to the lab node would oscillate in time with her voice.
  80. >Presumably, the lab node's links oscillating back to her was indicative of it 'speaking' to her.
  81. >This is fucking crazy.
  82. >Nothing in the Lexica said anything about them being full-on sapient!
  83. >Although, now that you're seeing the two of them...
  84. >Twilight's node was... really 'new' looking, brighter, and seemed to emit little waves of pale blue light from the central 'black hole', radiating outwards until they diffused and faded away into the air.
  85. >There was something almost relaxing about the way that looked.
  86. >Contrast that to your lab node, which looked... far more 'normal' by contrast.
  87. >It looked a fair bit older, it wasn't quite as bright as hers, though not dim by any means, and it certainly didn't emit those nice light waves.
  88. >It looked plain, for lack of a better term.
  89.  
  90. >That, and it wasn't sitting inside of one of your best friends.
  91. >"And that's really about it. We've been banging our heads at this problem for days, now. Is there anything you can--
  92. >"Huh? What do you mean by that?
  93. >"But... Wait, what do you mean, you're not allowed to just give us the answer?
  94. >"Oh, you're kidding. What kind of restriction is that? This is important!"
  95. >Uh-oh, sounds like it's not cooperating as much as she'd hoped.
  96. >"Agh, I don't want to solve these puzzles and riddles! Can't you just--"
  97. "'Puzzles and riddles'?"
  98. >She turns back to you, looking a fair bit more peeved than before.
  99. >"It wants me to 'uncover the truth'! It's giving me all kinds of weird riddles and instructions!"
  100. "What kind of instructions?"
  101. >"I don't-- Ugh, I can't really describe it."
  102. "Well, can you write it down?"
  103. >"I guess so..."
  104. >She floats some paper over, and starts writing something down, occasionally stopping to ask the node for details.
  105. >One sheet is floated over, as she gets to work on the next one.
  106. >On it, is...
  107. >Huh.
  108. >That's uncanny, in a really unnerving way.
  109. >It almost looked like a research section of the Lexica.
  110. >Except it was nowhere near as scientific in tone, instead full of poetic phrasing and riddles, like it's trying intentionally to be as vague as humanly possible.
  111. >Well, nodely possible.
  112. >And what's with the opening phrase?
  113. >'No provision of power has ever existed, that has not borne a vacancy whereupon it derives it's strength.'
  114. >That's not even phrased well!
  115. >And what's that even supposed to--
  116. >ding
  117. >"Seriously, can't you be more specific? Please?"
  118.  
  119. >Supply and demand.
  120. >Newton's third law.
  121. >You get it.
  122. >You know what the phrase means.
  123. >You're approaching this problem all wrong.
  124. >It's not that the energy isn't being made to flow.
  125. >It's that the energy isn't being attracted.
  126. >The fins were never going to work.
  127. >Not when they were at the same magical 'potential' that the staff itself was at.
  128. >Oh, dear God.
  129. >You work with electricity, and you can't even see the parallels between electric and magical circuits.
  130. >You fucking dumbass.
  131. >"Please? We don't have--"
  132. "Tell the node I said thanks."
  133. >"H-huh? Why?"
  134. "I know why it's not working."
  135. >"What?"
  136. "Are you done writing?"
  137. >"W-well, yeah, but--"
  138. "I'll need your help with reading this, figuring it out."
  139. >You stride over to your table, paper and quills at the ready.
  140. >"I... e-excuse me for a moment, Pedullal."
  141. >You're already writing down the big epiphany you had.
  142. >"Anon, what was the problem?"
  143. "We've been looking at this all wrong."
  144. >"Huh?"
  145. >You finish writing, and show her the description, while you get to work on reading the rest of the node's paper.
  146. >You hate the flowery language, insofar as it's slowing your attempts to understand it, but--
  147. >"Th-this is... an abridged version of 'Spell Circle's Theory of Arcane Attraction'! B-but that theory was pseudoscience, it was debunked by Starswirl's fourth and fifth rules of magical flow, from his Generalized Magic theorems!"
  148. "Technically, thaumaturgy violates his seventh rule of needing intent."
  149. >"B-but--"
  150. "And the tenth rule on being unable to bend the currents."
  151.  
  152. >Boy, those points of contention take you back.
  153. >Back to when you used to argue about your way of doing magic with her, how she kept saying it was impossible.
  154. >Heh, so much for Starswirl's 'theorems', eh?
  155. >Fortunately, she doesn't seem to be going crazy at having Starswirl-sensei's theories getting challenged, again.
  156. >Rather, she keeps reading it over and over again, muttering things to herself, and after a minute, starts writing things down.
  157. >You, meanwhile, manage about a quarter of this paper, before she pipes up again.
  158. >"You're right."
  159. "Hm?"
  160. >"It does violate those rules. And so does this theory. But, despite all of that, it all still works.
  161. >"I... I did a bit of calculation, and... well, what you're suggesting isn't as impossible as I thought."
  162. "We won't know for sure, until we get to the bottom of this little mystery."
  163. >"Y-yeah, you're right. H-here, let me see that."
  164. >She rears up onto the table, poring over the paper.
  165. >You lose track of time, just going at these three pages proffered by the node.
  166. >While you don't know how long it takes, you do know that it took way longer than you'd have liked, decoding this thing into something approximating a more practical and scientific-sounding paper.
  167. >In the process, you also learn that Twilight is really, really bad at practical math problems.
  168. >Funny, you were always okay with them.
  169. >Still, it meant that you had to do most of the 'practical to theoretical' word translation, with her fleshing out the underlying magical theory.
  170. >With some occasional corrections from you concerning thaumaturgy, of course.
  171.  
  172. >"I've got it! Ohmygosh, you were right!"
  173. >Huh, you hadn't even finished the last third of the final page, yet.
  174. "Let's see it."
  175. >She floats a paper into your grasp.
  176. >And...
  177. >Wow.
  178. >You were right.
  179. >Sticking the 'fins' on the staff was like sticking a piece of wire on just one battery terminal.
  180. >No fucking wonder it didn't work.
  181. >But hold on.
  182. "Twilight, what's this about 'negative energy'?"
  183. >"Oh, that! Don't worry, it's not dark magic, far from it!"
  184. "Thank God for that. So, what is it?"
  185. >"You know how our spells push magic from a source, right? More specifically, about the difference in manastatic charge between the source and the drain?"
  186. "Right?"
  187. >"Well, this potential difference isn't as absolute as I thought it was! It's all a matter of perspective!"
  188. "Uhh, what?"
  189. >"If a staff was the source, with a higher charge than it's target, it makes sense for it to flow from the staff to the target.
  190. >"But it's also equally true that the target is at a lower charge than the staff, and that from that perspective, it would be perceived as a reception of magic, not a transmission of it!"
  191. "Uhh... okay?"
  192. >"Now! The kicker comes when you string together a whole bunch of sources!"
  193. "But that'd just mean you get that many more sources worth of output."
  194. >"Not necessarily~!"
  195. >The fuck is she on about?
  196. >As if sensing your confusion, she draws a picture of a bunch of staves, channelling into each other in series, towards a target.
  197. >"You're still assuming that the baseline of the series starts at the beginning of the chain!"
  198. "Doesn't it?"
  199.  
  200. >"What if I told you, that instead of starting at the beginning of the chain..."
  201. >She draws a circle underneath the middle of the chain, where two staves were pointing at each other.
  202. >"You could instead root your perspective of it here, instead?"
  203. >Now you're really confused.
  204. "But that means the target would get less power sent to it."
  205. >"Not at all! It still has the same amount of power sent to it, only now, it appears to be from two different sources!"
  206. >She draws plus marks between the staff points leading up to the target, adding one plus for each point, until a bunch of pluses were pointed towards the target.
  207. >"From source to target..."
  208. >And then, she goes backwards, drawing minuses between the points leading away from the target, again adding one minus per point.
  209. >"And from target to source!"
  210. >And then she draws arrows, illustrating the flow direction.
  211. >Huh.
  212. "That's... weird."
  213. >"Weird? Don't you see how important this is?"
  214. "Not... really. Sorry, I'm just having a tough time, wrapping my head around that."
  215. >You're pretty sure electricity doesn't work like that.
  216. >Does it?
  217. >"Okay, well, it's true that with just one target, you could say that this perspective shift is more pedantic than helpful. But! What if we went after two targets, instead?"
  218. >Another sheet is drawn up with the same staff chain, only this time there are targets at both ends.
  219. >From the centre point, she drew the usual pluses and minuses.
  220. >One target got half the staff chain in pluses, the other in minuses, with both closing the circuit at that halfway circle mark.
  221.  
  222. >"See? You could say that you'd be sourcing from one target, and draining into another!"
  223. >Wait.
  224. >"Ohmygosh, and what if you had a way to change perspectives? You could realistically--"
  225. >Another epiphany hits you like a tornado.
  226. >Interrupting her lesson, you snag more paper, and start drawing out your concept.
  227. >"A-Anon?"
  228. >Perspective.
  229. >Fucking perspective.
  230. >Incaross was powered by the staff, but backfed more power into the staff.
  231. >But if you had a chain going, with some switches of some kind...
  232. >You could funnel the power back through an empty series!
  233. >You could actually store the backlog of magic!
  234. >This was definitely too complicated and new to just come up with revolutionary designs out of nowhere, but you write down and sketch out as much as you possibly can, before you forget.
  235. >Switches.
  236. >What could possibly work as a switch for magic?
  237. >All you had was conducting and storage material for magic, and unlike electricity, they did not like being manhandled!
  238. >How could you even affect magical conductivity like that?
  239. >You'd need some kind of really screwed-up, and almost certainly impossible partial conduction bullfuckery to even--
  240. >Partially conducting.
  241. >Semiconducting.
  242. >Fucking magic semiconductors.
  243. >More paper is consumed in your mad rush to document, and Twilight doesn't say a word, just floating you paper and quills as you go.
  244. >You're not a material scientist, though, much less a magical one.
  245. >You don't have the time or ability to fiddlefuck with materials to create a semiconductor for magic.
  246. >Unless...
  247. >Maybe you didn't need special material?
  248.  
  249. >Think, Anon.
  250. >Think back to Earth electronics.
  251. >If that's anywhere near a good analogue for this magic shit, then there has to be an example you can draw on!
  252. >Uhh, radios?
  253. >They use semiconductors.
  254. >But radio came out in, like, the twenties, right?
  255. >World war one era shit.
  256. >But didn't semiconductors only become a thing in the fifties, or something?
  257. >So what did they use for radio, before those pesky transistors?
  258. >Wait.
  259. >They used vacuum tubes, didn't they?
  260. >Could something like that fill in for semiconductors?
  261. >But how do vacuum tubes even work?
  262. >Something about a vacuum, obviously, and plates?
  263. >Heater, maybe?
  264. >Something about a 'screen' or 'grid' of some kind, too?
  265. >God, you really don't know.
  266. >But it's worth jotting down, anyways.
  267. >Vague ideas are still better than nothing.
  268. >Though with that level of vagueness, it makes you wonder if going for potential magic semiconductors is more worth it.
  269. >So many unknowns.
  270. >You finish jotting down everything you have, but still have this killer urge to write more.
  271. >Unfortunately, nothing new is coming to mind.
  272. >A hoof on your shoulder draws your attention, and turning to it gets you Twilight's knowing expression.
  273. >"I think you could use a little break, mister."
  274. "But--"
  275. >That same hoof covers your mouth.
  276. >"Uh-uh, I don't wanna hear it. I think we've both earned a break, don't you?"
  277. >Damn it.
  278. >Can't really argue with her, can you?
  279. >A reluctant nod later, and she hops back down on all fours.
  280. >"Hey, I've... been meaning to ask. How is your old house doing? Gosh, it feels so weird, calling it 'old'..."
  281.  
  282. "It, uh, could use a good bit of TLC."
  283. >Though you don't see the point, if you're not going to be living in it.
  284. >Not now, anyways.
  285. >"Well, how about we gauge that a little better?"
  286. "Wha...? What happened to 'taking a break'?"
  287. >"Does examining a house involve designing magic constructs?"
  288. "Uh, no? But that doesn't--"
  289. >"Well there you go, then!"
  290. "Now, hold on a sec--"
  291. >Or she could not hold on, and start trotting towards the passageway.
  292. "Oh, come on!"
  293. >Naturally, you have to trail after her--
  294. >"Twilight?"
  295. >Or you could turn to the distinctly Celestia-sounding voice belonging to a very Celestia-looking Celestia, that works too.
  296. >"Celestia?"
  297. >Twilight changes course towards Celestia, while she finishes clearing the slipgate.
  298. >"I was told that you were brought to the doctor. What happened?"
  299. >"Nothing, really! Anon was just worried about me, is all."
  300. >Celestia doesn't look very convinced by that, so she turns to you.
  301. >"Anon, why did you bring Twilight to the doctor?"
  302. "There may or may not have been a magical lightshow between her and the local magical distribution center."
  303. >"I'm sorry?"
  304. "She, uh, 'talked' to my lab's node. I'm not a hundred percent on the details, myself."
  305. >See, she looks concerned now, too!
  306. >You weren't crazy to be worried!
  307. >"Twilight, is that true?"
  308. >"Yes, it's true! I'll be honest, I didn't really put much stock into that 'node' theory, until we found a way for me to actually see them!"
  309. >"Please, Twilight, I know you can get excited over new discoveries, but you must always be careful when dealing with unknown magic."
  310.  
  311. >"But it's totally safe! Sure, it scared me a bit, but it's actually pretty friendly!"
  312. >You take the moment to reapply your manalens glasses, to see if your little theory here was correct.
  313. >What you saw answered that question, and asked another.
  314. >Celestia also had a node within her.
  315. >But it was... extremely rough-looking.
  316. >Always-present deformations in the field around it, looking almost like scars, were the most prominent feature, with the field itself seeming to fray near the ends.
  317. >But the central 'black hole' also looked weaker, and had a pale look to it.
  318. >"...you want to try talking to it?"
  319. >"I don't think that is a good idea, Twilight."
  320. >Oh shit, you were too focused on the node to pay attention to their conversation.
  321. >"Huh? But why not?"
  322. >"I... need time to prepare, first."
  323. >"But--"
  324. >"I'm sorry, but that is all I will say on the matter."
  325. >That's weird.
  326. >She looked a bit... evasive.
  327. >Then, she turns back to you, re-establishing her smile.
  328. >"I'm just glad it turned out well."
  329. "Yeah, me too. If I'd known that--"
  330. >"But you didn't. And believe me, I know how hard it is to keep Twilight from a new discovery."
  331. >"H-hey!"
  332. >You both end up sharing a chuckle at her expense.
  333. >"Take care, both of you."
  334. >"We will!"
  335. "I'll try."
  336. >With a final nod, Celestia leaves back through the slipgate.
  337. >"I don't know why she didn't want to talk to Pedullal, though! I mean--
  338. >"H-hey, that's not a very nice thing to--"
  339. >You move over and pull the wand off of her.
  340. >"Aah! What the hay, Anon?"
  341. "Sorry, but I need your undivided attention right now. We've got some staves to design."
  342. <...
  343.  
  344. @@@@@@@@
  345.  
  346. >"You... I... Wha... Th-this..."
  347. >Jesus, that's the closest Sunburst's ever looked to creaming himself from pure information alone.
  348. >Better avert that, before things get awkward.
  349. "I know it's pretty hardcore, compared to what I've told you before. Honestly, I'm not a hundred percent on the details myself, or even if it'll work. Big shock, I know.
  350. "What I do know for absolute certain, though, is that if I want Earth tech and ideas reimagined, you're the horse to talk to."
  351. >His jaw makes several attempts at trying to function.
  352. >"You still haven't told me the specifics of what you wrote down, Anon."
  353. "You were there, Twilight."
  354. >"Yeah, and didn't understand any of it. I know it's a running theme of me getting proven wrong, but even I have a hard time believing that glass tubes can--"
  355. >"IT'S BRILLIANT!"
  356. >Ow, fuck!
  357. >Since when could Sunburst yell that loud?
  358. >Even Twilight cringed back at the outburst.
  359. >And holy shit, he's just pulled you down to eye level!
  360. >"Do you know what this means?! Do you know the implications of all this?! Do you know how important this is?!"
  361. "Y-you said the same thing, all three times."
  362. >"Sweet mother of the goddess, the applications from this concept could change the course of magic forever! Even more than your work on ancient thaumaturgy!"
  363. "Well, I--"
  364. >"There's so much to research, so much to design, so much to... Aaaaaaaah, so much to do it'sgonnabefantasticohmygoshIcan'tbelievethisisrealohmygoshohmygosh--"
  365. >Aaaaand you have to clamp his muzzle shut.
  366. "For the love of God, take a breath! Leave the hyper-excited routine to Pinkie, man."
  367.  
  368. >And then he goes and brushes your hand aside.
  369. >"Excited?! Exicted doesn't even describe it! Oh my gosh, thank you so much for these papers and concepts, Anon!"
  370. "Uh, tha--"
  371. >"No time to waste! I'm getting to work on this right away! There's precedent enough in Startwist's manafield-effect and the vis-link theories to possibly make this work! Oh my gosh, I can't wait!"
  372. >He does everything short of squeal, before hugging you tightly.
  373. >Before you can even comment, he lets you go, darting back through the slipgate to his own lab.
  374. >Now it's your turn to have your jaw fail to function.
  375. >"Well. That was, uh... interesting."
  376. >Yeah, you said it, Twilight.
  377. >Some distinctly Celtic snickering could be heard off to the side, however.
  378. >And sure enough, there sat Crescent, trying her best not to laugh.
  379. >Of course, she fails completely a moment later, collapsing to the floor as she howls with laughter.
  380. >Something about her laugh was beyond contagious, and soon enough, Twilight started laughing with her.
  381. >Followed by you.
  382. >"Haahahah! H-holy buckin' gohddess, Ah've nevah seen him like thaht before!"
  383. "Heh, definitely a first for me, seeing him that hyped up."
  384. >Even that time you let him help with your own magic studies doesn't compare.
  385. >"Oh, Ah'll say! Haahahah!"
  386. >Looks like she's starting to recompose herself, getting back onto all fours.
  387. >"Cripes, Ah hope he remembers ta make those fanceh pahrts fer yer shiny 'cahr'."
  388. >Oh yeah, you did tell him that a while back, didn't you?
  389. >You told him a little bit about tank tracks, when he said he wanted more wheel surface area.
  390.  
  391. >There may have been a few things about human driving controls, and a second magically-driven engine.
  392. >Purely a fuel-saving measure to take some load off the diesel, since it wasn't tough enough to drive something that heavy by itself.
  393. >At least, not without some creative designs.
  394. >Creativity that was redirected into your staffwork, with the advent of that pesky Incaross focus.
  395. >Luckily, you and Twilight managed to crack that Scooby mystery only a day after that big node-given research reveal.
  396. >Without actual live mana-switches, getting some mana storage 'batteries' working wasn't feasible.
  397. >But you did manage to make the mana 'heatsinks' work.
  398. >Sucks about their positioning on the staff body, but with the whole levitation thing you've got going on with them, it should be all right.
  399. >So it's not a total loss, just a work-in-progress.
  400. >"Well anywae, Ahnon, Ah've got some good news fer ya."
  401. >She taps on the small cart she's brought with her, before moving to the side and waving you over to it.
  402. >"Mahnaged ta get all yer mehtal shite done n' dusted!"
  403. >Then, she pulls the cover off of the cart, showing off the contents.
  404. >Your iron plates, the last piece missing in your new armour set.
  405. >And the rods and EI segments, for the magnetic projects.
  406. >"Manahged ta find a wee bit'a nickel fer those lil' pieces ya wanted, though just enough fer one'a those rod things."
  407. >She points to one rod in particular, which was indeed grayer and more tarnished-looking than the others.
  408. "That can't have been easy."
  409.  
  410. >"Well, not at first! But after Ah began askin' fer it, a whole bunch'a suppliers got in touch, beggin' me to take the shite off'a their hooves!"
  411. "Wait, seriously?"
  412. >"Oh, aye! Lemmie know iff'n it's any good, and Ah may just switch ya over to nickel!"
  413. "I'll definitely do that."
  414. >You grab hold of the cart.
  415. "And seriously, thanks a lot for all of this."
  416. >"Bah, iff'n ya wanna thank me, ye'll keep on kickin' thaht othah human's tail!"
  417. "That, I can do."
  418. >She waves her farewells, before heading back into the castle, and Twilight decided to follow her.
  419. >Meanwhile, you pull the iron parts into your lab, and waste no time in assembling the armour vest.
  420. >Normally you would've left this to Rarity, but the iron made magic stitching a no-go, so you had to do it yourself with this big fuckoff needle.
  421. >Luckily, she premade the black fabric outer layer for you, logo and all, so it should go fairly smoothly.
  422. >Okay, padding, thaumium, padding, iron, fabric...
  423. >Stitching through the thick-ass fabrics was a bit of a pain in the ass, but once you got a feel for it, it went a good deal more smoothly.
  424. >You get roughly halfway through it, when you hear your slipgate open up again.
  425. >"--ll teach me how to use those glyphs?"
  426. >"Of course, Twilight. I am astonished that my sister did not teach you of it, when you first became an alicorn!"
  427. >Wait a minute.
  428. "Luna?"
  429. >You turn back, and yes, that is indeed Luna, talking with Twilight.
  430. >"Good day to you, dearest Anon! I... apologize for my sudden departure."
  431. "Don't sweat it. Good to have you back."
  432.  
  433. >"Thank you. Now, what was it that you wished to show me, Twilight?"
  434. >"You'll never believe what I just had the chance to talk to, Luna!"
  435. >Hold up.
  436. "Wait a minute, Twilight. You're not going to let it talk to her as well, are you?"
  437. >"Of course I am!"
  438. "Are you sure that's a good idea?"
  439. >"I already had Pedullal promise not to do anything flashy like that again. We'll be fine."
  440. >"I would... still suggest caution, Twilight. Conversing with ancients is always an... unpredictable affair, particularly ones who, as you say, hide in plain sight."
  441. >"Don't worry, if anything happens, we'll both be here to help you."
  442. >You start unconsciously clutching an iron segment.
  443. >"So, uh, could I possibly bother you for another one of those node-seeing foci, Anon?"
  444. "I... guess so, sure."
  445. >But you're keeping an eye on those two, stitching work or none.
  446. >You move over to another worktable, get your stuff together, and recreate another Divinova focus in about five minutes' time.
  447. >You see that Luna's already brought her own wand-bracer thing, too.
  448. >You really, really hope this goes well.
  449. >It's not that you don't trust Twilight, it's more that you don't trust the node.
  450. >Though before you hand the focus off to her, you pull on your manalenses, just to see if Luna sports a node, herself.
  451. >To no real surprise, she does indeed have a node.
  452. >Weird, though.
  453. >It definitely looked more faded compared even to the lab node, and it bore some very light 'scarring', but the aura coming off of it was nowhere near as frayed and unstable-looking as Celestia's.
  454. >Looked rough, sure, but nothing that serious.
  455.  
  456. >You keep the glasses on, but hand the focus over to Luna.
  457. >After that was done, you resume work on the brigandine, moving your table to allow you to see those two while you work.
  458. >"So, why don't we start off simple? Say, examining the staff collection over there?"
  459. >As one, they put on their wand-things and attach the foci to them.
  460. >Luna's reaction was immediate, her eyes bulging.
  461. >"What...?"
  462. >"There, you see them? You hear them?"
  463. >"I... I do. By the Goddess, I-I'd never realized how..."
  464. >Luna gapes at your staff collection, even picking one up and turning it over a few times.
  465. >Through the glasses, you see node links forming between her and the staves, like last time.
  466. >"I never imagined that such constructs could be so... gracious."
  467. >"They do have a way with words. Uh, maybe 'words' is the wrong term..."
  468. >The links start oscillating again, but except of bouncing to your lab node, it bounces from Luna to Twilight's link.
  469. >Whatever just happened, it caused them both to gasp slightly.
  470. >"Wh-wha...? L-Luna, what just--"
  471. >"I am not sure. Was... was that you?"
  472. >"I... y-yeah, but... I didn't think that..."
  473. >Your work stops dead, and you start clutching an iron segment, watching those two like a hawk.
  474. >The two of them are now looking each other dead in the eye.
  475. >Luna with wonder, Twilight with concern.
  476. >"Twilight, I... I had always known of your virtue, but never that it ran that deeply..."
  477. >"N-nevermind me! Are you okay?"
  478. >"Whatever do you mean?"
  479. >"C-can't you see your own being? O-or whatever the word is for it? Th-the node in you!"
  480.  
  481. >Luna examines herself quickly.
  482. >"I don't know what you are talking about. Unless... are you referring to your... manifestation?"
  483. >"You can't see it for yourself?"
  484. >"No. Twilight, what is the matter?"
  485. >"Y-you're hurt..."
  486. >Twilight reaches out, touching Luna's chest with a hoof, as if trying to stroke the node in her.
  487. >All the while, more of those thin links start springing forth from both of them, connecting to one another.
  488. >"I can feel it. The scars, the wounds, all of it..."
  489. >She looks about ready to cry.
  490. >"Who did this to you, Luna?"
  491. >"Wh-whatever do you...? I... Wh-what are you showing me...?"
  492. >Luna looks confused, frightened, and her eyes were starting to mist over.
  493. >"I-I do not understand... Th-this pain, why does it seem so...?"
  494. >"Luna, please, talk to me. Who did this?"
  495. >The links between those two begin multiplying like crazy.
  496. "Girls...?"
  497. >"I... I do not know."
  498. >Tears began falling down Luna's eyes.
  499. >"I cannot remember."
  500. >"Could you try? Please?"
  501. >"I cannot. I... I grasp at the threads, b-but they..."
  502. >Twilight hugs her, and the links are almost becoming solid lines, just out of sheer volume.
  503. >You, meanwhile, sit up, iron segment in hand.
  504. "Girls, what are you doing?"
  505. >"I cannot, Twilight. No matter how hard I--"
  506. >"Let me help you, please!"
  507. >"What can you do?"
  508. >Through all the tears, they never stopped breaking eye contact.
  509. >"I don't know, but... I have to do something!"
  510. >"T-Twilight--"
  511. >"No! I can't just sit here, doing nothing! Not when... Not when you're hurting so badly!"
  512. >The links were beginning to widen.
  513.  
  514. "Girls, you need to stop, right now."
  515. >They don't react to your words.
  516. >They regard each other for a few moments, before their heads lower, eyes closing.
  517. >Sparks of energy begin arcing between their horns.
  518. >A big 'spark' flies as they touch.
  519. >The effect is immediate.
  520. >Instantly, every node link between the two snaps tight, merging into one.
  521. >BWMPH-VWRRRRRrrrrrrrr
  522. >A beam fires between their chests, the instant this merger happens.
  523. >The same beam from when Twilight first--!
  524. "Girls!"
  525. >You rush over to them, iron piece held tightly--
  526. >BWMPH
  527. >But before you can do anything, the link breaks, leaving the two of them gasping for air, as if they'd run a marathon.
  528. "Girls, are you two okay?!"
  529. >You grab hold of their withers, shaking them for a moment, trying to get them to snap out of... whatever the fuck just happened!
  530. >Twilight was the first to speak up:
  531. >"W-we're fine."
  532. "Fine? No, you're not fine!"
  533. >"Really, it's--"
  534. >"I saw you."
  535. >Luna looks Twilight right in the eyes, almost with... fondness?
  536. >"You were there with me, during my formative years! Sharing the memory!"
  537. >"I... Th-that was me? I thought that was you!"
  538. >"Then you saw it? My foalhood? My coronation?"
  539. >"Y-yeah...! Everything up to... your third marriage."
  540. >"Yes, my... my third. One of the best I ever had..."
  541. >"You all seemed so... happy."
  542. >"We were. I... I still miss those three."
  543. >"I didn't mean to open an old wound, Luna..."
  544. >"You did nothing of the sort, Twilight. It is but a happy memory, now. In a way, I am glad I got to... revisit it."
  545. "Uh..."
  546.  
  547. >All of a sudden, those two become aware of your presence.
  548. >"A-Anon, I didn't mean to ignore you!"
  549. "Look, I--"
  550. >"Forgive me, I did not mean to cause you distress!"
  551. >"Anon, I'm sorry! I know you said no more light-shows, but I couldn't help myself! She needed my help!"
  552. "I'm starting to seriously regret giving you two those foci."
  553. >"B-but--"
  554. >"I understand your consternation, dearest Anonymous, truly I do. But there was no pain. In fact, quite the opposite!"
  555. "How the hell do giant magic laser beams not hurt?"
  556. >"There was a beam of energy?"
  557. "Yes, there was a beam! As thick as my damn arm!"
  558. >"It was intense enough to...? I... Forgive me, I was not aware!"
  559. >"No, I should've warned you. Both of you. I'm sorry."
  560. >Before you can so much as groan, you find yourself in a three-way hug.
  561. >That's one way to lighten you up, if only by a little.
  562. "I don't think you two should keep using those foci."
  563. >"H-huh?"
  564. "It scares the shit out of me, every time you 'talk' with the node here. I never know if it's just going to start attacking you, or something."
  565. >"Wh-what? Pedullal isn't like that! It'd never--"
  566. "I have no way of knowing that."
  567. >"But--"
  568. >"Twilight, his concerns are not without merit."
  569. >"B-but--"
  570. >"As... enlightening, as uplifting as that experience was, this is still relatively unknown magic. He is right to be wary."
  571. >Luna looks at you.
  572. >"Still, I must advise against simply prohibiting this outright."
  573. "Look, I... how am I supposed to help, if something goes wrong?"
  574. >"Perhaps we need a more... controlled environment for this?"
  575.  
  576. "A what?"
  577. >"A controlled environment, somewhere you could easily step in, should something go awry."
  578. "I... are you sure?"
  579. >"Of course! It would be irresponsible to continue exploring this strange magic without close monitoring!"
  580. >"You're really worried about this, aren't you? About us?"
  581. "What kind of question is that? Of course I'm worried about you two."
  582. >"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to make you worry. I should've--"
  583. >"It is no trouble, Twilight. At least, it should not be, as long as this continues under conditions more favourable to... direct intervention, if necessary.
  584. >"I would like to make a proposition then, dearest Anonymous. We shall continue utilizing this magic, but only when you are nearby, keeping a constant vigil, ready to intervene should something go wrong."
  585. >"Like a... a lifeguard?"
  586. >"Very much so. Is that acceptable to you?"
  587. "I..."
  588. >God damn it.
  589. >It'd make you feel better, sure, but it still freaks you out.
  590. >Still, that lab node did point you in the right direction, when it came to making Incaross work right.
  591. >Who knows what else you could pull from it, and maybe even other nodes?
  592. "Yeah. That's... fine with me."
  593. >"Thank you--"
  594. "Just please, don't ever do... that, without me around."
  595. >"We won't."
  596. >"We promise."
  597. >You hug it out a bit more, but the thought of what might happen doesn't leave.
  598. >Every time your mind drifts to it, a chill settles in your gut.
  599. >"You have work to do, do you not? Perhaps it would be best if we left you to your own devices, for now?"
  600. "I... yeah, okay. That sounds good."
  601.  
  602. >A pair of nuzzles later, and the two pull off of you, handing the two Divinova foci back to you.
  603. >Right then and there, you decide that the secure lock-up is the only place for them.
  604. >They start walking off, as you head to the locker.
  605. >"L-Luna?"
  606. >"Yes, Twilight?"
  607. >"I-I have to ask. Was... was it really that amicable?"
  608. >The locker swings open.
  609. >"It was. More than that, really. I loved them so much."
  610. >"C-could you... tell me mo--"
  611. >The locker closes, and you set back to work on your armour.
  612. >Okay, halfway done, let's keep going.
  613. >Man, this was tough.
  614. >Your wrists and arms start to really feel the burn by the end of it all.
  615. >But there it was, totally complete.
  616. >Your new armour.
  617. >A test-fit is in order, and you head over to a nearby mirror to check it out.
  618. >It's definitely heavier than before, a bit more than you expected it to be.
  619. >Not unmanageable, but you weren't about to start doing wire-fu in this, that's for sure.
  620. >The skirting was a bit longer than it was before, and used just iron and fabric, without any thaumium.
  621. >You'd kind of hit a ceiling with the physical shield anyways, so you figured you'd just leave the bottom with some good magic blocking, instead.
  622. >Okay, everything seems good!
  623. >You pull it all off, and then--
  624. >"Hey, Anon!"
  625. "Razor? What's up?"
  626. >"Princess Celestia's calling for you, sounds important!"
  627. >Well, who are you to start arguing?
  628. >You follow him to her throne room, where he and everyone else excuses themselves.
  629. >"I'm glad you came."
  630. "What's happening, Celly?"
  631. >"Good news, at long last. We're ready to make our move on Incognito's base."
  632.  
  633. @@@@@@@@
  634.  
  635. "We are?"
  636. >"Indeed."
  637. >She stands up from her throne, walking towards you.
  638. >"My scouting party has spent the last week, creating a forward outpost in the Gryphonstone mountains, hidden from any means of detection that his forces have available to them."
  639. "You planning on sneaking into his hidey-hole?"
  640. >"No, Anon. You are."
  641. >Hold up.
  642. "I am?"
  643. >"We've been able to glean some knowledge of the base's interior from Chrysalis, but nopony I have sent has actually entered the base, itself.
  644. >"We don't know anything about it, beyond what we have been told. And I want our first entrance into the base to be the very last."
  645. >She wore an all-business look already, but now there was anger there, too.
  646. >"We will need to comb through the base for any information, regarding Incognito's current whereabouts. Indeed, any information on his activities would be useful.
  647. >"But more importantly, after it has been combed for information, I want to see it completely destroyed."
  648. "Destroyed, huh?"
  649. >Now that, you can get behind.
  650. >"I have already dispatched a small team to the forward outpost, carrying the materials necessary to ensure the base is destroyed. However, while I have the utmost trust and confidence in the abilities of my agents, I want you to spearhead this operation."
  651. "Let me guess: I've got the deadliest loadout?"
  652. >"Well, it's more about your immunity to dark magic."
  653. >Ohh...!
  654. >"There is no telling what traps lie within that place, what horrors may await. And without a limit on his capacity to perform dark magic, I could not fathom a guess as to what evil lurks within.
  655.  
  656. >"But you share his immunity to the dark arts, on top of your incredible resistance to magic. Combined with, as you said, your weaponry, you are the best chance we have at successfully destroying that place.
  657. "Celly, even if you weren't shooting for the stealth approach, I'd want that place nuked from orbit, too."
  658. >"'Nuked from orbit'...?"
  659. "Oh, an expression. For... uh, actually, nevermind. Forget I said anything."
  660. >She quirks an eyebrow, but doesn't press the issue.
  661. >"I am glad you see this my way, Anon."
  662. "Yeah. So when do I leave?"
  663. >"Tomorrow morning. That should give you plenty of time to select whatever equipment would be the most suited to this undertaking."
  664. >If it's inside a mountain base, it sounds like you'll need a lot of close-quarters stuff.
  665. >It's just occurred to you that, outside of Bluebaide, you seriously lack in the melee department.
  666. >And it's probably too late to try and make something to make up for that pitfall, before you have to go.
  667. >Something to ponder on the way, then.
  668. >"You will not be doing this alone, however. You will be taking a team into the base with you, who will aid you in any way they can."
  669. "And who's going to be on this team?"
  670. >"Lieutenant Razor and Sergeant Exact are a given, no need to worry."
  671. >Should've known.
  672. >"Pharynx also expressed a strong desire to accompany you."
  673. "Pharynx did?"
  674. >"I was against the idea at first, until... well, let's just say that his particular skillset will prove quite useful."
  675. >Considering his commentary on your bow, and his kinda-mind-reading powers, then yeah, you'd call that very useful.
  676.  
  677. >"There may also be a fourth addition to your team, from the group already on-site, to act as a guide."
  678. "What do you mean 'there may be'?"
  679. >"You won't be required to take them with you into the base, but I would advise that you do. You can never be too prepared."
  680. "Fair enough, I suppose. But how do you plan on having us stealth through the place?"
  681. >"I took it upon myself to personally enchant some pieces of equipment, for you and your team. They are already en route."
  682. "But what kind of equipment is it?"
  683. >"Something to provide you with magical invisibility. Assuming you do not find Incognito there, that should allow you to sneak past the occupying force, without any trouble."
  684. "Well, that'll make my life a whole lot easier. Thanks. But wait, what do you mean, 'assuming he's not there'?"
  685. >"I find it highly unlikely that he is using that base, considering his newfound zebra allies, and his escape flight taking him into Zebrica. It is more likely that wherever he is, he is operating from a second forward base.
  686. >"Still, I would not rely on that assumption. It's entirely possible he could be transporting himself around, possibly with a similar method found in your slipgates. I would prepare for an encounter him, if he is indeed in the mountain base."
  687. "Oh don't worry, that won't be a problem."
  688. >Especially not with your upgrades.
  689. >Wouldn't shock you if the fucker literally teleported behind you, if that little portal theory held any water.
  690. >"Now, is there anything else you would like to know?"
  691.  
  692. "Can't think of anything else, Celly. If I do, I'll let you know."
  693. >"Of course. I will be there to send you and the others off, should you think of something. And, Anon?"
  694. "Yeah?"
  695. >She walks closer, until she's almost in her face, a bit of concern worming it's way into her expression.
  696. >"Please take care of yourself out there."
  697. >She's worried about you, now?
  698. >Well, that's a first.
  699. "I will."
  700. >A very welcome first, granted, but a first all the same.
  701. "Actually, have you told the others?"
  702. >"Not yet. You're the first to know about this."
  703. "All right. Well, guess I'd better get my shit straightened out, huh?"
  704. >"Of course. Don't let me keep you."
  705. >A wave from you to her, and you leave the throne room, Celestia seating herself back on her throne as you go.
  706. >The instant you head back into the lab, you start to collect your gear.
  707. >Man, talk about good timing, finishing your armour just before this search-and-destroy mission came up.
  708. >It ought to make you damn near invulnerable to his minions, unless they sling spells at your arms, legs, and face.
  709. >Still need to work out a good design for a helmet, or some kind of protective and functional headgear.
  710. >Definitely needed some manalens goodness.
  711. >Pfft, of course you start coming up with the good ideas, right as you're about to leave.
  712. >Luckily, your notepad's there to collect all those ideas, even if it does hold up your gear round-up.
  713. >Hmm...
  714. >Maybe something more like a visor could work?
  715. >Would be plenty of surface area for a good manalens etch job, and ought to let you keep your field of view.
  716.  
  717. >Okay, no, stay focused.
  718. >Jot this idea down, along with the melee weapon considerations, and...
  719. >Okay, back to gear!
  720. >Piece by piece, you start to lay out your equipment.
  721. >The armour is there, along with your inertia-affecting greaves, and those speed-boosting, Jedi-jumping boots.
  722. >Those haven't really changed, since your last fight.
  723. >Though you'll definitely have to give major praise to the person who came up with those "Traveller's Boots" in the Lexica.
  724. >What was their name again?
  725. >It was a C name, sounded close to Celestia, but wasn't quite...?
  726. >Oh whatever, you'll re-read it for names later.
  727. >Augmented TK gloves were also slapped down, the left one of which had a new, built-in archery bracer, and the right one came with a deployable finger tab.
  728. >Mediterranean draw master race, represent.
  729. >The added area on the bracer-sporting left glove gave a whole lot more room for glyphwork, too.
  730. >You may or may not have borrowed the contact-shock glyphwork from the old lightning focus.
  731. >So you can neither confirm nor deny that you can taze people by touching them.
  732. >Okay, yeah, that was actually a really spiffy feature, even if the glyphwork took up all of the damn bracer.
  733. >Translating focus spells into general equipment enchantment was not exactly a smooth transition, but you'd by lying if you said it didn't have some mighty interesting end results.
  734. >It's actually kind of funny, now that you think about it, how many of your new foci lack the do-stuff-on-contact modes.
  735. >Point-blank fireballs and tazer hits were some pretty gnarly shit.
  736. >Risky, but useful.
  737.  
  738. >Hmm, maybe you can factor that into melee weapon plans?
  739. >Okay fine, fuck, write that idea down, and move on.
  740. >Now, speaking of foci...
  741. >Your little bag of them is laid out, and you set to work picking some out.
  742. >Fire, absolutely taking that.
  743. >Ditto on lightning.
  744. >Wind won't be too useful, and the sonic one is too dangerous to use around your friends.
  745. >You ponder it for a few moments, but ultimately decide to take the ice focus, too.
  746. >TK is a no-brainer, along with Riafalt and Bluebaide.
  747. >And if you're going to be doing some dark and evil base raiding, it's probably worth taking along Luxflood, too, for some extra light when you need it.
  748. >Incaross, of course, had been practically begging for some real action, so you bring that, too.
  749. >Satisfied with your selection, you start packing the foci into a handy little holster.
  750. >While Rarity had made it, the design was informed primarily by AJ, and it shows.
  751. >Sure came in handy for your test runs, you'll say!
  752. >And then, of course, came the staves and wands to use these foci with.
  753. >First, unchanged from before, is your wand, still with that permanent Bluebaide focus in one end.
  754. >A more traditional thin-and-long staff is added in as well, the darker wood and the eight thaumium rings at the top giving away just how tricked-out it's construction really was.
  755. >But the real show-stealer, of all these staves, was the fresh new design, meant to deal with Incaross's bullfuckery.
  756. >You don't quite need to heft it up to the table, but the baby's still got enough weight to make a respectable 'clunk', as it's set down.
  757.  
  758. >It's double-ended, just like the last staff, which'll let you use two foci on it.
  759. >It also carries over the remotely controlled TK levitation via the amulet, definitely a plus here given it's weight class.
  760. >The criss-crossing, almost Celtic patterns of helix thaumium rings adorning both ends was only part of that weight's source.
  761. >The real meat came in the form of the big 'heatsink' in the middle of the staff, stretching a good three-quarters of a foot along the staff body.
  762. >Any bigger, and the staff would be heavier than sin, but it still does it's job well.
  763. >And while the staff is mostly meant for floating around, you gave it proper spots to grip on, letting you still use this big, hefty monster two-handed.
  764. >It should be capable of some serious damage, especially when one end is boosting the output from an Incaross absorption.
  765. >Beautiful stuff.
  766. >Now, as for your old teashades, those deserved a remake after getting smashed up in the last fight.
  767. >Why not rock those soulgazers and manalenses in style, after all?
  768. >Finally, out came the bow.
  769. >Barely changed from the last fight, too: a nicer string was pretty much the only difference.
  770. >The compound bow upgrade was still a work-in-progress, especially since your pulley knowledge was fairly lacking.
  771. >More things for Sunburst to determine, you guess.
  772. >The quivers were unchanged, too: one full of the broadheads, the other with bodkins.
  773. >And...
  774. >Should you...?
  775. >No, you shouldn't bring the secret project along.
  776. >No telling if that'll blow up in your face.
  777. >Needs more refinement.
  778.  
  779. >You take a big step back, observing the huge spread of equipment now before you.
  780. >Holy shit, man.
  781. >You must have the magic equivalent of a whole platoon's worth of firepower, on this table.
  782. >Well, considering your opposition, that sounded about right.
  783. >Without further ado, you start equipping the whole ensemble, one piece at a time.
  784. >The armour was on first, followed by a harness dotted with some thaumium discs on the back.
  785. >Having iron in the brigandine made the not-magnetic equipment stowing very much impossible, so this was a good compromise.
  786. >Then, one by one, you start equipping your weapons, pouches, and quivers.
  787. >Stowing the super-staff on your back last, really made you realize just how fucking heavy all this stuff had gotten.
  788. >But a quick trip to the mirror to observe the new ensemble almost made up for it.
  789. >All the weapons on your back, the belt packed with ammo, pouches, and equipment...
  790. >You looked like the green, medieval-era lovechild of Shepard and Batman.
  791. >And you liked what you saw.
  792. >Fortunately, if the base was going to be as close-quarters as you thought, you shouldn't need to start going all Neo with the dodges.
  793. >Weight reduction on the super-staff is definitely on the agenda.
  794. >Thaumium was great stuff, but it was just too fucking heavy to use this liberally.
  795. >Maybe you can try using some other magic metals?
  796. >No idea if they're even compatible with this kind of magic, but it's worth a shot.
  797. >You'll talk to Crescent about it later.
  798. >You turn around just in time to see the slipgate open.
  799. >Stepping through was none other than Razor and Exact.
  800.  
  801. >"Hey, Anon! You hear about the--"
  802. >Razor stops dead in his tracks, eyes bulging.
  803. >"Whoa...!"
  804. >"I see that you have been preparing. Then you know about tomorrow's mission?"
  805. "I do."
  806. >"We were just informed of it, along with Princess Luna and Princess Twilight."
  807. >"F-forget the mission for a second! Holy shit, Anon, look at you!"
  808. "Pretty cool, huh?"
  809. >"Cool? Try bucking awesome! Terrifying, even!"
  810. >"It is certainly an intimidating visage, appearing to unintentionally bear a resemblance to the gryphon warrior demigod, Blackcrest."
  811. "Wait, wait, wait a minute. You're saying I look like a gryphon god?"
  812. >"Demigod. Traditional gryphon religious beliefs hold that legendary warriors become demigods. The large array of weaponry you hold upon your back bears a strong resemblance to Blackcrest, the demigod of unrelenting vengeance."
  813. "That sounds more 'evil' than it does 'awesome', not gonna lie."
  814. >"Honour, battle, and war are traditional gryphon virtues, in descending order of importance. This understanding is largely incongruous with Equestrian virtues."
  815. >"Who cares? Geez, wouldn't shock me if those damn birds'll just shit themselves and run!"
  816. "Would definitely make my job easier."
  817. >"Let's hope! And here I thought I'd be bringing the coolest armour to the fight..."
  818. >"On that subject, we should make our own preparations. Anon appears to have his own preparations well in hoof."
  819. "Hand."
  820. >"Hand."
  821. >Razor snorts a little.
  822. >"He's right, we've got shit to do for the big day. See you then, Anon!"
  823. "Yeah, you too."
  824. <...
  825.  
  826. >"You know, you'd think a colt like that would be the first to show up!"
  827. "A bug like that."
  828. >"Oh, shut it!"
  829. >Ze grammar must be corrected, herr Razor.
  830. >"Technically speaking, they are not insects."
  831. >"Could've fooled me."
  832. >"Their physiology has more in common with parasprites, than it does with ponies."
  833. "Parasprites?"
  834. >"Yes. Their digestive tracts, in particular, resemble a parasprite's, but are adapted to only absorb nutrients and pheremones from distinctly insect-like secretions, and they have additional organs to process emotions, particularly love, into raw magical energy."
  835. >"Well, that's not creepy at all."
  836. "It is, but it's also kinda interesting."
  837. >"Their digestive tract is also similar to a parasprite's, in that they do not have intestines, and no way to defecate, instead regurgitating waste as--"
  838. "Oooookay, you can stop right there. Major TMI."
  839. >"Yeah, I didn't need that in my nightmares, thanks."
  840. >You two spend a few more minutes, waiting in this room.
  841. >You were all decked out in your armour and equipment, with the addition of a little something extra from the magnetics room.
  842. >An absolute last resort.
  843. >Exact had a set of light, off-colour golden armour, set with various gems, and a relatively plain helmet to go with it.
  844. >A quick glance with the glasses showed the armour to be full of enchantments, and the metal to be magical.
  845. >Razor definitely won the coolest armour appearance contest, though, wearing a full set of heavy-looking dark blue plate, complete with an awesome-looking bat-styled helm to go with it.
  846. >Plenty of throwing weapons, too.
  847.  
  848. >"Oh, for crying out loud, where is he?!"
  849. "Don't know."
  850. >"You know what, buck it, let's just leave withou-- Hrk!"
  851. >Razor was suddenly pulled backwards, something shimmering wrapped around his neck.
  852. >You draw your wand and ignite Bluebaide just as the shimmering stops, revealing the attacker.
  853. >"I could feel your impatience from halfway across the castle, Lieutenant. Even a drone would sense you coming from a mile away."
  854. "Pharynx?"
  855. >Said bug releases Razor, faint bemusement on his face.
  856. >"You bucking tailhole! How long were you there?!"
  857. >"Long enough."
  858. "You just had to make your entrance that way, didn't you?"
  859. >"It seemed fitting, given the circumstance."
  860. >You roll your eyes, and put away your wand.
  861. >The bemusement on his face fades quickly, replaced with an all-business look.
  862. >"Now, where are we going?"
  863. >Exact takes that moment to TK the door behind him open, motioning for everyone to follow along.
  864. >It leads to a rather spacious spiral staircase, going up a fair ways.
  865. >This wasn't going to be a fun climb...
  866. >"I have to admit, Anon, your array of weapons is very... imposing."
  867. "Been getting that a lot, lately."
  868. >"For good reason. I suspect that when stealth is no longer an option, you'll demoralize their forces quite well."
  869. "When?"
  870. >"Never plan for the best scenario. It usually doesn't end well."
  871. >"Not much of a risk-taker, are you?"
  872. >"Risks imply a chance of failure. I don't fail in my missions."
  873. >Bold statement for Pharynx to be making, though his confident tone helped back it up.
  874. >And his loadout sure helped in that department.
  875.  
  876. >He wore some kind of very dark purple, segmented armour that looked like it came off of one of those evil changelings.
  877. >Given how much darker his colour scheme already was, it actually managed to fit in fairly well.
  878. >Well, save for the antlers and little knob-things on his chest.
  879. >He seems to have punched holes in his helmet for those, and crudely melted another shell piece into extra chest armour, to compensate.
  880. >Not going to lie, outside of the obvious two bodge jobs, it looked very sleek.
  881. >Then, of course, was his weapons.
  882. >Small, retractable hoof-blades attached to all four legs, made out of some dark-green, jagged material.
  883. >Then there was the big, collapsible crossbow stowed on his back, complete with a set of long bolts to go with it.
  884. >Well, long for pony standards, anyways.
  885. >Still, that thing looks like it can do some serious damage.
  886. >Your little group ascends the tower at a steady pace, more to keep you from getting winded by the time you reach the top.
  887. >But when you do reach the top, you're greeted by a spacious landing pad, a large carriage front-and-centre, with four royal guards already strapped in, and ready to take off.
  888. >And Celestia was right there, turning her head to face your group as you came up.
  889. >"Ah, there you are."
  890. "Sorry for the wait, we got a little... held up."
  891. >"It's no trouble."
  892. >Razor and Exact were bowing, but before Celestia could give so much as a 'rise', Pharynx barged past you, towards her.
  893. >"Maybe now, you'll answer my question?"
  894. >"I don't know if she is there or not, Pharynx. That is a question for my agents, when you arrive."
  895.  
  896. >"Should've known. Let's get this over with."
  897. >Just as quickly, he storms into the carriage.
  898. "What's his problem?"
  899. >"It would be best if you were to ask him that question, though I suspect you may already know the answer."
  900. >Yeah, with a question like 'is she there', you've got a pretty good idea.
  901. >Man, you really hope you don't run into her.
  902. >"Now, there is one more thing."
  903. >She floats you a small box.
  904. >"Open this only when you finally meet your guide. My agents will explain."
  905. "Uh, all right."
  906. >That's a bit weird.
  907. >"Is there anything else you need to know?"
  908. "Yeah, what's the area like?"
  909. >"Cold, windy, and very steep. You would do best to follow your guide's directions."
  910. "Good to know. Well, we should get going, then."
  911. >"Agreed. Best of luck to all of you."
  912. >The two behind you offer salutes, before filing into the carriage.
  913. "You too."
  914. >An exchange of nods take place, before you climb abord the carriage, yourself.
  915. >Soon after sitting down, it takes flight, a bubble of shimmering magic appearing around the whole thing after a few moments.
  916. >Huh, guess they're cloaking their approach.
  917. >Makes sense.
  918. >A-at least this thing is well-enclosed, so you don't have to look down.
  919. >"Aww, Anon, you afraid of flying?"
  920. "What? Me? No!"
  921. >Razor's smug-ass grin only grew bigger at your response.
  922. >"You know, we might be the shittiest liars in the land, but you've gotta be the worst."
  923. "Shut your hole."
  924. >"Make me."
  925. >"Would the two of you be so kind as to shut up? I'm trying to concentrate."
  926. >Well, that was rude of Pharynx.
  927. >You don't care if he is putting together his crossbow.
  928.  
  929. "Hey, never got to ask. Why'd you decide to tag along with us?"
  930. >"Making sure you keep your end of the deal."
  931. >Knew it.
  932. "Oh, ye of little faith."
  933. >"Forgive me if I don't completely trust the one who nearly killed her, already."
  934. "She--"
  935. >No, don't say a thing.
  936. "You know what, nevermind."
  937. >A snort of his own signals the end of that conversation.
  938. >He spends all of his time, building and taking apart his crossbow, checking it over and over.
  939. >He settles on leaving it built, the rest of the ride proceeding in relative silence.
  940. >Before long, the chariot is felt setting down, the door opening soon after.
  941. >Greeting you is none other than a Sol Invictus soldier.
  942. >"Anonymous? We were told you would-- S-Sergeant Measure, sir!"
  943. >"At ease, corporal. Are you here to collect us?"
  944. >"Yes, sir. Please, follow me."
  945. >Your group does just that, stepping out into--
  946. >whooOOOOSH
  947. >Jesus, that's windy!
  948. >Luckily, it's a short trip towards the large, camouflaged and shimmering tent.
  949. >A familiar pony greets you upon entering.
  950. >"Well, well, well. Knew the princess would send some help, but didn't expect you!"
  951. "Light?"
  952. >"Never thought I'd say this, but thank Celestia you're here."
  953. "Good to be here. When do we start the ass-kicking?"
  954. >"Hah! Once--"
  955. >Her look sours a little upon seeing Pharynx.
  956. >"Ohh, boy. This is gonna be uglier than I thought."
  957. "What's that supposed to mean?"
  958. >"Well... oh, buck it. Bring her out."
  959. >A soldier comes out from a nearby flap, and following him is--
  960. >"You!"
  961. >Pharynx's hiss was punctuated by you igniting Bluebaide, levelling it towards Chrysalis.
  962. "What are you doing here?"
  963.  
  964. @@@@@@@@
  965.  
  966. >The surprise on her face melted into fear at seeing your energy-sword pointed straight at her.
  967. >That was when Light decided to interject:
  968. >"I'll tell you once you lower your damn weapons, how about that?"
  969. >Like hell you will!
  970. >Not with...
  971. >Wait.
  972. >Since when does Chrysalis wear a thick, red metal collar?
  973. >It almost looked...
  974. >Explosive.
  975. >Her expression had since morphed into anger, a glare set squarely on Pharynx.
  976. "Light, do you and the others have this under control?"
  977. >"Of course we do!"
  978. >Bluebaide fizzles out, but you keep your grip on the wand.
  979. "All right. But I believe I'm owed an explanation for this shit."
  980. >"Fair enough. All of you, come with me."
  981. >You all do just that, making sure to give Chrysalis a very wide berth.
  982. >A few tent flaps later, and you're led to a round table with maps strewn around it.
  983. "So, what's the story behind this little twist?"
  984. >"Not much to tell. She knows the area, so she was sent here to help us map the place out."
  985. >Ohh...!
  986. >And now that you're remembering it...
  987. "I'm guessing that collar is the extra 'insurance' she mentioned?"
  988. >"Celestia told you that?"
  989. "She tells me a lot, these days."
  990. >"Apparently so. But yeah, it is there for some insurance. She tries anything, she dies."
  991. >Can't say you blame them for the caution.
  992. >Hell, you'd probably do worse.
  993. >"It's worked out pretty well, so far. Now, I'd like to keep it working, so if you don't mind telling that other bug to back down, that'd be great."
  994. "What?"
  995. >You turn around to where she's pointing, greeted by the sight of Chrysalis and Pharynx up in each other's faces, having a snarl-off.
  996.  
  997. "Hey, do you two mind cutting that shit out?"
  998. >"Shut up!"
  999. >"Be quiet!"
  1000. >Okay, that was awfully synchronized of them, turning to yell at you, before getting right back to the snarl-off.
  1001. >They keep at it right up until you throw TK onto your shortstaff, and pull the two apart.
  1002. "Don't make me repeat myself."
  1003. >One last glare is exchanged between them.
  1004. >"Fine."
  1005. >"This isn't over."
  1006. >It'll work.
  1007. >You stow away the staff, right as they take up their opposite positions around the table.
  1008. "All right, so what's the plan?"
  1009. >That's Light's cue to speak up, floating some maps over.
  1010. >"Straight to business, huh? I like it. So, here's the situation. Incognito's base is hidden about a mile away from here, accessible only through some magically camouflaged tunnel entrances here, and here."
  1011. >She traces out the path from here to there on the map with her magic, further pointing out the two X marks where the entrances are.
  1012. >"I assume you know that we haven't scouted the interior?"
  1013. "Yeah."
  1014. >"Then you should know that we've only got a rough idea of what's in there, nothing complete."
  1015. >"Wait, what? Why didn't you scout the place out?"
  1016. >"We weren't too keen on getting caught before we were ready, Razor. This might be our only good shot at this."
  1017. >Another map is pulled up, though it's more of a crude drawing than it is a map.
  1018. >"All we know about the base's interior is on this map, and Celestia knows how many other places might be missing, hidden, or changed since Chrysalis was there."
  1019. >Your eyes go over to said bug.
  1020. >And a certain stipulation of your 'agreement' comes back to you.
  1021.  
  1022. "Let me guess. She's our guide?"
  1023. >"She is."
  1024. >Exact, for his part, didn't voice his reaction.
  1025. >The same couldn't be said for Razor and Pharynx.
  1026. >"Oh, you've gotta be bucking kidding me."
  1027. >"What?! No, absolutely not! She is NOT coming with us!"
  1028. >Chrysalis continued to remain silent, breaking her sideways glare at Pharynx to look at you for a brief moment, with an unreadable yet faintly tired expression.
  1029. >Wait.
  1030. >The box...!
  1031. >Oh God, Celestia fucking knew, didn't she?
  1032. >Reaching back, you pull out said box, pulling it open.
  1033. >Inside is a little metal cylinder, with a semi-translucent gem flip-cover covering up a red button.
  1034. >You're no expert, but that looked exactly like--
  1035. >"Hey, who gave you that detonator?"
  1036. >Well, Light just confirmed it beyond a doubt.
  1037. >And Chrysalis's expression morphed into something far more readable, as you pulled it out and examined it: fear.
  1038. "Celestia gave it to me. Guess she knew this was going to happen."
  1039. >No wonder she didn't tell you who your guide was gonna be.
  1040. >You'll have to have a little chat with her about disclosure, when you get back.
  1041. >"Forget it. She is NOT leading us to certain death! Anon, she's done her job, just kill her already!"
  1042. "Not happening, Pharynx."
  1043. >"Don't you--!"
  1044. >A light 'clop' could be heard as Pharynx was interrupted, and turning got you the sight of Exact giving him his signature emotionless look.
  1045. >"You are not in command of this operation, mister Pharynx. You are here as a guest."
  1046. >"You ponies are crazy. You're seriously going to trust her?!"
  1047. "I don't trust her. But I do trust her motivation."
  1048.  
  1049. >You tuck the little detonator into your belt, covered up by a skirt segment.
  1050. "All the same, I'm gonna need a moment with her. In private."
  1051. >Her expression morphs back into confusion.
  1052. >Strange, that she hasn't spoken a single word, yet.
  1053. >"Fair enough. The door to your left leads to the messaging room. It's soundproofed, so it should be fine."
  1054. "Thanks, Light."
  1055. >"Hah, never thought you'd be thanking me."
  1056. >A gesture of your head, and the still-afraid Chrysalis walks over to the room, with you following soon after.
  1057. >All the while, Pharynx and Exact continue talking:
  1058. >"I came here to protect my agreement, and to kill any worthless followers of Incognito that stand in our way! That's it! I don't care about any of this 'teamwork' garbage--"
  1059. >"You are indeed here to aid us, mister Pharynx, but you are also required to be part of our team."
  1060. >"I just said, I don't care--"
  1061. >"If you insist on breaking away, and doing whatever you please during the mission, you stand to decrease our success chance by a minimum of 50.9%."
  1062. >"Wha--"
  1063. >"And an estimated 81.1% of mission failure conditions are projected to be caused by you alone--"
  1064. >The tent flap closes, completely silencing the outside world.
  1065. >Now, it was just you and Chrysalis.
  1066. >You take a seat on a nearby bench, protracted creaking heard as it compresses under your weight.
  1067. "I'm not gonna lie to you, I'm surprised you're even willing to go this far out there for us. What's your angle, Chryssy?"
  1068. >Seems like she still has full use of her magic, since she just floated a bench over to sit opposite to you.
  1069.  
  1070. >It takes her a moment to start speaking, and while her voice is quiet, it has her signature undertone of contempt.
  1071. >"What do you mean, 'my angle'? Did you forget our deal, that quickly?"
  1072. >Well, that was rude.
  1073. >But hey, she can speak, so there's that.
  1074. >"Besides, I didn't have much choice."
  1075. >She lightly touches the collar on her neck, her voice regaining some volume.
  1076. >"Let me make this absolutely clear to you, Anonymous. I will do anything, I will pay any price, to see her released from that fiend's influence."
  1077. "Does that include wanting him dead?"
  1078. >"As if you have to ask."
  1079. "Then we've at least got that to build off of. Now, are you going to cause us any problems?"
  1080. >She scowls.
  1081. >"Both you and the ponies can kill me with a thought. What do you think?"
  1082. "You know what I mean."
  1083. >"Tch. No, I won't."
  1084. >She looks off to the side.
  1085. >"Even without a leash, how could I oppose you, anyway? If you're strong enough to nearly defeat that damned monster, what could I possibly do?"
  1086. >Huh.
  1087. >Guess she has a point, there.
  1088. >"I want to ask you something."
  1089. "Shoot."
  1090. >Her scowl deepens.
  1091. >"Why did you bring Pharynx with you?"
  1092. "It's more that he brought himself along."
  1093. >"Let me guess, he doesn't trust you to uphold your end of the deal."
  1094. "He kinda just told us, back there."
  1095. >"I knew beforehoof. His intent was a dead giveaway."
  1096. "His 'intent'?"
  1097. >"Hmph. I'm surprised he didn't tell you about his sensory abilities. My abilities."
  1098. >Wait.
  1099. "You mean, that thing where he reads their minds?"
  1100. >"I read their emotions and desires, not their thoughts. But I suppose it's easy to see it that way."
  1101.  
  1102. "Well, what about you? Do you trust me to honour the deal?"
  1103. >"I don't trust anything I can't read. So for now, I'll have to agree with Pharynx's determination."
  1104. "He said something about that, too. About not being able to 'read' me."
  1105. >Probably not wise to bring up the likely reason for that.
  1106. >"For once, I can say it's nothing personal. You might be strong, you might hate Incognito, but I still don't trust you. Not you, not him, and certainly not Celestia."
  1107. >Wait.
  1108. "Celestia? You can't read her?"
  1109. >"I can, but she hides her true intent very well."
  1110. "How?"
  1111. >"I didn't think you'd be terribly interested in such a detail."
  1112. "Humour me."
  1113. >"Fine. She weaves a false layer of intent over her true ones. Just enough to confuse cursory senses and spells. But I've been doing this for a long time. I know the tells of false intent."
  1114. >She shudders a little.
  1115. >"Can't say I expected to find nothing but pain underneath it, though."
  1116. "Pain?"
  1117. >"Terrible, constant pain. The kind of pain found with losing a loved one, or something similar to it, anyways. There were hints of guilt, too, the kind often felt after betrayals."
  1118. "That's... fucked."
  1119. >"Assuming it's genuine. I can't imagine that being anything more than a strong false front. Nothing can endure that kind of emotional storm, at least not for long. I'd love to see where she derived that little spell from."
  1120. "Interesting, all the same."
  1121. >"I don't think so. It did it's job in keeping me from reading her. But at least she had something to work with. Neither you or him have anything. It's like you don't even exist."
  1122.  
  1123. "I think I'll count myself lucky, in that regard."
  1124. >"You'll have to tell me how you humans do it. I'd love to know how to incorporate that little quirk."
  1125. "No, you wouldn't."
  1126. >"Wouldn't I?"
  1127. "Trust me."
  1128. >"We've been over that."
  1129. "Well, that's your problem."
  1130. >"Fine, then."
  1131. >She loses some of her scowl, her expression coming closer to neutrality.
  1132. >"Do you intend on taking me with you, into his base?"
  1133. "Yeah, I do."
  1134. >"I knew it."
  1135. "Not just for guiding us around, though. I'll need you for any potential... confrontations."
  1136. >"Fighting, then?"
  1137. "I was thinking more 'talking down'."
  1138. >"Excuse me? You expect me to talk gryphons out of fighting?"
  1139. "I expect you to talk your daughter out of fighting."
  1140. >Her scowl disintegrates, replaced with shock as she recoils at your words.
  1141. >Before she can respond, you hold a hand up.
  1142. "No, I don't know if she, or him, are there or not. But I'm not taking any chances."
  1143. >"I..."
  1144. >Her withers slump, a mix of resentment and sadness in her look to you.
  1145. >"That was low."
  1146. "I'm giving you a chance to stop her peacefully. You'd prefer I--"
  1147. >"No! You've made your point!"
  1148. "Good."
  1149. >A slight twinge is felt, around your scar.
  1150. "I'm warning you right now, though. If one of my friends--"
  1151. >"They won't! I... I'll do what I can, I swear!"
  1152. "If I were you, I'd get Pharynx's help, too. He wants her alive as much as you do."
  1153. >"You expect--?!"
  1154. >Whatever she was about to say, she bit it back.
  1155. >"I suppose I don't have much choice, do I?"
  1156. "This isn't optional for him, either."
  1157. >"You say that like it's supposed to make me feel better."
  1158.  
  1159. "It isn't."
  1160. >You stand back up, taking note of the nearby clock.
  1161. "Now, you have until the hour, before we set out. I'm not expecting you two to become besties in that time, but I am expecting you two to stop trying to claw each other's eyes out."
  1162. >"And if I refuse?"
  1163. "Celestia stuck that collar on you. I'm sure she can come up with way worse."
  1164. >"Bastard."
  1165. "In the flesh, in the rear, with the gear. Now, we can keep talking about the job, or we can do it."
  1166. >"Fine."
  1167. >With that, you re-open the tent flap.
  1168. >The sound coming back in all of a sudden was a bit surprising, but hey.
  1169. >At least there's no yelling going on in here.
  1170. >Your group breaks from the round table once they notice you're back, heading over to you.
  1171. >Pharynx, of course, is still frowning.
  1172. >"So, I take it she's off our team?"
  1173. "Keep dreaming."
  1174. >"Anon, if she isn't off the team, I'll--"
  1175. "What?"
  1176. >You take a step towards him, now quite through with this shit.
  1177. "You'll do what, exactly? Pout for a few days? Sit this one out? No, please, tell me."
  1178. >"Why, you--"
  1179. "She's coming with us, Pharynx, and that's that. And you'll just have to deal with it. We clear?"
  1180. >He scowls your way, but between that and his glare, it's not nearly enough to dissuade you.
  1181. >"We're clear. But I don't have to like it."
  1182. "Wasn't asking you to. But I am asking you to stop trying to bite her head off, at least for now."
  1183. >His reply was cut off by Chrysalis saying something in Scarabspeak behind you.
  1184. >Whatever it was, it froze Pharynx, who replies in turn.
  1185. >The two break away and start talking, still clearly distrustful of one another.
  1186.  
  1187. >But hey, they're not trying to kill each other, so there's that.
  1188. >The voice of Light speaking up makes you turn from them, to her.
  1189. >"Didn't take you for a persuader. Good skill to have."
  1190. "I'm no persuader. They just don't have any choice."
  1191. >"Fair enough. Shame you missed out on one of the good sergeant's famous 'stat overloads'."
  1192. >"I merely told him the projected victory chances, should he continue his course of behaviour."
  1193. >"Mmhm. In any case, we still have to go over the rest of the plan."
  1194. "All right, let's hear it."
  1195. >She nods, leading you back over to the round table.
  1196. >She brings up their troop mix, and it's pretty much what you expected.
  1197. >Seven changelings for every gryphon, but not a zebra in sight.
  1198. >Their movements seemed to revolve around protecting entrances, patrolling, that sort of thing, with really predictable routes.
  1199. >Then she brought up their plans, once you'd been spotted.
  1200. >In fact, they were kind of counting on you getting spotted, in order for the 'destroy the base' plan to work, at all.
  1201. >Turns out, that they've been stockpiling several imperial shitloads of that TPA shit, the red sand they use to nuke forbidden magic with.
  1202. >You remember how it looked in action, way back when you first found the book.
  1203. >Way back when they blew that secret room, and chased you off with crossbows and threats of treason charges.
  1204. >Can't forget when they nearly nuked your lab, either.
  1205. >Ahh, good times.
  1206. >She lit off a tiny bit of the stuff as a demonstration.
  1207. >Whoo, boy.
  1208. >That shit was as hot as thermite, threw sparks like molten steel, and melted like xenomorph blood.
  1209.  
  1210. >Makes you feel a lot better, knowing that they've got enough of that shit to destroy a small city.
  1211. >Ought to make any attempts to retake that little hidey-hole of his a much less appealing plan.
  1212. >Fucker.
  1213. >"And this is where you getting spotted comes into play. When you do get spotted, and hopefully you'll get the drop on them first, we'll use the distraction to rush in and start planting the TPA, at key structural points.
  1214. >"Once that's done, and you clear out of there, we'll set it all off, and bring the whole mountaintop down on the place. Should make one heck of a crash, when it goes."
  1215. "Man, I hope so."
  1216. >"Oh, it will, don't you worry. Buck it, I'll give you the honours, how about that?"
  1217. "You've just gone from horrible, to okay, to saintly, in record time. Damn, what's your secret?"
  1218. >"My own brand of dark magic."
  1219. "So, traitor, huh?"
  1220. >That might be the first time you've actually laughed with her.
  1221. >"Just make sure you comb the place completely, and follow any and all leads, before you start throwing down."
  1222. "You won't have to worry about that."
  1223. >You sure hope she won't, anyways.
  1224. >"Good to hear. Now, any questions?"
  1225. "Nope."
  1226. >"I have one, lieutenant. What signalling are we employing in this operation?"
  1227. >"None, sergeant. We're assuming the enemy's detection measures are at their maximum. The signal will be when we see fighting break out."
  1228. >"I see."
  1229. >Hell, you're more than happy to work with that.
  1230. >"All right, let's get you colts set up."
  1231. >Light then brings out a roll of shimmering fabric, with two brightly shimmering charms laid on top of it.
  1232.  
  1233. >"Two invisibility charms for you two, and an invisibility cloak for Anon."
  1234. >Wait, hold up, what?
  1235. "An invis-- you're serious?"
  1236. >"Dead serious. Give it a try."
  1237. >Well shit, if it works, you'll take it!
  1238. >Razor and Exact had since strapped on their badges, and gave them a tap to make their bodies all shimmery.
  1239. >Must be the invisibility doing it's thing.
  1240. >You throw the cloak on, and oh man, it fits you very well, hood and all.
  1241. >It even covers your weapons, no problem!
  1242. "I can still see you guys when you're 'invisible'. Is this working?"
  1243. >"It works, all right. I was afraid it wasn't going to, honestly."
  1244. "Yeah, me too. Hey, can I keep this?"
  1245. >"Hah! Sure, but only if you're fine with the enchantment lasting only a day after this."
  1246. "Why must you ruin a good thing, like this?"
  1247. >"Hey, you're the one who called me 'saintly'."
  1248. "Touche. Hey, what about the other two?"
  1249. >Chrysalis spoke up from behind.
  1250. >"We can cast it ourselves. It's easy enough to maintain."
  1251. >You turn around at the response, greeted with the sight of both her and Pharynx.
  1252. >They still look pissy, but hey, they've stopped trying to kill each other!
  1253. "I'll take your word for it."
  1254. >"That doesn't sound very wise."
  1255. "Dying isn't too wise, either."
  1256. >Either the shimmer of the cloak played with your eyes, or she just fought off a smile for a split second.
  1257. "Anyways, are we all set and ready to go?"
  1258. >"Of course."
  1259. >"I'm always ready."
  1260. >"Bucking A."
  1261. >"I have been prepared for the last fourteen minutes and thirty-three seconds."
  1262. "Well, let's get to it, shall we?"
  1263. >And with that, your little group sets out.
  1264.  
  1265. >"Remember, stay concealed for as long as possible, Anon!"
  1266. "Will do, Light."
  1267. >You open the tent flap, and--
  1268. >whooOOOOSH
  1269. >Fuck, the wind, right!
  1270. >Everyone files out after you, with Chrysalis taking the lead soon after.
  1271. >Man, a mile-long trek along this cold, windy-ass mountainside was not your idea of a fun time.
  1272. >But hey, at least the cloak was insulated well!
  1273. >And your legwear should help, too.
  1274. >The trip proceeds in relative silence, everyone stealthed up the whole way.
  1275. >Only Exact and Pharynx were casting things to warm themselves up: Razor and Chrysalis looked pretty unaffected by the cold.
  1276. >If anything, Razor seemed to enjoy it.
  1277. >The group's pace slows for a beat, when you see some gryphons in familiar armour, cruising around in the distance.
  1278. >Despite them, and a few other patrols looking your direction, they don't seem to notice you.
  1279. >Thank God.
  1280. >Good thing there was no snow along Chrysalis's route.
  1281. >Her course took you to a little rocky outcrop, just like the one on the pictures and maps.
  1282. >"We're getting close, now."
  1283. >Thank God.
  1284. >As you got close to it, you could see a shimmering, distinctly door-like shape in the rock.
  1285. >Man, seeing through illusions is the tits.
  1286. >Don't even know how the others are keeping track of each other, but you're glad you don't need whatever they're doing.
  1287. >"We're here."
  1288. >It's weird, how her horn glows, instead of lighting up.
  1289. >All the same, the 'door' outline flashes green for a moment, before the wall slides inwards, and to the side.
  1290. >"This leads to the chariot hangar. Stay close."
  1291. >It wasn't the cold making your hands shake.
  1292.  
  1293. @@@@@@@@
  1294.  
  1295. >Chrysalis takes the lead, the entire group filing into the doorway, with you squarely in the middle of the line.
  1296. >Already, you've got a bad feeling about this place.
  1297. >Beyond the obvious of it being Nito's old hidey-hole, the passageway itself was dark, damp, and lit only by the occasional greenish torch.
  1298. >Definite signs of changelings having a hand in designing this place.
  1299. >Luckily, the passageway doesn't go on for very long, and soon enough, the group breaks out into a very large, open area.
  1300. >Well, you can really see why it's called the hangar.
  1301. >There had to be about ten chariots inside of this place, with a really high ceiling to, presumably, allow them to take off and land without issue.
  1302. >The question as to how they were able to exit and enter this place was quickly answered with a bit of looking around.
  1303. >Big sliding doors on one side of the room, easily big enough to allow them to fly through.
  1304. >And with nary a spot of shimmering on it.
  1305. >That tells you that it's camouflaged the old fashioned way.
  1306. >Jesus, this really is a Bond villain base, isn't it?
  1307. >"Incognito's personal areas are up ahead, through the hive here."
  1308. >At least this time, Number Two defected.
  1309. >The whole group stays silent, though Pharynx was noticeably upset about something, his head darting two and fro, as if searching for something.
  1310. >Questions for later.
  1311. >Chrysalis leads you through another large entrance, this one looking very cave-like, and with plenty of bug nest features spread around.
  1312. >Three guesses as to where this leads to.
  1313.  
  1314. >You grab hold of your wand, keeping a good grip on it while you pass through the hive.
  1315. >Changelings frequently ran around the place, as you would expect, except something seemed kind of off about them.
  1316. >They looked kinda... lost.
  1317. >The only time they didn't look lost, was when you spotted some gryphon giving a few of them orders.
  1318. >That was the only time they seemed to move with any kind of purpose.
  1319. >"The entrance is just up ahead."
  1320. >Looking back ahead, you see a very human-sized, human-operated door, flanked on both sides by some mean-looking gryphon guards.
  1321. >Whoo boy, sneaking past those two was gonna be a hassle.
  1322. >That was when she decided to cast another spell.
  1323. >The heads of both the guards were cloaked in a green mist, and when it faded, their eyes were tinted green, and they looked very, very tired, almost like zombies.
  1324. >"Move quickly."
  1325. >No argument here.
  1326. >She rushes over, opening the door, allowing the rest of you to file in after her.
  1327. >When she TK's the door closed behind you, she lets out a big sigh of relief.
  1328. >"Sweet Foremothers above, we were lucky."
  1329. >Right as you start getting some questions about why she's started whispering like this, she opens another door, leading from this little entrance hall to a long hallway.
  1330. >"There aren't any patrols in his personal area. Come on, let's get to his damned office, so we can talk more freely."
  1331. >Can't say you really trust the talking part, but heading to the fucker's office sounds like a good plan to you, where information is concerned.
  1332. >So you follow after her, as she opens a door to said study.
  1333.  
  1334. >For a guy who dabbles in really edgy shit all day, you have to say, the place is not what you expected.
  1335. >Proper, well-maintained furniture, a well-stocked desk, neatly organized bookshelves, proper filing cabinets, and not a single Nine Inch Nails poster in sight.
  1336. >'Unnervingly Professional' would be the words you'd choose to describe it with.
  1337. >Chrysalis, meanwhile, had dropped her invisibility, exhaling a little as she did so.
  1338. >"Okay. As far as I'm aware, he kept all his documents, notes, and other things like that in here. For a creature like him, he was quite organized."
  1339. >She drags a hoof over the desktop, carving through a thin layer of dust you didn't even realize was there.
  1340. >"And it looks like he hasn't been here in quite a long time."
  1341. "So where do we start?"
  1342. >"I'm not too sure, myself. I suppose we'll have to start digging through everything, won't we?"
  1343. "Looks that way."
  1344. >Figures.
  1345. "You check the desk. I'll check the books. Rest of you, take your pick."
  1346. >The group nods, setting to work.
  1347. >You walk straight over to the shelves, the sounds of drawers and cabinets opening and closing mixing with the sound of paper getting shuffled around, as you start glossing over the titles.
  1348. >Most of them seemed uninteresting, with the majority of them being about history, weapons, and armour, with a definite emphasis on the more edgy topics.
  1349. >See, look, there was a book here on zebrican bladed weapons!
  1350. >You flip through it briefly, finding it to be full of really scary-looking sacrificial knife designs.
  1351. >None of it very helpful.
  1352.  
  1353. >The selection was small, but you decide to scan through it once again.
  1354. >No way this is all he has, it can't be.
  1355. >There's got to be more to it than this!
  1356. >"Anon, these cabinets are primarily full of blank parchment. Only 3.3% of the parchment present had writing present, and it contained relatively mundane information."
  1357. >"Gaah, there's nothing in this desk, either! Nito, you bastard, where's your damn documents?!"
  1358. >Shit.
  1359. >Looks like they're having shitty luck, same as you.
  1360. >Something's not right here, you know it!
  1361. >Once again, you scan the covers, hoping to find something--
  1362. >Wait.
  1363. >That book, there.
  1364. >Every other book is in regular English, but this one is in Ancient Equestrian.
  1365. >The title on the spine reads "A Pull From Beyond".
  1366. >You make to pull it out, but only succeed in pulling it out halfway, before it stops dead with an audible 'click'.
  1367. >The instant you realize what just happened, is the same instant that the sound of stone grating could be heard to your side.
  1368. >Turning to the source of the sound greets you with the sight of part of the wall sliding away, revealing a small bookshelf and a lectern.
  1369. >Already, the lectern has a what looks like a homemade Bible sitting on top of it, the hidden shelving underneath containing a few folders.
  1370. >"Of course he would hide his important works well."
  1371. "Can't imagine why."
  1372. >Chrysalis had already floated out the folders, while you start on the bookshelf.
  1373. >Already, you're noticing a difference in content.
  1374. >The most notable difference being a large, black book, with a title you definitely recognize.
  1375.  
  1376. >'Crimson Incantations: A Complete Guide on Dark Magic' sat on the shelf, except it was in English, instead of your zebra-language copy.
  1377. >Your attempt to reach for it is interrupted by Exact:
  1378. >"Anon, I advise you not to touch that particular tome."
  1379. "Why's that?"
  1380. >"That book contains several enticement enchantments, that while not effective on you, would be on any of us."
  1381. "That right?"
  1382. >"That is correct."
  1383. >Well, thank God for your magic resist, then.
  1384. >Exact decides to walk up and join you in the book searching, and the first thing your eyes set upon after the Incantations book, is the red-spined black book right next to it.
  1385. >'Codex Vires Cruor'.
  1386. >Your Latin senses tell you that's got to be all bloodreaving shit.
  1387. >"That tome, while not enchanted, still contains a breadth of information on the dark practice of bloodreaving."
  1388. >Called it.
  1389. >You go through the very limited shelves in fairly short order, finding books going along the same lines.
  1390. >Primarily dark magic, with heavy emphasis on blood, souls, and what Exact called 'traditional black magic'.
  1391. >A copy of 'Lineage', that changeling book, was present, a fact that did not go over well with the changelings in the audience.
  1392. >One book seemed out of place, titled 'Report: The Bloodtalons', looking really plain by comparison.
  1393. >Opening it up met you with probably one of the worst English translations you'd ever seen, so bad that you couldn't get much past the first parts of the preface, something about 'loyalists to the old empire'.
  1394. >It seems important, so you'll take it, but still.
  1395.  
  1396. >And... that was about it.
  1397. >There wasn't really anything else, past the dark magic books.
  1398. "Damn. You find anything better, there?"
  1399. >"I think so. Seems like recipes, instructions of some kind."
  1400. "Let me see."
  1401. >You get floated a folder, and opening it up shows you...
  1402. >Oh Jesus fucking Christ, this handwriting...!
  1403. >It was cursive.
  1404. >Really cursive.
  1405. >Like, borderline unreadable cursive.
  1406. >Seriously, fuck this guy.
  1407. >It's a bit of a struggle at first, determining what the hillbilly fuck it's actually saying.
  1408. >But it seems to be something about...
  1409. >Steel?
  1410. >Yeah, and something about folding, what a shock.
  1411. >If he's figured something like that out, then that's definitely worth taking.
  1412. >"This one is for a potion. Something to quickly heal with, I think."
  1413. "Sounds familiar."
  1414. >"Does it?"
  1415. "Asshole popped a couple when we were throwing down."
  1416. >"Then you had best take this."
  1417. >That's exactly what you do.
  1418. >The last few folders contained instructions on making 'soulstone', 'shadelloy', 'orichalcum', and had something on 'distilling vitae'.
  1419. >None of them were particularly readable, thanks to Nito's annoying writing, but Exact was able to tell you that the 'shadealloy' and 'orichalcum' were magical alloys, kind of like thaumium, except of a much more evil pedigree.
  1420. >He also added that you really didn't want to know what 'distilling vitae' meant.
  1421. >You'll take his word for it.
  1422. >You leave that particular folder and the 'soulstone' one, but take the rest.
  1423. >Well.
  1424. >Never thought you'd be stealing his recipes and shit, but...
  1425. >"Gaah, there must be more than this!"
  1426. >Yeah, you agree.
  1427.  
  1428. "Looks like we're going treasure hunting."
  1429. >"Not yet, we're not."
  1430. "Pharynx?"
  1431. >Said bug, still looking disturbed by something, glares towards Chrysalis.
  1432. >"We're not going anywhere, until you explain that presence around here!"
  1433. >Wait, presence?
  1434. >Upon hearing that, her expression falls.
  1435. >"What you are sensing, is the pain of his victims."
  1436. "His victims?"
  1437. >"Yes. Do you remember when I told you, of those bladed tables he used? The ones that--"
  1438. "Bled people out."
  1439. >"Y-yes. A large portion of this place is devoted to that. He keeps a room here, full of tanks, to keep his... victims alive, before--"
  1440. "Stop. I get the idea."
  1441. >Well shit, and here you had almost forgotten about when she'd told you that.
  1442. "But that's not going to stop me from finding what we came here for."
  1443. >"I know. Just... if we can avoid his laboratories at all..."
  1444. "No promises."
  1445. >Though you'd be lying, if you said you didn't want to avoid them, too.
  1446. "We should keep moving. You're sure that nobody comes through here?"
  1447. >"Nobody but him, and those he authorizes."
  1448. "Then we should split up and comb the rest of the place. We can't leave until we find out where his new hidey-hole is."
  1449. >You take a moment to pack up your current haul of paper.
  1450. "You'll come with me, and we'll take the doors on this side of the hall. The rest of you can handle the others. How's that sound?"
  1451. >Pharynx obviously didn't like it, but Razor beat him in speaking up:
  1452. >"Wait, you're going with her? Alone?"
  1453. >A light tap to where you'd stored that detonator answers his question.
  1454. >Though her scowl didn't escape your notice.
  1455.  
  1456. >"Sounds good to me, Anon. We'd better get to it."
  1457. >The trio makes their way out, but Pharynx stops next to you.
  1458. >"Watch yourself around her."
  1459. >And just as quickly, he files out with the others.
  1460. "Boy, he really hates you, huh?"
  1461. >"He has more right than most to. But we didn't come here to talk about my relationship to him."
  1462. "Guess not, huh? Well, we'd better get going."
  1463. >You're the first out of the hallway, and you catch the trio heading into a door on the way out.
  1464. >You go from door to spread-out door, checking to see if there's anything of note in each one.
  1465. >So far, all you've encountered is a janitor's closet, an empty office, and a small wardrobe with priest shirts, of all things.
  1466. >You close that door, and have to take a fork in the road, down another branching hallway, with just one door at the end.
  1467. >But already, you can see shimmering along the walls.
  1468. >"Anonymous, don't go down there."
  1469. "Why?"
  1470. >"His quarters are that way, and the walls are littered with magic traps. You won't make it."
  1471. "Magic traps, eh?"
  1472. >Your growing smile only confuses her.
  1473. "What kind of traps?"
  1474. >"You think this is a game?! I've seen trespassers getting ripped apart, trying to go down there!"
  1475. "I'm guessing they never worked on him?"
  1476. >"Of course not! Why would they?"
  1477. >Against her wishes, you start walking down the hallway.
  1478. >"W-wait, what are you--?!"
  1479. "Hang back a minute, I'll see if I can't shut the things down."
  1480. >You throw on your teashades for some extra magic sight, and are greeted with some very aggressive-looking glyphs, splayed across the walls.
  1481.  
  1482. >More importantly, they weren't firing off, despite your brisk trek down the hallway.
  1483. >By the time you reach the end, you see a tiny switch on the wall, almost like a light switch, where you saw some magic lines stretching from it, to the wall glyphs.
  1484. >They oscillated for a second after flicking it, followed by the glyphs losing their power.
  1485. >Hell of a way to keep out intruders.
  1486. >While you take stock of the wall-glyphs, you catch Chrysalis's shocked expression.
  1487. >"How...? How did you do that?"
  1488. "Human intuition."
  1489. >More like you guessed he was checking for things with either magic or souls, and nuking anything with either.
  1490. >He had to be smart enough to figure that out.
  1491. >Whatever the fuck he went with, your bet worked.
  1492. >Besides, magic hall traps didn't really do much, if your first trek into that weird zebra city secret passage was anything to go by.
  1493. >Too bad you weren't likely to find awesome magic books at the end of this hallway.
  1494. "The wall things should be off, now. You can come on over."
  1495. >"I know they're off, I sensed them lose power. But you didn't answer my question."
  1496. "I told you, intuition."
  1497. >"So, you guessed...?!"
  1498. "An educated guess."
  1499. >"And just what--"
  1500. >She bites back what she was going to say, walking forth instead.
  1501. >"Nevermind. I don't want to know."
  1502. >While she approaches, you turn the door handle, pushing open the door--
  1503. >"Gaaaaaaah!"
  1504. >Who--?!
  1505. >Razor!
  1506. >Instantly, you bolt back down the hallway, towards where you heard the scream.
  1507. >"Holy bucking shit, what the buck?!"
  1508. >You round a corner, seeing the others around Razor, flat on his back outside of an open door.
  1509.  
  1510. "Razor!"
  1511. >"Oh buck, th-that... that shit ain't bucking right!"
  1512. >That's the first time you've ever seen him properly freaked out.
  1513. "Jesus, what's wrong?"
  1514. >"A-Anon? Oh thank... C-close the damn door, for buck's sake!"
  1515. >The door is promptly closed by Pharynx, who himself looks rather disturbed.
  1516. >"I... can't even blame you for that."
  1517. "What? The hell did you guys find?"
  1518. >"It was--"
  1519. >"Hey, who's there?!"
  1520. >Shit, guards!
  1521. >They must've heard that!
  1522. >Instantly, everyone throws their invisibility back on, the same gryphon pair from before rounding the corner a few seconds later, crossbows in hands.
  1523. >Talons.
  1524. >Whatever.
  1525. >"Come out! I know you're there!"
  1526. >"You sure someone's here? I didn't hear anything."
  1527. >"I'm positive!"
  1528. >They scour the hallways for a minute or two, the whole group taking care not to bump into them.
  1529. >Of course, that wasn't helped by you choosing to shadow them.
  1530. >Hey, they might tell you something!
  1531. >"I was sure, that...!"
  1532. >"Not sure enough, apparently. We'd better get back."
  1533. >"I don't get it, I was sure that--"
  1534. >"I think you need a break, buddy. How long's it been since you had one?"
  1535. >"N-not since the... archaeology detail..."
  1536. >"Well frack, there's your problem. I don't know how those bugs stay sane around that pony..."
  1537. >"I... I think I'm gonna take that break, after all..."
  1538. >"Don't even sweat it. I'll handle the door."
  1539. >"Th-thanks..."
  1540. >The pair leaves out the entrance door.
  1541. >Once again, the area was silent.
  1542. "'Around that pony'...?"
  1543. >They had a pony here, somewhere?
  1544. >And what's this about archaeology?
  1545. >Wait, no, Razor, right!
  1546.  
  1547. >You head back to the others, still hiding out.
  1548. "They're gone, now. Just keep it down next time, all right? That was way too close."
  1549. >Hell, you're talking quieter, to match.
  1550. >The rest drop their invisibility, Razor taking a moment to catch his breath.
  1551. >"Goddess, I'm sorry, Anon. I-it was just...!"
  1552. "What'd you find, man?"
  1553. >"It was... I-I can't even...!"
  1554. >"You found his 'storage', didn't you?"
  1555. >Chrysalis's interjection had everyone looking her way.
  1556. >"Large glass tubes, filled with liquid, holding ponies and other creatures captive?"
  1557. >Just saying that made Razor shiver.
  1558. >Even Pharynx looked freaked out.
  1559. >"S-so that's what I had sensed...!"
  1560. >But Exact, on the other hand, had some anger creeping into his expression.
  1561. >"Chrysalis, what fluid is he using for suspension?"
  1562. >"Kalomite."
  1563. >That's the first time he's looked properly angry.
  1564. >It surprised you to see, to say nothing of the local bugs recoiling.
  1565. >"We cannot destroy this place immediately. We must ensure these captives are released."
  1566. >Against your better judgment, you crack the door open to get a look.
  1567. >It was somehow even worse than you were expecting.
  1568. >Ponies, with the occasional gryphon, were suspended in glowing green liquid.
  1569. >That didn't disturb you.
  1570. >What disturbed you, were their still-open, jittering eyes, and frozen looks of terror.
  1571. >And the moment you put your head through to look, all those eyes locked on to you.
  1572. >A cold shiver shoots through you at the sight, and you have to force yourself to close the door.
  1573. "Jesus, Joseph and Mary..."
  1574. >"Anon, we must release them!"
  1575. "Yeah, we will."
  1576.  
  1577. >You turn back to face the others.
  1578. "Trust me, we will. But not until we get our info."
  1579. >"Then we should make haste. Have you found any leads?"
  1580. "Yeah, we were about to head into his bedroom."
  1581. >"That will likely contain a wealth of information. We will aid you in searching that area."
  1582. "Sure. Let's go."
  1583. >Anywhere but here sounds good.
  1584. >Though now you're really scared of what you'll find in the guy's room.
  1585. >Still, you double-back to that particular door, everyone following along.
  1586. >You finish pushing the door the rest of the way open.
  1587. >It was dark, prompting you to grab your Luxflood focus, slap it onto your wand, and use it for it's flashlight powers, while the horned crew cast their own light spells.
  1588. >What you found inside was much more comforting, compared to that 'storage'.
  1589. >A surprisingly spartan bedroom, with a very plain single bed, flanked by a nightstand with an oil lamp.
  1590. >A couple of armour racks, with really rough looking, kind of rusted iron armour.
  1591. >A half-full rack of sabres and falchions, in various colours of metal.
  1592. >A small 'bathroom', really just some paper walls covering up a dedicated part of the room.
  1593. >And a small dresser with a couple of books on top.
  1594. >Immediately, everyone gets to searching, with you going right for the books.
  1595. >Unfortunately, the books were just about basic smithing, and Equestrian history.
  1596. >The dresser only had regular-ass clothes and towels inside.
  1597. >"Anon, I found something!"
  1598. >You turn to Razor, who pulls an untitled book from the nightstand.
  1599. >You take it and flip it open.
  1600. >You realize what is it, instantly.
  1601. >It's a journal.
  1602.  
  1603. @@@@@@@@
  1604.  
  1605. >A fucking journal.
  1606. >Holy shit, this might be the ticket for you!
  1607. >The writing contained within is the same cursive mess that you had to suffer through in the folders, except here it was way less flowery, less professional-looking.
  1608. >It made it easier to read, but not by much.
  1609. >You turn to the book's first entry, dated a little over a year ago.
  1610. >(Finally found a lead on the likely location of the tome I am looking for. Unfortunately, it appears to be buried deep within a mountain in the Gryphon territories.
  1611. >(No doubt intended to seal the knowledge away, though whether that is the doing of the Equestrians or the Void Lords remains to be seen.
  1612. >(No matter. My warband is more than happy to return to their ancestral homeland.
  1613. >(And no mountain will stand in the way of my destiny.)
  1614. "A mountain?"
  1615. >"What was that?"
  1616. >Upon hearing Chrysalis's reply, you turn to her.
  1617. "He was looking for something inside of a mountain, in gryphon territory. I'm guessing this is that mountain."
  1618. >"Well, that would explain his fascination with reaching that dig site."
  1619. "Dig site? You mean, he was...?"
  1620. >"Yes. He had my changelings dig long passageways into the mountain, seemingly at random, until they found something very deep inside of it. I didn't think much of it at the time, though. Do you know what he was looking for?"
  1621. "No idea, yet."
  1622. >And you're on the fence about wanting to know.
  1623. >Regardless, you turn the pages, searching for more.
  1624. >He wrote entries for every single day, taking up a page each time, even if it was just one line saying 'nothing new today'.
  1625.  
  1626. >You'd make fun of that little bit of neurosis, but it actually made scanning through the book a total breeze.
  1627. >A whole fucking month's worth of one-line entries passes, before you find something of real substance.
  1628. >(Very little progress has been made, since arriving at this damnable mountainside.
  1629. >(Every auspex, every sight array, tells me that there is nothing of note within this mountain, but all available evidence says otherwise.
  1630. >(I am digging blindly here. I do not have the time, power, or resources to excavate more than this simple base camp for my warband, and this menial digging has clearly worn on them, as well.
  1631. >(I know this must be my destination. But I will need something else to aid my search.)
  1632. >Oh, that's fun.
  1633. >Flicking the pages some more, you find a third entry, another month apart.
  1634. >Jesus, you're already a third through this book.
  1635. >(An unexpected boon has come my way. My scouts reported some strange ponies, making a trek through the mountains. Naturally, I took some of my warriors with me, to see what I could extract from this foolish party.
  1636. >(But the party was not made up of ponies at all. Instead, a crude, insectoid facsimile of their forms.
  1637. >(Changelings.
  1638. >(I was able to treat with their leader, a tall, distinctly feminine creature by the name of Chrysalis.)
  1639. >A surprisingly detailed sketch of her was underneath that line.
  1640. >(I could tell immediately that she was a prisoner of hubris, but she shared a common hatred for Equestria.
  1641. >(That would more than suffice for my needs.
  1642. >(I will treat with her once more tomorrow, to cement a new alliance.)
  1643.  
  1644. "Now he's talking about meeting you."
  1645. >"What? Let me see that!"
  1646. >She barges past the others, getting beside you, and reading the passages over.
  1647. >She scowls by the end of it.
  1648. >"Bastard."
  1649. "I'm guessing this didn't go well?"
  1650. >"No, it went very well. That should have been my first clue."
  1651. >Right...
  1652. >You turn the page again, and continue reading:
  1653. >(This boon has become far more beneficial than I could have imagined.
  1654. >(I forged an alliance with this wayward changeling queen, where we agreed to join forces and besiege Equestria, in the name of vengeance.
  1655. >(The warband is very on edge about the newcomers. I did not anticipate their apprehension to changelings. But I will make them cooperate. I will not suffer such division in my ranks.
  1656. >(That Chrysalis, for her immediate faults, seems to be of sound enough mind. In the future, I may share the true purpose of my plans with her, if she is worthy.)
  1657. >You can hear her growling, off to the side.
  1658. >(I took the liberty of creating a small site for them to settle into, somewhat distant from my warband's abode. But my digging proved to be unnecessary.
  1659. >(They excavated the rock with ease, quickly creating for themselves what I can only assume is the beginnings of a changeling hive.
  1660. >(The hive does not interest me. The digging prowess does.
  1661. >(I believe I have found my solution.)
  1662. >"When I find him...!"
  1663. "Guess we can agree on that much, huh?"
  1664. >Surprisingly, the next few pages don't have anything.
  1665. >You have to skip over a week's worth of empty entries, before seeing a new one.
  1666.  
  1667. >(I took time off of making new entries, to better document these changelings.
  1668. >(They are fascinating creatures to behold, appearing to subsist off a purely magical diet, comprised of the emotion of love.
  1669. >(That strikes me as a distinctly evil thing to do. Yet none of them have succumbed to the negative effects commonly seen by the creatures of the land, who attempt to wield the darkness.
  1670. >(This raises questions for me. Perhaps the toll of the dark is waived, if the act is an intrinsic part of your being? Or if you have no choice but to perform the act, to survive? Must investigate later.)
  1671. >The next page starts with a detailed, Vitruvian Man-style drawing of a changeling.
  1672. >(All changelings possess limited magical capabilities, and the ability to fly, though with nowhere near the finesse of gryphons and pegasi.
  1673. >(Curiously, these abilities, and the extent to which they are skilled in them, are completely uniform across all observable members.
  1674. >(There were aberrations in their ranks, changelings with different statures and coloration, though not as stark as the queen, herself. However, the queen was very protective of these members, and disallowed any contact.
  1675. >(Different roles, perhaps? A higher importance? Perhaps they are family? Must investigate further.
  1676. >(Regardless, the standard hive members are of greater interest. I must determine how to make the best use of their abilities.
  1677. >(Chrysalis refuses to order them to any action, however, not until 'she can trust me'.
  1678. >(That was a week ago. My patience is beginning to erode. May need to pursue alternate solution.)
  1679.  
  1680. >"I knew it. That's why he began preaching."
  1681. "Preaching?"
  1682. >"Yes. See if he's written anything about it."
  1683. >Sure enough, there is something, a week after the last entry.
  1684. >(A new discovery. While holding a service for my warband, to improve their morale, I found that the changelings were rather drawn to the performance.
  1685. >(I decided to conclude the service quickly, and hold a separate one for them. What incredible findings.
  1686. >(Changeling drones, as they are known, have a requirement for authority from a leader figure, much like terrestrial ants. Initially, I believed this to be administered by the queen, or her still as of yet unknown underlings.
  1687. >(However, they responded positively to my service, particularly when rallied to action. I was able to assign them small tasks, both during the service, and for minutes afterwards.
  1688. >(I will attempt to hold more frequent services, to test the limits of this exploit.)
  1689. >Oh.
  1690. >That's what she meant.
  1691. "Let me guess, he...?"
  1692. >"Of course he did. How could he not?"
  1693. >Stupid question.
  1694. >Another entry, three days later:
  1695. >(The experiment is a success. Some changelings are beginning to, for lack of a better term, imprint upon me. I believe they consider me a greater leader than their queen. Very desirable.
  1696. >(Less desirable, is the predictable response from Chrysalis. Clear display of envy, believing me to be leading her children astray.
  1697. >(I told her to cooperate with me, so I would not require these measures. She reacted poorly, as expected, but ultimately acquiesced.
  1698. >(Excavation will soon begin properly.)
  1699.  
  1700. "He threatened you, huh?"
  1701. >"Every instinct I had was screaming at me to leave. But I didn't. I stayed, because I thought I could manipulate him.
  1702. >"Damn it...! He knew, all along! He saw right through me!"
  1703. >For once, you actually feel sorry for her.
  1704. >Still, you flick through the pages, checking for new entries.
  1705. >Another month passes in-book, before a new entry:
  1706. >(My efforts are hampered, once again. The excavation has made significant progress, and we now have the space to begin constructing and maintaining gryphonian chariots. A significant benefit.
  1707. >(Tension continues to grow between me and Chrysalis, however. She seems convinced that I am turning her children against her.
  1708. >(I have no control over who attends my services, nor am I willing to cast out those who do, for any reason. Despite explaining this, she continues to be irrational.)
  1709. >"That little...!"
  1710. >(It's easy to see how she labours under this misapprehension, however. An estimated one-fifth of her drones attend my services, with many members expressing a clear preference in leadership towards me, and not her.
  1711. >(Again, their attendance is outside of my control, but is a net positive nonetheless.
  1712. >(Considering the details of her past leadership, however, I also cannot fault these drones for their decision.)
  1713. >She was shaking with anger.
  1714. >(Back on topic. I still do not know where the chamber I seek is, despite sending changelings to probe the mountain rock.
  1715. >(I suspect that it may lie deeper within the mountain. Provided I maintain control of the changelings, I will investigate solutions.)
  1716.  
  1717. >"'Maintain control', like they're a resource! That damn--!"
  1718. "Hey, calm down."
  1719. >"Calm down?! Don't you tell me to calm down!"
  1720. "I want to get through this as quick as possible. Save the anger for the red man, himself."
  1721. >"You--!"
  1722. >She bites back whatever she was about to say, and takes a deep breath.
  1723. >"I make no promises."
  1724. >Very comforting.
  1725. >You turn the pages, until you're another month in, and two-thirds through the book.
  1726. >(The changelings have reached their limit on digging. The rock near the base of the mountain is too tightly packed to excavate without magic. Once again, I have hit a roadblock. Will need another solution.
  1727. >(Chrysalis is beginning to hold me in active contempt. Her drones continue to prefer me to her. She attended a service of mine, objecting to my words.
  1728. >(I won the battle of wits, but this is clearly far from over. I will have to ensure her compliance, or cast her out before she becomes more of a liability, than an asset.)
  1729. >She's gone back to shaking.
  1730. >You proceed onwards despite that, landing on an entry two weeks in.
  1731. >(I have finally done it, created my catalyst!
  1732. >(No longer do I have to rely on severed horns and slow, disposable wands to work my craft!
  1733. >(I crafted Montklein from half a year's worth of shadealloy, and the ore deposits within the mountain allowed me to create the blades from orichalcum.)
  1734. >A detailed diagram of his catalyst was underneath.
  1735. >(Now, I have the key to besieging Equestria. My warriors will be beside themselves with excitement, when they know the hour of their vengeance will soon be upon them.)
  1736.  
  1737. >Wait, he's only had that fucking thing for a few months?!
  1738. >And it took him half a year to make?
  1739. >Good fucking God, not even your foci took that long!
  1740. >The next entry was two days later:
  1741. >(My reveal did not go as smoothly as I had anticipated. In hindsight, I should have expected this reaction.
  1742. >(The warband was elated to know that we were now nigh-on unstoppable, with Montklein as my weapon. The changelings I had swayed to my cause were similarly excited.
  1743. >(But once again, Chrysalis had objections. That she would object was not in question, but what surprised me was the ferocity of her objection.)
  1744. >"Oh, no..."
  1745. >(She flatly refused to accompany me, once she learned of my new weapon. She made her objections to the dark arts known, and attempted to rally her changelings to leave.
  1746. >(However, she was rebuked by her own drones, half of which proclaimed that they wished to remain with me, to exact revenge upon Equestria, as my warband wishes to.
  1747. >(I admit a certain sense of pride at the sight, but Chrysalis reacted very poorly to this. She did not leave, but instead accosted me in private, in tears.
  1748. >(She told me she would not rest, until she freed her minions from my 'demonic influence'. I told her that I would not stop, until the light of life was snuffed out of Equestria's princesses, no matter the cost.)
  1749. >Her shaking gets worse.
  1750. >(She told me that she would do all she could to stop me, if I harmed her children. I told her she could do nothing to stop me.
  1751. >(She backed down, unable to intimidate me. I will need a solution to her impudence, now more than ever.)
  1752.  
  1753. >You look over at Chrysalis.
  1754. >Her shaking was less forceful, yet more pronounced, and tears were threatening to form in her now very sad expression.
  1755. >"I was so stupid."
  1756. "Hey--"
  1757. >"I should have stopped him, before then."
  1758. >Automatically, your hand comes up, but she brushes it aside.
  1759. >"Keep going."
  1760. >She shouldn't be reading this, you know that.
  1761. >But good luck getting her to move.
  1762. >Reluctantly, you continue, another two weeks of entries passing.
  1763. >Her breath hitches, as you land on the page.
  1764. >(I was confronted today, by a changeling unlike the others.)
  1765. >"No..."
  1766. >Uh-oh.
  1767. >(She shared a physical appearance with the drones, but was slightly larger, and had a distinctive, darker purple coloration. Even the fins, a poor substitute for a mane, curled towards the end.)
  1768. >Oh, shit.
  1769. >(I had seen this one before, protected fiercely by Chrysalis and the others, but she had secreted herself away to, in her own words, confront me.
  1770. >(I was more surprised by her sex, all previous observed members of the hive being male, including Chrysalis's consorts. My suspicions were proven correct, when she revealed herself as a changeling princess.)
  1771. >"No, no, no...!"
  1772. >(I found the display to be more humorous, than anything else. She really did believe she could intimidate me. Her mannerisms was quite juvenile, in a strangely refreshing way.
  1773. >(Still, I will keep her little escapade in mind. It may prove to be of some value to me.)
  1774. >"Bastard...!"
  1775. >Now she was starting to shed tears.
  1776. >"That wretched, evil...! I-I should have been watching her! I--"
  1777. "You had no way to know what would happen."
  1778.  
  1779. >"You think I don't know that?!"
  1780. >Okay, no, that outburst wasn't going to fly.
  1781. "Settle down, Chrysalis."
  1782. >Before either of you can continue, the book is swiped out of your hands.
  1783. >Both of you turned towards the thief, none other than Pharynx.
  1784. "The hell are you doing?"
  1785. >You try to make a grab for it, but he just flies out of reach, already reading a few pages ahead.
  1786. "Hey, get back here with that!"
  1787. >He ignores her, the expression on his face darkening into fury as he reads on.
  1788. "Seriously, what the hell--"
  1789. >"You."
  1790. >He levels a furious glare at Chrysalis.
  1791. >"You!"
  1792. >In an instant, he drops the book and swoops down at Chrysalis, knocking her down and pinning her beneath him.
  1793. >"You! You did this to her!"
  1794. >Oh, fuck your life, this is not what you wanted right now!
  1795. >The sound of 'thuds' gave away Pharynx beginning to throw punches at her face.
  1796. >"You let that monster work her over!"
  1797. >Fucking shit, not good!
  1798. >Whatever Exact is casting is the furthest thing from your mind, as you run over to break them up.
  1799. "Hey--"
  1800. >"You let this happen!"
  1801. "Cut it out!"
  1802. >"You!"
  1803. >His blows were beginning to slow.
  1804. >"You...!"
  1805. "Stop!"
  1806. >He was starting to shake.
  1807. >"Y-you..."
  1808. >Your shortstaff comes out with TK, and you pull the two apart, though neither one resists.
  1809. "Don't make me repeat myself!"
  1810. >Tears were leaking down both of their faces.
  1811. >"Why?! Why couldn't you--?!"
  1812. >"You're right."
  1813. >She began to sob.
  1814. >"I let this happen."
  1815. >She wasn't even trying to hide her crying.
  1816. >Somehow, her face wasn't damaged at all from the blows thrown it's way.
  1817.  
  1818. >Razor barged into the magic bubble over all of you, anger written all over his face.
  1819. >Wait, bubble?
  1820. >"That's enough!"
  1821. >Whoaly shit, that's loud!
  1822. >"How long do you two plan on helping Incognito win?!"
  1823. >His tone...!
  1824. >Even the other two are taken aback, pausing their crying to look at him.
  1825. >"Chrysalis, I don't know every little detail about what happened to your kid, but everypony can see that it was his fault for this shit happening, not yours!"
  1826. >"B-but I--"
  1827. >"Shut up! You think breaking down like this is going to bring her back? You think lying down and letting this tailhole wail on you is going to help you kill him? Is that what you think?"
  1828. >Some of that familiar fury returned to her expression, soon eclipsing the sadness.
  1829. >"No...!"
  1830. >"Then start acting like it, miss 'queen of the changelings'! Unless you'd like him to eat her bucking soul?"
  1831. >"NO! I'll die before I let that happen!"
  1832. >"That's what I thought."
  1833. >He turns from a very riled-up Chrysalis, towards a still-stunned Pharynx.
  1834. >"And you! Care to explain to me just what in the name of Tartarus you were thinking, there?!"
  1835. >Now it's his turn to become furious.
  1836. >"You little--"
  1837. >"You weren't thinking, were you? Some 'assassin' you are! Can't even keep yourself in check for five bucking minutes, without wanting to attack the wrong target!"
  1838. >Pharynx's growling didn't even register with Razor.
  1839. >"She's here to help get us through this damn mountain alive! You don't have to like it, but we need her help! Or were you not paying attention, back at the base camp?"
  1840. >Razor storms towards him, his glare the greater of the two.
  1841.  
  1842. >"How many times do you plan on flying off the handle? Because if you can't keep it together, you're more than welcome to leave!"
  1843. >"I'm not leaving!"
  1844. >"Then you'd best direct that anger at the real enemy, tailhole!"
  1845. >"But she--"
  1846. >THWACK
  1847. >His line was cut off by Razor's headbutt, complete with bared teeth.
  1848. >"Let me be absolutely clear to you, bug. You attack any of our allies again, and I'll feed you to the gryphons, myself."
  1849. >Jesus Christ...!
  1850. >When the fuck could he do this?!
  1851. >Even Chrysalis looked shocked!
  1852. >Pharynx wilts under his glare, until his withers slump.
  1853. >"I'll cooperate."
  1854. >"Damn right, you will."
  1855. >Razor steps back to look at the two of them.
  1856. >"Now bury your damn hatchets, so we can move on."
  1857. >He storms out of the bubble, towards Exact.
  1858. >Whatever they're saying is completely silent.
  1859. >You decide to step on out of the bubble, while dragging your jaw up off the floor.
  1860. >"You kept it quiet this time, right?"
  1861. >"The silencing spell activated 0.4 seconds before Chrysalis began to yell."
  1862. >"Thank Luna for that."
  1863. "Uh..."
  1864. >Both of them turn their heads to face you.
  1865. "Wow. I... since when could you do that?"
  1866. >"Since before we met."
  1867. >His tone is softer, but still maintains that edge.
  1868. >"I can't let them eat each other, now. Not with all this shit riding on our mission. Now, you'd better finish that book of his off, and fast."
  1869. >The book!
  1870. >You don't have to look very far, as Exact just floats it over to you.
  1871. >"I agree with the lieutenant. This series of events has had a 19.3% negative impact on group cohesion."
  1872. >You take the book without saying a word.
  1873.  
  1874. >Well, they're not really wrong, are they?
  1875. >God, get it together, Anon.
  1876. >All right, find your old place...
  1877. >Okay, now, the next week's entry!
  1878. >(That princess has confronted me today, once again.
  1879. >(She has a surprisingly sharp mind. She was able to argue with me over the merits of my war against Equestria, far more competently than Chrysalis. A definite surprise, but a problematic one, too.
  1880. >(This could prove to sow unnecessary division in my ranks. I will need a way to ensure she does not pose any threat to my warband's unity.
  1881. >(I have an idea about that. May also solve my problem with Chrysalis.)
  1882. >The next entry is three days in.
  1883. >(The meddlesome princess has been dealt with. Her ever-curious mind was easily susceptible to the lure of peering past the veil, as ponies put it.
  1884. >(Chrysalis was livid, to put it mildly. She attacked me, but was subdued easily enough with Montklein.
  1885. >(When she asked why I poisoned her daughter's mind, I simply told her that such was a traitor's reward. And that she would do good to remember that, the next time she steps out of line again.)
  1886. >Oh, Christ.
  1887. >You'll need something stronger than 'bastard'.
  1888. >Next entry, two days later.
  1889. >(The gambit worked perfectly. Chrysalis no longer disobeys my orders, and is fearful of arguing with me in the open.
  1890. >(Curiously, that princess seems to have vanished. She may have hidden her away. It matters little, for now.
  1891. >(A new lead. One of the Canterlot artifact vaults is dedicated to dark artifacts and tomes.
  1892. >(Preparations for the assault begin tomorrow. Nothing will stop me from finding what I seek.)
  1893.  
  1894. @@@@@@@@
  1895.  
  1896. >Now it was your turn to start shaking.
  1897. >The next entry isn't until another month in, close to the end of the book.
  1898. >(The raid upon Canterlot has been carried out! All my preparations, all my planning, has paid off!
  1899. >(I could not believe how easily the mighty princesses of Equestria fell before me! As if they never thought to prepare for attacks of that magnitude! What fools, they are!
  1900. >(The entire vault was emptied, flown back to my encampment, and we suffered acceptable casualties in the process.
  1901. >(However, I found the most curious, and perhaps the most pathetic thing, while emptying the vaults.
  1902. >(Another human.)
  1903. >You remember his first appearance.
  1904. >(A male, green-skinned, and bearing the same curious mark that I do. I was initially intrigued by the man's presence. I thought, perhaps, I would have a new ally.
  1905. >(But it was not to be. The sorry fool had been taken in by the fiction of Equestrian 'friendship'. And had managed to be more insolent than even Chrysalis, striking me in anger.
  1906. >(He was not worth the effort of killing. I left him within an inch of his life, to drown in despair along with his precious masters.)
  1907. >Scumbag motherfu--!
  1908. >A hoof tapping your side snaps you back to attention, and turning to the source reveals none other than Razor.
  1909. >"Hey, you all right?"
  1910. "I... kind of. He was writing about the first attack."
  1911. >Your hands tighten around the book.
  1912. "About me."
  1913. >"Yeah, I was there."
  1914. "Not for the aftermath, you weren't."
  1915. >Or the beating.
  1916. >"Hey, what's done is done. Don't linger on that shit, just focus on figuring out his game."
  1917.  
  1918. >Okay, deep breath.
  1919. "Yeah. You're right. Sorry."
  1920. >You take a breath, and press on.
  1921. >The next entry was a day apart:
  1922. >(The boons do not end this week. I believe I may have found where Chrysalis had hidden that daughter of hers.)
  1923. >Oh, wonderful.
  1924. >(Disguised as a regular drone, and thrown in among her ranks. A clever ploy, but there was no disguising her mannerisms. She did not seem to remember me, either. Chrysalis likely employed a memory wipe.
  1925. >(She reacted very positively to a small lesson on history. She wanted to help me in my mission. The irony is palpable.
  1926. >(I gave her a token name. I don't expect her to be very useful.
  1927. >(Still poring through the tomes from the vault. Will write again when something useful is found.)
  1928. >Son of a bitch.
  1929. >Glad Chrysalis isn't reading this, right now.
  1930. >Actually...
  1931. >Looking over, you see her off to the side, looking in your direction.
  1932. >She clearly wants to know more, but is holding herself back.
  1933. >You sigh, and continue on.
  1934. >Almost three weeks, until the next entry:
  1935. >(That princess has proven more useful than I gave her initial credit for.
  1936. >(Athalia, as I have named her, carried out my plan to abduct the Element of Kindness, to lure that Discord into a trap.
  1937. >(She succeeded beyond measure, even bringing back an additional prisoner.
  1938. >(I underestimated her. She learns quickly, and is possessed of greater strength, magically, physically, and mentally, than all other changelings, save for Chrysalis.
  1939. >(It would be foolish, to not put her to more use. Will continue to personally train her.)
  1940.  
  1941. >So Athalia was just a happy accident, for him?
  1942. >Oh, that's just peachy.
  1943. >Next page.
  1944. >(The capture of Discord went perfectly. Their rogue element will not trouble my plans. Seeing him buckle under the weight of his actions in the War of the Ancients was a pleasing aside.
  1945. >(Kindness was released back to her people. I imagine this succession of events will demoralize Equestria quite significantly. That will allow me more time to find that which I seek.
  1946. >(Training Athalia continues. Will need a better plan of what to do with her.)
  1947. >You're running out of pages to turn, but now he's started putting multiple 'nothing new today' lines onto single pages.
  1948. >Another week, before the next entry:
  1949. >(How fortuitous! The other prisoner that Athalia brought back was an archaeologist!
  1950. >(I was fully prepared to seize control of his mind with some well-placed runework, but he was surprisingly pliable.
  1951. >(His stunted, autistic mind left a very poor impression, but observing his initial work in the depths of the mountain surpassed all my expectations.
  1952. >(He was able to determine the presence of an underground structure, deeper into the mountain's base. His reasoning was some out of place iron, leached into the rock.
  1953. >(If the chamber is indeed shrouded in iron, it explains why I could not detect it, before.
  1954. >(I have ordered a detail of changelings to cater to whatever disgusting vice he desires, so long as he makes progress towards reaching the chamber.)
  1955. >Wait.
  1956. >Archaeologist? Autistic?
  1957. >Who did that bug kidnap?
  1958. >Fuck, whatever, who cares. Keep reading.
  1959. >Next entry, a week later:
  1960.  
  1961. >(Success! The archaeologist has discovered the structure!
  1962. >(It was indeed shrouded in ancient, rusting iron plates, at least an inch in thickness.
  1963. >(My warband, my changelings, are wary of the structure. I cannot fault them for this, but I have no choice but to have them excavate more of it.
  1964. >(They now dig around the initial point of discovery. I hope to uncover an entrance, before long. If not, I will have to make one, personally.)
  1965. >Something about his discovery was making you really uneasy.
  1966. >Still, you turn the page, another week in.
  1967. >(The structure has been uncovered, and there was indeed a doorway!
  1968. >(The door was crafted of some strange, black metal, oily in appearance, and very cold to the touch. All of my followers who were nearby, reported an overwhelming feeling of dread and anxiety overcoming them. Scattered reports of whispering.
  1969. >(The door reacted to my presence, a curious symbol igniting upon the ornate lock. The door opened for me, soon afterwards, and closed when I withdrew.
  1970. >(I fully intend to investigate this place tomorrow. Yet, I cannot shake this strange feeling of nostalgia. Almost as if I had been here, before. I will have to exercise caution.)
  1971. >Oh, God.
  1972. >What the hell did he find?
  1973. >The next entry was three days later.
  1974. >(My hands tremble as I write.
  1975. >(Dark knowledge, beyond my wildest dreams, lay within that buried temple. The last legacy of the Crimson Penumbra.
  1976. >(I have found their final spell, meant only for their worthiest champions.
  1977. >(Words fail me. I will begin preparations, immediately.)
  1978.  
  1979. >Your stomach drops.
  1980. >'Their final spell'?
  1981. >No way in hell is that good.
  1982. >Another two weeks in-book.
  1983. >(This spell is more complex than I envisioned. I am missing many key components, and I do not have time to learn how to fabricate the ones I require.
  1984. >(I am loathe to say this, but I will need more help.
  1985. >(Dark magic will only do so much for me, in this endeavour. I will need a talented blood alchemist to aid me.)
  1986. >You think you know where this is going.
  1987. >You turn to the next week's entry.
  1988. >(I know where to go, now. The location of the hidden Ziggurat of Zabraxas is known to me.
  1989. >(It contains the blood alchemy secrets I will require, to finally open the eye.
  1990. >(Only the descendants of Zabraxas's tribe, Bloedige Plaag, can open the ziggurat, however.
  1991. >(Decoding the riddles within the Stamkatalogus, within the temple, has revealed their location to me.
  1992. >(I am departing for their lands tomorrow, taking Athalia and my best troops with me. I expect it will be a long time, before I can update this journal again.)
  1993. >Oh God damn it, you hate being right.
  1994. >So, he brought on those zebras to complete that crazy spell of his, whatever it does?
  1995. >Fuck that noise!
  1996. >You turn the page to--
  1997. >There's nothing else.
  1998. >The last few pages are blank.
  1999. >Fuck, that was it?!
  2000. "God damn it...!"
  2001. >"What? What is it?"
  2002. >You shut the book, and face Razor and the others.
  2003. "We're not done here, yet."
  2004. >"What do you mean? Don't tell me it didn't tell you where we need to go!"
  2005. "Unfortunately. But it did tell me where to look, in order to find out."
  2006.  
  2007. >"Well, this just keeps getting better and better. All right, where are we going?"
  2008. "Deeper into the mountain. Like, way deeper. He said they uncovered something at the base of it."
  2009. >You can see Chrysalis tense up in the background, before she speaks up.
  2010. >"His dig site?"
  2011. "Yeah. What do you know about it?"
  2012. >"Very little. I never went, myself. The drones loyal to me warned me away from seeing it, claiming it would harm me."
  2013. "Oh, great."
  2014. >Exact ponders this for a moment, before speaking up:
  2015. >"Anon, may I see that journal for a moment?"
  2016. "Sure."
  2017. >You hand it to him, and he turns to the last few pages you were on.
  2018. >His brow furrows by the end of it, as he thinks something over.
  2019. >"A-are you feeling that colt's intent, right now?"
  2020. >You turn to Pharynx's voice, obvious discomfort on both his and Chrysalis's faces.
  2021. >"Y-yes. I wouldn't want to be his point of focus, that's for certain..."
  2022. >You were just about to ask them what they mean, before Exact clears his throat.
  2023. >"There is a 98.7% probability of Incognito's discovery being a category five dark site."
  2024. "That's bad?"
  2025. >"The highest classification assignable to dark artifacts and knowledge. One I have not personally seen, before. In light of this, I do not think we should maintain this stealth approach."
  2026. >Razor's turn to pipe up.
  2027. >"Wait, what? You think it's too dangerous?"
  2028. >"Much too dangerous. That site will have to be separately destroyed, before we can destroy this mountain base."
  2029. "Not until we dig up whatever clues are there."
  2030. >"I am aware. Therefore, we should secure this base, before making the descent."
  2031.  
  2032. "Clear the place out, you mean? That's one hell of an undertaking."
  2033. >"Yeah, it is. You sure about this, sergeant?"
  2034. >"The last category five site I heard was uncovered, took a week and 135 well-equipped operatives at a 58% mortality rate to neutralize. It converted our soldiers into flesh-eating, soulless abominations, to defend itself."
  2035. >"Yeesh! Okay, yeah, I'll take gryphons and bugs over getting turned into a cannibal monster. We'd need to let Light know about the change of plans, first."
  2036. >"Agreed. One of us will have to inform her."
  2037. >"Well, look no further. I'll take care of it."
  2038. "You're going, Razor?"
  2039. >"Well, not yet. We've still gotta plan how to surprise these buckers, don't we?"
  2040. "True. Chryssy, you got any ideas?"
  2041. >Wait, 'Chryssy'?
  2042. >Even she looked surprised, but shook it off and stepped up.
  2043. >"This place was designed with drone ambushes in mind. The walls and ceilings outside of this area are full of hidden passageways for them. Even if you did find a good place to start a fight, we'd be swarmed within moments."
  2044. >"Sounds like we need a distraction."
  2045. >A distraction, huh?
  2046. >That gives you a really bad idea...
  2047. "Hey, quick question. How much do the assholes here know about me?"
  2048. >"I-- what?"
  2049. "Just humour me."
  2050. >"Well, they know you exist, and that Incognito fought you. But I don't know what they know, now."
  2051. "Can you find out?"
  2052. >"Easily, but why?"
  2053. >"Yeah, what's the big idea?"
  2054. "A distraction, that's what."
  2055. >"Oh, for the love of-- Anon, don't you tell me you plan to take them all on, by yourself!"
  2056.  
  2057. "What? Hell no!"
  2058. >Yeah, he's not buying that.
  2059. "Well, uh... maybe more like 'leading the charge'..."
  2060. >All he does is turn his head a bit in Exact's direction, and he casts another one of those bubble things around you two.
  2061. >"We've been over the whole hero business before. It was suicidal when that tailhole attacked Canterlot, and it's even more suicidal here."
  2062. "Look, I know. But I don't want any of you to--"
  2063. >"Get hurt?"
  2064. "Yeah."
  2065. >"Anon, somepony's gonna get hurt, no matter what you do."
  2066. "But--"
  2067. >"And did you ever stop and think to yourself that maybe, just maybe, I don't want you to end up in a hospital again, either?"
  2068. >Your mouth opens, but no response comes.
  2069. >"You've been in the hospital, what, six, seven times now, just this year? How the buck do you think that makes me feel?"
  2070. "I..."
  2071. >"Or, how about how it makes the princesses feel?"
  2072. >Your mouth doesn't open this time.
  2073. >"Every time you've wound up there, you've either gotten into deep shit, nearly gotten yourself killed, or both. What do you think that does to them, tailhole?"
  2074. >Ouch.
  2075. >That one hurt.
  2076. >"Look, we might not be big, powerful, magic immune monkeys from outer space, but we are professionals. I'm not gonna say no to your help, but I am gonna tell you to quit going over our heads."
  2077. >Retract the sails, cap'n, the wind's gone.
  2078. "Shit."
  2079. >"That a 'yes'?"
  2080. "Yeah. I... fuck. Sorry."
  2081. >And just like that, he starts smirking.
  2082. >"Don't be sorry, be useful."
  2083. "Wait, what?"
  2084. >"We still need that distraction, hotshot. But we're gonna do it my way, this time."
  2085. "Am I gonna regret this?"
  2086. >"Not this time, I think."
  2087. <...
  2088.  
  2089. >"You two are insane."
  2090. "Yeah, I get that a lot."
  2091. >"Yeah, you more than me."
  2092. >Traitor.
  2093. >"All right, just making sure you know."
  2094. "Known that for years, Light. Unless you've got any better ideas?"
  2095. >"Not outside of 'throw lots of soldiers right at them', no. Though I find it hard to believe that the soldiers there don't know about your showdown."
  2096. >"Makes sense to me, weirdly enough. Wouldn't want the troops to panic and lose faith, after all."
  2097. >"Even so, their commanding officer could know."
  2098. "Yeah, and if he comes out to confirm it for everyone, that just makes him an easy target. Win-win."
  2099. >"You sure you can pull off the 'pretending to be evil now' thing?"
  2100. >All you do is smile, clear your throat, and start channelling Gabriel Byrne.
  2101. "'Those wretched ponies will feel our eternal wrath, for it is the Lord that wills it to be.'"
  2102. >Okay, not as smooth, but it had the same effect.
  2103. >"Alright, you sold me."
  2104. >"His acting chops don't worry me. What worries me is leaving the sergeant in there, with those two."
  2105. >"I take it you've never seen him fight before?"
  2106. >"Not much, why?"
  2107. >"Let me put it to you this way. He's the first colt in two decades to ace Quickshot's target trial, on the first try."
  2108. >Well, that's something you have literally no context for, but it seems to floor Razor.
  2109. >"Buck off."
  2110. >"Trust me, if he wanted those bugs dead, he'd have done it. Besides, somepony has to keep the human with the large arsenal of forbidden magic from turning on us."
  2111. "Thanks for the vote of confidence."
  2112. >"My pleasure."
  2113. >"Smooth, Light."
  2114. >"Give and take, Razor. Give and take."
  2115.  
  2116. >A few guards bring in the quick bit of impromptu tailor work: some ragged looking cloth strips, in red, black, and dark purple.
  2117. >And a little clip-on tabard, bearing the same logo that Nito puts on his forces' armour.
  2118. >Time for a little makeover, Coldsteel style.
  2119. >The ponies get to work, strapping random bits of the cloth to you, making sure they flap well in the breeze, on top of looking somewhat edgy.
  2120. >It had to be some kind of crime, covering Rarity's insignia with this piece of shit, but alas, sacrifices have to be made.
  2121. >It doesn't even take them two minutes to finish.
  2122. >You flourish a little for Light.
  2123. "So, how do I look?"
  2124. >"Like I should start shooting, and never bother with questions."
  2125. "'Your blood will flow into the rivers this mountain feeds, little dove.'"
  2126. >"Okay, stop! Buck, that's creepy!"
  2127. >"Well, that's kinda the whole point."
  2128. >"Not helping, Razor!"
  2129. >You can't help but laugh a little.
  2130. "We ready to rock?"
  2131. >"We are."
  2132. >"Damn right."
  2133. "'Then let us proceed with this dark plot!'"
  2134. >A few snorts later, and they file into the carriage, along with the remaining Invictus guards.
  2135. >Okay.
  2136. >Let's just try to ignore the shakiness, and get this party started.
  2137. >You make your approach back towards Nito's mountain base, this time with absolutely no invisibility.
  2138. >The cloaked carriage can be heard taking flight, a few moments after you leave.
  2139. >So.
  2140. >Between the new look, the whole 'gryphon demigod' schtick, the hopefully convincing evil accent, and the rough little script, they should spot you pretty quick, and guide you in.
  2141. >Hopefully.
  2142.  
  2143. >Even if they don't, well, they should still try to throw everything they've got at you.
  2144. >Hey, if you were fighting a guy able to shoot fuckhuge fireballs, you'd throw everything you had at him, too, right?
  2145. >Right.
  2146. >Oh, yeah, better pre-equip some foci.
  2147. >Leave it to you, to fuck the last-minute shit up.
  2148. >Floating out your super-staff, you strap fire and Incaross to the two ends.
  2149. >Lightning goes to the shortstaff.
  2150. >Hmm... what to do for your wand?
  2151. >Wait a second.
  2152. >Can you actually do that...?
  2153. >You slap your other Bluebaide focus onto the wand, and try to--
  2154. >Oh Jesus, you can do that!
  2155. >You're doing the Darth Maul thing with two Bluebaide foci!
  2156. >Pffft, okay, that's really fucking dumb.
  2157. >Funny, but dumb.
  2158. >Yeah, let's just swap that for the classic TK, shall we?
  2159. >That's better.
  2160. >Actually, no, keep the second Bluebaide on, in case you have to make an 'evil' show.
  2161. >Okay, let's keep going.
  2162. >Now, you should be coming up to the halfway point--
  2163. >ZWKRAK
  2164. >Whoa, shit!
  2165. >You turn around just in time to see a bent-up crossbow bolt, clattering to the ground.
  2166. >ZWKRAK
  2167. >The next one to bounce off the shield doesn't make you jump nearly as bad, but does make you look for it's source.
  2168. >It doesn't take long to find it, a few gryphons hovering in the distance, crossbows trained on you.
  2169. >"Halt!"
  2170. >The voice from behind is punctuated by the sound of magic igniting and a crossbow loading.
  2171. >All right, Anon, it's show time.
  2172. >You put on a scowl, and start acting.
  2173. "What is the meaning of this? Lord Matthias told me to expect a warm reception, and instead I find myself threatened!"
  2174.  
  2175. >"Yo-- what?"
  2176. >You turn your head slowly, taking stock of the dozen changelings and three gryphons threatening you.
  2177. >Only now, they look confused, and slightly scared, respectively.
  2178. >Your glare fixes on the more decorated gryphon, obviously the leader.
  2179. "You. You are in charge, here?"
  2180. >"I... yes. I am."
  2181. "Then tell me..."
  2182. >You turn your whole body to face them, slow and steady.
  2183. "Are you the one who ordered them to fire upon me?"
  2184. >"I-I am asking the questions here! Who are you?!"
  2185. >He neither sounded, nor looked intimidating.
  2186. >None of the gryphons did.
  2187. "Bumbling fools. I presume that feckless Azusa told you nothing of my arrival?"
  2188. >"What?"
  2189. "Hmph. Lord Matthias was right to be concerned about this stronghold. He was wise to send me here."
  2190. >"Lord Matthias sent you?"
  2191. "'Of course he did! Were you not listening?!'"
  2192. >Okay, watching that guy jump was more funny than you expected.
  2193. >You fold your arms, regarding the leader with an annoyed look.
  2194. "Lord Matthias has not been receiving reports from this stronghold. He sent me here to ensure it was still intact, and to prepare all of you for the upcoming war."
  2195. >The mention of war had the birds look less afraid, and more excited.
  2196. >"W-war?"
  2197. "Of course. Our Lord's army has grown by leaps and bounds. The time to finally strike Equestria, to see the ponies driven before us, and to finally vanquish them, draws near.
  2198. "You mean to tell me, that you did not know of this development?"
  2199. >And just like that, the awe from the gryphons ratchets down to shame, at the last line.
  2200.  
  2201. "I will have much to confront that commander of yours about. I..."
  2202. >You feign having a realization, and clasp your hands together in prayer.
  2203. "Forgive me. You were simply ignorant, and did not deserve my ire.
  2204. "'But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.'"
  2205. >Man, glad you scanned and took notes from the fucker's Bible, before you came here.
  2206. >The Biblical line really wins with the changelings, who until now still regarded you with skepticism.
  2207. >Holy shit, you might actually pull this off!
  2208. "Time is of the essence. I must see commander Azusa, at once."
  2209. >"Y-yes, of course! Right this way, uhm...?"
  2210. "Baron Jeremiah. You may address me as 'baron'."
  2211. >It was a struggle to not cringe at the name.
  2212. >It being Light's idea didn't help.
  2213. >"I-I see, baron."
  2214. >Weapons are stowed and horns are de-powered, and he signals you to follow, which you do.
  2215. >"I-I apologize for the aggression, baron. You just resembled an enemy, is all."
  2216. "Your caution is understandable."
  2217. >"N-no, sir, but... we heard tell of a foe of our Lord, who--"
  2218. "I know who it is you refer to."
  2219. >"Th-then you--?"
  2220. "Forgive me, but my journey has been arduous and long. Please hold your questions for the moment."
  2221. >"O-of course, forgive me."
  2222. >Whew, that shut him up!
  2223. >Okay, so far so good!
  2224. >They're herding you right towards the other, main entrance, like you thought!
  2225. >So, if Chrysalis's little crash course on their local leader was right, this Azusa character was going to be a pain in the ass to deal with.
  2226.  
  2227. >It also meant one of two things.
  2228. >Either he knows who you are and what you've done, flips the fuck out, sics his troops on you, and you have to play defence.
  2229. >Or, he doesn't know who you are, and will get super offended when you start chewing him out for 'not receiving reports'.
  2230. >You're equipped for either one, but man, would you prefer the latter.
  2231. >Your eyes scan around the skies, and you find most of the patrolling gryphons looking your way.
  2232. >Which means they weren't looking at the carriage-shaped shimmering thing hovering a good click above you.
  2233. >The hidden entrance came up quickly, but the bird leading you stopped you at the door.
  2234. >"I must summon the commander, baron. Standard procedure."
  2235. "Of course."
  2236. >He cracks the big double-door slightly, slipping inside.
  2237. >While you wait, you'll just switch that extra Bluebaide for TK, on the down-low.
  2238. >Guess you didn't need the showpiece, after all.
  2239. >While you wait, you do a quick headcount.
  2240. >Three gryphons and thirteen changelings surrounding you.
  2241. >About fifteen gryphons behind, flying in the distance.
  2242. >After a few minutes, both doors swing open, and an annoying, slightly shrill voice rings out:
  2243. >"Lieutenant, if I was expecting a visitor, I'd have told you about--"
  2244. >The leader-bird himself freezes in terror upon seeing you.
  2245. >You know that feeling you get, when you know your luck just ran out?
  2246. >"Wh-wh-what are you fools doing?! S-stop him!"
  2247. >That's your feel, right now.
  2248. >"But commander, he said--"
  2249. >"Of course he'd say that, you fool! Do you think the false prophet is going to be bad at deception?!"
  2250. >Thanks, Murphy.
  2251.  
  2252. >The guy is borderline hysterical, and the bugs and gryphons quickly pull their weapons back out.
  2253. >You just offer an exhausted sigh, sans the acting, as they circle around you.
  2254. >"W-well, I don't know what you thought you could accomplish, trying to fool me like this, but your little jig is up, mister Anonymous! It's over!"
  2255. "No."
  2256. >You grip your wand, grinning at him.
  2257. "Now it's fun."
  2258. >Very edgy.
  2259. >Chryssy said he made a great terrified face, and you weren't disappointed.
  2260. >"Kill him! Kill him, you--"
  2261. >SWISHKKKK
  2262. >You start swinging the wand in an arc around you, as Bluebaide's giant blade rips to life.
  2263. >As you turn in place, trying to hit everyone nearby, you pull out your shortstaff, ready to let it rip.
  2264. >Just like that, your 360 sword swing finishes, the majority of the surrounding entourage down for the count, save for Azusa, that lieutenant, and a few flying bugs.
  2265. >The bugs, unfazed, hiss and start shooting magic bolts at you.
  2266. >In response, you give them a faceful of Sith lightning.
  2267. >The stream of energy, not content with just being stupidly powerful and auto-seeking, also proceeds to arc to the other changelings in flight.
  2268. >They only need two or three seconds of chain-lightning, before they drop like flies.
  2269. >The lieutenant fires a shot your way, only for you to return fire with a much more lethal Bluebaide energy spear.
  2270. >Leaving Azusa backpedalling, trembling like a speed addict, the poster child of mortal terror.
  2271. >Your grin becomes toothier.
  2272. "Too slow."
  2273. >He starts running for it.
  2274. >That's got to be the girliest scream you've ever heard come out of a man.
  2275.  
  2276. @@@@@@@@
  2277.  
  2278. >As he scrambles, you charge your shortstaff's lightning bolt for a few seconds, getting ready to nail the bitch in the back.
  2279. >Unfortunately, the walls pick that moment to start growing holes, with more bugs crawling out of them, some of them armoured and armed.
  2280. >The bolt you sling towards Azusa only manages to hit a bunch of bugs, frying them dead on the spot.
  2281. >Shit.
  2282. >Despite a concentrated application of Sith lightning, grilling the horde in front of you, they close in regardless, working as a group to erect a shield that's partly effective in deflecting your assault.
  2283. >Yeah, now would be a good time for a tactical retreat.
  2284. >Your super-staff floats out as you backpedal, charging a firebolt.
  2285. >Once you're a fair distance outside of the hallway, you launch the bolt.
  2286. >THWOOSH
  2287. >It comes out blue.
  2288. >KA-BLAM
  2289. >The force it hit the ceiling of the hall with was a bit surprising, the blast of air making it tough to breathe for a moment.
  2290. >But the end result was a very collapsed hallway, halting the advance of the bugs.
  2291. >Okay, that might not have been the smartest way to open up, you'll admit.
  2292. >But it was fun.
  2293. >Now, you'll need a new entry, but where...?
  2294. >The idea of what entrance to get to, or rather, which one to make, comes to you upon hearing more crossbow bolts bouncing off of your shield.
  2295. >Your eyes go over to a certain spot of the 'rock wall'.
  2296. >The hangar entrance.
  2297. >You do believe you have your entrance point.
  2298. >You let your staff charge up it's super-fireball, then stow the shortstaff and wand, subbing it out for your bow with a TK focus.
  2299.  
  2300. >THWANG
  2301. >The supersonic arrows make dodging the shots basically impossible, and the birds begin dropping one by one.
  2302. >However, some magic bolts from up on high steal a few of your kills, the carriage of Invictus troops picking this moment to open up.
  2303. >Hell, works for you!
  2304. >The birds drop quickly, and you notice the hangar door beginning to crack open.
  2305. >Until you hear some familiar panicked yelling from inside of it, and the door closes just as quickly.
  2306. >Heh, like that's going to stop you.
  2307. >"Anon!"
  2308. >Razor flies down next to you, his triple-shot crossbow thing in tow.
  2309. >"The buck did you blow the door, for?"
  2310. "Had to put the fear of God in that leader bird, somehow."
  2311. >God, you can't keep this dumb smile off of your face.
  2312. >"Yeah, great, now how are we supposed to get in, now?"
  2313. >Your staff comes up, it's fire charge long since finished.
  2314. "Cover your ears."
  2315. >"Wait, what are-- ohh, shit!"
  2316. >He takes flight again, towards the carriage.
  2317. >"Get moving, over there! He's gonna blow the door open!"
  2318. >You give them a couple of seconds.
  2319. >All right, let's fucking go!
  2320. >KA-THWOOSH
  2321. >The size of the blue fireball just loosed was your only warning to duck and cover.
  2322. >Which you do.
  2323. >KA-BL--
  2324. >The blast of air was one thing, but the sound was a whole other thing, your ears doing nothing but ringing.
  2325. >It takes you a moment to realize you'd been knocked flat on your ass by the blast.
  2326. >You pick yourself up off the ground, your greaves kicking on to ease that process.
  2327. >The first thing you see is an overturned carriage.
  2328. >Your gut sinks.
  2329. >The others!
  2330. >Are they all--?!
  2331.  
  2332. >Oh, thank God, they're floating it back upright!
  2333. >The crew looks rough, but nothing too serious!
  2334. >What about--
  2335. >"Hooooooly shit...!"
  2336. >Seeing and hearing Razor still kicking, and standing next to you, was a relief.
  2337. >His blank gaze over behind you, not so much.
  2338. >So you turn around to see...
  2339. >See...
  2340. >S...
  2341. >O...
  2342. >Oh.
  2343. >Oh, God...!
  2344. >Th-the door...
  2345. >Forget blowing the door open, you just...
  2346. >The door didn't even fucking exist anymore!
  2347. >And neither did half the rock face it was sitting against!
  2348. >All that remained was a big crater, pockmarked with blue magic fire, the occasional rock and blue flame dotted around the blast site.
  2349. >The entire hangar was exposed, though a little caved-in, easily about a fourth of it just scalloped out of existence by the explosion.
  2350. "Ho-hoooly shit!"
  2351. >What else can you say?
  2352. >"A-Anon?"
  2353. "Yeah?"
  2354. >"Could you, uh... never do that again?"
  2355. "No promises."
  2356. >"Th-that's not really what I was--"
  2357. >Movement from inside the exposed hangar, visible through the growing dust cloud, shuts the pair of you up.
  2358. "Get the others, we've got some bugs to fry."
  2359. >"You got it."
  2360. >He runs back, and you stride forward, towards the hangar.
  2361. >The shock and awe of what you just did slowly gets replaced with pure hype.
  2362. >The shortstaff and wand come back out.
  2363. >And then, you have another idea.
  2364. >A very stupid, yet very fitting idea.
  2365. >Unable to keep the borderline evil grin off of your face, you engage your boots and leap up to the tallest pile of rubble that was viewable from the whole hangar.
  2366. >You take a deep breath.
  2367. "Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen!"
  2368.  
  2369. >Your yelling reverberates through the whole chamber, pulling all eyes on to you.
  2370. "You doing good, today? Because boy howdy, I feel like a million bucks!"
  2371. >With the sun at your back, combined with the dust, your shadow cast into the chamber had some serious god-rays going on.
  2372. "In fact, I feel so good, that I think I'll hold a little church service for you all! That sound good to you?"
  2373. >The birds in the audience are visibly terrified of you, and the bugs aren't doing much better.
  2374. "Don't worry, you're gonna love this one!"
  2375. >You clear your throat, in preparation.
  2376. >Sadly, you already blew your Ezekiel 25:17 privileges on that bug.
  2377. >But Matthew 10:34 would do just as well, here.
  2378. "'Do not think that I came to send peace upon earth: I came not to send peace, but the sword!'"
  2379. >Bluebaide ignites, and your shortstaff crackles, as you jump ahead to Revelation 1:8.
  2380. "'I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, sayeth the Lord God, who is, and who was, and...'
  2381. "Oh fuck it, let's just skip to the Deus Vulting."
  2382. >Your staves loose both chain-lightning and huge streams of blue-orange fire into the chamber.
  2383. >Seeing these assholes run around, getting either zapped or burninated, was gratification in the darkest, purest sense.
  2384. >The gryphons were completely unprepared, scrambling to get crossbows to fire back, only to have the bolts bounce off of your shield.
  2385. >The changelings did their best to pelt you with magic bolts, but against the iron plating, they might as well have just been breathing on you.
  2386. >But, of course, you weren't alone.
  2387.  
  2388. >Invictus guards rushed in behind you, slinging much bigger magic bolts around as they jumped into the fray.
  2389. >They worked in little teams of five and six, some keeping a shield going, while others fired away from behind it.
  2390. >It was almost like a magical phalanx, slowly pushing in while guarding against retaliation.
  2391. >Of course, it was made easier by you providing copious amounts of covering fire.
  2392. >The birds on the home team seem to know the game, calling for a retreat into the passageways.
  2393. >The bugs, however, are much slower to get the memo, losing what must be over a hundred troops before they realize Zerging you isn't working.
  2394. >Quickly, the Invictus guys get to work, barricading the passages with shields, with some breaking formation to cover the walls and ceilings, just to keep any bugs from sneaking up.
  2395. >Your job as fire support done, you hop down off of the rock, striding over towards Light.
  2396. >"Fantastic job, Anon."
  2397. "I aim to please."
  2398. >"Well, better get pleasing, because we're not through yet. Next up, we're sweeping these hallways, one at a time. Guess who gets to be the point stallion?"
  2399. "Aww, more bugs for lucky ol' me? You shouldn't have!"
  2400. >"Pfft, whatever. Take your pick, hotshot."
  2401. >And take your pick, you do, gallivanting down the middle hallway which you know leads to a little hub of hallways.
  2402. >Should help cut them off just that much more.
  2403. >You encounter a bunch more birds and bugs, and the bugs try that same 'approaching wall of lings' approach.
  2404. >It works far less effectively, when fire is added to the mix.
  2405. >Who needs Raid, when you've got the classic?
  2406.  
  2407. >Once the hub was secured and barricaded, you went through the hallways, one by one.
  2408. >Clearing all the bugs and birds you found along the way.
  2409. >Invictus was totally on top of their game, breaching doors and securing the place in your wake, like total pros, as you swoop in like a wrecking ball.
  2410. >The place was a bit of a maze, but that wasn't stopping you, not by any means.
  2411. >You finish clearing most of the place out, only the hive and the armoury left over.
  2412. >Naturally, the hive is your first destination.
  2413. >You've had just about enough of the fucking bugs.
  2414. >The shell door is quickly diced up with Bluebaide, making it easy to just boot open.
  2415. >But weirdly enough, no bugs came out to greet you.
  2416. >Okay, that's definitely not right.
  2417. >You make your way into the creepy-ass area, and it doesn't take very long to make out the sounds of fighting.
  2418. >Plenty of reason to pick up the pace.
  2419. >The first thing you see, after breaking into the huge antechamber, is Exact, Pharynx, and Chrysalis, fighting off bugs.
  2420. >Seems like you walked into a bit of a stalemate, both sides not gaining much ground.
  2421. >Guess you'll have to fix that, huh?
  2422. >Chain-lightning is channeled off to your left, and fire to your right.
  2423. >The tide turns very quickly, the bugs beaten back into their holes, and a flash from Chryssy's horn causes the holes they were pouring out from to seal up.
  2424. >Man, they're really banging on the 'doors', there.
  2425. >"Anon, you are unharmed?"
  2426. "Unharmed and unstoppable. You guys good?"
  2427. >"Just winded. We will need 23 seconds to recover."
  2428. >Exact, as always.
  2429.  
  2430. >Right on cue, Invictus troops file in from behind, with a couple seeing to the three of them.
  2431. "We'll catch up in a bit. I've got more clearing to do."
  2432. >"Of course."
  2433. >You catch a glimpse of Chrysalis's sad face, as you turn to leave.
  2434. >Easy to see why she'd be upset.
  2435. >Better not press that.
  2436. >In any case, you have one destination left, now: the armoury.
  2437. >You rush over there, and immediately, you see some gryphons in heavy armour holding the line, keeping everyone away from the door.
  2438. >That's your cue to shine, starting off with a charged lightning bolt, and a Bluebaide spear.
  2439. >The instant those first few birds drop, the line collapses, some of them going into a panic upon seeing you.
  2440. >The quarters get a bit too close for your channeled spells, so you stand back and let the Invictus guys do their thing.
  2441. >Which they do, quite effectively.
  2442. >Before long, the way to the armoury is cleared, and they stand aside to let you open it up.
  2443. >Don't mind if you do.
  2444. >You go with the classic 'boot the door down' method, igniting Bluebaide as you rush into the room.
  2445. "FBI, this is a raid!"
  2446. >Good thing you had the energy sword ready, because one of those birds was close enough to charge you, something your shield wasn't tuned to stop.
  2447. >The slash that dropped him was bloodless, the blade just searing the wound as it cut.
  2448. >A little more lightning, and a few more slashes later, and this part of the room was clear.
  2449. >But the troops rush in anyways, just to double-check.
  2450. >"We're clear!"
  2451. >"No, we're not."
  2452. >Or a pissed-off Chrysalis could barge in, that works.
  2453.  
  2454. >The first thing she does is fire off a magic bolt at part of the ceiling, causing the whole tile to fall out with a fair bit of screaming.
  2455. >Oh no, wait, that's Azusa on top of the tile that's screaming.
  2456. >Fucker tried to hide, huh?
  2457. >Well, points for trying.
  2458. >His screaming stops dead, once his eyes are on you.
  2459. "Ayy, what's up?"
  2460. >Aaaand he faints on the spot.
  2461. >Aw, man, was the wink too much for him?
  2462. >Or was it your channeling of ol' Fonzie?
  2463. >Hell if you know.
  2464. >The troops waste no time in carting his bitch ass off.
  2465. >"Knew he would try and hide. Damn coward."
  2466. "He's definitely got some lungs on him, I'll give him that."
  2467. >"He'll need them. He's got a lot of screaming ahead of him."
  2468. >Well, that didn't sound hostile, at all.
  2469. >You sigh, taking a moment to stretch out, cracking some joints along the way.
  2470. "All right."
  2471. >You head back down the hallway, intent on reaching Light and the others.
  2472. >"Ah, there you are, Anon!"
  2473. >But you're not gonna protest to her finding you, first.
  2474. >"Okay, I'll admit it, I'm impressed. You bowled these goons over like it was nopony's business."
  2475. "Fuckers had it coming."
  2476. >"That, they did."
  2477. >You follow her, as she walks back to the hangar area.
  2478. >"We've got the place nice and secured, now. I don't think that Incognito will be launching any more attacks from here, again."
  2479. >Fucking ace!
  2480. >It was impossible not to fist-pump in that moment.
  2481. >"Somehow, a few of those chariots of his survived, too. They'll come in handy for the clean-up."
  2482. "Clean-up?"
  2483. >"Springing those captives from those kalomite tubes."
  2484. >Oh.
  2485. >That.
  2486. >Right.
  2487.  
  2488. >"It's not everyday, you see that shit used. And honestly, if this is the last time I ever see it used, I'll be one happy guardspony."
  2489. "You just make sure they're out safe, all right?"
  2490. >"Don't have to tell me, twice."
  2491. >Finally, you enter the hangar.
  2492. >The troops had already began clearing out some of the debris blocking the opening, and were making sure the chariots were in good working order.
  2493. "How do you plan on flying the rest of those out?"
  2494. >"Using the sprung captives. Kalomite's meant to keep you alive, awake, and hyper-aware while you're suspended in it. Luckily, that also means quick recovery once you're out of it."
  2495. "Wait, that shit keeps you wired?"
  2496. >"Like coffee."
  2497. "What kind of sick fuck would use that?"
  2498. >"It's to help with vitae harvesting. Blood magic shit. You really don't want to know."
  2499. "I'll... take your word for it."
  2500. >"Now, we found those tunnels just now, but it's a damn maze so far. We're gonna be waiting here for a little while, while they map out where the right way is."
  2501. "Oh, great."
  2502. >That's one way to kill some of the buzz from whooping that much ass.
  2503. >Out of the corner of your eye, you catch sight of some wounded Invictus troops, being tended to.
  2504. "Those guys gonna be fine?"
  2505. >"Hm? Oh, them? Most of them should be. We're damn lucky we didn't have any fatalities."
  2506. >You're already in motion towards them, shortstaff in hand, with Riafalt attached.
  2507. >"Hey, where are you going?"
  2508. "Making good use of my time."
  2509. >You start with the least hurt guard of the bunch, pointing Riafalt at him, and channeling.
  2510.  
  2511. >He tenses up and freaks out for a moment, but relaxes just as quickly when the golden, glittering healing magic does it's work, his slash wounds closing at a decent pace.
  2512. >To be honest, you were expecting this to not work at all, or worse, hurt them.
  2513. >If Twilight hadn't, uh, 'vetted' the focus ahead of time, you probably wouldn't have done this, at all.
  2514. >"Well, guess that's one way to use up time. I'll let you know when they've found something."
  2515. "Thanks, Light."
  2516. >"I oughta be thanking you."
  2517. >You spend the next few minutes, putting Riafalt to good use, stitching up the worst of the injuries.
  2518. >Honestly, you weren't expecting this mode to eat as much magic as it did, but your shortstaff conked out at about halfway through healing one rather fucked-up pony, with two broken legs and some bolts stuck in him.
  2519. >Luckily, that's what you had your super-staff for.
  2520. >You manage to heal up all of the major injuries, about half of the injured ponies in all, before that also conked out.
  2521. >Man, look at them.
  2522. >It's like they weren't even hurt at all.
  2523. >Just doing that might have been enough, but boy...
  2524. >The thanks both they, and the ones watching, were giving out?
  2525. >Your wicked, excited smile from the beginning of this all soon found itself replaced by a big, heartfelt one.
  2526. >Feels good, man.
  2527. >Remind yourself to keep a Riafalt with you at all times.
  2528. >You just finish slapping said focus back onto your freshly recharged shortstaff, when Light speaks up:
  2529. >"Anon? We've found your entrance!"
  2530. "Ah, sorry fellas. Duty calls."
  2531.  
  2532. >The fairly big group waves you off, as you turn around and head to Light, the rest of your posse behind and beside her.
  2533. >Razor's smile was big, and somewhat disbelieving.
  2534. >"H-hey, Anon? That was some scary shit you pulled, there. Awesome, but scary."
  2535. "I believe the technical term is 'badass'."
  2536. >"Pfft, whatever. Just glad you're on our side!"
  2537. "Yeah, me too."
  2538. >Can't even imagine being on the other side.
  2539. >Luckily, Light's throat-clearing breaks that train of thought, before it can begin.
  2540. >"So here's the situation. This guy was doing some serious digging, and it got very, very vertical, very fast. He's got an elevator in there, that goes straight down.
  2541. >"And I mean, way, way down. Honestly, given the possibility of a cat-five dark site being down there, that really only leaves you to take care of it."
  2542. "Leavin' it to ol' Anon, eh? I'm cool with that."
  2543. >"Never doubted it. Just please, for the love of Celestia, watch yourself down there. I've had to help destroy a cat-five site once."
  2544. >She floats off part of her armour, revealing a huge, blackened, horizontal scar that ran along her entire barrel.
  2545. >"Once."
  2546. >God damn...!
  2547. "Uh... I'll keep an eye out."
  2548. >"Well, now you will."
  2549. >She ended that smirk by re-equipping her armour.
  2550. >"Now, you'd all best get moving. When you've got what you need, let us know, so we can rig the place to blow."
  2551. "Will do."
  2552. >A pair of Invictus troops lead your party down into some distant section of the base, full of mining equipment.
  2553. >It soon broke into a huge, winding tunnel system, pockmarked with green, changeling-style magic lights.
  2554.  
  2555. >Good thing these guys were leading you all here, or you'd have been lost in here forever.
  2556. >It takes far longer than you expect, with some steep slopes along the way, for you to reach a big, wooden cargo lift, with some more troops already manning the crank mechanism.
  2557. >Well, no point in prolonging this.
  2558. >You're the first to step on, the others following suit, and the elevator is sent along it's merry way, all five of you on board.
  2559. >The elevator starts slow, then really picks up speed.
  2560. >Your ears pop a couple of times, and Exact seems to have the same problem, though nobody else does.
  2561. >Jesus, how far down does this go?
  2562. >Well, might as well get your foci ready.
  2563. >Wand, TK.
  2564. >Shortstaff, lightning.
  2565. >Super-staff, fire.
  2566. >The usual.
  2567. >Both Chrysalis and Pharynx gasp after a while, prompting you to look over at their now very disturbed expressions.
  2568. >"D-do you feel that...?!"
  2569. >"I do. Th-they were working around that, this whole time?! That damn...!"
  2570. "What? What's wrong?"
  2571. >"Th-there's something down here. Something... wrong."
  2572. >"Wait. There's something else."
  2573. >"I sense it, too, but... no, that's definitely a pony, but..."
  2574. >Now the pair of them look disgusted.
  2575. >"N-now I'm not sure which is worse..."
  2576. >Oh, that's just peachy.
  2577. >The elevator begins to slow, at last, until finally it descends into a decently sized room.
  2578. >No guards yet, so--
  2579. >"Silvermaaaane? Cloudkickeeeer?"
  2580. >God, that's the most awkward, nasally voice you've...
  2581. >Wait.
  2582. >Have you heard that voice, before?
  2583. >A door slams open, a messy-looking pony--
  2584. >What.
  2585. >No.
  2586. >Uh-uh.
  2587. >No.
  2588. >Not him.
  2589. >Anyone but fucking him!
  2590.  
  2591. @@@@@@@@
  2592.  
  2593. >Scalloping out your eyes with a frozen spork.
  2594. >Using your Excavator on your dick.
  2595. >Starting that love triangle shit all over again.
  2596. >Hell, skip the love triangle, and just go straight to hatefucking Athalia!
  2597. >Anything but Precise fucking Measure!
  2598. >How the fuck--?!
  2599. >No, WHY the fuck is he here?!
  2600. >Why did--
  2601. >Oh, God almighty, that's who Nito was writing about in that journal, about some autistic fuck!
  2602. >It was him!
  2603. >But--
  2604. >"Aaaaaaaaaah!"
  2605. >He just loosed the second girliest scream you've ever heard in your life.
  2606. >"You!"
  2607. >And just as quickly flipped to tard rage.
  2608. >"You again! Not you! Yoooou!"
  2609. >That may be the first time you've ever had a mutual feeling with this walking avatar of autism.
  2610. >"You trashed my tent, Jerkanon! You took my self-cleaning box containing my Naughty Pony Fully Articulate Pleasure Figurines™!"
  2611. >He has a fucking nickname for you.
  2612. >And he still pronounces the trademark.
  2613. >Ohh, now you know what's going on!
  2614. >You're in hell!
  2615. >Yeah, ol' Nito dug up the portal to hell down here, and he's been sent by Satan to punish you!
  2616. >Ahh, now it all makes sense!
  2617. >Meanwhile, you can hear the tormented wails of your two changeling companions.
  2618. >"Wh-what the buck is wrong with this pony?!"
  2619. >"Oh Foremothers, I can sense what figurines he's talking about!"
  2620. >That might be the only time you've actually felt true, heartfelt sorrow for Chrysalis.
  2621. >"A-and he brought the ugliest changeling in the world with him! And a big, gay moose!"
  2622. >"Excuse me?"
  2623. >"The buck did you just call me, you dirty little degenerate?!"
  2624.  
  2625. >Razor, on his part, just bowled over with laughter.
  2626. >Well, good for fucking him.
  2627. >You can't even move your mandible right now to even so much as let loose a few choice expletives.
  2628. >You don't even know what that last thought means, it's sentence structure was so poor.
  2629. >God, fuck!
  2630. >Please, somebody make this guy go away!
  2631. >"P-Precise...?"
  2632. >Your head turns to Exact, who--
  2633. >Whoa.
  2634. >You've never seen his ears pin back like that, before.
  2635. >He makes to float off his helmet, but he only gets halfway through that, before another door opens up, with gryphons rushing out.
  2636. >"How many times do we have to tell you, not to wander around the--"
  2637. >They freeze in place, upon seeing you and the posse.
  2638. >"Wh-what the?!"
  2639. >"S-Stop that stupid Jerkanon, you stupid birds!"
  2640. >You can't decide if the guards are more pissed at you, or him.
  2641. >Hmm, maybe you can leverage that.
  2642. >While the others scramble to ready their attacks, you just walk forward, your jaw functional again.
  2643. "So, you fellas babysit this clown?"
  2644. >"Wh-what's it to you, false prophet?!"
  2645. "Your survival, is what. Now, care to answer the question?"
  2646. >"Never!"
  2647. >Okay, enough mister nice Anon.
  2648. "Listen, smart guy. I had to kill a hundred of your buddies, and well over three hundred bugs, just to get down here."
  2649. >You make a show of pulling out your wand, but don't activate it.
  2650. "What do you figure that puts your odds of success at?"
  2651. >You can almost smell the fear coming off of those trembling birds, and you're sure the bugs can taste it.
  2652. >It almost offsets the existential disgust of meeting Precise, again.
  2653.  
  2654. "Besides,"
  2655. >You develop an evil grin.
  2656. "Killing you is just too easy. I was more thinking of locking you all in a room with that guy, over there."
  2657. >Most of them go white as a sheet, after you point to Precise, who himself is looking a little nervous.
  2658. >"Y-you wouldn't..."
  2659. "No, you're right, I wouldn't. I'd get you nice and immobilized first, before throwing you in with him."
  2660. >Okay, that much was a total bluff.
  2661. >Violating the Geneva convention four times over is something even these fuckers don't deserve.
  2662. >But, they seem to fall for it, if them lowering their weapons is any indication.
  2663. >"What do you want?"
  2664. "Well, for starters..."
  2665. >They didn't catch you subbing out Incaross for a TK, but they did jump back at your super-staff floating out and activating.
  2666. >Raising their weapons towards you got a lot trickier, when you just straight-out ripped them out of their hands.
  2667. "You don't mind if I hold onto these for you, do ya?"
  2668. >"Wh-what are you...?!"
  2669. "A professional ear scratcher. This is just my part-time job."
  2670. >Chrysalis could be heard spluttering at the 'professional ear scratcher' line.
  2671. "Now, do me a solid and line up against that wall over there, will ya? I've got some questions for you, and I'd like some answers."
  2672. >Lucky for you, they're not exactly in a complaining mood right now.
  2673. >You stand there and just watch them line up against yonder wall, still terrified of--
  2674. >"You dumb, stupid birds! You should've used your delta-swoop manoeuvres on him!"
  2675. >Everyone's noses wrinkled at Precise's interjection.
  2676. >Didn't even know gryphon faces could scrunch up like that.
  2677.  
  2678. >Before you can angrily fix your imaginary bowtie to show that little cocksucker who's in charge, you see Exact rip off his helmet, and storm over to him.
  2679. >Were those tears, in the corners of his eyes?
  2680. >"You could've taken that monkey out easily, if--"
  2681. >"Precise Measure!"
  2682. >Precise breaks from his obsessive glare towards you and the birds, to look at Exact.
  2683. >"Don't talk over--"
  2684. >And just like that, he freezes.
  2685. >"E-Exact?"
  2686. >A genuine smile breaks out across his face, and he runs over to Exact, still storming on over.
  2687. >"Exact, you're here?! Please, could you tell that ape to--"
  2688. >SMACK
  2689. >Deathly silence reigned across the room, as Precise's head snapped to the side, his cheek beginning to turn red from the bitch-slap that Exact just delivered.
  2690. >"Precise Gimlet Measure. You are in very serious trouble."
  2691. >There was a tremble in Exact's voice, coupled with a mixture of anger and relief.
  2692. >Three things you never thought you'd hear that clearly in his words.
  2693. >Precise, far from responding with an autistic war-cry like he did with you, recoils as if hit again, very clearly afraid.
  2694. >"B-b-but--"
  2695. >"You have been missing for months. Your handlers have been very worried. I have been very worried."
  2696. >"I-I didn't--"
  2697. >"And now, you turn up in the lair of Equestria's greatest threat."
  2698. >"I--"
  2699. >What happens next confuses you, far more than it does satisfy you.
  2700. >Exact proceeds to perform what you can only describe as a series of noogies, light punches to the chest, horn flicks, headbutts, and booping, in strange, extremely specific orders.
  2701.  
  2702. >"Aaaah! Oow! No! Stop it!"
  2703. >And you knew it was a very specific order, because right after he said 'stop it', he did it all over again, in that exact order.
  2704. >"No-ho-hooo! Aaaaah!"
  2705. >"Precise Measure, you are going to explain everything to me. You will not leave out any details."
  2706. >"But I--"
  2707. >Exact repeats that series of actions again.
  2708. >"Aaaah-ha-hooow! Stopitstopitstopit!"
  2709. >"You are going to explain everything to me. You will not leave out any details."
  2710. >"Okay! Okayokayokaaaay! I'm sorry!"
  2711. >"Go to your room."
  2712. >Precise straight-up whimpers, before marching off towards a doorway, any traces of spergery gone, leaving him looking like the most cowed excuse of a man in all of existence.
  2713. >Exact, the beginnings of tears leaking down his face, nevertheless follows him very closely, his eyes hard and pointed despite their newfound watery quality.
  2714. >They leave the room, but the deathly silence remains, long after their hoofsteps couldn't be heard anymore.
  2715. >Breaking the silence was more awkward than it had any right to be, but you needed an answer to your newest, most pressing question yet:
  2716. "What the hell just happened?"
  2717. >You don't even know where to begin.
  2718. >"Y-you felt that, right, Chrysalis?"
  2719. >"Yes... and I still don't believe it."
  2720. >Even the bugs are at a loss for words.
  2721. >Razor, on the other hand, grows a hardened look of his own, and starts heading off after them.
  2722. >"You guys hold the fort, I'm gonna check on those two."
  2723. "Wha...? Why?"
  2724. >"Because I know a thing or two about having spats with your siblings, is why."
  2725.  
  2726. >He leaves before you can ask anything more, thanks mostly to your jaw losing function again, as you process what Razor just said to you.
  2727. >Sibling spats?
  2728. >Those two were...?
  2729. >Oh, God.
  2730. >Precise Measure.
  2731. >Exact Measure.
  2732. >The world no longer makes sense to you.
  2733. >Somewhere in your existential crisis, interspersed with mental prayers to Jesus and friends to give you strength, your look goes over to the gryphons lined up against the wall.
  2734. >They look every bit as confused as you do.
  2735. >The looks both you and that party exchange, sharing in each other's inner turmoil, reminds you of those World War I Christmas truces.
  2736. >And, just like those truces, it's probably gonna be the last.
  2737. >A brief shake of your head, and you start slowly getting back to business:
  2738. "Well, uh, that was... special."
  2739. >Emphasis on 'slowly'.
  2740. >"S-special, right..."
  2741. "Why don't we, uh... get back to the whole... answering my questions thing?"
  2742. >"R-right, right."
  2743. >Okay, well, at least they're a lot more pliable now.
  2744. "You were, uh... babysitting that clown?"
  2745. >"Y-yes. We work-- uh, worked, in week-long rotations, keeping him and the dig site guarded."
  2746. >The head gryphon shakes his head, developing a slight thousand-yard stare.
  2747. >"Those poor bugs assigned to him, though..."
  2748. "Hold up. How the hell did he even get here?"
  2749. >You remember the part of Nito's journal explaining that, just as the bird recounts it:
  2750. >"L-Lord Matthias's agent, Athalia, I think it was, captured him."
  2751. >So it was her that kidnapped him?
  2752. >That's the fastest you've gone from wanting to kill that bug, to wanting to kiss her.
  2753.  
  2754. >"He sat locked away for a while, before Lord Matthias got around to... using him."
  2755. "For... digging this out?"
  2756. >He offers a small nod in response.
  2757. "What exactly did he dig out, down here?"
  2758. >His head hangs low.
  2759. >"You won't survive in it's presence. What does it matter, false prophet?"
  2760. >There he goes again with that name for you.
  2761. "You know, I wouldn't call that the wisest of answers to give."
  2762. >"We're going to die, anyways. At least this way, our honour remains int--"
  2763. >Said bird gets TK'd over with a distinctive green glow, right into the face of an angry Chrysalis, who managed to get next to you without noticing.
  2764. >"Would you rather have a quick and painless honourable death,"
  2765. >The glow around the gryphon changes, and he begins to thrash and yell in place, clearly in a lot of pain.
  2766. >"Or a slow, and very painful one?"
  2767. >That's, uh...
  2768. >One way to get the point across.
  2769. >"Aaaagh! A-all right, all right! I'll talk!"
  2770. >He was unceremoniously dropped to the ground, and quickly scurried back towards his buddies.
  2771. >"Tell me everything."
  2772. >You fold your arms, while the bird begins to talk.
  2773. >"O-our Lord, he... he found something here, something with the help of that... pony.
  2774. >"A great temple, buried in the rock, covered in more iron than I thought could exist!
  2775. >"B-but... the door to the temple, it..."
  2776. >Many shudders go through the gryphons.
  2777. >"It spoke to me."
  2778. "Spoke to you?"
  2779. >"L-little whispers, in the back of my head. Telling me to c-come closer, a-and be embraced...
  2780. >"E-everyone who went to it was... absorbed. The door, it... c-consumed them."
  2781.  
  2782. "Define 'consumed'."
  2783. >"It reached out! Little black threads, tendrils maybe, just wrapping around, pulling them in! A-and they just... screamed, and screamed...!"
  2784. >Okay, this is getting into SCP territory, real fast.
  2785. >Nevermind Nito finding the place, who the fuck even makes a place like that?
  2786. >"L-Lord Matthias erected a barrier, to keep us out. A-a good thing, too. We lost so many friends, so many bugs, to that door..."
  2787. >Chrysalis's growl didn't escape your notice.
  2788. >"But the door never stopped talking. Never stopped wanting us to come to it. A-and worst of all, I... I wanted it to do it."
  2789. >Geez, Light was right to have you be careful.
  2790. "So... did he go in, at all?"
  2791. >You already know the answer, but you need more details.
  2792. >"Y-yes. He did. I don't know how he got in, but he did. W-when he came out, he looked... excited. I've only seen him that excited once before, when we attacked Canterlot..."
  2793. >No doubt that spell he found.
  2794. "And... he didn't bring anything out, with him?"
  2795. >A shake of his head is your answer.
  2796. >So that book you're looking for is probably still in there.
  2797. >Of fucking course it is.
  2798. >Somehow, you knew you wouldn't get out of stepping into that place.
  2799. >But if it had to be done, well...
  2800. >Doesn't look like you've got much choice, huh?
  2801. >Man, why couldn't the key to finding that asshole be in a flower field, or something?
  2802. >"S-so, what happens now, false one?"
  2803. >Okay, wait a minute.
  2804. >They've been calling you that since Chrysalis first staged that attack on Ponyville.
  2805. "You keep calling me that, 'false prophet'. Am I missing a joke here, or what?"
  2806.  
  2807. >Chrysalis, to the rescue:
  2808. >"After that Canterlot attack, he started saying that only he was the true prophet, and that everyhuman else he didn't approve of, were false ones."
  2809. >A very synchronized snort left the two of you.
  2810. "What, covering his bases against the 'servile coward'?"
  2811. >"He said that to you?"
  2812. "Right before we threw down for real. I don't think he'll be saying that again anytime soon, though."
  2813. >She managed to crack a smile, presumably from the thought of seeing his ass getting kicked.
  2814. >"Wish I could've seen that."
  2815. >And her tone bore that out.
  2816. "Trust me, you really wouldn't."
  2817. >"W-wait...! Y-you fought our Lord?"
  2818. >Ooh, you didn't even think to bring that up with the gryphons!
  2819. "That's right. One on one."
  2820. >You let that one hang in the air for a moment, really letting them soak it in.
  2821. >Aw, look, they're more afraid now!
  2822. >"W-what do you p-plan to do with us?"
  2823. >Hm, now that's the real question.
  2824. >Can't say you like the idea of killing these guys, not when they're unarmed.
  2825. >You've already had to walk back that 'no killing' rule, and you certainly don't plan on adding prisoners to the kill list.
  2826. >But before you can ponder that further, a door was heard opening back up.
  2827. >The door that Precise and Exact went into.
  2828. >First thing you see, is a very depressed looking Precise marching his way to the elevator, a letter in his magical grasp.
  2829. >Exact and Razor followed suit, the former still kind of upset, the latter just...
  2830. >Well, he's not exactly looking too fond about the whole situation, that's for sure.
  2831.  
  2832. >"Now, what is it that you should do, once you reach the top?"
  2833. >"L-let the guards take me to the leader pony. And give her the letter."
  2834. >"Very good. Now, off you go."
  2835. >"O-okay, Exact. I... I'm sorry."
  2836. >"I know you are, Precise."
  2837. >Real feelsy heart-to-hearts between those two?
  2838. >Today's just full of things you never thought you'd see, isn't it?
  2839. >Regardless, Precise steps on the elevator, and quickly sends himself up alone, waving off to Exact as he goes.
  2840. >Once he's out of sight, Razor give a loud sigh, partly of relief.
  2841. >"Buddy, I don't know how you put up with that."
  2842. >"His proclivities and attitude do not change the fact that he is family to me."
  2843. >Now Razor just looks a little guilty.
  2844. >"Y-yeah... guess so, huh?"
  2845. >Shaking his head, he looks over at you for a change of subject.
  2846. >"So, uh, Anon! Anything new happening with you?"
  2847. "Well, I know the temple is real, and that the door asks you to let it eat you."
  2848. >"That right? I'm guessing it's real persuasive, huh?"
  2849. "So I've been told."
  2850. >"So you've been told."
  2851. >The pair head over to the gryphon captives.
  2852. >"Now, what's the plan for the chicks who've been doing the telling?"
  2853. "Is summary execution about as unappealing as it sounds?"
  2854. >"Like you have to ask."
  2855. "Then I've got no idea."
  2856. >Now the gryphons just look confused.
  2857. >"Y-you don't plan on killing us?"
  2858. "Killing prisoners ain't exactly in my itinerary."
  2859. >"B-but, Lord Matthias wou--"
  2860. "Eats puppies for breakfast, and washes it down with a nice tall glass of souls."
  2861. >You fold your arms again.
  2862. "Do I look like a total psycho to you?"
  2863. >Well, maybe you do, a little bit...
  2864.  
  2865. >"Y-you... I don't understand."
  2866. "Look, if I wanted you all dead, I'd have done it about three minutes ago."
  2867. >They look like they're somewhere between being grateful, and being insulted.
  2868. >Then, Razor picks that moment to speak up.
  2869. >"Funnel 'em into the room back there. I'll keep an eye on them, while the others get down here."
  2870. "Wait, what? You sure about that?"
  2871. >"Dark magic doesn't buck you up, the bugs do the crazy sensing thing, and Goddess knows I'm not peeling the magic destroying expert away from you. Pretty easy choice."
  2872. >You open your mouth, only to find no objections come out of it.
  2873. "I... I mean, if you think you've got it."
  2874. >"Oh, I've got it. Besides, anything goes wrong, the bug brigade will tell you all about it."
  2875. >Huh, good point.
  2876. >"How many times do we have to tell you,"
  2877. >"That we are not bugs!"
  2878. >Nothing but eyerolls at that display.
  2879. "All right, buddy."
  2880. >Razor nods, then starts herding the still disbelieving birds away into a room, shutting the door behind them, and whipping his crossbow out.
  2881. >"Chokepoints are a wonderful thing."
  2882. "Right, well..."
  2883. >"Hey, don't let me keep you. You've got some clues to dig up. Now get to it!"
  2884. >You nod, and get moving, pulling the big metal door bar off a set of metal double-doors, and pulling them open.
  2885. >It leads to a short passageway, and after clearing it, the first thing you see in the giant, well-lit cavern, is a fairly big, tall structure, vaguely like a Mayan pyramid, covered in rusty iron plates in a scale pattern.
  2886. >That's, uh...
  2887. >One way to hide a building, you suppose.
  2888.  
  2889. "So, uh... what am I looking at, here?"
  2890. >That's Exact's cue to speak up:
  2891. >"The design is heavily inspired by Crimson Penumbra temples, but the entrance towards the top, with the accompanying outer staircase, is distinctly mon'keigh in design."
  2892. "Wait, what-keigh?"
  2893. >"An extinct race of tall, four-armed ape-like creatures. Bipeds, much like yourself."
  2894. "Right..."
  2895. >You start circling around towards said staircase.
  2896. "So tell me, what does the place feel like?"
  2897. >You turn your head towards the bugs in the audience, who both look really, really nervous.
  2898. >"Anon, we shouldn't be here. This place is full of pain."
  2899. >"No, not full of pain, but... it's coming from the top, spreading out like a mist. It's..."
  2900. >Chrysalis gets a lot more nervous, once her eyes go to the top.
  2901. >"The pain has countless sources. But there's no consciousness behind any of them."
  2902. >That's comforting.
  2903. >You reach the stairs, which have this thick studded canvas layer fit over them, probably to cover up the iron.
  2904. "We knew this wouldn't be anything but evil. But we still have to head up to it."
  2905. >As much as you really wish you didn't have to.
  2906. >You take a breath, with Chrysalis following suit, and you begin climbing the somewhat steep steps.
  2907. >The party could be heard, lighting their magic up, scanning around for anything out of the ordinary.
  2908. >You make it halfway up the pyramid, and--
  2909. >You freeze, looking off to the left, at a part of the wall covered in gouge marks.
  2910. >Somebody was... running, weren't they?
  2911. >Running to get away from... whatever made those marks?
  2912. >You... think?
  2913.  
  2914. >"Anon, what's wrong?"
  2915. "I..."
  2916. >You look off to the other side, at another part of the pyramid.
  2917. >Smooth, just like you remember.
  2918. >Just like you remember.
  2919. >Just like you remember?
  2920. >"Anon?"
  2921. "I..."
  2922. >What the fuck...?
  2923. "Have I... been here, before?"
  2924. >"What?"
  2925. >You shake your head.
  2926. >Get it together, you fucking pussy.
  2927. >You've never seen this place before, you're just getting nervous.
  2928. "Nothing. Sorry."
  2929. >You keep telling yourself that, as you continue climbing the stairs.
  2930. >But as you keep climbing, that sense that you've somehow been here before, that you've seen this place, keeps growing.
  2931. >But that's impossible.
  2932. >You've never been here, before.
  2933. >Before long, you reach the top.
  2934. >A glowing red sphere covers the tall, pitch black, oily-looking door.
  2935. >Magic flares up from behind.
  2936. >"Anon, a dark suggestion spell is in use here, coming from that door. I do not think we can proceed past this point."
  2937. >"S-sweet Foremothers... he made them excavate this?!"
  2938. >"I... I can hear it, c-calling to me..."
  2939. >Didn't think they'd have to stop at this point.
  2940. >Oh God, what the fuck's with this place?
  2941. "I'll just... take out this shield of his, first."
  2942. >Exact casts some kind of glowy shield around the others, with them helping to boost it's power.
  2943. >"Very well. Proceed very cautiously, Anon."
  2944. "Y-yeah, sure..."
  2945. >The shield isn't hard to disable: just pulling a weird gem from a pedestal does the trick.
  2946. >But once you see the door in all it's unshielded glory, it...
  2947. >Your hands start to shake.
  2948. >Your breathing gets laboured.
  2949. >No.
  2950. >Not glory.
  2951. >Glory is the wrongest possible word to use.
  2952.  
  2953. >The door is made of some kind of oily, completely black shit, the reflections of the light giving away it's occasional, fluid-like rippling.
  2954. >Set right in the middle, almost like it was swimming in the stuff, was a circular stone tablet, filled with flowing patterns of symbols you don't recognize.
  2955. >And you were afraid of it.
  2956. >Some deep, primal instinct was telling you to run away.
  2957. >That creeping sense of familiarity was screaming at you to turn around, right now.
  2958. >It doesn't even make sense, how afraid you are.
  2959. >And you very nearly did turn around.
  2960. >But, you slowly step forward in spite of it all, a cold sweat beginning to develop along with your shaking limbs.
  2961. >Your stomach sinks like a rock, when the tablet lights up after getting too close.
  2962. >An image of a sprout on top of a heart symbol, roots spreading into the heart, flashes for a brief moment, before the tablet sinks into the black material.
  2963. >Then, with some quiet, disgusting sucking sounds, the material itself drains away into the walls, ceiling, and floor.
  2964. >That strange fear you had was mostly gone, only to be replaced by creeping dread, at what you saw at the end of the small, dark room the 'door' covered up.
  2965. >A spiral staircase going down.
  2966. >You take several breaths to try and calm yourself down, fumbling your Luxflood focus onto your wand as you go.
  2967. >"Anon, are you all right?"
  2968. "N-no, I'm not. But I don't have a lot of options, do I?"
  2969. >That came our way more frantic than you intended it to.
  2970. "Sorry. I... let's just get this over with."
  2971. >You turn on your 'flashlight', and step towards the stairwell.
  2972.  
  2973. @@@@@@@@
  2974.  
  2975. >You stop halfway into the room, turning back towards the others.
  2976. >Still there, with their shields up, expecting the worst.
  2977. >Well, they're not wrong to expect that.
  2978. >Letting out a shaky sigh, you stay your course, clearing the rest of the distance towards the stairwell.
  2979. >The stairs were stone, fairly steep, and of course were tightly wound around a fairly thin little pillar.
  2980. >The worst kind of stairs there could be.
  2981. >Fucking brilliant.
  2982. >Gingerly, you take a few steps down, the lack of a handrail making this a much slower descent than it had any right to be.
  2983. >At least the stone wasn't slippery, so there's that.
  2984. >But that creeping feeling of dread and anticipation was as present as ever.
  2985. >The stairs continue down further, but this first section of the descent opens up into a room, so you step off inside to take a look.
  2986. >The place was absolutely pitch black, and the silence was deafening.
  2987. >Deafening enough to bring out some of the old tinnitus, when your movements and breathing were slowed down for a few moments.
  2988. >Still, at least the Luxflood focus was doing a fantastic job of lighting the place up.
  2989. >You widen up the beam of light it produces, trading intensity for greater coverage.
  2990. >What you see here, definitely serves to unnerve you more than you already were.
  2991. >It's a fucking operating room.
  2992. >The stone furniture gave it more of an 'Aztec sacrificial altar' look than a typical ER, but there was no mistaking the long-inactive overhead gem lights, the surgical equipment, and...
  2993. >Oh God, there's restraints on the stone tables.
  2994.  
  2995. >Swallowing dry, you move up towards one of the tables, the one with the most equipment populating the area around it.
  2996. >One of the things you've noticed already, is that there's almost no dust to speak of, only the finest of trails left as you drag your fingers along the stone surfaces.
  2997. >The various blades lying on top of the nearby tables were all curved in some way, looking more intended to inflict pain and cause damage, than to actually perform surgical work.
  2998. >And then, there was one blade, a scalpel with a syringe for a handle.
  2999. >Do you even want to know what this was used for?
  3000. >Moving on towards the table, you find it to be fairly clean, with the leather restraints having been well-used, even before the ages began peeling them apart.
  3001. >The restraints...
  3002. >That same fear from before, back at the door, began to creep back up again, causing your heart to race and your breathing to speed up.
  3003. >You back up and look away, backtracking to the stairwell and trying to get your breathing under control.
  3004. >F-fuck, man...!
  3005. >What the hell's the matter with you?
  3006. >The table is creepy as shit, sure, but why'd it set you off like that?
  3007. >A-and why did it seem so... familiar?
  3008. >Already, you're getting vague images of thrashing, yelling, and cutting, dancing across your mind.
  3009. >You swear, you can almost feel the cutting--
  3010. >Nope.
  3011. >That's enough.
  3012. >Stop it.
  3013. >Giving your head a violent shake, you force yourself to trudge down the steps, pushing the images out of your mind.
  3014. >That doesn't stop your skin from crawling at the thoughts, however.
  3015.  
  3016. >S-seriously, what the hell was that all about?
  3017. >Was this place fucking with you?
  3018. >But... no, it couldn't be.
  3019. >Spells that fuck with people's minds don't work on you.
  3020. >God knows Luna's tried, wanting into your dreams really badly.
  3021. >Luna...
  3022. >Thinking about her, about the others, was already improving your shakiness and breathing.
  3023. >Stopping for a moment, you close your eyes, take a breath, and focus.
  3024. >The first time you met her.
  3025. >The first time she had you do some stargazing.
  3026. >The times she stuck by you, in the hospital.
  3027. >Yeah...
  3028. >You open your eyes again, a smile managing to work it's way onto your face.
  3029. >Your arms have stopped shaking.
  3030. >Okay, that works.
  3031. >Think happy thoughts, and remember the good times.
  3032. >Fuck, you'll take it.
  3033. >Steeling yourself, you trudge down the stairs some more, eventually breaking out into another floor of this place.
  3034. >It's a small library.
  3035. >A library.
  3036. >A library!
  3037. >Shit, your book might be in here!
  3038. >Okay, okay, what was it, again...?
  3039. >Uh, 'Stamkatalogus', you think it was!
  3040. >Vaguely zebra-language to your eyes, something about tribes and catalogues.
  3041. >You're betting it's some kind of reference guide on the tribes.
  3042. >And from the sound of things, it might just tell you where you can find them.
  3043. >Not content to waste any more time, you dive right into book hunting.
  3044. >The majority of the titles on the shelves, when they aren't crumbling to dust from sheer old age, are in Ancient Equestrian.
  3045. >Works for you, that shit's easy to read!
  3046. >You spend a fair amount of time, combing through the shelves, trying to find one 'Stamkatalogus'.
  3047.  
  3048. >But despite double-checking the shelves, you don't find anything like that.
  3049. >Just books on dark magic.
  3050. >Even some books on 'blood alchemy', like Nito mentioned in his journal.
  3051. >But nothing you were interested in, or looking for.
  3052. >Fuck.
  3053. >Of course it can't be that fucking easy.
  3054. >Just you watch, you'll have to climb down the entire fucking temple, before you find it, won't you?
  3055. >Man, where's Twilight when you need her?
  3056. >Your smile at the thought of her combing through this place, sours just as quickly.
  3057. >No.
  3058. >She should never come anywhere near this place.
  3059. >And if you find what you're looking for, nobody ever will, again.
  3060. >Good fucking riddance, you say.
  3061. >Trudging back over to the stairwell, you climb down further, until you reach a third level.
  3062. >Your breath catches in your throat, as you take stock of what's inside of this place.
  3063. >Large, barely man-sized cages on the floor.
  3064. >Similarly large, pivoting tables with restraints on them, looking more like stretching racks than actual tables.
  3065. >The floors had been widening out progressively as you went, but half of this area was cordoned off by a wall, a prison bar door connecting the two areas together.
  3066. >The shaking's returned.
  3067. >But still, you move in.
  3068. >You can't just skip this, you need to check every corner.
  3069. >Just do it quickly, Anon.
  3070. >In and out.
  3071. >In and out.
  3072. >As you scan the room, your eyes fall on a rack, full of...
  3073. >Metal collars, attached to sticks.
  3074. >(click)
  3075. >The fear from before returns, only in full force this time.
  3076. >You tell your body to move, but it doesn't respond.
  3077.  
  3078. >(The cold metal, clasping around your neck.)
  3079. >Your breathing becomes almost frantic.
  3080. >(Being pulled around like a ragdoll, helpless against your captor's instrument.)
  3081. >Breathing becomes difficult, almost like something's around your throat.
  3082. >(Thrown into a cage, forced to your knees by the neck.)
  3083. >Stop looking at them.
  3084. >(Your body recoils at the beating, but the collar keeps you from being thrown back.)
  3085. >Close your eyes.
  3086. >(The voices of the other ones, as their turns come up next.)
  3087. >Close your fucking eyes!
  3088. >Summoning whatever willpower was still left to you, you screw your eyes shut.
  3089. >Images of pain, of bludgeons, even the occasional birch rod, flash across your mind's eye, as you collapse to your knees.
  3090. >No more.
  3091. >The images don't stop.
  3092. >Make them stop.
  3093. >("My, my, aren't you a stubborn one?")
  3094. >For the love of God, please, make them stop.
  3095. >("Let's see if you can stand another month of this, little human...")
  3096. >Why won't they stop?
  3097. >You try to force them out of your head, but they ignore your attempts.
  3098. >Back.
  3099. >You have to go back, get out of here.
  3100. >At least back to the library.
  3101. >The library.
  3102. >The...
  3103. >Is that purple, you're imagining?
  3104. >No, not just any purple.
  3105. >Lavender.
  3106. >Twilight.
  3107. >The unwanted images soon find themselves drowned out, as another set of images flashes before you.
  3108. >Your first time meeting her, in the Ponyville hospital.
  3109. >Being invited to stay with her.
  3110. >All the reading you two did.
  3111. >The times she's been worried sick about you.
  3112. >Those great, full-body hugs of hers.
  3113. >The times she kissed you.
  3114.  
  3115. >Your eyes shoot open at that particular mental image, but it doesn't do much to kick those memories out of your mind.
  3116. >How dead-set she was on it, despite being nervous as all hell.
  3117. >By the time you're done remembering the details of those little... encounters, you come back to the sight of the floor, your wand still clutched tight in your hand, even when those hands are busy keeping you from faceplanting.
  3118. >Your distinctly shake-free hands.
  3119. >Slowly, you rise back to your feet.
  3120. >The collar rack is the first thing you see, but it doesn't carry the same kind of terror it did before.
  3121. >This isn't fucking right.
  3122. >A rack of metal collars on sticks just gave you a fucking panic attack.
  3123. >What the fuck is going on here?
  3124. >Why does this place seem to ring bells?!
  3125. >You've never been here before!
  3126. >H...
  3127. >Have you?
  3128. >But...?
  3129. >No, no, if you were here before, you'd fucking remember!
  3130. >You'd think your green ass would remember something like stick-collars and operating rooms!
  3131. >Shaking your head, you storm away, towards that prison door.
  3132. >Thinking about this wasn't going to get you anywhere.
  3133. >You still need to find that fucking book.
  3134. >And God as your fucking witness, you're going to get it!
  3135. >You throw the door open, scanning through the area.
  3136. >All you find are empty prison cells, occasionally with bowls of long-decomposed food sitting in them.
  3137. >Nothing.
  3138. >Searching the last room again also gets you a whole lot of nothing.
  3139. >God fucking damn it.
  3140. >All right, just... get a move on.
  3141. >There's can't be that many more floors to this place, with how tall the ceilings are!
  3142.  
  3143. >You climb the stairs again, finding your way to the fourth floor.
  3144. >This time, it looked like a magic lab.
  3145. >A magic lab that still sent shivers down your spine, the fear threatening to creep back in again.
  3146. >On one side of the big room, was worktables of some kind, shit strewn around everywhere in a very obvious state of organized chaos.
  3147. >On the other side, was a small bookshelf, and desk after desk of stone tablets, with chisels aplenty.
  3148. >Your first destination is that bookshelf.
  3149. >But you don't recognize the language on any of them.
  3150. >Strange, it feels like you should...
  3151. >Your attention is drawn to the tablets, written in the same flowing style that the one in the front door was written in.
  3152. >Instantly, you see the similarities between the symbols used on the tablets, and the symbols in the books.
  3153. >Some kind of magic glyph system?
  3154. >Hell, maybe they're runes?
  3155. >Who fucking knows?
  3156. >Wouldn't put it past the assholes who built this place.
  3157. >Edgy hieroglyphs, there you go, that'll work.
  3158. >You decide to go over the tablet arrangements, just in case your book might be hanging around with them.
  3159. >It isn't.
  3160. >But the tablets themselves, despite being unreadable, have some... interesting imagery.
  3161. >Most of them are pretty edgy, usually involving knives, blood, what you think are supposed to be souls, and a whole ton of ponies getting hurt.
  3162. >That last one was a really, really common theme.
  3163. >So whoever made these hated ponies, huh?
  3164. >Of course they did.
  3165. >Why fucking wouldn't they?
  3166. >But your eyes soon find themselves fixed onto a very different, very large tablet.
  3167.  
  3168. >Now this thing, this looked like one of those Egyptian hieroglyph walls.
  3169. >You know, if they depicted killing and death, instead of just pharaohs and peasants.
  3170. >And if the hieroglyphs looked like a goth kid's creative writing project.
  3171. >Actually, now that you're looking at it...
  3172. >It had a lot in common with some Earth murals, too.
  3173. >Right dead in the center, was a mass of ponies, clearly in a lot of pain.
  3174. >In the middle of them all, was a very familiar sun symbol, wings sprouting from either end, trying to cover and shield as many ponies as possible.
  3175. >If that's not the most obvious Celestia representation you've seen, you don't know what is.
  3176. >And from the 'attacks' coming in from both sides, battering those wings and killing tons of ponies, it looked like she was losing, and badly.
  3177. >It was the sources of these attacks that drew your eyes.
  3178. >To the right, a storm of knives, swords, arrows, lightning bolts, fireballs, and more bombarded the ponies, like a stone age Michael Bay's movie pitch, all in a landscape of burned, dead trees, debris, rubble, and other things in that vein.
  3179. >The source of all of these attacks was a strange symbol, raised up on it's own circular section, like someone just welded a circular tablet onto this spot on the big one.
  3180. >A pair of swords, stabbing into a withering stylized heart, which itself had flames coming up off of it.
  3181. >And for some reason, this image was making you really angry.
  3182. >Quickly, you shift your focus, moving over to the other side.
  3183. >You expected something similar, but the only similarity was the attacks launched.
  3184.  
  3185. >None of the attacks on the other side came from the 'source', but instead came from other ponies, gryphons, even some zebras and changelings, in a landscape that looked... deformed, mutated, just wrong in general.
  3186. >And each one of them had a line connected to them, right where their hearts were, that led up to the 'source', itself.
  3187. >And the source itself...
  3188. >Well...
  3189. >A sprout on top of a stylized heart, with roots spread deep throughout it.
  3190. >The same exact symbol the door flashed, before letting you into this Godforsaken place.
  3191. >You didn't think much of it at the time, but...
  3192. >That symbol, it...
  3193. >It was familiar, somehow.
  3194. >And at the same time, very...
  3195. >Upsetting.
  3196. >You take a step back, getting a good view of the entire picture, memorizing the important details.
  3197. >This thing just screams 'important for later'.
  3198. >Too bad you couldn't just take it with you.
  3199. >Image now committed to memory, you move on.
  3200. >There weren't any more tablets that were interesting, so you started sweeping through the other half of the huge room, where the worktables were.
  3201. >Plenty of paper scraps, in more of that unidentified language, but no actual books.
  3202. >Fucking brilliant.
  3203. >Another dead end.
  3204. >Hey, at least you didn't freak out, this time.
  3205. >Okay, no, walk that back, Anon.
  3206. >You're gonna fucking jinx it.
  3207. >Sighing, you return to the stairs, climbing down yet another level.
  3208. >This time, however, the stairs end upon reaching this fifth floor.
  3209. >Oh, thank God!
  3210. >Reaching the bottom in short order, you turn to...
  3211. >Uh...
  3212. >Actually, you know what, you take that back.
  3213. >Fuck you, God.
  3214.  
  3215. >The room is small, and only has a big, metal door, flanked by two big statues of...
  3216. >Of...
  3217. >Weird, four-armed humans?
  3218. >No, not humans, not even remotely.
  3219. >For starters, they've got fur covering them, like apes do.
  3220. >And despite being tall, they're a real skinny bunch.
  3221. >But there was no mistaking the malicious smiles carved onto their faces.
  3222. >Or the big, bladed catalysts the two of them 'wore' on their upper set of arms.
  3223. >Something about these two was setting you off, though not nearly as--
  3224. >Mon'keigh!
  3225. >That's what Exact said they were called, mon'keigh!
  3226. >That brief moment of clarity managed to stop the whole 'set off' process dead in it's tracks.
  3227. >Still, these are fucking creepy as shit.
  3228. >And if the gems inside the 'catalysts' are any indication...
  3229. >You slip on your glasses, and...
  3230. >Oh, yeah, they're lit up with magic.
  3231. >All animarum, all day long.
  3232. >Out of curiosity, you flip to the soulgazers.
  3233. >You see a burning orange glow, vaguely in the shape of a crystal, with lines of magic branching out into the gems in the 'catalysts'.
  3234. >Should've fucking known.
  3235. >Encased in iron like this, there's not many ways to get a node connection, is there?
  3236. >Nevermind that Nito's catalyst had no connections to begin with.
  3237. >Whatever, just... try and get past them.
  3238. >You take a few tentative steps forward, and--
  3239. >fzzzzzt
  3240. >The 'catalysts' sparking was your only warning to jump back.
  3241. >The instant you did, a volley of four orbs of red magic shoot out of the statues, colliding with each other with a big THWMPH, right where you were standing before.
  3242. "Fucking...!"
  3243. >Yeah, no.
  3244. >Fuck that.
  3245.  
  3246. >Bringing out your bow, you slap a Bluebaide focus onto it, and string up a shot, right at that soul core.
  3247. >THWANG-KSHHHhhh
  3248. >The blue, glowing shot sears right through the statue, the 'core' detonating with enough force to shatter it into pieces.
  3249. >You swear, you heard a groan as it went off.
  3250. >fzzzzzt
  3251. >The other statue took that opportunity to light right up, charging some kind of attack.
  3252. >THWANG-KSHHHhhh
  3253. >BLAM
  3254. >Too slow.
  3255. >Well, now that the threats are taken care of, you stow the bow, but bring out your shortstaff, fire attached and on standby.
  3256. >You give your gloves the signal to TK the door open, shining your 'flashlight' through the opening to--
  3257. "Agh, fuck!"
  3258. >Jesus Christ, what is that smell?!
  3259. >Did something die in here?!
  3260. >You double back to the stairs, coughing and gagging a few times.
  3261. >Fucking hell, okay!
  3262. >The staff gets stowed, and that hand instead goes to holding your nose.
  3263. >Y-yep, no mistaking it.
  3264. >That's definitely the smell of rotting dead things.
  3265. >All that's missing are the flies!
  3266. >Steeling yourself, you trudge back into the opened-up room.
  3267. >Even breathing through your mouth, you still get hints of death on the palate.
  3268. >Fuck, maybe you should've brought that wind focus, after all!
  3269. >Regardless, you find yourself inside a lengthy foyer, far 'homier' than the rest of the rooms up above.
  3270. >Though you usually don't connect spiky, kinda-Aztec architecture and brickwork with 'homey'.
  3271. >But it's something.
  3272. >You start going through the rooms, one by one, left to right.
  3273. >This fucking book has to be in here, somewhere!
  3274.  
  3275. >Your first few rooms consist of a big, multi-person bathroom, a crude laundry room, and some storage closets.
  3276. >The rest are little apartment rooms, with a bed, work desk, and a teensy little kitchenette.
  3277. >Surprisingly well furnished, but still in that Aztec style.
  3278. >At the end of the hall, however, was a single door, slightly ajar.
  3279. >You push it open, and--
  3280. "Jeeeesus...!"
  3281. >O-okay, yeah, you found the source of the 'dead guy' smell!
  3282. >Or more accurately, the 'dead guys' smell!
  3283. >The dried, mostly decomposed remains of a bunch of mon'keigh were slumped around a big, chalked-out magic circle, one catalyst on every one of them.
  3284. >Lying in the middle, was a much more decorated mon'keigh corpse, limbs spread out like the Vitruvian Man, the circle converging in on him.
  3285. >Wait.
  3286. >How do you know it's a 'him'?
  3287. >Fuck, no, nevermind that.
  3288. >Look around!
  3289. >Coughing a few times, you step inside, looking around at the bodies, and the circle.
  3290. >No books to be seen, but man...
  3291. >Did a spell of theirs go horribly wrong, or horribly right?
  3292. >You know, you think the total lack of flies, or anything wriggling, actually makes this worse!
  3293. >Just...
  3294. >The fucking silence in here, man!
  3295. >The outer ring of dead guys has nothing, so you step into the circle, towards the guy in the middle.
  3296. >Nothing but a key around his neck.
  3297. >Don't mind if you do.
  3298. >You try to work it off his head, only for his head to just disconnect and roll away a little, instead.
  3299. >Uh... works for you?
  3300. >Okay, key!
  3301. >Now, what does this key open?
  3302. >Stepping out of the circle, you look around the room proper.
  3303.  
  3304. >A big, upright stone tablet was off to the side, and you try to decipher it.
  3305. >Key word being 'try', since it was all blackened and fucked-up, the only things legible being the big crack down the middle, with both of those heart symbols occupying the two halves, on raised circular sections at the top, like on the other mural tablet thing.
  3306. >Intriguing, but not helpful.
  3307. >Still, don't know why you feel so... proud about that.
  3308. >A small bookshelf draws your eye, right away.
  3309. >Going through the titles, you...
  3310. >Yes, Ancient Equestrian!
  3311. >Now...
  3312. >'The Outer Reaches', 'Crimson Incantations', 'Stamkatalogus', 'Forging Covena--'
  3313. >Stamkatalogus!
  3314. >Fucking ace!
  3315. >You float that shit out with nary a second thought, flicking through it with your trusty TK gloves.
  3316. >The words were arranged like a Rosetta Stone, the top part being zebra language, the middle being Ancient Equestrian, and the bottom being those weird, edgy hieroglyphs you saw before.
  3317. >("Stamkatalogus: Zebrican Tribes, Tribulations, and Histories, Post-Division")
  3318. >The next page had a map spanning both pages, numbered points spread out all across it.
  3319. >Yes...!
  3320. >Turning a few pages gets you some random tribe's name, and the next page tells you about...
  3321. >Their location, with a map number!
  3322. >Yes, yes, yes!
  3323. >This is exactly what you were looking for!
  3324. >You quickly shut the book and tuck it under the same arm you're using to plug up your nose.
  3325. >Okay, anything else?
  3326. >Maybe something to do with this key?
  3327. >Actually...
  3328. >Over at another part of the room, is a big, darkened glass display case, with a conspicuously placed keyhole.
  3329.  
  3330. >Heading over, you try the key on it, finding that it does indeed work, allowing you to swing the case's top open.
  3331. >Piles of ash dotted it's surface, with one exception.
  3332. >A rusty iron box, off-colour purple-ish chains wrapped tightly around it, padlocked with some kind of glyphed-up lock.
  3333. >You pick it up by it's big, protruding handle, finding it doesn't weigh all that much.
  3334. >You'll take it.
  3335. >Scanning around the room reveals a whole lot of nothing else.
  3336. >Okay, finally, you can leave this fucking hellhole!
  3337. >You head out, down the hallway to the stairs--
  3338. >("Were it not for the promise you show, human, you would be dead right now.")
  3339. >Aaagh...!
  3340. >Wh-what's this fucking mental image, now?!
  3341. >S-screw it, just get out of here!
  3342. >("I think...")
  3343. >Your head pounds, as you climb the stairs.
  3344. >("I think we'll move onto the... acclimatization.")
  3345. >Your skin begins to itch.
  3346. >("And just for you, we'll forgo the anaesthetics.")
  3347. >Images of a crazy-eyed orange mon'keigh flash through your mind.
  3348. >Something about it sets off that fear again, and you scramble to increase your pace.
  3349. >("Oh, don't start begging me, now. You chose this for yourself.")
  3350. >A-almost there!
  3351. >Just one more floor!
  3352. >(Pain exploding throughout you, as the needles press into your skin.)
  3353. >You cry out as you clear the stairs, the book and box clattering away as you fall to your hands and knees, panting and sweating.
  3354. >"Anon?! Hey, Anon!"
  3355. >Huh, was that Razor...?
  3356. >Shit's too blurry to make out.
  3357. >Whoo, those stairs are a real workout, huh?
  3358. >M-maybe you'll just...
  3359. >Take a little breather?
  3360. >Y-yeah, that sounds good...
  3361. <...
  3362.  
  3363. @@@@@@@@
  3364.  
  3365. >"H-how has she been doing, doctor?"
  3366. >"Miss Starlight has been very stable since the incident, princess Twilight, but unfortunately, while many of the physical symptoms are improving..."
  3367. >The doctor's words spur you to stroke Starlight's foreleg a little faster.
  3368. >"I'm afraid the damage to her mana system remains the same. She will still need, at the minimum, six months to recover."
  3369. >Doctor Valiant sighs.
  3370. >"I'm sorry, princess, but... dark magic relapses are notoriously difficult to work out of one's system, and given her history, well... antioneirics are about all we can do for her, at this stage. The rest is all down to time."
  3371. >Twilight sniffles a little.
  3372. >"I... I see. H-has she, um, w-woken up, at all?"
  3373. >"Not yet. I don't know when she will, but rest assured, if that changes, you'll be the first to know."
  3374. >"Thank you."
  3375. >"It's no trouble at all, your highness."
  3376. >A few beats of silence pass, with you just stroking her foreleg.
  3377. >She looks so much... cleaner, than she was when you first...
  3378. >F-first saw her.
  3379. >But the dark circles under her eyes were still there.
  3380. >That ring around her horn was still there.
  3381. >Already, you can feel your eyes beginning to water, and--
  3382. >clop
  3383. >You gasp a little at the sudden contact, looking up to see the doctor placing a hoof on your withers.
  3384. >"I'm sorry, mister Sunburst. I know this must be hard on you."
  3385. >You can't reply to him, right now.
  3386. >"Take as much time as you need. We still don't know if she's aware of your reassurances, but if she is, I'm sure she appreciates it, more than you know."
  3387.  
  3388. >You and Twilight sit there for a while, doing your best to comfort Starlight's sleeping form.
  3389. >At one point, Twilight even reads her a bedtime story.
  3390. >But eventually, you both have to leave her for the day.
  3391. >After hugging one another, the two of you go your separate ways, with you heading back to Anon's slipgate.
  3392. >"Oi, Sunburst!"
  3393. >Until Crescent's familiar voice was heard from behind, prompting you to stop and turn around.
  3394. "C-Crescent?"
  3395. >"Buck, there ya are, lad! Been lookin' all ovah fer' ya!"
  3396. "O-oh, really? Sorry about that..."
  3397. >She stops her approach towards you, her jovial expression falling as she studies your face.
  3398. >"Yew all right there, lad?"
  3399. "I... w-well, no."
  3400. >"Anythin' yew wanna talk about?"
  3401. >You don't respond for a few moments, after which she walks up beside you, instead of waiting for your response.
  3402. >"All right, leht's get somewhere private."
  3403. >How does she just pick up on these things, without you even needing to ask?
  3404. >R-regardless, she walks with you, back through the slipgates, and into your lab, after which you shut off the gate.
  3405. >"Alright, what's wrong, Sunburst?"
  3406. >You both get seated, on one of your benches.
  3407. "It's... i-it's my friend. Starlight."
  3408. >She lights up at the name.
  3409. >"Stahrlight? As in, Stahrlight Glimmer?"
  3410. "Y-yes."
  3411. >And just like that, her expression falls.
  3412. >"Ooh... ya knew her, lad?"
  3413. "W-we're friends."
  3414. >Her hoof comes up, resting on your withers far more gently than usual.
  3415. >"Ah, cripes, Ah'm sorry. Ah didn't know yew an' her were mates."
  3416. "I... I went to see her, today. Me and Twilight."
  3417.  
  3418. >You begin telling her about your visit to her, as well as how she was doing.
  3419. >She absorbs all of it, without saying a word, until you finally finish.
  3420. >"Ah, Goddess, what a mess. Ah'm sorry, Sunburst, really, Ah am."
  3421. "I-it's not your fault."
  3422. >She doesn't say anything for a few more moments.
  3423. >"Tell ya what, lad. Yew all right with drinkin'?"
  3424. "D-drinking? I-I mean, m-maybe, but..."
  3425. >"How about Ah bring a bottle'a wine over tonight? Drink to the lass's health?"
  3426. >A-a drink?
  3427. >To her health?
  3428. >B-but, there's still things to do!
  3429. >Your eyes wander around the room, looking over all the things you've been doing.
  3430. >The various projects scattered around, many of which had taken a backseat to Anon's 'car'.
  3431. >Said car still sat suspended, the metals for the rest of those 'tank treads' still missing.
  3432. >The design showed definite promise, and with a few front sleds, it should navigate sand just fine!
  3433. >But...
  3434. >If you were being honest with yourself, you didn't feel up to it, today.
  3435. >Not after that hour or two, spent with Starlight.
  3436. >So...
  3437. >"Well?"
  3438. >You look back to Crescent.
  3439. "O-okay. That sounds... nice."
  3440. >There's that familiar slap to the withers she's known for.
  3441. >"Pehrfect. Ah'll be over later, alright, lad?"
  3442. "Okay."
  3443. >She gives you a brief hug, lighter than her usual ones, before trotting off back through the slipgate.
  3444. >The hours pass painfully slowly, as you try in vain to do something around the lab.
  3445. >It makes Crescent's arrival with that bottle so much better, and she wastes no time in pouring out some glasses.
  3446. >"Tew Stahrlight?"
  3447. "To Starlight."
  3448. >clink
  3449. >...
  3450.  
  3451. >"So, yer sure this crazy buckin' setup's gonna work on sand?"
  3452. "I've already run the tests. Between the treads, and the sleds, it should be able to handle sandy terrain without a problem! W-well, provided it's fairly flat."
  3453. >"Mate, it's buckin' Zebrica. If ya' know where ta find a hill down there, Ah'm all ears."
  3454. "R-right..."
  3455. >So it wasn't going to be a problem, at all!
  3456. >The two of you stay silent, just working on getting Crescent's new metal pieces for said treads attached and working.
  3457. >It's long, tough work, especially given all the iron you have to handle, but seeing it all come together was something else, entirely!
  3458. >Never in a million years, did you think your interest in machines would result in something like this!
  3459. >Just...
  3460. >Wow!
  3461. >Anon really was something else, wasn't he?
  3462. >To think, that it all started with your dabbling in thaumaturgy!
  3463. >And now, you--
  3464. >The sound of the slipgate opening back up draws your attention, as well as Crescent's.
  3465. >Standing there is a Night Guard, looking really excited about something.
  3466. >"Crescent! Anon's back!"
  3467. >His excitement quickly became infectious.
  3468. >A-Anon's back?!
  3469. >"Hahah, is he now? We'll be right there!"
  3470. >The guard salutes and heads back, the two of you leaving your work and following him shortly afterwards.
  3471. "I wonder if he's okay...?"
  3472. >Oh Goddess, please let him be okay!
  3473. >You don't think you could handle seeing him with really bad injuries, again!
  3474. >"Guess we'll find out soon, lad!"
  3475. >The two of you continue to follow that excited guard, side-by-side, into the hospital wing.
  3476.  
  3477. >Already, you have a bad feeling about this.
  3478. >E-every time Anon's in the hospital wing, he's...
  3479. >Oh gosh, please let you be wrong, this time!
  3480. >Please, Anon...!
  3481. >You eventually come to a door, flanked by a few Sol Invictus soldiers.
  3482. >They look... nervous?
  3483. >Oh gosh, what happened?!
  3484. >The guards move out of the way for both you and Crescent, allowing you two to enter the room.
  3485. >Inside, is none other than Anon, sleeping in a hospital bed, and flanked by Twilight, Luna, Razor, and some other Invictus pony that you don't recognize.
  3486. >The gathering alone made you even more worried for his well-being, right up until you saw no medical equipment being used on him.
  3487. >Not even a bandage!
  3488. >Oh thank goodness, he's just sleeping!
  3489. >Twilight was the first to acknowledge you, the others turning to acknowledge you two, as well.
  3490. >"Sunburst, you're here!"
  3491. "I-Is he okay?"
  3492. >"W-we think so."
  3493. >What does she mean, 'we think so'?
  3494. >What happened?
  3495. >"To be honest, we're kind of waiting for him to tell us..."
  3496. >Razor spoke up, next:
  3497. >"Light, you good with me...?"
  3498. >That unnamed pony, presumably 'Light', responds in turn:
  3499. >"Still waiting on Celestia to clear it."
  3500. >"Great."
  3501. >"You know the rules."
  3502. >Neither one of them looks very pleased by that.
  3503. >Still...
  3504. >A few knocks on the door behind you precedes mister Exact coming in.
  3505. >"Ah, perfect timing! We good to talk about this, sergeant?"
  3506. >"Yes, it has been cleared by princess Celestia. However, all details concerning the operation, and what happened to him, are not to leave this room."
  3507. >Th-the details...?
  3508. >What happened to him?!
  3509.  
  3510. >"Very good, sergeant. Razor?"
  3511. >"Yeah, sure."
  3512. >He clears his throat, everypony paying attention.
  3513. >"We cleared out that Incognito tailhole's base. Well, more like Anon cleared it out, honestly."
  3514. >What?
  3515. >H-he did it?!
  3516. >"He did it?!"
  3517. >Y-yeah, what Twilight said!
  3518. >"I didn't believe what I was seeing, at first. The guy was a bucking force of nature. Nothing they had even hurt him, and he just took out hundreds of birds and bugs, like it was nothing!
  3519. >"To be blunt, we were there to support him, not the other way around. Ain't that right, Light?"
  3520. >"Laugh it up, tough guy."
  3521. >"I intend to. Anyways, we-- uh, he wiped the floor with his goons, we sprung a whole ton of captives, and made out with the tailhole's journal, and some of his designs."
  3522. >He gives a sideways grin towards Crescent.
  3523. >"You're gonna love one of the things we stole, Crescent."
  3524. >"W-wha...? Ya mean, he had some...?"
  3525. >"Oh, yeah."
  3526. >You could almost hear Crescent salivating, off to the side.
  3527. >You, meanwhile, were busy processing what you were hearing, as Twilight spoke up again:
  3528. >"Wh-when you say 'captives', do you mean...?"
  3529. >"He was keeping prisoners around for some freaky dark magic shit, yeah. Needless to say, they were mighty glad to be out of there. They're being treated as we speak."
  3530. >"Oh, thank goodness!"
  3531. "H-hold on..."
  3532. >All eyes were on you.
  3533. "Wh-what about Anon? Why is he here, if everything went so well?"
  3534. >And just as quickly, they go back to Razor, who looks a bit more conflicted.
  3535. >"Well, the short version is that he passed out. Exerted himself a bit too much. As for the long version, well..."
  3536.  
  3537. >He nods to Exact, who steps up to explain further:
  3538. >"Incognito had not chosen that mountain base only for it's strategic value. He knew beforehoof about an ancient temple, that was buried beneath the mountain itself."
  3539. "A... temple?"
  3540. >"The temple belonged to a long-vanquished dark magic cult. It was covered in a thick layer of iron prior to it's burial, suggesting that those who buried it wished it kept a paramount secret.
  3541. >"Incognito ordered it to be excavated, and once it was, he took it upon himself to enter the temple, coming out of it with an unknown dark magic spell, which he alleged was this cult's final spell, meant for their greatest champions.
  3542. >"The temple, however, was where the clues to Incognito's whereabouts were kept. And owing to the site's powerful dark magic presence, only Anon was qualified to enter it, given his immunity."
  3543. >H-he did WHAT?!
  3544. >"He did WHAT?!"
  3545. >Y-you and Twilight are totally on the same page, today!
  3546. >"The temple's defences were such that only he could enter it safely. And, indeed, Anon did not suffer any damage, when he emerged from it."
  3547. >"Nothing physical, anyways..."
  3548. >And just like that, all eyes were back on Razor.
  3549. >"I wasn't there to see him enter that goddess-forsaken place, but I was there when the demo crews arrived, a few minutes before he came back out of that... thing.
  3550. >"And when I say 'came out', I mean bolted. He must've run a marathon up five or six flights of stairs, in all that armour, with the clues we needed.
  3551. >"Your majesties, me and Anon have been through a lot. But..."
  3552.  
  3553. >He shakes his head, as if reassuring himself.
  3554. >"I have never, in the entire time I've known the big guy, seen him with that kind of panic, that kind of terror, on his face before. Whatever he found down there, scared him absolutely shitless."
  3555. >O-oh, gosh...!
  3556. >"We didn't keep the place around long enough to find out what it was. Once we dragged him outta the temple, we destroyed the whole bucking thing, along with the base, too."
  3557. >G-good!
  3558. >Goddess above, you don't want to know what he found down there, not when it did... that!
  3559. >"And... that's about all there is to it. If you want to know more, well, you'll have to ask Anon when he wakes up."
  3560. >Both princesses look to each other, before returning to his side, hugging him.
  3561. >Light quickly takes her leave with Exact, giving no reason for the sudden departure.
  3562. >"H-hey, Crescent? Did... did the folks get that letter?"
  3563. >"Eh? Where's this comin' from?"
  3564. >"J-just humour me, will you?"
  3565. >"Well... all right, Rahzor, but not here. Sunburst, Ah'll see ya in a bit, alright?"
  3566. "R-right."
  3567. >And with that, those two leave, too.
  3568. >Leaving only you with the others, both alicorns still trying to comfort Anon's sleeping form.
  3569. >It seems to be working, a small smile now on his face.
  3570. >Funny, the way his eyes are moving, it looks like he's dreaming.
  3571. >You only hope they're good dreams...
  3572. >Stepping up to his bedside, you also give him a quick hug.
  3573. "Get well soon, Anon..."
  3574. >He has to.
  3575. >You're slow to pull away, and much slower to finally leave the room.
  3576. >Ohh, gosh...
  3577. >Evil temples, prisoners, and Anon blacking out?
  3578. >What else could go wrong...?
  3579. <...
  3580.  
  3581. >FZZWT
  3582. >The zebra's screaming was cut short, as the energy bolt swiftly ended his miserable life.
  3583. >Another zebra charged in from the side, a bardiche wound up for a swing.
  3584. >You simply levitate the weapon up and out of his hooves, when it reaches the apex of it's swing, and a swift sweep of your foreleg sends him flying off, the sickening CRACK upon making contact giving away just how powerful the blow was.
  3585. >Your eyes, meanwhile, had never left the small throne this random tribe's leader was sat atop of.
  3586. >Or more accurately, cowering atop of.
  3587. >You could almost taste his terror from here.
  3588. >From the other side, you could sense another zebra making a move: trying to stab your head with a spear.
  3589. >A simple movement of your head at the right time, and the spear tip misses, an inch away from your throat.
  3590. >A simple bronze point.
  3591. >Even if you hadn't dodged that, it wouldn't have penetrated your carapace, anyways.
  3592. >Regardless, you telekinetically wrench the spear from the zebra's grasp, and shoot it right back at him.
  3593. >The pained scream he just let out was proof positive of his weapon skewering him.
  3594. >By the blunt end.
  3595. >As you continue walking towards the throne, the rest of his so-called 'elite warriors' simply cower in place, just like their leader.
  3596. >Zebras.
  3597. >Such tactical idiots.
  3598. >If they had charged you all at once, this would have been somewhat of a challenge.
  3599. >Oh, well.
  3600. >If it means getting this over with quicker, you'll take it.
  3601. >In the leader's panic, as you close in on his throne, he pulls free some kind of black blade, screaming something to all his cohorts.
  3602.  
  3603. >And just like that, they all charge in.
  3604. >Should've known.
  3605. >Waiting for them to close in just a little bit more, you summon forth more energy, creating a large nova of magic.
  3606. >With a loud FWMPH, the zebras are sent flying, their charge stopped dead in it's tracks.
  3607. >In the process, the throne is toppled, and their leader is caught underneath it.
  3608. >And you are quite done with this.
  3609. >As he tries to work his way out from underneath the throne, you force it down on top of him with your magic.
  3610. >His terror returns upon realizing what's happening, and only doubles upon seeing you approach.
  3611. >You charge another magic bolt to finish this quickly, and that's when he makes a final, desperate move.
  3612. >He bites the handle of the black sword, cutting into himself as he pulls it free.
  3613. >In the same motion, he throws the sword towards you.
  3614. >You refocus the spell into a quick shield, and the sword--
  3615. >Phases through it?!
  3616. >schlick
  3617. "Gaaah!"
  3618. >Despite flying at a somewhat slow speed, the blade cuts lengthwise into your chest, sticking in almost an inch, before falling out and clattering to the ground.
  3619. >You stand there, shocked at what just happened.
  3620. >But it was around the time that droplets of green blood began to hit the ground, that the shock quickly transformed into anger.
  3621. >No.
  3622. >He doesn't get a quick death, not anymore.
  3623. >The instant the leader throws the throne off of himself, you seize him in your telekinetic grasp, lifting him towards you.
  3624. >He struggles and yells, right up until your place the tip of your horn against his forehead.
  3625.  
  3626. >The zebra goes slack immediately as the spell does it's work, the only indication of his resistance being the look on his face.
  3627. >A stream of cloudy, light pink energy forces it's way out of his mouth, a stream that you quickly begin to consume for yourself.
  3628. >His love.
  3629. >Every single little scrap he has hidden away.
  3630. >Whatever resistance he once had fades quickly, his eyes glassing over and his breathing slowing as you drain whatever other positive emotions he had.
  3631. >Before long, the cloud of emotions fizzles out into nothing, and you let the zebra-- no, the empty husk of a zebra, collapse to the ground.
  3632. >If it were just love you had drained out of him, he'd have been little more than a thrall at this point.
  3633. >But with the other positive emotions gone, well...
  3634. >He was dead before he hit the ground.
  3635. >The intents of some of the zebras, the ones not fixed on you, changed to alarm.
  3636. >The others in the chariots finally catching up would have a lot to do with that.
  3637. >The entire area ignites into chaos, as crossbow bolts and magic attacks rained down on the zebras.
  3638. >They didn't last long against the onslaught, this particular tribe having no crossbows of their own.
  3639. >"Athalia!"
  3640. >Ajay's voice rang out from above, but you don't turn to look at him.
  3641. >No, you were too fixated on the zebra you just killed.
  3642. >Your eyes drift from that strange, obsidian scabbard strapped to him, to the black sword at your hooves, a thin coat of your blood still on the blade.
  3643. >Hmph.
  3644. >He didn't have much love to offer you, so you suppose this will have to do.
  3645.  
  3646. >You all but rip the scabbard off of the corpse, sheathing the blade in short order.
  3647. >"Athalia! Damn it, answer me!"
  3648. >You finally turn to his voice--
  3649. >Agh...!
  3650. >Damn it, this hurts!
  3651. >A few changelings land beside you, trying their best to reach over and help you however they can.
  3652. >However, you wave them off.
  3653. "I'm fine."
  3654. >As long as you stay still, it won't--
  3655. >"Hey, are you listening to me?!"
  3656. >Ajay makes his descent in front of you, displeasure and concern laced throughout his emotions.
  3657. >"Are you all right?"
  3658. "I said, I'm fine."
  3659. >"You call that fine?! Someone get the medical kit!"
  3660. >A couple of gryphons peel off into the sky, bringing one of the chariots in to land nearby.
  3661. >Ajay tries to reach for you, to help you into the chariot, but you brush his talons off of you.
  3662. >Wincing, you climb into the chariot, the blood from the wound beginning to drip again.
  3663. >You snatch the medical kit from one of the gryphons, and set to cleaning the wound.
  3664. >"What was that all about, Athalia?"
  3665. >He just had to start talking, right as you began the most painful part of this, didn't he?
  3666. >"How many times do you plan on doing this? We're supposed to be working together on these!"
  3667. "I move faster on my own."
  3668. >"Do you have some kind of death wish? Is that what's going on, here?"
  3669. "What?"
  3670. >"These last few days, you've done nothing but charge in on your own! And now look what's happened to you!"
  3671. >Your patience is beginning to wear thin.
  3672. "I told you, I'm fine."
  3673. >"And how long do you think that's going to last? What are you trying to prove with all this, Athalia?"
  3674.  
  3675. >With the wound finally cleaned, you start bandaging it.
  3676. >The final chitin repair was going to need some preparation back at the hive, however.
  3677. "I'm not trying to prove anything. I'm trying to finish these as soon as possible."
  3678. >"You're not listening to me! Athalia, please, I..."
  3679. >His shoulders slump, sadness permeating his emotions.
  3680. >"I don't want to see you in an emergency room. Not again."
  3681. "Ajay, listen. I appreciate that you're worried, I really do. But I'm fine."
  3682. >He snorts.
  3683. >"That's what you said last time."
  3684. >Last time...?
  3685. >Wait.
  3686. >He means...!
  3687. >"What do you think will happen, if it's not a zebra you run into next time? What if it's... him?"
  3688. >That brings you pause.
  3689. >Him...
  3690. >("You should've stayed in your God-forsaken cell, you fucking cunt!")
  3691. >You shudder at the memory.
  3692. "I..."
  3693. >Damn it.
  3694. >He's not backing down.
  3695. "Fine. You win."
  3696. >Relief, happiness, and a twinge of something else radiates off of him.
  3697. >"Thank you."
  3698. >You finish the bandaging, and the rest of the trip back to the ziggurat proceeds in silence.
  3699. >The first thing you do, upon landing, is head back towards the hive, taking the sword with you.
  3700. >Ajay doesn't question the move, thankfully.
  3701. >He knows you heal better in there.
  3702. >Now, the storage chamber should be--
  3703. >`Princess! Intruder!`
  3704. >Intruder?
  3705. `Where?`
  3706. >`Storage chamber! Won't leave!`
  3707. >You summon a complement of armoured guards, and rush towards said chamber.
  3708. >Upon breaking through the door, you see--
  3709. >"Ahh, there you are. I had a feeling you'd come here first, liefling..."
  3710. >Oh, Foremothers, no!
  3711. >The very last zebra you wanted to see...!
  3712. "You."
  3713.  
  3714. @@@@@@@@
  3715.  
  3716. >Veldheer.
  3717. >Should have known he'd find a way to make this day worse!
  3718. >"Who else would it be, my dear?"
  3719. >Your eye twitches.
  3720. "What do you want?"
  3721. >He makes to say something, but stops upon noticing your chest wound.
  3722. >"That's quite the injury, Athalia. I hope you don't plan on healing it completely?"
  3723. "Excuse me?"
  3724. >"That carapace of yours would lend itself quite well to some scarring, after all..."
  3725. >I-is that his idea of a compliment...?!
  3726. "Not interested."
  3727. >"Oh, that's such a shame. I--"
  3728. "Enough! Tell me what you're here for!"
  3729. >His smile grows.
  3730. >"I'm here to talk, of course."
  3731. "You, talk?"
  3732. >That's rich!
  3733. >"Oh, yes. In private."
  3734. >What?
  3735. >"I could think of nowhere more private, than your home. Not a single outside ear here that isn't your own."
  3736. "And what exactly makes you think I'd want to talk with you? You, of all people?"
  3737. >"I'll be more than happy to tell you..."
  3738. >He shoots a sideways smirk at your guards.
  3739. >"Only once we're alone."
  3740. >You snort, this time from amusement.
  3741. "I don't know what's funnier. You being bold enough to try this, or you being stupid enough to think I'd actually talk to you alone!"
  3742. >"If you're trying to insult me, my dear, you'll have to do better than that."
  3743. "I've had enough. Get out of my hive."
  3744. >"No."
  3745. >That simple rejection, filled with confidence, brought another twitch to your eye.
  3746. >"I came here to talk to you alone, and that's precisely what I'm going to do. And I assure you, nothing will keep me from getting what I want."
  3747. >Killing intent, directed towards your guards, made itself known.
  3748.  
  3749. >Dirty little bastard...!
  3750. >Why does Incognito put up with him, again?
  3751. >Can't he just take control of the tribe for himself?
  3752. >Still...
  3753. >Veldheer isn't known to bluff.
  3754. >He probably would kill your guards, if it meant getting that time alone with you.
  3755. >Tch.
  3756. >"Well? Do you have anything to say?"
  3757. >Fine.
  3758. `Leave us. But be ready, in case he tries something.`
  3759. >`Y-yes, princess...`
  3760. >The guards slink away, leaving Veldheer...
  3761. >Surprised?
  3762. >"That's it? You're not going to fight against my demands?"
  3763. "I'm not in the mood for this. What do you want?"
  3764. >And if he tries making another pass at you, you're caving his skull in.
  3765. >He resumes smiling, walking a little closer to you.
  3766. >You tense up a little bit, watching him for any sudden movements.
  3767. >"I wanted to ask you a few things, my dear. One of these things concerns... Incognito's enemy."
  3768. "Lord Matthias."
  3769. >"He is no lord to me. Simply a fair-weather ally."
  3770. >You scowl in response.
  3771. >"Certainly a persuasive one, I'll grant him that much. But then, magicians are always like that, aren't they?"
  3772. "You have no idea about what he's done for us all."
  3773. >"And to tell you the truth, I could not care less. Once you've seen one schemer, you've seen them all."
  3774. >He only offers a sideways smile at your growling.
  3775. >"And it never ceases to amuse me, whenever their schemes topple so... dramatically."
  3776. "If I were you, I would stop talking."
  3777. >He just chuckles in response, his... attraction beginning to make itself known.
  3778. >"I do so love it when you get angry like that, Athalia."
  3779. "All right, that's enough! Tell me what you want, or get out!"
  3780.  
  3781. >He spends a few moments, looking at your furious expression, his attraction growing more and more.
  3782. >That disgusting eros love of his, wanes slightly... ludic.
  3783. >"Very well, my dear."
  3784. "Stop calling me that."
  3785. >"I shall call you whatever I desire, liefling."
  3786. >That little--!
  3787. >No.
  3788. >Don't say anything.
  3789. >He's not worth it.
  3790. >"Now... I wanted to know more about Incognito's vaunted little enemy."
  3791. "The princesses?"
  3792. >"No, my dear."
  3793. >He steps forward a little more, with barely restrained excitement.
  3794. >"Anonymous."
  3795. >Your breath hitches, and you take a step back.
  3796. >H-he wants to know about him...?!
  3797. >"You are afraid of him?"
  3798. >Strangely, there wasn't any mockery in his words or emotions, just genuine curiosity.
  3799. "You've never seen what he's capable of."
  3800. >"But you have, haven't you?"
  3801. "W-why are you asking me? Shouldn't you be--"
  3802. >"Asking them? Oh, believe me, I would love to. But neither him, nor my own shaman, wish to tell me of their battle with him. And that is very, very fascinating to me.
  3803. >"One as prideful as Incognito would never tell me of his defeat. And Zamara, well, she claims that her precious 'Ideal Masters' forbade her from discussing it.
  3804. >"That leaves only you, my dear. And if this Anonymous is anywhere near the threat I think he is, then you must have so much to tell about him..."
  3805. >His tone drips with intrigue, his desire to know more almost suffocating in it's intensity.
  3806. "Why do you want to know, so badly?"
  3807. >"Why wouldn't I want to know more about such a dangerous foe? One who inflicted that kind of damage to Incognito, and killed so many of my warriors?"
  3808.  
  3809. >Far from frowning at the mention of his warriors dying, he smiles even wider.
  3810. >"I have spent my entire life, fighting almost nothing but my own kind. To face an opponent like that, would be a true test of my skills!"
  3811. >This bucking zebra must have a death wish.
  3812. >Hmm...
  3813. >Maybe that could work...!
  3814. "Fine. You want to die so badly, then? I'll tell you."
  3815. >"I knew you would understand, my dear."
  3816. >Making sure to embellish his strengths, and downplay your defeats, you tell him about Anonymous.
  3817. >About his weapons, his powers, his allies, all of it.
  3818. >You half expected him to back down by the end of it, but if anything, he seemed to be getting more excited.
  3819. >"What a foe, indeed...! I only wish I could have faced him, myself!"
  3820. "Yeah, we could have used you."
  3821. >As a meat shield.
  3822. >"I am not 'used', my dear Athalia. I lead. His end will come at my behest, not anyone else's."
  3823. >Of course.
  3824. >"You have my thanks, for your... detailed description. Now, as for my other queries..."
  3825. >His attraction to you skyrockets, his love coming to the forefront.
  3826. >Oh, no, could he not...?!
  3827. >"Am I really that repulsive to you, Athalia?"
  3828. >Wh-- huh?
  3829. >That's not what you expected to hear!
  3830. >A-and there wasn't a hint of dejection!
  3831. >Shaking your head to help recover, you glare at him.
  3832. "Yes. Yes, you are."
  3833. >"I'm not surprised."
  3834. "Are you going somewhere with this?"
  3835. >He gets even closer, stopping a couple of hooves away from you.
  3836. >Whether that was intentional, or because of your snarling, wasn't really clear.
  3837. >"I never liked working with that Incognito, my dear."
  3838. "Tell me something I don't know."
  3839.  
  3840. >His smile becomes more thoughtful, yet still has that wolfish quality to it.
  3841. >"He is a fool. I know you hate hearing it, but it's the truth. The stock he places in those monsters of his, his reliance on that fell magic, and his near defeat, at the hands of your Anonymous?
  3842. >"His shortcomings are too many to count, and I have yet to gain any real rewards from his actions."
  3843. "We're in the middle of destroying Equestria, and you want to talk about rewards...?!"
  3844. >"We all want to be compensated for our efforts, liefling. I simply need more than the attentions of your master."
  3845. >You almost snap at him, right then and there.
  3846. >"I agreed to follow him to glory, in exchange for my ancestor's sword. In that time, my tribe has been made to move, the mares and shaman follow his orders more than mine, and my own warriors are beginning to turn to him."
  3847. >Good.
  3848. >"I don't care if Zabraxas's blade is powerful beyond measure. It is not enough. I know his scheme, Athalia, and I know that you know it, too. He intends to usurp me, to take my tribe for himself."
  3849. >Was it that obvious?
  3850. >"To be honest, I had been planning a coup for a number of weeks, now. Planning to tear him apart, make an example of him."
  3851. >You don't know why that shocks you to hear, but somehow it does.
  3852. "You did what...?!"
  3853. >"But given the recent change of circumstances, I think there may yet be a peaceful solution to this problem."
  3854. >All right, you've had enough!
  3855. >Your horn ignites, and he's wrenched off the ground, immobilized and with his face held only an inch from yours.
  3856.  
  3857. "Better idea. How about I just kill you right now, and take your little tribe for myself?"
  3858. >He only smiles wider, the slight ludic quality to his love slowly growing in strength.
  3859. >And...
  3860. >And why isn't he resisting you?
  3861. >"A very prudent call, my dear. Unfortunately for you, it's a call I have already accounted for.
  3862. >"The instant my warriors hear of my death, they have orders to kill and sabotage as much as they can, here."
  3863. >They WHAT?!
  3864. >"You'd all go into your grand battle, not only without my warriors, but with a large number of your own dead. And trust me, even with all your might, you won't be able to stand up to Heerser and his Kunstenaars, without them."
  3865. >Th-this...!
  3866. >Sneaky little bastard!
  3867. >He...
  3868. >He played you!
  3869. >"I'm sure you could just take my identity, but without knowledge of our battle rites, well..."
  3870. >Your scowl gives way to a defeated sigh.
  3871. >Damn it.
  3872. >You release him, letting him drop back to his hooves.
  3873. "You're smarter than you look."
  3874. >"I wouldn't be leading this long, if I wasn't. Still..."
  3875. >The ludus love swells just a little bit more.
  3876. >"I couldn't have asked for a better response."
  3877. >Wait, what?
  3878. "Wait. You wanted me to threaten you?"
  3879. >"Of course. You only ever know one's true desires, when they're willing to harm you over them."
  3880. >Th-that's...
  3881. >Strangely accurate...?
  3882. >But, wait.
  3883. "Why are you telling me all this?"
  3884. >"I told you already, my dear. The circumstances have changed."
  3885. "What circumstances?"
  3886. >Swiftly, he grabs hold of your hoof, bringing it up a scant inch away from his muzzle.
  3887. >"Your arrival here."
  3888.  
  3889. >You tense, ready to swat him away at the first sign of any wayward advances.
  3890. >But they don't come.
  3891. >"You are the only reason I have... paused my plans."
  3892. "Oh, give me a break. You paused your coup to try and get under my tail?!"
  3893. >"Initially."
  3894. >He didn't show it, but there was definitely a pang of shame.
  3895. "Initially? Please."
  3896. >"You don't believe me."
  3897. "I can sense every emotion you have. You're still trying to go for it."
  3898. >"What reasonable stallion wouldn't?"
  3899. >H-huh?
  3900. >"I meant what I said, back then. How the tales of the Shattered queens do the real thing no justice. My only regret from that meeting was placing such a beautiful creature in the same league as a common tail lifter."
  3901. >O-okay, what?
  3902. >He lets your hoof go, turning off to the side with a wistful look.
  3903. >"For years, I have had nothing but whores at my beck and call. Nearly worthless wastes of life, only valued for their youth, constantly vying for whatever scraps of influence fall from my table.
  3904. >"They are filth, Athalia. Dirt. And like dirt, their only use is to cultivate my seed, to give me new warriors."
  3905. >That was a mental image you could live without.
  3906. >"I could pick any one I wanted. Simply point a hoof in any direction, and there would be five of them, begging for my attentions. Pathetic.
  3907. >"None of them are useful for anything else. Not fighting, not foraging, not even worthy to join the ranks of the shaman. Stock, waiting for their chance to be used."
  3908. >The disgust radiating off of him was real enough.
  3909. >"But you."
  3910. >He looks back at you, his smile returning and the disgust vanishing.
  3911.  
  3912. >"When I pointed my hoof in your direction, you crushed it beneath you own. You rejected me. You still refused me, in spite of all my... signals."
  3913. >He calls those 'signals'...?!
  3914. >"I admit my shame, for thinking you a common whore. It was only after your return from slaying Zakarum's warband, covered in the stallion's blood, and your victories following that, that I realized the scope of my error."
  3915. >And then, he does something you never, in a million years, expected him to do.
  3916. >He bows.
  3917. >"I have brought shame upon you, Athalia. Undue disrespect to your warrior's spirit. For that, I am sorry."
  3918. >And then, he rises, closing his eyes and presenting his chest.
  3919. >"Mete out whatever penalty you believe I deserve."
  3920. >Y-you're...
  3921. >You're speechless.
  3922. >Veldheer, the single worst thing about returning to this place, is...
  3923. >Is apologizing!
  3924. >A-and he's--
  3925. >"Athalia. Do not restrain yourself. You and I both know I deserve this."
  3926. >You snap out of it, finally able to move again.
  3927. >And you do the only thing that makes sense.
  3928. >CRACK
  3929. >"Graaaah...!"
  3930. >You whirl in place, bucking him squarely in the chest.
  3931. >The 'crack' was definitely bones breaking, and the force sends him flying a little over a yard, where he lands in a heap.
  3932. >Looking down at him, you...
  3933. >Well...
  3934. >You're definitely confused, though not more than you are satisfied.
  3935. >"Th-there. Is that... satisfactory?"
  3936. >He drags himself back up, the bones on his chestplate shattered into pieces.
  3937. "It's a start."
  3938. >You definitely broke something underneath that armour, but he's doing a really good job of toughing it out.
  3939.  
  3940. >"You seem surprised."
  3941. "I am surprised."
  3942. >"Then I have more surprises in store for you, my dear."
  3943. >He once again reaches for your hoof, only this time, you let him bring it up.
  3944. >"You are a warrior, Athalia. No, more than that. A vicious predator, every bit as dangerous as you are beautiful."
  3945. "Now you try and flatter me?"
  3946. >"Flattery? Hardly. It is the truth."
  3947. >He pauses to cough, his injury clearly starting to affect him.
  3948. >"My peaceful solution, to this little coup of mine, is a simple request. I grow tired of fighting for Incognito, and so, I will no longer do so."
  3949. "What?!"
  3950. >"Instead, I will fight for you."
  3951. >You don't have long to stay shocked, the kiss he plants on your hoof breaking you from your stupor very quickly.
  3952. "Wh-what are you playing at?! You actually think I'll just let you cage me into being your little... trophy?!"
  3953. >Your renewed glare is punctuated by butting heads with him.
  3954. "I spent enough time, caged up and tortured by the damn ponies! I won't trade away my freedom for--"
  3955. >"I never said you would become my mate, liefling."
  3956. >Your retort dies in your throat.
  3957. >"My request is for a second chance."
  3958. >How this zebra continues to surprise you like this, you have no idea.
  3959. "A... second chance?"
  3960. >"Athalia, I just told you that you are a wicked, ravishing creature. Why would I ever wish to spinelessly entrap you within a contract, as a filthy, simpering pony would?
  3961. >"No, if you are to become my mate, it will be because I have earned that right. And so, I ask only for another chance, to begin anew with you."
  3962.  
  3963. >You scrutinize his face, checking in tandem with your senses to ensure that you heard that right.
  3964. >And yes, he's dead serious.
  3965. "You've got a lot of nerve, you know that?"
  3966. >"A necessary trait to possess."
  3967. "You realize that I'm going to reject you, right?"
  3968. >"I know. All things worth fighting for are always difficult."
  3969. "And if you don't get what you want, from me?"
  3970. >"You will find I am nothing, if not persistent."
  3971. "You didn't answer my question."
  3972. >"If we are truly not meant for one another, that will be the end of it. Me and my tribe will leave, without incident. But I don't believe I will need to leave, my dear.
  3973. >"If you can sense my emotions, as you say, then you must sense the true depth of my desire for you. I am willing to play this game for a very long time, Athalia."
  3974. >H-he's not wrong...
  3975. >His love, outside of getting even more ludic in make-up, was definitely strong enough to keep most ponies driven and determined for at least a month.
  3976. >Hay, his love veering towards ludus was the only reason you were even entertaining this!
  3977. >"Something as rare as you deserves nothing less. Now, do we have an accord?"
  3978. >You stare into his eyes, checking his emotions and intent as closely as you can.
  3979. >He's being completely honest with you about this.
  3980. >Well, you're...
  3981. >You're not left with a lot of choice, are you?
  3982. >Assuming he even accepts a 'no' answer, he'll just leave, robbing Incognito of a significant source of military power.
  3983. >Not to mention taking Zamara and the other alchemists with her.
  3984. >Damn it.
  3985. >The only comforting thing about this, was his absolute sincerity.
  3986.  
  3987. >You take a breath, and give him your answer.
  3988. "Let me make this perfectly clear to you. This is the only second chance you will get. You pull any moves on me, like you've done before, and I will hurt you.
  3989. "Try anything worse than that, and I'll show you precisely why changelings are feared across Equestria. And believe me, you'll wish you were dead, before I'm even halfway through with you."
  3990. >You press your forehead against his, staring straight into his eyes.
  3991. "Am I clear?"
  3992. >"Clear as the finest of blood rubies. I accept your terms."
  3993. >You pull back, and for the first time since seeing him, you smirk.
  3994. "Done."
  3995. >He has to fight the smile that comes along with the surge of happiness.
  3996. >"My warriors are yours, Athalia. Now, there is but one more thing I would ask of you."
  3997. >Judging from his intent and emotional mix, you're almost positive you know what he wants.
  3998. "Already planned the dinner date, have we?"
  3999. >"My dear, you've spent far too much time around ponies."
  4000. >Excitement and bloodlust alike begin to well up inside of him.
  4001. >"The killings of all those zebra tribes have not been a cynical test of loyalty, despite what your Incognito may believe. They have been friends, allies, and even paid mercenaries of the Kunstenaars, and their allies.
  4002. >"It's a shame about some of those mercenaries, such as the ones you just killed today. Perfectly honourable zebras, who simply chose poorly. But I'm certain you don't care about details like that."
  4003. >He leans in closer, his emotional cocktail akin to that of somepony asking another out on a date.
  4004.  
  4005. >"One final tribe remains, the Getroue Voogde, led by Brandwag. They have been the masterminds of all these raids upon our supply lines and scouting parties, and protect the same lines and parties for their close allies, the Kunstenaars.
  4006. >"Tomorrow, is when I shall launch the final offensive upon them. They have overextended and are weak, but will still be fierce enemies to contend with, especially Brandwag.
  4007. >"Athalia, I would ask that you join me in that battle. I would ask to fight beside you, to witness for myself the power and skill you possess."
  4008. >You blink a few times.
  4009. >Huh.
  4010. >So battle is his idea of... courtship?
  4011. >Well, it's certainly...
  4012. >Straightforward.
  4013. "That depends. Will killing them stop the attacks for good?"
  4014. >"With the masterminds slain, we will have weeks, before they can recover enough to launch more attacks."
  4015. >Weeks?
  4016. >Considering how there are raids daily, that would certainly be a welcome change!
  4017. "All right, Veldheer. Just know that I'll be taking my own forces, and some gryphons, to help."
  4018. >He sours slightly, at the mention of the gryphons.
  4019. >"Very well, my dear. But please, leave Brandwag to just the two of us. Consider him the... main event, shall we say?"
  4020. "I think I can do that."
  4021. >"Wonderful. I look forward to it, liefling."
  4022. >He plants one last kiss on your hoof, before releasing it.
  4023. >"Now, I believe I've taken enough of your time, Athalia. May you recover swiftly."
  4024. >And with that, he leaves.
  4025. >Sighing, you get back to your original goal: fixing your chitin.
  4026. >Damn it, Athalia.
  4027. >You hope you aren't making a huge mistake with him.
  4028. <...
  4029.  
  4030. @@@@@@@@
  4031.  
  4032. >>"Get up."
  4033. >>You lie motionless, hoping beyond hope that he'll leave you alone.
  4034. >>"Human, I will not ask you again."
  4035. >>Just stay still.
  4036. >>He can't--
  4037. >>KRACK
  4038. >"Aaaaagh!"
  4039. >>Oh God oh God--
  4040. >>KRACK
  4041. >>You cry out again, as the birch rod strikes your back.
  4042. >>KRACK
  4043. >>Tears sting your eyes, as the ape monster's punishment continues.
  4044. >>It's always the same, each time.
  4045. >>KRACK
  4046. >"Gaaah!"
  4047. >>Ten strikes.
  4048. >>The only thing you can do now is cower and wait it out.
  4049. >>KRACK
  4050. >>You try unsuccessfully to stifle your outcry.
  4051. >>KRACK
  4052. >>Another 'KRACK' sounds off in the distance, a different cry making itself known, and drawing your attention.
  4053. >>KRACK
  4054. >>You grit your teeth, and listen in:
  4055. >>"P-please stop!"
  4056. >>He gets another 'KRACK' for his efforts.
  4057. >>KRACK
  4058. >>"Anything! I'll do ah-hanything! Plea-he-heeease--"
  4059. >>His cries only intensify with another 'KRACK'.
  4060. >>Poor bastard.
  4061. >>KRACK
  4062. >>His cries fall on deaf ears.
  4063. >>He'll end up like the others, won't he?
  4064. >>Cut open and 'harvested', when he stops being entertaining?
  4065. >>KRACK
  4066. >>That final strike was the hardest, an anguished groan leaving your throat upon receiving it.
  4067. >>"Quite the glutton for punishment, aren't we?"
  4068. >>Your thoughts go towards all the other people they've gone through.
  4069. >>Your trembling hands ball up into fists.
  4070. >>"Give me another reason to punish you, human."
  4071. >>You shakily rise to your feet, turning to face the monkey-man.
  4072. >>"Well, well. Looks like--"
  4073. >>His remark was interrupted by the spitball you launched into his eye.
  4074. >"Get fucked."
  4075. >>The thing loses it's shit, pulling back to punch you in the gut.
  4076. >>THWACK
  4077.  
  4078. "Gaaaah!"
  4079. >You bolt upright, clutching your stomach, sweating and panting.
  4080. >Your eyes dart around the bright, unfamiliar area in a panic, trying desperately to find a bearing of some kind.
  4081. >As the moments zip by, you start to recognize the sight before you.
  4082. >A sight you've seen all too often.
  4083. >Clean, white room, with privacy curtains.
  4084. >A bed with a raised backrest.
  4085. >The hospital.
  4086. >More specifically, the Canterlot hospital.
  4087. >Safe.
  4088. >You're safe.
  4089. >Get it together.
  4090. >You close your eyes, and focus on getting your breathing back under control.
  4091. >Before long, your fists unclench, and you let go of your stomach.
  4092. >God, that punch, it...
  4093. >No.
  4094. >Relax, Anon.
  4095. >It was just a stupid dream.
  4096. >There's no birch rods, no cages, no monkey-men, and no gut punches.
  4097. >You were just having a nightmare.
  4098. >Chill.
  4099. >You're at the tail end of getting your breathing back in order, when you hear the door opening.
  4100. >"Anon? Anon, was that you?"
  4101. "D-doc...?"
  4102. >The curtains slide to the side, revealing none other than the good Doc Valiant, himself.
  4103. >Boy, is he a sight for sore eyes.
  4104. >"Oh, thank goodness, you're all right. You had me worried there, with that yelling."
  4105. "Y-yelling? I yelled?"
  4106. >"That you did. Now, how are you feeling?"
  4107. "I..."
  4108. >Huh.
  4109. "Fine, actually."
  4110. >"That's just what I wanted to hear."
  4111. "Wish I could say the same for the dreams..."
  4112. >Wait a minute...!
  4113. "How long was I...?"
  4114. >"Just a day. You really wore yourself out."
  4115. "Really? What'd I do, this time?"
  4116. >"Well, Anon, I... was hoping you could tell us. You're not known for, well, just passing out like that."
  4117.  
  4118. "Uhh, doc, pretty sure I pass out every other fight."
  4119. >"Only after sustaining serious damage, and in those instances, I can hardly blame you for losing consciousness. This time, however, you seem to have knocked yourself out."
  4120. "Myself...?"
  4121. >The hell is that supposed to...
  4122. >Hold up.
  4123. >The... base, right?
  4124. >Yeah, you were...
  4125. >Fuck, yeah, that's right!
  4126. >You were kicking their asses!
  4127. >Let's see, there was the healing, the book raid, the elevator ride.
  4128. >The elevator ride...
  4129. >A shudder runs through you, at the memory of the pony you found down there.
  4130. >"Is something the matter?"
  4131. "No, uh, I'm fine."
  4132. >But that wasn't what laid you out, was it?
  4133. >Th-the...
  4134. >The temple.
  4135. >(The stone doors grating along the floor, as they close.)
  4136. >The operating tables.
  4137. >(The sound of metal clattering, as they feel for the right knives.)
  4138. >The cages.
  4139. >(click)
  4140. >"Anon?"
  4141. >The cell.
  4142. >("Get up, human.")
  4143. >The stone tablet.
  4144. >("One, the blade striking from the front. The other, the dagger from behind.")
  4145. >"Anon?"
  4146. "Huwhat--?!"
  4147. >You flinch as the world snaps back into focus, the doctor now much closer, and in the middle of reaching towards you.
  4148. >He recoils, but doesn't pull back his leg.
  4149. >"Anon, are you all right...?"
  4150. "I..."
  4151. >You notice your hands are shaking.
  4152. "I-I don't know, doc."
  4153. >"Would you be willing to talk about it?"
  4154. "S-sure, just..."
  4155. >You take another breath and get your hands stable again, and when you look back up, the doctor's got a glass of water on standby.
  4156. >"Take your time."
  4157. >Thanking the good doctor, you down the water.
  4158. >You finish it off just as someone starts knocking on the door.
  4159.  
  4160. >"One moment, Anon."
  4161. >You nod, as he heads off through the curtains and towards the door, opening it in short order.
  4162. >"Yes? Ah, your majesties, your timing couldn't be better!"
  4163. >That was when Twilight was heard speaking up:
  4164. >"I-is he awake?"
  4165. >"He most certainly is. Just woke up a few minutes ago, in fact."
  4166. >She was the first to barrel on through, lighting up upon seeing you.
  4167. >"Anon!"
  4168. "Hey there."
  4169. >She doesn't waste any time, taking flight, landing on your bed, and hugging you.
  4170. >A gesture you're only too happy to return.
  4171. >"Ohmygosh, you're okay!"
  4172. >"I am pleased to see you doing well, dearest Anon."
  4173. >Ah, there's Luna.
  4174. >She walks up to your bedside, and Twilight shifts around just enough to let one of your arms free, letting you reach out and begin the scratching.
  4175. >"Ahh... how was your rest?"
  4176. "It, uh, could've been better, won't lie."
  4177. >"Well, if nothing else, you still have your health."
  4178. "True."
  4179. >You let go of Twilight, and instead start giving her some ear treatment, too.
  4180. >Sadly, the two of them only get to enjoy it for a few moments, before the doctor cleared his throat.
  4181. >"Anon, I apologize for interrupting you, but my first few questions are rather time sensitive."
  4182. >There's no helping the sigh that leaves you.
  4183. "All right, doc. Go ahead."
  4184. >Your scratching ceases, with Luna turning to face the doctor, and Twilight choosing to lie next to you, still holding on.
  4185. >"Now, Anon, before I ask you about what you found, I'd like to ask you about your sleep. You said that you had a bad dream, yes?"
  4186. "Yeah?"
  4187. >"So, do you remember this dream you had?"
  4188.  
  4189. >(KRACK)
  4190. >You quail a little.
  4191. "I wish I didn't..."
  4192. >"Is it anything you wish to discuss?"
  4193. "It was... pretty intense. I swear, I could feel the rods..."
  4194. >"Rods?"
  4195. >A hand goes to your back, rubbing the spot where you'd felt them.
  4196. "Birch rods. S-something was..."
  4197. >(KRACK)
  4198. >Your shudder doesn't last very long, with Twilight tightening her hold, and placing her hoof in your hand.
  4199. >Funny, her doing that almost seemed to banish the pain you 'felt'.
  4200. >"I'm sorry, I didn't realize it was quite that... visceral."
  4201. >Squeezing her hoof, you look back up to the doctor.
  4202. "No worries, doc."
  4203. >"Still, it is a departure from what is normal for you."
  4204. "Yeah, no kidding."
  4205. >"Not the content of the dreams, Anon, but the fact that you remembered it, at all."
  4206. >That you...?
  4207. >Wait.
  4208. >Holy shit, he's right.
  4209. >You do remember it!
  4210. >"Perhaps you can tell me what you found inside of that 'temple', if you'd prefer?"
  4211. >The temple...
  4212. "I..."
  4213. >You swallow dry, and begin recounting what you found.
  4214. >The creepy door, the total darkness, the tables, the cages, the statues.
  4215. >The mention of the stick-collar things is a particularly unpleasant one.
  4216. >"Anon, before you move on, there is something I'm curious about."
  4217. "Y-yeah?"
  4218. >"How is it that you know what some of these objects are? The tables and collars, in particular, you seem to have some foreknowledge of, given the... detail of your description."
  4219. >One of Luna's hooves, with the shoe removed, reaches for you, and you're quick to scoop it up in your other hand.
  4220. "It's the weirdest thing, doc. That was my first time ever seeing the place, but..."
  4221.  
  4222. >Both your hands tighten their holds.
  4223. "I know it's impossible, but I swear, it felt like... like I'd been there, before."
  4224. >"You mean, you remember it?"
  4225. "Doc, how can I remember a place I've never been to?"
  4226. >"But you felt as if you were there before, yes?"
  4227. "I... y-yeah."
  4228. >God, you're so confused right now.
  4229. >"And these memories, they were unpleasant?"
  4230. "All of them."
  4231. >You're so damn thankful these two are here, right now.
  4232. >"Anon, I am going to go out on a limb, and say that this dream you had took place within this temple. Is that accurate?"
  4233. "I..."
  4234. >How'd he...?
  4235. "Yeah. Th-the same cage, the same monster."
  4236. >"I'd feared as much."
  4237. "Doc...?"
  4238. >"I've seen this kind of phenomenon before, while treating soldiers. I believe these memories you have are, in fact, real."
  4239. "What? How?"
  4240. >"This has all the hallmarks of memory repression and suppression. Given their traumatic nature, I am more inclined to believe it is repression."
  4241. >Repressed memories...?
  4242. "Doc, how's that possible? I've never been there, before!"
  4243. >"You don't sound very sure about that."
  4244. "I just..."
  4245. >You look down at your now empty, shaking hands.
  4246. >This isn't right, though!
  4247. >Repressed memories, fuck off.
  4248. >That's just a shitty plot device used in movies!
  4249. >But...
  4250. >Even the fragments floating around in your head are all so... vivid.
  4251. >The beatings, the cages, the other humans, the monsters, they all seemed so... real!
  4252. >But wait, you can't have been to that hellhole, before!
  4253. >That's impossible!
  4254. >I-is it...?
  4255. >A-are you losing it?
  4256. >Everything seems to make less and less sense, the more you think on this.
  4257.  
  4258. >"Anon, please look at me."
  4259. >You look up, and see Twilight there, sat in your lap and holding both your hands.
  4260. >"You're okay. Whatever was there can't hurt you, anymore."
  4261. >You can't even muster up words right now, but thankfully, you don't have to.
  4262. >She closes the distance for another hug.
  4263. >It takes you a moment to reciprocate, but when you do, your hold on her is much tighter than usual.
  4264. >Her familiar softness, warmth, scent, her gentle nuzzles to the neck, and more...
  4265. >It calmed and relaxed in ways you can't even put words to, and you just hold on, craving that stability she offers.
  4266. >You're okay.
  4267. >You're okay.
  4268. >"Doctor, is there any means by which I could reach into his dreams?"
  4269. >"A magical method won't work, given his nature. An alchemic one, perhaps, but you'd need a far more knowledgeable alchemist than the ones here to make something like that."
  4270. >"I see..."
  4271. >"You'd likely have to find a Zebrican alchemist, to find a solution there. I'm sorry, princess."
  4272. >Zebrican...!
  4273. >Now anchored back in reality, you pull back just enough to look over at Luna and the doctor.
  4274. "The stuff I pulled from the temple, is it...?"
  4275. >Luna looks to Twilight, some unspoken exchange happening between them, before she looks to you.
  4276. >"Yes, they were. The book you found was very useful. Once my sister's scouts have verified the information, we will be that much closer to ending this."
  4277. >Yes...!
  4278. >"That's all the questions I had for now, Anon. Take all the time you need."
  4279. "Thanks, doc."
  4280. >Once the doctor left, Luna hopped up to hug you, too.
  4281. >You feel like the luckiest man alive, right now.
  4282. <...
  4283.  
  4284. >"The princess will see you now, mister Anon."
  4285. "Thanks."
  4286. >The two Invictus guards salute you, and pull open the doors to Celestia's room in the castle.
  4287. >Instantly, you notice the similarities to Luna's, in that it's like it's own self-contained mansion, with a big entrance hall and waiting area, the fountain, the staircase leading to a bedroom, and some side doors.
  4288. >Only everything was sun-themed, and with a whole lot more gold.
  4289. >You step inside, and double-check the time on the clock in here.
  4290. >Nine-forty at night.
  4291. >Yeah, no way you were getting any work done, today, though God knows you tried.
  4292. >Neither Luna nor Twilight would let you.
  4293. >Still, after everything that's happened, you can't say you didn't appreciate staying with them for a while, just enjoying their company.
  4294. >Hell, they almost brought food in for you, until they realized you could walk just fine.
  4295. >One hell of a dinner they ordered for you, gotta say...
  4296. >Still, the two of them seemed really... cooperative, even despite the whole 'fighting for your heart' thing.
  4297. >The whole time, you were half expecting to have them start fighting with each other, over who got to hug you more, or sneaking in a kiss, or something like that.
  4298. >But they didn't.
  4299. >You want to think it's that talk you had with them, still holding up, but the wiser part of your brain, as atrophied as it is, is telling you that something else is up.
  4300. >Whatever it is, however, will have to wait.
  4301. >You hear the sound of talking up above, in her bedroom.
  4302. >Naturally, you start making your way up the steps, towards the source.
  4303.  
  4304. >"My scouts only just left this morning. It will be perhaps another day or two, before we can get confirmation."
  4305. >"And then what?"
  4306. >That second voice, talking to Celestia, belonged to Chrysalis...!
  4307. >"We make every effort to stop him, of course."
  4308. >"You mean, he'll make every effort to stop him?"
  4309. >"This again? Before you left, you had absolute confidence in his abilities. What's changed?"
  4310. >"You weren't there, 'princess'. You didn't see him running for his life out of that forsaken place."
  4311. >"I have been to many of these forsaken places before. What lay within some of them sent much braver than him running for their lives, too."
  4312. >"You say that as if that's supposed to make me feel better!"
  4313. >"If you won't listen to my reasoning, perhaps you'll listen to his?"
  4314. >The doors to her room are floated open, showing both royals sitting around a little round table.
  4315. "Uh, hi. This a bad time?"
  4316. >"Not at all, Anon. I've been expecting you. Please, have a seat."
  4317. >Well, she's certainly welcoming, at least.
  4318. >Chrysalis, not so much.
  4319. >"Been enjoying yourself today, 'hero'?"
  4320. "What's that supposed to mean?"
  4321. >"There's enough love clinging to your clothes to feed five changelings."
  4322. >She snorts.
  4323. >"No doubt for your heroic fainting act."
  4324. >Oh, so it's exactly like you overheard, then.
  4325. "You know, I seem to recall you cowering at the door to the place."
  4326. >"Wh-- You little...!"
  4327. "Hey, whenever you want to step down into big, spooky mon'keigh temples full of traps and dead shit, you just let me know. Until then, can it."
  4328. >She glowers at you, while you take your seat.
  4329.  
  4330. >"Anon, how did you know the temple was mon'keigh?"
  4331. >Oh, shit.
  4332. "Well, uh, Exact said it looked like one."
  4333. >"I see. I'm sorry you had to enter such a terrible place."
  4334. "If you don't mind my asking, what the hell is a mon'keigh, anyways?"
  4335. >"A race of tall, four-armed bipedal apes, not all that dissimilar in appearance from you, in fact. But their appearance is the only thing they have somewhat in common with you.
  4336. >"They were an intelligent, evil, and conniving race, with almost no exception. Cruel, almost to the point of absurdity, and unafraid to wield the dark arts, even against their own people.
  4337. >"In fact, the dark arts is the very reason why they became such a danger, to begin with."
  4338. "They 'were' an evil race?"
  4339. >"We were forced to wipe them out, thousands of years ago. I hate that we had to do it, but they left us no choice."
  4340. >Shit...!
  4341. >"But I must know, did you find any of their kind, within the temple?"
  4342. >Ohh, boy.
  4343. "Yeah, with catalysts and everything, but they were all long dead, and decomposing."
  4344. >"Decomposing...? You're sure?"
  4345. "Yeah. Why?"
  4346. >"None have been seen since their extinction. But from your description, those ones have been dead for only a few years."
  4347. >Uh-oh.
  4348. >"Damn it, so some of them had escaped, after all...!"
  4349. >She needs a moment to break out of the melancholy.
  4350. >"Anon, I need to know if you found anything significant within that goddess-forsaken place."
  4351. "Significant...?"
  4352. >"Mon'keigh are incorrigible schemers, always working towards some grandiose goal. If you saw anything that could point towards some dark plan of theirs, I need to know."
  4353.  
  4354. >Yeah, you did see something like that.
  4355. >The tablet.
  4356. "I think I know what you're talking about. You have any paper?"
  4357. >A large sheet of paper, with pencils and charcoal, are teleported onto the table by her.
  4358. >"Don't spare any detail, please. Their kind loves to hide their true motives within the details."
  4359. >You get to work, drawing out what you saw on the tablet, to the best of your ability, only skimping on repeating elements.
  4360. >It takes a while, but it at least goes by without interruption.
  4361. >You turn the sheet around towards her.
  4362. "I left out a lot of the ponies and the mind-controlled guys, but I got all the different species down."
  4363. >She reads the sheet very carefully, staying dead silent the whole time.
  4364. >Chrysalis's talking notwithstanding.
  4365. >"Dead ape monsters and murals can't have been the only thing you saw down there."
  4366. "It wasn't. The place was set up like a multi-storey torture chamber."
  4367. >"Incognito had a torture chamber, too. That doesn't explain why you ran out of the place like a frightened child."
  4368. "Hey, what the hell's your problem?"
  4369. >Her retort was cut off by Celestia, looking up from the paper.
  4370. >"This is definitely a plan."
  4371. "Huh?"
  4372. >"Their plans were often laid out in this artistic style. Apparently, they wanted revenge for what I did, and sought to destroy both me, and all of my subjects."
  4373. >"Can't imagine why."
  4374. >Is it bad that she kind of has a point, with the whole 'genocide' thing?
  4375. >"They didn't have the power to do it themselves, however, so they wanted to enlist others to do it, for them."
  4376. "By 'enlist', you mean 'enslave'?"
  4377. >"Very much so."
  4378.  
  4379. >She flips the paper around, pointing to places on the mural with a floating pencil.
  4380. >"This central symbol is fairly self-explanatory. However..."
  4381. >She points to the stabbed, burning heart.
  4382. >"Mon'keigh often used hearts to symbolize their targets and opponents, indicative of their desire to control and break those who they saw as their lessers. Striking at the heart, as it were.
  4383. >"This is meant to symbolize absolute destruction. The blades, cutting their opponents down, and the flames ensuring they never rise again."
  4384. >The pencil points to the other heart symbol.
  4385. >"This one, however, symbolizes total corruption. The sprout indicates something beneath notice, or beyond question, and the roots show just how deeply this corruption spreads.
  4386. >"And from the connections between this symbol, and all these other races, it was clear they intended this corruption to result in widespread revolt, in betrayal."
  4387. >She sets it down, looking far more concerned.
  4388. >"That cannot be coincidence. The prophecy had the same meaning. But mon'keigh cannot wield prophetic magic, so how could...?
  4389. >"I... I will need to think on this. Thank you for sharing this with me, but I'm afraid I must ask you both to leave."
  4390. >"Finally."
  4391. "Uh, sure. You're welcome...?"
  4392. >She's too lost in thought to manage more than a nod.
  4393. >But after you two head down and towards the exit, Chrysalis stops you.
  4394. >"I'm putting my trust, my child's life, in your hands. And you panicked because of some dead apes."
  4395. >She brushes past you.
  4396. >"That is my problem, Anonymous."
  4397. >She's out the door before you can respond.
  4398. <...
  4399.  
  4400. @@@@@@@@
  4401.  
  4402. >"It is a beautiful weapon, is it not?"
  4403. >You give the strange black sword a few experimental swings.
  4404. "All I know, is that it's one of the first things that's hurt me, out here."
  4405. >"Yes, it's been known to cleave through bone without effort."
  4406. >You levitate a small block of wood, and try swiping the sword at it.
  4407. >To your surprise, the blade isn't even slowed down, as it cuts the block in two.
  4408. >"Glaswoede is it's name, my dear. The blade cuts beautifully, but alas, is easily damaged."
  4409. "Sure feels like it's made of glass."
  4410. >"I don't know the specifics myself, only it's capabilities."
  4411. >As another test, you levitate a spare armour plate, and try swiping at that.
  4412. >This time, the blade digs halfway into the plate before stopping dead, the sound of glass cracking heard when it stops.
  4413. >Pulling it back out, you notice a spiderweb crack, where the blade met the metal.
  4414. >Hmm...
  4415. >You funnel a little bit of magic into the sword, and when it starts to absorb the power, you increase the amount it gets.
  4416. >The crack on the sword begins to knit itself together, almost like it's breaking in reverse.
  4417. >Before long, it's back to normal.
  4418. >"You can repair it? How did you know that?"
  4419. "I didn't."
  4420. >Satisfied with the results, you return it to it's sheath, strapped to your side.
  4421. >So, perfect against flesh and bone, which is all most zebra armour is made up of.
  4422. >Breaks quickly against metals, including pony and gryphon armour.
  4423. >It might be useful against the zebras, but against ponies and Anonymous, you don't see it being too helpful.
  4424. >"Well, I suppose magicians have an instinct for that."
  4425.  
  4426. >The chariot hits a little bit of turbulence, rocking around slightly.
  4427. >Now, you don't much mind that he wanted to fly to his target, but what you did mind was him flying in the dead of night.
  4428. >It was almost impossible for you to see anything out there, meaning you had to rely on your empathetic senses.
  4429. >So far, all you've sensed is Veldheer, Ajay, and the others in the chariots.
  4430. >The random fauna down on the ground hardly count.
  4431. >Damn desert.
  4432. >No, desert's not really accurate.
  4433. >You've heard about Zebrica's disjointed terrain, but here, you really got to see the full extent of it's almost non-sensical variety.
  4434. >Deserts, savannahs, even little palm groves and the occasional oasis, appeared in either large stretches of the former two in natural patterns, or marbled patterns of most, if not all, of those biomes, far too tightly knit to be natural.
  4435. >Something was very wrong with this place, but honestly, you were in no position to care.
  4436. >Right now, destroying this one tribe was the only thing that mattered.
  4437. >You can barely see Ajay, perched over in another nearby chariot, but from what you're sensing, he's been looking at you this whole time.
  4438. >He's worried about you.
  4439. >That's nothing new, but ever since your return, he's been a lot more overt about it, trying to protect and help you at every turn.
  4440. >Many times, it crosses over from helpful to annoying.
  4441. >This time, however, with his distrust of Veldheer front and center, you certainly can't blame him for being cautious.
  4442. >Veldheer still has a lot to prove to you, before you're willing to trust him.
  4443.  
  4444. >"We're getting closer. Land down over there, in the clearing."
  4445. >With only the zebras having really good night vision, they began ordering the other chariot flyers to descend to what you can only assume is your destination.
  4446. >Leaves are heard rustling as the chariots set down, everything still being pitch black.
  4447. >"Brandwag had his tribe establish a main camp within this chaotic patch of land, using this dense ring of trees as a natural barricade against outside tribes."
  4448. >His joy and bloodlust grow in intensity.
  4449. >"Let's see how they handle their precious barricade being infiltrated from within."
  4450. >He leaps down off of the chariot, a large, curved sword sheathed across his back.
  4451. >The same sword that Incognito gave him, when he first met Veldheer.
  4452. >And there was definitely magic coming off of it, but what it did was still a mystery to you.
  4453. >"Come, Athalia. Your kind are well protected against the insects and snakes, but we are not so fortunate."
  4454. >Right, right.
  4455. >You leap down yourself, with Veldheer closing in by your side, a move that certainly doesn't escape your notice.
  4456. >"Shall we proceed?"
  4457. "Let's just get this over with."
  4458. >"As you wish."
  4459. >He barks something back in his language, then tells the others to keep quiet.
  4460. >Works for you.
  4461. >You begin your trek into the dense trees, following Veldheer's lead.
  4462. >Everyone stayed as quiet as they could, the sound of the insects acting as halfway decent cover for the steps your group makes.
  4463. >If only the pools of water weren't there, too...
  4464. >Still, it doesn't concern you all that much.
  4465. >If there were zebras here, you'd know--
  4466.  
  4467. >Wait...!
  4468. >Up ahead, you can sense them!
  4469. "Stop."
  4470. >"Hm? What is it?"
  4471. "They're up ahead. I can sense them."
  4472. >"You can sense them? Ohh, how fortunate! How far are they?"
  4473. >You focus more on the presences up ahead.
  4474. "Not far. A few dozen yards. They're also... in the middle of a patrol."
  4475. >"I see. I didn't realize your senses extended that far."
  4476. >He certainly did a good job at hiding his love, increasing in intensity.
  4477. >"If you can navigate around them, we may be able to prolong our advantage of surprise."
  4478. "Shouldn't be tough. You'll just have to lead us through the darkness."
  4479. >"Of course. Let's not idle any further, then."
  4480. >He resumes his course, only this time with you walking beside him.
  4481. >The closer you got, the more Getroue zebras you detected, inside the forest.
  4482. >There were more than you expected, and at one point, you could make out a clear semicircle pattern, where they patrolled along.
  4483. >That must be the forest ring Veldheer was talking about.
  4484. >Still, you stop the entire group in many instances, allowing patrols to pass by safely.
  4485. >At one point, a patrol threatened to box your group in, forcing you to send some changelings to distract them.
  4486. >Eventually, however, the group breaks out of the forest ring, and a cluster of lights was visible in the middle of the new opening.
  4487. >That certainly looked like a village to you.
  4488. >"We will need to keep low and stay within the tall grasses, lest the patrolling guards see us in the open field."
  4489. "What are we waiting for, then?"
  4490. >The two of you give a signal, and the group runs out into the field, towards some very tall grass.
  4491.  
  4492. >Nobody was spotted, if your senses were right.
  4493. >Good.
  4494. >Thus began the slow trek towards the village lights, crawling through the grasses, trying not to disturb it too much.
  4495. >As much as your changelings wanted to use magic to speed it up, you forbade them.
  4496. >In this darkness, the light would attract too much attention.
  4497. >The trek goes on and on, but eventually, you reach the edge of the grass fields, perched a few yards away from the encampment.
  4498. >As you expected, it was mostly tents, with faintly magical lanterns hanging around, likely alchemical.
  4499. >Most of the presences you sensed were asleep, still in the tents, but there were a scant few guards patrolling around.
  4500. >And a few you could sense operating a few large weapons, of some kind.
  4501. >"We will strike quickly and quietly. Our only goal is to reach Brandwag uninterrupted. What happens after that, well..."
  4502. >There's the bloodlust you expected.
  4503. >But you have a more elegant solution, than marauding through the camp.
  4504. "I have a better idea."
  4505. >"Do you? And what is that?"
  4506. >You smirk.
  4507. "Forgotten what you're talking to, already?"
  4508. >Now he gets it.
  4509. >"I see...! Well, this is your field of expertise, Athalia. Do as you will."
  4510. "Thank you."
  4511. >You turn back to your changelings.
  4512. `Replace the guards. Do not be seen. Report back once you are done.`
  4513. >They've been looking forward to something like this, for a very long time.
  4514. >They buzz into the air, their black carapace letting them blend into the pitch black sky.
  4515. "Now, Veldheer, we sit back and wait."
  4516. >You can sense he's uneasy about you just sending them all off, like that.
  4517.  
  4518. >His reassurances will come soon enough, however.
  4519. >One by one, you sense the guards being lured off, knocked out, bound, and replaced by your changelings.
  4520. >They work with inborn, practiced ease, and in a few minutes, their job is complete.
  4521. >A pair of the 'guards' approach your group, and you can sense Veldheer tense at their presence.
  4522. >A hoof placed on his withers stops him from attacking, however, and the smirk never leaves your face.
  4523. >The two 'guards' smirk, and then drop into bows.
  4524. >"Mission accomplished, princess."
  4525. "Thank you."
  4526. >Veldheer didn't need to splutter, for you to know he was surprised.
  4527. "Now, find us some empty tents, close to Brandwag's. I think everyone deserves to get out of this grass, and somewhere more... advantageous."
  4528. >They bow, and head back to do just that.
  4529. >"You mean to sneak everyzebra inside?"
  4530. "That's right. When the real guards are attracted by the fight, the false ones will try to wave them off. Failing that, we'll be in the perfect position to ambush the would-be ambushers."
  4531. >He's stunned, and more than a little bit lovestruck.
  4532. >"You are more devious than I thought, Athalia..."
  4533. "I'm a changeling. It's what we do."
  4534. >Ahh, pride mixed with another's affections...
  4535. >You'll just... indulge in the cocktail for a moment.
  4536. >Ah, there's your 'guards', again.
  4537. >"Princess, we've secured the tents."
  4538. "Good."
  4539. >"The guards were also operating ballistae in this camp, made to target the air."
  4540. >"Yes, hence why I had us approach this way."
  4541. "I see. Disable them."
  4542. >You have another idea.
  4543. >"Disable them? What for, Athalia?"
  4544.  
  4545. "With them disabled, we can use the chariots to quickly escape, even if they regain control of them."
  4546. >"I see. Though you must know I have no intention of escaping."
  4547. >Of course not.
  4548. >But it's insurance, all the same.
  4549. >"Your subterfuge has impressed me. But I can wait no longer. Let us end Brandwag and his tribe, quickly!"
  4550. >My, my, someone's getting anxious.
  4551. >Wonder if he's ever had to wait this long, before?
  4552. "We'll get there, I promise. Now, you two, please lead the others to their positions."
  4553. >Veldheer says something in his language, presumably something about following the drones.
  4554. >Most of the gryphons and zebras follow those two quietly into the camp, but some, including Ajay, stay behind in the grass.
  4555. >"Now, can we leave?"
  4556. "Of course. Let's get this over with."
  4557. >It's been so long, since you'd properly infiltrated like this...!
  4558. >You have to admit, it's gotten you rather excited!
  4559. >Now, all you have to do--
  4560. >Talons grasp your withers, making you turn around.
  4561. >There was Ajay, worry written all over his face and emotions.
  4562. >"Be careful, please."
  4563. >Your smirk falls for a moment, before it returns.
  4564. "Don't worry. We'll be fine."
  4565. >It must have been your confidence, that made him accept your words, this time.
  4566. >He lets you go with a small nod, allowing you to walk through the camp, Veldheer by your side.
  4567. >Your didn't even need your senses, to find the big, decorated tent in the middle of the camp.
  4568. >The guards outside of it were yours, but not the ones inside.
  4569. >Well, everyone's in place now, anyways.
  4570. >Time to pull back the curtain.
  4571.  
  4572. >Your magic opens the tent flap, allowing you two to step inside.
  4573. >Since you're already using your magic, you thread some mind-affecting magic into the tent as you go, touching the guards within.
  4574. >They fall under your sway easily, and you place a hoof on Veldheer again, to keep him from attacking right away.
  4575. "Not yet."
  4576. >"You and your waiting...!"
  4577. "Just saving our strength for the 'main event', as you called it."
  4578. >His patience is tested, but his affections are keeping him from brushing you off.
  4579. >So, this is his limit, then?
  4580. >Good to know.
  4581. >With the guards numb to the world around them, you can proceed in peace, towards a small, lantern-strung gazebo in the middle, where several zebras are arguing in their language.
  4582. >You let go of Veldheer's back.
  4583. "Go ahead."
  4584. >A small growl leaves, him, bloodlust and joy flaring strongly, before he charges forward.
  4585. >In one motion, he unsheathes the sword on his back with his teeth, the blade igniting with magic.
  4586. >Your horn charges, and you loose multiple magic bolts, at the same time he cleaves through the tent.
  4587. >The bolts strike the dazed guards, killing them instantly.
  4588. >Veldheer's strike, however, generates a crimson-flecked dark purple energy blade, firing out like a projectile, and ending more lives in the gazebo than just his wide slash did.
  4589. >You were hoping it would be more silent, though.
  4590. >The loud 'VRUUMMM' it created definitely alerted the camp.
  4591. >Leaping back from the gazebo, however, was a large zebra, clad in some kind of banded plate mail, unslinging an enchanted voulge.
  4592.  
  4593. >Surprise and alarm suffused his emotions, but when Veldheer came out, wearing a savage grin, it morphed to realization, followed by hatred.
  4594. >They bark something in their languages to each other, and the exchange is only pleasant for Veldheer.
  4595. >His hoof tilts to you at one point, however.
  4596. >"My companion does not know our tongue, Brandwag. Do be courteous, will you?"
  4597. >He jumps back in surprise upon seeing you, disgust being the primary reaction.
  4598. >Can't say you didn't expect that.
  4599. >"Who-- what are you, creature?!"
  4600. "That wasn't very nice."
  4601. >You walk closer, your smirk on full display.
  4602. "But I'll let it slide. Brandwag, was it?"
  4603. >He slashes in your direction with the voulge, trying to ward you off.
  4604. >It doesn't work.
  4605. "I'm Athalia. I've come to kill you, and destroy your entire tribe."
  4606. >You can sense his warriors advancing towards the encampment, alarmed at the noise.
  4607. >Brandwag's eyes dart around, fixing on his dead allies.
  4608. "Don't bother. Your friends won't be coming."
  4609. >Your smirk becomes savage too, your horn igniting.
  4610. "At least, not quickly enough."
  4611. >Outside of provoking Brandwag, you just won more of Veldheer's affection.
  4612. >"I will see you both dead, monster!"
  4613. >He takes a small vial of brightly glowing amber liquid into his teeth, biting through the glass and cutting into his mouth.
  4614. >Veldheer's reaction is alarm, and you ready your magic and wings.
  4615. >"Athalia, watch--"
  4616. >Brandwag's intent suddenly accelerates, unnatural rage colouring his emotions.
  4617. >In that instant, he zips towards you with unnatural speed, his eyes glowing with magic.
  4618.  
  4619. >You leap back, erecting a shield as he sweeps with his voulge.
  4620. >He strikes with far more force than you were expecting, breaking your shield, but also deflecting his strike.
  4621. >His follow-up strike comes much faster than you expected, too, but your wings had since buzzed into action, causing his swing to miss you by a hair.
  4622. >He has to turn from you, however, when Veldheer charges in with an overhead strike.
  4623. >Brandwag stabs forth with the voulge, but Veldheer releases the blade in the middle of the swing, to weave his head out of the way.
  4624. >The blade still comes down, almost as if he'd never released it.
  4625. >SCHWUNK-VRUUMMM
  4626. >While the sword itself misses him, the energy blade doesn't.
  4627. >However, despite tearing into his armour and striking flesh, he still kept moving, almost as if nothing had happened.
  4628. >That definitely should have crippled him!
  4629. >So, he's given himself a heavy alchemy supplement, then?
  4630. >Coward.
  4631. >Veldheer's sword levitates itself back to his grip, just in time to block one of Brandwag's strikes.
  4632. >You swoop in, magic charged once again.
  4633. >A ray of energy shoots from your horn, lancing across his exposed side, melting through his armour and searing the flesh underneath.
  4634. >Again, it doesn't disable him, but it does bring his attention back to you.
  4635. >This time, the voulge's head ignites with teal energy, and he thrusts it towards you, blue energy spears of magic being loosed your way.
  4636. >They move faster than you expect, forcing you to perform some violent aerial dodges.
  4637. >He whirls around quickly, his sweep blocked by Veldheer, but still nicking his side.
  4638.  
  4639. >Veldheer pushes the weapon away, but Brandwag simply uses the force to spin faster in the opposite direction, for an identical sweep.
  4640. >He's not fast enough to block that one.
  4641. >SCHLICK
  4642. >No...!
  4643. >Despite the blade digging into his side, he only offers a pained grunt in response.
  4644. >Quickly, Brandwag pulls the blade back, whirling it for another similar strike to the other side.
  4645. >However, Veldheer's blade is already in the right place, and he blocks it with--
  4646. >He's going to try the same move, again!
  4647. >Your horn's glow intensifies, as you pour your magic into telekinesis.
  4648. >As the voulge whirls around after being deflected, you seize the body just below the head in your magical grasp.
  4649. >Or at least, you try to.
  4650. >The weapon's internal magic wasn't overpowered by your spell.
  4651. >However, it did slow it enough to allow Veldheer to block the strike successfully.
  4652. >You think you know how much it takes to overwhelm it now, however.
  4653. >You land, pouring a large amount of power into your horn.
  4654. >Brandwag jumps back away from Veldheer, turning to face you in mid-air, readying to stab you.
  4655. >His intent being faster, and his strength being greater, doesn't change how predictable the move is.
  4656. >Putting all his weight behind the strike, he lands, and thrusts forth.
  4657. >Your head moves at the very last moment, the blade passing by your ear with a 'WHOOSH'.
  4658. >More importantly, your launch yourself forth, your spell activating.
  4659. >At the tail end of the thrust, right when his grip was the weakest, you wrench the weapon out of his grip with your telekinesis.
  4660.  
  4661. >Surprised, he brings his foreleg up to defend himself.
  4662. >Your own foreleg sweeps forward, impacting against the armoured appendage with a muffled CRACK.
  4663. >Believing his block to be successful, he winds the other foreleg back for a punch, putting his weight on your blocked leg, intending to pin it beneath him.
  4664. >Ahh, one of the things you love about your new body.
  4665. >How much strength it has, despite how thin it is.
  4666. >You push back against his attempt to pin you, throwing him off-balance, allowing you to capture his hoof in your own free one.
  4667. >The two of you were now locked into a stalemate, pushing against one another.
  4668. >Or, so he thinks.
  4669. >Grinning, you lower your head, charging your horn again.
  4670. >He tries to pull back, expecting you to cast a spell, but to his surprise, you launch yourself forward.
  4671. >Oh, you did cast a spell, all right.
  4672. >SCHLICK
  4673. >You enveloped your horn in a reinforcement spell, allowing it to pierce his armour, and stab deep into his chest, almost to the base.
  4674. >The air escapes his lungs.
  4675. >You have him, now.
  4676. >Dropping the reinforcement spell, you shift power into a magic bolt.
  4677. >The magic burns his flesh as it shifts, and he thrashes for a few moments.
  4678. >But not nearly long enough to mean anything.
  4679. >FZZWT
  4680. >The bolt sears through his body, exiting out of his lower back, and leaving a hoof-sized hole in it's wake.
  4681. >Even with the potion in his body, it can't counteract damage like that, and he cries out, slackening in your grasp.
  4682. >You simply shove him onto the ground, towering over him.
  4683. >Then, you slowly remove your horn from his body.
  4684. >SCHLICK
  4685.  
  4686. >Orange blood pours from the gaping wounds, and you can feel the warm liquid trickling down your horn.
  4687. >You look down at his anguished, defiant expression with another smirk.
  4688. "Not bad."
  4689. >Another memory flashes through your mind.
  4690. >("Wh-whoa wait, stop!")
  4691. "But not good enough."
  4692. >("No... wait for them to waste you.")
  4693. >Not this time, you bastard.
  4694. >His attempt at a reply comes out as a bloody gurgle.
  4695. >You charge your horn again, and unleash one final magic bolt.
  4696. >FZZWT
  4697. >And with that, he goes slack, dead instantly.
  4698. >You stare down at the body, memories of that fight continuing to play back.
  4699. >This was how it should have ended.
  4700. >But you'll get your chance.
  4701. >He'll pay.
  4702. >"Beautiful..."
  4703. >Veldheer's whisper draws your attention, and you see him looking at you with awe, his infatuation reaching a new height.
  4704. >But while basking in his emotional energy was certainly appealing, your eyes drift down to his injured side.
  4705. "You okay?"
  4706. >"I... A-Athalia, my dear, I have had far worse."
  4707. >You roll your eyes at his attempt to impress you.
  4708. "Nice fighting, by the way."
  4709. >"Likewise. We must do this again, sometime."
  4710. >Well, he certainly held his own.
  4711. >That might not be a bad idea.
  4712. >But before you can respond, your senses return into focus.
  4713. >Seems that the rest of this tribe has caught on, and are now fighting.
  4714. "You might just get to. Care to help clear the rest of these zebras out?"
  4715. >"Athalia, you needn't ask. It would be my pleasure."
  4716. >You head back to the tent opening, Veldheer following closely.
  4717. >And with that, you both charge into battle, against the remaining zebras.
  4718. <...
  4719.  
  4720. @@@@@@@@
  4721.  
  4722. "I think we should call it here for tonight, ladies."
  4723. >"H-huh? But we haven't gotten to..."
  4724. >"Dearest Anon, please, it is--"
  4725. "Way, way too late for this. Seriously, it's like..."
  4726. >What did the clock say?
  4727. >Jesus, past midnight?
  4728. >"M-midnight? I hadn't even noticed!"
  4729. >"Oh, dear."
  4730. >"B-but still, we haven't had the chance to... to properly, er, 'communicate'!"
  4731. >"Indeed! We understand your hesitation, but with the limitations placed on us, we cannot do more than simply sense the surface!"
  4732. "Look, I..."
  4733. >You sigh.
  4734. "I just don't want that whole laser-beam thing to... hurt you two."
  4735. >"It won't! I won't let it!"
  4736. >"Yes, we can control it!"
  4737. "I..."
  4738. >God damn it.
  4739. >Both pairs of hooves rest against your arms, both pairs of eyes giving you a pleading look.
  4740. >"Please, I know you're scared, but... we can manage it!"
  4741. >"You can trust us. Please, dearest Anon..."
  4742. >God damn it...!
  4743. >No, no no no no!
  4744. >They'll just...
  4745. >Just...
  4746. >You can feel your resolve cracking under their eyes.
  4747. >Your head falls, your hands balling into fists.
  4748. "Are... are you sure?"
  4749. >"Positive! It was just a surprise, at first!"
  4750. >"But now we know what to expect!"
  4751. >"Please, Anon, it's killing me, to feel her hurt like that!"
  4752. >She looks so sad, at the mention of her pain.
  4753. >You shouldn't.
  4754. >It'll hurt them, you know it!
  4755. >You can't!
  4756. "One chance."
  4757. >Damn it!
  4758. "Tomorrow night. But if it--"
  4759. >"It won't!"
  4760. >"We promise!"
  4761. >You hope they're right.
  4762. >They wrap you in another hug, one you return more tightly than usual, before they bid you farewell.
  4763. >But climbing into your bed, the thought of them getting hurt continues to haunt you.
  4764. <...
  4765.  
  4766. >>"Tell us, human. Do you derive enjoyment from this?"
  4767. >>KRACK
  4768. >"Aaaagh...!"
  4769. >>The orange ape monster looks down at you, bemusement colouring his expression.
  4770. >>"You're a tough nut to crack, you know that?"
  4771. >>KRACK
  4772. >>You can't even double over, the stick-collar keeping you up, as this thing's buddy holds you in place, striking your back from behind.
  4773. >>KRACK
  4774. >"Aaagh!"
  4775. >>"You're lucky, then. Cracking tough nuts like you just so happens to be our specialty. And you've got months and months of cracking ahead!"
  4776. >>KRACK
  4777. >>That last strike of the set hits the hardest, as usual, a strangled cry leaving your throat.
  4778. >>"Come on. You want it to stop, don't you?"
  4779. >>He grasps your chin, lifting your head to look you dead in the eyes.
  4780. >>His eyes glitter, enjoyment clearly visible.
  4781. >>"All that prison food, all the beatings, all the cages..."
  4782. >>He savours each negative like a fine wine, not even bothering to be subtle.
  4783. >>"It's all within your power to stop. All you have to do is--"
  4784. >>You mumble something under your breath.
  4785. >>"Hmm? You say something?"
  4786. >>It was more due to inability, more than a deliberate effort.
  4787. >>"Speak up, will you? We don't have all cycle."
  4788. >"mmmmfh yush..."
  4789. >>"Hand me the rod, will you?"
  4790. >>After getting passed the rod, he uses the other end to hold your chin up, holding his ear close to your mouth.
  4791. >>"Let's make it a game, shall we? One strike each time I mishear!"
  4792. >>You speak, slowly and raspy.
  4793. >"go fuck yourself..."
  4794. >>He draws back, a little surprised, but quickly regrows his evil grin.
  4795. >>"Okay, human. New game."
  4796. >>He draws the rod back.
  4797. >>KRACK
  4798.  
  4799. "Gaaah!"
  4800. >You bolt upright, clutching your chest where it was struck.
  4801. >Jesuschristwhatthefuck--
  4802. >W-wait a minute...
  4803. >This isn't the...?
  4804. >Oh, thank God.
  4805. >Just another dream.
  4806. >It wasn't real.
  4807. >Or... was it?
  4808. >God, you don't even know anymore!
  4809. >Well, at least it's morning, now--
  4810. >KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK
  4811. >Wha...?
  4812. >"Hey, Anon! The buck's going on in there?"
  4813. >Oh, just Razor!
  4814. "Uh, nothing!"
  4815. >He's heard groaning, and then he goes ahead and shoves the door open, coming in anyways.
  4816. >"Anon, come on, don't give me that shit."
  4817. >He flicks the lights on, but thankfully the morning sunlight lit the room up plenty enough for your eyes to adjust.
  4818. "Dude, I told you, it's nothing."
  4819. >"So nothing gives you the shakes?"
  4820. "The fuck are--?"
  4821. >Looking down, you do indeed see your hands shaking.
  4822. >"Let me guess. The temple?"
  4823. "Th-- uh, well, yeah."
  4824. >"Figures. That place really freaked you out, huh?"
  4825. "Kinda."
  4826. >"I think you're well past 'kinda'. So, what'd you see?"
  4827. >You pause to rub your eyes, then pivot out of bed.
  4828. "The place was... some kinda big torture chamber."
  4829. >You knew that wasn't really it, but that was the closest thing you could think of.
  4830. >"Really?"
  4831. "Big operating tables, cages, cells, racks, and all kinds of shit you could use to beat captives with."
  4832. >"Geez!"
  4833. "And then, there was the dead guys at the bottom of the place."
  4834. >"Alright, I think I get the picture. Buck, that's... pretty bad."
  4835. "I uh, gotta ask. How'd I conk out, at the end?"
  4836. >"Anon, you panicked really bad. Ran a marathon up those stairs, scared outta your mind. But..."
  4837.  
  4838. >He shoots you a skeptical, knowing look.
  4839. >"The bodies and torture shit wasn't what scared you, was it?"
  4840. >You just offer a sigh.
  4841. "Was it that obvious?"
  4842. >"Anon, you barely freaked out at those creepy test tubes that Incognito tailhole held his prisoners in. I don't think dead bodies and torture chambers were gonna do the trick."
  4843. >Guess he's got a point.
  4844. >"C'mon, buddy. What'd you see in there?"
  4845. >Should you...?
  4846. >Wait, what are you saying?
  4847. >He's one of your besties, of course you should.
  4848. "Razor, that place... it felt familiar to me."
  4849. >"Familiar? Yeah, Exact said something about you muttering 'having been there before'. But that's impossible, right?"
  4850. "Totally impossible, I agree. But still..."
  4851. >You pause to rub your forehead, trying not to get lost in the fragments of memory.
  4852. "I swear, the whole time I was down there, it did feel like I'd been there before. Been... tortured."
  4853. >"Uhh... really?"
  4854. "I know it sounds crazy. But I... I keep remembering shit, shit that happened in that place. And it feels so... real."
  4855. >"Shit... you see the doc about that?"
  4856. "First thing I did when I rejoined the living. He thinks they might actually be real."
  4857. >He thinks it over for a few moments.
  4858. >"Can princess Luna do her dream walking thing with you, maybe give you a hoof with that?"
  4859. "No dice, sorry. She's never been able to do that."
  4860. >"Well, it was worth a shot. Maybe--"
  4861. >KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK
  4862. >"Anon, are you awake?"
  4863. "Exact? Come on in."
  4864. >The door opens, and the pony in question walks in.
  4865. >"Oh, hey bud. What's up?"
  4866. >"Princess Celestia has summoned Anon to her chambers."
  4867. >She has?
  4868.  
  4869. "Do you know what for?"
  4870. >"It has to do with your conversation with doctor Valiant, yesterday."
  4871. >Oh.
  4872. >So, exactly what you're talking about now.
  4873. >Well.
  4874. >That's, uh...
  4875. >Oh, boy.
  4876. "All right, just... gimmie a sec to get ready."
  4877. >He nods, and you rise out of bed, heading for the bathroom.
  4878. >As you get presentable, you...
  4879. >Well shit, there's no way of getting around it, is there?
  4880. >Someone's chewing the other party out.
  4881. >Yeah, you've got a bad feeling about this.
  4882. >You emerge, and follow Exact towards your destination, Razor tagging along for the ride.
  4883. >All right, Anon, relax.
  4884. >Maybe this won't be so bad.
  4885. >Before long, you reach the big stone door again, and the guards let you through, like before.
  4886. >Sadly, the dynamic duo have to wait outside.
  4887. >As the door shuts behind you, uh...
  4888. >Yeah, who are you kidding?
  4889. >Of course this is going to go bad.
  4890. >Just roll with it as it comes.
  4891. >Celestia pokes her head out of her bedroom, right as you pass the halfway mark in her entrance hall.
  4892. >"Ah, there you are. Please, come on up."
  4893. >Well, she sounds nice enough, you guess.
  4894. >Still, you'd prefer not to keep her waiting, so you hurry on up.
  4895. >"In here, please."
  4896. >Oh, right, her bedroom's attached to a little study, just like Luna's room.
  4897. >Wonder if it has any secret labs, too.
  4898. >Or...
  4899. >No, you know what, not even going there.
  4900. >You follow her on in, and man, it is way different than Luna's.
  4901. >Unlike the whole mini-library schtick she had going on, Celestia had some small bookshelves, a desk off to the side, a fireplace, and a big ol' couch in front of it.
  4902. >Can't say you expected this.
  4903.  
  4904. >She gestures to the couch.
  4905. >"Please, have a seat."
  4906. >And have a seat you do.
  4907. >Whoa man, this is one nice couch.
  4908. >"First of all, I'm sorry about being so curt, yesterday night. What you'd told me then was... very significant."
  4909. "It's, uh, all right?"
  4910. >"Now, I presume you've surmised why I called you here?"
  4911. "I've... got a pretty good idea."
  4912. >"Then I won't mince words. Anon, these... dreams, these recollections of yours, have me quite worried, to put it mildly."
  4913. "I'm guessing this has to do with that 'prophecy' thing we talked about, way back when?"
  4914. >"Unfortunately."
  4915. >You fucking knew it.
  4916. >The moment she muttered 'the picture matching the prophecy' last night, you knew this would come up.
  4917. >"Perhaps you're afraid that this is the moment where I apprehend you, and lock you away in the crystal caves?"
  4918. >You'd be lying, if the thought hadn't occurred to you.
  4919. >"I'm not here to condemn you, Anon, especially not after what you've just done for us. I'm simply here to confirm a few things."
  4920. "Confirm a few things...?"
  4921. >"There are things about this new information that don't match with what I know of prophecies and the mon'keigh. So, I would like to ask you more about these 'memories' of yours, to see if I can get to the bottom of this."
  4922. "That's all? I mean, uh, it's pretty visceral stuff, you sure...?"
  4923. >"Anon, mon'keigh torture cults were common at the height of their power, when they lost interest in their own females. And that wasn't the worst of it."
  4924. "Yeesh...!"
  4925. >"I assure you, I can handle your descriptions."
  4926. "Well, uh, if you say so."
  4927. <...
  4928.  
  4929. >Damn it, Veldheer.
  4930. >Did he really have to start his argument with Incognito, first thing in the morning?!
  4931. >"You launched a major offensive, dragging along my greatest agents, without ever consulting me? Is that what you are saying?"
  4932. >"Oh, feeling left out, are we?"
  4933. >"You could have brought great harm to them! And I cannot afford--"
  4934. >"Afford? Ah, there it is again. That detachment. Fancy yourself a chess master, do you?"
  4935. >Oh, for the love of...
  4936. >"Enough! You will--"
  4937. >"You're right, human, that is enough. You play at strength, yet it took this long to recover from that fierce battle you had. You play at strategy, yet you miscalculated your opponent's strength to such a vast degree."
  4938. >Veldheer's sneer grows, as he continues:
  4939. >"Indeed, I have had quite enough. So, I am going to make it official. As of this moment, I will no longer work with you."
  4940. >And just when he was starting to grow on you.
  4941. >Incognito wears a look of surprise upon hearing his proclamation, a look that slowly slips into anger.
  4942. >"So, that's it, then? You plan to leave, like a coward?"
  4943. >"Oh, human, as much as I would so dearly love to leave you here, to rot away with those damnable birds of yours, I am still very much obliged to remain here."
  4944. >And now, Incognito's look changes to that of mild confusion.
  4945. >"What are you talking about?"
  4946. >"I won't work with you any longer, human. That much is true."
  4947. >That's when Veldheer's eyes move over to you, his satisfaction still eclipsing his love.
  4948. >"Instead, I have pledged to work for, and with, another. One far more deserving of my cooperation."
  4949.  
  4950. >You can't help but shrink back slightly when Incognito's eyes shift to you, studying you with surprise.
  4951. >But they just as quickly take on their increasingly familiar anger, as they shift back to Veldheer.
  4952. >"Is this some kind of game to you, Veldheer?"
  4953. >"Unlike you, human, I would never dream of playing games with worthy allies."
  4954. >"After all I have done for--?!"
  4955. >"Oh, save it. The sword of Zabraxas got you this far, but that well of favour has long since run dry. If anything, you should be thankful that things went as smoothly as they have!"
  4956. >You never thought you'd see Incognito be so flustered by one zebra.
  4957. >After a few moments, Incognito looks back over to you.
  4958. >"Athalia, see me in my office. We have much to discuss."
  4959. >He tries hard not to growl the words, but his tone was absolute, leaving no room for argument.
  4960. >He doesn't wait for a reply, instead storming off towards his private area of the temple.
  4961. >Shaking your head, you start trotting after him, only for Veldheer to stop you with an outstretched foreleg.
  4962. >"Athalia, my dear, don't let him push you around so easily. He will constantly take adv--"
  4963. >THWACK
  4964. >His sentence was cut off with a cry, as you give the upstart zebra a strong headbutt, enough to send him reeling.
  4965. "'You'd never dream of playing games with worthy allies', huh? Care to explain that exchange, then?"
  4966. >He tries to speak, but you cut him off.
  4967. "Actually, don't. I think your words spoke for themselves, well enough."
  4968. >You resume walking.
  4969. "Now, leave me alone. You can apologize tomorrow."
  4970. >The flustered zebra doesn't pursue you.
  4971.  
  4972. >You weren't seeing red out of anger, not by any stretch, but your teeth were definitely grinding, all the way up to reaching the door to Incognito's office.
  4973. >Damn zebra.
  4974. >You just knew it was going to go badly, when he invited you over to the temple this morning, to announce his 'change of allegiance'.
  4975. >You don't care how useful he is in a fight, he's going to need some serious reining in, if this little 'understanding' is going to work.
  4976. >But that can come later.
  4977. >Right now, you have an angry lord to placate.
  4978. >You open the door and step inside, finding Incognito reading a book while he waited, in some language you don't recognize.
  4979. >"Please, take a seat."
  4980. >You do just that, and he sets the book down in the process.
  4981. >"Athalia, I know Veldheer is a particularly... unpredictable individual, but this?"
  4982. "Believe me, my lord, I was surprised, too, when he first brought it up."
  4983. >"When did he decide to alter his allegiance, and why?"
  4984. "Two days ago. He..."
  4985. >Wants to be your mate.
  4986. "Felt I was more personable than you. He was pretty clear about hating having to follow you."
  4987. >Why did you lie about that?
  4988. >To him, no less?
  4989. >"He's made his distaste of me quite apparent, over the weeks. Warriors of his ilk care nothing for the careful plans and creations made within this temple."
  4990. "He did mention something about hating magicians."
  4991. >"It would not surprise me. Regardless, the 'why' of his choice matters little, now. What does matter, is the 'how'. Athalia, I am not entirely certain as to how well you can--"
  4992. "Handle him? Don't worry about that."
  4993.  
  4994. >"Are you certain? Considering who it is we are discussing, I would not wish to place undue stress upon you."
  4995. "I can handle him, my lord. Trust me. Besides, it's like you said: he just needs to be challenged a bit, before he'll change."
  4996. >"Well, you are correct on that. Still, knowing what would spur him to action would be most beneficial."
  4997. "He intends on accompanying me in the field, and for me to do the same for him."
  4998. >"Ah, so he still craves battle? Perhaps with your influence, he will be more... pliable, in his choice of targets."
  4999. "That shouldn't be difficult."
  5000. >"You certainly take to this with a certain aplomb, don't you?"
  5001. "Let's just say that I have a good feeling about his... future uses."
  5002. >"Very well, Athalia. If you are confident in your ability to steer him towards better uses, I will allow it."
  5003. >You give a little sigh of relief.
  5004. >Oh, thank goodness this went well!
  5005. >"Now, if that will be all on the subject of Veldheer, there are other matters I would like to discuss."
  5006. "Of course, what is it?"
  5007. >"Firstly, I must apologize to you, for not resuming your training. My... recovery has been hampered more than I would have liked, and I only recently regained the full measure of my strength."
  5008. >T-training...?!
  5009. "I-it's no trouble, my lord!"
  5010. >"Thank you for your understanding. We should have more time for it, assuming that assault you mounted with Veldheer did indeed stay the attacks upon us. Would tomorrow be acceptable?"
  5011. "Of course! I-I'd love to start learning more, again!"
  5012. >"And I intend to impart far more than before, given recent events."
  5013.  
  5014. >Recent events...
  5015. >Like...
  5016. "Like my rescue?"
  5017. >His expression falls.
  5018. >"Yes, my child. Like your rescue."
  5019. "M-my lord?"
  5020. >"Yes?"
  5021. "I have to know. Did... did you know about... him?"
  5022. >He frowns, the beginnings of hatred sparking in his blue eyes.
  5023. >"I did not. Understand, that my first encounter with him was when I first assaulted Canterlot. Back then, he was weak, a mewling servant of the Equestrians, though certainly with a more... colourful vocabulary."
  5024. >H-he does like to curse a lot, doesn't he?
  5025. >It's almost like one of his signatures.
  5026. >"Thus, when I heard reports of his 'power', I dismissed them as cynical Equestrian propagandizing, only meant to cradle his ego. Still, he was a rising symbol, so I felt it prudent to crush him.
  5027. >"You can scarcely imagine my shock, when he wielded such powerful weapons, moved so unpredictably, and struck with such force, such hatred. And that is even before his manipulations of Celestia's cohorts, to allow him the use of the Faber Mystico's arts, directly beneath her nose."
  5028. "Huh? 'Faber Mystico'?"
  5029. >"Yes, Athalia. An ancient, long-dead order of magicless creatures, who found a way to use magic through devices and constructs. At their height, they were very powerful, and were single-handedly responsible for destroying the kingdoms of both the gargoyles and the centaurs."
  5030. "What?! They did that?!"
  5031. >"It was justifiable self-defence. The magical creatures of the world became quite... envious. Those who they considered their lessers, to 'guide' and rule over, were quickly approaching parity with them.
  5032.  
  5033. >"Their discontent had grown for a long time. The gargoyles and the centaurs were simply the first to bring action to those sentiments of envy and fear, and they paid a heavy price for their folly."
  5034. "Wow..."
  5035. >"Yes, the Faber Mystico were a force to be reckoned with, however... misguided they may have been."
  5036. "Misguided?"
  5037. >"Morally, they were far and away the betters of their self-styled overlords. However, they still laboured under the same falsehoods of 'friendship' that their magical counterparts did. Indeed, when the 'gifted', as the Faber Mystico called them, reached out for peace, it was none other than Celestia, spearheading the talks."
  5038. >And just like that, your appreciation for them soured.
  5039. >"The talks failed, of course, and the resulting war, the 'War of the Ancients', ended in the destruction of the Faber Mystico, and the suppression of all their history and teachings. However, that war is a tale for another day."
  5040. >He takes a moment to rub his eyes, before moving on.
  5041. >"Their art is the most dangerous thing to the likes of Celestia, simply because it is so accessible to those without any magic. However, it was never a particularly potent source of power."
  5042. "I-is that why you don't use it?"
  5043. >"Very much so. They hide their knowledge within sentient tomes, that only offer their contents to those they deem 'worthy'. The Faber Mystico were always an evasive bunch, when it came to their knowledge. That is why Anonymous's procurement of such power, at such an accelerated pace, gives me pause."
  5044. "Wh-what do you mean?"
  5045.  
  5046. >"It takes years, decades even, of research and dedication, to understand and create constructs that would place you on equal footing with a common unicorn, particularly when starting anew, as he must have.
  5047. >"Yet he has obtained the power of the Mystico's greatest champions, in the span of only mere months."
  5048. "Wait, he what?! How?"
  5049. >"I do not know. Basic armours, constructs, and enhanced weapons are one thing, but seeing him wield some of the ancient weapons of legend, Bluebaide and Riafalt, is a cause for serious concern.
  5050. >"Perhaps more concerning, is the vengeance he desires against both you and I, as he holds these weapons. It is because of him, that I must accelerate my plans for Equestria."
  5051. >He extends one of his hands towards you.
  5052. >"Athalia, I must ask something of you."
  5053. >Gingerly, you place a hoof in his outstretched hand.
  5054. "Y-yes?"
  5055. >"I will do my best to prepare you for the battles ahead, but at this stage, Anonymous is a foe far beyond you. Until you are ready, do not, under any circumstances, attempt to do battle with him, do you understand?"
  5056. >He preempts your response by resting his other hand atop your hoof.
  5057. >"Can you promise me that?"
  5058. >He looks so serious, even a little bit...
  5059. >Afraid?
  5060. >But...
  5061. >No, you shouldn't be running from him.
  5062. >You should be destroying him!
  5063. >Making the bucking upstart suffer, for everything he's done!
  5064. "I promise."
  5065. >"Thank you."
  5066. >But Incognito's right, he's too strong right now.
  5067. >But he'll get what's coming to him, you swear.
  5068. >You'll become powerful enough to defeat him.
  5069. >And this time, he won't escape the final blow!
  5070.  
  5071. >He releases your hoof, a small smile returning to his face.
  5072. >"I am glad we had this chance to speak. Unfortunately, my time is limited today. If you wish to talk more, you can find me tomorrow, if that is acceptable?"
  5073. >Your anger quickly evaporates at the proposition.
  5074. "Of course!"
  5075. >"Very good. I'm certain you have tasks of your own to complete. Don't let me keep you."
  5076. "Th-thank you, my lord!"
  5077. >"You're quite welcome."
  5078. >The smile on your face remains, after leaving his office.
  5079. >Training and stories!
  5080. >Ohmygosh, it's been so long since you've--
  5081. >"Rugged one!"
  5082. >Aaaand there's Zamara, stealing that smile with her presence.
  5083. >She spots you up ahead, and wastes no time in storming over to you, a frown set on her face.
  5084. "What is it?"
  5085. >Instead of responding, she moves to your side, brushing her hooves along you, and towards your--
  5086. "Hey! Wh-what are you doing?!"
  5087. >She stops, only to get into your face, fixing you with a glare.
  5088. >"What has Veldheer done with you, changeling?"
  5089. "Wha--?"
  5090. >"Has he touched you?"
  5091. "Get off of-- Waah!"
  5092. >She shakes you by the withers, panic colouring her emotions.
  5093. >"Has he touched you?!"
  5094. "Wh-- no!"
  5095. >"Do not lie to me!"
  5096. "No, he hasn't!"
  5097. >You make to shove her off, but she pushes you away, first.
  5098. >"My next communion is in two days. You will be there."
  5099. "Wha...?"
  5100. >She tries to walk off, but a quick barrier spell prevents her.
  5101. "No, hold on a minute! What the buck was all that about?!"
  5102. >She breaks the barrier with a swipe of her leg, far easier than she should have, before resuming her walk.
  5103. >"Do not bar my way again."
  5104. >What...
  5105. >What just happened?!
  5106. <...
  5107.  
  5108. @@@@@@@@
  5109.  
  5110. "So, wait, let me get this straight. Those assholes just 180'd from female to male dominance, when dark magic was introduced?"
  5111. >"Yes. Their race was, in fact, originally known as the girallons, named after the females of the species. They were large, extremely powerful creatures, as territorial and bloodthirsty as they come, but lacking in intelligence.
  5112. >"The males, the mon'keigh, were nowhere near as strong, and thus had to be rather crafty, when it came to courting them. As a result, they were the ones gifted with the race's signature intellect and cunning.
  5113. >"Their natural order changed, however, when the mon'keigh first learned about dark magic. More specifically, runesmithing. In a matter of only two years, they had reduced their females to mindless breeding stock, and shock troopers."
  5114. >Can't say you pictured the beta uprising going down like that.
  5115. >"Indeed, their use of girallons as shock troopers gave birth to the dark art of bloodreaving. It is a terrifying sight, seeing a fully armoured girallon charging into battle, catalysts on all hands, healing it's wounds from each blow it lands."
  5116. "Geez. And they didn't even blink at doing it?"
  5117. >"Of course not. Their lives as virtual serfs, constantly fleeing from their own females, made them cold, cruel, and calculating. What began as a dark, tragic liberation, eventually transformed them into one of the most dangerous forces for evil in the world."
  5118. "Sure sounds like it."
  5119. >"I loathe being forced to wipe them out, but I do not regret the decision. You need only refer to your fragmented memories for justification."
  5120.  
  5121. >Yeah, that's a shudder on your part.
  5122. >Having to dredge what you knew up again was not pleasant, but somehow, she made the process way smoother than you thought she would.
  5123. >Couldn't really tell if it was her consoling, or the tea, but you got what you knew out in the end.
  5124. >Still...
  5125. "They can't have all been like that, though."
  5126. >"For most races, I would agree. However, in all my years dealing with them, I have only ever seen one mon'keigh reform his ways, becoming a practitioner of holy magics. But all the rest simply didn't have the capacity for reformation."
  5127. >Only one, who practiced holy magic?
  5128. >You think you know which one she's talking about.
  5129. >"But while they were cruel, and had a penchant for grandiose plans for attaining power, they also had very uniform tells in their plans. Those tells, their inability to perform prophetic magic, and more, are making me question the veracity of this prophecy."
  5130. "I don't think you've told me a lot about that, yet."
  5131. >"Mon'keigh were notoriously distrustful, and always operated under the assumption that those they work with held a dagger behind their backs. Their government, their constructs, even their dark spells, were written with tens, if not hundreds, of safeguards and catches, to minimize the impact of any betrayal they may endure.
  5132. >"As a result, girallons, and other golems they crafted, were simply incapable of harming their masters, or each other. Their spells were made specifically to fail on other mon'keigh. Their slaves were made to never assault one another, keeping them healthy for when they were next needed."
  5133.  
  5134. "So, they were huge control freaks?"
  5135. >"To an almost absurd degree."
  5136. >Well, that's several layers of fucked.
  5137. >"But if you were indeed moulded into a servant of theirs, there is no possible way they would allow you to rebel against them, and they would go to almost any length to ensure that would never happen. You would never be able to help us, even under duress, and you would never be able to lift a finger against Incognito."
  5138. "Really?"
  5139. >"Really. And that is not all. Do you recall how I mentioned that mon'keigh could not wield prophetic magic?"
  5140. "I do. But that kinda begs the question about who does, right?"
  5141. >"While it is usable by others, it almost always backfires, or takes the caster's life. I admit, I have had numerous bad personal experiences with the art, bad enough to ban it's usage, and to resolve never to use it again.
  5142. >"Only the reindeer are capable of wielding it with any kind of finesse, and even then, it takes them decades of training to do it properly, and their code of ethics ensures they will almost never have to use it."
  5143. "That right? Couldn't they have just given those assholes a hand with it, though?"
  5144. >"That is quite impossible. The reindeer were my closest allies during the battle with the mon'keigh, and hated them with a zeal I had never before seen in their kind. A reindeer would rather suffer eternally within a soul gem, than even consider aiding a mon'keigh."
  5145. >Huh.
  5146. "That seems a bit out of character for them. Aren't they a real peaceful bunch?"
  5147. >Like a whole race of Yodas, only without the annoyance.
  5148. >"It surprised me, too."
  5149.  
  5150. "But there's a chance that one of them could have helped them, right? Like that one good mon'keigh?"
  5151. >"It is remote, but possible. However, the mon'keigh would sooner control this traitor's mind, than work with them willingly, ruining the potency of the prophetic magic. Put simply, there is no way the reindeer would have been any help to them."
  5152. "Well, if you're right about this prophecy thing, there's gotta be some way they managed, right?"
  5153. >"I reached out to them recently - yesterday night, in fact - for an answer to that. I have yet to hear back, however."
  5154. "Huh."
  5155. >Although, now you're curious...
  5156. "Sorry if it's a dumb question, but... what the hell is prophetic magic all about, anyways?"
  5157. >"It is not a stupid question, at all. In fact, I'm surprised you hadn't asked, earlier."
  5158. "Well, better late than never."
  5159. >"Fair enough. Prophetic magic is quite similar to mind-affecting magic, in that it influences it's target towards the caster's goal. However, they differ wildly in the way they accomplish this.
  5160. >"A mind-control spell will simply wrest control of it's target, while an invoked prophecy will alter everything around it's target in just such a way, to make accomplishing it's goal an inevitability."
  5161. "Oh. That's uh, a pretty roundabout way to do it."
  5162. >"It is also a completely undetectable way to do it. That is the allure of prophetic magic: you can influence a subject to do your bidding, without them ever knowing of it."
  5163. >Ohhhhkay, now it's gotten a whole lot more sketchy.
  5164. >"Needless to say, it's been banned for good reason."
  5165. "Shit, no kidding."
  5166.  
  5167. >"But mon'keigh cannot wield that magic, for the same reason that other, non-magical races cannot: no construct has the precision control, the energy, and much less the force of will necessary to modify the world's magic in such a way."
  5168. "Wait, mon'keigh aren't magical? Or, uh, weren't magical?"
  5169. >"Indeed, they weren't. They relied exclusively on wands, severed horns, and later, catalysts, to perform their magic. And before you ask, the Faber Mystico had no love for their methods, either."
  5170. "I guessed as much. Out of curiosity, this mystery good mon'keigh wouldn't happen to be one Ynnead, would it?"
  5171. >Her eyes light up with surprise.
  5172. >"Yes, it is. Where did you hear of him?"
  5173. "My Lexica credited the guy as the creator of--"
  5174. >"The Riafalt focus, wasn't it?"
  5175. "Yeah, that!"
  5176. >"What a wondrous tool of magic, that was. He named it after his late apprentice, you know: Saint Riafalt."
  5177. "That right? What, the guy was made a saint?"
  5178. >"Oh, no, his name was actually 'Saint'."
  5179. "Heh, no kidding? Boy, he must've had a rough childhood."
  5180. >She stifles a few giggles.
  5181. >"Yes, well, Ynnead was a strange one."
  5182. >Her look reverts back to seriousness, as if she'd just remembered something.
  5183. >"He was also uncompromising in his condemnation of his own people. I only wish we'd all listened to him sooner."
  5184. >Looks like you might've touched a bad memory, there.
  5185. >"Oh, sorry, I've gotten us rather off topic, haven't I?"
  5186. "Nah, that's my bad."
  5187. >Though your desire to keep reading that War of the Ancients book just got a lot stronger.
  5188. >"Now, there are some other factors to consider."
  5189. "Like what?"
  5190.  
  5191. >"Your nature is one such factor. Prophecies require some kind of anchor to function, and being iron-blooded and without a soul makes anchoring the spell quite impossible. It's quite difficult to modify the fate of one who, as far as magic is concerned, does not exist.
  5192. >"That being said, a common workaround is to enchant an item with prophetic magic, and have the unfortunate holder of that item be influenced by it. Or, to be more precise, having the immediate area around the item influenced."
  5193. "So, I could be holding something for that?"
  5194. >"Not willingly. My first thought was that they had hidden such an item within your body, but there is nothing there, nor any markings indicating such a modification."
  5195. >Huh...
  5196. >"Then, there is your world of origin. Pulling you from that faraway place in the Outer Reaches, which you have described is bathed in a magnetic field, would require an extremely high amount of power to execute, enough for me to easily detect from across the world.
  5197. >"However, I suspect the temple's entombment within that mountain, and being covered in a thick layer of iron, is a major factor behind this being concealed."
  5198. >Shit, that would make sense.
  5199. "So, where does that leave us? Because like I said, if I--"
  5200. >"Anon, I absolutely believe you are genuine in your desire to help us, to stop Incognito. And I am certain beyond a doubt that he is the force of destruction, laid out in that plan. By process of elimination, that would make you this corrupting force. But too many things don't add up about it, including your opposition to him."
  5201.  
  5202. "So how do we get to the bottom of this?"
  5203. >"You're quite eager to solve this mystery, aren't you?"
  5204. "Fuckin' rights, I am! What's wrong with that?"
  5205. >"Absolutely nothing. But that willingness to learn, too, is another mark against there being a prophecy in effect."
  5206. >Ohh...!
  5207. >"Unfortunately, we have no choice but to wait for information, from both the reindeer, and your memories."
  5208. "My memories?"
  5209. >"All you remember right now is fragments of your torment at their hands, yes?"
  5210. "Y-yeah."
  5211. >"I suspect your memories will return little by little, with every dream you have. There may be a clue about the full extent of what they've done to you, hidden within them."
  5212. "And here I was, on a big streak of good sleep."
  5213. >"And I'm sorry it seems to return to you in that fashion."
  5214. "It's not your fault."
  5215. >"If it becomes too much, I'm certain the doctor can give you something for the nightmares. However, that information--"
  5216. "Is too important, right."
  5217. >Great, fantastic.
  5218. >"I would suggest keeping a journal of your dreams. I'm certain that Luna would be happy to offer some advice, too."
  5219. >Her help would be really nice.
  5220. >But, man...
  5221. >You sigh, hunching over and holding your forehead.
  5222. >"This is a lot to take in, isn't it?"
  5223. "I just... what am I supposed to say?"
  5224. >So.
  5225. >That's how you got here, isn't it?
  5226. >Some orangutan-looking motherfuckers pulled you over, to try and fuck with the ponies.
  5227. >God...
  5228. >What else went down in that hellhole?
  5229. >Did you see Nito, in there?
  5230. >Fuck, did you know Nito, before all this?
  5231. >Was he there with you, taking licks from these monkey-faced shitweasels?
  5232.  
  5233. >This shit is giving you a fucking headache.
  5234. >Of course, you have to have this shit dropped on you, on a...
  5235. >H-heh...
  5236. >It's quiet and semi-forced, but you do start chuckling a little.
  5237. >"Anon? What's the matter?"
  5238. "Fucking Mondays."
  5239. >"I'm sorry?"
  5240. "Of all the times I get flashbacks and bad news, it just had to be on the Monday, didn't it?"
  5241. >You chuckle for a few more moments, but...
  5242. >"That wasn't very funny."
  5243. "Gotta take what you can get."
  5244. >Celestia steps up and off of the couch.
  5245. >"Thank you for taking the time to speak with me, Anon. And please, try not to push yourself too hard, for now. You'll need that resolve for Zebrica, I suspect."
  5246. >Zebrica...
  5247. >Man, your next destination, and you still don't know much about it.
  5248. "Uh, no problem. Still, I can't just sit around, you know?"
  5249. >"I understand."
  5250. >You take the opportunity to sit up yourself, and look over at a nearby clock.
  5251. >Man, it's almost one in the afternoon?
  5252. >Well, that sure was one hell of a chat.
  5253. "I think I'll leave you to it, if that's cool with you?"
  5254. >"Of course. If I learn more, I will let you know."
  5255. "Thanks."
  5256. >You wave your farewells, and march off towards the exit.
  5257. >Man, there's so much to think about, now.
  5258. >Maybe you'll forgo the thaumaturgy for today, and focus more on scoping out Zebrica?
  5259. >Library it is, then.
  5260. >You push the big stone doors open, and--
  5261. >"Geez, you sure take your time with the princess, don't you?"
  5262. "Huh? Light?"
  5263. >Of all ponies you expected to greet you, she was pretty far down the list!
  5264. >"That's me. Listen, do you have a minute?"
  5265. "I guess that depends on whether I'll regret spending it."
  5266.  
  5267. >"Pfft, please. It's just a little constructive criticism."
  5268. "That right?"
  5269. >"Well, I sure hope it's right. Anyways, you going to follow me, or not?"
  5270. "Criticism needs me to follow you?"
  5271. >"My ones do."
  5272. >Geez, this horse is pushy.
  5273. "All right, fine."
  5274. >Without further ado, she leads you towards the Invictus guard compound.
  5275. >Man, you remember throwing down with Nito in here, and all the destruction that fight caused.
  5276. >And they've fixed the whole place up, like nothing ever happened.
  5277. >Well, except for the small statue of you with your bow, of course.
  5278. >Wait.
  5279. >They have a statue of you in here?
  5280. >"Listen up, fillies!"
  5281. >Light's yelling drew your attention, and you see her not only yelling towards the nearby ponies, but also into a small, glyphed-up gem she was floating up, like a microphone.
  5282. >"As of this moment, Anonymous here is authorized to enter the compound. He's to be given sergeant level access, but provisions and equipment must be authorized for withdrawal by an actual member of sergeant rank, or higher. Commit!"
  5283. >A little flash of the stone follows that last word, then she puts it away.
  5284. >And the other Invictus members, who previously were avoiding looking at you, were now suddenly very interested, many walking over to say hello.
  5285. >"Sorry about that little delay. Protocols are protocols."
  5286. "It's, uh, cool?"
  5287. >"I'd sure hope so. All right, just follow my lead."
  5288. >And follow her lead, you do.
  5289. >The place wasn't all that differently laid out from the Night Guard compound, except the troops here weren't nearly as sociable as the bat-horses, only offering little 'hellos'.
  5290.  
  5291. >And she was leading you into a distinctly weapons training looking section of the compound.
  5292. >"All right, Anon. First, let me just tell you that you absolutely killed it, back at the mountain base. I admit it, you were damn near unstoppable, and I'm real glad you were on our side."
  5293. >Praise, from her?
  5294. >"But I couldn't help but notice that you had absolutely nothing in terms of melee weapons, outside of that spiffy Bluebaide focus."
  5295. >Damn it, you knew it was too good to be true.
  5296. "What's wrong with that?"
  5297. >"Nothing, if you're facing ponies, gryphons, changelings, zebras, and all that. It's a great weapon. The problem is, it's not very anti-human, now is it?"
  5298. >Oh.
  5299. "Uhh..."
  5300. >"Yeah, that was a problem during the big fight you had here, wasn't it?"
  5301. "Hey, get off my case! I didn't have time to make one!"
  5302. >"Relax, relax. I'm just saying, things would've gone smoother with a real weapon, right?"
  5303. "I uh, well, yeah."
  5304. >"Yeah. Now, I get that you focused in on that bow, and a good thing, too. But you need something for getting up close and personal, and that's what I brought you down here, for."
  5305. >Her horn glows, and a couple of weapons lockers are wheeled over to you.
  5306. >"Besides, I have it on good authority that you've got a lot on your mind, right now. What better cure for that, than beating the shit out of training dummies with all kinds of weapons?"
  5307. >The lockers open, revealing a huge spread of weapons, with racks even mounted to the inside of the doors.
  5308. >Swords, spears, maces, axes, halberds, glaives, all kinds of sharp and pointy weapons, just laid out, right there.
  5309.  
  5310. >Without really thinking, you reach out, grabbing a spear.
  5311. >The head, like the rest of the business ends of the weapons, was made of some kinda lustrous white metal.
  5312. >And it felt really light, too.
  5313. >"Admiring the weight? Around here, we use nothing but the finest mythril! Sharp, tough, and light enough for those quick strikes!"
  5314. >Mythril, huh?
  5315. >"Well, what are you waiting for? Craftsmareship is forever, but beating things takes time!"
  5316. "Uh, right."
  5317. >Something tells you that you're not gonna like the spear very much, so you stow it away and grab something else.
  5318. >Hmm, halberd, maybe?
  5319. >Sure, you'll give it a shot.
  5320. >Light's already lifted a dummy over for you, and you take a few swings.
  5321. >And then she starts correcting you, telling you how the thing is supposed to be used.
  5322. >Hmm...
  5323. >It's nice, but the lack of weight makes it feel a bit, well, floaty.
  5324. >Not what you'd expect a part chopping weapon to be.
  5325. >So you stow it away, and try, uh...
  5326. >Maybe this longsword?
  5327. >You give it a few swings, then try it out for real.
  5328. >It's fast as hell, and really leaves some slash marks, thanks to the weight and the sharpness.
  5329. >But it's like Light said: you needed something anti-human.
  5330. >More specifically, something anti-armoured human.
  5331. >And this slashing weapon wasn't really cutting the mustard in that department.
  5332. >All right, so you'll need something heavier.
  5333. >You reach for one of the maces, and while it does weigh a lot more, the mythril head makes it way lighter than you'd expect a mace to be.
  5334. >Honestly, you'd need a lot of elbow grease to cave his breastplate in with it.
  5335.  
  5336. >You try some of the other weapons out, but only the halberd, maces, and the small selection of axes really speak to you.
  5337. >And even then, they're just not heavy enough.
  5338. >Though you have to say, the axes were a lot more appealing than you expected them to be.
  5339. >"I get the feeling this wasn't what you were expecting."
  5340. "They're nice weapons, but, uh, you're not wrong."
  5341. >"Expecting more weight to them, huh?"
  5342. "Yeah."
  5343. >"We don't usually use the heavy stuff, since we need to use a lot more magic power to lift them. If it's a strong foreleg that needs catering to, you'd need something different. Tell you what, why don't I introduce you to the forge master, see what he can't do for you?"
  5344. "I guess, but--"
  5345. >ding
  5346. >"But what?"
  5347. "Actually, what time is it?"
  5348. >"Wha...? Uh, two-thirty, why?"
  5349. "I wanna hit the books a little, first. See what kinda designs might catch my eye."
  5350. >"Uh, 'designs'?"
  5351. "And get some ideas from home written down, you know?"
  5352. >A particular axe design comes to mind, that might be pretty useful.
  5353. >However, Light's face goes awful flat, almost like...
  5354. >"I'm sure that's not at all a convenient cover for waltzing off to the Night Guard compound to see their smith instead, right?"
  5355. >Hurk--!
  5356. >O-okay, not to self, don't try and bullshit this horse!
  5357. >"Listen, if you wanted to see the smith you're familiar with instead, you should've just said so."
  5358. "U-uh, well..."
  5359. >"Geez, Razor's right, you are a shit liar."
  5360. "Hey!"
  5361. >"'Hey' isn't a 'no'."
  5362. >Gee, thanks.
  5363. >Now you just feel like a douche.
  5364. >"You know, nothing says you can't see them both, right?"
  5365. "See them both?"
  5366.  
  5367. >"Well, why not? Not like Crucible's had any good projects lately."
  5368. "'Crucible'?"
  5369. >"The smith master here, Crucible Furnace. Look, just humour me, all right?"
  5370. "But--"
  5371. >"Consider it making up for trying to horseshit me."
  5372. >Geez, she's really laying the pushiness on thick, isn't she?
  5373. "All right, all right, geez."
  5374. >"That's the spirit. Now come on!"
  5375. >Sighing, you follow her.
  5376. >The weapons might be stowed away and safe, but boy, did your pride feel like that poor dummy you used them on.
  5377. >Still...
  5378. >Have you heard the name 'Crucible' somewhere before?
  5379. >After being led up the same kind of stairs that Crescent's smithy leads to, the door opens to, what else, a smithy.
  5380. >Except the place was really, really clean and organized, compared to the grimy organized chaos of Crescent's place.
  5381. >"Hey, Crucible! You in--"
  5382. >CLANG
  5383. >"Gah!"
  5384. "Fuck!"
  5385. >The source of the sudden loud hammer noise, off to the side, was from a unicorn stallion with a khaki-coloured coat, and a short, very light gray mane, swept back behind his ears.
  5386. >"Lieutenant."
  5387. >He spoke with a smooth, refined German accent, that was kept just light enough to not affect his pronunciation.
  5388. >"How many times must I place the signs above the door, before you cease interrupting my work?"
  5389. >And man, his tone was not a pleased one.
  5390. >He hasn't even looked up yet, focusing totally on the glowing metal atop his anvil.
  5391. >CLANG
  5392. >"Hey, listen, I--"
  5393. >"Have yet another requisition. I presume your agents damaged yet another one of my swords?"
  5394. >"No, tailhole, I've got a custom order to make."
  5395.  
  5396. >His eyes roll, and he sets his hammer down.
  5397. >"Is this another one of your flights of fancy, lieutena--"
  5398. >His eyes widen slightly, surprise seeping into his severe look as he takes stock of you.
  5399. >"Good goddess, who are you?"
  5400. >"This, Crucible, is Anonymous."
  5401. >"A-Anonymous? The same one who--?"
  5402. >"Same one."
  5403. >Immediately, he trots over to shake your hand.
  5404. >"Crucible Furnace, forge master for Sol Invictus, at your service."
  5405. "Uhh... thanks?"
  5406. >Man, the happy expression is not a good match for his weathered look, or the tiny little pupils he's got.
  5407. >Dude looks severe as all hell, with that combo.
  5408. >"So, this order is for you, then?"
  5409. "Well, uh, yeah?"
  5410. >"Of course, of course, your ergonomic standards must differ greatly from our own! Tell me, what is it that you require?"
  5411. >Just play it cool, okay Anon?
  5412. "Something for... dealing with armour?"
  5413. >"Ahh, a weapon, then? Of course, of course!"
  5414. "Something heavy, like a mace or an axe."
  5415. >"Of course, of course! Tell me, is there any particular design you had in mind?"
  5416. "Design? But, uh... I just need something quick and--"
  5417. >CLANG
  5418. "Gah!"
  5419. >Did he float the hammer on that anvil, just to do that?
  5420. >His eyes narrow towards you.
  5421. >"Nonsense! Ones such as you, who do so much in service to Equestria, shan't settle for simple, 'quick' designs!"
  5422. >Before you realize, he's floated a sketchbook and a pencil into your hand.
  5423. >"Mister Anonymous, draw for me the design of your choosing, and I shall make it!"
  5424. "But I--"
  5425. >CLANG
  5426. >"Now! I don't intend on leaving you empty-hooved!"
  5427. >Oh, Jesus, guess that's one way to take your mind off this morning...!
  5428.  
  5429. @@@@@@@@
  5430.  
  5431. >Shit, uh, guess you'd better sketch that idea of yours up, then!
  5432. >Wait, shit, is it as useful as you're thinking it is, or does it just look cool?
  5433. >Uhh...
  5434. >"Mister Anonymous, please expedite the drawing process! My time is precious, and so is yours!"
  5435. >Going with the cool one, it is!
  5436. >Quickly, you sketch out a bearded axe, and then hand it over to the guy.
  5437. >He scrutinizes the thing like a goddamn scientist.
  5438. >"Yes, yes, axe design lends itself well to those hands. Allows it to replace a knife in most situations. Clever."
  5439. >And now he's muttering to himself, great.
  5440. >"Back end is too plain, no utility. Needs proper anti-armour measures. Something heavy. Yes! That will do!"
  5441. >And now he's sketching what you can only assume is a heavily modified version of what you just drew up.
  5442. >"Mister Anonymous, your thoughts!"
  5443. >Just like that, the book is back in your hands, and...
  5444. >Huh.
  5445. >The blade on the axe is a touch longer, extending up and above where the handle would sit flush on the head by a good inch.
  5446. >The measurements were very clear.
  5447. >And the back end was turned into some kind of wide, flat hammer, positioned and angled up just enough to still let you slide your hand up the handle, right underneath the blade.
  5448. >Doesn't look comfortable, given what it's likely to weigh, but it works.
  5449. >"Your thoughts!"
  5450. "Wha? Oh, yeah, that. Well, uh, it... works?"
  5451. >"Of course it works! That is not in question! I asked for your thoughts!"
  5452. "Jesus, give me strength... Okay, uh, it looks cool? Functional?"
  5453. >He doesn't look impressed.
  5454. >Uh, shit, think of something...
  5455. >Aha!
  5456.  
  5457. "Look, all I care about is that it works, all right?"
  5458. >"Functionality is not in question! Now, your thoughts?"
  5459. >Yeah, this is starting to grate on you.
  5460. "My thoughts are that I have nothing to add."
  5461. >"Nothing to add? How am I supposed to know if it will accommodate, if I don't--"
  5462. "It's accommodating. Trust me."
  5463. >"I refuse to believe that you have nothing to--"
  5464. >That's quite enough.
  5465. >You shove the sketchbook into his still-outstretched foreleg, an 'oof' escaping him as he's pushed back.
  5466. "Maybe you'll believe that I'm losing my patience?"
  5467. >"I--"
  5468. "I like what you've done with it, and I want it made. Now, are you going to do it, or just stand around talking about it?"
  5469. >He doesn't look sure whether to be offended, or proud.
  5470. >"V-very well! You shall... have this design, made for you. I will need only a day for it."
  5471. >Yeah, finally.
  5472. >CLANG CLANG
  5473. >"Now, leave me be! I require total silence to concentrate!"
  5474. >He just fixes the pair of you a glare, presumably hoping that he can stare you out of the room.
  5475. >Well, he's not entirely wrong on that count, given that you and Light just left the room.
  5476. >"I think he likes you."
  5477. "I don't know what to think."
  5478. >"Ah, give him a few days, you'll warm to him!"
  5479. "Uh-huh."
  5480. >Not exactly the best first impression, you've got to say.
  5481. >If this is gonna be the trend with him, you think you'll stick with Crescent.
  5482. >"So, now that that's in the works, what were you planning on doing, now?"
  5483. "I was gonna hit the books, actually."
  5484. >"That right? What for?"
  5485. "I need info on Zebrica, seeing as how that's where we're headed, next."
  5486.  
  5487. >"Ah, getting the lay of the land? Smart."
  5488. "You got any pointers?"
  5489. >"It's mostly desert and savannah out there, but the weirdness really starts, when you get deep into the territory, where most of the major tribes roam around."
  5490. "Weird how?"
  5491. >"The terrain gets really messed up and unnatural. You get these huge patches of forests, deserts, oases, and other kinds of land that by all accounts, shouldn't exist like they do, just packed together and laid out in weird, random patterns."
  5492. "That's, uh, pretty weird."
  5493. >"There was this one dark site hidden down there, in what I swear was a tiny volcano, surrounded by dry brushlands, without a single fire ever being started. That had to be the weirdest I'd seen of the place."
  5494. "Okay, even for Equus standards, that's pretty fucked up."
  5495. >"If it makes you feel any better, that place was weird, even by Zebrica standards."
  5496. >Okay, so the terrain is completely possessed.
  5497. >Good to know.
  5498. >You're about to start speaking again, when a light 'ding' is heard coming from Light's armour, followed by her floating that same stone she talked into out of some compartment on it, and putting it to her ear like a phone.
  5499. >"Yes? I see. All right, I'll debrief them now. Over."
  5500. >She tucks the stone back away, then looks back up to you.
  5501. >"Speaking of Zebrica, I've gotta leave you here, today. Duty calls."
  5502. "Already?"
  5503. >"Welcome to my life. Exact ought to be coming by in a few minutes to come get you, so feel free to look around in the meantime."
  5504. >With that, she starts trotting off.
  5505. >"Catch you next time, Anon."
  5506.  
  5507. "Yeah, see you around."
  5508. >Well, that leaves you alone in the compound for a little while.
  5509. >One thing does kind of stick out to you, though...
  5510. >You make your way back to the area with the entrance, the giant chamber where you threw down with Nito.
  5511. >The place was bustling, the troops focused on their work, but your point of interest was still there.
  5512. >That statue of you.
  5513. >It's not a particularly tall thing, being a little above pony sized, around that awkward size where kneeling and standing don't get you a really good view, either way.
  5514. >It's a nice enough statue, and most times, it'd make you feel all kinds of giddy, ego-fuelling feels.
  5515. >Except, it isn't.
  5516. >This statue was giving you a bad vibe.
  5517. >It just seemed, well, out of character.
  5518. >Invictus has always been on your ass, and sure, you saved a fair bit of their troops in the big fight, and you got to work with them back at Nito's base.
  5519. >But they've always made it clear that you were under serious scrutiny, and that they weren't your friends.
  5520. >And yet, here this is.
  5521. >A kernel of some unidentifiable sinking feeling begins to take root, as you think back to your conversation with Celestia, about the possible prophetic stuff.
  5522. >Your mind drifts to the points against it, like whipping Nito's ass, but...
  5523. >"Anon?"
  5524. >This statue here, it...
  5525. >God, you're not sure.
  5526. >If this was indicative of some influence you somehow have on others, then--
  5527. >A tap on your side breaks you from your thoughts.
  5528. >"Anon?"
  5529. >Oh, there's Exact.
  5530. "Hey there, bud."
  5531. >"Was your time in the compound satisfactory?"
  5532. "It was, uh, something, all right."
  5533.  
  5534. >He escorts you out of the compound, with a few goodbyes given by the resident troops.
  5535. >And waiting outside is none other than Razor.
  5536. >"Geez, hard to believe we've been on guard detail for over a month, now. Gotta say, I'm really looking forward to hitting Zebrica with you, Anon."
  5537. "Yeah, me too."
  5538. >Then you can finally end this shit.
  5539. >"So, mister hero, where to?"
  5540. "I've gotta talk a bit with Crescent."
  5541. >"Again? What, you doing some last-minute gearing up?"
  5542. "You know it."
  5543. >Your party makes their way to the Night Guard compound, with your entourage chatting each other up, on the way.
  5544. >"So, buddy, how's that brother of yours doing?"
  5545. >"He is... faring well. Though his conduct during the disciplinary hearing was less than ideal."
  5546. >Oh, God, you can already imagine it.
  5547. >"In fact, he often brought up mister Anon here, cursing his name repeatedly."
  5548. >"What, because we broke up his stint, back at that mountain?"
  5549. >"It was actually motivated by bad past experiences. Something about losing his bottomless box, having his figurines ruined, and a very impassioned recount of a fight he had with him."
  5550. >Uh-uh, no.
  5551. >If he asks, don't answer.
  5552. >"Anon, is there any veracity to his testimonies?"
  5553. >Don't answer.
  5554. "I'm pleading the fifth on that one."
  5555. >Attaboy.
  5556. >"I do not understand that figure of speech."
  5557. >"Pretty sure it means he's not talking."
  5558. >"A refusal to talk would indicate a 72.8% probability of refusing to self-incriminate."
  5559. >He can think whatever he likes, but you are not dredging up those memories, again.
  5560. >"Anon, are you refusing to self-incriminate?"
  5561. "Still pleading the fifth."
  5562.  
  5563. >He tries asking again during the trip, only to be stonewalled by your God-given constitutional rights, much to Razor's bemusement.
  5564. >The subject is dropped once you arrive at the compound, however, and your first destination is none other than the smithy.
  5565. >Except you can hear talking, before you even open the door.
  5566. >"Agh, no lad! Ya lay the damned thing down on the top, not the end!"
  5567. >"B-but wouldn't there be more surface area to work with?"
  5568. >Sunburst?
  5569. >"Lad, we're tryin' to get it straight, not have it bend. Come on, ya didn't see this in school?"
  5570. >"S-sorry, I just--"
  5571. >"Agh, nevahmind, jest start hammerin', already."
  5572. >The sounds of blacksmithing are heard from within, with Sunburst occasionally yelping.
  5573. >"Aah! Wh-why does it have to be so messy?"
  5574. >"Spahrks ain't messy, lad!"
  5575. >"Yes they are! And they're--"
  5576. >"Lad, Ah got us the damned prohtection fer a reason! Yer fine, now keep goin'!"
  5577. >Oh hey, Razor's listening, too.
  5578. >Although, he looks a little peeved.
  5579. >"A-are you sure?"
  5580. >"Jest hammah it, already, before it gets cold!"
  5581. >Your lovely, out-of-context eavesdropping was interrupted by Razor storming inside.
  5582. >"What the buck is going on, in there?!"
  5583. >You just sit there with a little shit-eating grin, observing the room from behind an almost growling Razor.
  5584. >"Gaaah?!"
  5585. >"Oi, evah hear'a knockin', tailhole?!"
  5586. >Crescent and Sunburst were around an anvil, the former holding a glowing hunk of metal with tongs, while Sunburst floats a hammer above it, both wearing super thick aprons and tinted face shields.
  5587. >Three guesses as to which one was really startled by the entrance.
  5588.  
  5589. "This a bad time, you two?"
  5590. >"Wha? Ahnon?"
  5591. "Ten points for Gryffindor."
  5592. >"Eh? That... Ah, nevahmind! Good tah see ya up and about, lad!"
  5593. "Glad to be up and about, again."
  5594. >Sunburst was a little busy recoiling from Razor's glare, to acknowledge your presence.
  5595. >And Crescent wasn't looking too happy about it, either.
  5596. >"Rahzor, tha buck are ya scowlin' at?"
  5597. >"He just-- Oh, nevermind!"
  5598. >With that, he storms off, Exact looking between you two for a few moments, before going after him.
  5599. >You take that opportunity to properly enter the room, closing the door behind you.
  5600. >"Tha buck's his problem, mate?"
  5601. "Oh, I don't know. Putting an ear to the door, hearing things about hammering, straightening, and protection?"
  5602. >She blinks a couple of times, before she wrinkles her snout with a mighty scowl.
  5603. >Sunburst, meanwhile, snapped out of his panic enough to begin stuttering and flushing all on his own.
  5604. >Heh.
  5605. >Yeah, you needed that chuckle, today.
  5606. >"Oh, har-de-harr-harr."
  5607. >She flicks Sunburst's head with a wing, stopping his stuttering dead.
  5608. >"Oww! What was that for?!"
  5609. >"Yer a real comedian, ya know that?"
  5610. "It's my special talent."
  5611. >"Psh, whatevah. Yew need somethin', smahrt-flank?"
  5612. "As a matter of fact, I do. I need something for getting up close and personal."
  5613. >Now that you were talking business, she loses the scowl.
  5614. >"Somethin' close-quahrters? Was wonderin' when yew were gonna ask!"
  5615. "Yeah, I've got no excuse."
  5616. >"Buckin' rights, ya don't. So, got anythin' in mind?"
  5617. "Duh. Got any paper?"
  5618. >She points over to her desk.
  5619.  
  5620. >Ah, pencils and a sketchbook, strewn around with various tools, and a fair bit of grime and oil.
  5621. >Not that you really care.
  5622. >You grab the things, and start drawing out the same thing you did before, only without getting rushed.
  5623. >"So, Ahnon, did Ah evah tell yew about mah progress on makin' steel?"
  5624. >That gets you to pause.
  5625. "I don't believe you have. What's shaking with that?"
  5626. >"Well, yer talk on it bein' eyeron and cahrbon was only half true. Ya didn't tell me there were so many buckin' ratios and extra shite ya can add!"
  5627. "Well, I didn't really know about that."
  5628. >"Maybe, but buck, Ah've nevah had ta use as much bucking flux in any mehtal before! Ah'm jest glad ya stole that tailhole's steel recipe!"
  5629. "His reci-- Ohh, shit, I forgot about that! Though wait, you could read that?"
  5630. >"Uhh, yeah? Pretty easy."
  5631. >'Pretty easy', your ass!
  5632. >That cursive mess couldn't--
  5633. >Oh, nevermind.
  5634. "So, uh, it was a big help?"
  5635. >"A fair bit, though it was fer a type'a steel called 'Damascus' steel."
  5636. "Wait, seriously? Damascus?"
  5637. >"Aye, it familiar tew ya?"
  5638. "A little, insofar as it's supposed to be a lost ancient recipe back home."
  5639. >So that's why his sword looked all gray banded!
  5640. >But how did the asshole figure out that recipe?
  5641. >"Well, Ah can't say Ah approve of tha time it takes ta make the shite, or the amount'a folding ya need ta do ta tha billets! Still, the additives were a mighty big help with mah own version!"
  5642. "So wait, you're saying you've got steel?"
  5643. >"Do Ah have steel?"
  5644. >Crescent grin grows three sizes, as she pulls something out of her desk.
  5645.  
  5646. >"Ah wish yew'dah told me this shite sends sparks flyin' bucking everywhere when ya work it, but yes, Ah believe Ah do."
  5647. >It was a short sword, made out of a very familiar light gray metal.
  5648. >"Now, Ah'm still workin' out all tha different alloys, types, an' all that shite, but this kind? Oh, this kind's workin' real nice fer weapons."
  5649. >You run your fingers over the metal, while Sunburst decides to make himself known, behind you:
  5650. >"I-it's such an interesting metal! I've never seen something that tough, that versatile, yet also manage to be almost completely immune to all magic!"
  5651. >"Oh, this'll show that buckin' Crucible, all right!"
  5652. >Wait, Crucible?
  5653. >"A-are you still trying to show him up?"
  5654. >"Of course!"
  5655. "Am I missing a story here?"
  5656. >"There's no story! He's mah competition, an' a right pain in the flank!"
  5657. "Well, I knew that part."
  5658. >"An he-- wait, what? How do yew know?"
  5659. "I may or may not have had a run-in with him, during my little tour of the Invictus compound."
  5660. >"Yew what?!"
  5661. >"Uh-oh, here she goes..."
  5662. >Crescent flies her way into your face, wearing a rather nasty scowl.
  5663. >"What's tha tailhole makin' fer ya?!"
  5664. "W-well, I--"
  5665. >"Spit it out!"
  5666. "Hey, I was roped into it, all right?"
  5667. >"Do Ah look like Ah care?!"
  5668. "All right, all right, shit! I'll show you what he's doing!"
  5669. >She gets out of your face, but still hovers around with that scowl on her face.
  5670. >Leaving you to draw out both that axe, and the rough version of what he's doing.
  5671. "Alright, here it is--"
  5672. >She snatches the pad out of your hands, and tries her hardest to burn a hole in it with her glare.
  5673.  
  5674. >"Yew wanted an axe?"
  5675. "Yeah."
  5676. >"Tha buck's wrong with a sword?"
  5677. "Swords don't really do the armour punching thing."
  5678. >"So tha's why the bucker put that hammah on tha back end'a it! Lemmie guess, yer wantin somethin' fer that Incognito, eh?"
  5679. "Very, very badly."
  5680. >"Alright, Ah've got a better idea."
  5681. "You do?"
  5682. >She flies down to her desk, and starts drawing something out.
  5683. >Sunburst takes that moment to speak up:
  5684. >"S-so, Anon, how have you been, lately?"
  5685. "Oh, not bad."
  5686. >But not that great, either.
  5687. >"You really scared us, you know, passing out back there."
  5688. "Yeah, it was about as pleasant as it sounded."
  5689. >"S-still, I'm happy to see you're doing fine, now!"
  5690. "Thanks, bud."
  5691. >Crescent picks that moment to fly back into your face, sketchbook in hoof.
  5692. >"If it's ahrmour yer wantin' ta punch through, this'll do tha trick!"
  5693. >Her sketch is not that of an axe, but rather, that of a war hammer.
  5694. >It definitely looked the part of a regular hammer, save for the single, slightly curved spike, jutting out of the back end by around three and a half inches.
  5695. "Huh."
  5696. >"Now that'll make short work'a any ahrmour, 'specially when Ah make the buckin' thing outta steel!"
  5697. >Steel war hammer, huh?
  5698. >After seeing his sword ignore your shielding, you wouldn't mind something that'll ignore his!
  5699. "Is it gonna be as heavy as I'm thinking it'll be?"
  5700. >"Yew bettah believe it."
  5701. "Then I'm sold."
  5702. >"Now, did that damned Crucible tell ya when ta expect yer little axe?"
  5703. "I believe his words were, 'I'll need only a day for it'."
  5704. >"Of course. Bet he really wants ta show off his 'adamantium'."
  5705.  
  5706. "Is that bad?"
  5707. >"No, the shite's good! But it's his shite, damn it!"
  5708. "Right, right, say no more."
  5709. >"Lad, this is a mattah of honour, now. Ah'm gettin' yew that hammah by tomorrow, understand?"
  5710. >You smile in response.
  5711. "Yeah, I understand."
  5712. >Note to self: play both sides for faster results.
  5713. >If only that didn't mean having to deal with Crucible.
  5714. >Oh, well.
  5715. >"Good. Sunburst!"
  5716. >"Aah! Y-yes?"
  5717. >"Reheat that chunk'a steel, we've got work tah do!"
  5718. >"Wh-what? Now?"
  5719. >"Yes, now! We've got a deadline tew meet!"
  5720. >"'We'?"
  5721. >"Now!"
  5722. >"Y-yes, ma'am!"
  5723. >Sunburst scrambles into action, and Crescent walks over to help.
  5724. >"An' here Ah was, plannin' on getting yew some nice steel 'eaded ahrrows, first. Looks like ye'll hafta wait a few more days for that."
  5725. "Crescent, you're a miracle worker."
  5726. >"An' don't yew ferget it, tailhole! Now, we've got work tah do, so iff'n ya don't mind?"
  5727. >See, at least she asked you nicely!
  5728. "Have fun."
  5729. >"Oh, Ah will."
  5730. >"I-I don't know about that..."
  5731. >"Oi!"
  5732. >"N-nothing! I said nothing!"
  5733. >Your exit from the smithy is peppered with chuckles.
  5734. >God, those two...
  5735. >They sure make one hell of a team, don't they?
  5736. >All right, now...
  5737. >You track down your motley entourage of two, and decide to take that trip down to the library, to read up on Zebrica.
  5738. "Hey, Exact, you know much about Zebrica?"
  5739. >"I know little, outside of what you already know. Greater understanding of the terrain and tribes are better suited to this research endeavour of yours."
  5740. >Guess that settles that, then.
  5741. >You end up checking out a good eight books, by the time your library crawl is done.
  5742. <...
  5743.  
  5744. >KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK
  5745. "Who is it?"
  5746. >"It's us, Anon!"
  5747. >Twilight?
  5748. >That means...
  5749. >Oh, God.
  5750. >You quickly glance over at the clock, finding that it was now eight at night.
  5751. >God, time really flew with these books, huh?
  5752. >Probably wasn't wise to start re-reading your zebra language notes, either, but hey.
  5753. >"Anon?"
  5754. "Uh, sorry. Come on in."
  5755. >The door opens, the pair of princesses making their way in.
  5756. >Their excited looks are the exact inverse of your own excitement, right now.
  5757. >This is such a bad idea.
  5758. >But good luck dissuading those two.
  5759. >Giving a quiet sigh, you close up your book, and set it down on the table, rising to your feet soon afterwards.
  5760. >"Oh, what are you reading, Anon?"
  5761. "Just researching Zebrica a bit. It's my next destination, after all."
  5762. >"Oh, right!"
  5763. >Luna looked a bit more wistful about it, though.
  5764. >"Zebrica was always such a lush, beautiful land, before my banishment. I was so shocked, when I learned what became of it, and it's people. So much lush foliage, such a proud empire, reduced to mere sand, and squabbling tribes..."
  5765. >"It was a lush place, before?"
  5766. >"It was. Perhaps, if I am able, I could show you?"
  5767. >"I... I'd like that."
  5768. >They look way happier about what's coming up, than they should.
  5769. >"Well, then. Shall we proceed, dearest Anon?"
  5770. "I... I guess so."
  5771. >"You are still apprehensive?"
  5772. "How can I not be?"
  5773. >"I am sorry you feel that way."
  5774. >"Me, too. I really wish there was more we could say, to make you feel better about it."
  5775. "Let's just... get the show on the road, all right?"
  5776. >"Okay."
  5777. >"Very well."
  5778. >With that, you all head to your lab.
  5779.  
  5780. >Okay, a quick trip to the lock-up, and you've got your glasses, and the two Divinova foci, ready for them.
  5781. >They've brought their little bracer wands, though this time, they look a little different.
  5782. >They're shorter, so they can actually walk with the hoof they're strapped to.
  5783. >That's neat, you guess.
  5784. >Oh, God help you.
  5785. >Your shaky hands pass each of them the foci, which they take rather gingerly, plopping them onto the wands.
  5786. >But just as your hands move to draw back, they're filled once again, this time with the hooves of both mares, giving you a matching set of reassuring looks.
  5787. >"It's okay, Anon."
  5788. >"We will be fine, trust us."
  5789. >Both hooves get a little squeeze, as you take a deep breath.
  5790. >They look to each other with a little nod, before their wands light up.
  5791. >Your glasses activate, and you see the links forming between them once again, their heads coming closer and closer for another meeting of horns.
  5792. >And all the while, they never let go of your hands, which by now were gripping them tightly.
  5793. >Then, their horns finally touch.
  5794. >Instantly, every node link between the two snaps tight, merging into one.
  5795. >BWMPH-VWRRRRRrrrrrrrr
  5796. >The same massive beam from before shoots between their chests, and you almost pull the two apart, right then and there.
  5797. >But then, something different happened.
  5798. >VWRrrrrrrrrr
  5799. >The beam became narrower and far less intense, though still very visible and bright, gently oscillating between the two.
  5800. >Their eyes had shut, but you could tell they were moving really rapidly.
  5801. >As much as you hate it, all you can do is hold onto them.
  5802.  
  5803. >Funny, they seem to be smiling a little, despite everything.
  5804. >That almost puts you at ease.
  5805. >Almost.
  5806. >But as long as they're still beaming between each other, they--
  5807. >A third beam makes itself known, snaking into the middle of the existing beam, from behind you.
  5808. >BWMPH
  5809. >The instant it connects, the two gasp loudly, and the connection breaks, their eyes shooting open as they pant for air.
  5810. "Girls? Are you all right?"
  5811. >"I... I think so."
  5812. >"That was... an incredible experience, Twilight...!"
  5813. >"Yeah, I'll say!"
  5814. >"But, who was that, at the very end, who demanded that we stop?"
  5815. >Twilight's head turns towards something behind you, a look of surprise on her face.
  5816. >"P-Pedullal? You stopped it?"
  5817. >Huh?
  5818. >The lab node?
  5819. >"B-but why?"
  5820. >"Pedullal? That is the other, you spoke of?"
  5821. >"Y-yes, but I've never seen it act so--"
  5822. >Both mares recoil at something the node 'says' through it's links.
  5823. >"P-Pedullal! How could you say something like that?!"
  5824. >"Wh-what are you talking about? What betrayal?"
  5825. >Twilight puts herself between Luna and the node, with a very protective look to match her wings extending.
  5826. >"No! She isn't Nightmare Moon, anymore! And she never will be!"
  5827. >Luna brushes past Twilight, a tearful yet curious look on her face.
  5828. >"I do not understand."
  5829. >"Luna, don't let it get to you!"
  5830. >Now Luna was properly crying.
  5831. >"I do not know what you mean! I cannot remember!"
  5832. >"That's ridiculous! She'd never--"
  5833. >"NO! I would never do such a thing! Never!"
  5834. >"Pedullal, stop it, please!"
  5835. >"You are wrong! I... I am not...! I would not..."
  5836. >Luna falls back onto her rear, recoiling as if struck.
  5837.  
  5838. >Your legs finally decide to function, and you rush over to her, only to have Twilight beat you to it, putting herself between her and the node, again.
  5839. >"How dare you!"
  5840. "Luna!"
  5841. >That doesn't stop you from scooping her up in your arms, where she quickly latches onto you, burying her face into your shoulder.
  5842. "What the hell's going on, now?!"
  5843. >"Why?! You were so nice to me, before! How could you say all those horrible things about her?!"
  5844. "Twilight?"
  5845. >"She is NOT a 'discarded puppet'!"
  5846. "Twilight!"
  5847. >"Who the heck is Slae--"
  5848. >She stops upon hearing a sob escape Luna, prompting you to give her head some scratching, and for Twilight to shake her head, and fix the node a death glare.
  5849. >"We'll discuss this later."
  5850. >That was a tone you never expected to hear out of her.
  5851. >You don't have time to ponder it, however, when she whirls around, floating both her and Luna's wands off.
  5852. >"Anon, let's get her out of here."
  5853. >No argument here!
  5854. >You pick Luna up, but instead of going to your room, Twilight leads you through the gate to Luna's place, where you head back through her lab and study, and into her bedroom.
  5855. >"Anon, I'm so sorry! I didn't think that--"
  5856. "What happened?!"
  5857. >"E-everything went so well, a-and then Pedullal just--"
  5858. >Both of you stop upon hearing Luna sob again.
  5859. >Twilight leads you to her bed, where you try to lay her down, only for her to roll you onto it yourself, never letting go.
  5860. >"It's okay, Luna..."
  5861. >She's wrapped in another hug from Twilight, both of you trying to calm her down.
  5862. >She only calms down once she falls asleep, the pair of you continuing to hold her, even as you, too, lose the fight to exhaustion.
  5863. <...
  5864.  
  5865. @@@@@@@@
  5866.  
  5867. >>"Oh, please, by all means, keep on struggling! It'll make the cuts even less clean!"
  5868. >>Oh Jesus, oh God, oh fuck, fuck, fuck!
  5869. >>You try vainly to pull away from the table again, but the restraints keep you held fast.
  5870. >>"You know, in a way, I'm glad I can't just carve some runework onto you, human."
  5871. >>The orange, crazy-eyed monster holds a tool up for you to see.
  5872. >>A scalpel, with a syringe for a handle.
  5873. >>"That would make this far, far too easy, you know?"
  5874. >>He holds a bottle of a lightly glowing green liquid out in plain sight, and begins drawing the liquid into the syringe.
  5875. >>No, no, no no no no no!
  5876. >>His smile only grows as your thrashing intensifies.
  5877. >>"Well, then. Let's get started, shall we?"
  5878. >>He brings the blade closer, doing it slowly on purpose.
  5879. >>You cry out as it begins to dig into--
  5880. >>"My lord!"
  5881. >>He whirls around, fury overtaking his glee, as he looks to some other monster out of sight.
  5882. >>"You dare interrupt me, worm?!"
  5883. >>"Th-the Void Lords demand your presence at the communion, lord Maar!"
  5884. >>"Do they, now? And what, pray tell, do they want with me?"
  5885. >>"One of the Lords, one bearing our likeness, asked for you specifically by name, my lord!"
  5886. >>"By name? But, how could...?"
  5887. >>You can't see his expression, but that small start of his almost seems like a realization.
  5888. >>"Was it my master, worm?"
  5889. >>"No, my lord, it didn't sound like him!"
  5890. >>He twirls the knife around, while humming to himself.
  5891. >>"All right, I'll be there, soon."
  5892. >>"S-soon?"
  5893. >>He turns back to you, with a wicked grin.
  5894. >>"I don't leave jobs half done."
  5895. >>His knife sweeps across your chest, slicing along a rib.
  5896.  
  5897. "Aaaaagh!"
  5898. >Jesus fucking Christ!
  5899. >You bolt upright, clutching your side.
  5900. >"Anon!"
  5901. >Something soft grabs onto your other side, as you try and get your bearings.
  5902. >"Anon, it's okay! You're okay!"
  5903. >That voice...
  5904. >Twilight?
  5905. >Things snap back into focus, right around the same time another soft feeling thing touches your 'hurt' side.
  5906. >This is...
  5907. >Luna's room?
  5908. >But, wait, why are you--?
  5909. >Oh.
  5910. >Oh!
  5911. >You turn your head to the sides, taking stock of the soft things stuck to your sides.
  5912. >A worried looking Twilight, and a tired looking Luna.
  5913. >She looks about as bad as you feel, right about now.
  5914. >God, that dream...
  5915. >You groan a little, holding your forehead with a free hand.
  5916. >"Are you faring well, dearest Anon?"
  5917. "Not really, but..."
  5918. >Despite the headache, you pull your hand away from your head, to look over to Luna.
  5919. "Never mind me, how are you holding up?"
  5920. >"But you just--"
  5921. >Said hand makes it's way to her head, where it begins working on her ears.
  5922. >She tries to voice a complaint, but all that comes out are a few stutters, before she loses any desire to speak, instead just pressing her head into your hand, trying to intensify what you're offering up.
  5923. >Man, she really needed this, huh?
  5924. >Yeah, that's more than worth the price of your own headache.
  5925. >Fortunately, she had Twilight to do the speaking, for her:
  5926. >"She's okay, Anon, just tired."
  5927. >That groan from Luna sounded halfway between enjoyment and agreement.
  5928. >"But what about you? You said you weren't doing fine. A-and that nightmare, it looked really bad!"
  5929. "I, uh..."
  5930. >Great, here you are, making this all about you.
  5931. "So far, they've all been like that."
  5932.  
  5933. >"They have?!"
  5934. >Luna tenses a little under your hold, and Twilight takes that moment to move from holding onto your side, to standing in front of you, worry written all over her face.
  5935. >"Why didn't you tell us?!"
  5936. "I-it's fine, really. I can--"
  5937. >"Fine? Fine?! You were thrashing around in your sleep, saying something about knives and monsters! That's not fine!"
  5938. >You were?
  5939. "I was?"
  5940. >"Yes! And now you're saying you have those, every night?"
  5941. "Uh, well, I..."
  5942. >Uh-oh, now she's really mad.
  5943. >Luna shakes your hand off of her head, standing up as well, and getting beside Twilight, before she can start giving you hell.
  5944. >"I was warned of how intense your dreaming might be, and it is unfortunate that such warnings proved to be true."
  5945. >"W-wait, you knew?"
  5946. >"The doctor had warned me about him yelling in his sleep, and lieutenant Razor Wind saw fit to tell me yesterday of a similar incident."
  5947. >So he told her about that, huh?
  5948. >Luna's expression hardens a little bit.
  5949. >"I will find a way to aid you with those nightmares, dearest Anon. That, I will assure you of."
  5950. "It's fine, really--"
  5951. >"No, Twilight is quite right, it is not fine. And it wounds me, to see you suffer so during your time of rest. A time when I should be most able to offer aid."
  5952. >"C-could you at least tell us about what happened?"
  5953. "I-I don't know if that's a good idea..."
  5954. >"Wh-why not?!"
  5955. "It's like you said, knives and monsters. I'm just glad this one didn't feature the..."
  5956. >God almighty, it stings a little, just remembering those!
  5957. "The beatings."
  5958. >She tries to press it, but Luna rests a hoof on her withers, shaking her head a little.
  5959. >Glad she sees eye-to-eye with you.
  5960. >Twilight was probably the last person you wanted to traumatize like that.
  5961.  
  5962. >"Dearest Anon, I understand if you do not wish to share such... splanchnic details. Even so, can you think of any other details, any at all, that may be of some use?"
  5963. >Well, outside of knowing what that scalpel-syringe thing was likely used for...
  5964. >Wait.
  5965. >That sick orange fuck, the guy featuring in most of the dreams...!
  5966. "Maar..."
  5967. >"What?"
  5968. "That's his name. Their 'lord', the guy who shows up in most of the dreams I've had."
  5969. >"'Maar'... that name is not familiar to me."
  5970. >"M-me neither. Maybe Celestia would know more?"
  5971. >"Possibly. Was there anything else?"
  5972. "I remember him being called away, to have some kinda 'communion' with the... 'Void Lords'?"
  5973. >The same Void Lords that Nito and Celestia mentioned, if you had to guess.
  5974. >"He went to do what?!"
  5975. >Whoa, okay, Luna just got a whole lot angrier!
  5976. >"Are you certain of that, Anonymous?"
  5977. "Y-yeah, I know what I heard."
  5978. >Wait, didn't Celestia say not to mention them around her--?
  5979. >"Cursed monsters! Not only do they torment you, but they dare to conspire with those damnable wraiths?!"
  5980. >"L-Luna! What's wrong?"
  5981. >"Twilight, if he is correct, his captors spoke with a force of great evil, hidden beyond our world!"
  5982. >"E-Evil?"
  5983. >"These 'Void Lords', 'Warlocks', the creatures of the Warp, they are responsible for the dark arts! They are the corruption, the dread whispers one hears, should they ever taste dark magic for themselves!"
  5984. >That struck a nerve with Twilight.
  5985. >"Y-you mean, that's why...?!"
  5986. >"Yes, they are why lady Starlight must be kept in a suppressed and dreamless state!"
  5987. >Now, their anger was starting to equalize.
  5988.  
  5989. >Funny, Luna's newfound anger was doing wonders at banishing her previous tired look.
  5990. >"Anonymous, is that all you remember?"
  5991. "P-pretty sure...!"
  5992. >"I see. Twilight, remain here with Anonymous. I must inform my sister of this new information."
  5993. >There's not even time for her to say goodbye, since she just straight-up teleports away, leaving you alone with Twilight.
  5994. >And you didn't even get to ask her about what that fucking node said to her.
  5995. >"Anon, I still have unfinished business with Pedullal. As soon as you're up, I want to speak to it, again!"
  5996. >Oh, okay--
  5997. >Wait a minute, what?!
  5998. "A-are you serious?"
  5999. >"Dead serious! It has a lot to answer for, saying everything it did about Luna!"
  6000. "Well, what the hell did it say?"
  6001. >"Ohmygosh, Pedullal was furious, calling her a 'discarded puppet', a 'betrayer', and a 'fallen one', among other things! I can't believe the nerve it had!"
  6002. "But wait, Luna dealt with that a lot, when she was de-Nightmare'd, right? What's different about this?"
  6003. >"You don't understand! When we... 'talk' like that, though those links, you share every little emotion, almost every detail of what you mean, in almost perfect clarity!
  6004. >"It's why I wanted to do this again with Luna, because it was the best way for us to find out what's been hurting her! And then Pedullal came along, and I could feel every bit of anger and loathing it had for her, and ohhhmygosh, it makes me so mad!"
  6005. >So it was some kind of mind-melding bullshit?
  6006. >But--
  6007. >"I'm going to give Pedullal a serious piece of my mind, tell it just what I think about anypony, even an ascendant, talking to my friends like that!"
  6008.  
  6009. >Note to self: don't fuck with Twilight's friends, especially not over mind-meld frequencies.
  6010. >She's really, really mad about this, Jesus Christ!
  6011. >Even so, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that this was an even worse idea than the regular mind-node-merging shit.
  6012. >"Come on, let's go and--"
  6013. >She's silenced with a hand grabbing her horn, her anger quickly replaced by surprise, with an accompanying squeak.
  6014. "Twilight, settle down."
  6015. >"A-Anon, let go!"
  6016. "Twilight, settle down."
  6017. >"B-but...!"
  6018. >She's getting really antsy, thanks to your hand's current locale, so you let her go.
  6019. >You found out pretty early on that your hand could double up as a horn ring, a fact that did not go over well when you first came here.
  6020. >Knowing what you do now, it makes sense, but boy, is it an attention grabber, when you need it.
  6021. >Like now, for instance.
  6022. >"B-but I can't just let it go!"
  6023. "I know, but it's..."
  6024. >What's that clock there say?
  6025. "Eight in the morning. If you're gonna chew the thing out, can't you hold off until at least the afternoon?"
  6026. >It also may or may not be an excuse to work safely in your magnetics lab, today.
  6027. >That, and you'd need an iron plate ready to roll, in case things go south in her exchange.
  6028. >"But I--"
  6029. "Please?"
  6030. >If the 'please' wasn't enough, you add some extra incentive with some ear scratching.
  6031. >Her struggle is great, but when she starts puffing her cheeks out, you know you've won the battle.
  6032. >"Fine! But I'm going to talk to it this afternoon, for absolute sure, understand?"
  6033. "Understood."
  6034. >That should be enough time.
  6035. >"N-now come on, we're gonna miss breakfast if you laze around, like that!"
  6036. "Hey, who's side are you on, here?"
  6037. <...
  6038.  
  6039. >"Very impressive, Athalia!"
  6040. >It's impossible not to smile at Incognito's praise, especially not in the wake of all those targets being utterly destroyed.
  6041. >"I knew the power available to you had improved since our last session, but I did not think it was quite to this extent. Even so, this display must have been quite strenuous."
  6042. "N-not at all!"
  6043. >That wasn't a lie, either: destroying those targets wasn't very much of a drain on your stores of love!
  6044. >"You're certain?"
  6045. "Positive!"
  6046. >"I see. Still, I would advise restraint."
  6047. "O-of course!"
  6048. >"Good. Now, I believe I promised to teach you more spells, yes?"
  6049. >All you can do is nod, barely able to contain your excitement.
  6050. >From the small stack of papers he's brought with him, he lifts off a couple of sheets.
  6051. >"This may not be what you were expecting, but I think you will agree that your intrinsic shielding spells leave much to be desired, no?"
  6052. >W-wait, shields?
  6053. >He's going to teach you better shields, first?
  6054. >"And against the powers that are now arrayed against us, we cannot afford to rest upon our laurels."
  6055. >N-no kidding...!
  6056. >Thinking back to your fights with... him, you can see why he'd be showing you this, first!
  6057. >And so, you sit down with him, the slight change of subject doing little to blunt your excitement at learning more from him.
  6058. >He starts you off with two distinct barrier spells, one of them meant for magic, the other meant for physical attacks.
  6059. >The trial run of the spells really sold you on them, though.
  6060. >Sweet Foremothers, they were strong!
  6061. >And to think, he had more spells to show you, that might be even stronger!
  6062.  
  6063. >He moves onto teaching you a different kind of magic bolt, though he calls it an improved one.
  6064. >It's more powerful, sure, but the extra power is wasted against things that die easily to your regular bolts, anyway.
  6065. >Still, against enemies like those damn princesses, it should be helpful!
  6066. >Now, he pulls free another sheet of paper, something about an improved beam spell--
  6067. >"My Lord!"
  6068. >Your focus on the page is broken by the interruption, one of your changelings calling out for Incognito's attention.
  6069. >"Yes, child, what is it?"
  6070. >"It's the mountain base, my Lord! They haven't been sending any reports, and they haven't been responding to our messages!"
  6071. >What?
  6072. >"How long has this been the case?"
  6073. >"For at least the last two days!"
  6074. >Incognito's face becomes deadly serious, hints of anger beginning to seep into his expression.
  6075. >He stands up, walking over to his catalyst, and placing it onto his hand.
  6076. >"Thank you for the information, my child, You are free to leave."
  6077. >The changeling does just that, leaving the two of you alone.
  6078. "M-my Lord, what's going on?"
  6079. >"I do not know, but I aim to find out."
  6080. >The catalyst ignites with power, the gems inside of it shifting positions.
  6081. >With a few gestures of the finger blades, he draws out a circular 'window' in the air, and draws strange symbols within those same circles, the entire circle igniting red whenever he does so.
  6082. >But every time he does this, the circle seems to rip itself apart, to Incognito's growing disbelief and anger.
  6083. >"Impossible. I placed dozens of auspexes there!"
  6084.  
  6085. >One of the symbols he tries to activate does work, the circle acting as an actual window of sorts, showing the mountainside where the mountain base was.
  6086. >All you saw, however, was a pile of rubble, in place of a smooth mountain face, with ponies patrolling around.
  6087. >Wait, ponies?!
  6088. >But, how?!
  6089. >It was supposed to be hidden!
  6090. >Wordlessly, he weaves the catalyst blades around the 'window', trying to zoom in and get a better view.
  6091. >It's at that point, that you notice the 'window' is making sound, as if it's listening to what's going on at the mountain, itself.
  6092. >He zooms into a patrolling group of ponies, all of them unicorns, and wearing the armour of--
  6093. >"Sol Invictus...!"
  6094. >The same ones that arrested Anonymous, back at Ponyville!
  6095. >With a few more gestures, he makes the 'window' become louder, allowing you to hear what a chattier group was saying to each other:
  6096. >"I wasn't here for the op, how'd it go?"
  6097. >"Oh, boy, you seriously missed out. It just might have been one of the smoothest, most satisfying ops I've ever been part of!"
  6098. >"Really? I-is it true, then, that... the human was there for it, too?"
  6099. >"Was he there? Hah! Mister Anonymous was the whole reason it went as well as it did!"
  6100. >"I remember when he fought off that Incognito, back when he attacked the compound. W-was he anything like that, here?"
  6101. >"Better. Nothing they had even touched him, and he just completely wiped the floor with every last bird and bug in this place, single-hoovedly! Honestly, we were on cleanup detail, more than we were on combat duty!"
  6102. >"Wow...!"
  6103.  
  6104. >"But you know what, I don't think I'll ever forget the time he took to heal us up, when the fighting was over--"
  6105. >THWMPH
  6106. >Red tints most of your vision, but the fury you feel now only made the black fireball launched at the 'window' fly even truer, disintegrating the spell with ease.
  6107. >You can't even speak, your teeth clenching too tightly.
  6108. >Anonymous.
  6109. >Anonymous!
  6110. >It's always bucking Anonymous!
  6111. >The closest thing you had to a home, since the Badlands hive was taken over, and you should have known he'd be at the helm of destroying it!
  6112. >He's dead.
  6113. >He's dead!
  6114. >No, worse than dead!
  6115. >When you find him, his suffering will be the thing of legend!
  6116. >You'll feed his soul to the vilest filth in--!
  6117. >"Athalia!"
  6118. >Incognito's exclamation was only partly successful in giving you pause, but the furious expression he wore when looking at you, that quickly shifted into surprise, brought your rage to a screeching halt.
  6119. >"That spell, the black fireball. Where did you learn to do that?"
  6120. >His glare sent a shiver down your spine.
  6121. "I-I--"
  6122. >"Answer me!"
  6123. >His tone almost brings a yelp out of you.
  6124. >His expression shifts, however, when he seems to realize something, and he kneels down to your level, trying his best to soften his expression.
  6125. >"Athalia, listen to me very carefully."
  6126. >I-it's hard not to!
  6127. >"I don't care who, or what, may tell you otherwise, but you must not wield that power again, do you understand?"
  6128. "Wh-what?"
  6129. >I-is he serious?!
  6130. "But you do--!"
  6131. >"Because I can ignore the drawbacks, Athalia. You cannot. Now, I will ask you again. Do not use that magic again, do you understand?"
  6132.  
  6133. "I...!"
  6134. >Th-this is ridiculous!
  6135. >B-but he...
  6136. >He's so serious about this!
  6137. >But...
  6138. >You...
  6139. "I-I understand."
  6140. >"Thank you. Understand, that I do this for your well-being. Now, I must leave you for the moment. There is much to do, in light of this... new information."
  6141. >He storms off, the anger returning to his expression with that last line, leaving you alone in the small practice room.
  6142. >Alone with your thoughts.
  6143. >Wh-why did he react so badly to that spell?
  6144. >D-did he really never see you use that kind of magic, before this?
  6145. >Did nobody tell him?
  6146. >But, how's that possible?
  6147. >And why--
  6148. >>`Don't pay the Destroyer's words any mind, neophyte.`
  6149. >Gaah...!
  6150. >>`We'll be more than happy to explain things, during tomorrow's communion. Don't be late!`
  6151. >And just like that, the voice's presence vanishes, as quickly as it entered your mind.
  6152. >The voices!
  6153. >Damn it, and you went without hearing them for so long, too!
  6154. >What's this all about?!
  6155. >Aagh, why did everything have to go wrong, right at this moment?!
  6156. >No, you know what, you need a break!
  6157. >You need to collect your thoughts!
  6158. >With that in mind, you make your way back to your hive, through the temple--
  6159. >"Athalia!"
  6160. >Oh, damn it, it's Veldheer!
  6161. >"I have been searching for you, my dear! Where have you been?"
  6162. "Not now, Veldheer...!"
  6163. >"What? You seem angry, my dear. What's happened?"
  6164. >You snap at him.
  6165. "Anonymous happened!"
  6166. >Your outburst surprises him, even if he doesn't show it.
  6167. >Quickly, his demeanour changes, becoming more sympathetic.
  6168. >"He claimed a victory, didn't he?"
  6169. "Huh? How did--"
  6170. >"An informed guess. Anything you wish to discuss?"
  6171. >He's crazy, for thinking you'd want to discuss this with him.
  6172. >Guess that makes you crazier, for deciding to humour him!
  6173. <...
  6174.  
  6175. >This has to be one of the most awkward situations you've found yourself in, lately.
  6176. >Crescent, on one side, a quickly wrapped box on her back, glaring daggers at the opposition.
  6177. >Said opposition took the form of Crucible, a rather extravagant box on his own back, returning fire with his own death glare.
  6178. >The boxes contained their weapons for you, no doubt.
  6179. >But the real crown of awkwardness had to be the fuming Twilight standing next to you, having her attempt to talk to your node interrupted by these two.
  6180. >After all the pep talks she gave herself, no less!
  6181. >"Ah, little Crescent hammer. Come to offer a trite little 'gift' to our resident saviour, have we?"
  6182. >"Ya smell like right shite, Crucible. Been tew busy huffin' yer artsy friends fumes again, ya tosser?"
  6183. >Oh, you were wondering when they'd start shit-talking each other.
  6184. >"Is that envy I detect? Envy over the acclaim my craft receives, compared to your cookie cutter toys?"
  6185. >"Oh, right, Ah fergot how them ahrtists fight all tha battles! Ya know, with them fancy, glitterin' props'a yours!"
  6186. >"You will not refer to the fruits of my labours as 'props' again, bat."
  6187. >"Are they evah used outside'a tha wardrobes of nobles? No? Well, sounds like props tah me, ya gormless dickhead!"
  6188. >"Your basic little creations of moonstone will never see the acclaim my works do!"
  6189. >"Aye, an' my basic lil' creations don't break iff'n ya fart on 'em! Ah still don't know how ya made bucking mythril snap in 'alf on that mace!"
  6190. >"H-how dare you, you insolent little wretch?!"
  6191. >"Aww, is the wee lil' milksop gonna cry about it?"
  6192.  
  6193. >Man, this is quality entertainment, right here.
  6194. >Too bad Twilight doesn't seem to agree, otherwise this would call for some popcorn.
  6195. >"Why, you despicable little savage!"
  6196. >"Ooh, 'savage'! Did yer mum come up with that one fer ya, when she was makin' yer sandwiches today?"
  6197. >Twilight inhaling was you only warning to cover your ears.
  6198. >"ENOUGH!"
  6199. >That turned out to be a good call, seeing how she somehow managed to Canterlot Voice them into stunned silence.
  6200. >Huh, where'd she learn to do that?
  6201. >"You two are interrupting some very, VERY important business I have here, today! Whatever you came here to do, do it now, or leave!"
  6202. >Man, she can get pretty terrifying, when she wants to.
  6203. >A sentiment shared by both smith-horses, who rush forward to show off their works.
  6204. >Crucible was the first, much to Crescent's disappointment.
  6205. >"Now, mister Anonymous, I believe you will find this to be among the finest of weapons you've ever seen!"
  6206. >He magics open his box, levitating out...
  6207. >Uh.
  6208. >Wow.
  6209. >That's an axe, all right.
  6210. >Can't say you were expecting it to look quite like that, though.
  6211. >The basic shape of what he drew up was there, but the entire axe head was done in this lustrous light gray metal, with a dark stained wooden handle.
  6212. >The intricate details on the entire axe, however, consisting mostly of decorative glyph work, almost made you not want to use the thing, out of being afraid to ruin it.
  6213. >"See, I knew you would appreciate the craftsmareship! Come now, pick it up!"
  6214. >And pick it up, you do.
  6215. >It's definitely got some heft to it, but man, the thought of using it in a fight...!
  6216.  
  6217. >"See, Crescent? This is a stallion who appreciates a true work of art!"
  6218. >"Ya mean, he's tew busy admirin' it? Well hay, it'll make a good distraction, at least!"
  6219. >You give it a few experimental swings, the thing almost whistling through the air.
  6220. >Ohh, man, it feels so nice to handle...!
  6221. >"At least I spared no expense, crafting it with the finest adamantium! What's your excuse, Crescent?"
  6222. >"Thought yew'd nevah ask."
  6223. >The bat-mare moves up, presenting her own box for you to take.
  6224. >"When yer done gawkin' at that axe, take a look at this!"
  6225. >Well, with Twilight around, that was an easy choice.
  6226. >Setting the axe down, you take Crescent's box, and open it up.
  6227. >Inside was none other than a one handed steel war hammer, just like she promised.
  6228. >Polished up to a mirror finish, and much simpler on the design front, but man, it looked like a workhorse!
  6229. >And it weighed a fair bit more than the axe, too!
  6230. >You swing it around a few times, as well, to get a feel for it.
  6231. >Top-heavy, but then again, so was the axe.
  6232. >It's kinda what they do.
  6233. >"Ahh, what pathetic little alloy is this, Crescent?"
  6234. >"A lil' somethin' we like ta call steel, Crucible."
  6235. >"Hah! Steel, is it? Amazing what graphite can do to finishes, nowadays!"
  6236. >"Well, why don't we test it out, see what's--"
  6237. >Twilight's loud throat clearing stopped that conversation dead.
  6238. >"Thank you very much for proving Anon with these new weapons, but we're fresh out of time, for today!"
  6239. >Only Crucible protests as he's floated out, Crescent just offering her sympathies in look form.
  6240. >"Now, Anon, could we please get on with this, already?"
  6241.  
  6242. @@@@@@@@
  6243.  
  6244. "I see you've been looking forward to this."
  6245. >"Not exactly. Look, I just want some answers out of it, all right? Please?"
  6246. "Alright, alright."
  6247. >Better get to it, then.
  6248. >When she gets antsy, she really gets antsy.
  6249. >You grab hold of both of your weapon 'offerings', and follow her back through to your lab.
  6250. >Setting the weapons down on a worktable, you dig through your lock-up for a Divinova focus, and your glasses.
  6251. >And you go ahead and grab that iron plate you took out of the mag lab, for good measure.
  6252. >No idea if this'll even work on those beams, but given what you've seen this shit do, you'd say it's got a good chance.
  6253. >Thoughts of Nito's big Sith Lord attack being completely useless against your new armour float through your mind, bringing a tiny smile to your face.
  6254. >Until you remember that there's another node-to-node about to happen.
  6255. >Yeah, let's just get this over with.
  6256. >Twilight doesn't even wait for you to kneel down and hand it to her, instead just snatching the focus out of your hand with her magic as you approach, and shoving it onto the hoof-wand.
  6257. >The glasses come down, right as she levels a glare in the general direction of the node.
  6258. >"Alright, Pedullal, you have some serious explaining to do!
  6259. >"What? Ohh, no. Don't you dare try and play nice with me! You think I'm just going to let it slide, like that?!"
  6260. >The link count grows, but funnily enough, they're only from the lab node to her, with Twilight's link count staying the same.
  6261. >"Oh, 'You're not playing nice', huh? You're just nice all the time? Like how you were nice to Luna, back then?"
  6262.  
  6263. >The links from the node to her begin to widen, but again, her links stay exactly the same.
  6264. >"Let me make this perfectly clear to you. She is NOT the Nightmare! She hasn't been the Nightmare for years!
  6265. >"I don't need you to believe me! I was there! It was me, and my friends, that purged it from her!"
  6266. >The node links going to Twilight snap together, merging into one.
  6267. >BWMPH-VWRRRRRrrrrr--
  6268. >KRACK
  6269. >The giant beam tries to form, but it shatters moments after it connects to Twilight, the node's links splintering back out and recoiling, like they were just batted away.
  6270. >"No! I'm not going to humour you! You can tell me what you mean, or I'll find someascendant else who will!"
  6271. >Wait, she'll what?
  6272. >Oh God no, please, no node hunting!
  6273. >"Well? I'm waiting!"
  6274. >The node almost seems hesitant to reconnect it's links to Twilight, now only having the bare minimum required to 'communicate' with her, with the rest still floating nearby.
  6275. >She glares and glares at the node, but it still lists around, as if it's not sure about what to do.
  6276. >A few links do re-establish contact with her, but she only seems to get more angry.
  6277. >"I don't believe this! How can you be this, this... obstinate?! I just want a simple answer, about why you called Luna all those terrible things!
  6278. >"What do you mean, you don't want to repeat yourself?! You-- oh, so you didn't even mean to tell me that much, when you said all that, huh?!
  6279. >"Oh, for the love of all that is holy, I just want a straight answer!"
  6280. >Uh-oh, looks like the 'talks' are really breaking down.
  6281.  
  6282. >"WOULD YOU JUST--?!"
  6283. >Whoakay, Canterlot Voice!
  6284. >Some warning would have been nice!
  6285. >You finish cringing away at the sound, just in time to see her adopt the 'nice' face.
  6286. >"Fine. Have it your way. Effective immediately, we're no longer on speaking terms."
  6287. >The node connects more links to her.
  6288. >"Oh, I don't think so. You had your chance, Pedullal, and you blew it. I don't want to hear anything but an apology, the next time you reach out."
  6289. >It tries to widen it's links, but Twilight pulls off the wand, breaking the links between her and the node.
  6290. >Now, you've been party to her fits of rage, before, so you know the signs of an impending outburst.
  6291. "Twilight, come with me."
  6292. >"Oh, sure, all right."
  6293. >She wasn't containing her snorting very well.
  6294. >Oh man, this was gonna be a big one.
  6295. >Luckily, you lead her into your castle room just in time, and you grab a pillow off of the couch, handing it to her.
  6296. >Wordlessly, she takes it, buries her face into it, and...
  6297. >"Raaaaaaaaaaagh!"
  6298. >There she goes.
  6299. >"How can someascendant be so, so...! Aaaaaaaaagh!"
  6300. >Man, two for two?
  6301. >That node must've really pissed her off.
  6302. >The pillow flops off of her face, showing her angry look for all the world to see, with the exhaustion starting to show, too.
  6303. >She barely reacts when you pick her up, and sit yourself down on the couch with her, where she just lays across your legs, fuming internally.
  6304. >"I just wanted it to answer me! Why does it always speak in riddles? Why does it always avoid giving me a straight answer?!"
  6305. >You rest a hand between her wing joints.
  6306. >Already, you can see her start to loosen up a little, as you start rubbing that spot on her back.
  6307. >And boy, she was all kinds of tense from that exchange, holy shit.
  6308. >"I just wanted a reason! An apology, at least!"
  6309.  
  6310. >The hand trails up, towards her withers, where they start working some of that tension out.
  6311. >She might not be showing it, but she definitely likes it, her tone's decreasing harshness bearing that change out.
  6312. >"Why?! Why can't it just be cooperative, for once?"
  6313. >You move along her neck, up to her head.
  6314. >"Why doesn't it..."
  6315. >She well and truly trails off, once your fingers begin their work on her ears.
  6316. >She tries to hold onto the rest of that anger, but under your treatment, that becomes quite impossible, with her finally exhaling, and slumping under your attention.
  6317. >Small groans of approval leave her, once your other hand starts working at her withers again, heading back down to her wing joints.
  6318. "Feeling better?"
  6319. >"No."
  6320. >She grunts a little louder, when your other hand goes lower, catching a tense spot on her flight muscles.
  6321. >"Nngh... A-a little..."
  6322. "Twilight."
  6323. >"Y-yes. I, I do feel better. Th-thanks."
  6324. "It's never a problem."
  6325. >She goes silent after that, her signature little noises of approval tapering off, as well.
  6326. >You slow down your work on her back and head, as a result.
  6327. >She just lays there for a while, relaxed in your hold.
  6328. >When she does finally stand back up, however, there's no hesitation.
  6329. >"Anon? I don't think me and Luna should do that around other ascendants, again."
  6330. "No kidding."
  6331. >Definitely on the blacklist, now.
  6332. >"S-speaking of Luna, I should check on her. I haven't heard from her since she left..."
  6333. "Sure. Don't let me keep you."
  6334. >She gives your cheek a little nuzzle, before hopping down, and heading out of the door.
  6335. >Well, shit, that's one source of info possibly gone.
  6336. >Well, not much you can do about it, now.
  6337. >Alright, you'd best get back to work.
  6338. >Those new weapons call for some quick additions to your armour...
  6339. <...
  6340.  
  6341. >>The collar clicks into place, and the ape monster drags you out of your cell.
  6342. >>He throws you into another cage.
  6343. >>The rods are brought out again.
  6344. >>KRACK after KRACK rings out.
  6345. >>They try again, and again, to beat you into submission.
  6346. >>Again and again, you refuse to cave into them.
  6347. >>They bring in some other humans, and put them into cages, too.
  6348. >>They're only ever beaten when you're paying attention.
  6349. >>You tell your current captor, the one beating the shit out of you, to go suck a dick.
  6350. >>His response, like always, is to lose his mind, and begin wailing on you.
  6351. >>KRACK
  6352. "Aaah!"
  6353. >You bolt upright, in a cold sweat.
  6354. >F-fucking hell, another dream?
  6355. >Although...
  6356. >This one didn't seem as bad, nor was it anywhere near as intense as they usually got.
  6357. >Taking note of your environment right after shooting awake was a dead giveaway there.
  6358. >So, they're getting better?
  6359. >Maybe?
  6360. >Oh, you know what, whatever.
  6361. >You're feeling good enough, so you'll take it.
  6362. >Less rough nightmares means less things to worry about, right?
  6363. >Right.
  6364. >You pull yourself out of bed, get that exercise in, and clean up, but a knock on the door prevents you from skulking back down into your lab.
  6365. >"Hey, Anon! You up?"
  6366. "Yeah, I'm up, Razor. What's happening?"
  6367. >"We're getting a mission briefing in half an hour, and you're invited! Zebrica's a'calling, buddy!"
  6368. >Oh, shit...!
  6369. >Yeah, your excitement just dialed right up!
  6370. >You throw your door open, greeting Razor with a big ol' smile of your own.
  6371. "About damn time!"
  6372. >"Yeah, no kidding. You'd best get some food in ya, before we head on down."
  6373.  
  6374. >You almost break out running towards the dining hall, but you remember something at the last minute.
  6375. >So you head back into your place, snag the new and improved wand cane, and then make your way down.
  6376. >"Uhh, you didn't pull something yesterday, did you?"
  6377. "Hell, no. Why?"
  6378. >"Well, why else would you carry a cane on you?"
  6379. >You just smile, and deploy the hidden wand.
  6380. >Still with a TK focus on out of the gate, but this time, it's not hard-crafted in, just latched into place.
  6381. >That would be because of the extra foci you also hid in the handle: a Riafalt and Bluebaide focus, to be specific.
  6382. >"Geez, what am I even here for, then?"
  6383. "Your irreplaceable company, of course."
  6384. >"Pfft, whatever."
  6385. >Well, he doesn't seem to be objecting, so you sheathe the wand back into the body, and make your way to the all-too-familiar castle eatery.
  6386. >You can't thank the chefs enough for continuing to hook you up with those bomb-ass meat dishes.
  6387. >Once you're all gassed up, you head to the war room a little early, finding the door open, and guarded by Invictus troops.
  6388. >They give you a crisp salute as the two of you head on in, where none other than Celestia sits, nursing a tea set.
  6389. >"Ah, Anon. Good to see you."
  6390. "Likewise."
  6391. >"You're here rather early, aren't you?"
  6392. "No way in hell I'm missing this."
  6393. >"Fair enough. Actually, this is a good opportunity to speak more privately. Lieutenant, would you please wait outside, for a moment?"
  6394. >A private chat?
  6395. >Shit, the good kind, or the bad kind?
  6396. >Razor's out the door fairly quickly, and Celestia punctuates the doors closing by casting a big silencing bubble around the whole room.
  6397.  
  6398. >"My sister told me about your dream, yesterday."
  6399. >She sets the teacup down, focusing on you completely.
  6400. >"I believe you can see now, why I said not to mention the Warlocks of the warp around her?"
  6401. "Sorry, it just seemed--"
  6402. >"There's no need to apologize. It was pertinent information. And it does confirm another suspicion of mine, that those monsters were in active collusion with your captors."
  6403. "Seems that way. What about the head honcho, he ring any bells?"
  6404. >"No, I have never heard of a mon'keigh by the name of 'Maar', before. I suspect that the last surviving members of their race simply started another chain of lords."
  6405. "A 'chain of lords'?"
  6406. >"They maintained power through a series of 'lords'. A lord would apprentice another mon'keigh, who would become a subordinate lord, and they too could apprentice another, and so on. Very clear lines of succession were established this way, and at their peak, they had ten lords working together."
  6407. >Oh God, they were literal fucking Sith Lords, weren't they?
  6408. >"Sadly, I know nothing about this 'Maar', or those under him. I'm sorry."
  6409. "It was worth a shot, I guess."
  6410. >"Even so, the collusion with the Warlocks is a point of concern I cannot understate the importance of."
  6411. "What do you think they'd be up to?"
  6412. >"I don't know, but they almost certainly had their tendrils in bringing you to this world. The scope of their involvement, however, I do not know for certain."
  6413. >She sighs.
  6414. >"The only real way to know for sure, would be to have a darkling tell us of their plans, and that's only if that darkling were made privy to their plans."
  6415.  
  6416. "So we're still blind here, huh?"
  6417. >"Unfortunately."
  6418. >Damn it.
  6419. >"Have you remembered anything else, since yesterday?"
  6420. "No, just pain."
  6421. >"I'm sorry about that."
  6422. "It's fine, really."
  6423. >She resumes sipping on her tea.
  6424. >"I wasn't able to get Luna to calm down, you know. Even given your mention of the Warlocks,  she was on the warpath, far angrier than I expected. In fact, it was only when Twilight came to see her, that she finally calmed down.
  6425. >"Those two have grown quite... close to one another, over the last few weeks. Would you happen to know why?"
  6426. "They didn't tell you?"
  6427. >"I know that they have been... communicating, in that bizarre manner. Thank you, by the way, for reining those two in. I'm not sure I want to know what would happen, if you weren't there to pace them."
  6428. "Good to know I'm not the only one who worries about that."
  6429. >"However, that's not quite what I was asking."
  6430. "Wait, what?"
  6431. >"They have been talking about you at great length. Thinking of ways to help you. Luna even tells me that Twilight has offered her lots of help with her thaumaturgical experiments. But I'm not sure that it's just a fear for your safety, or a desire to see you succeed, driving those two."
  6432. "It's not?"
  6433. >But wait, what else is there?
  6434. >"You don't know what it could be?"
  6435. "No, I don't."
  6436. >That smile she's wearing, it's almost like she knows the answer, already.
  6437. "Do you?"
  6438. >"Well, I--"
  6439. >KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK
  6440. >"Oh, nevermind. Seems that we're out of time."
  6441. "But--"
  6442. >"Come in, please."
  6443. >The doors swing open, and Razor and Exact step through.
  6444. >God, fine, guess that mystery can wait another day.
  6445.  
  6446. >The doors close, and the two offer salutes to Celestia.
  6447. >"Reporting for duty, princess!"
  6448. >"Reporting for duty, princess."
  6449. >"Thank you, be at ease."
  6450. >Well, Razor's at ease now, anyways.
  6451. >"Now, allow me to explain the situation. Thanks to your findings at Incognito's mountain stronghold, we were able to determine not only his location, and that of his new allies, but we were also able to ascertain the location of their common enemies, in the local zebra tribes."
  6452. >She casts a few spells, creating a big map of Equestria, then zooming down into Zebrica, itself, drawing out some borders within the area.
  6453. >"Unfortunately, his new stronghold, an abandoned ziggurat built by the ancestors of his Zebrican allies, has been heavily fortified, and these zebras possess significant strength, both in combat, and in dark magic."
  6454. >Exact takes that moment to ask a question:
  6455. >"Princess, what is the scope of their dark abilities?"
  6456. >"They are very talented blood alchemists, sergeant. And their warriors are fearsome in their own right."
  6457. >Wait.
  6458. >Something just occurred to you.
  6459. "Uh, princess?"
  6460. >"Yes?"
  6461. "Is this ziggurat anything like the one that I, uh found?"
  6462. >Oh, you were really hoping her expression wouldn't drop, there.
  6463. >"I am afraid it is related. It was a temple, built by an ancient zebra blood alchemist named Zabraxas, a very powerful and very dangerous foe of Equestria, thousands of years ago.
  6464. >"However, the Zebrican temple had a different purpose than the mon'keigh one: Zabraxas used it as a dark place of study, bringing the darkest and most intelligent minds he could together, to perfect their evil craft."
  6465.  
  6466. "So, it was like a big, evil university?"
  6467. >"Exactly. I assumed it to be lost, destroyed by infighting when the social order of Zebrica collapsed, and gave way to the tribes. However, it seems that like the mon'keigh temple, it was simply hidden away."
  6468. "And now he's using it."
  6469. >"Yes. While it was never used for the purposes the mon'keigh one was used for, the equipment and knowledge held within is far greater, and thus more dangerous. A fact he must know all too well, if he decided to entrench himself within it, transforming it into a crude castle, from which he launches attacks."
  6470. >She pinpoints the temple's location on the map with a big, red X.
  6471. >"Unfortunately, it is very well defended, and he has recently succeeded in eliminating a large portion of the tribes that were most vigorously opposing him. Currently, he can maraud throughout the land as he pleases, and we have reason to believe he is planning a final attack on the last large tribe, that is still able to oppose him."
  6472. >She pinpoints this tribe's location with a big, green O, also taking the time to shade the territory that both sides control.
  6473. >It was a good 40/60 split between green and red.
  6474. >"Even with our power, aiding you from the sidelines, a direct assault on Incognito would be a foolish move. So, instead, we are going to convince the opposing tribe, the Wyse Kunstenaars, to accept our aid against him."
  6475. "Wait a minute. We're 'going to convince them'?"
  6476. >"I'm afraid that despite their much friendlier disposition compared to Bloedige Plaag, they are still very standoffish with Equestria. Their plentiful superstitions surrounding me and the other princesses do not help matters.
  6477.  
  6478. >"That is why you three will travel to the Kunstenaar's primary stronghold, an ancient motte and bailey left by their ancestors, to try and broker some kind of an agreement with them."
  6479. "Wait, hold on, you want me to play ambassador, now? I-is that really a good idea?"
  6480. >"Normal diplomacy is not terribly effective here, I'm afraid. And the Kunstenaars respond only to favours and honour, none of which they are willing to offer to me. They may, however, offer you a chance to prove yourself to them."
  6481. "And if they don't?"
  6482. >"Then we will have no choice but to aid them from a distance, and hope that we can assault Incognito before whatever vile scheme of his can be made manifest. I'm sorry, Anon, I wish there was more I could do, but our strained relations with zebrakind only allows me to do so much."
  6483. >Oh, that's just great.
  6484. >Of course you couldn't just knuckle down and whoop his lilly ass.
  6485. >It's always something, huh?
  6486. >"I will tell you all I know about the tribes, and will give you the book you took from the temple to peruse, to better prepare you for this task. However, for the moment, I would like to continue with our general plan."
  6487. >She starts drawing lines along the map, highlighting key points along them with big circles.
  6488. >"The climate of Zebrica's desertified outer terrain makes pegasus travel an untenable option. We will bring you as close to the border of the land as possible, first by train, then by pegasus carriage. Once you are at the border, another means of transport has been prepared, to allow you to traverse the desert with relative ease."
  6489.  
  6490. >Man, that's a long way...
  6491. "What kind of transport are you talking, here?"
  6492. >"Sunburst and Crescent Hammer, from what I understand, modified that peculiar vehicle to traverse desert terrain with relative ease."
  6493. >Wait.
  6494. >Oh, my God.
  6495. >You're gonna...?!
  6496. >"I haven't been able to verify it's efficacy, though they seemed quite convinced that it would work. If it doesn't, however, you will have to walk."
  6497. >Yeah, sure, walk, whatever!
  6498. >Jesus Christ, you're gonna tear shit up down there in your fucking car?!
  6499. >Oh, fucking ace!
  6500. >"In any case, the journey will be long, easily spanning more than a day, at the best estimate. I suggest you prepare your equipment accordingly."
  6501. >"Princess, does this desert transportation contains the necessary supplies for survival in these conditions?"
  6502. >"It does, but you would do well to bring personal survival provisions."
  6503. >Exact nods, and you hear Razor grumble.
  6504. >More than a day, huh?
  6505. >That's a long time to be away from your lab.
  6506. >Maybe...?
  6507. "Hey, I've got an idea. We don't want to be making return trips through all of that, right?"
  6508. >"Ahh, are you suggesting using one of those portals of yours?"
  6509. "Yeah, bring one along with me. They're not too bad to make."
  6510. >"Certainly a great convenience, but what if this gateway falls into the hooves of the enemy?"
  6511. "I..."
  6512. >Uhh.
  6513. >Shit.
  6514. >Didn't really think of that...
  6515. >That's Razor's cue to speak up:
  6516. >"We could always put the exit point somewhere secure. A kill zone, the Everfree, something like that. That way, they'd have to really work to do damage, if they got control of the gate."
  6517.  
  6518. >"Hmm. A sound plan. Very well, I accept it."
  6519. >Man, he's got your back, today!
  6520. >"I trust that such gate stones are a quick thing to create?"
  6521. "With my setup, you bet."
  6522. >"Very well, then. You may prepare them, before you leave."
  6523. >Woohoo!
  6524. >"Now, are we clear on the details of this plan? Are there any more questions?"
  6525. >Everyone nods in response.
  6526. >"Very well. But remember to take heed, Anon. Alchemy is capable of bypassing your natural resistance to magic, so treat any enemy alchemists with the utmost caution."
  6527. >Images of xenomorph blood bottles and poison gas clouds come to mind.
  6528. "Y-yeah, sure. You got it."
  6529. >"You are all dismissed. Make your preparations as necessary, and reconvene at the train station at ten o'clock."
  6530. >The two of them salute, and head off.
  6531. >You start following along, but a white wing stops you.
  6532. >"Not just yet, Anon. I believe I promised you details on the tribes you will encounter?"
  6533. "Oh, right! But, uh, why didn't you bring it up, back then?"
  6534. >"Exact has already been briefed on the tribes, and I trust you two to properly inform the lieutenant during the journey. There is a lot of detail to cover, and it would have cut into preparation time far too much."
  6535. "That much, huh?"
  6536. >She floats you a familiar book, and a modestly sized binder on top of it.
  6537. >"Yes, it is a substantial amount."
  6538. "I can see that."
  6539. >You take the two items under your arm.
  6540. >"Now, you also understand their language, do you not?"
  6541. "Only how to read it."
  6542. >"Ah, that is unfortunate, but better than nothing."
  6543. >She floats you another, smaller binder.
  6544. >"Exact will have translation spells ready, but I suggest you brush up on the phonetics, yourself."
  6545. >Well, that'll definitely come in handy.
  6546. >"Now, about those gate stones..."
  6547. <...
  6548.  
  6549. @@@@@@@@
  6550.  
  6551. >"I don't believe she has a 'problem', as you put it, my dear. Zamara has always been short, direct, and quick thinking, all to a fault."
  6552. "Can you at least tell me what she's up to?"
  6553. >"I cannot. The ends of our alchemists have always been their concern, and their concern only, so long as they serve the needs of the warriors, first."
  6554. >Oh, great.
  6555. >If Veldheer doesn't know what the point of all this 'communion' stuff is, that can only mean--
  6556. >"But I have to admit, that as of late, I have some concerns. Tell me, does the human--"
  6557. "Lord Matthias."
  6558. >"Ahem. Does the human know of her plans?"
  6559. >There's no keeping the scowl off of your face, but it's not enough to keep you from responding.
  6560. "He'd have to."
  6561. >"You don't sound very sure of that, Athalia."
  6562. "Because I'm not sure about it."
  6563. >Not after yesterday.
  6564. >When Incognito reacted badly to that display of dark magic, you became very suspicious of Zamara.
  6565. >She knew you used dark magic, she was there fighting with you, back at Canterlot!
  6566. >She knew about the voices, probably hears the same ones you do, and knew ways to talk to them directly.
  6567. >And against your better judgment, you asked Ajay about it yesterday, too.
  6568. >He was less than pleased, to put it mildly, that you were using dark magic, but he also told you that Zamara forbade him, and others, from saying anything about your use of dark magic to anyone.
  6569. >And that she'd lied to them, telling them that Incognito already knew, when obviously he hadn't!
  6570. >Ajay quickly shared your suspicions, only to a much greater, more vocal degree.
  6571. >You would've liked him to be here for this, but Veldheer's still refusing to allow gryphons inside the temple.
  6572.  
  6573. >"Those two have made no secret of their close professional relationship. It's rare to see her not at work, on whatever cursed 'project' occupies their minds. I can't see much reason behind her concealing such information, especially from one she works tirelessly to assist."
  6574. "Yeah, it doesn't make sense."
  6575. >Although...
  6576. "I'm surprised that this is concerning you as much as it is."
  6577. >"What, because the human is being inconvenienced? Oh, were it any other situation, I would be very pleased."
  6578. >Of course, he would be.
  6579. "Let me guess, you're worried about me?"
  6580. >"You are far too intelligent, to allow something like magical corruption to overwhelm you. Besides, if it is anything like the corruption that our alchemists endure, you've been handling it very, very well."
  6581. >Wait, what does he mean by 'handling it well'?
  6582. >"No, I am concerned, because she has recently decided to overreach her station, a rare occurrence for her."
  6583. "How so?"
  6584. >His anger spikes, though he keeps it from showing.
  6585. >"Two days ago, shortly after announcing my allegiance to you, she dared to confront me about my plans to have you become my mate."
  6586. >Huh?
  6587. >"An unthinkable overreach of her authority. To think, that she would have the gall to order me to cease...!"
  6588. >His anger begins showing through, as a scowl.
  6589. "Two days ago, you're sure?"
  6590. >"Yes, what of it?"
  6591. "Two days ago, she came up to me out of nowhere, feeling around, and demanding to know if you'd done anything with me."
  6592. >Not that you would let him.
  6593. >"She did?! What madness has claimed her?"
  6594. "Your guess is as good as mine."
  6595. >Granted, you're not crazy about him trying to court you, but you fail to see how it's any of her damned business.
  6596.  
  6597. >"Athalia, you intend on meeting with her, today?"
  6598. "Very soon, yes."
  6599. >"Then demand to know her reasons for this!"
  6600. "She won't tell me."
  6601. >She never tells you anything, about what she's up to.
  6602. "But there is something I want you to do. I want you to listen in on what happens."
  6603. >"Listen in?"
  6604. "She wants me in her private work room, to do... whatever it is she's planning."
  6605. >You didn't mention the 'communion' part to anyone, at least not yet.
  6606. "I want you to wait a minute after I enter, then listen carefully outside the door, for anything strange."
  6607. >"Simple eavesdropping? I am a warrior, not a shifty coward!"
  6608. "Shifty coward, huh? I didn't know you thought that little of me, and my race."
  6609. >Ahh, it's so rare to see him flustered like that.
  6610. >You just have to savour these moments, as they come.
  6611. >"Agh, fine! But if she brings harm to you--!"
  6612. "She won't risk it. I'll be fine."
  6613. >That's one boast you really hope will turn out to be true.
  6614. >"I didn't say you had a choice in the matter."
  6615. "I wasn't trying to talk you out of it."
  6616. >"You are impossible, sometimes."
  6617. "Yet here you are."
  6618. >He wants to say something in response to your sideways smirk, but you cut him off with a change of subject.
  6619. "We should get going. Zamara hates being late almost as much as she hates interruptions."
  6620. >He gives a quiet, short sigh.
  6621. >"She certainly does."
  6622. >You make your way over to that door of hers, but tell Veldheer to hold back, and wait around the corner.
  6623. >Now that he's as suspicious as you are, he's far more reluctant to let you go, but fortunately, he's controlled enough to not let that get in the way of the task at hoof.
  6624. >If nothing else, he was reliable.
  6625.  
  6626. >KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK
  6627. >Not much time passes at all after you knock, before the door flies open, showing the familiar form of Zamara.
  6628. >"You arrived just in time, rugged one. Inside, quickly!"
  6629. >She still lacks any sense of pacing, you see.
  6630. >Whatever, let's just get this over with.
  6631. >You head inside, where she quickly shuts and locks the door behind you, and leads you to a familiar ritual circle.
  6632. >Maybe those damn ghosts will give you answers, where she won't.
  6633. >Without wasting any time, she pours out the liquids, sits both you and herself down in the requisite positions in the circle, and begins that unnatural, throaty chanting, the symbols lighting up soon after.
  6634. >>`About time, you two showed up.`
  6635. >As expected, the voices 'speaking' caused the central skull to fire that inky black beam upwards, the shell of blackness enveloping the area in darkness.
  6636. >From the darkness, two familiar ghosts emerged, but another was there, too, one that you didn't recognize.
  6637. >Wait.
  6638. >Did you recognize this one...?
  6639. >It was another pony's ghost, only this one was a mare, and stood as still as a statue, eyes fixed not on you or Zamara, but on the two other ghosts.
  6640. >And it was not a pleasant glare, to say the least--
  6641. >"This one is not the one you should focus on, mortal. Your focus will remain on the two councillors before you."
  6642. >H-her voice...!
  6643. >You do know this ghost!
  6644. >This was the same ghost that you spoke to, the same one you accepted their offer of knowledge from!
  6645. >What was she doing here--?
  6646. >"Do not make this one repeat itself."
  6647. >That was the monkey-ghost's cue to speak up.
  6648. >"Do as that one says, neophyte. You do not want to cross that one."
  6649.  
  6650. >As if the venom in her voice wasn't enough incentive!
  6651. >R-right, you'd better focus.
  6652. >That weird, four-armed ghost looked as chipper as ever, though the unicorn stallion was clearly upset about something.
  6653. >While their ghostly forms didn't let you sense their emotions, you suspect it has a lot to do with that third ghost.
  6654. >Zamara opens up with the same prostration as before:
  6655. >"O Ideal Masters, grant upon us a pittance of your endless wisdom. Bring us one step closer to blessed transcendence."
  6656. >The unicorn wanted to speak up, but bit back whatever he was about to say, leaving the ape creature to pick it up:
  6657. >"Ahh, as dutiful as ever, bloodletter! Tell us, has the spell come closer to completion?"
  6658. >"The Klip nears completion, but the remainder has stalled, until I and the Destroyer can procure more knowledge on the soul arts."
  6659. >"Have you not found it already? This one is fairly certain it gave you specific instructions, on what to find!"
  6660. >"There was evidence of it's location changing. The search is ongoing."
  6661. >"Ah, rats. Should've known he would make his archive hard to get to. Well, we suggest you continue that search. Only the late Lord Wratnej's work will help you."
  6662. >"I know, master. My efforts will be devoted fully to the search, once the Klip is complete."
  6663. >"Dedication, and good priorities! Wonderful! Ohh, we can almost taste the black day, creeping closer and closer!"
  6664. >"It shall come, my master. Of this, you can be assured."
  6665. >"Oh, this one is quite assured, bloodletter. Continue your work."
  6666. >As Zamara bows, and the stallion rolls his eyes, the ape pivots to you, his eyes almost glittering with excitement.
  6667.  
  6668. >"Ah, neophyte! Just who this one wanted to see! It's been so long since you last facilitated contact, this one was beginning to worry we would never converse again!"
  6669. >If you could go without ever talking to these ghosts again, it would make you so very happy.
  6670. >But unfortunately, that wasn't an option.
  6671. >"Right, this one is sure you have many questions! Well, ask away! We have plenty of time to talk!"
  6672. "Why did you tell me to ignore my Lord's advice?"
  6673. >"Oh, that?"
  6674. "Yes, that! I know this magic is really powerful, but the last thing I need in a fight, is a damn headache, not to mention the vomiting!"
  6675. >"Neophyte, please, you've adapted well past that point, now."
  6676. >Huh?
  6677. >"In fact, you've adapted so well to your new baseline, the weight of our influence, that this one doesn't forsee your limit being more than hospitalization!"
  6678. "Wh-- hospitalization? That's your idea of 'adapting well'?!"
  6679. >"You ought to be proud of that, neophyte!"
  6680. "I don't--! Aagh, whatever! What's all this about adapting to your influence?"
  6681. >"Exactly that, neophyte! It's a true blessing, you know, being able to bear it's weight so effortlessly!"
  6682. "N-no, I meant, adapting how?"
  6683. >"Oh, we can't tell you that, neophyte."
  6684. >What?!
  6685. >"Sorry, but not only does it violate the rules, but it also reduces the chances of our plan succeeding."
  6686. "Oh, I don't believe this! Tell me!"
  6687. >"It's out of this one's hands."
  6688. "You mean, you can teach me - against my will, no less - all kinds of spells and techniques to use, but you can't tell me about how I 'adapt to your influence'?!"
  6689. >"That's precisely it, neophyte."
  6690. >The stallion's ghost snorts at the same time as your eye twitches.
  6691. >"Trust us, we'd love to toss those damn rules into the void, but sadly, we didn't make them."
  6692.  
  6693. >Said ghost recoils, when the mare's ghost levels a death glare his way.
  6694. >"All right, buck!"
  6695. >"Do not violate the honour of the collective, again."
  6696. >He grumbles something under his breath.
  6697. >Guess that's what the third ghost is there for, reining him in.
  6698. >Serves him right, you say!
  6699. >Your focus flicks back to the ape ghost, who still remains as upbeat as ever.
  6700. >"Yes, well, as we said, it's out of our hands. Was there anything else you wanted to ask?"
  6701. "I've got a lot of things to ask."
  6702. >You turn to Zamara, who's been regarding you with a strange stare this whole time.
  6703. "I just need to ask her, instead of all of you."
  6704. >"Rugged one, you bask in the presence of beings infinitely your greater, and you presume to question me here?!"
  6705. "When it involves Lord Matthias, I do!"
  6706. >She is not happy at all about this turn of events, but you'd stopped caring a long time ago.
  6707. >"What are you talking about--"
  6708. >"Now, now, there is no need for this. Neophyte, your loyalty to the Destroyer is admirable, but everything is well in hand."
  6709. "Is it? Zamara, would you mind telling me why you hid my history of dark magic from our lord?"
  6710. >Whatever admonishment she had ready dies in her throat, as her emotions shift to surprise.
  6711. "And while you're at it, I'd like to know why you told everyone else to hide it from him, too."
  6712. >The ape ghost's head tilts, while the stallion gives a bemused snort.
  6713. >"You concealed her capabilities from the Destroyer?"
  6714. >"Oh, this is gonna be good..."
  6715. >Zamara opens her mouth to shout something, but a burst of smokey purple magic erupts between the two of you, that mare ghost appearing in it's wake, facing Zamara.
  6716.  
  6717. >"Concealing that was unnecessary, bondkeeper. You introduced a greater failure rate. You will answer for this."
  6718. >Just as you were about to smirk, the ghost spins in place to face you, it's glare crushing any mirth you might have had.
  6719. >"Emissary, these communions are for important matters between the council and mortals. If you have nothing to ask of us, you will be removed at once."
  6720. >What?!
  6721. >Oh, no, you're getting answers!
  6722. "I'm not leav--"
  6723. >WHOOSH
  6724. >In an instant, she darts forward, her muzzle a scant hoof away from your own.
  6725. "Aah!"
  6726. >"Do you have anything to ask of us?"
  6727. "Just hold on! I need answers to--"
  6728. >A shadowy tentacle clamps around your muzzle, and the stallion's ghost snorts again.
  6729. >"Wrong answer, bug."
  6730. >A series of the fleshless, disgusting tentacles restrain your legs, then body, and as a whole, they catapult you off into the void.
  6731. >You cry out as you tumble through the vast expanse of nothing, until all of a sudden, a burst of cool air surrounds you, in time with your surroundings becoming bright.
  6732. >THUMP
  6733. "Aagh!"
  6734. >You land on your side, and quickly scramble upright, trying to take stock of where you are, now.
  6735. >You're met with the sight of Zamara's work room, a huge black sphere occupying the space where the spell circle was.
  6736. >Did...
  6737. >Did they just kick you out?!
  6738. "Oh, you've got to be kidding me!"
  6739. >You rush back to the sphere, knocking against it's surprisingly solid surface.
  6740. "Hey, let me back in! I'm not through with any of you, yet!"
  6741. >Try as you might, the sphere does not cave, whether it's from kicking, or casting spells at it.
  6742. "Aaaaaagh!"
  6743. >You give the sphere one final THUNK.
  6744. "We're not finished, you hear me?!"
  6745.  
  6746. >You want to keep beating down upon the sphere, hoping it will either break, or fade away.
  6747. >But you know it's not going to happen, and even if it did, there's no way Zamara will give you any damn answers!
  6748. >Damn it all!
  6749. >Before your temper is lost again, you storm out of the room, almost knocking into Veldheer on the way out.
  6750. >"Athalia, what happened in there?"
  6751. >You slam the door behind you.
  6752. "A dead end. You heard."
  6753. >"I heard nothing."
  6754. "What?"
  6755. >"There was chanting, a fell presence, and then, silence. What happened?"
  6756. "She didn't give me any answers! They didn't give me any answers!"
  6757. >"They?"
  6758. "The stupid ghosts, inside the--"
  6759. >Gah, forget it, you're not explaining the voices to him, not now!
  6760. "Agh, nevermind!"
  6761. >"So, she told you nothing of her reasons?"
  6762. "What do you think?!"
  6763. >He doesn't respond to your outburst.
  6764. >You turn away from him, shaking with anger, about ready to explode.
  6765. >That was when you felt a hoof being placed between your withers, the touch carrying with it a jolt of concern and ludic love.
  6766. >"You have every right to be furious, my dear. But save your rage for our true enemies."
  6767. >You don't want to admit it, but the blend of emotion does calm you down, a little bit.
  6768. >"Athalia, these 'ghosts', did she refer to them as 'Ideal Masters'?"
  6769. "Wh-- yeah, she did, why?"
  6770. >"She has become obsessed with them, as of late. They have been giving her orders?"
  6771. "She was reporting to them."
  6772. >"Then it seems she answers to another, after all. A most... displeasing turn."
  6773. >Anger seeps into his emotions.
  6774. >"Tell your Incognito of her double dealing. I will confront her, myself."
  6775. >A beat passes, before you nod your agreement.
  6776. >You are NOT letting her walk away from this!
  6777. <...
  6778.  
  6779. >The conductor steps into your train car.
  6780. >"We will be arriving at the station in three minutes, sirs."
  6781. "Thanks."
  6782. >You close up the phonetics binder and your notes, and start bundling it up with the other binders and books.
  6783. >Guess you should've expected the language to be throaty like that, but God damn, was it throaty!
  6784. >Speaking it is gonna be outside your grasp for a while, research notwithstanding!
  6785. >Your entourage of two pack their things away, too: Exact carrying what looks like a checkers board merged with a Rubik's cube, while Razor just had a good ol' fashioned smut magazine.
  6786. >Heh, ponies sure love their socks.
  6787. >"Oh, about bucking time we got here!"
  6788. >"The remainder of the journey will still take at least forty-seven minutes to complete, lieutenant."
  6789. >"Hey, fifty minutes over, what, four hours? I'll take it!"
  6790. "Ought to look prettier, to boot."
  6791. >"Right!"
  6792. >You're just glad that was plenty of time to go over the Zebrica stuff with them both.
  6793. >Celestia was right, it was a lot of ground to cover, and with you needing to translate the book factored in, it took almost two and a half hours to finish all the material off.
  6794. >But while those two soon went off to find ways to pass the time, you'd been feverishly reading this phonetics binder.
  6795. >You wouldn't call your grasp on the language stellar, or anything, but it was a definite help in beginning to understand how to speak it.
  6796. >Exact's translation spell didn't work with you directly, so you had to have Razor parrot whatever he said, for you to note down.
  6797. >No, you weren't jealous of how deep and throaty his voice could get, no siree.
  6798. >Anyways, your language notes grew quite a bit, with the addition of the phonetics.
  6799.  
  6800. >You finish bundling the literature up, when you feel the train beginning to slow down.
  6801. >That's your cue to grab the metal case, containing that gate stone you made.
  6802. >Honestly, you don't think she went far enough, with the padding inside of it.
  6803. >"Give me the case, Anon. You've got enough shit to lug around."
  6804. >Now, as much as you'd like to complain to the contrary, you did kind of have a full equipment load going on right now, plus a couple of new additions.
  6805. >Yeah, he could have it.
  6806. >Once he was balancing it on his back, his wings keeping it in place, the train stopped for real this time, the conductor taking that moment to open the car doors for you all.
  6807. >"Safe travels, and be sure to bring plenty of water!"
  6808. "We know. Thanks again."
  6809. >The three of you step out onto a station, in the middle of a huge prairie field, stretching out for God only knows how far.
  6810. >A few hollers get your attention, a pair of pegasus royal guards being the source, waving you over.
  6811. >Following them gets you the sight of a carriage, with two other guards strapped in already.
  6812. >While the first two strap themselves in, you step into the carriage, entourage in tow.
  6813. >Liftoff is achieved, and once again, the waiting game begins.
  6814. >You return to your notes, while the others resume what they were doing, before.
  6815. >After a while, the carriage is felt setting down, and your group steps out.
  6816. >Sand is what you step into, and--
  6817. >A-and...!
  6818. >H-holy shit!
  6819. >That's the...?!
  6820. >But...!
  6821. >Oh, God, that's not the car you drove, not anymore!
  6822. >A-are those four little tank treads, where the wheels were?
  6823. >And were those sleds, at the front?
  6824. >Holy shit, that looks awesome!
  6825.  
  6826. @@@@@@@@
  6827.  
  6828. >"We've already loaded this... transport with supplies, weaponry, and all the other items that were requested."
  6829. >Yeah sure, whatever, random guard horse.
  6830. >T-tank car!
  6831. >With the love at first sight beginning to taper off, your legs spring into action, bringing you closer to touching this beautiful, beautiful creation of metal and diesel.
  6832. >Your face is the first thing to collide with it's light gray painted exterior, and you rub your cheek feverishly against it's surface, like a starving kitten.
  6833. >"Uh, is he going to--"
  6834. >"Yes, private. He's gonna be juuuust fine."
  6835. >"I, ah, I see. Should we...?"
  6836. >"Why don't we go over the cargo first, then you fellas can get out of this damn heat?"
  6837. >"Y-yes, sir."
  6838. >Endless expanses of Skywalker's worst nightmares given flesh, span out into the horizon.
  6839. >The sun beats down like a motherfucker, and the air is drier than a geriatric nun.
  6840. >Yet, in your reach, in front of your very eyes, you behold something that might very well be an angel of God himself.
  6841. >You pull your face away from the grand walls of this corporeal manifestation of your hopes and dreams, taking a few moments to bask in it's presence, before a shaky hand reaches forth, tugging at the door handle.
  6842. >Your knees almost give out at the sight within.
  6843. >The cabin, halfway between a modern car, and an enclosed carriage front, has a thick glass windshield, a long, lightly padded bench, and a completely human-designed steering and control system.
  6844. >You reach out to touch the seat, and as you get close to do just that, the sugary sweet scent of a new car kisses your nostrils, eliciting a near-orgasmic groan of pleasure from you.
  6845.  
  6846. >THUMP
  6847. >Your baby lurches slightly, the force barely stressing the suspension.
  6848. >Who dares to touch your baby?!
  6849. >"Looks good here, private."
  6850. >You rush along the side of your one true love, almost scuttling along the side like a xenomorph.
  6851. >"Now, you'd better go, before--"
  6852. >You jump into the faces of the two horses, the ones who dare to sully the divine work of art that is the trunk.
  6853. "Ssssneaky little horseses!"
  6854. >"Aaah!"
  6855. >"Anon, what are you doing?"
  6856. "Wicked, tricksy, false!"
  6857. >"Yeah, private, you'd better go."
  6858. >"Y-yes, sir!"
  6859. >A guttural screech fires out of your throat, spurring the unknown horse to run like the wind.
  6860. >"No, seriously, what are you doing?"
  6861. >You cling to the beautiful object, pawing at the wind in Razor's general direction.
  6862. "It's mine! Mine! Not yours! Mine!"
  6863. >"Uhh..."
  6864. "No touchy! No touching the precious!"
  6865. >He just raises an eyebrow, while Exact filters into the scene.
  6866. >"Mister Anon, are you all right?"
  6867. "No! Back! It's mine! My precious!"
  6868. >"This manner of behaviour is very uncharacteristic, and slightly worrying."
  6869. >Razor rolls his eyes, and begins walking towards you.
  6870. "My precious! Mine! Gollum--"
  6871. >THWACK
  6872. "Yeow, fuck!"
  6873. >"You done yet, tailhole?"
  6874. "Stop hitting me! I can fire you for that, you know!"
  6875. >"You're not paying me."
  6876. "Don't give me ideas."
  6877. >"Whatever. Can we just get this carriage going? I really don't want to stay in this damn heat any--"
  6878. "Carriage?"
  6879. >Your eye twitches.
  6880. "Carriage?!"
  6881. >"Okay, you asked for--"
  6882. >He tries to strike you again, but you grab hold of that leg, pulling him in close, and hooking your other hand underneath his other leg, lifting him up and staring him dead in the eyes.
  6883. >"Whoa, what--?!"
  6884.  
  6885. "This is NOT a carriage, you disgusting philistine!"
  6886. >You preempt his response, by shoving your nose right into his.
  6887. "This! This is a thing of legend! The finest in all-terrain transportation! The beautiful offspring of Earthling technology!"
  6888. >"Please let go of me."
  6889. "Refer to this splendiferous automobile as a carriage again, and I will fucking cut you, do you understand me?!"
  6890. >"Okay, yes. It's a beautiful car. Please put me down, losing feeling."
  6891. >It just now occurs to you that your grasp on his forelegs is really, really tight.
  6892. >Okay, yeah, maybe you should put him back down.
  6893. >Let's just do that right now, shall we?
  6894. >"Well, that was terrifying."
  6895. >"Anon, have you been keeping hydrated? You seem to be exhibiting symptoms akin to that of--"
  6896. >CLAP
  6897. "Righty-o! Let's get this show on the road!"
  6898. >You hop and skip your way back over to the front of the car, towards the still-open cab door.
  6899. >"I am very concerned for mister Anon's mental health."
  6900. >"Note to self: keep this away from him when we get back."
  6901. >"A wise play."
  6902. >Giddy as can be, you hop into the car, the suspension jiggling a little under your armed and extremely dangerous weight.
  6903. >Made sitting a little uncomfortable, but who fucking cares, cars!
  6904. >The other two file in shortly after, laying across the long bench.
  6905. >Right, they do that, and not enough room for the dog sitting position.
  6906. >That's why it's a bench.
  6907. >Hey, at least they're not trying to sit like you do.
  6908. >Man, what kind of a fucking idiot would you have to be, to think horses can sit like that?
  6909.  
  6910. >But nevermind that, cars!
  6911. >You find a little note attached to the steering wheel, that points out where all the controls are, and what they do.
  6912. >So, the ignition is this thing down here, huh?
  6913. >Well, let's just turn that, and--
  6914. >WHROO-WHROO-WHROOVA-VROOOMMMMmmmmmmm
  6915. >O-ohh...
  6916. >Ohh, it's...
  6917. >Beautiful!
  6918. >The way it shakes the car, the way it hums along...
  6919. >Fuck Picasso, that hack piece of shit has nothing on engineering like this!
  6920. >"Mister Anon, I suggest we begin the journey now. Leaving this vehicle running in an idle state is a waste of--"
  6921. >Exact's face doesn't even shift, outside of his eyes widening, as you pull his head towards you, to look him dead in the eyes.
  6922. "Don't."
  6923. >Your noses press together.
  6924. "Ruin this."
  6925. >Your voice strains to a whisper.
  6926. "For me."
  6927. >You release him, and go back to fawning like a schoolgirl over your new hotness.
  6928. >Before you even realize what's happening, your instincts take over, hand on the throttle, and feet on the pedals.
  6929. >Let's fucking do this.
  6930. >Shift it out of neutral, pedal to the metal.
  6931. >VROOOMMMMmmmmmmm
  6932. >Your baby lurches forward, sand kicking up as it takes it's first steps into a much bigger world.
  6933. >Tears threaten to well in your eyes, and only silent prayers to the gods of automobiles stave them off.
  6934. >A little shifting of the gear stick, and soon enough, this thing hits it's top speed, cruising through the very soft-looking sand expanses, like it was nobody's business.
  6935. >Beautiful.
  6936. >Magnificent.
  6937. >Exquisite.
  6938. >Such simple terms cannot describe the feeling of driving this.
  6939. >There's aren't even any seat belts!
  6940. >Good, seat belts are for pussies!
  6941. >You start nodding your head to some imaginary tunes, as you cruise into the sunset.
  6942. <...
  6943.  
  6944. "Jesus, you guys weren't kidding. This is one hell of a long trip."
  6945. >None of them respond to you.
  6946. "Uh, guys? You listening to--"
  6947. >Oh, no they're not.
  6948. >They've still got that silencing bubble over them.
  6949. >You wave in their direction, and Exact drops it.
  6950. >"What is it, mister Anon?"
  6951. "I said, you guys weren't kidding about this being a long trip."
  6952. >"This segment of the journey makes up 49.4% of the total distance to the destination."
  6953. "And we're doing it in the slowest way possible, huh?"
  6954. >"The pegasus carriage was the slowest transportation method used, though it only accounted for 3.1% of the total distance travelled. This method is 88.8% faster than attempting pegasus travel to our destination, when factoring in hydration and the rotation of flyers."
  6955. "I'll take your word for it. Still, think we ought to stop sometime soon? It's getting really late."
  6956. >Driving in pitch black darkness wasn't a terribly appealing thing, and this thing lacked headlights, forcing you to hold a Luxflood-equipped wand out of the window as an alternative.
  6957. >"Four hours and twenty-three minutes are all it will take for daybreak. We can rest until then."
  6958. >"I'll take watch."
  6959. "Hey, that's my line."
  6960. >"Uh-uh, no way, you bucker. Not after that... 'singing'!"
  6961. "Hey, my signing isn't bad!"
  6962. >"You're right, it's wretched. Like Tartarus in listening form."
  6963. "Oh, what do you know about good music?"
  6964. >So what if they needed magic to actually stomach it?
  6965. >"Not getting into this argument. Stop somewhere and catch some sleep, already."
  6966. "Uncultured swine, the bunch of you."
  6967. >"Hey, who's the one 'singing' about staring too long, breaking down, and crying?"
  6968. >You slam the steering wheel.
  6969. "You want to say that to my face, nigga?"
  6970. <...
  6971.  
  6972. >>The monster unlatches the collar, and throw you back into the cell without any ceremony.
  6973. >>"Your endurance is becoming something of an annoyance, human."
  6974. >>You can't scramble up quickly, but by God, do you try, propping yourself up on your hands and knees, to--
  6975. >>Green.
  6976. >>Your hands are green.
  6977. >>Your hands are fucking green!
  6978. >>Long, barely healed cuts make themselves known along your limbs, where the monster slid the knife-syringe along your skin.
  6979. >>"And here we were, thinking that the acclimatization would break you, for sure."
  6980. >>Panic begins to set in, as your gaze goes over the rest of your body.
  6981. >>Multiple long cuts.
  6982. >>Green skin, as far as the eyes can see.
  6983. >>The only thing that breaks you from your panicked stupor is the sound of the door sliding shut.
  6984. >>The same orange ape monster is there, frustration reigning supreme on his expression.
  6985. >>"I can't believe that we're going to have to start getting creative with you, now. You're making a simple job much harder than it needs to be."
  6986. >>Your hands shake, as you stare down at them.
  6987. >"Wh-what did you do to me?"
  6988. >>"Do I have to drill speaking when spoken to back into you--?"
  6989. >>You slam yourself against the bars.
  6990. >"What did you do to me?!"
  6991. >>The thing pulls back, throwing a punch from behind the safety of the bars.
  6992. >>Stars explode across your vision as it hits you square in the forehead, sending you crashing against the floor, again.
  6993. >>The gate is heard opening back up, as you stumble back to your knees.
  6994. >>"I suppose I do, don't I?! Have it your way!"
  6995. >>You catch sight of it's foot rearing back, to boot you in the stomach.
  6996.  
  6997. >THUMP
  6998. "Aaagh, Jesus!"
  6999. >You bolt upright, clutching your stomach, and crashing into something metal on the way up.
  7000. >"Holy buck! Anon, you alive?"
  7001. >Your fucking skin crawls and itches badly, forcing you to reach around and scratch--
  7002. >"Anon, listen to me! We're in trouble! Get up!"
  7003. >Razor's voice brings you pause, the itching sensation beginning to die off.
  7004. >"Damn it, are you listening--?!"
  7005. >CRASH
  7006. >Jesus Christ!
  7007. >Okay, a spear through the windshield is one way to get your attention!
  7008. >Your wand snaps back into your hand, as you take stock of your surroundings.
  7009. >The dim orange break-of-day skies make it a little tricky to make out, but the silhouettes of horses are definitely visible up ahead, and off to the sides.
  7010. >CRASH-ZWKRACK
  7011. >That spear through the glass bounces off your shield, same as the glass shards following it.
  7012. >Okay, you get the message!
  7013. >You get into a proper sitting position, in front of your steering wheel, and get the car started up again.
  7014. >WHROO-WHROO-WHROOVA-VROOOMMMMmmmmmmm
  7015. >Deep, throaty language of some description is heard outside, definite fear in their voices.
  7016. >You shift into gear and slam the accelerator down, kicking up sand everywhere as the car starts rushing forward.
  7017. >Now that you were closer, and could see them, the figures diving out of your car's charge forward were definitely zebras.
  7018. >"Buck me, who were they?!"
  7019. >"I do not know, the illumination did not allow me to identify them."
  7020. >"Mystery for later! Keep driving!"
  7021. "Don't have to tell me, twice!"
  7022. >The shouting of the zebras fade away fairly quickly into the distance, as you continue cruising forward.
  7023.  
  7024. >You exhale, the adrenaline rush slowly starting to wear down.
  7025. >Nightmares and zebra attacks, fucking hell, that's one way to start a morning!
  7026. >At least they shouldn't catch up anytime soon!
  7027. >Your cruise continues for another minute or two--
  7028. >The engine begins to splutter.
  7029. >You start breaking out into a cold sweat.
  7030. "Oh, no, not now."
  7031. >"Anon? The buck is that noise?"
  7032. >You glance over at the gauges, and--
  7033. >You're out of fucking gas?!
  7034. >The car's speed begins to taper off, the spluttering getting more pronounced.
  7035. "Oh, fuck me."
  7036. >"What the buck is wrong?"
  7037. "Guys, please tell me we packed more gas for this thing."
  7038. >"Gas?"
  7039. >"I believe he is referring to fuel. We have more stored in the back. Is that the issue?"
  7040. >You throw the driver-side door open, shutting the ignition off.
  7041. "Better believe it. Give me a hand with this!"
  7042. >You hop out, sinking up your ankles in sand upon hitting the ground.
  7043. "Oh, just what I fucking needed, today."
  7044. >The others get out as well, Razor opting to fly to the trunk of the car, while you pull yourself out of the sand with Exact's help.
  7045. >The interruption lets you catch sight of the dust cloud approaching from behind.
  7046. >The zebras.
  7047. >Holy shit, they can fucking motor over this terrain!
  7048. >Okay, yeah, refuel faster!
  7049. >Exact helps Razor out with lifting a little wooden cask with a spout out of the trunk, while you pull open a clearly labelled fuel hatch.
  7050. >The cask is put into place, and the spout opened up.
  7051. >Oh, God, why does it have to be so slow to empty?!
  7052. "Exact, buddy, can't we talk these guys down?"
  7053.  
  7054. >"That is not an option. I have identified these zebras as a Bloedige Plaag raiding party."
  7055. "Oh, that's just peachy."
  7056. >Razor grunts a little under the weight of the cask.
  7057. >"You two take those tailholes out, I'll handle this!"
  7058. >You nod, and unsling your bow, attaching a Bluebaide focus to the thing, and stringing up a shot.
  7059. >A few moments pass before you loose the shot, Exact opening up with magic bolts the second your shot flies.
  7060. >They cry out under the attack, the group clustered together enough for your shots to get multiple hits, just sizzling through one zebra after another.
  7061. >But their speed is too much, even under the ranged assault, and they only lose half their group before they close in.
  7062. >"Lieutenant, they are closing in! Allow me to take over!"
  7063. >You stow the bow, and pull out your wand and shortstaff, attaching lightning and ice, respectively.
  7064. >Exact pulls back, and is replaced soon after by Razor, hovering nearby with a glaive in his grasp.
  7065. >Now that they were way closer, you could make out their armour, made up of bones, with some wearing skulls as helmets.
  7066. >Definitely look like the kind of fuckers Nito would keep as friends!
  7067. >"Let 'em have it, I've got your back!"
  7068. "Oh, don't you worry."
  7069. >You'd been charging your ice focus the whole time, and choose that moment to loose it's long-charge attack.
  7070. >A swirling storm of ice and mist fires out, leaving a trail of frost in it's wake.
  7071. >You follow it up with some Sith lightning and volleys of ice spikes, the icestorm unfortunately moving too slowly for the zebras to be caught up in it, instead opting to split into two groups and weave around it.
  7072.  
  7073. >You pick a few off, but they close too fast, pincering you two.
  7074. >Flipping your wand around, you slash while igniting Bluebaide's max-charge, the magic greatsword scything through the group in front of you.
  7075. >Most of them drop instantly, but a few jump back with surprising agility, leaving you to nail them with some ice spikes from your staff.
  7076. >Razor cries out from behind as you kill the group in front of you, and you whirl around the instant you're finished.
  7077. >A spear sticks out of his right side, and he struggles to stay afloat, a couple of zebras dead to his weapon already.
  7078. >Stowing your staff, you toss your wand to your left hand, and pull the axe off of your back, diving right into the thick of things.
  7079. >Bluebaide scythes through the zebras with it's usual effectiveness, but the axe just cleaves through everything in it's path, even cleanly splitting the handle of a spear that one used to try and block you.
  7080. >Their bone armour suffered a similar fate under the axe's momentum, but these guys were nothing like the gryphons and bugs.
  7081. >Even with your weapon combo, they were taking serious damage before dropping, the hits to their center mass barely slowing them down.
  7082. >Only hits to their necks and heads were dropping them quickly, and they were awfully protective of those.
  7083. >"Aagh!"
  7084. >Razor!
  7085. >Your head whips around, and you see him on the ground proper, another spear stuck into his other side, and a wing looking pretty torn up.
  7086. >You slash at the zebra in front of you, dropping him as quick as you can, before whirling to help Razor.
  7087.  
  7088. >FZZWT
  7089. >A carrot-orange magic bolt hits one of them in the back of the head, followed shortly by another.
  7090. >One zebra launches into the air, intending to stake Razor with an overhead spear hit.
  7091. >You launch a javelin of magic from Bluebaide, nailing him mid-air, at the same time that one of Exact's bolts split the spear in half.
  7092. >The body flops on top of Razor, causing him to cry out and almost crumple.
  7093. >You engage your gloves, floating the body off of him quickly.
  7094. >Okay, is that it?
  7095. >Please, don't let there by any more of these fuckers!
  7096. >You look around, checking for any more alive and kicking zebras.
  7097. >Mercifully, there aren't any more!
  7098. >Oh, thank you, God!
  7099. >Note to self: don't hold back with the foci, next time!
  7100. >Your eyes linger for a few moments, on all the carnage that just took place.
  7101. >About a dozen and a half zebras lay around your group, in various states of damage, orange blood seeping out in similarly various quantities.
  7102. >Your windshield, still shattered into--
  7103. >"Ugh, buck me, that smarts...!"
  7104. "Razor!"
  7105. >Your weapons are stowed, and you float your super-staff out, throwing Riafalt onto there as quickly as you rush to his side.
  7106. >There's some cuts to his face, his armour took a bit of a beating, those two spears are still stuck in him, and his wing is really torn up.
  7107. "Hold still."
  7108. >"What are you--"
  7109. >He tapers off once the healing magic starts hitting him, a groan halfway between pain and pleasure leaving him, as his wounds knit themselves back together.
  7110. >The spears fall to the ground, the holes sealing up in short order, along with the last few bits of damage to his wing.
  7111. >"A-aah, geez, forgot you could do that!"
  7112.  
  7113. "You good?"
  7114. >"Yeah, now I am!"
  7115. >He groans as he stands up, stretching and cracking his joints.
  7116. >"Buck me, those zebras were something else!"
  7117. "Yeah, fuckers were tough!"
  7118. >"Tougher than I remember, that's for sure."
  7119. >"Are the two of you doing well?"
  7120. >"A lot better, now!"
  7121. "We're good. You?"
  7122. >Exact looked a little winded, but was otherwise still fine.
  7123. >"We should remain vigilant. This party travelled light on purpose, to carry back whatever they pillage. A fully fledged warband would be significantly more dangerous, and may include alchemists."
  7124. >"That's their idea of a light raiding group? Good bucking goddess above...!"
  7125. "All the more reason to nuke these fuckers from orbit. Come on, we should move."
  7126. >"Y-yeah, no arguments here!"
  7127. >"Of course. But what do you mean, by 'nuke from orbit'?"
  7128. "I'll explain later."
  7129. >Your group gets into the car, but Exact takes a few moments to piece the windshield back together.
  7130. >"Another human thing. Imagine a single bomb that'll easily destroy a whole city."
  7131. >Wait, shit, that's right, you told Razor about those, way back when!
  7132. >"I see."
  7133. >After knitting it together with some melted sand, the windshield is whole again, if rather spotty.
  7134. >"I suggest we make haste."
  7135. "Yeah. Yeah, you got it."
  7136. >You start the car back up, the relief almost palpable when it starts up properly.
  7137. >Your drive resumes at top speed again, the orangey hue of daybreak now long gone.
  7138. >"I thought my fighting days were over back there. Thanks for the touch-up, Anon."
  7139. "Don't mention it."
  7140. >Another few hours pass, before you see another band of zebras in the distance.
  7141. "Tell me those are good guys."
  7142. >"I am not sure. You will have to get closer."
  7143.  
  7144. @@@@@@@@
  7145.  
  7146. >You reduce speed as you come up to the group, trying to get a better look at them.
  7147. "Any better?"
  7148. >"No. You will have to get closer."
  7149. >And drive closer, you do, now within a couple hundred yards.
  7150. >"I still cannot make them out, but they are slowing down to observe us. We should reduce speed and get clos--"
  7151. >"Wait, hold on! Look over there, to the right!"
  7152. >Your eyes go over to where Razor's pointing, and sure enough, there was a large force of zebras closing in on this area.
  7153. >Large being the operative term, because even at around a mile away, they were very, very visible in the distance.
  7154. >Weird, were they carrying flags?
  7155. >Standards, maybe?
  7156. "Who are those guys?"
  7157. >Exact's horn glows.
  7158. >"I will need a moment."
  7159. >"Of all the things we didn't pack, it had to be binoculars, didn't it?"
  7160. "No kidding."
  7161. >"Lieutenant, mister Anon, there is a dark magic presence among that approaching group of zebras."
  7162. >Whoa, now, that's not good.
  7163. "Can you figure out what kind?"
  7164. >"It does not have the power and intensity of the presences we have faced before. It... wait. There are multiple, smaller presences, spread amongst the force. They likely belong to blood alchemists."
  7165. >"Oh, that's just great. We can't fight that!"
  7166. >"It would be inadvisable, with a 32.3% chance of success, given the best-case scenario of gaining the aid of this other band of zebras in a ground battle."
  7167. "Ground battle? You mean, getting out and fighting them on foot?"
  7168. >"Yes."
  7169. >Heh, that's funny.
  7170. >How much gas do you...?
  7171. >Okay, just over half a tank, you're good!
  7172. >You think this calls for a little magic drive-by shooting.
  7173. "I've got an idea about that, but first things first. You figured out who this other mystery group is?"
  7174.  
  7175. >"Not yet. Approach them cautiously."
  7176. >"Not too slow. Those evil buckers out there are gaining, fast!"
  7177. "Right, right."
  7178. >You speed back up, putting your ride between the two groups.
  7179. >Already, you can see these other zebras look way different than the others, wearing thick fabric armour, and carrying halberds.
  7180. >Wait, no, those are bills, not halberds.
  7181. >And while they weren't trying to attack you, they were definitely shouting some warnings.
  7182. >"These zebras appear to be members of the Wyse Kunstenaars."
  7183. >Finally, some good news!
  7184. "Nice. Let's see about getting them on our side--"
  7185. >"No time! We've gotta do something about those other guys, and fast!"
  7186. >"Yes, the opposing force appears to be heading towards this group. There is no time for diplomacy. Anon, you suggested a different course of action for combat?"
  7187. >Your super-staff's other end get a fire focus attached to it, and you stick the lightning focus onto your shortstaff.
  7188. "Just one. We keep circling around, and shooting the shit out of them."
  7189. >"Circling aroun--? Wait, you mean, that shit gryphons do in chariots?"
  7190. "What shit they do?"
  7191. >"They-- Ugh, their chariots are built open to the air, so they can shoot out of them! You mean something like that?"
  7192. "Yeah!"
  7193. >Sadly, the window doesn't roll down, but opening the driver-side door does let you point your staves out of the side.
  7194. "Back home, we call this a 'drive-by'."
  7195. >"Well, if they're after these guys, I'm not seeing any other option. All right."
  7196. >"Lieutenant, we should move to the back of the vehicle. We will be more able to assist from there, without risking harm to mister Anon."
  7197. "You guys do whatever you have to. I'm speeding out of here in ten."
  7198.  
  7199. >"Make it fifteen. Alright, buddy, let's give the big guy some breathing room."
  7200. >Razor grabs his triple-shot crossbow from his pack under the seat, along with the bolts.
  7201. >"Try to keep her steady, will you?"
  7202. "No promises."
  7203. >The two climb out, Razor picking up Exact and flying him around, where they climb into the main compartment.
  7204. >Pros and cons of this thing being laid out like a pickup truck, you guess.
  7205. >BANG BANG
  7206. >"We're good, get a move on!"
  7207. >Shutting your door for the moment, you get the car moving again.
  7208. >The 'good' zebras, who were already startled by the sight of those two, were now shouting something.
  7209. >Fight now, translate later!
  7210. >The big, evil zebra group made huge gains this whole time, now around four, three hundred yards away.
  7211. >Some dull 'thunks' are heard, crossbow bolts whizzing from the big mass, and hitting the car.
  7212. >"Shit, they've got a few gryphons with them!"
  7213. >Said gryphons were taking flight, but were still a little too far to make out.
  7214. >A few ZWKRACK's ring out, presumably from Exact blocking a few shots.
  7215. >Alright, you think this is close enough.
  7216. >Grabbing your shortstaff, you line the car up along the side of the group, then push your door open.
  7217. "Oh, what I wouldn't give for a grenade launcher, right about now."
  7218. >The group members start peeling off to pursue you.
  7219. >Both of your staves point out of the car, aimed squarely towards the pursuers.
  7220. >You open up with a fully charged shot from both.
  7221. >KA-THWOOSH
  7222. >ZHWM-CRACK
  7223. >The high-explosive blue fireball flies out to the middle of the huge mass, while the huge lightning ball fires towards the ones charging towards you.
  7224.  
  7225. >A huge, loud KA-BLAM rings out, the explosion kicking up an insane amount of dust and sand from all the turbulence.
  7226. >The lightning ball, meanwhile, hits a few zebras, then lingers in place, expanding outwards and arcing lightning towards any nearby zebras it can find, stopping the instant they drop dead.
  7227. >Soon after the sudden sandstorm obscures your vision, a loud ZWCRACK rings out, as the lightning ball detonates in a huge expanding nova of lightning, adding to the dust storm, and getting more than a few screams from the mass of zebras.
  7228. >You pull your staves back in and shut the door, focusing on driving through the low visibility.
  7229. >THUMP after THUMP accompanies a few strangled cries, as you inadvertently run over a few unlucky zebras, caught out in the path of your car.
  7230. >Yeesh, they're gonna feel that in the morning!
  7231. >The storm begins fading, it's source now long gone.
  7232. >When you look back out at the big group, you can't help but smirk.
  7233. >Two huge marks in the sandy ground were visible: one a big, glassy, smouldering crater, pockmarked with blue fires, and the other, a big glassy scorch mark, with the blackened areas radiating outwards in big Lichtenberg figures along the ground, the ends connected to some bodies.
  7234. >As for the group itself, it was in total chaos, zebras running to and fro, trying to figure out what the fuck to do.
  7235. >Wait, the others!
  7236. >BANG BANG
  7237. "Hey! You guys okay, back there?"
  7238. >"H-hoooly shit, I..."
  7239. >"We are fine, mister Anon."
  7240. "Oh, thank god."
  7241. >"Maintain your course, we are returning to you."
  7242. >Shuffling is heard from behind, and the two of them filter back into the cabin.
  7243. >They both seem fine, but Razor looks totally floored.
  7244.  
  7245. "You ladies hang tight, I'm gonna make another pass."
  7246. >You speed the car back up, circling around the remains of the big group, now reforming themselves into another big ball of troops.
  7247. >"I only detect one blood alchemist remaining. There, in the new center mass."
  7248. "Not for long, you won't!"
  7249. >You open the door again, and line yourself up alongside the group, pointing your staves at them again.
  7250. >The new group's gone from trying to pursue you, to peeling apart once they see you coming at them, again.
  7251. >That's not gonna save them.
  7252. >KA-THWOOSH
  7253. >A second fireball is loosed, though a little less intense than the last one.
  7254. >Another loud KA-BLAM rings out, the sudden sandstorm following in it's wake, like before.
  7255. >You're close enough now, that a few THUNKS ring out, from debris clattering against the car's hull, a particularly loud one landing somewhere on top.
  7256. >Luckily, you pull your door closed before that can affect you, and you once again focus on the metaphorical road.
  7257. >Not a single zebra was run over, this time.
  7258. >As the dust settles, you observe the aftermath--
  7259. >"That alchemist is still alive."
  7260. "What? Where?"
  7261. >"I am unsure."
  7262. >Your eyes scan the surroundings, looking for more zebras to take out.
  7263. >There's barely any left, just some dazed ones, and a few gryphons hanging out in the sky!
  7264. >Throwing your door open, you loose the lightning orb with a loud ZHWM-CRACK, towards the stragglers.
  7265. >It collides right on schedule, and--
  7266. >"The alchemist is nearby, and not in that group!"
  7267. "Define 'nearby'!"
  7268. >"It's position keeps changing, remaining equidistant with us. As if--"
  7269. >"It's on the car!"
  7270. >THUMP
  7271. >A bardiche spears down by your side, just barely missing your staff arm, but making you drop the shortstaff.
  7272. "Shit! Above!"
  7273.  
  7274. >Razor aims his crossbow up above, while you grab your wand, igniting Bluebaide.
  7275. >CHK-THUNK-THUNK-THUNK
  7276. >Three bolts zip through the rather thin roof, and you follow it up with a slash to the same spot, lightsabering through the metal.
  7277. >All you get for your trouble is that bardiche spearing down from the other side of the cab, slicing down along Exact's foreleg.
  7278. "Fuck me!"
  7279. >Razor's still loading his crossbow, and Exact's spell was disrupted, leaving you to fire a spear of magic from Bluebaide at that general area.
  7280. >It burns through the roof, but through the hole, you don't see a zebra holding the bardiche still staked through the ceiling.
  7281. >God damn it, what will it take to shake this fucking--
  7282. >Inertia!
  7283. >Stop the car, and the fucker will fly right off!
  7284. >Without a second thought, you slam the brakes on.
  7285. >As the whole group lurches forward, you spy a zebra mare, with full saddlebags, flying off of the roof.
  7286. >It was at that moment, that you remembered the car lacked any kind of seat belts.
  7287. >The rest of you tumble forth into the windshield, but the steering wheel gets in the way, slamming you in the gut, knocking the wind out of you, and keeping you from crashing through the windshield.
  7288. >The same could not be said for the other two.
  7289. >CRASH
  7290. >The glass shatters upon impact, the dry air blasting you in the face, along with more than a few glass shards that your shield is good enough to block.
  7291. >The car finally lurches to a stop, the recoil shoving you back against the seat, and leaving your head spinning.
  7292. >No, come on, no time for that!
  7293. >That alchemist isn't going to wait for you!
  7294. >A bit disoriented, you fumble with your door, pushing yourself to get out of the damn car.
  7295.  
  7296. >You succeed, only to once again sink up to your ankles in sand.
  7297. "No, no, come on! Not now!"
  7298. >You tug at your sunken legs, trying to get them to come out.
  7299. >Fuck, they won't budge!
  7300. >Damn it, you don't have time to dig out of this!
  7301. >Those two need your help!
  7302. >"Damn it, hold still, you bitch!"
  7303. >"Lieutenant, look out!"
  7304. >No, no, no!
  7305. >Come on, you have to have--
  7306. >Excavator!
  7307. >You brought that focus!
  7308. >Quickly, you wrench it out of your bag, throw it onto your wand, and scallop out the sand entombing your legs.
  7309. >Okay, you're good!
  7310. >You rush out, closing the distance as soon as you--
  7311. >The zebra just kicked a bottle of something towards those two.
  7312. >CRACK-THWOOSH
  7313. >Instantly, they're enveloped in a dark crimson cloud of gas, coughing and spluttering coming from inside of it.
  7314. >Your stomach sinks like a rock.
  7315. "No!"
  7316. >The alchemist spins towards you, surprise dominating her expression.
  7317. >Fury dominates your o